Movie review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

kristan-benson-starwars-xwings

“This is the ship that made the Kessel Run in fourteen parsecs?”

“TWELVE!”

My third grade class descended on the local mall on a glorious spring Monday morning in 1983 like a swarm of army ants, on a school-sanctioned field trip to see Return of the Jedi. The powers that be felt it would be the most efficient way to sate the thermonuclear excitement of a bunch of little hellions, and possibly the only ruse by which to attempt to focus their attention on schoolwork the entire rest of the week. Breathless speculation at the bus stop morphed into giddy anticipation on the rides both to and from school, before giving way to unalloyed joy in the movie theater. Afterward, we ate lunch at McDonald’s and played, en masse and single-minded, at a local park, pretending the wooden fort, with its suspension bridge, slides, and turrets, was Jabba the Hutt’s opulent pleasure barge, and that a giant rock jutting out of the ground just past the line separating sand from grass was the skiff from which Luke, Han, and Chewie were supposed to sacrifice themselves to the great and powerful Sarlacc…but rebelled. I slept in the implied safety and near-swaddling embrace of an Empire Strikes Back bedroom suit that saw me all the way through childhood. In my bedroom alcove, just theoretically wide enough to fit two chest-high bookshelves face to face and wedge a gawky tween in between them, I turned the exposed imitation wood shelf tops into theaters of perpetual war, pitting the Galactic Empire against the Rebellion – or, rather, the intricately detailed, now little-remembered “Micro Collection” playsets of the Episode IV Death Star vs. the Episode V Hoth Base respectively, plus a miniature TIE Fighter and X-Wing and a couple dozen diecast figurines representing both factions – guns frozen in place, drawn and trained at the enemy force across the great walkway divide.

force awakensBefore I was a fan of anything else – when the jury was still officially out on puppies and blue skies – I loved Star Wars. I always imagined that one day the story would be picked up and carried forward, and I know what the fuel-injected anticipation of sedentary ages upon ages can do to a man. I remember well sitting in an overflowing movie theater in 1999 as the closing credits of Episode I: The Phantom Menace ran and the music swelled, and we all cheered in response…wildly…every last one of us. We were too invested in the moment to consider doing anything else. This is now our moment, Star Wars fans, the one we’ve waited for, thirty-two years in the making. We should cherish it, because, with our benevolent overlords of Walt already threatening happy – almost inevitably diminishing – cinematic returns to George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away every year like clockwork from now until approximately the end of time, it may be our last opportunity to imagine quite so vividly, to cheer quite so lustily, to hold onto our hats quite so tightly, to test the edge architecture of our seats quite so rigorously. It’s entirely possible that the Star Wars experience won’t ever be fully allowed to sour, but nor, almost certainly, will it ever be sweeter than it is this very moment. Seize it and breathe it in. If our future is to be one of endless, ceaseless hype surrounding films that increasingly have to struggle to not simply bleed together into one unbroken collective, then at least with Episode VII: The Force Awakens the series’ new custodians – director J.J. Abrams, executive producer Kathleen Kennedy, veteran screenwriter (as in of the greatest film ever, Episode V) Lawrence Kasdan – are intent on putting their best foot forward.

