Saturday, December 26, 2015

Blunt Force

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I don't hate the Star Wars prequels. Indeed, there's a lot about them that I like quite a bit. I like the emphasis on politics, given that the eponymous "wars" don't exist in a vacuum. I like the small throwaway gags, like the V8 in Annakin's skycar in Attack of the Clones. I like their ambition.

A right-thinking prequel-hating Star Wars fan would have no truck with my relationship with Star Wars. It is complicated and in no way abject or adoring. They're fucking movies, after all, and if movies are also a lifestyle, then I'll choose another hill to die on, thank you very much. But that's just me. As with matters of love and sex, it's not my kink but I don't care if it's yours.

That's not to say that Star Wars and I don't have a history. Lordy, lordy, do we! My first encounter with Star Wars was a sold-out showing in 1977. My dad took my brothers and I to the theater intending to see this cultural phenomenon, only to be turned away. We went to see The Deep instead, and the image of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet t-shirt was indelibly etched in my mind, perhaps more so than anything in Star Wars. But I digress. We finally made it into another sold-out showing of Star Wars a week later. I only ever saw it once in the theater. I was too young at the time to be seeing movies on my own and my parents weren't interested in multiple viewings of a movie they'd already paid to see. I was moviegoing on my own by the time Empire came out and I saw it nine times when it was in theaters. It's the only one of the original trilogy I paid to see when the films were re-released in the late 90s. I thought George Lucas's revisions of Empire were mutilations, but of the three, it was the one he fiddled with the least. I hated Jedi. You cannot convince me that the prequels are any worse than Jedi. Still and all, Star Wars is part of movies and movies are my version church. It's not like I wasn't going to go see the new film, in spite of my dislike of J. J. Abrams.

Our showing did not get off to a good start. There were twenty minutes of previews. Twenty minutes! And all of them were for fantasy action/adventure films like the new Captain America film, the new X-Men film, the belated Independence Day sequel, something called The Fifth Wave which looks like a teen version of Independence Day, and--god help me--Gods of Egypt and Warcraft. The only preview that held any charm was Legendary Beasts and Where To Find Them, which was not suffused with apocalyptic unease or ever-escalating stakes. This is the legacy of Star Wars: a cinematic landscape where every tentpole movie is some variety of fantasy film. It's a mark of how relentless this influence is that it burned me out. I cut my teeth on horror movies and Ray Harryhausen, back when good cinematic fantasias were as rare as the teeth of the hydra. I used to love them. Now, they're so ubiquitous that they're just noise. Just so you know where my prejudices lie.

The Gods of Egypt trailer is useful, though. A few weeks ago, the filmmakers on that project made a public apology for the whiteness of their film. If cultural mores continue to shift, there's a fair possibility that Gods of Egypt will be among the last artifacts of our culture's default setting of "straight white male." So let me start with praise for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, directed by J. J. Abrams). Set apposite Gods of Egypt, it's radically new. It's radically forward-looking. Its diversity is refreshing. Its diversity is organic. Its diversity, positioned as an integral part of such a cultural white elephant (if you'll pardon the pun), is significant. At no point in the film was I jolted out of the narrative because the protagonist was a black man and because I am not a black man. At no point was I jolted out of the narrative because its other protagonist is a white woman, even though, as a white woman, I'm not used to seeing myself represented in big action tentpoles. Hell, the only time I really lost my identification with the film was when it focused on the legacy characters: Leia, Han Solo. Han Solo. Old white dude. I felt like the filmmakers included the older characters out of a sense of validation, as if to distance themselves from the prequels by importing elements that tell the audience that, yes, this is the genuine article. Only Luke Skywalker himself--positioned like Harry Lime as a presence often mentioned but never seen and also as the film's Maguffin--seems organic to the narrative. Significantly, he has about a minute of actual screen time. The parts of the film that focused on these characters rather than Finn (the black conscientious objecting stormtrooper) and Rey (the scavenger turned chosen one force warrior) struck me as a facile forgery.

Note: here there be spoylers.

