Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I'm in awe over how much I enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I feel awe not because my expectations were low given how bad the three prequels were, and not because I hold the original trilogy in such high esteem that I think nothing can touch it (I don’t). No, my awe is a product of how impressed I am that the new film managed to be so enjoyable while also being so derivative. The Force Awakens contains so many references, parallels, callbacks, rehashes, and remixes of the first film in the series, and to a lesser extent the second, that it’s not a stretch to say that the plot of The Force Awakens is essentially a (superior) repetition of the plot of A New Hope, but with some of the pieces rearranged, with greater immediate emotional investment courtesy of our familiarity with returning characters, and with some of the best bits of The Empire Strikes Back thrown in for good measure.Yet for all of its repetition, it's still a fun film nonetheless, more so than A New Hope, which has long seemed to me like a rickety bucket of bolts.

Doubtless I’m not the first to point out the parallels with the first two films, which are so thoroughly built into the plot on both a macro and micro scale that they are virtually impossible to miss. Nevertheless, let’s just list some of the things The Force Awakens shares with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, shall we?
- A cute droid contains invaluable data.
- Said droid winds up stranded on a desert planet.
- Both the heroes and the villains seek the droid’s data.
- One of the villains wears a mask.
-The droid randomly falls into the hands of a nascent hero.
- Hero and droid leave the desert planet on the Millennium Falcon.
- Han Solo has some old smuggling business catch up with him (a Greedo parallel).
- The nascent hero and a wizened veteran hero enter a lively bar full of aliens.
- The villains have a planet-sized, planet-destroying super-weapon.
- This planet-weapon is used on an inhabited planet.
- This planet-weapon threatens another planet on which some heroes reside (including Leia).
- A heroine gets captured by the villains and taken to the planet-weapon.
- The villain tries to torture information out of the heroine.
- Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a nascent hero lead a rescue mission to the planet-weapon.
- Against all odds, that mission is (largely) a success.
- The planet-weapon is destroyed by a small force of X-Wing fighters that exploit a tiny weakness in the planet-weapon.
- The X-Wings must navigate a trench run.
- A wizened veteran hero dies at the hands of a villain.
- An Empire parallel: a father and son are on opposite sides of a conflict, and the father tries (unsuccessfully) to convince his son to join him (much more on this below).

This list of similarities is just off the top of my head; doubtless there are many others. And yet despite all of the familiarity, the film is still rather fresh. A part of that freshness is a product of some significant differences between the films. Instead of one nascent hero (Luke), now there are two (Rey and Finn), and neither are white males. They’re joined by another hero who is an expert pilot (Poe). These three parallel the three young heroes of A New Hope, but they spread their skills around differently: force sensitivity, piloting skills, and brashness are all assigned to different characters, and each has agency. Indeed, while Rey is captured just like Leia was, she doesn’t need anyone to save her, and is in the process of successfully escaping well before her would-be rescuers arrive. A hero is wounded by a lightsaber near the end of both Empire and Awakens, but here the force-sensitive one (Rey) isn’t wounded; instead the brash one (Finn) is. Moreover, Han now fulfills the role of Obi-wan, guiding the nascent heroes. It’s like The Force Awakens took the basic premises of A New Hope and rearranged the specifics until it came out feeling original.

Another part of the originality of The Force Awakens stems from the performances and the script; The Force Awakens easily rivals – and perhaps surpasses – The Empire Strikes Back as the best-acted, most well-written Star Wars film. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley’s characters are flustered and panicked throughout much of the film, being thrust into one adrenaline-fueled situation after another, but they handle these scenes well. The same can be said of the few quieter scenes they share, particularly during those brief lulls in the action where Finn wants to impress Rey, with whom he’s instantly infatuated. Mark Hamill has turned into a fine actor over the course of his career, but both Ridley and Boyega are far better here than he was in A New Hope. Throughout the film, the dialogue is also punchy and lively. The only glaringly ham-fisted exchange involves (unsurprisingly) some legacy material from the original trilogy, particularly in a conversation between Han and Leia about the light and dark sides of the force.

