Friday, December 18, 2015

A Star Wars review for geeks, from an obsessive fan (SPOILERS)

the star wars the force awakens movie review from the obsessed fan: a review for geeks

First off, if you're a fan of Star Wars take a deep breath.  Enjoy this moment.  For the first time since 1983, a truly excellent Star Wars movies is in theaters.  You can go see it, right now!  In fact, you should definitely do that.  Hurry, grab a coat and go get in line, I'll wait...

Alright, so maybe you need some more elaboration.  If you haven't noticed, I'm not Jessica.  I'm her husband Noah, who has served as (hesitant) model on this blog from time to time, and who gets to feast on a lot of that incredibly delicious food you see here so frequently.  This is me:

This is me, cosplaying Mad Max. Told you I was a geek!
I'm also a huge geek.  I've been a lifelong fan of science fiction, movies, pop culture, games, and nerdery in general, and Star Wars has always been one of my main loves.  Even though they came out when I was -3, 0, and 3 years old, respectively, I fell in love with the original trilogy.  The gritty feel of the universe and the epic scope of the story captured me.  It felt like a living, breathing place, and books and games expanded that universe into a vast fandom that had a life of its own.  When the prequel trilogy was announced I was ecstatic, and I was in line for Episode I on opening night (with Jessica, as luck would have it).  It was awful.  I felt betrayed.  I could write numerous rants on how terrible I thought the prequels were, from the writing to the cinematography to the feel of the world (in fact that's why Jessica thought I'd be perfect to write this review) but I'm here to talk about The Force Awakens.  I am keeping this first section spoiler free, but there will be serious story reveals after the jump.  Sufficed to say it doesn't have a silly alien cartoon rabbit named Jar Jar in it.

Jessica and I were monumentally scared when we heard J.J. Abrams was signed to direct this movie.  We are both huge fans of Star Trek, her especially, and despite his visual finesse he absolutely butchered the franchise with his big budget reboots.  They were pretty, no doubt, but had about as much to do with the social commentary and sense of wonder that drove Gene Roddenberry's beloved universe as a nature hike has to a monster truck show.  Again, there could be endless ranting on this subject.  Well I'm happy to report that unlike with Star Trek, J.J Abrams seems to have not only watched the source material but loved it, and has crafted an incredible homage to what people like me loved about the original trilogy.  The sets and menagerie of alien races feel tactile and gritty because they're mostly real places with animatronics and puppetry driving physical objects through the scenes, not the slightly too-clean computer generated clutter that plagued the prequels.  It's incredibly charming to see something clearly real lurching across the screen, and creates the kind of nostalgia that still has me going back to VHS copies of the original trilogy before they were butchered with CG "enhancements."  There is CG here, to be sure, but it's well done and never gets in the way.  Even the way Abrams shot the movie seems to be a loving tribute, with numerous scenes feeling like they could have been pulled from some lost reel stashed away in Lucas' archives for the last 35 years.

To me, the biggest impact of The Force Awakens, other than sheer nostalgia, lay in the ways that Abrams managed to improve on the visual formula of Star Wars' venerable "look."  The grit is still there, the smoky rooms and dirty starships and rowdy, ancient, teeming galaxy.  But added to that now is an incredible sense of scale and an impressive eye for telling a story with lighting.  Lucas introduced us to the Star Wars universe of moon sized battlestations and bottomless pits and cities in the clouds, but Abrams makes them look truly MASSIVE.  The crashed Star Destroyers on the junkyard world of Jakku loom over the viewer like derelict mountain ranges,
 and the interiors of the First Order's facilities echo cavernous and mirror clean.  Throughout the entire production, the lighting keeps you company and helps tell the story, like Abrams read all the lens flare complaints levelled at him after the Star Trek movies and took them as a challenge.  Blaster fire, space battles, light saber clashes, and even the quiet moments are lit strikingly and with many subtle messages.  One scene near the end of the movie uses a major plot point as a lighting queue, and tells a key piece of story with a shift of color.  Watch for it, it's spectacular.

 I guess I can't really go any further without talking about the story.  There are MANY spoilers after the jump, so for those looking to preserve the mystery I will say that it was an absolute blast and chock full of joyful references to the originals, although maybe a little lacking in invention itself.  Go watch it, it's worth it.  Click through at your own risk!

