Saturday, January 2, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Very rarely does a lack of surprise augments your feelings during a film. Not being surprised isn’t always a negative thing, as long as what’s being provided is a consistent sense of entertainment. Critics always complain about predictability in stories, but I feel that our words become misinterpreted. It’s not the fact that we have received another remote control car, but moreso that we have received one of infirm, dilapidated, inadequate quality or exactly the same one without any alterations or anything aesthetic pleasures. Not being surprised can be forgivable and, in some cases, is used as an accomplice to a feeling of anticipation.

“In a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” fades in with that same archaic, blue font, submerging your fellow critic in a swamp of giddiness, thinking about what is to come. And then...John William’s illustrious, grandiose theme blast, as those two words stick around long enough for us to comprehend what we are watching: Star Wars. Then, the title crawl fills us in since the previous series of events in 1983. It’s as simplistic and minimalistic in theory, but full of booming grandeur in execution, the same way it was 38 years ago, at the genesis of the cultural, science-fiction juggernaut that has been virtually unstoppable, for better or for worse. The force has awakened, and so has this franchise!

The story begins on planet Jakku. Luke Skywalker has disappeared after trying to strengthen Jedi Order, but failing due to an insubordinate student (by insubordinate, I mean he transferred to that bastard, The Dark Side). The Resistance, an organization backed by the Republic, is trying to obtain a missing piece of a map, which will disclose Luke’s locations. However, the First Order, which has replaced the Galactic Empire, seeks it to destroy Luke and the Republic. The First Order is run by Kylo Ren, whose master is Supreme Leader Snoke. However, after a raid on Jakku, a stormtrooper, FN-2187, feels discomfort working alongside the First Order. He frees Poe Dameron, a Resistance fighter pilot captured during the invasion who calls the stormtrooper, Finn, and they escape, but they crash on Jakku, ostensibly leaving Finn as the sole survivor. While wandering Jakku, he meets up with Rey and a droid, BB-8. After the First Order track them down, they escape on the Millennium Falcon and encounter two familiar guests: Han Solo and Chewbacca. The quintet band together in an intricate, moral journey to fight the First Order, as they form a new superweapon, Starkiller Base.

This film, while being probably the most successful film of the year, critically and financially, has come under fire for coming across as too derivative, a claim stated by the lucrative, money-grubbing android himself (love you, Lucas). I have read all the arguments and seen all the elements that they are referencing and I must say that I find them all meager and excessively fastidious. However, I can empathize on some level. If one is not truly allured by the characters and finds them superficial and ineffectual on their own merits, then I can understand them digging deeper and finding offensively similar parallels from the original films. And personally, when Rey was first introduced, I couldn’t buy into her either. Not because she seemed unoriginal, in the context of the Star Wars universe, but because she seemed unoriginal in the cinematic universe. Her introduction involving her trying to survive in a desolate, impoverished region, trying to barter anything she can to survive remind me too much of Katniss Everdeen. So, in some respect, I see where the detractors are coming from.

However, and usually I prefer not to do this, but I want to offer sympathy to director J.J. Abrams. I feel context is in order. Abrams has probably the loftiest obligation of the year and of his career: to respectfully, smoothly, and masterfully resume the Star Wars franchise after years of missteps and failures on other helmer’s ends. Plus, he’s coming off of directing the rebooted Star Trek franchise, which is funny, seeing how the complaints for this movie have also been said about Star Trek: Into Darkness (3.5 star movie, by the way). Usually, I can go into endless discourse about directors being in projects like this solely for monetary reasons. J.J. Abrams never struck me as that type of guy. He has so many other producing, directing, and writing credits on film and TV (for better or for worse) that he could retire tomorrow and have money left over when he dies for his estate to buy Spock’s casket from Star Trek II and shoot him off into space.

He always strikes me as a meticulous, fanboy workhorse, which brings a sense of sincerity to his direction. So, to me, I think the only other way he could have gone was to create a similar world to give the fans a sense of deja vu and the newbies a sense of awe and wonderment, so that they can each share in their personal reactions. I understand the belief that in a galaxy with a multitude of planets, there should be more diversity because it opens itself for a multitude of creative opportunities. However, I take it, kind of like America: a united area full of different places operating on different sceneries and sensibilities, but you are going to come across several that intertwine in their similarities. That’s how I take Jakku. He could’ve pulled a left-turn and birthed something more stylized and embedded in red hues or such, but that’s what would’ve been expected in these efficient, technological, “progressive” filmmaking times.

Plus, on an aesthetic level, the barren, but rich landscapes are gorgeous to look at and create an impeccable sense of atmosphere, just like the original did. However, the nostalgia sparks aren’t all ignited by intrinsically heavy, but subtly executed atmosphere. Sometimes, they arise by seeing those glorious, spacious sets, whether it is a cantina inspired by the Moe Eisley Cantina from the first film or the magnificent Millennium Falcon.

