Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Everything old is new again

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.18.15

No question about it: J.J. Abrams definitely is one with The Force.

The writer/director/producer who so smartly revived the Star Trek franchise has done the same with Star Wars.

With nasty First Order storm troopers hot on their heels, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John
Boyega) do their best to survive long enough to get a valuable little droid into the hands of
good-guy Resistance fighters.
After the most recent trilogy prompted a blend of disappointment, disgust and outright hostility — Jar Jar Binks, anyone? — fans could be excused the raised-eyebrow wariness that initially greeted news of fresh doings in that galaxy far, far away. But maybe there really is something to the all-pervasive Force, because — for several months now — we’ve been part of an escalating global awareness that Something Great was in the offing.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t merely a 30-years-later continuation of the universe-spanning saga that (technically) left off back in 1983, with Return of the Jedi. Abrams and co-scripters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have delivered a new chapter that simultaneously advances the ongoing narrative, while strongly evoking, echoing and honoring everything that we loved about that wonderful debut, back in 1977.

Abrams sought out the best: Kasdan will be recognized as the writer who worked on both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (not to mention Raiders of the Lost Ark). He lives and breathes this stuff; he also understands the delicate art of imitating Hollywood’s Golden Age serials — with their alternating dollops of melodramatic angst and cliff-hanging action scenes — without crossing the line into overly broad farce.

And, as befits the 30-years-later scenario, we’ve been granted a fresh — and fresh-faced — cast of new characters, possessing varying capabilities, and thrust into ghastly events with either reluctance or grim resolve. At the same time, fans will cheer the return of old friends, whether human, droid or Wookie.

It can’t have been easy to deliver a film that will please both newcomers and longtime fans with light-sabers drawn; Abrams and his crew pulled it off, and then some.

To cases, then:

Despite the apparent destruction of the Empire, Darth Vader and all those who practiced the Dark Side of the Force, evil never truly went away; it merely hibernated, awaiting new opportunities. Thus, as The Force Awakens begins, the remnants of the malevolent Empire have been revived as the Nazi-esque First Order, under the command of an immense Dark Jedi Overlord dubbed Snoke (brought to life by the fabulous Andy Serkis). The baddies are opposed by members of the former Rebel Alliance, now more fittingly known as the Resistance.

The galaxy’s lone remaining Jedi Knight, Luke Skywalker, has vanished into self-imposed exile, for reasons that gradually become clear as this new chapter proceeds. Absent that sort of “light side” protector, Snoke has trained a new black-helmeted wielder of the dark side: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

If the latter lacks a bit of the thundering majesty that James Earl Jones’ booming voice gave Darth Vader, Driver gets close enough: Kylo Ren is a brooding über-villain with a similarly conflicted soul, and a tendency to lose his temper rather aggressively. (His cleaning bills must be astronomical.)

But as was the case back in the day, Snoke isn’t relying solely on Kylo Ren’s Force-sensing, telekinetic abilities or light saber skills. His mysticism is accompanied by awesome-scary technological weaponry under the command of Gen. Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

The very first film’s Peter Cushing was much better as the co-baddie; he could inspire terror without raising his voice, whereas Gleeson has a tendency toward shrillness. But that’s a minor quibble; Star Wars plotlines are painted with very broad strokes, and Gleeson certainly is persuasively Evil.

Initially, such galaxy-spanning machinations are worlds removed from the daily, hard-scrabble routine of a desert-planet scavenger dubbed Rey (Daisy Ridley). Her sand-laden planet Jakku is a barren graveyard of massive junked ships: downed Imperial star destroyers and other vessels guaranteed to evoke smiles of recognition.

Daisy is this new trilogy’s young Luke in all but name and gender; I’m surprised Abrams didn’t include a scene of her staring pensively out at the barren landscape, against the backdrop of a double sunset.

