Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dez Reviews 'Star Wars: The Adventures of Han and Chewie,' er, I mean, 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

Well, here it is. So how good is it? Does it occupy the same rarified air that the original Trilogy does (or, let's face it, really just 'A New Hope' and "Empire Strikes Back')? Does it bring back the wonder once again? Does it start to heal the, in the words of a recent review I read, PTSD inflicted by George Lucas upon Star Wars fans with his infernal Prequels?

Yes. To all of the above. One thing that I quickly was reminded of as I watched this new chapter in the Star Wars saga, was just how bad the Prequels were. My God, how we wanted to love them. How we yearned to love them. But they are, quite simply, cold and unloveable. As cold as the overstuffed digital effects that George Lucas has made his religion. Side note: get a copy of the great documentary 'The People vs. George Lucas,' which chronicles the love/hate relationship Star Wars fanatics have with The Creator (Lucas). But the Prequels did provide a service, in a sense. They brought expectations back down to earth, they freed director J.J. Abrams and future directors of impossible standards to meet. Because whatever they do, even if it is just filming Han Solo sitting on the toilet reading a magazine for an hour, it would still be better than 'Phantom Menace.'

I will keep this review spoiler free until the end, at which point I will warn you, dear reader, with a SPOILER ALERT so you can stop reading there if you are one of the 5 people left in this country who have not seen this movie.

First the negatives. As many reviews have already pointed out, Abrams' reverence for the original Trilogy is a little too prevalent. He recreates, in a way, many of the key elements of 1977's 'A New Hope,' with his own cantina scene, a new Death Star, another trench run, a new Darth Vader-like character with his own new Tarkin-like foil, a new heroic trio of two boys and a girl. Then he stretches things with another Oedipal plot. Domnhall Gleeson's General Hux is not nearly as menacing or cool as Grand Moff Tarkin was (who he was clearly designed to model). Peter Cushing, who played Tarkin in 1977, was a unique and interesting actor, and Gleeson, at least here, is not. I do like how Hux and new generation Vader obsessive Kylo Ren are competing for power within the new First Order. That provides for some more interesting dynamic than the Tarkin/Vader-on-a-leash dynamic of 1977 did.

BELOW: Unfortunately, General Hux...
...is no Grand Moff Tarkin.

My only other criticism is something that has been present in every Star Wars film. For a movie that spans galaxies, it's a small universe after all. Many things in this film (as with the others) happen due to very fortuitous circumstances. The new Death Star is literally embedded in and is the size of an entire planet. Yet the characters seem to run into each other at the right times. Han Solo and Chewbacca have been searching for their Millenium Falcon for presumably years, and they happen to come across Rey and Finn in the Falcon when they need it. It seems pretty lucky that Rey happens to be in Maz Kanata's cantina, and Kanata just happens to have Luke Skywalker's lightsaber in her basement storage. But you know, go through any of the Star Wars films and they often depend on these coincidental meetings. You just sort of accept this and enjoy the film.

But the positives are huge. Let's just say that I did not really want to rush out and see any of the Prequels a second time after I saw them. When this was over, I was already thinking about watching it again. Abrams has brought back a light touch, humor, interesting characters, and good dialogue...all of which was missing from the Prequels. This movie, above anything else, was FUN. Gen. Hux aside, his new stable of characters are all interesting. I am looking forward to continuing the adventure with Poe Dameron, Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, etc. in the films to come. Abrams masterfully brought in the old characters and integrated these new ones. And it was natural. The new and the old never felt out of place in each others' company. That was a feat.

