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« "Tangerine" and the Case for Mya Taylor | Main | The Animated Feature contenders: Regular Show: The Movie »
Friday
Dec182015

Review: "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens"

This article originally appeared yesterday in Nathaniel's column on Towleroad. It is reprinted here in a slightly longer version

[Please read with the John Williams Star Wars theme blaring in your head…]

 

In the first trailer for The Force Awakens (aka Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens but we’ll go with the shorter title). Han Solo famously announced…

Chewie we’re home.

You’ll be happy to learn that it wasn’t just a well placed trailer byte but a promise to audiences that the film actually delivers on. I can state unequivocably that the The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film in 32 years. That might sound like a backhanded compliment — for what could be worse than the 1999-2005 prequels? —  but it’s meant with great affection just like the film in question...

The love for the original trilogy is present in every frame of director JJ Abrams sequel.

The opening crawl, blessedly pulpy again and free of dull politics, embargo, and taxation, catches us up. Here’s the very very basic premise: the last Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has sent her most daring pilot on a mission to retrieve information which could reveal her brother’s location. The Empire is also back somehow despite being defeated in Return of the Jedi. They’re now known as “The First Order” though the set design surrounding them unsubtly views them as The Third Reich.

Han and Chewbacca, not in the opening crawl, are also back and get many of the funniest beats.

And we’re off to a grand adventure. In true Star Wars form, the opening shot is of the stars which is then interrupted by a planetary body and/or a massive ship suddenly entering the frame. In this case the ship flies over the frame blocking out a very bright moon. That’s a visual move that will be subtly echoed narratively if not visually later on. Director J.J. Abrams and his co screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have obviously studied the original films closely and smartly avoid every wrong-headed blunder of the prequels.

They also magically deliver three crush-worthy new heroes with their eye on the prize of future films. That’s a good move since the plotting is too imitative to thrill on its own. Rey (Daisy Ridley) a scavenger girl from a desert planet that looks suspicously like Luke’s Tatooine, may prove the most popular among them.

There’s been a lot of talk in the culture lately about Star Wars being a ‘boys’ thing and there will be much talk about Rey that will rewrite history and claim that Star Wars is finally for girls, too. Despite the frequent absence of Leia toys — a merchandising not a movie problem — the original trilogy was always for both boys and girls. And gay boys who worshipped Leia and lusted after Luke or Han! (Luke man here, don’t judge). It’s the “Princess” in Leia’s name that throws people retroactively. Carrie Fisher’s signature role was never a damsel in distress: She fought Stormtroopers (Star Wars) and defied Darth Vader right to his face without flinching, something Luke could never do without a lot of trembling / sweating ; She commanded armies (The Empire Strikes Back); She rescued Han Solo (not the other way around), killed Jabba the Hut, and valiantly fought on speeder bikes in the Forest of Endor (Return of the Jedi). Rey is, similarly, no slouch in battle. She’s also gifted with The Force Awakens smartest plot turns and sharpest scenes but let’s not rewrite history in her praise. Princess Leia was a badass bitch herself!

The worst that can be said of the new film is that it’s probably too beholden to the originals. While it would be somewhat unfair to call it a “reboot”, it borrows so heavily from the structure, visual language, landscapes, and even plot points, that calling it a “remix” would not be wholly inaccurate. It often plays like great fan fiction that you wouldn’t mind adopting as canon. Consider the new central trio Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). You could argue that it’s Luke, Leia, and Han all over again. The fun — and The Force Awakens is great fun, never skimping on humor -– is how clever the new episode is in scrambling up those archetypes and skewering the modern blockbuster’s regressive gender expectations in the process.

But fear not, purists, some things will never change. The Stormtroopers still have absolutely terrible aim and their iconic white armor remains hilariously ineffective; they’re always felled with just one blast.

CUE EXIT MUSIC. STRAY OBSERVATIONS.

• Seeing Han, Luke and Leia again….oh how The Nostalgia Awakens. Thankfully the sentiment doesn’t get in the way of the story but informs it beautifully.

• Daisy Ridley looks a little like and sounds exactly like Keira Knightley which is… disturbing.

• Lupita Nyong’o appears… no, scratch that. Lupita is heard as an ancient alien who jump-starts one of the main character’s arcs. But why is Hollywood still refusing to let us see her beautiful face post Oscar win? There is no good reason why her character Maz Kanata needed to be a motion capture alien.

