Dec 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Let me preface this by saying that the only Star Wars movie I ever saw was the original when it came out. I was about 12 and I hated it. I never set foot on a theater showing Star Wars ever again. Until now.
But it is a testament to the pop culture power of the George Lucas franchise that one really doesn't have to sit through the movies to know about Yoda, princesses with names like limbic systems and even Jar Jar Binks. None of the reassuring psychological mumbo jumbo really matters except the grip that this convoluted yet simplistic tale has on the world's imagination. It has something to do with fathers (what else is new?). And with a "Force" that you can use either for good or evil, which is none other than a secularized version of the Christian concept of free will, a concept that grates on my nerves. I don't buy it, but this is grist for another post. Star Wars is like a salad of Christianity Lite and Taoism. To Lucas' credit and perhaps even genius, no one in it believes in God.
The current, long-awaited sequel by J.J. Abrams warrants attention, as Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon as far as I'm concerned, exaggeratedly beloved by huge swaths of the world's population.
The bad news is, I was mostly bored. The reason for this lies, I suspect, in the way scripts for this kind of blockbusters are written, which are mainly extended intergalactic chase scenes and endless shoot em ups, disconnected set pieces punctuated by short intervals of stale and expository dialog between characters played by actors who seem lost in the greenscreen. Every time I see these fanboy movies I always wish Steven Spielberg had directed them. At least he can put dazzling sequences together with a sense of playful mischief. And he is not as dishonest, or better at camouflaging the manipulative editing and lazy writing. Everyone else, including Abrams, is a clunky, distant wannabe.
I perked up when I saw Oscar Isaac, a charismatic actor who is excellent in every movie he's in except for this one. He's used to playing complicated, sometimes unsavory characters; here, he's a mere goody two shoes. They give him the most inane lines and no real reason for existing and for once, he does not know what to do. He looks like he doesn't belong.
I perked up every time the great Domnhall Gleeson shows up, as a general of the evil First Order, an empire controlled by a giant prune acted with his customary panache by Andy Serkis. Gleeson, who tends to play decent chaps, wisely decides to camp it up a bit. He brings a controlled yet intense sang-froid that's more riveting than anything happening around him. Adam Driver also delivers, since he happens to be the only interesting character of the lot. He is a tortured, insecure son. As for newcomers Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn), I wish they had been directed not to take themselves so seriously. Through no fault of their own, they are rather insufferable.
Ridley fares well. Her character is the only glimmer of hope not only in the story, but for the entire Hollywood blockbuster industry. Here's a girl who can survive on her own, drive a spaceship like the best of them, and has a firm grip on auto mechanics. She is a smart and resourceful fighter who does not rely on feminine wiles to carry the day. She uses her wits. Given the usual way in which women are portrayed in most Hollywood films (helpless, clueless, threatening, or simply afterthoughts) I do not exaggerate when I say that considering the worldwide cultural influence of Star Wars, this may be a watershed moment in which the rancid stereotypes of women begin to change in Hollywood, and hopefully, in the culture at large. I salute the filmmakers for making her the undisputed protagonist of the movie, and as compelling a hero as any guy. She is certainly way more compelling than the insipid Luke Skywalker. If only they hadn't given her a guy's name. I still wish these female heroines were not acting like guys in disguise, but baby steps. 
The audience cheered when Han Solo and Chewbacca arrived, and so did I. They provide some personality and comic relief, though not enough. Harrison Ford, who was the best thing in the original movie, seems to be on the fence as to whether he hates or loves being there. Bringing back Carrie Fisher, now as General Leia, and not taking advantage of her sense of humor is a waste. Nostalgia is put to good use with the original cast and C3PO and R2D2 but opportunities for real storytelling are as ignored as scrap metal in the dust.
Lupita Nyong'o is wonderful and unrecognizable as the nicely rendered little prune who owns the intergalactic cantina (the first cantina was much more fun than this one. This one is a downer).
Only Chewie is fun. Only Chewie is hip. I can't get over his messenger bag. It's the best thing in the movie.
Thanks to enormous advances on digital special effects there are some spectacular vistas. The production design and the costumes are cool. The First Order live in a cold white planet and their gatherings resemble Riefenstahlian Nuremberg rallies in space. They reminded me of the Nazis in terms of style, (including Gleeson's high boots and the troopers' Nazi salute) but also, and more au courant, of ISIS, as they are also bent on destroying anyone who doesn't think like them, for no good reason.
John Williams provides cascades of epic notes and bits of his famous musical themes for the movie. It's a good, yet busy score. In short: I expected it to be more fun.

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