Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars - The Force Awakens

I saw this on Saturday at the most expensive screen (not my choice) in the least popular theater in my area; there were like 20 people there or something out of 400ish seats. I’m sure if we had gone to the other theaters or cheaper showings it would have been packed but it was still a fairly small number all things considered. The film has received near universal praise so far, locking at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.8 on IMDB, so you’d expect it to be incredible; but in reality it’s just another JJ Abrams movie. I saw this with my oldest brother and my Dad; I found the movie to be solid, my brother loved it and my father was disappointed; perhaps for 62 year old fanboyish reasons.

Abrams is a reasonably talented director and poor TV show organizer that’s superb at introducing new ideas and then not really delivering on them; as far as movies are concerned he’s able to make a tightly constructed, fun action movie almost every time out; but those are the extent of his powers. No Abrams movie was ever going to be utterly fantastic or anything, he’s just the ultimate safe bet for a very safe movie. The Force Awakens is basically just a New Hope with a slight reskin in almost every case; and I do mean slight. The film adheres so much to the traditional look of the original trilogy that various aspects of it look sort of “cheap” in a modern context. It’s certainly possible to use practical effects incredibly well and make a film not use that much CGI (a la Mad Max); but in the case of Star Wars I just want to see some cool shit; I don’t really care if it uses actual models of star fighters or what have you.

So, while a lot of cool shit does happen in the movie some of it, especially early on, looks a bit suspect. For comparison’s sake the game Star Wars: Battlefront (which my brother bought for some reason) uses the exact same aesthetic and looks fucking incredible at all times. There’s a lot of uncanny valley going on in the new film, because everything looks pretty much identical to things in the original trilogy but ever so slightly different; just a little off to the point where it could bother you. It isn’t enough to hamper the film too much but it does speak to a very restrictive set of options that the filmmakers were given with which to create a product; they basically said “Here’s Star Wars, don’t fuck it up!” and as a result we have this very crowd pleasing acceptable movie that is generally unremarkable otherwise.

That said the level of polish and attention to detail in the movie is incredibly impressive and it certainly does feel like Star Wars. There’s a variety of cool scenes and scenarios reminiscent of a New Hope, and some general joyous swashbuckling on the part of Han Solo that everyone will appreciate. The new characters fit rather nicely into their pre-existing molds and don’t really do anything particularly astonishing aside from that; both Daisy Ridley and John Boyega seem to be very competent actors but their roles are very simple and have almost no backstory beyond general vagueness. My Dad found this to be reprehensible for whatever reason, but this is probably just a thing with modern films where there needs to be more action so they can’t spend time hanging out with Lars and Beru and the Cantina scene can’t have a few minutes without something weird going on immediately. It didn’t really bother me that much; the characters themselves are just totally acceptable and within the norms of Star Wars more or less.

As far as specific things that people bitch about in the prequels I think a lot of attention was paid to that as well, the force is used much more simply and directly; the bad guy just gets pissed off and aggressive instead of simply being evil, and the Lightsaber duels are more like an actual sword fight instead of just a ton of choreography. That said I don’t think the new Villain is as intimidating as Darth Maul and his backstory is a little too loaded to work particularly well. He’s played by Adam Driver who I’ve previously seen in the Woody Allen Noah Baumbach movie While We’re Young. In that movie he’s just a really charming, relatively nice (though ambitious) guy and in the new Star Wars he oscillates from being evil to whiny and evil again. To be blunt it’s hard to impress me with a villain now since that’s like the one great thing about the last 15 years of movies, so if you’re just going to have a villain that’s okay it’s not going to bother me much. He was probably more intimidating than James Spader’s comedy routine in Age of Ultron.

The film is paced well, has interesting action sequences, and will be somewhat watchable in the future; though it’s never going to be a New Hope; just a very well-crafted imitation of a New Hope. To my surprise the references in the film are toned down relative to the new Star Trek movies and while there are some extended universe nods they’re just there for the fans and not a massive aspect of the storyline. There are some surprisingly brutal scenes in the old Star Wars movies if you think about it, like Lars and Beru being scorched to skeletons or Han Solo straight murdering a dude in close quarters; or various other scenes in the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi; but the new film is extremely safe on that front. 

The only thing in the movie that really takes a horrifying beating is a bulkhead and most of the rest of the “evil” scenes are played for comedic effect. I don’t think Disney is incapable of making an interesting movie that pushes violence boundaries and so forth, the original Pirates film is testament to that; but the Force Awakens is very nearly “PG” caliber in terms of the level of violence on screen. I get that it’s kid friendly and all that and I have no problem with PG movies (Mr. Holmes is my second favorite film of the year), but they could have tried to do something shocking aside from plot choices.

Overall I’m optimistic about the next 20 years of Star Wars movies and reboots and prequels and sequels and spin-offs; The Force Awakens is certainly a step in the right direction. Universal consensus seems to suggest that the Empire Strikes Back is the best film in the series and certainly up there all time in terms of Action movies, but personally I like a New Hope the best and this movie had just enough of the right beats to keep me entertained. On the whole I think it’s around the 7th or 8th best movie I’ve seen this year out of like 25 in theaters, it’s certainly no Mad Max but I think it will hold up better on repeat viewings than Kingsman (though it is only slightly better) for example. Sicario is sort of an action movie so that would make it the third best one of those all year. Worth seeing if you like Star Wars, worth seeing if you don’t (actually from the general response those that dislike SW seem to like this one the best).

Aside: Christmas makes this unpredictable but it looks like the film is going to fall just short of beating Avatar's domestic run. Edit: Nope, definitely going to beat it. Probably not going to get a billion domestic but who knows. The brand is invincible.

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