Sunday, 27 December 2015
Star Wars: The Series Awakens
So, have you seen it yet? Have you seen it twice yet? Three-timers, show of hands please, I know I see some of you there in the back, I can tell by how empty your pockets look. Reviewing The Force Awakens is pretty much a wasted exercise, especially this many days after its release. Either you've already seen it, are already planning to see it regardless of what I or anyone else have to say about it, or have no idea whatsoever what a Kylo Ren is and are much happier not knowing. This isn't like telling you that Dope is pretty good and you should check it out, this is a Star Wars movie, it's a box-office Starkiller, it's an event and even though no event is perfect, it's a breath of fresh air to say that this one is genuinely enjoyable. With the season that's in it, The Force Awakens has all the fun and excitement of Christmas. Thank God it wasn't a ton of hype and expense only to end up as a loud, incoherent disappointment. Like New Year's. I mean the prequels.
Let's all agree that there's going to be a few spoilers around and we're all going to be smart about it. Now on with the review!
Given how The Force Awakens plays out it wouldn't be surprising to learn that the development of the film involved a big list of the main problems people had with the prequels-possibly a flip chart was involved-and a mandate to do the exact opposite of all those things. Going to the exact opposite extreme does create a few new problems of its own, but The Force Awakens succeeds in what it's trying to do and by that measure, has to be considered a success. The piles and piles of cash are a decent indicator too. The selection of JJ Abrams as director speaks to that desire to get as far, far away from the stodgy and slow prequels as possible, as his abilities typically result in telling a story that zips by quickly and enigmatically, and has no more idea where it's all going to end up than you do. The plot beats come thick and fast, and with sequels in mind, are all kept spinning even when the credits roll.
With that in mind, most of the best parts of The Force Awakens come in the first half, when we're getting introduced to our new batch of characters, and as important as nostalgia might be to this whole enterprise, the new characters are all winners. Hot-shot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured by nebulous evil-doers the First Order and their resident Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He enlists his adorable robot buddy/the thing your kid got for Christmas BB-8 to deliver vital information to any member of the Resistance, BB-8 ends up getting the help of Finn, an ex-Stormtrooper who's freshly turned his coat and wants to get as far away from danger as possible and desert scavenger Rey, the secret lead character of the film, who turns out to be adept with the Force and has a bit of destiny about her, which is apparently fucking outrageous to certain wretched hives of the internet because she's a w..w...woooman, bless my stars and garters! That vital information, by the by, is co-ordinates to the location of Luke Skywalker, who went off into self-imposed exile when he discovered that his Death Star of 'bringing back the Jedi' had a little exhaust port in it called 'Kylo Ren was too unstable to be a good apprentice and has a heap of daddy issues the way you might when Han Solo is your father so he went on a slight killing spree', which caused it all to blow up. Adventure ensues, bad feelings are had about things, things blow up, droids go beep, droids go boop all roughly in the same plot structure as the original Star Wars.
Again, Abrams is a good choice for an re-introduction to a series, as he's better with concepts and characters than he is with story-telling, and Combined with series veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdanm, Abrams does right by these new characters, who are likable and/or have interesting motivations, and are allowed to have some actual life breathed into them by the actors playing them. Poe Dameron and Finn are on screen together for a combined total of maybe 2 and a half minutes and say maybe 8 things to each other, and they already have a warmer and more believable friendship than Anakin and Obi-Wan ever had. With a small amount of screentime Oscar Isaac makes Poe Dameron into the affable rogue people always remember Han Solo as (Lovable Han may be, but all that shooting first and Harrison Ford's grousing demeanour has always meant that he's not actually the specific archetype people always try to emulate from him), while John Boyega has both great comedic timing (again, flip the prequels approach-keep the humour coming and have some air of irony where they could never be anything but totally sincere) as well as some different vulnerability-Finn is essentially the first conscientious objector in all these wars in the stars. Daisy Ridley is in the Luke Skywalker spot of mostly reacting to what happens around her, but she like Boyega she gives her character a charming quality that, on a meta level, helps the audience to enjoy the experience-a genuine thrill to be involved in a Star Wars story.
Finally, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is plenty interesting when generically evil probably would have done the job (see Domhnall Gleeson, doing the job as the First Order's Not-A-Nazi General Hux), Driver gives him a compelling sense of conflict and structurally, he's an antagonist who is flawed in the way protagonists usually are, not quite skilled enough to accomplish his goals and conflicted about his place in the world. It's just that instead of being conflicted about his Dark Side, he's conflicted about his Good Side, and really pissed off that he has one, to the point that he breaks bad hard by killing off your childhood. The characters are sufficiently different that the safe structural similarities to the original films can be excused, as it all feels a little more like legacy than blatant repetition.
Where The Force Awakens lags is in its attempts to build on the foundation it has set up. Character relationships rush a little from A to C, skipping B in order to keep the action scenes relentless and to keep the illusion that the plot is moving forward. Really, considering that not much happens plotwise for the entire middle of the movie, it would have been nice to see a little more personal progression instead of dodgy alien monsters running around Han Solo's ship. When we get closer towards the end, a slight fatigue starts to set in, and the cracks start to appear in the Abrams style as the big stakes stuff proves difficult to care about-planets are blown up with nary a care, a repeat from his Star Trek movies, and what should be an exciting spaceship dog fight just feels perfunctory. The film doesn't really conclude itself, choosing to go hard on the 'tune in next time!' angle. It's fine to have sequel set up, but it essentially feels like we're just on commercial break for the next two years. At least Abrams, who did well to tee everything up, is passing the reigns off to other filmmakers, ones who might actually be able to tie it all together. There are definitely flaws, but mostly this is a film that gives the audience what it wants, and that's no bad thing. I like getting what I want, don't you? It's been abundantly clear from the build up that audiences are ready to enjoy a Star Wars movie again, and although there's more to be done, The Force Awakens is one of the year's most entertaining films and leaves the series with a lot of room for growth. We can look forward to the next one, and that's a great thing.