Monday, December 21, 2015

Review - Star Wars: The Force Awakens

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!

          The hype is strong with this one. So strong, perhaps, that this may very well be my lengthiest review yet. But this shouldn't be so surprising - after all, we are dealing with Star Wars here, an intellectual property so colossal that even the most seasoned critic and writer wouldn't be able to contrive a short, concise review of The Force Awakens while still taking into account all of the appropriate dimensions of the Star Wars universe. It's marketing alone already seems to obligate one to give The Force Awakens its due diligence; right now, for example, the film isn't scheduled to be released for about another week, but I already feel as if I can write half this review just setting the stage for what is already a record-breaking release. And the fact that tickets for The Force Awakens have already sold out at theaters across North America in 2015 does, perhaps, hint at something significant; after all, The Force Awakens will be the final film to round out what I would consider to be one of best years of science fiction since the turn of the century. And, in case you need reminding, this is the year that Age of Ultron and Jurassic World both shattered records, Ant-Man and The Scorch Trials were "sleeper" successes, and, as USA Today reports, the National Board of Review recently named Mad Max: Fury Road as the best film of 2015 [1]. The Force Awakens has a lot to live up to indeed. But I wouldn't worry; again, this is Star Wars, and the success of its hype and marketing have already illustrated that the series can still compete as an important player in the realm of science fiction, despite several questionable moments in its decades-long history. And if it's any reassurance, I highly doubt that anything that could be produced in the Star Wars universe at this point could ever achieve the degree of utter failure that Terminator Genisys managed to achieve.
          In one sense, the Star Wars films need no introduction or explanation. A film series that spans almost half a century, it has revolutionized the science fiction genre since its first installment (A New Hope) in 1977 (perhaps some credit can also be given the original Star Trek series from the late 1960s with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy). Since then, the original trilogy has rounded out with The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983, a prequel trilogy was released from 1999 to 2005 (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), a number of spin-offs and peripheral stories have been produced by Lucasfilm (i.e. The Clone Wars), a game studio charged primarily with the development of Star Wars games (LucasArts) had been created and has since been more or less bought out by the monolithic Electronic Arts (much to the dismay of many, not so much because people cared about LucasArts, but more because EA sucks), and Star Wars fans have since earned the distinction of being a new breed of human or sub-species, yet unrealized by scientists, a kind of fanatical cult, unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, but still somehow endowing new meaning on the word "devotion", producing unending amounts of self-insert fan-fiction, more so than any other intellectual property. Now, Lucasfilm has been bought out and Disney owns the rights to the Star Wars franchise. As such, Disney is producing a new sequel trilogy, the first installment of which is The Force Awakens.
          But where to start? Perhaps the most daunting challenge in trying to review The Force Awakens is trying to figure out how to review The Force Awakens. After all, an adequate review would take into consideration all of the relevant context and backstory, which includes having an understanding of everything that came before it. And it goes without saying that, in the case of Star Wars, this would be no easy feat, considering that the Star Wars universe is just that, a universe. One would have to try and account for the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, the various official and unofficial spin-offs, the board games, video games, action figures, Halloween costumes, and, regrettably, the fan fiction. I suppose the more important question to ask is what J.J. Abrams (or, perhaps more accurately, Disney) hope to achieve with The Force Awakens. Are we aiming to produce a blockbuster to surpass even A New Hope in terms of innovation? While an admirable goal, this would also be a pretentious one; to presume that The Force Awakens will be more innovative than the original would suggest that Disney is capable of producing such a thing, and, while I wouldn't put it past J.J. Abrams, this seems like an unreal expectation of Disney. Or, if we were more cynical, do we presume that Disney is producing The Force Awakens just to cash-in on the Star Wars cash cow? This seems like a reasonable question to ask of not just Disney, but any studio that is producing a reboot. Yet, I also don't think this is accurate; if Disney was just interested in making big bucks, as opposed to, say, quality cinema, then I don't think they would have enlisted Abrams for the job and given him so much control over its production. Abrams strikes me as a filmmaker who cares about whether or not he is producing quality cinema, so Disney's decision to go with Abrams seems to indicate an intention beyond simply just turning a profit. Or, is Disney trying to reboot the Star Wars series in order to introduce it to a new generation of film-goers? This strikes me as a little closer to capturing the intention behind The Force Awakens. While Disney has recently ventured into more mature endeavors, it has historically kept children as its target audience. As such, it would make sense to say that Disney is trying to take a fictional universe that most adults today would be more than familiar with and introduce that to a new generation.