Composer par excellence John Williams didn’t miss the opportunity; he grants Daisy her own theme, which hearkens back to what we heard during that iconic image of Luke. You’ll also hear other long-familiar Williams themes as this new chapter progresses, and key players — and events — are resurrected.

Elsewhere, seasoned Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his faithful droid, BB-8, have been tasked with delivering some crucial intel. Alas, First Order has tracked Poe to — you guessed it — Jakku, which gives Kylo Ren and Gen. Hux their first opportunity to demonstrate rather nasty behavior.

Quite nasty, as it turns out; these guys may be more spitefully, cheerfully cruel than Vader ever was. Longtime Abrams fans know that the filmmaker doesn’t pull his punches; he understands that bravery and heroism deliver greater emotional heft in the wake of tragic loss.

Poe seems doomed, but for the unexpected intervention of a white-armored First Order storm trooper with a sudden attack of conscience. That would be FN-2187, more conveniently dubbed Finn (John Boyega). One mostly successful escape later, some of these unlikely heroes cross paths with Rey, who isn’t the slightest bit interested in such celestial issues ... that is, not until Hux’s storm troopers lay waste to her local trading outpost.

And ... we’re off and running. (Literally. And quite frequently.)

The British-born Ridley makes Rey an engagingly resourceful, kick-ass heroine: a spunky young woman unwilling to back down, even in the face of greater odds. She’s a charming blend of capable, curious and tenacious, and Ridley delivers the occasionally (deliberately) corny dialog with just the right touch of spirit.

The same cannot be said of Boyega, who’s a bit too breathless. Granted, Finn is overcompensating for his questionable origins — which he never seems to find the right moment to explain — but Boyega works his eager-beaver shtick much too hard, as if still trying to win the role during some extended audition.

I realize the Star Wars tone calls for that sort of melodramatic exaggeration — we definitely winced at some of the line readings by Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, back in the day — but Abrams really should have directed Boyega to dial it back a bit.

Isaac, the most experienced (and by far best) actor in this new ensemble, plays Poe in the gung-ho Han Solo vein. He’s a tough cookie willing to spit in Kylo Ren’s eye, and Isaac definitely sells the bluster and bravado.

Younger fans will adore BB-8, an ambulatory beach ball with a stable half-dome head that always remains topside, no matter how much its spherical body wobbles and rotates while navigating everything from desert sands to basement stairs. As was the case with C-3PO and R2-D2 in the previous films, BB-8 gets most of the obvious laugh lines ... which is impressive, since this newest little droid “talks” via the same squeaks and squawks as R2-D2.

A few celebrity faces (and voices) turn up in smaller parts: Max von Sydow’s veteran Resistance fighter; longtime Abrams alum Greg Grunberg’s Resistance X-wing pilot; and a millennium-old tavern owner dubbed Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), who runs an establishment whose introduction hearkens back to the cantina sequence of old, complete with wheezing four-piece band.

The major difference is improved technology: Cinematographer Daniel Mindel probes every nook and cranny of Kanata’s seamy establishment with a single tracking shot that couldn’t have been accomplished almost four decades ago. Production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford deliver similar pizzazz, whether taking us throughout the myriad corridors of First Order’s massive Starkiller Base, or into the hull spaces of a certain Corellian YT-1300 light freighter.

As for Chris Corbould’s special effects and Roger Guyett’s visual effects ... goodness, need you ask? Simply fabulous, with a sense of scale that George Lucas also couldn’t have imagined, back in the 1970s. The ground-level melees alone convey a sense of huge world-building, not to mention a space-faring grand finale which, yes, hearkens back to the assault on a certain Death Star, and is granted the same exciting snap by Abrams and editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey.

Abrams understands the importance of all these and many other familiar signposts. When a certain grizzled character smiles at one point and says, “We’re home,” the same could be said for us viewers. This is the new Star Wars adventure that we’ve awaited since 1983.

I can’t wait for the next one ... and with multiple plot threads left dangling, it can’t come soon enough!

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