Another part of this film’s freshness is that it cashes in on the accumulated knowledge and familiarity we have with the characters from the original trilogy. This is the best performance I’ve seen Harrison Ford give in a long time. He made Han Solo come alive again; the smirks, the one-liners, and twinkle in his eye are all the same as they were thirty years ago. Likewise, Han and Leia still have some sparks when they’re together. And of course, C-3PO manages to intrude upon an intimate moment between them. I had a nice chuckle at his familiar obliviousness, particularly his needing to remind Han who he is, given his new red arm. There were many excellent shorthanded exchanges between these three characters and Chewie, all building off of our wealth of accumulated experiences with them.

I also enjoyed the allusions to events that happened between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, which show us that even though the plot of this film is familiar, the world of Star Wars hasn’t been inactive over the past thirty years: Han had the Falcon stolen from him, Luke tried to form a new Jedi academy, and most significantly, Han and Leia had a son named Ben (no doubt in honor of Obi-wan, whom Han knew as Ben). Much like in the original film, you get the sense that the world is larger than what we’re seeing in this particular story (and doubtless there is a lot more to tell regarding Rey’s family and Ben’s betrayal of Luke).

Ben, or Kylo Ren, as he’s come to be called by the time of The Force Awakens, provides the most powerful emotional material in the film, as well as its best use of parallelization. Like Darth Vader, he was once a hero who has since turned into a villain, but who struggles over his lingering feelings for those whom he used to love (presumably Han, Leia, and Luke). In a nicely humanizing moment, he also seems to struggle over insecurities with his force powers. I relished the scene where he’s unable to get Rey to give him information about the map – Adam Driver finally gets to reveal his face, and he’s as subtle and skilled an actor here as he is on Girls.

His confrontation with Han, however, is my favorite scene in the film. It’s an inverse parallel of the confrontation between Luke and Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Both scenes occur on perilous catwalks spanning seemingly bottomless chasms. Both times, the father wants to turn the son to the father’s cause. Both times, the father fails. However, much like with the other parallels in the film, important differences persist: this time, the father is good, and the son evil; Vader overpowers and tries to coerce Luke, while Han is exposed and vulnerable as he pleads his case to Ben; Vader tries to seduce Luke with power and glory, but Han tries to use love to break through to his son; rather than flee, as Luke does, Han refuses to flee; Luke loses his hand, Han loses his life, and both fall into the chasm beneath them.

Han’s death is good storytelling. One of Han’s primary character traits is his self-interest; while he became somewhat of a cog in the Rebel Alliance over the course of the original trilogy, his self-preservation instincts often seemed to trump any service to a greater cause. Most of the time he seemed to be sticking around simply because doing so was his best play at the time (one of the few exceptions being his return to save Luke in the Death Star trench run, another emotionally affecting moment). In reaching out to Ben, however, he shows real character growth: he loves his son so much that he exposes himself and risks his life to try to save him. Thus it’s tragic that his gambit fails, and that his emotional breakthrough is so short-lived. And of course, it’s also horrifying because his death is at the deliberate hands of his own son.

In a sense, Han’s death performs a dual function. It’s a heartbreaking yet fitting end for an iconic character, but it’s also a great way to make it seem as though Kylo Ren is irredeemably evil. Kylo Ren’s conflicted feelings earlier in the film made it seem as though a part of him was simply playing at being evil, but his brutal murder of his own father – and more importantly, an endearing and beloved character – makes him truly despicable, and even more of a lost cause. However, it also makes him more complex: he’s not simply evil, he’s also tragic. I despise him, yet I also pity him. He’s become so twisted and confused that he feels he must kill Han in order to quell his own doubts about his commitment to the dark side.

I can’t help but compare this establishment of Kylo Ren as the new villain for this new trilogy to Anakin Skywalker’s descent into villainy and his transformation into Darth Vader in the prequels. Kylo Ren’s murder of Han is precisely the sort of heinous act that would have much more convincingly sold Anakin’s turn to the dark side. Rather than simply murdering (or helping to murder) an ancillary character like Mace Windu and a bunch of nameless Tusken Raiders and younglings (the latter two largely offscreen, no less), Anakin would have been much better served by committing an act of villainy that viewers actually care about. Nothing Anakin does in the prequels even comes close to having the emotional impact of what Kylo Ren does in The Force Awakens, even though by Revenge of the Sith, there were two prequels’ worth of opportunities to establish characters for viewers to care about as much as most viewers probably care about Han Solo. Anakin’s unconvincing turn to the dark side is simply one symptom of much larger systemic problems in the prequels, but their shortcomings in establishing Anakin as a villain and motivating his transformation into Darth Vader are even more glaringly obvious when compared with Kylo Ren’s villainy in The Force Awakens.