The story self-consciously follows the beats of the first Star Wars film. Secret plans--in this case a map to the location of Skywalker, the last Jedi Knight--are entrusted to a droid who sets out across a desert planet pursued by the forces of the Dark Side of the Force. They fall into the hands of an unlikely local who is at the very bottom of the social ladder. There's a new planet-killing engine being wielded by the dark side and our heroes must disarm it before it destroys the base of the resistance. There's a cantina. Instead of an alien jazz band, there's an alien reggae band. There's a dark lord with a relationship with one of our heroes.  This does not make the mistake of The Phantom Menace, which did not provide the action thrills of the original trilogy or even a similar story. This film provides exactly what the original trilogy provided, almost to the point of self-parody.

And yet...

There's a certain amount of double vision required to fully appreciate what's on the screen in The Force Awakens, because while it's dutifully trying to ape the major plot elements of A New Hope, its central protagonists aren't really agents in that plot. Their stories are something new, and the film has cunningly hidden this fact behind the comforting elements of the original Star Wars films.

John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The first new major character we meet is Poe Dameron, X-Wing pilot. He's a classic Star Wars archetype: dashing, devil may care, the best pilot in the resistance. He's an amalgam of the young, pre-Jedi Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. In another movie, he'd be the protagonist. Early in the film, he's captured by the First Order and taken for interrogation about the location of the rebel base, which in terms of the plot this film is echoing, makes Poe the Princess Leia character. He's the damsel.

The next major character we meet is a stormtrooper who seems to have a moral compass. He refuses to fire his blaster when his unit is ordered to commit an atrocity once they find Poe. He's a square peg among his peers and in Poe, he finds a way out of the life in which he finds himself imprisoned. He doesn't have a name, only a number: FN-2187. Poe renames him Finn. Finn is an unusual character for the Star Wars universe. He's morally ambiguous. He does heroic things solely for selfish reasons. He's an intimation that the stormtroopers have an inner life. He's the first stormtrooper with a personality. And he's a suggestion that the grip of the Dark Side is not so tight as it might seem. Like Darth Vader before him, Finn suggests that redemption is an actual thing in the Star Wars universe, that the dichotomy of the Dark Side and the Light Side has a spectrum of grey between it. Given that most of this film's villains are cartoon Nazis (almost literally), this is an unlooked-for complexity that's more of a piece with the prequels than the original films.

This is true of Kylo Ren, as well. Ren is the third major character to take the stage. He is a Dark Lord in the making, one who is unsure of whether he lives up to the standards of villainy provided by his role model, Darth Vader. Ren has Vader's skull and keeps it reverently, like a holy relic. Ren is the student of Snoke, the head of the First Order and successor to Emperor Palatine, but his training isn't yet complete. He's young. He has family issues. He's on the knife's edge where either he turns back to the light or forever treads the path of the dark side. His subplot is an echo of the fall of Annakin Skywalker. He has a personal relationship with the rest of the Skywalker clan, too, being the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. Vader is his grandfather. Ren recoils from his father's life and embraces his grandfather's life. This is the part of the film that aspires to tragedy. Ren's fatal flaw is his petulance toward and contempt for Han Solo.

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The fourth major character to take the stage is Rey, the scavenger. Rey is the heart of the film: sensible, kind, plagued by the ghosts of a family that abandoned her, competent, strong in the ways of the Force even though she's untrained. She's a quick study. Rey gets herself damseled mid-film as she's taken prisoner by Kylo Ren, but the resolution of this subplot is unusually progressive: Rey resists Ren where Poe could not. Further, Rey rescues herself rather than waiting for the boys to come to her aid. Rey has hints of a backstory shoehorned into the film as motivation for her to return to Jakka, to turn away from the resistance and the Force and what have you. Most of this rings hollow, like it's a bullshit screewriter's device, because we, the audience, know that she's going to become a Jedi, that she's going to find Skywalker, that she's the heroine of the next generation. The movie tests its new protagonists late in the movie, giving both Finn and Rey a light sabre duel with Kylo Ren. It's Rey that comes out of the experience as the victor. This scene reveals the film as her coming of age, as her story, not Solo's, not even Finn's, because when Rey is on screen, even in the presence of these other characters, it's Rey who holds the movie's center.