          It seems as if that final question hints at a good starting point for formulating an approach to The Force Awakens. Does The Force Awakens successfully reinvigorate the series for the next generation of science fiction fans and movie-goers? And, reflecting on a point I made earlier, one should keep in mind that, at its fundamental core, The Force Awakens is a reboot, one of several reboots throughout the year. This can perhaps add another dimension to the approach we take to reviewing it; one can assess the merits of the film as a reboot alone, removing it from the larger context of the fictional universe and evaluating it more on its success as a new installment in a series. And it perhaps may be important to weigh it against other reboots of the year - does The Force Awakens, for example, ask the same kinds of provocative questions that Jurassic World asked? And this question would be consistent with the guidelines I laid out for myself in my first review over the summer; much like literature or other forms of visual art, film is a potential outlet of socio-cultural criticism. As such, one can also ask whether or not there are any socio-cultural undertones to The Force Awakens, and, if so, how well the film weaves those points into its overall narrative. Between these points and the questions asked in the previous paragraph, I think I at least have a good idea as to how one should approach The Force Awakens. But, as I hinted at above, in order to adequately review it without being too disingenuous, one has to properly situate it in the Star Wars universe.
          The first installment of the Star Wars series (later dubbed A New Hope) was first released in 1977, with a digital remaster released in 1997. It's two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, followed in the years after. The series focuses on the Rebel Alliance's struggle against the tyrannical Galactic Empire, and the relationships that develop therein. We are introduced to drug smugglers and gang bosses on desert planets, cities suspended in the clouds of far away star systems, rebel bases assaulted in a hail of lasers on planets made of ice and snow, and an ancient, mysterious "Force" that underlies all events in the galaxy, and is revered by an order known as the "Jedi", essentially the futuristic-space-equivalent of the Knights Templar. The core cast for the series consisted of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and the series more or less put each of them "on the map", so to speak, with their acting careers (only for Carrie Fisher to quickly fall off the map again by becoming a drug addict some time after filming The Blues Brothers). After Star Wars, Mark Hamill went on to a very notable career as the voice of the Joker in almost every animated iteration of the Batman series, while Harrison Ford continued to propel his acting career in history, perhaps most notably as the treasure hunter Indiana Jones, but also as one of the early actors to portray Jack Ryan when the Tom Clancy novels started getting cinematic iterations (i.e. Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games), ex-cop Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, and even as the President of the United States in Air Force One.
          The prequel trilogy was released between 1999 and 2005, consisting of The Phantom Menace in 1999, Attack of the Clones in 2002, and Revenge of the Sith in 2005. It tells the story of the conflict between the Galactic Republic and the Trade Federation, the attempts of the Jedi Council to try and quell the conflict, the influence of the mysterious Sith Order behind the scenes, and the subsequent downfall of the Republic, the Jedi, and the Federation, and the rise of the Galactic Empire...and, perhaps the most controversial thing in the entire series, the advent of Darth Vader. As can be inferred from the previous sentence, the prequel trilogy is not very well received. As I start writing this, for example, Graeme McMillan of The Hollywood Reporter writes that "the prequel not only a low-point for the franchise, but for science fiction cinema as a whole, and single-handedly (well, triple-handedly, technically) responsible for breaking an entire generation of fans' hearts in its sheer ineptitude" [2]. And McMillan's assessment isn't without merit; perhaps the most questionable thing in the entire prequel trilogy is the way it develops the various characters. The Phantom Menace, for example, introduces us to Jar Jar Binks, a bizarre character that is meant to serve as a kind of guide for the Jedi early on the series, but ends up being a kind of comic relief, and not a very good one at that. Much like the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy was also responsible for launching the successful film career of several of its actors. Perhaps the biggest success story of the prequel trilogy is Natalie Portman, who portrayed Padme Amidala, Queen of Naboo, although it should perhaps also be noted that Ewan McGregor saw a noticeable shift in his career from more independent films (i.e. Nightwatch) to the Hollywood mainstream (in the years immediately following The Phantom Menace, for example, one can quickly see McGregor's CV expand to include films such as Black Hawk Down and Moulin Rouge).
