Friday, December 18, 2015

I saw Star Wars Awaken...

"Star Wars I-III" disappointed, not because it was a lousy saga. Au contraire, it's actually quite a sprawling epic (and a damn big moneymaker, at that). It's just that, well...somewhere in the hustle of things, it lost track of its roots. 

"Star Wars", as the adventure was presented in 1977 by George Lucas, surfaced as a shameless homage to adventure tales gone by and the heroes who led them, namely John Carter, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. (As we well know, Lucas would have returned Flash to the big screen if only he had procured the rights.) With this, a "New Hope" presented a basic tale of good vs evil, unconcerned with murky Trade Wars or the unnerving shades of gray that characterized a villain we all knew would be uncompromisingly dark in his heart. As such, Disney's assigned director, J.J. Abrams, has assured us a new movie-serial style "Star Wars" with its seventh chapter, "The Force Awakens". 

Has Abrams fulfilled the promise? The answer is yes and no, but his slight deviations on the basic elements doesn’t mar the splendor. It simply makes this chapter (written by Abrams; the legendary Lawrence Kasdan; and Michael "Toy Story 3" Arndt) its own cool thing, which simultaneously looks to the past and the future. In this regard, we again have good and evil at odds, three decades after the epic Battle of Endor and the destruction of Death Star II, with new heroes leading the charge and supporting characters taking their sides accordingly.

Of course, as we've anticipated, it's old favorites who set the cozy pace: Princess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher); Han Solo (Harrison Ford); Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew); and even Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose). Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is also in there, but essentially in concealed form, his presence felt throughout "Force Awakens", just as Spock's was felt throughout "Star Trek III": a warm-up, in essence, for the saga's predestined shape of things to come. 

The acknowledgment of our past heroes helps keep this installment in check; for if there exists any remnant of the basic formula that distinguished the middle chapters, it's through these stellar stars, and its the new folks who redirect the saga into its spirited, sequelized stretch. 

The newbies include desert-dwelling Rey (Daisy Ridley); ace X-wing fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar "Ex Machina" Isaac); wise Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow); helpful Maz Katana (Lupita Nyong'o); and in-search-of-redemption Finn (John Boyega). They each figure into the plot, to some extent or another, the way the characters did in "New Hope", with a transported message prompting their actions. 

Finn, in my estimation, is this chapter's most identifiable protagonist, though some would argue that Rey is more so, if only for her Skywalker similarities. Still, Finn is the one through whom we experience the adventure: the misguided guy who gets thrust upon this gallant ride after befriending the dynamic Dameron, who in his own right becomes a significant Solo stand-in. (On a speculative note, the following chapters will probably do a better job of fleshing out Finn and Rey, thus strengthening their significance within this yet expanding universe and for better or worse, tease at a potential romance.)

So, what exactly does our dynamic duo face (or rather, should I say, fall into)? Well, again it's a division of sides, with the freedom-fighting Resistance vs the multiplying "Neo-Nazi" First Order/Empire loyalists. We also learn that matters weren't definitively resolved at "Return of the Jedi'"s end, with (and this is solely implied and never succinctly stated) ineffective leadership having allowed pockets of sovereign seekers to cause disarray (much as any typical terrorist group would when not kept under thumb). 

Finn is wise, having shed his Stormtrooper shackles in the name of galactic freedom and stumbles upon Rey, who immediately takes to him, and from there their alliance fortifies for a shared cause and against a common foe. 

There are a number of baddies in "Episode VII", including memorable supporting characters, like Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); the staunch General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson); and the gleaming Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), who make a strong visual (and sometimes dramatic) mark, but never dominate the plot.