Both Finn and Rey are marvelously cast. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley shine in their respective role in a way that, say, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen did not. There's no hint of embarrassment in their performances, which is something that has sometimes plagued the performances in Star Wars films. Sometimes, the film makes bold filmmaking choices. Rey's Force visions are an extrapolation of Luke's encounter with the ghost of Vader in Empire, filmed as fragments of a nightmare. Placing its major dogfights inside the atmosphere of planets gives them a visceral punch. The use of the relics of the old Imperial war machines as background props is unexpectedly lyrical. As Rey hunkers down in the wreckage of an AT-AT walker, my brain started to recite "Ozymandias" to me. "Look on my works ye mighty and despair..." There's the bones of a really good movie here. I wish Abrams and company had slowed down enough to notice this.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens is a "one damned thing after another" film. No mumbo jumbo about trade delegations and senatorial maneuvering in this film. It hits the ground running and never stops. The constant forward momentum is exhausting after a while, and my suspicions that the pace is intended to paper over how much the film's plot relies on coincidence only grew with each new plunge over the rapids. Mind you, it's possible to make this kind of pace work--the Mad Max movies are a good example--but given the broader themes of this movie, a breather here and there to take stock of its characters would have been welcome. Its pace has a flattening effect. When everything is pitched at the same level, it winds up giving plot points equal weight. This is a huge mistake in a film with scenes like Han Solo's confrontation with Kylo Ren--a scene with the elements of high tragedy--or Rey's awakening into the Force. These are scenes that should have great dramatic weight, but in the film's breathless rush, they are no more important than, say, Finn's rescue of Poe or the Millenium Falcon's dogfight with two TIE fighters on Jakka, neither of which is a central concern of the movie. Part of this is a function of the contemporary Hollywood action formula, which dictates a climax every ten minutes or so. But not all of it.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This is a movie that's also undone by its villains. Kylo Ren is a teenage emo version of Darth Vader: petulant, cruel, mindlessly sadistic, entitled. Domhall Gleeson's General Hux, Ren's rival in the new order, is young, ambitious, scheming, and in full rabid agreement with Supreme Leader Snoke's program. Snoke---well, he's a new version of The Emperor who has no backstory and no motive beyond "I want to rule the galaxy." Y'know, like you do. The insufficiency of the villains, like the film's pace, torpedoes the film's big dramatic moments. When Ren tells Rey that he'll take what he wants from her regardless of her wishes, it should be terrifying. Instead, it sounds whiny. When Hux gives his big speech to the serried array of stormtroopers on "the weapon," he seems like a bright high school student entrusted with a microphone and instructions to go full-on Hitler. Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma, the series first female villain, is disappointingly minor. She never removes her helmet, nor is she given any important role in the plot beyond being a background functionary. I hope they bring her back and give her more to do.

Peter Mayhew and Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

And what exactly does Kylo Ren's murder of his father accomplish for him? Is it an unforgivable act that forever sends him down the path of the Dark Side? Is it a reconciliation? This is the film's dramatic climax (complete with a requisite "Nooooooooooo!" from Rey), but it's a puzzle. There's not enough character interaction between the two of them to render it meaningful, not enough backstory, and not enough commitment to the performances from Harrison Ford and Adam Driver. This is Ford's worst performance as Solo, but this Harrison Ford isn't the same actor who played Solo back in the day. That Ford had an edge of anger that made Solo seem dangerous. That anger, that sand, is absent here. I also wonder if this scene isn't telegraphing the way the next two films are going to go, with undo attention paid to the fall and then the redemption of Kylo Ren, a character who hasn't earned it except by the fiat of the screenwriters. I should note that the girl who was in the seat next to me had a different reaction to all of this. When Solo died, she started to sob. So who am I to judge, eh?

Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The truth of the matter is that I would be just as happy as can be to watch the characters from the original films fade from these new films. They've already had their time on the stage. When The Force Awakens focused on Finn and Rey and even Poe Dameron, I had a pleasant buzz at the back of my head, a sensation that felt like, "Hey! I'm watching a Star Wars film that I haven't seen before! Awesome!" When, instead, the film regurgitates the original films, I started to fidget in my seat. I'm not nostalgic about the Star Wars of my youth. Those films exist already and I can revisit them if I want. This is endemic in contemporary Hollywood: they want to sell you something you already have. They know they can do this because you already bought it. It's a swindle, see. It robs you of something new.

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