It would have been so easy to make Kylo Ren a Darth Vader clone (he certainly does physically). But while Kylo Ren may be obsessed with Vader, he is not Vader. The key scene for me, the one where I decided "oh, this guy is interesting in his own right," was when some underling delivered the usual "they got away" news to Ren. Vader would have Force-choked the poor bastard and then promoted someone else. Ren takes his lightsaber and throws a tantrum, destroying the console before him, then takes a breath and steadies himself, turns to the messenger and asks "anything else?" He is not in control of his emotions or powers, he is a live wire and unpredictable. That makes him more dangerous in some ways. It would have been so easy and lazy to make him some generic baddie that you see in so many superhero movies. Abrams doesn't do that.

ABOVE: Kylo Ren has an unhealthy Darth Vader obsession

Abrams is the ultimate Star Wars fanboy. That can be a negative, as is discussed above in that Abrams doesn't take more risks with the franchise than he could have. But, he also knows what every Star Wars fan wants. And that is more Han f*ckin' Solo and more Chew-f*ckin-bacca. And he delivers. Han and Chewie are major characters in this film. And anyone of my generation who doesn't get a lump in their throat, or at least get some goosebumps, when Han and Chewie step aboard the Millenium Falcon once again...I don't want to know you. You are not of my species. Harrison Ford is more grizzled, but his Han Solo is still the rogue he always was, albeit a bit more wise and weary. How Solo and Chewie work with the new Rey and especially Finn is just fantastic. About as smooth of a passing of the torch as I have ever seen on film. As a subset of this point, Abrams also makes more use of Chewie as his own character, not just as a sidekick of Han Solo. That was welcome as well.


The real favor Abrams has done for us is creating a new set of heroes to take us into the future. Daisy Ridley with her portrayal of the resourceful scavenger/orphan Rey who is strong with The Force makes her an instant star, and deservedly so. Oscar Isaac's cocky X-Wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron is great as well, and someone who I wish got more screen time. I am sure he will in future films. But the real secret weapon here is John Boyega's soulful stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn. It is through Finn where much of the humor comes. As he breaks Poe out of the First Order's prison ship...Finn: "just stay calm." Poe: "I am calm." Finn: "I'm talking to myself." These three characters are more than capable of taking this franchise into the next trilogy and beyond. And, as has often been commented upon, a more diverse future. The three major characters for the future: a white female strong with The Force, and a black man and a hispanic man.

ABOVE: John Boyega as Finn (seen here having a heart to heart with Han Solo) has more heart, spirit and character than all of the characters George Lucas created in the Prequel Trilogy combined.

Bottom line: while not a perfect film, it is as much as we could expect and hope for. A fun, rollicking ride that is reverential of Star Wars history but is also taking it into the future. A future that I can't wait to see.

**** out of *****

Just for funsies, where does 'The Force Awakens' fall within the franchise as far as greatness? I'd put them in this order:

The Empire Strikes Back *****
A New Hope *****
The Force Awakens ****
Return of the Jedi ***1/2
Revenge of the Sith ***
Attack of the Clones **
Phantom Menace *

SPOILER ALERT...read no further if you have not seen the film and wish to be surprised...SPOILER ALERT

I am giving you more space so you don't see the next sentence inadvertently.

OK? Are you ready?


On the death of Han Solo. It was appropriate and gives the film necessary gravitas. The scene could have been done a little better, and the whole son of Solo/Solo dynamic mirrors too neatly Vader/Luke, but it completes the handing of the franchise over to a new generation. Interesting to note that Ford wanted Solo killed in 'Return of the Jedi,' but Lucas refused to do it. He gets his wish here. I love that Chewie, though, survives and joins the new characters seemingly permanently. It will be cool to see Chewie in future films. Hard to believe that Han had never shot Chewie's crossbow laser, though. All those years?

And I love what Abrams has done with Luke Skywalker. The MIA Luke in all the previews and promos...genius. Perfect marketing and build-up. And like Spielberg and holding back the shark in 'Jaws,' the fact that we don't even see Luke until the last minute of the film is great set-up for the next one. Yet like the shark, Luke is at the center of the plot and a presence throughout the film. And Abrams has built up enough questions about Luke that we really want to see what happens two years from now.