Thursday, July 21, 2016

Star Wars 4: The Characters Awaken Thirty-Three Years Later.

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode Seven: The Force Awakens.

Director: JJ Abrams

Reviewed: Started 31 December 2015; Finished 21 July 2016

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Although it has taken me more than six months to write this review, the new Stars Wars film Episode Seven: The Force Awakens has never been very far from my mind. I was born in 1978 and revere the original trilogy with only vague recollections of seeing Return of the Jedi in the theaters (the lens was blurry during the title credits scrawl, and I remember people howling at unbelievable volume).  It says it came out May 25th, 1983, so that summer I would have been four. The photos below this review confirm it as I am wearing a Star Wars t-shirt at my 5th birthday party in September of 1983; its characters, locations, and conflicts became the fabric of my life. Its toys were some of my greatest treasures, and they intersected in a bizarre but entirely plausible fictional universe of toys on the basement floor of 308 North Myrtle, forging bonds with G.I. Joes, He-Man and his ilk, the occasional GoBot or Mask figurine. I remember having Ewoks and droids, Jabba's Throne Room and popping speeder bikes. The film and its predecessors were titanic in my mind and imagination.

I collected and watched through middle school and high school. You could find toys in the occasional baseball card shop or comic book store. In college, I remember the excitement of viewing the movie trailer for Episode One: The Phantom Menace on dorm room computers with John Egan and Jason Miles, the exhilaration of a double-sided Darth Maul light saber, and I went to the theater to see all the re-releases of the originals in the build-up to the new film. Episode One underwhelmed me, and I remember the first 45 minutes as being one of the worst cinematic experiences of my lifetime. They were ruining my childhood; they were making it boring and dry and uninteresting. It picked up with the podracing and wrapped me up in its four battle montage intercutting in the last quarter of the film, particularly captivating me with "Duel of The Fates."

And now we are here. I am thirty-seven years old, watching the continuation of a story that ended when I was five.

Unrest exists in the universe and the Empire. There is an angsty, raging villain in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, who removes his mask more quickly than I thought he would). Ren's creepy voice and crucifix of fire-like light saber represents an almost teenage unpredictability in his response to a failed search for droid BB-8 who holds the key to finding the hidden Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). On the lonely planet of Jakku, BB-8 finds Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scrappy scavenger who searches among the wreckage of the gigantic Imperial starships of, I presume, Return of the Jedi, which had to fall somewhere and landed on her planet. That moment, to me, is one of the very best. Rey rappels into the bowels of these fallen starships which rest on the desert floor of her own planet, and in its own beautiful way, Abrams reminds us of the previous films and their conflicts, showing the aftermath in this wreckage that is now being used by others to maintain survival. It reminds me that Jawas recovered C-3PO and R2DR in the original film, scavengers doing a junk sale to survive themselves. It is a moment in the new film that lingers because of its connectedness and its showing of some consequences in this fantasy science fiction saga. Yeah, I realized, everything that did get blown up in that previous film probably had to land somewhere. Metaphorically, Abrams scavenges and plays with the wreckage of the trilogy itself, marred by its remarkably uneven and illogical Episodes 1, 2, and 3, three films that perhaps have enough good in them to make one film.

Finn (John Boyega), a storm trooper with a conscience, rejects his role as paid killer and revolts, eventually crossing paths with both Daisy and with pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac, far too brief). Old characters resurface in a quest to solve the mystery of Luke Skywalker's disappearance, and along the way, there are some light saber battles, particularly one in the woods that is great, some wonderful chases, and some heartfelt moments. There is some communing with a familiar melted helmet as well as some weird communication with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that seems forbidding (but mostly did not work for me).

It is not a perfect film. I like the new characters, especially Rey and Finn, who can hold their own and display wonder, exasperation, and even humor in the film when it calls for it.  I was less enthusiastic about the reappearance of some familiar faces; I know these moments were meant to be uplifting and exciting for the audience, but I was caught up in staring at these faces, thirty-three years later, and thinking of all the time that has past (and how great this would have been if it was made ten or fifteen years ago). At times, I feel like its adherence to past characters and storylines holds it back from being fully formed and from spending enough quality time with Rey, Finn, Poe, Hux, and others. It is that old adage about constantly looking backwards, slowing a runner down, causing him or her to go off course, possibly to stumble or fall. The film never falls, though it seems comfortable to play it safe with a very much retread of scenes and arcs in the original Episode 4: A New Hope. Empire was my favorite, and maybe the next film will leap to its own music and voice and style. I do not really remember John Williams's score, which is not a good sign to me.

Two days after I saw Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, our second child was born, a girl this time, and as a result, my movie-watching has slowed down significantly. Does seeing a Star Wars film where a female character picks up a light saber mean something to me now as a father of two young ones?  I think it does. I want both my son and my daughter to see depictions of all different kinds of heroes (and villains, frankly), and seeing my son dressed up like Kylo Ren (even though he has never seen the film) interact with the costumed adults at the Children's Museum last weekend who came dressed up as Rey, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader, it crystallized how important Rey and Finn are. I saw little kids dressed up as Rey and Finn and others, and before that would not have been possible (or it just would have been more limited). Today, a little girl or boy can want to be Rey or Finn, just like Luke or Han or Leia or Lando, and that makes our universe a little bit better, a little bit more inclusive, a little bit brighter, I think. Yes.

The bottom line is that I loved the Ewok song "Yub Nub" at the end of Return of the Jedi.  I loved the wordless reunions of old friends and family, the hugging and the dancing.  The feeling after the lighting of Darth Vader's body on fire of completion. The nodding of Luke Skywalker to the ghosts of Jedis past who will remain watching him. The sucker punch of Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, for me, is realizing that story continues, and, in this artist's view and in these films, all did not end as well as it seemed in Return of the Jedi. Was it a pyrrhic victory? The Empire survived and thrived, the Jedi were not strong enough to overcome them or themselves, and the characters who seemed destined to be happy together ultimately were not. Those revelations are going to take some getting used to because I have been living with a happy ending for thirty-three years. I am willing to work to get there, and I think the wordless finale of Episode Seven: The Force Awakens offers some pretty great tantalizing hope for more balance to the Force in the future.

By my count, this makes four great Star Wars movies to three minor ones. And there is another.


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