Monday, December 21, 2015

A New New Hope

The following typage is about Star Wars Episode VII. If you haven't seen it yet, don't read on until you have.

A beautiful poster as always, even if it does rely on the now standard red vs. blue contrast trope. 

If you're still with me, you've felt the awakening. The franchise's return to the light side of the Force. For the first time since 1983, longer than I have been on this rock, we have a new Star Wars movie. There has been plenty of other legitimate Star Wars stuff, some great expanded universe novels, a couple excellent video games, and some decent kids' shows. But the prequels and Lucas' edits to the original trilogy are things that misapprehend his own universe so profoundly that the world appears to curdle on screen. So I was worried that the franchise had gone the way of Palpatine rather than Vader. But JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have restored balance. Watching TFA, I felt the same unqualified joy I felt watching those first three films as a kid, waving around a flashlight like a lightsaber. Now that the credits have rolled, I want to know what is going to happen next. And I want to spend more time with these people, aliens, and droids.

That's the greatest victory I think. To my eye, Star Wars has always been about the characters. Their individual motivations and arcs drive the plot more than the titular war. That backdrop lends gravity and dressing to the individual characters' arc, but I always felt a stronger pull to Luke's trajectory as a Jedi or Vader's enigmatic presence than the fate of the rebellion or the ambitions of the Empire. Leia and the droids are really the only ones who are consistently dedicated to the cause, and even they end up putting aside the war long enough to rescue Han. Those personal motivations are once again at the foreground of Star Wars storytelling.

Rey (Skywalker?) comes to rival Darth Vader as the most badass character in all of Star Wars by revealing herself as a Jedi, and coming to captain the Millennium Falcon in the course of one film. Let's actually take a minute to talk about Daisy Ridley. Somebody handed her a platform and the expectation to be a role model for millions of girls around the world hot on the heels of characters like Imperator Furiosa and Katniss Everdeen, as well as the weight of a billion dollar franchise riding on your shoulders. Imagine that pressure. Imagine the self-doubt. And watch as she hits it out of the fucking park. Her lines were good, her scenes were good, but her performance made them real. Character-wise, she might be a little bit too awesome straight out of the gate. On her first at-bats, she mind tricks a stormtrooper (with an amazing "I am using the Force now" voice), out mind-melds Kylo Ren, and beats him in a saber duel without any kind of training. I always said I would raise my hypothetical daughter to be Han Solo. Now I am raising her to be Rey. Also, listen to this theme:

Finn has a crisis of conscience, immediately followed by a infatuation with Rey. I really like that inversion of Han's arc. An initial desire for personal growth helps establish him as a deuteragonist as opposed to a Lancer like Han. Boyega's comedy game is a little stronger than his dramatic delivery, but I always found him charming and convincing. Very curious to see where his character will go now that his spine has been raked with a plasma club.

People have been divided on the Sith formerly known as Ben (Organa? Solo?). He is a very different beast than Vader, and that is a good thing, because a straight up imitation would be doomed to failure. Some of my friends feel that he is a little too whiny; a problem compounded by goofy ears, and identity pollution with his tenure on Girls. Having seen all of 1.5 episodes of Girls this didn't really bug me, and I think that the signature Skywalker whininess works much better as a villainous trait than a heroic one. Cruelty and anger stemming from insecurity are very believable (and pertinent) breeds of evil, and I love the fact that he is already conflicted as a villain, feeling the pull from the light side of the force. And even though it is telegraphed a mile away, him killing Han was poignant and a meaningful point of character development.

We don't get to spend much time with Poe Dameron, the guy who I think will become this trilogy's Han (now that Han is gone), but what time he has is solid from the first line. Good deadpan and he really sells the fighter ace enthusiasm too. Captain Phasma was a bit of a disappointment, as we get to spend all of two minutes with her, but there is potential there.

And BB-8. Holy shit. So good. For better or ill, Star Wars has a legacy of cuteness in each film, and the little soccer ball-esque droid fulfills the quotient in a way that is neither excessive, offensive, or cursory. He occupies Artoo's role from the first film as a living McGuffin, catalyzes Rey's first act of heroism, and delivers one of the best sight gags ever. If you didn't smile at the lighter thumbs up, get yourself checked out. Not sure for what exactly; have the doctors keep looking until they find a serious problem.

