Star Wars…or The Tendency for History to Repeat Itself
If you’re the one person living in a cave who hasn’t heard about the new Star Wars movie, firstly I’d like to congratulate you for getting Wi-Fi in whatever god-forsaken backwater you’ve managed to hide away in, and secondly I’d like to warn you that I am indeed going to talk at length about the aforementioned new Star Wars movie. Now might be a good time to roll that rock back in front of your cave entrance. If you’re worried about spoilers and such, I will do my god damnedest to give you my opinion of the new film without giving away anything major.
Star Wars – The Force Awakens
Nearly forty years have passed since the events of Return of the Jedi, and just like the real world, the galaxy far far away has seen some changes since that last fateful battle between the Rebellion and the Empire. After the fall of the omnipresent Empire, star systems have splintered into new groups. A band of die-hard loyalists have seized the remnants of the imperial war machine and founded a new order…called The First Order. Under the direction of a mysterious new mastermind and supervised by a masked villain and dark force user named Kylo Ren, the First Order hopes to impose their extremist views on the now turbulent population of the galaxy. Opposing them is the fledgling Republic and its army of former Rebellion members. Missing are many of the great heroes from the last war, and one in particular, Luke Skywalker, is sought by both sides as a means to tip the balance of the war. As a mission commences to discover the location of Vader’s offspring, a new generation enters the struggle on both sides.
Faces New and Old
The heart of the story centers around Finn (John Boyega) who is a reluctant former storm trooper and Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is a self-trained pilot and mechanic living on a secluded dessert planet not named Tatooine. When the hot-shot hero of the Republic, Poe (Oscar Isaac) ends up on Rey’s planet with a vital piece of information, Finn and Rey find themselves on the run, sought by both sides for the droid in their possession. Sounds familiar, no?
The new cast is pretty strong. Ridley and Boyega have a great rapport, and are themselves well rounded characters. Since much of the film is the story of how they are thrown together in the wider events of the war, it was essential to find them believable and likable. No worries on that front. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson (who starred together in the excellent techno-horror film Ex Machina) are both competent but have very little time in their roles as key members of the Republic and First Order Armies, respectively. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is engaging, but once again doesn’t feel completely fleshed out. We certainly learn a lot about his history, but he is deliberately enigmatic. Unfortunately, with so many new mouths to feed, several characters get short shrift.
The returning cast is dominated by Harrison Ford and his Han Solo role. He just kills it, and it feels like not a day has passed since we saw his smirking face and blustering swagger. He and Chewie are naturals, and he even rekindles much of the flame between himself and Carrie Fisher’s Leia, though she feels like she is being held in reserve much of the film for more important work later in the series. There’s a reason Ford has his name first on the credits list, and if you liked Han even a little in the originals, you’re going to love him here.
You Came for a Spectacle
The Force Awakens is a slick product. It is breathlessly paced, even for two and a half hours. The last half hour of the film had me hoping that my watch was broken and we had another hour still to go. The visuals are markedly better than the prequels, with a more restrained use of computer tricks and a heavier reliance on natural settings. That being said, it’s Star Wars, and you have to expect some slightly goosed scenery and added effects. The space battles are well done, the aliens only occasionally look silly, and there’s blessedly little lens-flare of the J.J. Abrams variety. I can think of only a few blemishes, and the remainder was exactly the type of spectacular imagery you were hoping for.
(I’m going to go ahead and hide this next paragraph for anyone who doesn’t want even the slightest hints about the plot. Highlight it if you want to read it.)
Next Verse, Same as the First?
I’m pained to say that I’m not sure if I actually liked this movie. It was visually riveting and beautiful, had some fine acting and some even finer battles. At the end of the day, I came away feeling slightly cheated. I knew the film was going to have to walk the line between nostalgia and novelty. It’s a terrible bind. I guess I was hoping this outing would err more on the side of novelty. There is almost nothing new about this movie. I’ve seen people compare this to The Empire Strikes Back, but in reality this is mostly just A New Hope with a fresh coat of paint. Same hero’s journey, same big reveals, many familiar settings, and an almost pedantic re-hashing of the first movie’s plot. Seeing as how Return of the Jedi pretty much copy/pasted that plot already, we really are seeing all of this for the third time. It was really disheartening. That whole wide and wonderful universe and you’re telling me the same damn story for a third time? Some viewers may feel like J.J. has done enough tweaking and switching of roles to make this a variation on a theme, but to me it felt like a rehashing and unimaginative.
Now Tell Me a Story!
Is this new Star Wars worth your time? I wish I could say yes enthusiastically. There are some really interesting characters here who I want to see grow and develop. The world of Star Wars is so addictive, we’ve never really gotten away from it. Even when movies weren’t being steadily made, we had so much media, from games and comics to stand-alone books. There’s a spark here, and it really makes me want to go deeper…but not if the movies are going to keep playing it so cynically safe. Everything feels like a big pitch that wants me to flesh out the universe on my own initiative, and assumes I’m so rabid about this franchise that I’ll go wild just seeing things that are obviously “Star Wars.” I’m sorry, but I’m not going to salivate like Pavlov’s dog just because you feed me the goddamn opening crawl and John Williams’ horn section for the seventh time!
After Erik gets a chance to see it and I’ve caught it again, I’ll come back and do a spoiler riddled review that goes into more detail about what worked and didn’t work in this film. Long story short, the film feels like a return to form. Literally. There’s a lot that was interesting and fun (J.J. does give room for humor and good-natured foolishness to arise naturally from his creations) and there’s so much that clamors for more attention, I have to admit I’m invested in seeing the next few films. Unfortunately, the plot mirroring so much of what we’ve already experienced left me cold. Many are saying it is a good “Star Wars film.” That feels like we’ve got a preconceived status quo, a list of check boxes the movie has to dutifully include or it won’t make the muster. I was hoping for something truly new from a fresh cast and a new director. We haven’t gotten that…not yet.