• It's really hard to write a Star Wars review without an anecdote or five about your memories / history of the series from childhood... which is surely a reason why the release is such an event. 

• The acting is as overripe as it was in the earlier films (though not, thankfully, as wooden). There is a great moment when Han Solo tells one of the young actors to “take it down” when they’re at fever pitch. So funny.

 The Force Awakens is not half as manic with action as the prequels (a very welcome thing) but sadly there is no action scene quite as thrilling as the Darth Maul fights from Phantom Menace, basically the only unmissable 10 minutes in 418 minutes of prequel garbage.

• Character Rankings from this episode:  Han > Chewbacca > Rey > BB-8 > Leia > Poe Cameron > Finn > Kylo Ren > Maz Kanata > Luke > Captain Phasma > Lor San Tekka > General Hux > Supreme Leader Snoke

• Complete film rankings:  V > IV >> VI >>> VII >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>>>>>>> III > I=II

• Please refrain from spoilers in the comments and remind me to rewrite this review once everyone has seen the film.

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Reader Comments (23)

With the way its box office is looking, you should be able to rewrite this review by Saturday.

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterYun Xia

About Lupita: I recently read Pictures at a Revolution, wherein black actress Beah Richards got rave reviews and a Tony nod circa 1966 ... after which she got no work for WAY too long. Her director took out an ad in an industry publication in an effort to help her. And I kept thinking that here we are, 50 years later, and history seems to be repeating itself with Lupita Nyongo, except she actually won the Oscar, which makes her lack of projects even worse.

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercash

Is Lupita actually looking for film work?

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNnnnvg

Nnnnvg -- she's definitely been auditioning (Southpaw, Star Wars, etcetera)

December 18, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Lu wants to work. But the opportunities for her are in fashion and theater. This is why it is important for Hollywood to start commissioning racially neutral scripts for actresses in leading roles. Lu should have some opportunity to succeed or fail with a leading vehicle they finance.

The actor playing Finn will have several opportunities Lu won't have. Hence how Hollywood patriarchy benefits male actors of color.

I have mixed emotions about the movie. Not a bad movie but it left me wanting more. It felt too unresolved by the end.

Lu's character design reminded me of the late actress Estelle Getty.

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Well, being left with wanting more is just what the filmmakers were aiming at and they sure succeded! The ending gave me chills, it was perfect! And Rian Johnson should be able to do great things with ep. VIII.

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterhaajen

So it's essentially a rehash of the original trilogy with nothing new to add, and the only reason people are seeing it is a collective sense of sentimental nostalgia??

I'll pass. I'd rather not sit through a 2+ hour commercial for Disney to shell out more crappy merchandise.

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

Say what you will about the horrible prequels.... But they at least were they own things and went to places the original trilogy didn't go.

don't get me wrong. I loved the force awakens! But I found the remixezation distracting. Like in the emocional clímax of the movie, who borrowed too deep on the darth maul vs quin gon jin scène and the end of new hope. I could ser the end before it happend and got frustrated.

I hope that in the next ones the screenwriters free themselves from the nostalgia.

My favorite new character is kyle ren! He is menacing and fragile at the same time. Adam driver outdid himself.

The chemistry between Finn and Rey was the best thing in the movie. Hope the actors get more works.

Poe dameron was okay. Oscar Isaac is amazing as always, but the character is flat in the script.

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMarcello

I basically entirely agree. Except i probably enjoyed Rey most of all.

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Zitzelman

Oh, I was ALL about BB-8 and Rey and wished the whole thing just spent all its time on them in some sort of isolated road movie desert dramedy. I really hope one of the spin-offs makes a weird detour like this and we get a cool, totally isolated story instead of everything thrown in for fan-service, which this seemed to need to be for the first return.

Kylo Ren didn't work for me at all but that's mostly due to Adam Driver. David Fincher was right, Driver is all wrong for this.

Maz and especially Captain Phasma needed more screentime, I was very curious.

I'm glad we only got so much of the other male characters, they didn't do it for me this time around.

Hope that wasn't spoilery. I refrained from specifics as much as I could.

December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

I loved the film. Regarding Lupita hey I want her gorgeous talented face on my screen as much as the next person but her character in this film is a 1,000 year old alien and I think the cgi is justified and serves the story. We can't blame this one production who probably mapped out the character before even casting her on the overall problems she faces in Hollywood can we ?