          The lasting influence (or, in the case of the prequel trilogy, controversy) that the Star Wars universe has made on science fiction and pop culture is undeniable. Prior to A New Hope, for example, "space opera" was a phrase usually thrown around in the sci-fi underground, an obscure term usually applied to pulp fiction like the Flash Gordon series. Now, the phrase "space opera" is much more ubiquitous (though, interestingly, not quite "mainstream"), and one researching the Star Wars fictional universe is inevitably bound to quickly come across it. The Star Wars series, including the prequel trilogy, is also responsible for giving us some of the most memorable and influential characters in pop culture today. Even more menial ones, like the generic "stormtrooper", are instantly recognizable, and have even lent their title to a particular phenomenon in cinematography and film criticism (Roger Ebert's famous "Stormtrooper Effect"). Even characters who are featured in the films only a portion of the time, like, say, Boba Fett, have developed something of a cult following. And, of course, many of the tropes and creative concepts introduced by the Star Wars series have at this point infiltrated modern science-fiction and have become ingrained in it. The space dog fights in Battlestar Galactica and Thor: The Dark World bear an uncanny resemblance to the dog fights in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. The lush landscapes and desolate wastelands of The Chronicles of Riddick and Stargate seem eerily familiar to the landscapes of Hoth, Tatooine, and Endor. One can quickly see the influence that the "lightsaber" has had on the "beam saber" of the Mobile Suit Gundam series or the "psi-blades" of the Dark Templar in StarCraft. And even all of these points still do not capture the extent to which Star Wars has influenced modern science fiction and pop culture, but they are meant to, at least, start to paint the picture.
          Now with this very crude background established, I can finally turn to The Force Awakens. And I must say, after having finally seen it, it certainly deserves a large degree of praise, and will likely make my top 5 film list for the year. That said, I should also point out that, in some ways, it doesn't quite live up to all the hype that we have seen leading up to it over the past six months. Specifically, the areas where The Force Awakens shines are its introduction of new, unique characters to the Star Wars universe, it passive commentary on a handful of various socio-cultural issues, and its resistance to utilizing the obscene amounts of CGI that currently permeate throughout modern science fiction. However, the same kind of praise cannot be given to its story; anyone who is even remotely familiar with the Star Wars series will realize that the plot of The Force Awakens is a reimagining of the plot for A New Hope, and the lack of effort in this regard really takes away from what would otherwise be a very solid sci-fi film. At the end of the day, The Force Awakens easily succeeds at introducing the series to the next generation of sci-fi film-goers, and perhaps even presents us with some of the most memorable characters in science fiction, but it had the potential to do so much more.
          The characters are perhaps the most intriguing elements of The Force Awakens. We see the return of old classics Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa, played by the original actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher, respectively, but it seems as if the overwhelming majority of the hype this time around actually centers around the mysterious Kylo Ren. And Kylo Ren is perhaps the best example of a case where the hype is actually justified. He is, by far, the most unique character in the film, unlike anything ever seen in the Star Wars series up until this point. Portrayed by Adam Driver, Ren fancies himself the spiritual successor to Darth Vader, and, in public and in rumor, he achieves this. He is ruthless and extreme, a student of the Knights of Ren, a sect of acolytes of the Dark Side of the Force, and is one of the most feared warriors in the galaxy. However, his more intimate interactions with the other characters in the film, particularly Rey and Han Solo, illustrate what Kylo Ren is really like: a skilled, but rash young man with daddy problems and bipolar disorder, more akin to the edgy, misguided Anakin Skywalker from the prequel trilogy than Darth Vader (only much better acted). And again, much credit is due to Adam Driver for this performance; at times, I was reminded of Tom Hardy's portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, a character that, at one moment, seems wise and well-spoken, and the next, displays a huge degree of anger management issues. But, of course, Kylo Ren was not the only character in the film. Perhaps a great degree of credit is also due to Daisy Ridley for her portrayal of Rey. Rugged and humble, Rey lives alone as a scavenger on the planet Jakku, selling machine parts and artifacts she finds for meager scraps of food. I actually kind of saw elements of the Book of Eli in Rey's interactions on Jakku; Jakku seemed like a desolate wasteland, and Rey was a wasteland wanderer, roaming from place to place, trading post to trading post, settlement to settlement, just trying to make a living. Because of such harsh conditions, she has developed the survival skills she needs; she climbs landscapes and machines alike, knows how to run through the desert sands, and has the necessary fighting skills to ward off muggers and thieves. And Daisy Ridley portrays this character as one that is seasoned in all of this; all of these various elements seem like "just another day out on the town" for Rey. That is, until BB-8 shows up. And it is at this point that I should note that BB-8 is probably the next most memorable character from the film. Much like Kylo Ren is to Darth Vader, BB-8 is the spiritual successor to R2-D2. BB-8 is a white and orange droid that rolls around with the appearance of a soccer ball, as opposed to the kind of clunky trash can that is R2-D2. But, despite being a successor to R2, J.J. Abrams actually manages to give BB-8 a personality that sets it apart. Perhaps the best way I can summarize the difference is as follows: R2-D2, while energetic and spunky, was still a droid, but BB-8 is more like a little animal, a playful labrador retriever or a shy beagle, trapped in the mechanical body of a gadget-loaded soccer ball.
