Sunday, December 27, 2015

Film Review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"


The stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy looking nerfherder and his walking carpet steal the movie. Image source: StarWars.com.

WARNING! Spoilers abound! Do not read this article if you don't want to know what happens in the movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been in movie theatres since December 18, so that's enough time for you to have seen it.

I've seen it twice — once in 2D, once in IMAX 3D.

While I won't give away any specific major spoilers of the “I am your father” variety, you really shouldn't read further if you don't want the experience spoiled for you.

I'm a first generation Star Wars fan.

I was twenty years old when A New Hope premiered on May 25, 1977. That was near the end of my junior year in college. Those of you who are of subsequent generations have no idea how A New Hope affected American culture that summer. Of course, it wasn't called A New Hope originally, just Star Wars, but after George Lucas released his sequel The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, the first film was retitled, “Episode IV: A New Hope” and re-released in theatres on April 10, 1981. We knew there would be an Episode VI, and some day Episodes I-III.


This ad appeared in U.S. newspapers during the summer of 1978 as the film passed the one-year mark in theatres. Image source: Twitter.

Lucas was originally inspired to create a modern version of his beloved 1936 Flash Gordon serial. As with his Indiana Jones films also set in the 1930s, Lucas wanted to create a universe in the spirit of the serials that were part of his childhood.


Episode I, “Planet of Peril," from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial. Video source: Flash Gordon YouTube channel.

For better or for worse, the six Star Wars films reflected that vision, influenced as well by the teachings of mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Lucas began writing his earliest drafts for Star Wars in 1973. As with all stories, his saga went through many versions. Much of what he envisioned was jettisoned when the script came in at nearly 200 pages. (Film makers assume one minute per page.) A married screenwriting team, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, polished the draft into something more manageable, although they didn't receive screen credit.

Screenwriter Leigh Brackett was hired to write The Empire Strikes Back, but died from cancer in March 1978. Lawrence Kasdan replaced Brackett to finish the script, and also wrote the 1983 finale Return of the Jedi. Lucas did not direct the two sequels, preferring to play executive producer, but for the most part they were directed in the style established in Episode IV.

The Star Wars universe lay dormant until the late 1990s. Lucas wanted special effects technology to advance to where he could project on a screen his vision of all he wanted the universe to be.

The prequel trilogy began in 1999 with Episode I, The Phantom Menace. Lucas wrote the script himself and directed. The film is rightly criticized as the worst of the six he made. Its flaws may be due to the lack of a professional writer polishing his draft, and the lack of a director more interested in working with his cast then playing with his special effects toys.

Other films created by Lucas were critical and audience flops — Howard the Duck in 1986, Radioland Murders (another 1930s era film) in 1994, and Strange Magic released in January 2015.


The trailer for the 1986 George Lucas version of “Howard the Duck.” Video source: Night of the Trailers YouTube channel.

The track record suggests that Lucas movies are better when his stories are scripted by professional writers.

But I do think that one strength of the prequel trilogy is the political subplot. Maybe that's just because I'm a political wonk and notice such things. When I watch this trilogy, my attention is focused on Palpatine. His machinations to become Emperor weave throughout the the three films, as he plays multiple sides against one another to achieve his ultimate objective — ultimate power by perverting the Republic into an autocratic Empire ruled by himself as Sith Lord.

When Revenge of the Sith premiered in 2005, we were told that was the end of Lucas' Star Wars vision. At its core, the six-episode saga ultimately was about Anakin Skywalker's fall and redemption by his son's love.

In subsequent years, Lucas would say that was the end of the story, yet other times he hinted about where the story could continue if more films were to be made.

As this decade dawned, Lucas began working on ideas for a third trilogy. According to this May 2015 Vanity Fair article, “Lucas had decided to make more movies. He sketched out ideas for episodes VII, VIII, and IX, to be set initially several decades after Return of the Jedi, and approached Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill about re-upping.”

But Lucas shocked his fan base when in October 2012 Lucasfilm was sold to the Walt Disney Company for $4 billion.

Disney chose to reject Lucas' outlines and went its own direction. J.J. Abrams was hired to direct, and Lawrence Kasdan returned to write the script for Episode VII.

So here we are, nine days after the release of The Force Awakens, and Disney is well on its way to recovering its $4 billion investment. The movie has grossed $1 billion worldwide, and that doesn't count all the merchandise sales.


The Dark Side is tempting you if you read further without having first seen the movie. Image source: StarWars.com.

The major impression I had leaving the theatre is that this film walks away from the look and feel of a George Lucas Star Wars film. That may be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint. But no longer do you hear dialogue such as, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The 1930s serial lingo is gone. The dialogue is often North American vernacular; Lucas was careful that his dialogue was more culturally neutral.

Lucas favored static camera shots, as does his USC film school chum Francis Ford Coppola. Rarely does Abrams choose a static shot, choosing to keep the camera moving with the action. If you saw the dizzy effects of his Star Trek films, you're familiar with the Abrams style, although I will note that rarely are we inflicted with lens flare as he did in the two Trek films. Static cameras were used in the 1930s because cameras were so heavy that they couldn't be mobile, other than on a track or dolly. For me, losing that style left me with the feeling that I was seeing an imitation of the Star Wars universe I've known for almost forty years. Younger generations may not care.

As noted, Lucas is an acolyte of Joseph Campbell, so his characters were archetypes from the Hero's Journey, as outlined at this link. We find those same basic story bullets in The Force Awakens (and most films, to be honest). One main complaint of critics is how similar The Force Awakens seems to A New Hope. Some of the visuals are quite on the nose, such as the desert planet Jakku substituting for the desert planet Tatooine.

