Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Director: J.J. Abrams
Runtime: 135 minutes

Everyone who cares even a little about Star Wars has their own set of expectations for the next wave of films. Films 1 - 6 (technically 4-6/1-3) spawned such a vast empire of media that story options for a new trilogy seem endless. And yet, by reaching back to what made audiences flip out for A New Hope in 1977, director J.J. Abrams has taken on a herculean task and somehow delivered. The Force Awakens, despite years of expectations and millions and millions of dollars powering it, carries the same scrappy spirit of George Lucas' first journey to a galaxy far, far away. The final product, regardless of whether or not you were caught up in the hyper machine, has its flaws, mostly when it comes to balancing the old and the new. And unlike the much-maligned prequels (galactic senate meetings, midichlorians, the shadow of Jar Jar Binks), The Force Awakens is a legitimate fresh start for the series, with a speedy plot that takes audiences from planet to planet and starship to starship. Even with nods and winks to the audience, this is, finally, the 21st century Star Wars movie we both wanted and needed. 

Abrams, Disney, and Lucasfilm have tried to keep as much of The Force Awakens under wraps, and even though the movie is out now, I'll do my best to refrain from spoilers. Even so, in terms of structure, there isn't much to spoil. For better and for worse, Abrams and co-writer Michael Arndt have stuck with Lucas' concept of having the trilogies "mirror" each other in terms of plot developments and character arcs.

This concept has ups and downs, but it mostly works as a pleasing middle ground compromise. Despite the PG-13 rating, The Force Awakens doesn't try to get away with as much as it can (versus, say, The Dark Knight), as it's trying to bring in old fans and stir the imaginations of new ones who might not even be 10 yet. Diehards looking for the franchise to leap forwards and mature (in the way the Harry Potter books and then films did) might be left wanting. When making a movie that's designed to please as many people as possible while also playing to a core fanbase, it's hard to come up with something that checks off every box.

The sense of compromise (pandering seems a bit too harsh/negative) that permeates The Force Awakens might seem like a red flag, but it's far from a dealbreaker. When it comes to the "mirroring" aspect, the film's hit-to-miss ratio winds up being rather good. This is especially true of the first hour or so, which is almost entirely filled with the next generation of heroes and villains. Among the good eggs are desert scavenger Rey (the instantly-winning Daisy Ridley), AWOL stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, a charming and bumbling accidental do-gooder), and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, cutting loose and having fun with limited material). If ever there was a sign that this Star Wars was a creation of modern times, it's the much needed diversity found among this key trio. 

Yet where there is light, there is also darkness. The Sith and the Empire may be extinct, but that hasn't stopped a new wave of devotees from arising. Most compelling is the masked and hooded Kylo Ren (Adam Driver...yes the guy from Girls), a temperamental student of the Dark Side with a Darth Vader complex. He is the film's own mirror for Rey, a mysterious loner drawn to the supernatural gifts of the Force, and his desire to hide his past is one of The Force Awakens' most compelling angles. 

And with so much going on in The Force Awakens (starting anew while also tying into the original films), the actors deserve immense praise for being so charismatic in their roles. The film hops and skips around so much, and the characters could have gotten lost in the shuffle. Yet even when Abrams pushes his young leads to go a little too broad (we get it, they're in over their heads/wide eyed with amazement), the actors still deliver. Ridley and Boyega are a great deal of fun as a pair of loners forced together by chance (or maybe fate...), and Isaac's swagger further grounds the film in a tone more in line with the adventure serials that originally inspired Star Wars. Driver is a hoot as well, especially as his mood and presence adjusts when he removes his helmet. 

So much of what's new is so invigorating that the arrival of characters from the first films throws off The Force Awakens' balance. As pure nostalgia it's bliss to see Harrison Ford back as Han Solo. But as Solo becomes integral to the plot, The Force Awakens starts sliding a little too far backwards. The new torchbearers of the franchise slip into the backseat for a while, leaving the midsection a bit rudderless. Seeing Han and Leia together is great on its own, but it's hard not to think that such scenes might have been better spent developing Rey, Finn, etc...

Despite this issue, Abrams brings it all home in the final stretch, even though the conclusion boasts the most overtly derivative moments from a structural standpoint. It takes a while to get there, but Abrams and Arndt do thankfully get around to resetting the chess board for future installments. Like any good adventure saga, The Force Awakens wraps up enough to function as a self-contained story, yet also ends in a way that begs for another chapter. In these final stages, Abrams restores the earnestness and charm of the series while also boldly positioning it for bigger and better things. And, at the very least, Abrams managed to combine a 'hello' to the next generation with a proper 'goodbye' to the old. It's hard to ask for more than that. 

Grade: B

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