          Another noteworthy factor of The Force Awakens is the fair amount of cultural commentary present in the film. Perhaps in continuing with the trend started by Jurassic World, The Force Awakens has some very up front feminist tones to it. As one can imagine, most of them center around Rey. Rey is depicted as a strong, fit, and independent scavenger, on both a physical level, as evidenced by the fact that she manages to fight of two would-be kidnappers of BB-8 on Jakku, and on a mental level, as evidenced by the fact that she manages to resist the psychic torture of Kylo Ren. And this is in stark contrast to Ren, who, as mentioned above, does not possess the same strength of will as Rey, at times giving a sort of "confession" to the charred mask of Darth Vader for any deviance away from the Dark Side. She is not the same sexualized support character that Princess Leia was in the original trilogy, instead taking center stage as the main protagonist. And it should be noted that Rey is not alone in making such a statement. Captain Phasma (portrayed by Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame) is a towering storm trooper commander, ruthless and calculated. It should also be noted that Phasma is apparently not the only woman that is sympathetic to the cause of the First Order; we encounter several women serving the First Order throughout the film, both in the role of soldier as a stormtrooper on the front lines, and as operations officers serving directly under General Hux at Starkiller Base. Again, this is in stark contrast to the original trilogy, where there were very few women at all in the films, and, when there were, they always seemed to be sympathetic towards the Rebellion. And much like Rey, Phasma escapes the over-sexualization that unfortunately characterizes a number of successful sci-fi and fantasy series. Her armor is merely a chrome version of normal storm trooper armor, and, were it not for her voice, one would likely not be able to guess that it was a woman wearing it. As Inquisitr points out, the discussion surrounding Captain Phasma can best be summed up by a comment from one poster on the Star Wars Facebook page, and the rather clever response from one of the moderators [3]. And the feminist statements made by Rey and Captain Phasma are not the only the only points of cultural commentary made throughout the film. Finn (portrayed by British-born John Boyega) represents another shift away from the historical cast of white, male protagonists in the Star Wars universe. This point is especially pertinent for science fiction in general; traditionally, more whites and Asians have been burdened (or blessed, depending on how you want to look at it) with the stereotype of the sci-fi nerd, while African-Americans and Hispanics have largely avoided this. To have a black protagonist in one of the most important science fiction series in history undoubtedly illustrates the potential for a shift away from the traditional stereotypes.
          Another characteristic of The Force Awakens that deserves praise is the way that J.J. Abrams decided to handle the special effects for the film. And, in keeping with the precedent set by Fury Road and Jurassic World earlier in the year, Abrams had, much to the benefit of the series, shied away from the grotesque amounts of CGI that characterize the Avengers films, or anything produced by Michael Bay, and preferred to use genuine sets and real props, giving the film a much more realistic appearance and avoiding the silliness that eventually comes with overdoses of CGI. Scenes for The Force Awakens were filmed on location in Iceland, England, and Abu Dhabi, and many of the extraterrestrial characters that Rey encounters on Jakku were realistic props or puppets, as opposed to the artificial appearance of, say, many of the CGI aliens in the Men in Black films. Apparently, it had been the aim of Abrams' production staff all along to recreate the the "real" look and feel of the original trilogy [4]. As I have suggested in the past, the benefits of such an approach are rooted in something much more fundamental than just preserving the look and feel of the "original" Star Wars; while there is nothing inherently wrong with CGI, going overboard with it tends to add a degree of "cartoonishness" to whichever film it is being applied to, and it seems as if the cinematographers of The Force Awakens were inadvertently scratching the surface of this principle when they decided to be more conservative with their application of CGI.
