Monday, January 4, 2016

Force Awakens quick review (spoilers)

This is a nothing special review, but I figured I should weigh in after I've been doing so much Force Awakens content on this blog. The following thoughts are mostly reactions I'd posted on forum's or in emails, so it's not exactly a shining example of cinematic criticism, but here are my two-cents:

I'm a fan of the Force Awakens. At this point I have no interest in people moaning about this one. Sure it's clunky, but it has its moments, and most of them involve the Falcon, so I'm happy as a pig in #@$. I understand if folks don't want to get burned like last time, but give it a rest. It was fun. It was definitely better than any of the last three. And it's just the beginning.

I saw it a second time in the theater and I still enjoyed it over all. It had cringe-worthy moments, but a lot of great ones as well. Loved seeing the Falcon in action. The production team really did their homework on the exterior and interior prop and set designs. Seeing Han back in action was perfect, a great role-reprisal if I ever saw one. And the interactions between the new characters left me wanting more. The final duel was great too, I thought. It had a tension that's been missing from lightsaber duels for a long time.

I thought back to a conversation I had with a friend many years ago, about what was missing from the prequels, and I'd said that what I'd really wanted was "more of the same" of what I saw in the OT, and not necessarily something too new or different. That might be safe or short-sighted but isn't movie-as-comfort-food the whole point of escapist space fantasy? With TFA, I think I finally got what I'd wanted... That said, I can't wait to see where Rian Johnson takes us in Episode VIII, and I do hope there are some new ideas. But either way, this looked and felt like a Star Wars adventure and that's what I was hoping for. For me, Star Wars is Back.

The first viewing had that Star Wars magic, but I felt frantic and rushed as I tried to piece together all the bits I'd already known about, having followed the film's development for 3+ years. After the second viewing, the movie kind of did and didn't lose magic. It definitely felt a little bit more like an ordinary film the second time around, but that made the moments of real magic shine through more clearly. The escape from Jakku/capture by Han is as taught and exciting both times around, and the same goes for the duel

Of course there were things that bugged me. I was surprised how irritating Threepio was in this one, but not unforgivably. I liked BB-8, but there were a few throw away moments that really spoiled the practical-prop feel of the droid. Spidermanning around the interior of the Falcon just hurt to look at. I'd've much rather seen the little ball crashing around comically, no clever resolution necessary. Then there's the bothersome Starkiller laser-bolt being visible from multiple points in the Galaxy. Uh... no. I understand the license that's being taken for the sake of the visual impact on the characters, but this scene just kind of breaks the universe. It's like if a WW2 movie featured characters in San Francisco seeing the mushroom cloud from the bombing of Hiroshima. Sure, that would have a nice dramatic effect but... that's just not how anything works.

Pure visual or storytelling moments like this are emblematic of one huge thing that's been missing from Star Wars since the original trilogy. A New Hope, especially, feels like a place where actual people live. Not just iconic characters, protagonists, and villains, which Star Wars is of course also famous for. But even in that small and fast paced movie, the groundwork of a tangible universe is laid, where these mono-mythic characters happen to live. I think that was a failing of many contemporary sci-fi movies: that their universes seemed exclusively tailored to the characters. And the first Star Wars set that trend on its head, contributing to its instant success. Unfortunately, the Force Awakens does fall back into the concept of a universe tailored for its characters. It's not a flaw in-and-of-itself, but it is striking that I don't feel the vibrant life of the Star Wars universe outside the characters. I wonder if that may have been a lightning that was called down for the first Star Wars movie which I can't expect to see again, but I still miss it.

Nevertheless, after the first time I was excited to see the movie again, to catch as much as I could. But the second time I came out really looking forward to Episode VIII. Whatever faults it may have, Force Awakens sets up characters and groundwork I'm eager to explore, and that's probably the best thing about it.

And to the "it sucked" camp, all I can say is that my expectations going in were "not worse than the last three" and "lots of Millennium Falcon" and I was not disappointed. If they borrowed a bit from ANH to get there, I'm not even a little bit sad about that (psst, I happen to like that movie!).