Friday, December 25, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Directed by JJ Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaacs, Lupita Nyongo’o

I went into this film with a lot of high hopes and excitement, but I knew it would never live up to the very first Star Wars film. How could it? I was 17 when I saw the original Star Wars. It was unlike any film I had ever seen before. It was the first film I ever spent my own money to see in a theater more than once. It’s the only film I’ve ever seen in a theater more than three times. That’s a big legacy to live up to.

This film was also released in an atmosphere of massive anticipation, with an accompanying social media and advertising blitz. I read numerous online articles speculating about it, saw hundreds of still photos, and watched many behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube. In the weeks leading up to its release I saw at least a half-dozen different trailers. Yet somehow I managed to find the movie full of surprises.


I’ll start from the beginning. The film opens with the classic introductory title “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” followed by a title crawl. The crawl mentions that the best pilot in the Resistance has been sent to find Luke Skywalker. I took that statement to be a wink at the audience, likely indicating that the “best pilot” was Han Solo, since I knew Harrison Ford was in the film. But the movie promptly proved me wrong by introducing a new character, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs). The trailers had also led me to believe that the franchise’s newest adorable droid, BB-8, belonged to main new female protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley). But immediately this was also disproved when Poe Dameron was seen with BB-8, treating the droid as his best companion.

The film went on to shatter almost every preconception I had about it. I had expected Han Solo’s role to be small, due to the desire to focus on the new characters Rey and Finn (John Boyega), and Harrison Ford’s age. But Han was an important part of much of the story. I expected Leia’s role to be larger than it was. I expected Luke to show up earlier and have some dialogue. I expected to see more of C-3PO and R2-D2. I expected Rey to be related to the original characters somehow (she still may be), but there was certainly no indication of that in this movie. I expected Finn to also be a Force user because he was shown using a lightsaber in the trailers, but no one commented on that (so either lightsabers can be used by anyone, or he is a Force-sensitive but none of the other Force-sensitive characters cared to say anything about it). I expected Finn’s reason for abandoning his stormtrooper armor to be different. I expected Kylo Ren’s true identity to come as a horrible surprise to Han Solo and General Leia. I spent a lot of the movie thinking, “Oh, wow, so that’s what happens!” and grinning.

I also found myself pleased and amused by how well this movie stuck to the style of the original trilogy. In many ways it felt as though Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Episode VII: Return of the Jedi had been mashed together. A young person living on a desert planet was suddenly taken away aboard the Millenium Falcon to be introduced to a whole new life. She learned the ways of the Force in a very short time. She fought a black-clad masked villain and overcame him. A young man abandoned his former life to join the fight against a repressive regime, and helped his new friends to destroy an ultimate weapon of mass destruction. I’m sure there many people out there who found this annoying, in the same way they disliked how director JJ Abrams re-worked the iconic Spock death scene from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan in his film Star Trek: Into Darkness. But I enjoy that kind of storytelling, taking an existing tale and twisting it a little, letting the viewer see it from a different perspective. I liked seeing how Abrams and his team did that in this movie, and yet did it very respectfully with the same kind of characterizations, plot elements, and dialogue as in the original films.

But this movie, like its predecessors, is part of a continuing saga, and the new production team wisely left lots of questions yet to be answered. Why was Rey on Jakku, and who are her parents? Why is she so strong in the Force? How did she learn to use it so quickly with no one to teach her? How was Finn able to overcome his lifelong conditioning and rebel against the First Order? What happened to Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma when the planet started to implode? What has Luke Skywalker been doing all the years he’s been missing? What will he say to Rey? I want answers, and I’ll be waiting eagerly for the next installment to answer some of them. The original film made me want more, and this film made me want more. I’d say that’s a success.

Don't Spoil It For Me

Author's note: I wrote this blog about a month ago, but hadn't posted it yet. It seemed appropriate now that I've actually seen the movie in question.

In less than a month the seventh Star Wars film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, will arrive on theater screens. In this era of social media, I know a lot more about this upcoming film than I knew about the original Star Wars when I saw it in 1977. In the ‘70s we were lucky to see one or two trailers for a film, and typically you only saw a trailer in the theater, during the previews that ran before the feature film began. There might have been a few magazine articles in magazines for film industry professionals, or in some of the sci fi genre ‘zines like Starlog, but I didn’t have access to those. I didn’t know much about Star Wars beyond that it was a sci fi film when I walked into a theater in Lubbock, Texas to see it for the first time.