I'll leave you to go through the Hero's Journey outline at the link to connect those dots to the film. Particularly unique in Episode VII is that “Refusal of the Call” applies to most of the major characters. Rey the scavenger wants to remain on Jakku, hoping her unknown parents will return. Finn the deserter Stormtrooper wants only to get as far away from the First Order as possible. Ridden by guilt, Luke Skywalker has disappeared after his Jedi training inadvertently turned the son of Han and Leia to the Dark Side. This led to Han leaving Leia and the rebellion, returning to smuggling. Kylo Ren is torn between the Dark and the Light, for reasons explained in the film.


Finn was kidnapped after birth by the First Order and raised to be a Stormtrooper, but deserts after his first battle. Image source: StarWars.com.

Stormtroopers have been comic fodder for much of the Star Wars saga, incapable of hitting the broad side of a bantha with a blaster. Not any more. The stormtroopers in this film are vicious, and only miss when the script demands it.

Finn's story is a unique one in the saga to date, a rare exception to the rest of the film which largely recycles themes from earlier films. But the character is written and performed in such a way that I felt I was watching a young man raised in an American metropolis instead of a galaxy far, far away. Finn could have been a 1960s U.S. Army draftee who refused to fire when his squad was ordered to burn a Vietnamese village.

The nascent romance between Finn and Rey feels a bit forced, no pun intended. I didn't feel the characters had the sparks we saw fly between Han and Leia a generation ago, the sparks that fly in the early days of most romances. Finn could be explained away because this was probably the first time he'd been in close proximity to a girl, but Rey is quite independent. She has no need for him in her life. Remember Han's line about Leia, “There are no scoundrels in your life.” What need in Rey's life does Finn fill that would lead to romance?

The scenes between Han and Leia were all too brief, and lacked the sass we loved. Maybe it's maturity, the decades of war, the sorrow of losing their son to the Dark Side, take your pick. I just can't imagine these two being within twelve parsecs of each other without having a verbal cage match.

Harrison Ford revels in his return to the role of Han Solo, and Peter Mayhew turns in his best performance as Chewbacca despite his health issues due to gigantism. My favorite scene in the film is when the Rathtars they're smuggling get loose on his freighter as debt collectors hunt them down.

I felt Carrie Fisher showed limited range in her performance, and many of her scenes appeared to have been cut to gloss over any deficiencies in her acting. Fisher admitted in interviews that it was difficult for her since she hadn't acted in a while. I doubt that J.J. Abrams ever said to her, “Faster and more intense” as Lucas did.

Since we all know Mark Hamill signed to be in the movie, it's no spoiler to reveal Luke Skywalker is in the film, but it's only to set the stage for Episode VIII. The story ends with a literal cliffhanger — the final scene is on a cliff — so we have to wait two years to learn what's going on with Luke.

C3PO and R2D2, Lucas' droid Greek chorus, also have little more than cameos. They have no Greek chorus equivalent in The Force Awakens. Their role always was to comment on happenings and offer perspective while moving along the plot. Rey's droid BB-8 only beeps and chirps, so his comments mean nothing to us, just to those in the story who speak the droid language. Lucas based Threepio and Artoo on Matashichi and Tahei, two characters in the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress, another Lucas influence.

Many of us who've been on this ride since 1977 have our own expectations of what might have happened after the fall of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star. It would be unreasonable to think the Empire instantly transformed into the Second Republic, but my expectation was that after thirty years of war both sides would be so entrenched and so depleted that maybe someone would reach out with a tentative feeler to find a settlement. I would have expected the “war” between good and evil to be those wanting peace against those who couldn't let go of generations of hate. But it's made clear in the dialogue that this next trilogy is all about an eternal struggle between the Darkness and the Light — even though “good” and “evil” in this galaxy now appear to be a matter of perspective. The First Order's General Hux gives this impassioned speech:

Today is the end of the Republic. The end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder. At this very moment in a system far from here, the New Republic lies to the galaxy while secretly supporting the treachery of the loathsome Resistance. This fierce machine which you have built, upon which we stand will bring an end to the Senate, to their cherished fleet. All remaining systems will bow to the First Order and will remember this as the last day of the Republic!

From his perspective, the First Order is good and the Resistance is evil — similar to Palpatine's argument when he took power.

And it's only a nit, but I always wondered if Leia would learn the ways of the Jedi once it was revealed she had the power of the Force. That wasn't addressed, although interviews suggest this image was of Leia being handed Luke's original lightsaber (Anakin's before he fell to the Dark Side) by Maz Kanata.


Maz Kanata (right) hands Leia a lightsaber. Image source: StarWars.com.

Apparently the scene was filmed but Abrams chose to drop it. In the final version, Maz demurs when asked by Han how she came to have it, simply saying it's a long story. Perhaps we'll learn in Episode VIII.

The Force Awakens isn't a bad film. But it wasn't the film I wanted to see. Many filmgoers wanted to see the Star Wars universe, but not one written and directed by George Lucas. If that's you, then you'll enjoy the movie.

2 comments:

  1. Not to nitpick but the still above is from the film. It is Rey and Maz.

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    Replies
    1. Multiple articles, including this one, are citing the cut scenes from the film, saying the image of Maz handing the lightsaber is to Leia:

      http://www.slashfilm.com/star-wars-the-force-awkens-deleted-scenes/3/

      "fter having her castle destroyed, Maz originally was rescued by the Resistance and taken back to their base on D’Qar. This is where she had a conversation with General Leia and this is where the shot from the trailer comes from, of Maz handing the General the lightsaber. J.J. Abrams decided that there was really no reason for Maz to come back to the Resistance base as she didn’t have much to do in the later story."

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