The Force Awakens is not a perfect film, but it is everything the prequels were not: a competent, exciting, and largely fulfilling entry in the Star Wars series, one that packs as much of an emotional punch as anything in the original trilogy. I’m excited to see what happens next.

Other thoughts:
- I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed Rey’s empowerment in this film, both literally and figuratively. The audience with whom I saw the film enjoyed it too, whooping and hollering both when Rey resists Kylo Ren’s probing of her mind, and when she uses the force to call Luke's lightsaber into her hand, beating out Kylo Ren's attempt at doing the same.

- Goodness, but was Han Solo a breath of fresh air. I've long been of the opinion that one of the bigger problems with the prequels was the absence of a wisecracking character who didn't take all of the machinations of the high-handed plot so seriously (Jar-Jar didn't cut it). It was nice to have him back to deflate otherwise suspenseful moments with his sardonic humor. I particularly liked when Finn suggests that they'll figure out a way to lower the planet's shields by claiming they will "use the force," and Han admonishing him, "That's not how the force works!" I'd be concerned that Han's death would once again create a humor void in the subsequent films, but Finn is also rather funny at times, leading me to think that he'll end up fulfilling this function. Moreover, as Alan Sepinwall points out in his excellent review, all of our new heroes have a dash of Han Solo wit sprinkled into their characters.

- Another slight storytelling difference between A New Hope and The Force Awakens: we don’t see Kylo Ren escape the dying planet like we saw Darth Vader escape the Death Star. Presumably he lives to fight another day.

- Check out that drag on some of the Falcon’s loops and turns. Nifty and new. Actually, there's lots of new stuff involving the Falcon. Apparently, you can move into hyperdrive from a standstill, and the Falcon is much sturdier than I previously assumed, crashing through a dense forest canopy and sliding to a stop on a snowy embankment without suffering any serious damage. Quite a feat for a ship everyone but Han and Chewie claims is a hunk of junk.

- It makes sense that Harrison Ford would be so willing to reprise his role as Han Solo if it was under the condition that Han would be killed off. After all, Ford wanted Han to die way back in The Empire Strikes Back, and was incredibly disinterested in returning to the series for Jedi.

- Looks like Disney didn’t jettison everything from the Expanded Universe, or at the very least, they seem to have taken some of the same story ideas and incorporated them into the new official canon, particularly Luke trying to train new Jedi and form a new academy, and one of his apprentices turning to the dark side (which happened multiple times in the novels, if I recall my time with those books correctly).

- Other parallels between Awakens and the original trilogy: Kylo Ren communicates with his master via giant hologram, and the film revisits a motif that runs throughout all six previous films (I think), namely, characters muttering about having a bad feeling about their situation.

- In something of a callback to The Empire Strikes Back, it turns out that Leia isn’t there to see it when terrible odds finally catch up with Han. She feels it through the force anyway though. Careful what you wish for.

- One nerdy nitpick: how could the lightsaber wielded by Rey and Finn possibly be the same one used by Anakin and Luke? Presumably, that lightsaber fell to the bottom of Bespin along with Luke’s severed hand at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

- One complaint: The Force Awakens seems to have inherited at least one thing from the dreadful prequels: hopelessly confusing politics. If the Republic is the new governing majority in the galaxy, what does that make the First Order? An extremist cell? A rival government? And where does Leia’s Resistance fit in? Is that not a part of the Republic? Why are they simply "resisting" the First Order, rather than fighting an all-out war between the Order and the Republic? I'm not terribly interested in the answers to these questions, but this exposition was far from clear.
UPDATE: nerds to the rescue!

- The Force Awakens doubles down on the original film's incorrect use of the term "parsec," continuing to use it as a unit of time when it is actually a unit of distance. Cute, but lame.

- In a way, J.J. Abrams’ directing Star Trek: Into Darkness was better preparation for The Force Awakens than anyone could have known; that film was roughly a retelling of The Wrath of Khan, much like how The Force Awakens is a jumbled version of A New Hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment