Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Happy Endings Are For Fanfiction: The Force Awakens Review

(I attended a 7:21 screening of The Force Awakens on Thursday, December 17th, with my best friend and fellow life-nerd who as a young fella memorized the scripts of all three original films, thank you very much.  This review is, then, based off of a single viewing.  Also, spoilers.  Lots of them.)

Born in 1977, raised alongside a brother who had an eleven-year head start and a rapacious appetite for movies, I was exposed to Star Wars early on.  By age five, my obsession with The Empire Strikes Back was such that I had the script memorized and would eschew sheep for the words of Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett on nights when sleep proved elusive.  At age six, I sat with big bro and our mom in the movie theater to watch the third and ostensible final film in the saga,  Return of the Jedi. 

As children do, I hopped from one infatuation to the other--no group of people had more fun doing that than 80s Babies, trust me--but a choice few passions stuck to my temporal lobe like a Mynock to a window.  Star Wars is in that select group.

I made of The Force Awakens the same request I make of any film, album, or book:  Whether I love you, hate you, or think you'll do in a pinch, show me that you care.  What I was shown that evening was a Star Wars movie redolent of the saga's glory days without reeking of feeble rehash.*

The action picks up thirty years after ROTJ, with the conflict now between The Resistance (led by General Leia) and The First Order (commanded by Supreme Leader Snoke).  In addition to staving off evil, Leia is on the hunt for her brother Luke Skywalker, a disgraced Jedi Master who has made himself scarce.

There you are.  Simple story.  Not a whiff of midichlorians.  Possibly no word ending in "-ian" was uttered (again, I've only seen it the once).  No Ian McDiarmid, for sure.  In fact, no Ian's, period.

TFA is distinguished by frenetic action, narrative intrigue, and well-earned humor.  The opening sequence on planet Jakku displays each quality nicely.  Flying Ace Poe Dameron receives a memory drive from wise old guy Lor San Tekka.  Said drive contains a map that leads to the whereabouts of Luke.  On cue, the village is beset by ships and stormtroopers.  Lasers ensue.  Poe is able to pass the map along to his ball-bodied droid, BB-8, before being captured by a caped, masked baddie named Kylo Ren, whom Poe wastes no time in mocking.  Joke's on Poe, though, when he's dragged aboard Ren's command shuttle, tortured (revealing that the map is in a BB-8) and rescued by a conflicted Stormtrooper, who we have already seen as a guy in dire need of a paper bag.  The pair haul ass in a TIE Fighter--eventually--and blast shit to space dust.  It's all very familiar and fantastic.  The turncoat trooper, FN-2187, is rechristened "Finn" by his savior, because it is so clearly adventure time.

So when they crash land on Jakku, and Poe seems to perish along with the TIE fighter, it behooves the audience to remember a great rule of Star Wars:  if you don't see the body, anything is still possible. 

Despite a proclivity for panic attacks, Finn is also easy to root while wondering what exactly his story is.  Likewise, Rey.  Rey is a scavenger who was abandoned on Jakku at a young age.  (5, perhaps?)  She spends her days looting fallen AT-ATs for parts which may then be exchanged for food.  A lonely life, until she prevents BB-8 from certain dismemberment.  Later, she refuses to trade him in for what looks to be half-a-year worth of grub.  Who needs to eat when you've got a droid buddy?

The new good guys are great, so what of the new baddies?  Thankfully, likewise.  The aforementioned Snoke (who ain't Darth Plagueis) appears as a gargantuan hologram with a disfigured face.  Answering to him are stick-assed space Nazi General Hux and Vader yen-to-be Ren.  Hux and Ren have a sibling rivalry thing happening without the added pain of actual blood relation, each young man struggling to prove to Daddy Snoke that they are the most nefarious prick in all the galaxy.  But honestly, that's squat bubkes compared to the battle being waged inside Ren--the son of Han Solo and grandson of Darth Vader.  Light side?  Dark side?  The immovable force meets the immovable force!  Ren seeks counsel from grandpa's helmet, which has gone all cookies 'n' cream in the three decades since ROTJ.  How'd he end up with that old thing?  Guys, guys--we have more movies coming.  Maybe mysteries will be solved, maybe they will remain mysteries. 

Finn and Rey meet because the former is just walking around Jakku with a dead pilot's jacket on, and BB-8 gets all mad and shock-y (not uncommon in this series).  Cute, but not very wise, considering the First Order has been looking for the adorable high roller. Chase!  Chase!  Culminating in my favorite reveal of the entire movie.  The Millennium Falcon is such a magnificent piece of shit (that I futilely put on my wish list for five consecutive Christmases) that even watching it crash and careen is an exhilarating experience.  You know, like when Buffalo Bills fans try tailgate wrestling

With the Falcon's reappearance, I began warming in my seat for reasons unrelated to spontaneous urination.  Star Wars!  Motherfucker!  Star Wars!  Then she gets captured by a larger ship and I'm all, whoa that was quick.  Finn and Rey hide out and await the arrival of whatever well-armed malevolence they fell prey to.  Except it's not bad guys that step on board--it's the best guys.  It's Han Solo and Chewbacca.  If your theater did (does) not explode in non-/pre-verbal exclamations of exquisite joy at the very sight, and you didn't (don't) respond by yelling some variant of "Holy crap you people suck," well, I'm not sure who to judge the harshest.

Han is older and in some ways wiser; when Rey and Finn ask if the Jedi were real, the former skeptic tells them plainly:  it is all real.  But, in other ways, Han hasn't changed at all, so when two gangs bum rush the show, each demanding what the rogue owes them, who's really surprised?  He tries to yak his way out of trouble, but the newbies screwing around and unwittingly unleashing unholy beasts works much better.  The brouhaha results in the First Order learning of Solo's involvement and Snoke ordering Ren to end his internal war by eliminating his useless father and giving himself over to the Dark Side completely.

The heroes escape to planet Takodana, home of a badass catina owned by Wookie-chaser Maz Kanata.  Finn's all, later guys, and Rey wanders around with BB-8, entering a vault that contains a light saber.  Like any sensible being, she grabs it…and experiences a "Force vision."  The Force, that gooder-than-glitterwands energy field that surrounds all?  It is strong with this one. 

Things are getting much too peaceful for a film containing the words "Star Wars" so here come the First Order!  And here come the X-wings ,whaaaaat?!  That's right, led by flyboy nonpareil Poe Dameron!  (What did I tell you about habeas corpus?)   Ren snatches Rey up--he is very interested in this scrappy scavenger trash--and his failure during interrogation further spices an already fragrant dish.  Then Rey uses a Jedi Mind Trick to escape--don't forget, she needed multiple attempts--and it's time for dessert. 

The First Order have figured out that Death Stars are globular blast sites and have instead conjured up something called Starkiller Base--a planet converted into a super-destroyer of other, less fortunate planets.  General Hux has a firm grasp on the importance of pomp and loquaciousness, delivering an oddly-stirring "Dark Side uber alles" speech to an army of arm-hoisting Stormtroopers before the ka-blast! that turns the Hosnian system into space dust, devastating the New Republic.  Next up?  D'Qar, home of the Resistance HQ. 

Of course the Resistance has a predictable plan-infiltrate, handicap, attack--but there's more at stake.  Leia has refused to give up on her son, and will not (or cannot) shake the feeling that some good still resides inside of him, no matter Han's assertion that the Vader influence is by now far too strong to hope for salvation.  Still, he agrees to try.

The confrontation between father and son is gutting.  Han approaches his son--Ben--as a humbled rogue.  There's a metric screw-ton of guilt, shame, remorse and anger happening, evident in the heaviness of their expressions and movements.  Words are exchanged because that's how these things go. 

The moment I realized Han and Ben the Ren had an audience, I knew how the conversation would end.  (Callbacks rule, except when they suck.)  My heart rate went super-hummingbird from Han's first step until his last breath.  He didn't give up on his child; Ben gave up on himself.  He's hollowed-out.  There is no more Ben Solo.

Finn and Rey lost a father figure, and are devastated.  And Chewie?  Oh man.  (Kudos as well to Carrie Fisher for nailing the moment Leia intuits the horrific turn of events. Perhaps once the Starkiller Base is destroyed, Leia should take a moment all to herself, just her and a cup of some weirdly-hued milk, and come to terms with the reality that her son is a cruel, capricious, petulant, traitorous, patricidal butt-berry.)

Aw man!  BB-8 was so pumped to see R2-D2 and so bummed when informed that Luke's old droid's been in "low power mode" since things went ass over teakettle. 

The climactic battles go right in the pantheon alongside the most riveting of the series.  The saber duels (Ren/Finn, Ren/Rey) are sloppier than fans are accustomed to, but what's more realistic?  You want impeccable choreography, watch Revenge of the Sith.  You want to KO the air, wait for the moment when Luke's old saber flies to its rightful home. 

Poe and company (featuring Porkins Jr., or at least that's what I kept calling him) do it to it.  Poe is basically the new Han, a kickass pilot with dashing looks and acerbic wit, a bad boy fighting alongside the good guys for the great cause.  Bye bye, Starkiller Base.  (And see you next movie, every significant villain!)

Back at D'Qar, the celebration is understandably subdued.  But, great news:  R2's back!  One beam from BB-8, another from R2 and boom:  a completed map to Luke Skywalker.  Rey, Chewbacca and BB-8 all take off on the Millennium Falcon (whoa) and head to a remote island.  Rey makes the trek up a stone staircase, until she reaches the last step and sees a hooded figure standing several feet away, back turned.  When finally he turns, he drops the cover and Rey (and we) are greeted with the sight of an older, careworn Luke Skywalker, a master of the Force wounded by wisdom gone awry, good intentions and greater actions all for naught.  I mean, he couldn't turn his own nephew away from the Dark Side.  The same nephew that slaughtered kids.  The same nephew that just jabbed a light saber through his own father.  Luke is therefore indirectly responsible for the murder of his old friend-turned-brother-in-law as well as the two most heartbreaking moments of his sister's life.  (Poor Leia, she must be really yearning for the days when her hugely malevolent father made her watch as her home planet was destroyed.)  Rey holds out the saber, silently beseeching the old master to accept once more what is rightfully his…or is it?

