Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

That sound you heard was a collective sigh of relief from super nerds and casual fans everywhere. We have been patiently waiting, but doing so with reluctance and a constant, superstitious circle of denial.  "It will probably be disappointing," we would say, "we need to lower our expectations and brace ourselves for it to be bad."  So we couldn't let ourselves get too excited, we'd been burned before - by Jar Jar Binks, too much space bureaucracy, actors who acted in a void - and that sort of heartbreak leaves scars.  The resurrected franchise needed to be good, and - more than that - it needed to be taken back, reclaimed as the magical thing it was.  Star Wars transcends the place of most pop cultural monoliths in that it is so intricately woven into the fabrics of so many of our childhoods.

The original trilogy is not a mere collection of movies, it is an idea, a dream, a feeling, a game, a bond, a series of of memories, a contemporary mythology, a fairy tale.  For many of us, Star Wars is a part of our daily language and a means we have of recognizing figures in our world. Though our re-watches may be few and far between, and those original films have been retooled and tampered with in ways that make us unsure just what was what, we have a feeling of these films as important texts only to be used for good.  To dare to return to this galaxy is to take on a very great responsibility. George Lucas himself did not know how to do it, but, thankfully, J.J. Abrams does.  We voyage back, we see the same eyes in different people, we gaze upon planets that have changed even as they have remained the same, we see the cycles of history repeat.

I am as relieved as everyone else has been to report that The Force Awakens is good. Really good.  38 years after A New Hope we return to a space that we recognize, and to people that we care about.  There's Han Solo (Harrison Ford), *General* Leia (Carrie Fisher),  and the elusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), sure, but what's even more important is that the canon of characters we're invested in doubles from the opening moments on.   We meet Finn: a sensitive Stormtrooper in the midst of a moral crisis (John Boyega), Rey: a brave, noble scavenger (Daisy Ridley),  BB-8: a lovable new droid, and Poe: a relentlessly positive Resistance pilot (Oscar Isaac).  The miracle is that we love them all immediately, the trick is somewhere between their casting and their automatic narrative relevance.  

All of the newcomers offer strong performances. They are scrappy, playful figures who spring into action and deliver their dialogue with both naïveté and that ounce of snark that made the original cast so fun to watch.  As the narrative builds and revelations unfold, we find we care about these characters.  We want them to survive, to team up, to be friends without the adult complications or politics that bogged down the prequels.  Abrams keeps them there. He allows the characters to become friends and to begin their relationships in ways that speak to a basic human decency.  The distance from the oral histories of the first trilogy allows characters like Rey and Finn to feel much like fans even as they are a sort of fan creation.  They have grown up on tales of Luke Skywalker's successes and know the stats on the Millennium Falcon. It is part of their history, too, and so we identify with them as the gape and encounter the figures we long to see.  The distance is a brilliant stroke, and while their are - of course- family ties to be uncovered in this new trilogy, it is important that our heroes are bright eyed outsiders. 
While I won't get into spoilers, The Force Awakens sets the stage for a new moral battle.  The Dark Side is rising once again, this time in the form of the Third Reich-esque First Order.  Its most prominent figure here is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a helmeted figure who turns to the idea of Vader to guide his hand and who answers to one of the film's weakest elements, a very tired looking CG figures called Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  We don't have to fully understand what the First Order wants to understand that they can't be allowed to have it, and that's the case with much in this return to form.  The narrative is lightning fast, the action sequences cement expository moments together with the strongest of glues,  and the storytelling is as fleet-footed as it gets.  We understand everything without having to be hit over the head with complications.  This is in part due to the fact that The Force Awakens uses our knowledge of those past films to its advantage, that it plays with our nostalgia to acquaint us a with a familiar kind of new.  Yet, it is also because the story is just that simple. The hero's journey has been rewritten, the map has been drawn, we reenter the storybook once again.

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