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The Force Awakens (2015) – Take 2

 

A New Hope Awakens

Would you believe me if I said that I don’t remember where or when I first saw Star Wars? Or, as Mr. Lucas now wants you to call it, A New Hope. True fact: I have no idea where it came from or exactly when it started, but one day (like everyone else in my age group) I woke up and was a Star Wars superfan. I had the action figures, and I had the ships. And I relentlessly pressured my parents, when making purchasing decisions, to bear in mind the canon-correct pairing of action figures and ships.

To this day they resent me for this. And it wasn’t just the toys I had, oh hell no. If an object is big enough to print “Star Wars” on it, I can assure you someone makes it. Action figures and ships were a given, but there were clothing items, books, magazines, things you could eat…possibly even things you can wipe your ass with. Or, maybe that’s me just hoping that Jar-Jar Binks toilet paper is a thing. 

And then I mostly outgrew it.

There’s no other way to put it. There’s just other, better science fiction out there and for me this became evident at an early age. For all its charms, the only real beef I have with Star Wars is that it exists in this weird, static and arbitrary universe where nothing ever evolves or changes and all the characters are just born into their roles. You might recognize this as the way fables and myths are written, and this certainly accounts for why Star Wars is so popular with the fertile imagination of youth.

There’s nothing wrong with that in general. But if you rely on a five thousand year old narrative template at the complete expense of actual story composition, you end up with something that stopped speaking to me somewhere around the age of 18. Maybe I was too busy chasing girls and discovering imported beers. Or maybe I’d finally outgrown a franchise whose scripts read like they were written by someone about that same age.

Be that as it may, I have long been of the opinion that the original Star Wars is the best of the series, because it’s got the tightest story. And, it’s the only one whose plot really makes any kind of goddamn sense. I genuinely love that movie – Episode IV, A New Hope, whatever you want to call it – and from a storytelling standpoint I view the sequels as inferior.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to like Star Wars, or that Star Wars isn’t any good. It’s just not really my thing anymore, and that was long before the Hated Prequels. I remember leaving the theater after watching The Phantom Menace, and I could see in the eyes of the people around me that they hated it as much as I did. The difference was, I could admit it. For I’d known the truth for a long time:

Star Wars is overrated.

Lucasfilm
Oh, yes.

But after hearing the widespread praise for The Force Awakens, I was looking forward to finally seeing it for myself. Forget about plot and dialogue – wouldn’t it be nice to see a Star Wars movie and at least have fun? Even if the story was stupid and made no sense? I mean, how long has it been? 32 years? Well, the streak is finally broken. The Force Awakens is, if nothing else, loads of fun. It is a rousing success, and a long awaited return to form for the franchise. So there. Now, let’s get to the story.

Stop me if you’ve heard it before.

A naive teenager suffers through poverty on a godforsaken desert planet. But the kid is a cockeyed optimist who dreams of adventure among the stars. Fate intervenes when Said Teenager comes into possession of a Droid containing the Most Sought After Information in the Galaxy. Leading the search for this Droid is a Genocidal Maniac in a black helmet who happens to be pretty good with the telekinesis. Said Teenager acquires a Mentor, and joins an uprising (one might call it a “Alliance of Rebels”) against the Genocidal Maniac. Kid loses Mentor, learns to move on, becomes a hero, poignant ending, roll credits, count money.

Wait a minute. That sounds a lot like the plot to…no…

Episode VII is the exact same story as Episode IV, but VII is not divisible by IV, therefore…

We are through the looking glass here, people.
We are through the looking glass, people.

I don’t know. It probably means nothing.

No, here’s what it means. It means that Disney handed J.J. Abrams $250 million and the keys to the biggest entertainment franchise in the history of civilization, and he used that unprecedented creative freedom to simply remake the first Star Wars film, almost beat for beat. For all his crimes, even George Lucas was never guilty of such premeditated mediocrity. Say what you will about the first six Star Wars films, but at least Lucas was trying. He had one good story to tell, and he kind of ran out of gas with it early. But you can’t say the man didn’t stick to his vision.

Abrams sticks to it, as well. The problem is that Awakens is not even the second Star Wars movie to rehash at least some elements of the original. For fuck’s sake, the term “Star Wars” has damn near become an autological. With the limitless resources of the Disney Empire available, and with the possibilities so varied and endless, why aim so low? Sure, this is a fun movie. But it also feels less like a home run and more like a bunt. The Force Awakens is a straight up retelling of the original, with the inclusion of some new characters who themselves are reminiscent of other people.

Imagine a remake, but one where the characters seem vaguely aware that what they’re doing has been done before. Abrams himself is on record saying this was intentional, and meant to serve as a sort of ‘soft reintroduction’ to this universe. Okay, fair enough. I’d be willing to buy that if he didn’t already have a history of offering up both television and feature projects that offer more sizzle than steak. Fans of both Alias and Lost know what I am talking about. And Abrams was apparently so anxious to make a Star Wars film he left the Star Trek franchise turned over in a ditch with the engine still running.

Crash
Sort of.

Be that as it may, The Force Awakens still manages to capture what made all this so much fun for millions of fans. It’s been a long time since I have seen a Star Wars movie that was so well paced, let alone one where I was at least modestly concerned with who lived and who died. The Force Awakens may be less than original, but it’s also the first Star Wars movie in 30 years that I can say I wouldn’t mind seeing again. It returns a sense of joy and energy to a franchise that has sorely needed it for most of the time I have been on this planet.

I’m not sure it’s quite enough for me, but according to the swimming pool full of money that J.J. Abrams (probably) keeps in his back yard, it’s more than enough for everyone else.

Still, should originality ever grace this galaxy again, the future does look promising. John Boyega stars as Finn, a Stormtrooper who suffers a crisis of conscience, and chooses to aid captured Rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Coincidentally, both men have orders to be looking for a certain droid, a subject which was first covered back in 1977. Daisy Ridley stars as Rey, who is essentially Luke Skywalker from the original film, only younger, prettier, and less prone to whining. Rey also does a lot more ass kicking than Luke ever did, and these three actors comprise a very appealing core of new protagonists.

In fact, Ridley may actually be the Ewan MacGregor of this revival, as her individual performance more or less towers over the story.

And then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is the Darth Vader of this story, and also has a certain connection to that character. If you want to know his motivations, you can again look to the original film and more or less get the idea. The important thing is that he serves as a generational bridge as well, thanks to the connections he shares with other members of the original cast. Han Solo, Chewbacca and General (no  more of that Princess shit) Leia pop in, serving little purpose other than to pass the torch. Harrison Ford can play this character in his sleep, which he more or less does, with the exception of a few important scenes. Carrie Fisher looks bewildered and weary (although I’m not entirely convinced that it’s an act), and I find myself wondering why Chewie is the only one with no gray hair.

Chewie
Goddammit.

The outlier here is Mark Hamill, whose Luke Skywalker does appear, but more as a plot device than anything else. He provides the promise of a sequel, which I don’t think was ever in doubt, while also leaving this story a bit shortchanged. Still, like everything else about this movie, it kind of works anyway. There’s just no denying – The Force Awakens, while it may or may not be what we all hoped for, is still light years better than I’d imagined. It’s far from perfect, but it whisks away the stench of the Hated Prequels and restores much needed balance to the Force.

And since Mr. Abrams has apparently moved on from directing any more of these films, we’ll never know if he was up to the challenge of something truly original. His choices will live on, however, and we’ll how successful they were once we’ve seen Episode VIII.

May the Force be with you, Rian Johnson.

 

Jack Burton View All

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

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