Episode VII begins some thirty years after the end of Return of the Jedi, at a period in galactic history when, following the dissolution of the Empire, rogue elements intent on destroying the new Galactic Republic and its dedicated resistance fighters have coalesced into an updated, almost terroristic new age representation called The First Order – complete with mildly retouched Imperial Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers, TIE Fighters, terrifying secret weapons, shadowy enforcers (masked, lightsaber-wielding Kylo Ren, played by Girls star Adam Driver as a malevolent, full-tilt enigma), and the whole nine. Into this ongoing, escalating, interplanetary fray are thrown two orphans, Rey (the previously unknown Daisy Ridley), a fiery, self-sufficient junk scavenger on the remote planet of Jakku, and Finn (Attack the Block’s John Boyega), a First Order Stormtrooper who, afflicted with a crisis of conscience, deserts his unit and, despite his understandable desire to run, finds himself instead drawn deeper into a struggle that counts among its number conscientious, hot shot X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac) along with a cavalcade of older, far more familiar faces. Ridley’s mysterious Rey is the central figure here, a sort of Luke Skywalker dreamer in the desert type whisked away from the only life she’s known by implacable forces, only some of which, it turns out, are beyond her control. It’s smart storytelling to pair her with the runaway trooper Finn, whose crippling self-doubt slowly recedes and is replaced by a determination to make a difference, and to hold up war hero Dameron as a faraway inspiration toward achievement for both of them. Isaac is the most accomplished actor of the trio, and, not surprisingly, does the most with the least. Ridley and Boyega play their characters as plucky, never entirely overwhelmed, emotional open books. Their energy is infectious, and informs the production.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens meets the gargantuan hype and, frankly, impossible expectations of the world’s most extensive and passionate fan base head on and emerges largely triumphant, though hardly unscathed. In some ways, Abrams et. al. have a much trickier assignment with this sequel trilogy than Lucas did with the prequels. Episode VII is at once a transitional story and a completely new beginning, and walks a tricky line between fan service and story service by immersing its fresh-faced, practically cipher, protagonists in the intoxicating trappings of the greater series – white knuckle widescreen visuals, unparalleled sound and production design, the iconic score, instant, potent, bottomless nostalgia summoned on command – and counting on them not to drown, marrying characters with no history at all to characters with extensive histories that can be recited from memory by the entire audience. It’s an uneasy partnership throughout. I spent the early going of Force Awakens waiting impatiently for an established hero to take the stage, to the detriment of the kids the film was so clearly invested in, and only when I finally gained a measure of interest in their struggles did the worlds I’d come in expecting dramatically collide. Episode VII introduces a few too many elements a bit too quickly and/or perfunctorily*, routinely losing its balance at various points along the way, but is a rousing, rollicking space epic of a vintage and pedigree not seen since its trio of immediate (official, not chronological) predecessors, and also an interesting treatise on generational tension and the power and allure of myth.

*When the force “awakens” in “The Force Awakens”, it does so with a disconcerting, comprehensive suddenness that belies its essential nature as something that, I was to understand, normally requires not merely natural attunement but a certain rare breed of attitude augmented by a lifetime of study. Oh well, somebody had to be available for the climactic lightsaber duel, a throat-grabbing and uncommonly savage affair that reduces a great swath of snowswept forest to so much firewood.

The signature elements of Star Wars are all at play here, and, in terms of visual splendor and choreography, fairly spectacular. There are land battles and air battles, space battles and lightsaber battles, and not a one I found lacking. Having already accomplished what amounted to a comprehensive, if inadvertent, info dump pertaining to new/returning characters, scraps of background, locales, general tone and tenor of action, etc., all well before the movie’s debut, Abrams does his darnedest in the moment to tweak and surprise his audience with little details instead of big ideas, and most always succeeds. His answer on how to open the film now that it is officially a Disney tent pole and can no longer co-opt the 20th Century Fox fanfare is elegant and spine-tingling in its way, and the incomparable John Williams’ score is commanding and magnificent throughout. The screenplay brings together its disparate, far-flung characters and turns them into allies in plausible ways. Callbacks to the original trilogy, especially A New Hope, abound, but are handled with grace, wit, and flair. Of the beloved, returning “coot and codger” brigade, Harrison Ford as the iconic Han Solo logs the most screen time by far, and seems surprisingly content in the Corellian smuggler’s boots, given his famously complicated if not contentious relationship with the character that first rocketed him to stardom. It’s a real kick to see Solo back in his fast-talking smuggler’s element again, particularly in a scene where he finds himself the center of unwelcome attention from competing gangsters. Ford delivers perhaps the only 360-degree performance in the entire movie, which is disappointing but understandable given his character’s cache in the greater series. In terms of story structure, Episode VII isn’t quite the mirror of A New Hope that Episode I was, but the similarities are still numerous and striking – beyond the suspicion that The First Order bought all its equipment at an Imperial yard sale, the desert wastes of Jakku are a dead ringer for Tattooine, except somehow even less hospitable. There’s also the introduction of a heroic new droid – the rolling BB-8, who sets new a new standard in cuteness and relatability for something that lacks either the power of discernable speech or a face – not one but two fully computer-generated characters, one benevolent (played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) and one malevolent (played by CGI O.G. Andy Serkis), neither of which is particularly grating or wholly believable, and, of course, a new, desperate assault on a monolithic intergalactic superweapon. If it all feels overly familiar, that’s surely part of the point.