What a goddamn movie.  The conflicts, both on and offscreen, are compelling enough to send an entranced viewers head spinning until it steams.  Compared to any of the prequels--unfair but inevitable--The Force Awakens flows more naturally.  It is, additionally, more fun, funnier, feistier and flashier. 

The (very) minor controversy surrounding Finn and Rey, deeming them franchise-killing concessions to political correctness, should be revisited if only to be pointed at, laughed at, and pitied for perhaps two seconds before laughing at it some more.  These are two well-written, well-acted characters brimming with a strength and decency that represents the best within us.  It's fascinating to watch as each of them struggles to process their individual capabilities and destinies, in search of a man who for most of their lives they regarded as mere myth.  No bones thrown, no tokens inserted, Rey is not only a successful addition to the Star Wars saga, she is already one of the most iconic female characters in the history of cinema.   Girls will want to be her, and guess what?  Some boys will too.

But nah, this ain't The Rey Show.  The Force Awakens benefits from an abundance of engaging players on the classic stage--likable or detestable, I cared about them, their pasts and future as well as their presents playing out in front of me.  Another huge check in its column (for me, given my age) is something that was absent from Return of the Jedi and the prequels: the cliffhanger aspect.  Thus, the questions left unanswered after 134 minutes are multitudinous.

Who the hell is Rey?  There are four schools of thoughts, each built on lots of varying size, and of course I dropped in on each of them.  Took a seat in the back, audibly chewed two sticks of gum at once, skimmed a relevant text, and only ever raised my hand to complain of ovary pain. 

1)  She's Luke's daughter. 
2)  She's Leia's daughter

These seem to be the most popular guesses.  Given that Star Wars is the story of the Skywalker clan, I'd be stunned if Rey doesn't turn out to be the offspring of one of Anakin and Padme's twins (she even resembles Natalie Portman).  I lean towards Luke; wouldn't it be most fitting, most emotional if he trains his own child in the ways of the Force as a massive step towards redemption?  Then you get Ren vs Rey Pt. Deux--Killin' Cousins.

Leia as Rey's mom is the theory clung to most tenaciously by fans who just can't seem to abandon the EU Solo-Organna family tale.  This would set up Ren vs. Rey Pt. Deux--Sibling Rivalry. 

(But then why do neither Han or Leia have any peculiar reaction to her?  Why do we see Rey and Leia embrace when Rey returns to the base on D'Qar?  Surely she wasn't the only character to offer Leia condolences.   Then again, we do see her behind the controls of the Falcon more than once, and Han offers her a spot on the ship pretty damn quick-like...

3) She's Obi-Wan's granddaughter.

About that light saber…yeah, it was Luke's once upon a time, and Anakin's…but Obi-Wan held onto it for longer than either of them.  His voice is one of several heard during Rey's vision.  And hey, Ben and Satine were pretty good friends.  Pretty, pretty good.

Being either a Skywalker or Kenobi also makes her transition from scrounging sand-sledder to saber-wielding star warrior utterly believable. 

Ren vs Rey Pt. Deux--This One's For Grandpa!

4) She was one of Luke's Padawans

One of the luckier ones, more specifically.  Works if you believe that Luke would have imbued her with a sensitivity to the Force and/or futzed with her memory before sending her away.  I'm not a fan of this one because I like keeping it in the family--but it wouldn't be a dealbreaker.

Was Kylo Ren really experiencing a crisis of faith--or was he just carrying out Snoke's order in the cruelest manner possible?  And what precipitated Ben Solo's turn to the Dark Side?  Luke and Leia have Vader in them as well, so was it just a matter of Snoke being the sort of father figure the boy craved?

Is Snoke Darth Plagueis?  No.  Stop wondering.

Watching BB-8 zip and bloop along is so fun I kinda forgot to wonder why the hell there's even a map to begin with.  Did Luke want to eventually be found? 

Where can I get one of those beat-ass X-wing pilot dolls that Rey was chilling with? 

Maz Kanata has Luke's saber.  How?  "That's a question for another time."  Like 2017? 

How will Episode 8 begin?  Ten years passed from the end of Episode I to the start of II; three years passed from the end of IV to V.  There has never been a film in the saga that picked up immediately from where the preceding left off.  I think a year--the same gap between V and VI--would be best for Episode 8. 

See you in two years.

*If director/co-writer J.J. Abrams is slavish to the original trilogy--A New Hope, especially--or attuned to what fans desire/deserve from the seventh Star Wars film--is entirely up to the individual.  Leading the series in a daring direction story-wise is not bad just because Lucas half-assed the prequels, and some have expressed disappointment at the lack of innovation in TFA.  Understandable.  Conversely, returning to a tried-true formula is not good simply because it led to unfathomable success.  Said formula can be misread; the ingredients can be corrupted, corners can be cut.