Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

I have a confession to make: I am not a massive Star Wars fan.

I have said that I am on numerous occasions, and I'm sure I had good reason to, at the time. But the fact is, I am really only a casual fan. The original Star Wars was instantly my favorite film of all time upon seeing it, and it's still comfortably in my Top Five. I was a card-carrying member of the Star Wars Fan Club in my youth, read a few of the Expanded Universe books, and saw each film of the prequel trilogy on opening day. BUT... I wasn't really active in the Fan Club and let my membership lapse after only a couple of years, I still haven't read the Han Solo trilogy even though I've owned those books since middle school, and I never ever saw the need to see any new film at the first midnight screening.

The first shot is the inverse of the original's - BRONZE
I also don't have the sort of emotional attachment to the franchise that leads me to get into heated debate about which of the films is best and whether or not we should even pay attention to the prequels. I read stories of the fan restorations of the original trilogy with great interest but never particularly care to search for or download them. I also - God help me - only own the original trilogy, in the silver DVD box set that came out almost a decade ago now.

The original Star Wars may be a formative text for me - as it no doubt is for many nerds and cinephiles alike - but I have never really been anything more than a casual fan, and I'm okay with that.

It's for this reason that I greeted the announcement of a new trilogy with J.J. Abrams at the helm with a shrug and a Facebook post reading, "If I see so much as ONE lens flare, so help me, J.J....."I knew I would see it, but I saw no point in getting excited about it. Star Wars is a one-time-only thing, an improbable success that forever changes the landscape of what comes after in such a fundamental way that we still aren't quite aware of the full extent of its reach. The fact that Disney was making a new trilogy only served to me as evidence that the snake was now officially eating its tail.

So color me shocked that in the weeks leading up to the arrival of Episode VII - The Force Awakens, I was so excited about seeing it that at one point while buying the tickets, I actually started shaking. And my anticipation as I sat down in the AMC Loews Lincoln Square IMAX with my Mom (from whom I inherited my love of Star Wars) was at such a fever pitch that I was practically squealing with delight. And then the title came up to that blast of John Williams's iconic score, and I was seven years old again, clapping my hands and downright giddy at the prospect of watching another Star Wars movie, this time on the biggest of all screens, in 3-D!

And I never, EVER, get excited about 3-D.

Putting in my pretty new Blu-Ray to watch The Force Awakens for the first time since December, I was eager to see if the film held the same magic for me the second time around. To be clear, I didn't LOVE it the first time, but the whole thing just plain WORKED on a level that completely satisfied me. It was a perfectly entertaining picture, if not a great one. I'm slightly sad and slightly relieved to say that it wasn't as magical this time. I wasn't expecting it to be - although it's only a few minutes longer than A New Hope, the middle drags in a way the original never did, because it was so fully invested in setting up this new universe and playing around in it. The Force Awakens is, by design if not completely by necessity, far more focused on plot. If A New Hope is pure magic, then The Force Awakens is sort of magic by proxy - it hits all the same beats as the original but we've already heard them (and heard them, and heard them, and heard them), so the thrill is gone even though the tune is still enjoyable.

Plus, The Force Awakens has one GIANT problem right at its center: Kylo Ren. I could MAYBE get behind a main antagonist who has the temperament of a moody teenager even though he's quite a few years past the age where it's a good look on him, but not when Adam Driver is playing him like a petulant child with a Farrah flip. I'm honestly not sure whether or not the character works on paper, but as Driver plays him here, he doesn't work AT ALL. There's a reason the "Emo Kylo Ren" twitter account is so popular.

BB8 encapsulating the film's sense of cleverness and humor - SILVER
But let's put that aside for the moment, because most of the rest of The Force Awakens is pretty damn great, and a whole lot of fun. Trying to pick a "Best Shot" was kind of hard, especially since I could have picked literally any reaction shot of Chewbacca, Han Solo, or Admiral Ackbar, every single one of which made the kid inside me unbearably happy even during this second viewing. And BB-8 is a freaking JOY, even if he's quite clearly just there for the kids.

