Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (mild spoilers)

(I slapped a spoiler warning on this to be safe, but I went out of my way not to get plot-heavy here. As always, read at your own risk.)

 2015 has been an unhappy year for those of you uncomfortable with the idea of Women Doing Things in Movies. First there was Charlize Theron in George Miller‘s Mad Max: Fury Road, playing a woman whose every action was a middle finger to the damage men had wreaked upon the world. Theron’s performance upended the movie to such a degree that it’s difficult to imagine Tom Hardy coming back for another round as Max; the world he’d be returning to is one he left in hands that manage quite well on their own, thanks very much. The commitment that Miller made to making Fury Road about women angered certain dark corners of the Internet, and anyone who had a problem with Imperator Furiosa will be driven to rage by a moment that occurs early on in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Our collective allergy to spoilers means that much of the discussion about the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars must be had in quiet conversations between people who first reassure themselves they’ve all seen the movie. (Those slackers who haven’t will be sent to buy the drinks.) So, I’ll be as vague as I can…..

When Abrams introduces us to Rey (the wonderful Daisy Ridley), she is scraping out a life on a desert planet that could be (but isn’t) Tatooine. Shortly after meeting the mysterious Finn (John Boyega) - whose origins we know long before Rey does - the two come across a cherished piece of the Star Wars universe sitting almost forgotten, as if no one knew the battles it had seen. The image of Rey taking control, actually steering the story in a new direction, is an unexpectedly powerful one. The moment works not just because Ridley is a gifted actress; it’s also the signal of a generational shift. “This is not the Star Wars you’ve known,” Abrams is saying. “It now belongs to you, and you, and you.” There is room for everyone in the new Star Wars universe, and Abrams (co-writing with Michael Arndt and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi writer Lawrence Kasdan) takes the time to spell out just what kind of lives Rey and Finn might have had if not for stumbling into the first stirrings of a new galactic war. But stumble they do, right into the path of Kylo Ren (played with terrific force by Adam Driver). Ren (Or should I call him Kylo?) is the biggest surprise of The Force Awakens, a villain in conflict over his relationship to The Force. Abrams expands an idea implicit in the original trilogy - that even someone who has mastered the Dark Side has a boss - to great effect here, and he’s helped by Adam Driver’s gift for playing fine shades of immaturity.

If you don’t understand the political situation depicted in The Force Awakens, you’re probably not alone. Kylo Ren is part of the First Order, a group seeking to restore some version of the old Empire. Rey and Finn soon find themselves part of the Resistance, where they each find purpose and meet some characters familiar to us. (Harrison Ford, bringing welcome vigor to the role, is especially touching as Han Solo.) There is also a Senate that keeps the lights on, but let’s not sweat the details. The Force Awakens is a piece of thoroughly enjoyable franchise cinema that is better than almost anyone had a right to expect. Even the scenes of ships shooting at each other have a kick I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from a Marvel movie, and the ending promises that whoever is writing Episode VII will have plenty to work with. The one criticism that The Force Awakens is vulnerable to is the recycling of plot elements from the earlier films, but even recognizing that fact won’t spoil the experience. The decision to have Rey and Finn believe the events of the original trilogy are folklore feels odd at first, but I think it gives Abrams permission to evoke the older films. It’s important that Rey meet Han, Luke, and Leia and understand that these people are real and that these things happened. How you’ll feel about The Force Awakens depends on the degree to which you want the film to feel familiar. It’s hard to deny the pleasure of the warm feeling that The Force Awakens brings up, but there is also an energy and drive at work here that the prequels sorely lacked.. I’d call it….. A New Hope.

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