Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Old and new lovingly collide in a galaxy far, far away

There's a lot of the Star Wars you loved in The Force Awakens, but also a lot of the Star Wars you think you loved but never really existed.

JJ Abrams has made the film he was always destined to make - the bold, brash, sweeping space opera that George Lucas never really had the skills - nor, at least initially, the technology and finances - to do full justice to. It's ridiculous, it's silly, it's shamelessly melodramatic - and it's glorious because of it. The 'big moments' - of which there are several - hit with the sort of wildly overdramatic weight I always imagined was present and correct in A New Hope as a kid, but adult revisits have found distressingly lacking. It has a contagious level of enthusiasm and passion, and while this is fundamentally still a big, dumb blockbuster, it’s the increasingly rare case where ‘big and dumb’ aren’t pejoratives.

The Force Awakens is up there with The Empire Strikes Back in the way the beats hit with the forceful, rattling impact they deserve. There’s danger, drama, excitement and tension. Quiet, extended reactions capture the artfully exaggerated emotions of the characters amid their wild adventures and unexpected revelations. Abrams and his cinematographer Daniel Mindel are well aware of the power of an extended shot - the ones that linger a few seconds longer than strictly 'necessary' - to emphasise a dramatic beat. In terms of pacing it’s almost in line with the relentless forward momentum of A New Hope, but this time there’s time to breathe even with the heavy demands of the simple but busy plotting.

Most of the images in The Force Awakens that are likely to boast staying power are the quieter, more poetic ones - a speeder cruising past a long-since crashed Star Destroyer; Rey longingly looking to the skies through an ancient Rebel visor; the stunning, dialogue-free aerial closing shots that feel like both a satisfying conclusion to one chapter and an exciting teaser for the next. There’s certainly plenty of lore and exposition to power through, but Abrams and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan leave many motivations and emotions unspoken - allowing the performers and camera the space to do what they do. So much of the storytelling here is beautifully visual. The writers never give into self seriousness either: the melodrama is handled with the portent it deserves, but there’s rarely much of a wait for the next legitimately funny gag, playful flourish or swashbuckling thrill.

‘Earthiness’ is a strange word to use in the context of a galaxy far, far away. But from the off there's a sense of physicality that was entirely absent in the prequel trilogy, with its stoic, off-puttingly artificial world building. This new film is, it’s a relief to say, entirely different. The sand, the trees, the snow - they feel tangible in The Force Awakens, albeit modestly CG enhanced for epic storytelling licence (although more natural landscapes, especially the late appearance of Ireland’s Skellig Micheal, are presented with a pleasingly conservative level of SFX enhancement). The filmmaking falling back on more practical effects with encouraging frequency helps, but it's all enhanced by Abrams kinetic direction. His style here retains enough of what made the originals work well visually, while bringing his trademark swooping and restless camera maneuvers to the table (reaching an apex in a frantic, whiplash-inducing Millennium Falcon chase sequence Lucas would never have dreamed of pulling off). There's a confident balance struck between the more reserved, graceful imagery and the excitable and almost giddy camerawork employed elsewhere. Abrams is the best at what he does - the purest, showiest blockbuster filmmaking - and he’s mostly at his best here, all captured on a glorious 35mm widescreen canvas.

Oddly enough, if there’s one area the direction lacks in, it’s in the space flight sequences. Barring the Millennium Falcon chase, the gravity-defying action lacks a bit of punch, and the final assault in particular suffers from feeling too much like previous attacks on planet destroying vessels. It’s fine, for sure, but the more intimate action is where Abrams’ direction is stronger. And luckily he has it where it counts: the lightsaber fights. It’s refreshing to see a total amateur wielding the iconic weapon at length for a change, leading to a few pleasantly clunky brawls, But the final duel is the highlight - the violent lightshow across a snowy forest only equalled by the Luke and Vader face-off in Empire.

For a series that has always delighted in offering up a rogue’s gallery of imaginative aliens and robots (said gallery reaching an obnoxious peak in Return of the Jedi), Star Wars at its finest has had a loving humanity about itself. So much of the drama is built around friendships and romances; families and enemies. Indeed, the very very core of the series has been this outrageous but memorable family melodrama. Abrams and Kasdan understand that, and go all in.