December 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRami

I'd give it a solid B. The tone was very Guardians of the Galaxy which can vary in mileage depending on who's on-screen but as with most J.J. Abrams films, the running time just flew by. They had enough story beats for a six hour mini-series so I wish they had paced things better and left some for the next movie. Also, more Captain Phasma, I need my Brienne of Tarth in every fantasy reality.

December 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

Lupita's strength, beyond just her acting ability, is that she has such a distinctive look. Sadly, like many actors who have that, and breaking through as she did in a period film (about slavery no less) and appearing on red carpets looking very glamourous with her posh accent makes, I imagine, many people suspect she wouldn't fit so easily into just any film. I don't know if I want to see her in disposable roles to be honest just to have her there when she's otherwise able to do a role on Broadway that I'll never get to see.

December 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn -- i have just been frustrated because there's no reason, for example, that she couldn't have played the Rachel McAdams role in Southpaw. Instead they were considering her for the lesser part of a social worker. It's just why... she's GORGEOUS. People will buy her in the larger roles with which they tend to require some degree of beauty / glamour. She's also in the exact right age range to be paired with all the hot leading men. (sigh)

December 19, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I loved. It did what it was supposed to do awakening a franchise, setting the stage, mood, gave us context and direction for the next 2-3 films. Now the next director won't have to go back and reset the stage. loved it

December 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJay

@Glenn

You're giving supremacists an easy way out. She's too unique to use!

When Hollywood wants to make space for you they can.

Look at all the short male performers who are allowed to have serious careers in the movies and elsewhere.

And they are not the Hollywood type and are especially unique: Danny DeVito, Joe Pesci, Warwick Davis, Tony Cox, and Peter Dinklage.

Or plus size actresses like: Kathy Bates, Queen Latifah, Margo Martindale, Melissa McCarthy.

December 19, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

cash: A couple of years after receiving her Tony nomination as Best Actress for "The Amen Corner," Beah Richards was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." She eventually won two Emmys, the last of which days before her death.

December 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

Marcos: I know about Richard's nomination for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." The book is entirely about the five best picture nominees of that year, including "Guess..." It was a great read; check it out if you want more info and context about the matter.

December 19, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercash

FYC: Harrison Ford for Best Supporting Actor. Could this happen?!

December 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

Really loved Daisy Ridley in this, smart choice of the marketing to try to highlight Finn as the main hero.

LMAO @ the Estelle Getty remark.

December 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Overall the film is surprisingly good, but my main request would be they lay off the Chewbacca a little. He started to really grate on me, in a Jar-Jar Binks kind of way. Also, Adam Driver was outstanding above and beyond the call of duty.

December 21, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterken s

Love this movie. Laughed and cried a lot. Still thrilled and mostly devastated at the end.

Yes indeed: CONSIDER HARRISON FORD!!!
If Sly of all people could get buzz for that Rocky reboot of all things, then a SECOND nom for Ford is a must.

December 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

I hated it... more than a remix, I think it is a lazy rip off, of A New Hope. Even the order of locations, is accurately copied... you can find the parallels to each character, action, element, on Episode IV, in this one, even a couple of moments are borowed from V... changing sex or race is lazy screenwritting... Acting was wooden, in my opinion, I would only save Boyega, from the cast... the rest aren't specially bad (but Fisher, who is far from the freshness of key moments in Episodes IV and V) and I won't comment on N'yongo and Serkis as I saw the film dubbed into spanish - I wasn't alone and wanted to see it, in 3D - and I can't judge their voice acting. To me, being generous, it is just a **1/2 - D+ film, and only thanks to the virtuosim of the technical aspects... I found the last third to be as embarrassingly bad as the whole Jar Jar Binks run in Episode I, but at least this time, the spectacular action saved the borefest. Missed is, the depth of the prequels subthemes, which was heavily criticized but gave the franchise a sense, a motivation for its mere existence beyond the cashgrabbing purpouse. And it really angers me, why such mediocre popcorn fare is collecting raves all around, and it's the third time this year, after "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Jurassic World", reviews are too kind for what in the end are mediocre subproducts or direct rip-off, playing on nostalgia. There's no excuse to not see how this film is almost a shot-for-shot remake of Episode IV, really. And of course BB8 is fun: IT'S A F'CKING DOG!!! Dogs are cute, aren't they? Thank God C3PO is still around, even if so poorly written... he's the best thing all through the franchise, along with R2D2 (who was completely spoiled in the prequels with its "supergadgets" absents in episodes IV-VI).

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

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