Sometimes, nostalgia rushes out through the spectacular effects, which achieve a fanciful significance, much like the original films. In a time where effects try to be grittier, uglier, more mature, and seem to not even try to hide the gaudy mechanisms at work, it is enlightening to see the effects modernized, but, to their core, still humble and mindful of their roots. The CGI-rendered creatures in the cantina or the Andy Serkis-spearheaded Supreme Leader Snoke are decently realized, but still not overly impressive. However, just seeing those green and red laser blasts conjure the esteem and elation of the original films, all in glorious 3D. On the subject, the 3D version, in my eyes, is the only version to see, providing a substantial amount of thrills, gut-churning, plunging angles, and moments to make you duck and weave in your seat, without ever being gimmicky. It truly feels like an open, steadfast invitation to join in and plant your feet in this environment. For a format of filming that has been so shaky and sporadic, it feels that this 2009-present era of 3D is the evidence that 3D is going to be around longer than most of its brief periods.

Other times, nostalgia is emitted through the characters. Some of them are serviceable, but not anything noteworthy for the Star Wars catalog, such as Poe Cameron. He’s strapping, courageous, and vital enough to be likable, but not spectacular. BB-8 is a solid stand-in for R2-D2, looking actually visually more vibrant and magnetic than R2-D2. Others are strong in some aspects, but limp in others. Kylo Ren is a great send-up to Darth Vader, in terms of that incredible mask with a metallic sheen and his true identity and its relevance to the rest of the characters is fantastically portrayed, thanks to writers Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and yes, Abrams himself. However, I didn’t care for the actor who portrayed him: Adam Driver. To me, he was overly emo, ineffectual, and vulnerable in a calculated, histrionic, stiff form. But to see veterans like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and even Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) used so cohesively, so effortlessly, so pertinently, and so potently in the story is simply astounding how blissfully inseparable the link between story and character is. Oh, and C-3P0 makes a cameo...if you like that sort of thing. Yes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens joins films such as Straight Outta Compton and The Peanuts Movie in the category of 2015 films that are obsessed with amalgamating both contemporary vision and nostalgic tendencies.

However, in terms of the new characters, I found the most investment in stormtrooper Finn. The idea of a character, associated with a villainous clan, abandoning that lifestyle to become genial or straightforward is nowhere near anything new. However, the fact that a stormtrooper is actually allowed to be an actual character, instead of a one-dimensional guard/walking target, is invigorating and thank God that he is portrayed by as fine an actor as John Boyega, an intriguing newcomer, who injects Finn with steely, hulking charisma, youthful determination, and firm, resilient vulnerability. I mention that Daisy Ridley’s Rey is introduced underwhelmingly and without much flair, but once she is introduced to Finn, their interplay actually strengthens her character and as she becomes one with the Force, her character gains much more fragility, weight, and dominance, as she is forced to go further within herself, thinking, reacting, and adapting, culminating as the quintessential feminist icon that Star Wars fans have waited for.

It’s not a perfect film. There is a lot of humor in the film, comprised a lot of in-jokes, one-liners, and callbacks. Most of them work, but some, even the amusing ones, still seem forced and threaten to make the film too kiddish. It can feel, at times, like a persistent nudge to the ribs, as if Abrams believed that they were mandated, in order to remind the audience that this is a modern addition to the Star Wars oeuvre, and as to not treat it too seriously, which as such, somewhat deprives it of its original dignity and integrity. This kind of odd paranoia in achieving that sweet spot makes certain bits of dialogue seem uncomfortably contrived. And as stated earlier, there are some weak spots in the characterization department, be it with the writing or acting.

Regardless, I still think this is as close to topping the original three Star Wars film as you are going to get. Nowadays, when we think of films raking in billions of dollars, we think of uber-hyped, inclusive, visually delightful, vast yet undemanding blockbusters, mostly because the novelty of achieving $1 billion is accustomed at this point. We think of movies that are entertaining, as well as wholly crowd-pleasing. However, to be the highest-grossing film, seems to suggest that a filmmaker has gone one step beyond and gave some extra oomph and passion to create something that revels in most of these adjectives, but also transcends typical parameters whilst still being accessible for the common man. With an emotionally complex, layered yet engaging story, dazzling visuals, and an absolute, compelling, full-fledged cast (minus Adam Driver and C-3PO), Star Wars goes above and beyond, whilst still conforming to, all expectations of many run-of-the-mill blockbusters, giving us an oxygen mask for use of the film industry, and, to not as strong of a degree, shares the same qualities of the two highest-grossing films of all time: Titanic and Avatar. Will it top them in box office revenues? Well, with the spirit of such loyal, ardent fans, I feel the force is strong enough to do anything.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four