But when I think about what I like best about The Force Awakens that DOESN'T have anything to do with nostalgia, it's one of the exact things I love so much about A New Hope: The world-building. You'd think they wouldn't have to do that - this is, after all, the seventh film in this franchise, and pretty much everyone knows the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (and if they didn't, you bet your ass they caught up with at least the original film before watching this one). But thankfully, it seems as though everyone involved knew exactly why the original Star Wars worked, instead of just ripping it off out of some sense of duty or lack of confidence. They understood that in order to go on a journey, you have to have a reason to go, an emotional investment in, or at the very least a deep connection with, at least one character. And they really put in the effort in the first act to connect us not just to Rey, but to the world in which she lives.

This is where Rey lives. And if all you saw of her was just that one image, you'd know that she is poor, that she's probably a scavenger, and that she's probably both mentally and physically strong. And then there's this image...

...which likewise tells you all you need to know about what she wants: She dreams of joining the Resistance, of escaping her desert planet, of finding some purpose outside of sitting here waiting for something. Everything on Jakku is reminiscent of the original's first act on Tatooine perhaps a bit too much, but it still has its own flavor - this is a world that has seen war, that was nearly destroyed, that may be abandoned by everyone who doesn't live here. This is a dead end if ever there was one. We're never told explicitly what happened on Jakku, what happened during the presumed war that took place in the wake of Return of the Jedi, but we don't need to be told. The images tell us all we need to know. Especially in my pick for Best Shot:

This is not just a stunning image, and it doesn't only capture what I was talking about above. To me, this image sums up EXACTLY how I feel about The Force Awakens: It is good enough to stand on its own, but is dwarfed by what came before, which is so huge, such a massive feat of moviemaking and mythmaking that it would be practically impossible to top. Rey scavenges what she can from the ruins of the ship, just as the team behind The Force Awakens scavenged through the original Star Wars, and they came up with some usable parts that bought them enough to survive another day. But they've got to come up with something more than just scavenged parts if they want to get out and make a name for themselves.


  1. This is an excellent review and the last pic you show here is impressive. I was impressed with this latest outing except for the son of Han and Leia who needs a good spanking and what's up with those huge Angelina Jolie lips? I think he is wrong for the part but I did like the rest and found it refreshing

    1. Thank you, Birgit! SERIOUSLY. Adam Driver is just so wrong for the part of Kylo Ren. It's a really enjoyable movie, no doubt about it, I just enjoyed it a little less this time around.

  2. Great post! I love that shot of the Star Destroyer in the sand, I loved that in the trailer when I first saw it. I think my favorite shot of the film is when the resistance is flying low over the water when they come in and make the save at Maz Kanata's place. That shot really stands out to me, especially with the score.

    1. That shot of the Star Destroyer was what sold me on seeing the film - it signaled to me that they were at least going in the right direction. I really like your favorite shot, too. Reminded me of the water horses in the first Lord of the Rings movie, but an outer space version lol.

      I am such a nerd.

  3. Great post Dan! I'm very, very new to the Star Wars fandom so although you might count yourself a casual fan, I'm reading your post in awe of all the books you've read, mentally telling myself to read themself sometime soon, too!
    I loved Kylo Ren, and I know the whole emo, temper tantrum thing is a bug bear for people, but I think it's getting blown out of proportion a little bit. Dude is terrifying! Hopefully we'll see more of his powers next year :)
    - Allie

    1. Aw, thanks, Allie! My favorite of the Star Wars books are the Timothy Zahn novels - the Heir to the Empire trilogy. I'm still not over them not just adapting those books into the new trilogy, if only because Mara Jade is the best character in ANY Star Wars story. Splinter of the Mind's Eye is also good.

      I think my issues with Kylo Ren are mostly in Driver's playing of him. It just doesn't work. I could deal with the emo temper tantrum if he didn't look like such a preening asshole when the helmet comes off LOL. He doesn't look like a villain, he looks like an extra in a Pantene commercial.