The villainous beacon, therefore, is the heavily publicized Kylo Ren (Adam Driver): an often masked zealot with a most distinct light saber, who desires supreme, cosmic control. He's this segment's Ming the Merciless or Killer Kane; a counterpart to reality's hated Hitler and for the here-and-now, our would-be Darth Vader. He's hellbent on rekindling the Sith Lord's influence, and his impetuous temperament confirms this. Oh, and in case you're unaware, he's the son of...well, never mind; most of you've already caught wind of the startling revelation and outcome. Anyway, Ren's wayward presence is why Finn and Rey fight the good fight, though they require guidance along the way.

For such, they (along with the bad guys) seek the elusive Luke Skywalker, and with Solo, Chewy and the Millennium Falcon's help, "Force Awakens" starts to take shape, becoming at least on the surface, what Abrams projected: a thrilling quest story. 

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t always make the best use of its cast, opting (as the weaker chapters have) to emphasize organic window dressing instead of extended characterization. Tekka's presence, for example, could have been expanded, and Dameron, though engaging when given the chance, should have received much wider focus.

Though it may totter in its character balance, "Force Awakens" indubitably delivers the goods in visual glitz and not of the cartoonish CGI sort, either. This chapter is laden with old-school, heavy hardware and fast action, which earned it a PG-13: a warning to parents that such sleek intensity may be unsuitable for their coddled kids (sad, but true). Nevertheless, for those who savor movie-serial zest, "Force Awakens" should more than please and have most fans clamoring for more. 

Also to its benefit, this chapter downplays the cutsey stuff. Sure, the adorable, snowman-shaped BB-8 is there to pick up the torch from R2-D2 (Kenny Baker, who in this instance "consulted" on the droid's movements) and fidgety but amiable C3PO (Anthony Daniels), but it's all within the proper context. When given their various moments, the three give the film that Disney-esque charm: apt since the franchise is now officially Disney stationed. However, they are more of a cheerful additive than a mawkish, Jar Jar Binks distraction. 

At the end of the day, whether one labels it a hit or miss, "Force Awakens" is but another part in a progressing mythology. How this chapter will figure into the grand scheme is yet to be seen. (Remember, "Empire Strikes Back" wasn't necessarily praised as the best of the best upon release.) For the time being, and for the sake of launching a new start, the film now stands as the franchise's "new hope": a chance to avoid the disfavor paved by the prequel trilogy. It may also become, in the long run, another magnificent moment in space-opera history. For now, with the box-office numbers blasting through the roof and fan praise mounting, things look most promising.


  1. As an afterthought, I did miss the 20th Century Fox intro. Yes, the Disney one is iconic, but it sure wasn't there from the beginning. Oh, well... At least John Williams supplied another sterling score. That helped a lot in keeping the proper tone.

  2. Another afterthought: Kylo Ren's attire honors his hero, Darth Vader, particularly with the helmet's shape, but as an overall image goes, the character also invokes David Carradine's Frankenstein from "Death Race 2000". In fact, Driver and Carradine both project a dark, lanky look in their characterizations, and with both, there's more happening beneath the surface than meets the eye.

  3. (Tidbit Time) For the record, Flash Gordon’s prevailing influence on “Star Wars” surfaces even in current casting. Max von Sydow played Ming in the campy ’80 remake. In “Dreamscape” (1984) Dennis Quaid compares Von Sydow’s décor as Darth Vader influenced. Interesting how Von Sydow ends up in “Force Awakens” all these years later, but again, too bad his part hadn't been bigger.

  4. I've been hearing a lot from folks that, if "Force Awakens" has any fault, it's that it reflects "New Hope" too much.

    I don't have much of a problem with the similarities, in that I believe circumstances are fated to repeat themselves in the "Star Wars" universe. It's all part of a preordained celestial prophesy, or something along those lines.

    For what it's worth, I was actually disappointed that "Phantom Menace" didn't adhere closer to the "New Hope" formula. "Phantom Menace" does capture the "New Hope" flair to some degree, but an older Anakin (in tune with Luke's "Chapter IV" age) would have made more sense (and the little-boy angle could have still kicked things off in the chapter's early part, if only for sentimentality's sake). Just a thought...