Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (non-spoiler) review

The spoiler review for the movie is available here.

    Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a work just about every geek has given his or her opinion on since it's release. For the most part it's been a general "Star Wars is back!" sentiment or, less charitably, "Star Wars: The Apology for the Prequels." I'm actually going to agree with a lot of that and state this is a work by a fan who very much wanted to go back to the Original Trilogy's values.

    I'm not on the anti-Prequel train, honestly. Jar Jar Binks eventually gave us the "Indiana Jar Jar and the Temple of Doom" episodes of The Clone Wars CGI cartoon while the Clone Wars gave us several hundred extremely good spin-off works. Did I like the actual Prequels? Ehh, not really, with the exception of Attack of the Clones that I put over Return of the Jedi, but I think they gave die-hard fans a lot of good veen if the movies were only springboards for other people's love of Star Wars.

    But how is The Force Awakens?  Really-really good. But not perfect.

The future crush of many 21st century boys (and some girls).
    The premise of the movie is General Leia Organa Solo (Carrie Fisher) has sent out pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to seek out Luke Skywalker. Along the way, he's captured by new villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rescued by a defecting Imperial Stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega), the pair steal a TIE fighter and crash-land on the planet Jakku with droid B-88.

    Meeting mysterious scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), they need to dodge the dangerous First Order and deliver the map to Luke Skywalker's location back to the Resistance. There's a lot more going on such as the Empire's new superweapon and the return of several old favorites. Explosions happen. A lot of explosions. Lightsabers. Pew-pew!

    And yeah, honestly, that's awesome by itself. To quote a Star Wars meme which has popped up about the movie, this is the Star Wars movie we've been looking for. You will be transported to a galaxy-far-far away again and it will make you a kid again for a short time. When the lights come back on in the theater, you'll start to think of the fact the music doesn't have any iconic pieces compared to the Original Trilogy (or Prequels). You'll also note the plot is 80% A New Hope, 5% Empire, and 15% bits from the Star Wars Expanded universe. However, you'll be glad like the return of an old friend.

Poor Finn. Imperial man suffers most.
    I'm impressed with J.J. Abram's vision of the galaxy far far away after thirty-years. It's a more diverse place with a lot more women, people of varying ethnicities, as well as a return to a focus on the "working class" of the universe over Senators and Jedi. It once more feels like a "used" universe where people work and live. We're also blessedly free of unfunny humor and ethnic-stereotype-based aliens.

    Yes, I went there.

    The stand-out actors for this round are Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Harrison Ford with honorable mentions all around. The human emotion is some of the best in the franchise, close to Empire, and just about everyone is likable in the story. As much as has been made of Ford's distaste for the Han Solo role covering his career until the Indiana Jones movies, he handles it with incredible professionalism and the character returns perfectly to screen. Ford plays "Old Han" far-far better than "Old Indy" and the scenes with him are the highlight of the movie.

Yes, Chewie, you can go home again.
    The character of Rey is going to get some flack for the fact she's an amazing pilot, a top-notch mechanic, and also possessed of enormous fighting abilities despite a complete lack of training. Given this describes two of the desert-born protagonists of previous films, I think this is just a ridiculous thing to complain about even as I note both of them received the same sort of criticism. Rey is such a likable, fun, and joy-filled character, though, that I think she'll have the same place in the hearts of adolescent boys Princess Leia did for an entirely new generation.

    And Kylo Ren.

    ****ing Kylo Ren.

The ultimate Millennial evil!
    I love to hate this guy. Seriously, he's the Joffrey Baratheon of the new movies in terms of wanting to just see him stabbed with a lightsaber. JJ Abrams and Kasdan likely knew there was no point in trying to equal Darth Vader in terms of sheer iconic villainy so they didn't try.

    Instead, they made a meta-joke about the fact the character of Kylo Ren is a man desperately trying to live up to the legacy of the 20th century's best fictional incarnation of evil. Whereas Anakin was chided for being whiny, petulant, and childish, these qualities take on a terrifying horror in Kylo Ren as we realize he's supposed to be like this. A mixture of unimaginable power and stunted teenage fury which manifests itself in killing whoever stands in his way.

    Oddly, my favorite achievement of the movie is the First Order. I absolutely love the First Order. The whole transformation of the Galactic Empire from a collection of non-believing Space Nazis into fanatical zealot/pseudo-religious North Koreans with super-tech is awesome. The First Order is a bunch of Imperials living in the middle of nowhere, brainwashing their children to believe in utter nonsense that makes them the good guys in a dominionist war for the universe. I sympathize and pity them even as I know they're going to lose and deserve to. The parallels with modern-day terrorists are present but the movie doesn't beat you over the head with them either.

The First Order is awesome, tragic, and sad all at once.
     So, what are the complaints? I've mentioned the movie feels like a re-hash of A New Hope and I'm not speaking in the same way the Prequels drew parallels, I'm saying there's a lot of scenes which bring this work dangerously close to being a remake. There's really no need to have both the superweapon as well as search for Luke plotlines as the latter does everything the movie requires.

     I think Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) was wasted and we could have gotten a few more humanizing moments for the First Order. After all, Finn is shooting up his former comrades and brothers from not five minutes before. I mentioned above John Williams doesn't really have any iconic new scores for the film even if the reuse of classic ones was well-done.

I even like this jackass.
    There's also something I never actually expected to say about a Star Wars movie: I really wish they'd devoted more time to explaining the politics of the setting. I know, right? However, while I don't think the politcs are especially hard to comprehend ("There's a New Republic, a Resistance covertly funded by it, and the First Order the Resistance fights"), it's something which I could have gotten more insight into.

     For example, it's kind of surprising to find Princess Leia leading a Che Guevara-esque revolution in the butt-end of the galaxy versus leading the New Republic. Likewise, I'm not sure just how much damage they're doing to the First Order since these sorts of things tend to only inflame the opinion of fanatics.

    One thing the movie really successfully achieved, though, is it made me feel like I was once more in a galaxy far far away and convinced me I still cared about Star Wars. I want to know more about the First Order, what they believe, and how they came to be. I want to know about Luke Skywalker's adventures for the past thirty-years. I want to know more about the tragedy of Kylo Ren and how he managed to become such an butthead. I also want to see more adventures with our new generation of heroes. I thought I was done with Star Wars after the end of the Legends universe but I'm back and happy to be here. That, by itself, is an impressive achievement after the Yuuzhan Vong.

     In conclusion, I really liked The Force Awakens. It's something which bodes well for the franchise and while I can't say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, I am going to give it a very high score and say it's one of the best Star Wars works I've seen in decades.


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