Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)

For many of us who grew up as fans of Star Wars, we can easily recall exactly how we felt when we first watched A New Hope.  As I was born 9 years after the movie was first released in theaters, I've only heard second-hand how groundbreaking it was to watch on the big screen at a time when science fiction movies were largely dismissed as low-budget, kid's stuff.

For us lifelong fans, whether we first watched Star Wars on the big screen in 1977, or later on VHS, the movie made a memorable impact, as it captured our imaginations and transported us to a galaxy far, far away.

This may explain why the hype surrounding The Force Awakens has had a certain emotional weight to it.  Quite simply, we remember our first introduction to Star Wars and want our imaginations to be recaptured in that same groundbreaking way.

Here's the thing: this is not a fair expectation to put upon a movie that is also tasked with continuing a well-established saga.  Sequels, by their very nature, are not groundbreaking, because if the purpose of a sequel was solely to break new ground, most or all continuity would be sacrificed in the name of uniqueness. 

As I watched the hype build with each new trailer, each new TV spot, each new tidbit of information, it occurred to me that more than a few Star Wars fans were coming to expect a transcendent moviegoing experience.  I realized that this was neither reasonable for me to expect, myself, nor was it even what I really wanted. 

While Star Wars did indeed capture my 7-year old imagination all those years ago, what has kept me a fan of the original trilogies is how much stinking fun they are.  The riveting action, the snappy dialogue, the struggle between good and evil, the universe populated by creative and quirky characters--(from the familiar heroes and villains, all the way down to the imperial spy at Mos Eisely with the gonzo-like nose--seriously, who was that guy?) all of it was, and is, fun to watch.

THIS is what I was hoping for in The Force Awakens.  I was not expecting something pristine and transcendental, or even necessarily something to recapture the childlike wonder I felt when I watched Star Wars for the first time: I simply wanted something that carried through those traits which made the originals so much fun (and which, I would argue, the prequels all conspicuously lacked).  

And do you know what?

The Force Awakens met and exceeded that expectation.

Is the movie perfect?  Good heavens, no.  But then, neither are any of the originals (although The Empire Strikes Back comes close by many objective measures).  

There are some definite pacing issues, a few key moments that should have lingered, but did not.  The movie moves along at a determined pace and rarely pauses to catch its breath.  A few pieces of expository dialogue felt rushed in the midst of constant action.  I noticed these more in hindsight--they were not enough to pull me out of the movie as I was watching, and I was completely along for the ride for the full 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Several of the earliest reviews criticized Force Awakens as relying too heavily on cues from the originals and in particular, A New Hope, but to that, I can only say that with A New Hope, George Lucas himself was paying homage to the works of Kurosawa, particularly, The Hidden Fortress.  This film was an homage to A New Hope in many ways.  While this would have been problematic if it had done nothing to set up a new chapter in the saga, that's where the movie does break some untouched ground: the new generation of characters is very different from Luke, Han and Leia's characters in the originals, and this will surely take this trilogy in a direction all its own.  As a transitional chapter in the saga, this film did a commendable job of paying its respects to the past while setting its own unique course for the future.  

Daisy Ridley's Rey conveyed a compelling mixture of strength, street smarts, and wide-eyed awe, while John Boyega's Finn and Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron both bring a fresh swagger to the film.  Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is an entirely new type of villain in the Star Wars universe, mercurial, insecure and given to frightening outbursts of temper.  He's the type of complex, sympathetic and unpredictable character that Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels.  

John Williams' score reflects the shift to a new generation of characters, as well.  The musical cues from the original trilogy were subtle and poignant in their usage, and those familiar motifs were never overused.  Instead, much of the score is something new entirely, reflecting a world where the force has been dormant for many years, and the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia are as good as myth to the new generation.  

The dialogue was also a return to form, with fun banter sprinkled throughout much of the film.  Without giving too much away, Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron has a line several minutes into the film that sets the tone for the rest of the film in the best way possible.  

While watching The Force Awakens had its moments of nostalgia, nostalgia was not what defined it for me.  What defined it instead was the feeling of looking ahead to the next film and running through a long list of mysteries and questions left unanswered; of quoting the memorable lines on the train ride home with my wife; of wanting to watch it again, and catch more the 2nd time around.  

To those of you who have not watched it yet, I highly recommend it, but caution you not to expect something life-changing or earth-shattering.  Set aside the profound impact that the originals had on your imagination, because it will take something entirely unique (something not Star Wars) to have that kind of impact on you again.  Reflect instead on what has given those classic movies the sort of staying power that makes them relevant and watchable more than 30 (and in fact, almost 40) years later.  

It is my humble opinion that The Force Awakens has that same sense of fun and adventure, and is therefore a worthy chapter in the saga, and a stellar first installment in this new trilogy.

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