Alright, if you're this far then you don't mind me spoiling the story for you.  You probably shake your Christmas presents to figure out what's inside.  I'm onto you.  Story wise, this movie is essentially A New Hope all over again.  Our hero(ine) is at a dead end on a dead end planet, with a mysterious past that makes her yearn for adventure.  Caught up accidentally in events much greater than herself, she sets off on a desperate mission to return a droid carrying vital information to a group of hidden resistance fighters.  Along the way she encounters a violent practitioner of the Dark Side who was lured from the Light by promises of power from a scary old man, witnesses the planet-killing power of an impossibly large battle station, and meets a rough-but-loving father figure only to lose him to said black-clad villain, all while discovering her own inner attunement to the Force.  There's a desert planet, a sleazy den of scum and villainy, a bottomless pit, X-wings flying down a trench, and a marked inheritance of the Empire's apparent unwillingness to put guard rails on anything.  I guess OSHA doesn't exist in a galaxy far, far away.
That said, I'm entirely happy with this relative safety when it comes to story.  While it was not without plot holes, the story held together very well and didn't get in the way of the real star of the show, which was OH MY GOD I'M WATCHING STAR WARS.  The returning cast, of course, were the big crowd-pleasers.  Han and Chewie were there, looking a little more the worse for wear but with all the chemistry and rogueish charm that they brought to the screen long ago.

C-3PO was...himself...but blissfully minimized to a bit part, R2-D2 again filled the role of cryptic but ultimately day-saving mcguffin, and Leia...well she made the most of the only face she can make with that much Botox.  Sorry.  References, cameos, and subtle nods to the fandom abound, all while establishing an interesting and nuanced new cast of characters with enough mystery remaining in their collective backgrounds to leave you wanting more.  Finn the repentant Stormtrooper has such an air of innocence and iron moral drive that you can't help but love him and wonder how he will grow in the following movies.  Rey the scavenger-turned-Force-adept has such a blatantly mysterious background that I'm sure the internet is already abuzz with theories and wild guesses as to her lineage.  Kylo Ren has so much more room to grow (although his hair might need a bigger helmet if it does any more growing), but on which side of the Force will he end up falling? What's the deal with the unfortunately-named Supreme Leader Snoke and his massive sinister Wizard of Oz hologram?  Why did Captain Phasma, who rocked arguably the coolest armor design in the movie, have almost no presence after featuring so prominently in the trailer and marketing campaigns?  How much longer till crack pilot and all around handsome guy Poe Dameron starts moving in on Rey, kicking off the inevitable Star Wars love triangle?  Inquiring minds need to know! BB-8, at least, will probably continue to just be weaponized cuteness.

I'm not saying that The Force Awakens was a perfect movie by any stretch.  It's a bit rushed and a bit formulaic and a bit cheesy.  But as a successor to one of the most venerable, loved, and obsessed over movie dynasties of all time it is clearly worthy.  In 135 minutes it managed to make me feel hope after 10 years of being told that the prequels "weren't that bad" and that I should just accept them as what Star Wars is supposed to be.  Not since the Fellowship of the Ring have I felt this much relief that my hope was not misplaced, and that that there are two more movies coming each of which has the potential to build upon the world I just got a peek into.  I, for one, am incredibly excited.  Luke is waiting.

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  1. You managed spoilers without spoiling it, so first, thanks. (no I don't shake presents but I don't mind knowing a bit about what's going to happen - I just worry about people a bit less and always enjoy films more 2nd time round)
    Can I just explain what happens to those of us who are just a bit older than you. (I was 7 when the first film came out) You grow up loving these films, when your kids are old enough you introduce them and they love them too, then when episode 7 comes out they go to see it with their friends ('cos teenage boys don't want their mum coming to the cinema with them obviously!) and you are left at home reading about it on line! No, it's fine, I'm fine ... really!
    Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed it, I will hopefully go over the weekend at some point, I'm actually quite excited now I know it's not being ruined.

  2. Thanks for sharing a wonderful review of star wars for Hearth and soul blog hop.