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Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Star Wars: The Force Awakens welcomes us all back to the summer of '77. Everything old is new again, especially that feeling audiences have craved for thirty years that the maligned prequels only fleetingly touched upon. The feeling that can only come from the Force. Director J.J. Abrams and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan gleefully take us on a lightspeed ride on the Way Back Machine straight to the first Star Wars (also known as Episode IV - A New Hope). Once again, and stop me if you've heard this one before, an evil galactic army (this time known as the First Order), led by an evil warrior strong in the Dark Side of the Force named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), threatens the Galaxy. Opposing them is a ragtag band of rebels (this time called the Resistance), led by General Leia Organa. Caught in the middle are new heroes, discovering their destinies while joining in this epic struggle of good vs. evil, walking nearly identical paths as the generation that came before them, but with intriguing new twists and a few answers to pivotal questions purposely withheld. 

The Force Awakens' greatest triumphs are how powerfully it recreates the sheer exhilaration of seeing Star Wars done well. The Force is a feeling, and The Force Awakens truly feels like Star Wars. When Rey (Daisy Ridley), the plucky scavenger from the desert world of Jakku, pilots the Millennium Falcon by the seat of her pants through the wreckage of a Star Destroyer while her new friend, the ex-Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega), shoots down the Tie Fighters chasing them, it's practically an out of body experience to witness. The movie's other great triumph are our new lead characters. The Force Awakens belongs to Rey and Finn, along with Poe Dameron and the lovable droid BB-8, all of whom are truly fantastic additions to the Star Wars universe. They are heroes worthy to succeed Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and the former Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), along with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, all of whom make appearances, some more impactful, and some frustratingly fleeting. Ford seems to once again be enjoying playing Han Solo, now older and even gruffer, but serving in the Obi-Wan Kenobi mentor role as he reluctantly guides Rey and Finn into the struggle between the First Order and the Resistance. It's been thirty years since the First Galactic Empire fell and Solo and his friends are the stuff of legend to Rey and Finn. "It's true. All of it," Solo assures them, and us. He should know, he was there and he was frozen in carbonite for a part of it.

Ostensibly a quest to find the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, missing, we're told, since his new Jedi Order was massacred by one of his pupils, The Force Awakens more than homages -- it outright mirrors (too) many key plot points of A New Hope: a droid hiding secret plans the First Order desperately wants. The First Order possessing a super weapon, Starkiller Base, many times bigger than the Death Star (with holograms shown to us helpfully illustrating this) than can destroy several planets at once (the physics are shakier than ever). This time two of our heroes, cool X-Wing jockey Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Rey herself, are captured and tortured by the First Order. Han Solo leads Finn and Chewbacca into Starkiller Base to bring down their defensive energy shield so that a fleet of X-Wing fighters can destroy the base via its one weak spot. ("There's always a weak spot," Han winks to the audience. We know.) A conflict between father and son. And yes, a beloved character tragically dies, murdered by a red lightsaber. Meanwhile, Rey receives a quickie download on the mythology of the Force from Maz Kanata, sort of an alien version of the woman who designed the costumes of The Incredibles, played by Lupita N'yongo. Rey suddenly is haunted by visions of Luke Skywalker she receives after being lured to his ancient lightsaber, as the Force awakens the dormant powers inside her. If we've seen this stuff before, it's because we have, and Abrams colors within the lines too closely. Abrams asks key questions, dazzles us with space battles and lightsaber duels, and then bolts out the door before dropping the answers we wait breathlessly to finally hear.

Who is Rey? The trailer answers that she's "no one" (dialogue not spoken in the movie). But this isn't true in the slightest: she's obviously the most important new player in Star Wars (and thank you, J.J. Abrams for creating a new female hero!). The Force Awakens teases Rey's "classified" (her words) identity throughout. Rey's parents abandoned her on Jakku as a child where she was forced to eke out a meager living waiting for them to rescue her, but she's tight lipped on even who they are. The obvious question: is she Luke Skywalker's daughter? The evidence is there: Luke's (and prior to that Anakin's) lightsaber called to her. She's an expert pilot, good with machines like Luke was. She's clearly powerful in the Force and meant to be a Jedi. But here's another theory: could Rey somehow be a progeny of Obi-Wan Kenobi? These clues are right there in plain sight: she speaks with a British accent (echoing Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan being the only actor in the original Star Wars who had a British accent but wasn't a villain). The color scheme of her clothes echoes Obi-Wan's robes. When she's captured by the First Order, she uses the Force to Jedi mind trick a Storm Trooper to escape, and then she skulks around Starkiller Base echoing how Obi-Wan once skulked around the Death Star. The truly important thing is Rey is wonderful, and Daisy Ridley is wonderful playing her. By the end, Rey deservedly inherits everything belonging to the heroes of the original Star Wars, from Luke's lightsaber to a mother figure in Leia to the Millennium Falcon itself. How frustrating we'll have to wait years now to perhaps find out whether the blood in her veins is Kenobi or Skywalker.