          However, despite the above strengths of The Force Awakens, it wasn't flawless. Perhaps the most glaring thing that it seemed to miss the mark on has to do with its plot and story. I will echo what a lot of other critics have said and point out that, in many ways, The Force Awakens is simply a reimagining of A New Hope. The First Order, having risen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, has a planet-sized space station, Starkiller Base, that is capable of firing a giant laser beam and blowing up planets. Trying to stop them are the "Resistance", as opposed to the "Rebellion", still led by Leia Organa. It turns out, however, that the person who is really capable of stopping the First Order is Luke Skywalker, who has mysteriously vanished, so the Resistance sets out to try and find him. Aware of Skywalker's potential to resist them, the First Order also sets out to try and find him before the Resistance. The movie opens up with Poe Dameron, a Resistance fighter pilot, hiding a map to Luke Skywalker inside BB-8 on the desert planet of Jakku just before the First Order attacks the village he's in. It was at that moment that my alarms started going off; I couldn't help but slightly cringe at the fact that it appeared as if Abrams quite literally subbed in BB-8 for R2-D2 and a map to Luke Skywalker in place of the plans to the Death Star and then called it Episode VII. Still, I felt inclined to give The Force Awakens the benefit of the doubt - "perhaps", I thought, "the plot will get much more interesting by the end". And then it turns out at the very end that the Rebellion, er, I mean Resistance, launches a fighter assault on the Death Star, er, I mean Starkiller Base, just before it can fire its laser beam. Needless to say, I was overall disappointed with how the story was handled. And it wouldn't be as big of a deal if it wasn't such a crucial thing to get right. As I have said in the past, I regard the story as one of the biggest drivers of quality science fiction, and while the story for the original trilogy was great, that does not justify recycling it again here; we've heard this story before, and have already learned from it. Perhaps the argument could be made that recycling the story was necessary in order to properly reintroduce the series to millenials, many of whom have never seen the original trilogy. But this argument baffles me; I'm a millenial, and I saw the original trilogy when I was a small child, and instead of recreating A New Hope in the form of The Force Awakens simply for the sake of introducing it to millenials, one has to wonder why you can't just show millenials A New Hope. And, on a smaller scale, there is one more thing about the plot that struck me as odd: despite the great amount of hype that the character of Captain Phasma got before the film was released, she had a grand total of about two minutes of screen time. Again, I am not the only one that feels this way; as Jason Guerrasio points out, "the flashy Stormtrooper with chrome armor and cape played by 'Game of Thrones' star Gwendoline Christie has been all over the marketing of the film, the captain of the First Order gets the least screen time out of the newest main cast members in the movie" [5]. Guerrasio goes on to attribute this to editing, pointing out that the run time for the film clocked in at over two hours, so, for editing purposed, the producers had to make the choice to sacrifice some of Phasma's screen time. But even this explanation baffles me; each of the Lord of the Rings films clocked in at over three hours, and nobody seemed to care about their run time. As such, I don't quite understand what is achieved by more or less cutting out Captain Phasma when the film still probably would not be as long as a Lord of the Rings film.
          Let me finish by returning to the original question I posed earlier about the criteria that we should use to evaluate The Force Awakens: does the film reinvigorate the Star Wars series for another generation of science fiction fans? The answer is a solid "Yes", but again, its not perfect. While The Force Awakens has its moments of pure brilliance, such as the concept and character of Kylo Ren, it also has its blunders, such as its unoriginal story. It's unfortunate that it misses the mark on something so core; its poor handling of Captain Phasma is forgivable, but the recycling of the story of A New Hope compromises one of the most important aspects of good science fiction - an imaginative story that is used to ask important philosophical and social questions. As much as I don't want to say it, this disqualifies The Force Awakens from being my film of the year. But again, I must emphasize that it is still light years better than many of the other films I have seen in 2015, and I doubt I will see a character as unique as Kylo Ren in anything coming out of Hollywood anytime soon. Overall, I think it is a great way to close out my cinematic experience for the year, and, because of the way it balances props and CGI, I think I can safely say that 2015 was the year where filmmakers finally learned how to do a reboot.