The First Order sure looks and feels uncannily like the old Empire, with perhaps a less transparent chain of command, and the Resistance, a combat initiative sponsored by the new Galactic Republic, hardly even needed a name change, bearing, as it does, Rebellion emblems, piloting Rebellion ships, and employing Rebellion lifers as top brass. Philosophically, The First Order seems a bit more brutish and “hands-on” than the Empire ever was, less resonant personally and harder for me to make sense of. An insurgent organization against the Republic, introduced here mid-action as an established and powerful entity, not unlike how the Empire opened Episode IV already in partial bloom and grasping for more, The First Order is basically a horde of imperial wannabes shot through with the pageantry and martial grandeur of the 1940s Nazi Party. Though it would likely have been impossible to shoehorn into a movie that is already charged with updating an entire universe, introducing three completely new protagonists, and honoring a Hall of Fame class of returning heroes, the lack of context or backstory for The First Order reduces it to an almost cartoonish, singlemindedly evil entity, intent to scour the galaxy of seemingly everyone. One doesn’t necessarily come to Star Wars expecting nuance, but, at any rate, I never understood The First Order’s master plan to consist of anything other than wanton, indiscriminate destruction, or its leadership ranks to feature much beyond ratlike sycophants. Give me Grand Moff Tarkin or even Captain Needa any day. As TFO’s powerful figurehead, Kylo Ren is easily the most immediately volatile and conflicted villain the series has seen, but lacks, through no true fault of his own, the steady, imposing, unalloyed menace of a prime Vader or even Episode I’s Darth Maul. I can already sense where the brain trust intends to take this character – indeed, complete arcs for multiple characters are theoretically chartable even in these early stages – and I heartily approve, but in the establishing episode of a new trilogy, history suggests the wisdom of playing the high card over the wild card. In terms of pure, interstellar evil, you want the Ace of Spades, not the Joker.

If The Force Awakens, through overwhelming force of marketing, should become the first entry in the cinematic Star Wars saga to have its impact and sense of wonder preemptively dimmed or muted even for a small majority of fans, that would be unfortunate but poetic in a way. We tend to be a highly impatient and feverishly expectant lot, hungry for information yet apoplectic at the merest hint of spoilers. In today’s film arena, those two conditions are both facts of life and at almost intractable cross purposes.** Director Abrams, doing his triathlon press tour even as Disney carpet bombed audiences with one Force Awakens TV spot after another, with each 15-second montage generally consisting of a new arrangement of slightly different shots from one of four or five set piece battles, protested loudly and often that he wanted to retain some mystery in advance of the film’s opening, and maybe that was even his true, noble intention. Still and all, so versed was I in internet chatter, all the breathless media previews (rollingstone.com succeeded in spoiling one fun cameo for me weeks before I saw the movie) – if, intentionally, not the accompanying speculation – and, especially, the trailers, teasers, and TV spots (so much so that I finally called an official moratorium on new footage two weeks ahead of time), I was able to predict with relative ease most every story beat with two notable exceptions. One was a crucial piece of character detail and the other a movie-turning event. I found the former increasingly interesting in its implications the further along the film went, while I telegraphed the latter a good thirty minutes before it happened.

**Whatever one might’ve eventually thought about “The Phantom Menace”, based on the contents of its single, excellent theatrical trailer – which dropped in late 1998 and was a seismic, evening news-worthy pop culture event at the time – no one could much tell what the hell it was going to be about. I know, because I recorded said trailer during its “world premiere” following an episode of “Entertainment Tonight” or somesuch, and rewatched the thing at least 100 times in a feeble attempt at dissection.