Someone who certainly has Skywalker blood in him is Kylo Ren. The Force Awakens makes no bones about who he is: the former Ben Solo, son of Han Solo and Leia, who betrayed Luke Skywalker and the Jedi to join the evil Knights of Ren, controlled by the new menace of the Galaxy, Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis). Ren's turn to the Dark Side literally drove her parents apart and wrecked their marriage. Promising the burnt ember of his grandfather Darth Vader's helmet that he'll "finish what Vader started," Han laments that Ren has "too much Vader in him." But it's actually more like Ren has too much Anakin Skywalker in him -- Kylo Ren is an emotional wreck, prone to fits of destructive fury, and it turns out he's actually an enormous puss, losing the  climactic lightsaber duel to Rey, a complete novice just discovering her Force powers. He even just stood there and watched Rey let the Force flow into her and did nothing when he could have finished her off. Sadly, Ren does accomplish what Luke Skywalker could never do and kills his father, granting Harrison Ford a wish he's had since he asked to have Han Solo killed off in Return of the Jedi. Driver plays Ren intriguingly however, conveying the conflict between the light and dark that's "tearing him apart," until he gives himself over to the Dark Side fully by committing patricide. As for Ren's master Supreme Leader Snoke, a CGI-creation witnessed only as a gigantic hologram, after six movies of Ian McDiarmid's fearsomely gleeful turn as the Emperor, Snoke is a rather unsightly letdown who should be trying to kill Hobbits rather than be the new Big Bad of Star Wars.

Perhaps the most relatable of the new Star Wars characters is Finn, formerly Storm Trooper designation FN-2187. Taken from his family as a child and brainwashed into a Storm Trooper, Finn nonetheless rebels against the bloody horrors the First Order makes him participate in and does a sensible thing: he runs. In the process, he discovers his first real friends in Rey and Poe Dameron, and becomes a warrior for good, a part of something greater than himself. He even gets to wield Luke's lightsaber for a while. One can't fault Finn for wanting to get as far away from the murderous First Order as he can. Boyega is fantastic playing a young man who struggles against his fear to become a hero and rescue his friends, and he draws one of the big laughs of the movie when he turns the tables on his former commander, the chrome-plated female Storm Trooper Captain Phasma (Gwendolyn Christie). With the short moments they have together, Finn and Poe Dameron quickly build a fast camaraderie and Poe is right, his borrowed leather jacket does suit Finn better than the white Storm Trooper costume does. Thumbs up, as BB-8 hilariously gives Finn when they abscond with the Millennium Falcon. BB-8 himself was simply amazing, instantly winning us over and upstaging his older Droid brethren Artoo and Threepio when they show up in the movie. 

Upon reflection, in a way, it's almost a shame Rey and Finn met Han Solo and Chewbacca. They were doing just fine on their own flying the stolen Millennium Falcon, and their getting mixed up in the Resistance war with the First Order created the circumstances that directly lead to the loss of Han Solo. The power of The Force Awakens felt strongest when we are hyperspace jumping along for the ride with Rey, Finn and BB-8, the new kids discovering the greatest sandbox in moviedom and playing with the toys of Star Wars for the first time. When Rey and Finn became part of the Resistance, they're a hot new young band ending up in a cover song playing most of the same notes and lyrics we've heard before. At least what happened in the second half of the movie was new to them, if not to most of us. Abrams and Kasdan punched too hard on the nostalgia button to recreate the magic of Star Wars, but for most audiences (especially the older folks still hellbent on "reliving their childhoods," whatever that means) it was a welcome familiar ride. In the grand scheme, this cover is a pretty worthy song on its own right. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Millennial Falcon, the past lovingly refurbished to be all shiny and like-new for the next generation. But with Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8, Star Wars has genuine and exciting new heroes we'll enjoy going on more rollicking space adventures with for years to come.