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26.12.15

REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (film)

Don't worry, no spoilers here - at least none that will specifically give away plot points.  What you will find here is a lamentation of the state of the film arts and the decline of culture.

Let's get the obligatory part out of the way.  The film, Star Wars 7, for brevity, is a competently crafted Hollywood schlockbuster.  It is designed to get as many warm, paying butts in theater seats as possible before folks realize they've been ripped off.  I saw the film yesterday at a 3p showing in a nearly empty theater on Christmas Eve in a busy suburban mall.  Looks like folks are catching on.

Contrast that to the original film (which I will call 1, because it was first).  I was a 14-year-old geek beginning to discover my love of theater arts and film.  I saw Star Wars 1 something like 76 times in the theater.  I was smitten with the film.  It was a frisky romp through Western mythology with mind-popping effects only 2001: A Space Odyssey had ever brought to the screen, only this wasn't the surreal and esoteric vision of Kubrick, but a fun-filled adventure only incidentally set in space.

The new film, sadly, is little more than a recap of the first three films, with one major twist thrown in.  The film is moody and sullen, with all the joy and adventure carved out of it and warmed-up leftovers for characters.  There was no thrill of reuniting with familiar characters, no empathy with the new ones, and little more than a rehash of the original antagonist, but with the menace only vaguely sprinkled in.

The reheated Darth Vader is revealed little more than half way into the film.  There is no build up, no surprise relationships that stretched over a decade of three films, as in the original series.  Instead, there is nearly an instant reveal and a somewhat shocking incident that hardly allowed any drama to build, especially given that the incident should have been much more powerful, had it been allowed to grow organically.  Instead, the incident was forced and my first thoughts were that they threw away a key character for shock value and likely because the contracts were too expensive.

The only standout in the entire film was Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, and like the character's name, she was a ray of relief in an otherwise burdensome two hours.  She had depth and there were moments when one could actually see revelations coming upon her, no matter how much JJ Abrams tried to beat us over the head with them.

To summarize the major plot points, I need do no more than this:

  • Old Han, Luke, Leah, Chewie, droids...check
  • New Han, Luke, Leah, droids, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Vader, Emperor...check
  • Death Star...check
  • Desert, ice and forest planets...check
  • X-wing, Y-wing and TIE fighters, and Millennium Falcon...check
  • Droids carrying valuable information to the good guys...check
  • Set-ups for gaming to be released soon...check
In other words, nothing new but a couple of minor twists.  We learn nothing about what the old characters have been doing for 30 years.  We learn nothing of any consequence about the new characters.  JJ Abrams did a magnificent job of going nowhere, much as he did in the second Star Trek reboot.  The most positive thing I can say is that this film blows the second trilogy out of the water, in terms of acting and writing.  But that's akin to saying after eating a shit sandwich, three-day-old meatloaf tastes pretty good.

This film brings back some of the life of the original series, but it's just warmed over retreads.  For all the money and hype this project received, I would have expected - and dearly enjoyed - a whole new direction...some originality...a bit of the glee and wide-eyed fun of the first films.  Challenge me, please!

Alas, this film falls far short of anything but rescuing the franchise from the last trilogy.  We can only hope that this was a 2-hour obligatory exposition to set up something better to come.

The problem is, once franchises like this get petrified by "canon," writers, producers and directors are loathe to set outside the formula for fear of damaging the psyches of fans who project their identities onto stories like this.  However, the thing that made a 14-year-old kid ride his bike to the cinema and spend entire Saturdays watching endless repeats of Star Wars 1 was that it was original and broke all the molds up to that point.  It stepped far outside the norms with classic story-telling and timeless characters.

In summary, all the gravy and spices in the cabinet don't make reheated leftovers fresh again.  Come on, JJ, quit repaving the worn paths.  Take a daring jump into something fresh and new.