Neither detracted much from my enjoyment of the movie overall, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my small mountain of accumulated knowledge rendered certain elements of The Force Awakens anticlimactic in the moment, however well done they may have been. This is one of the most kinetic films in recent memory, a treasure trove of tremendous visual moments, pulled and tickled heartstrings, gorgeous vistas, arguably the darkest, most gut-level and visceral action portfolio of the entire series, and sustained sequences of utterly delirious fun almost beyond counting. Audiences deserve the opportunity to experience the movie with fresh eyes and minimal preconceptions, and, in certain ways, they’ve both been robbed (by a giant mouse in white gloves and red shorts) and, perversely enough, robbed themselves of that privilege. I’m fairly certain my own estimation of the Episode VII is going to grow substantially on repeat viewings. Now that the initial hurdle of waiting and obsessing has been cleared, I’m pretty excited to get on with it. For all the just (and unjust) derision he has endured for his choices over the last thirty years, George Lucas is a singular, epic filmmaker, on technical par, I’d venture, with Steven Spielberg and pretty much no other name that springs to mind. Sure, he’s an inveterate tinkerer who will never, ever leave well enough alone. I hated Anakin’s inane, insufferable emo-kid dialogue and every liquid ounce of Jar Jar Binks as much as anyone, but still found the prequels terrifically interesting and frequently involving. Lucas’ problems tended to come from the realms of construction and execution, but I could never, ever fault his imagination.

For all the squeals of delight that met the news that Lucas had been deposed, what the Bad Robot version of Star Wars basically accomplishes is to flip his script perfectly, trading in imagination for execution. For better and worse, it’s noticeable early on that the franchise is under new management, but is it demonstrably better? The Force Awakens has a sure-footedness and economy of movement that plays like an echo of an echo of the original trilogy and was sorely lacking in the bugnuts prequels. It also has trump cards to play in terms of innate audience connection and several high profile favors to call in. Contrary to the eyecatching opinions of an internet chorus of righteous fools, it isn’t the best sequel to Star Wars, or the second, or possibly even third, just the most recent, which has afforded it a near overpowering “new car smell” in terms of general consensus (last I checked, IMDb ranked it the #21 movie of all time by popular acclimation). One senses that when the dust settles, it will age better and maintain its resonance a good bit more than have the prequels, if not ever truly measure up to the foundational originals it so clearly wishes to emulate. The good news is that the underlying craft is sound, and the storytelling instincts, and that once Finn and Rey and Poe are able to fully assume the mantle of a new generation and make Star Wars their own, I see every indication that their adventures might rank with the greats. The Force Awakens is an effortlessly stirring yet overworked running head start on better things to come, the sort that might just allow you to reconnect with that little third grade boy or girl you once were, playing jedi games on top of an overgrown playground rock.

“Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015) 3/4 stars                                           dae3.0

Editor’s note (12/22): The above review tells a crucial part but not the entire story. It was written in the aftermath of a preview showing as the culmination of a year and a half’s worth of ceaseless hype and inescapable build-up occurring both in and outside of my head. With my critic’s hat on, I picked at the movie relentlessly that first night, even as I still had a very nice time overall. In retrospect, my initial reaction, though genuine, was colored in a few too many respects by the moment and by all the speculation that had preceded it. I saw “The Force Awakens” again earlier this afternoon with my father and had the closest thing to a magical experience that a movie has afforded me in some time. Knowing the secrets ahead of time did nothing to dim their impacts, and, freed of my imagined journalistic responsibilities and near-crippling expectations, I was able to relax and lose myself in the film, which was so much better the second time around. The John Williams score had me misty-eyed by the end. I’m going to do my best to limit my advance info on Episode VIII to the full trailer and not much else, because I do think there comes a point where advance information passes into the realm of critical, if not terminal, overload. It’s so much more fun to bring your sense of discovery to a movie like this instead of inadvertently making it wait in the car…

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