As the release date for The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve seen innumerable articles on websites, and if I followed more people on Twitter I would probably have seen hundreds of tweets. I’ve seen many photos. There have been many tv ads and several trailers. I should be feeling as though I already know the plot of the film. But I don’t. Some of that is down to good editing; the television spots and trailers have managed to avoid giving away too many details. Some of my continued feeling of wide-eyed anticipation is down to my optimism. I hope that this film will regain some of the charm that the ‘prequel’ films lost. I’m excited to see the main characters from the original film brought back to the big screen. And despite any disappointment the prequels may have caused, I’m eager to see more of that imaginary universe.

But some of the reason I don’t feel all this media coverage is spoiling the movie is that no one can spoil a movie for me, not even by telling me the entire plot. I’ve heard complaints in recent years that social media and the movie studios’ push to use social media to get potential viewers excited about their products have ruined any sense of anticipation for movies. Sometimes I would agree with that sentiment, especially when a studio decides to release a trailer that appears to include all of the important plot developments. I don’t want a trailer to give the whole story away, even if that won’t prevent me from seeing the movie anyway. Occasionally this type of reveal will tell me that a movie I thought I might want to see isn’t really my cup of tea. But most of the time I feel that all this information just whets my appetite if the film is one that I genuinely wanted to see from the first time I heard about it.

Let me explain this further by describing how I choose a book in a library or bookstore. First, I look at the cover blurb to see if it describes a type of story that I think I would enjoy reading. Then, I read a bit of the first page to see if I like the writing style. After that I take a look at a page or two somewhere in the midsection, to find out if the writing style is consistent throughout and doesn’t make a dramatic turn to something darker or less accessible. Then I read some of the last page to see if I like how it ends.

That’s right, I read the end. That part horrifies my spouse, who thinks that knowing how the story ends before reading it is ruinous. But for me, it’s a guarantee that the author is taking the story somewhere I want to go. Most of the time I find that the final page of a book doesn’t give away all the most important plot developments. It doesn’t tell me everyone who lived or died, or what they did between the first page and the last. That’s how I feel about reading/seeing/hearing information about a movie before I see it, too. Just because I know all of the characters and general plot elements doesn’t mean I know everything that happens in the film. Even if someone else watches the film and gives me a detailed description of it, I still won’t feel that they ruined it for me, because what that person got out of the movie and what my experiences and values will lead me to derive from it may be completely different.

Based on all of the information I’ve received about The Force Awakens thus far, this is what I think I know:
There’s a man named Finn, who at some point in the story wears stormtrooper armor. There’s a woman named Rey who is on a desert planet similar to Tatooine. Han Solo and Leia appear. Han Solo talks to Finn and Rey. Chewbacca is seen with Han Solo, and they appear to be flying the Millenium Falcon through the interior of a crashed star destroyer. R2-D2 also appears, but not with any of the other familiar characters. A person who has a prosthetic hand is seen touching R2-D2, but the person’s face is not visible. There’s a person wearing a helmet reminiscent of Darth Vader’s helmet. There are stormtroopers. There is Darth Vader’s actual helmet, which appears to have melted. There is a dark-robed figure with a red lightsaber shaped like a sword. There are some mysterious voiceovers mentioning the Force, but we never see who is speaking. Rey and Finn seem to be involved in some fights, at least one of them in a snowy landscape.

If one reads the information available online, one will learn that the person in the Vader-like helmet with the red lightsaber is Kylo Ren, but nothing in the trailer tells you that. Online sources also state that Finn is a stormtrooper with some type of organization that is trying to preserve the Empire. The trailers don’t tell you that, either. Based on my knowledge of the prior films, I speculate that the person with the prosthetic hand that touches R2-D2 is Luke Skywalker, because I know Mark Hamill is appearing in the film even though he isn’t seen in any of the ads or trailers. I know he probably survives this film, or at least survives to become a ghost like Obi-Wan Kenobi, because I saw a tweet from Mark Hamill stating that he’s had to re-grow his contractually obligated beard, which he had shaved to appear in another part.

Now based on all that information in the preceding two paragraphs, how much do I really know about this film? I don’t know who Finn and Rey are or how they meet each other, or how they meet Han Solo. I don’t know what Han and Leia and Luke and Chewie and R2-D2 have been doing for the past 40 years of Star Wars Universe time. I don’t know who Kylo Ren is. I don’t know who the forces involved in the combats are, or what they’re fighting about. I don’t know the beginning, the middle, or the end of this story, so I know less than I would if I were buying this as a book. I know just enough to make me excited to see it. So the trailers and ads and tweets and blogs have done their job, and all these glimpses have not spoiled my anticipation to see this movie.