Friday, December 18, 2015

The Next Generation: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS


The only way to properly enjoy Star Wars is to be in a mindset with a precisely proportioned combination of deep engaged reverence and light distracted escapism. It's both the greatest of all modern myths, and, per Todd Hanson’s affectionate but sharp assessment, "a big dumb movie about space wizards." Consider its sources: The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Flash Gordon; Akira Kurosawa samurai films and B-movie WWII pictures; epic fantasy and Poverty Row Westerns. More than the sum of its parts, the magic of Star Wars is in its cohesive combination. But if its high-low synthesis is responsible for this space opera's wide-ranging popularity, its staying power is in the details. Creator George Lucas is a great fantasy filmmaker: a sharp visual storyteller and a nonchalant conjurer of fantabulous jargon, densely packing these films with robots, aliens, planets, cultures, vehicles, weapons, and gadgets, suggesting a world far beyond the frame. Put him on the shortlist with the likes of Baum, Tolkien, Roddenberry, and Rowling, creators of popular fantasy worlds with their own internal logic, striking design, and unshakable pull. Their creations are lasting for their narratives, but even more for the places they allow us to visit.

The famous opening text tells us Star Wars takes place in a galaxy far far away, and the images that follow live up to its promised scope and history. Through six films, Lucas used dazzling special effects, energetic action, quasi-mystical spirituality, and sweeping pseudo-historical fantasy worldbuilding to inhabit massive striking artificial vistas with, in the classic original trilogy (1977-1983), a triumphant hero's journey, and, in the unfairly maligned prequels (1999-2005), a tragedy of political machination and curdled idealism. His saga contained an entire ecosystem of the imagination, rich soil on which fans and writers – from little kids playing with action figures to sci-fi writers tapped for tie-in novels – grew new stories.

Now Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens is the first real test of whether this galaxy can survive on the big screen beyond its creator's eccentric and brilliant vision. The answer is a resounding “mostly.” Director J.J. Abrams (with Mission: Impossible III and two Star Treks, no stranger to franchise caretaking) takes over from Lucas and creates an energetic entertainment. He’s not inspired by the series’ inspirations, but by the series itself. Thus it lacks the velocity in and personality of Lucas’s imaginative imagery and ideas (identifiably his all the way), but creates a piece of skilled imitation, sure to please the crowds. Abrams is an expert blockbuster craftsman, and here proves himself a talented mimic as well, recreating the feeling and sensations of Star Wars past while finding new characters on which to focus.

From the opening blasts of John Williams’s score to the slow pan to a distant planet stalked by a massive Star Destroyer, it’s clear we’re back in a recognizable space. For those of us whose Proustian madeleines are the snap-hiss of lightsabers, and for whom the Doppler-effect howls of TIE fighters and X-Wings are guaranteed to instantly activate inner 9-year-olds, the familiarity will be instantly transporting. It feels and swells and sounds like Star Wars, a factor of Abrams’s hard work, and the continuity represented by several series’ staples (like concept artists Iain McCaig and Doug Chiang, sound designers Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom) in the crew. Full of echoes to previous installments, we’re on a desert planet where a young person (this time a resourceful scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley, a newcomer in a star-making turn)) is about to be drawn into galactic-wide conflict with a dramatic call to adventure.

Working with screenwriters Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Lawrence Kasdan (a co-writer on Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), Abrams has a story set 30 years after Episode VI that recombines ideas, lines, images, and plot points from previous entries. They’ve cannily (and maybe a smidge calculatingly) positioned the movie precisely between crowd-pleasing fan fiction and a rousing new heroes’ journey, both a loose remake of the original set-up and an introduction to (commendably diverse) new people. Wisely starting fresh before getting derivative, the movie opens with Rey, and others in a set of dramatic original characters: a conflicted soldier (John Boyega); a scheming masked villain of the Dark Side (Adam Driver); a brave fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac); and an instantly loveable ball-droid named BB-8. They fit in with the matinee adventure spirit, and the convincingly lived-in world, projecting happiness simply to be in one of these movies. Their awe is contagious.

It’s the galaxy far far away as we know it, but a generation removed from those stories, full of new people living lives we can be excited to discover as we don’t leave their perspective. While the plot blasts along, it picks up welcome characters, like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and ships, like his Millennium Falcon, bringing old and new together in a race to prevent new bad guys from blowing up the galaxy. Abrams creates instantly compelling fresh characters with a talented cast – Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are great likable heroes; Driver is a terrifically complicated villain – while leaning on nostalgia for sights and sounds and faces from earlier movies. Each classic character gets to make an impressive re-entrance, none better than Leia (Carrie Fisher), as tough and charming as ever. It’s nice to see them, even if the movie is occasionally too much like what we’ve seen before.

Abrams is clearly energized by moments that thrill him as a fan, playing with uniquely Star Wars images and ideas borrowed (reunions of long-lost icons, rhymes with other episodes) and invented (a tiny ancient pirate (Lupita Nyong'o), a shadowy villain (Andy Serkis), a stormtrooper with a flamethrower). It doesn’t always pop, a few sequences erring on the side of choppiness or overfamiliar beats, the action on the whole merely proficient, and the entire thing moving so quickly it can’t linger on unusual details like Lucas did. But cinematographer Dan Mindel (John Carter) brings filmic widescreen framing, finding some of the original trilogy’s visual flavor as he photographs displays of evocative lights, picturesque landscapes, and massive explosions in granular reality, bringing an unreal place to something like convincing life. When the film is showing us original contributions – mild redesigns, unfamiliar beasts, new-fangled weapons – its far more interesting and involving than when remaking previous plot in new packaging. Even its surprises aren’t too surprising as it goes.

In some ways a rather cautious extension of the brand, leaning on plot points and emotional beats we’ve seen before in this series – and a few too many times those connections are heavily underlined (a line about a trash compactor will irritate me for days) – The Force Awakens is nonetheless alive with possibility of new storytelling in this galaxy. Allowing the fresh faces center stage while giving returning characters supporting roles without feeling too much like a passing of the torch, it sets the groundwork for future success. Call it The Fandom Awakens, especially since it’s almost scientifically calibrated to tickle acolyte’s pleasure centers while remaining open enough for a younger generation of fans to fit right in, like an exuberant greatest hits remix from the best cover band in the world.

It’s nakedly manipulative and terrifically exciting Hollywood filmmaking of incredible competence. Platoons of talented artisans, animators, and puppeteers create remarkably tactile locations, dogfights, laser battles, and lightsaber clashes, swooping and stirring in all their fantastical glory. It’s big, energized, and enjoyable, making most of its competition look like Padawans. Without Lucas it’s removed from the spark of novelty it once had, but, as an attempt to find fresh characters through which to make old stories new again, it’s a fun admirable effort. Made with more love than cynicism, it’s happy to start another cycle of galactic history repeating itself, The Force forever seeking its balance. There’s nothing quite like Star Wars. It’s enough to have space wizards, interplanetary dive bars, and ginormous superweapons for a new generation. Even if it has to over-deliver on what it thinks old fans want, it's plenty entertaining for everyone.

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