Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This will be a spoiler-free review, at least for Episode VII, and assuming you have at least seen the trailer.

Context is important. I am a Star Wars fan. By that I mean I grew up with the original trilogy, pre-Special Edition. I was actually in the theater, at least briefly, for Jedi, though I don't remember it. I've watched the original trilogy dozens of times each. When Bantam Spectra started publishing Star Wars books, I read them, both the good (Zahn) and the bad (rather a lot of them). I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the original trilogy and of the now-noncanon Expanded Universe.

Even when the books weren't great, though, they were (usually) still Star Wars - and Star Wars is heroic adventure. Much has been written about Lucas using Campbell's Hero's Journey as the basis for the original Star Wars, so I won't rehash. Suffice it to say that the essence of Star Wars is a primally relatable story. It fires the imagination.

When the Special Editions were released, I was one of the people waiting long hours in line. The Special Editions were the start of my disillusionment with George Lucas. I was willing to explain away some of his decisions (adding lots of CGI critters for no reason, changing some music) and not others (replacing Jabba's band, Han's encounter with Greedo). Still, I am a Star Wars fan. When Episode 1 was announced, I was excited. I remember seeing the poster with Jake Lloyd standing in front of the dome on Tatooine, with his Vader-shaped shadow. And I remember sitting in that theater, during the podrace scene, and the journey through the planet's core, shifting uncomfortably in my seat as I realized that this movie had some very serious problems. Still, it was Star Wars, and it wasn't until quite a bit later that I fully appreciated how bad that movie is. When Episode II wasn't better, I was profoundly disappointed, but I saw Episode III anyway, because I'm a completionist. And then I shelved the Prequel Universe away into its own section, the lesser-Star-Wars section. I didn't bother to read any of the prequel-setting books. I didn't watch any of the Clone Wars-related movies or TV shows. And it was okay, because I had the original trilogy and the Expanded Universe.

When it was announced that Lucas was making Episode VII, I was... not disappointed exactly, but hardly optimistic. Lucas had conclusively shown that he doesn't understand the essence of what he created. Also, I always thought of the Thrawn Trilogy as the equivalent to episodes VII-IX - as indeed I suspect did Zahn when he wrote them. But it was clear from the beginning that Lucas was never going to use that plotline for the cinema. He couldn't, really - that time came and went long ago for the actors.

When Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, I allowed myself to hope for a movie that did not suck. This is not a very high bar, but it's also not one that any of the prequels cleared. When JJ Abrams was attached as director, I was cautiously optimistic. I have a number of issues with Abrams and his handling of Lost and Star Trek, but it's clear that he's a competent film-maker. And then I spent time managing expectations. I avoided as many details about the film as possible. I refused to get my hopes up.

And then I decided to re-watch the existing movies, in Machete order. Briefly, this is IV-V-II-III-VI. Nothing happens in Episode I that is important for the plot of the series (or at all, really), so it can be skipped. In this order, the story of Luke unfolds until the big reveal that Vader is his father, and then there is a two-movie flashback of how Anakin became Vader, and then back to the future for the showdown. This was the first time I had seen Episodes II and III since the theater. They have not improved. What I really learned though, re-watching them in this manner, though, is that the original trilogy really isn't that good either. I've known that, on some level, for a long time, but it was more obvious when viewing them in company with the prequels. They remain far superior, of course, but they are hardly exemplars of virtuoso writing or acting. They had spirit, though, and heartfelt drama and action mixed with humor (not of the scatological variety, as in Episode I). They also had groundbreaking special effects, and hold an important place in the history of cinema, but that's not terribly relevant to the discussion at hand.

Incidentally, I did later re-watch Episode I in an edited version which cuts out large amounts of the things that made the movie bad, and it was actually watchable. Sadly, the movie is fundamentally unfixable. But that, too, is not relevant right now.

So then, when all of that background as to my qualifications and opinions about Star Wars, I have this to say about Episode VII - I'm pretty sure that movie did not suck. I'm going to watch it again. This is not a perfect movie, but it is a movie which respects its past - in many cases, it is literally littered with its past - while moving into the future with new and interesting characters. It has heroes, and heroics, of a variety of types. It doesn't have as iconic a villain as Episode IV, but that's a high bar indeed. It has action, and some truly breathtaking special effects and cinematography, without ever letting that take over the film (I'm looking at you, pod-race). It even has a few surprisingly emotional bits.

This is not the original trilogy - nothing ever will be like those, for good or for bad. It is also not the prequel trilogy, for which I am indescribably grateful. This is something new. This is a modern Star Wars, and it does not suck. So far. I reserve the right to be pessimistic about all forthcoming Star Wars films. Certainly not all of the new Star Wars content is good - I read the first book in the new-canon, and it was really badly written.

As a side note, I'd like to thank whoever was responsible for cutting the trailer for this movie, for doing a brilliant job of misdirection. I hate when trailers reveal the entire plot of the movie, and this trailer emphatically did not.

Edited 12/22/15 to add the link to the spoiler-filled review.

Performance: 4/5
Plot: 4/5
Production: 5/5
Overall: 4.5/5
Bechdel: Pass (B)
Mako Mori: Pass
What are these?

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