Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Opening this Thursday:

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force AwakensThe three Star Wars “prequels,” from 1999, 2002 and 2005, all started in the standard manner for the series, with the preface “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” followed by the blasting John Williams fanfare and the title. But then that crawl of yellow text would start, and it was a bunch of gobbledygook about trade alliances and congressional debates that would have seemed dry, complicated and confusing on C-SPAN.

The expository crawl for the new entry, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, starts with the line…

Well, wait a minute. As we were leaving the press screening, the PR folks asked us for our reactions. One of the ushers, headed in to clean the theater, was holding his hands over his ears as he passed us, terrified that he’d overhear some “spoiler.” So if you’re of this guy’s mindset, maybe you’d better stop reading until after you’ve seen the flick. I’ll do my best not give away any specific plot points, but perhaps you’d rather go in completely uncontaminated.

OK, now: The opening crawl for The Force Awakens begins with the line “Luke Skywalker has disappeared.” It goes on to explain that Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has dispatched “her most daring pilot” to track down a clue to her brother’s whereabouts.

Now we’re talking. Much like in the original 1977 Star Wars, a hero has disappeared, and the good guys have to find him. It’s the sort of simple, fairy-tale set-up that’s implied by that “Once upon a time” opening line.

And it’s this approach that makes The Force Awakens so much more fun than the “prequel trilogy.” In those films, there would be shootouts and spaceship dogfights and light saber duels, but it was hard to know what was at stake at any given point—at times I almost wasn’t sure who I was supposed to root for. The spectacle was great, but the storytelling was muddled. It certainly didn’t seem like the feeling a Star Wars movie should give you.

With The Force Awakens, however, director J. J. Abrams, working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, gets about as close, probably, as it’s possible to get to bringing us the feeling that the originals gave us back in the ‘70s and ‘80s—that sense of a new mythology, and a set of shiny new toys. The cinematography and set designs and props have a subtly retro look—one robot has a head that looks a lot like an old-school drive-in movie speaker—that links them convincingly to the original trilogy’s universe.

The actors have a retro look, too. The story, set decades after the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi during a period in which the Empire is trying to re-assert itself as the “First Order,” allows for the presence of original cast members like Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and, buried under Wookie fur not noticeably gone gray, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca.

But even the youngsters in the cast, like Daisy Ridley as a scavenger girl on a desert planet, John Boyega as a stormtrooper gone rogue with conscience, or Oscar Isaac as the aforementioned most daring pilot, seem to echo the gee-whiz young characters of the early films. There’s even a spherical, chirping-and-whistling robot, and a villain with a rumbling voice behind a dark helmet and mask.

All of the actors are proficient, but the standout—a little surprisingly, considering his supposed great indifference to these films—is Ford, who brings lightness and warmth to the middle-aged Han Solo that I don’t think he had back in the ‘70s. When he and Fisher’s Leia exchange their crooked, ruefully nostalgic smiles, it’s very charming.

There are innovative new characters, like a tiny, wizened, thousand-year-old barkeep (wonderfully performed, behind motion capture, by Lupita Nyong’o) who looks like a talking kumquat with coke-bottle glasses, but even she serves as a somewhat Obi-Wan-like mentor presence for Scavenger Girl. There are new creatures, too—a hornbill-like bird pecking at a helmet, an enormous boar-like beast at a water trough, tentacled horrors running amok on a cargo ship. But they, too, recall the barely-glimpsed fauna in the early movies.

This applies to the whole of Force Awakens. It starts on a desert planet, follows the search for a cute robot entrusted with vital information, involves mentors and pupils and family connections and a super-weapon and Jedi mind tricks and cringing underlings bringing bad news to scary bad guys and crosscutting between space battles and personal confrontations. It’s almost less a sequel than a series of variations on the original trilogy’s themes. That’s the shrewd and sensible method that Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt have used: Everything’s new, but everything’s old as well.

On the way to the screening, I saw, no kidding, an electric traffic sign on a Phoenix highway that read “AGGRESSIVE DRIVING IS THE PATH TO THE DARK SIDE.” For better or for worse, that’s how ingrained in mainstream culture this once-nerdy mythos has become. Oddly, the movie uses a variation on this metaphysic: The previous Star Wars films were heavily concerned with the allure of the Dark Side, but this film is about the seductions of the Light, the risks and perils of giving in to one’s better impulses. This, I think, it’s what gives the movie its vitality. It might be called A Franchise Awakens.

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