Friday, December 25, 2015

The new Star Wars is true to the series' B-movie spirit

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As one of a select minority of people who both enjoyed the Star Wars prequel trilogy and are unafraid to say so, I was ambivalent when it was announced that George Lucas had sold the series to Disney, who planned to finally continue the story with Episodes VII through IX (at least.) On the one hand, I thought it a shame that one of the few major creator-owned properties in film was no longer so, but yet another IP in the arsenal of a major megacorporation, and I was unsure how best to continue the story after both the Sith and the Empire were thoroughly defeated.

On the other hand, I like movies where spaceships explode and where people fight each other with laser swords, so, yes, I had to see it at least once.

The Force Awakens is also divided, telling a new story for a new generation while, at the same time, appeasing everyone who grew up on the originals and rejected the prequels with so much disdain that Lucas himself is now something of a pariah. The needs of nostalgia (and of the Disney corporation) do pull at this film, but there’s enough talent and genuine ingenuity at work for it to be a satisfying space opera in its own right. 

There is much to potentially spoil in the plot, suffice it to say that many years after the defeat of the Empire, a new and brutal First Order has arisen and taken over a portion of the galaxy. With the restored Republic unwilling to declare war, a covert Resistance is left to oppose the Order. In the midst of this Luke Skywalker has vanished, and the Resistance are searching for him. Ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), seeking information, is captured by the First Order, but his loyal droid BB-8 escapes into the deserts of the planet Jakku, a desolate world whose main industry appears to be salvaging parts from the crashed starships and vehicles left over from a battle between the Rebels and the Empire. BB-8 is recovered and befriended by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young scavenger, who falls in with Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper for the First Order who defected shortly after refusing to massacre a small village. The two manage to escape Jakku in a familiar-looking space freighter, only to run into its original occupants…

The fundamental question I had when dealing with a continuation of the Star Wars story was who the new villains would be. The Sith have been successfully eradicated thanks to Vader’s sacrifice and just having the Empire still around would be, to say the least, anticlimactic. The Force Awakens is a little vague in defining the First Order and their intentions for the galaxy, though an appropriately Nazi-esque rally on board their new superweapon at least conveys the right feeling. They quite closely resemble the Empire in fashion and interior design, even fielding Star Destroyers and TIE fighters which are only slightly different from the originals (some new designs would have been welcome, honestly.) They’re mostly led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a sinister acolyte of the Dark Side who appears to be a big fan of Darth Vader before he went all soft- guiding him is the enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in voice and gesture), who makes it clear that it’s not only George Lucas who has trouble coming up with cool outer space names.

The old guard plays a big part in the proceedings. Harrison Ford is back as Han Solo, Chewbacca’s at his side, Carrie Fisher returns to the role of Leia, and I guess it really wouldn’t be Star Wars without R2-D2 and C-3PO putting in appearances. (Threepio does have one of the film’s best lines.) At times the veterans threaten to overshadow the new cast, but the new characters all have enough time to win us over: Rey is clearly getting the main hero’s journey here with Ridley displaying the right intensity, Boyega's Finn is a likable everyman despite having been raised from childhood in a soulless military machine, and Poe Dameron is a callback to the series’ genre roots, a Buck Rogers hero who happens to be taking a supporting role in someone else’s story. (Why Oscar Isaac wasn’t an A-list star before this is mystifying.) 

Abrams keeps the action fast paced and visually dazzling, emphasizing a red-blue color scheme which fits the iconic divide between the light and dark sides of the Force. A few parts of the story remain fuzzy, perhaps out of a desire to avoid the prequels’ criticism of being too politically focused (it’s never really clear why there’s both a Republic and Resistance, and even with an in-story explanation it feels inelegant), but for the most part the film plays by the pure cinematic logic of the Star Wars series. 

For the most part I find myself with a large roster of small complaints (Gwendoline Christie does not get enough to do), all overshadowed by a sense that Abrams and company have gotten the basics right. If the specifics of the story are a little familiar, the specifics were never the point; Star Wars is about a rhythm and an attitude, and the film uses that style to tell an engaging story. It’s a safe film which takes time to make sure the nostalgists and hardcore fans are in its corner, but it still has something new going on. As the first of a new trilogy it could have been more self contained, but the questions it leaves us with do make for a nice cliffhanger. 

Based on characters created by George Lucas
Written by Lawrence Kasdan & J. J. Abrams and Michael Arndt
Directed by J. J. Abrams

Grade: B+

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