Ahoy! In-depth plot and character details discussed over the next few paragraphs

The Force Awakens builds on what was there before, but drifts off in new directions too. On one hand, you have the previously established relationships and characters. Harrison Ford is the most valuable player in that regard - Han Solo’s very presence ensuring the film instantly forges a strong connection with the audience. But Ford is totally game anyway: he plays the familiar hero from the originals, but who has also very clearly aged and in some respects matured in the three decades between films. His interactions with Princess / General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher capably portraying her as someone who has clearly seen a hell of a lot since we last saw her) are lovingly handled - the couple has had some very good and some very bad times since the Battle of Endor, and the performers elegantly relate that to the viewer with a minimal level of exposition.

But Ford is granted the best material of all when he confronts his estranged son Ben - now known as Kylo Ren, the film’s primary antagonist played by Adam Driver. I'm going to say this straight out, with no apologies whatsoever: Kylo Ren is the best villain the series has seen. Whereas Darth Vader felt awkwardly enigmatic until relatively late in the original trilogy (and doesn’t even feel that intimidating in A New Hope), Kylo feels like a fully formed individual already. Apart from it coming across as a wee bit silly when he first removes his mask to reveal Driver’s flowing locks, here is a character who feels much more fascinating, conflicted unhinged and damaged than Anakin Skywalker ever did (and the voice distortion is much more menacing).

The moment when Han steps on to the bridge to confront his son is shrouded in a spine-tingling aura of nervous dread and impending tragedy. What follows is, without question, the most emotionally charged and devastating incident in the saga thus far - ‘I am your father’ included. The original trilogy can be a surprisingly bloodless affair for all the betrayals and genocide contained within, but such a significant death here raises the stakes exponentially for what follows directly after, and indeed whatever follows in Episode VIII and beyond (given how Abrams is brave and cheeky enough to hold back Mark Hamill’s appropriately momentous entrance into the fray until the final shots, Rian Johnson’s effort cannot come soon enough).

A brief aside: The Force Awakens has literally the perfect amount of C-3PO, which is very little C-3PO.

As for the newcomers? The cast is large, so not all of them have the opportunity to make an impression - Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie and a few others face a fairly hopeless battle for screentime. Nonetheless, the new leads fare wonderfully. Stormtroopers who are actually individuals are a surprisingly thrilling addition and reversal of expectations - when the camera drifts off in the opening sequence to actually follow a trooper, it’s more of a surprise that it hasn’t really been done before. John Boyega is having a ball, and while they share a relatively small amount of scenes all-in-all, the friendship he strikes up with Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron feels like a legitimately meaningful one.

Boyega also shares no shortage of chemistry with The Force Awaken’s de facto lead Daisy Ridley. Rey very much promises to be a great action hero going forward, already showing the sort of confident badassery we only saw glimpses of in Luke. Impressively, while the film’s diverse cast is still a reasonably uncommon thing for sci-fi and especially this franchise (never forget some of the crude racial stereotyping of the prequels), the film does not boast about or dwell on its wholly admirable progressiveness. Things here as simply as they always should have been.

It should be noted that for all the lovable new characters introduced, it’s the robotic BB8 who steals the show - probably the most communicative, charming robotic sphere in cinema history (allowing for the fact it is a relatively underexplored character type). He is - and I’m very, very sorry for saying this - BB-great.

Am I gushing? I’m probably gushing, and I wouldn’t even consider myself a particularly big Star Wars fan (in fact, I believe the series had a hugely negative impact on mainstream filmmaking). There are, it feels a shame to say, rough edges here. For all the pleasingly grounded effects work, there are a few incidences of CG too far - the film’s ‘big bad’, for example, is preposterous, feeling more like something that has dropped in from a Marvel film that something from a Star Wars one. For all the breathing space, there’s definitely scope for a less jam-packed narrative, and at times the frantic pacing threatens to approach the messiness of A New Hope. The weaponised nostalgia is typically well played and well earned, but no question a handful of the explicit callbacks feel forced and threaten to break the diegesis by merely drawing attention to themselves. And, well, the wheel is certainly not reinvented - the world will not be changed, there’s no truly radical revisions to the series playbook, and for all the thrills here most of them are unashamedly dumb. One cannot forget that this film is the initial play in what will be the aggressive oversaturation of Star Wars by Disney - soon, new Star Wars content will be an annual occurrence, and will inevitably lose the feverish mystery and anticipation that has surrounded The Force Awakens.

But for now, strap yourself in. Imperfections and blemishes, a few there are. Maybe more than a few, and one can only imagine the debates that will be had over the film in the coming weeks, months and years will be lively. But this is vintage Star Wars - the sort of giddy blockbuster adventuring that is at risk of extinction. Original? Nope. Intelligent? Hell no. Thrilling, romantic, exhilarating? You're goddamn right it is.

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