It was good to see Han again. Better still to see him off. Harrison had a brilliant role, he got one hell of a send off, and apparently his character has an anthology movie on the horizon. He also wanted to die at the end of Empire so this seems like a fitting conclusion. Fisher didn't have too much screen time, and it should be some kind of crime that Mark Hamill got second billing, but I look forward to the roles they will play in Episode VIII, and possibly beyond, provided they continue to cede the spotlight to the new generation of heroes.

Like I said, all awesome characters. People I want to adventure with. An outer space D&D party I want to be a part of. That is the most crucial ingredient for a genuine Star Wars experience. And the prequels lost sight of that.

Another tremendously pleasing element of the film was its raw physicality. Elaborate costumes, richly dressed sets, practical explosions, and stellar make up made for a more believable world. Even amidst the intense dog-fighting and saber battling sequences, the film never took the dizzying plunge into the Wachowski-esque CGI hellscape that typified episodes I through III, and even a few of the more recent installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hopefully this will trigger a sea-change in similar blockbusters.

The visual effects aren't the only reason I'm glad I saw this in theaters (twice). John Williams' did the score, and once again stuns with his genius. But the sound effects are also incredible. Scenes where Kylo Ren tries to break into other characters' minds are almost entirely carried by the sound. Instead of looking at some dude extending his hands, you can feel the force pressing against you.

From a franchising perspective, the other fascinating thing about TFA is that it is the first film that I've seen which manages the weird hat trick of being a simultaneous reboot/remake/sequel. Terminator Genisys made an attempt this summer and failed miserably. The Prometheus sequel seems to be angling for the same thing as evidenced by re-framing itself an official Alien prequel. It's easy to understand why studios want to remake, reboot, and continue to serialize all at once; that execution is all things to all people. But it's a difficult paradox to pull off. How do you reboot continuity while advancing it? How do you remake something while managing to take the series in a new direction? If the movie falls short anywhere, that secondary point is probably it's biggest shortcoming. The film really is a new take on A New Hope, with a fresh cast and some more modern sensibilities.

It plays things very safe. Too safe, in at least one regard. In his effort to back away from the expository politicking of the prequel trilogy, JJ failed to sell the threat of Starkiller base, or emphasize the tragedy of the Republic's destruction.

This should be a really big problem. It should also be very sad. It is neither.

The galaxy is once again without a central government. Coruscant, the apex of galactic civilization, has been obliterated. On a personal scale, everything the rebels fought for in the first movie has been undone, and billions upon billions of people are dead. But there is no build up. The atrocity plays out of over a montage's worth of screen time, and worst of all, we are given no time to care. There are reaction shots from our heroes, none of whom have personal connections to these planets, and even this is brushed aside by a more immediate threat to the heroes. When Alderaan is destroyed in a New Hope, we get to see Leia's anguish. We hear Obi Wan's brilliant line about a great disturbance in the force. One planet is a tragedy and a star system is a statistic I guess?

Also, if the Republic has been reinstated, and Leia has the formal title of general, why the hell are the people charged with putting down the First Order (the rough equivalent to Neo-Nazi terrorists), called The Resistance, and not The Republic Peacekeeping Force, or something similar? Weird decisions. They don't do the universe's macro-fiction any favors. But these are surmountable problems.

Episode VII is much more than a good movie. I can say without hyperbole, it is a cultural phenomenon. The Friday after the film's release, I went to Lightsaber Battle LA. I hit strangers with light up sticks, hard enough to leave bruises, they did the same to me, and afterwards we hugged it out and laughed. At the same event, younglings set upon each other, also with light-up sticks (and greater restraint than the adults), giggling and pretending with abandon. On the train to the event, people complimented our sabers, asked us about the movie or spared smiles. It was like another holiday. And looking back, it felt like one.

I doubt the subsequent movies will have the same explosive reception; particularly the anthology films, but I am eager to see how this universe moves forward. Now that there is a fresh start, I'm thinking of diving into some of the ancillary materials like the comics and books. If anybody has already taken that plunge, and has recommendations, please lay them on me. You want to speculate about where Rian Johnson will take the franchise next? Me too! Let's do it.

As one of the trailers proclaimed, "Hope is not lost today. It is found."

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