December 16, 2015

CINEMA | Another Hope – 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

"There has been an awakening."
J.J. Abrams | Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

It's finally here and it's pretty good. The long-awaited follow-up to the original Star Wars trilogy arrives as director J.J. Abrams has crafted Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens into a boldly confident space fantasy with many nods to George Lucas' legacy without much of any of the lingering baggage of the problematic prequels. The legacy sequel and semi-remake is a well-made exercise in fan service and nostalgia at its best.

Starring newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as Rey and Finn, a mysterious scavenger and reformed stormtrooper, respectively, Episode VII kicks off a familiar adventure very reminiscent of A New Hope. The pair have electric chemistry and anchor the film superbly with plenty of emotion and depth. Their emotional journeys and motivations are impressively fleshed out just as it is refreshing to see a strong but conflicted young female character and person of colour with an intriguing past try to save the galaxy.

Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan's script (re-written from Michael Arndt's first draft) is paced almost too briskly with many analogues to past characters and situations. The Force Awakens is breathless and really moves. The first act is among some of the finest Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking ever put to screen focusing on visual storytelling as an entry point to our new characters. With so much momentum and energy, there's a fair amount of unanswered questions left hanging and threads surely kept open for its two already announced (direct) sequels.

A vibrant Harrison Ford is engaged and livelier than ever as the now grey-haired smuggler Han Solo who's still up to his old tricks with Chewbacca. He fills the Obi-Wan role of wise advisor and a crucial link to the past. In many ways, this is Solo's film with his arc framed as one of redemption and filling in gaps between Episode VI and VII. Carrie Fisher returns with a natural gravitas in a small but emotional role as the now General Leia whose appearance adds an unusual but necessary sadness to the film's storyline.

Girls actor Adam Driver is ferocious as the new villain, Kylo Ren, who not only worships at the altar of Darth Vader for mysterious reasons, but recreates many of his evil intentions. Ren leads the First Order's dark army looking to conquer the galaxy and anchors the somewhat poorly fleshed out successor to the Galactic Empire. Driver really aims for what Lucas was attempting in the characterization of Anakin Skywalker, Vader's pre-darkside incarnation, from the prequels as a conflicted warrior full of doubt, struggle, and sensitivity.

John Boyega | Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

The always game Oscar Isaac continues his hot streak of diverse but rewarding roles as the bad ass fighter pilot, Poe Dameron, tasked with transporting some important cargo and intel if that sounds familiar enough. He starts off the film splendidly with some much needed fun and energy. Isaac plays well with all the other characters but is somewhat slighted in Dameron's lack of backstory. We're literally told he's the best fighter pilot in the galaxy as our introduction to him, but he luckily pulls it off.

Sadly, with so many new characters and old ones, not everyone gets their fair share to do. Domhnall Gleeson is fine but inexplicably evil as General Hux while Gwendoline Christie feels very underused as the minimally seen Captain Phasma. Andy Serkis, in a motion-capture performance, is effective as the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (in the Emperor role) but gets no explanation to who exactly he is. Lupita Nyong'o is quite fun and stoic playing a motion-capture alien pirate, Maz Kanata, in a crucial sequence riffing off the original Catina scene.

The highly anticipated film and seventh entry is an ambitious effort in blockbuster myth-making full of energy and humour. Juggling so many characters, it may be surprising how BB-8, the rolling, ball-shaped droid, easily steals the film as a natural evolution of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2, who appear briefly, with many well-timed beeps and buzzes. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is oddly but mostly effectively used as the film's sort of MacGuffin as his presence, or lack thereof, as revealed in the opening crawl, hangs over the film and sets everything in motion.

The Force Awakens both benefits and suffers from all of Abrams' well-known filmmaking hallmarks. The story is vague and many introduced elements are left open or unaddressed altogether, somewhat frustratingly. However, the casting, acting, and chemistry are all top notch as Abrams knows how to assemble a talented ensemble cast and juggle their performances deftly with grace amongst all the big action and CGI.

Abrams does still tend to overly rely on references and callbacks in order to induce nostalgia instead of fully executing his own, original touches. Little about the film's third act battle sequence or the presence of another ultimate weapon will surprise much of anyone, unfortunately. The weak narrative slowly starts to crumble many of the lesser contrivances and conveniences as we quickly barrel towards the final act and resolution.

Abrams and his team have successfully recreated the original Star Wars formula while remixing and remaking A New Hope and all of its other crowd pleasing elements. However, with so much to do, The Force Awakens is a fair amount of setup and heavy lifting for the eventual second and third chapters. It's biggest triumph is the excitement in all of its new, engaging characters building anticipation for Episode VIII. It definitely recaptures the magic while giving fans exactly what they wanted all these years late. Yes, the force has awakened and is strong in this film.

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