Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII Review: The New Hope Awakens

After watching Episode VII - The Force Awakens, it was clearer to me than ever that the crucial missing element of the prequels was the fun interplay between the main heroes. Many aspects of the prequels are compelling as pulp adventure, but the flat direction and dialogue makes them feel sort of awkward and lifeless ("I love you because you're not like sand."). In Episode VII the characters bounce against each other in interesting ways, and are simply fun to watch.

On the other hand, Episode VII made me appreciate Lucas' boldness a bit more. He may have gone overboard on fan-service now and then (like WAAY overboard), but he did try to make something fresh and new, whereas the plot of Episode VII is basically a carbon copy of Episode IV - A New Hope.

Summary with *spoilers*:

Arriving in a Star Destroyer, the Evil Empire, led by an ominous masked Dark Jedi dressed in black, wreak havoc on the rebel defenders. But before being captured a Rebel Leader manages to put the critical info they are looking for in the care of a cute Droid who is sent away to wander a Desert Planet. The Droid is captured by a junker but our Hero, who has lived on this planet since childhood and knows its dangers, rescues it and brings it back to their humble abode. Meanwhile the Rebel Leader is tortured by the dark Jedi.

The Hero is forced to leave their flawed but familiar life when the Evil Empire attacks their home, and joins with a wise old Mentor who tells them about the force. The Hero is exposed to the weirdness of the wider galaxy at a space-port cantina filled with bizarre aliens, and are spotted by a spy who alerts the Evil Empire.

After the Evil Empire demonstrates the power of their Death Star by destroying the home of the Rebel Leader, the heroes sneak aboard on a rescue mission. They succeed, but the wise old Mentor is struck down by his once-ally, the Dark Jedi.

Compelled to flee by the death of their mentor, the hero escapes but must later confront the Dark Jedi on the surface of the Death Star. By using the force, the Hero prevails and escapes the exploding death star, with an assist by the Millennium Falcon. Back at the Rebel Base there is much celebration, and Chewbacca’s contribution is largely ignored.

[/end spoilers]

Obviously I'm exaggerating the similarities for effect (though not all that much really). Things diverge here and there, and my hope is that J.J.'s intention was to bring everything back to square one, sort of wipe the slate clean, before romping off on new space adventures.

Definitely there is a lot that's done right. Abrams captures the tone of the originals, and the action is fun and intentionally a bit sloppy since we aren't dealing with perfect Jedi monks (one of the best action beats in the prequels in my opinion is the clumsy struggle with Obi-Wan and Jango Fett slipping around in the rain). There were also lots of other little homages scattered throughout which frequently delighted me (though at times the references seemed to come every few seconds, which drew me out of the moment).

Certainly the overwhelming similarities with A New Hope are intentional. Lucas himself had the idea that the prequels would "rhyme" with the originals, yet this becomes a delicate balancing act. Reincorporation creates connectedness and familiarity, but also staleness and predictability. J.J. Abrams understands the value of mystique and the unexplained, and the best parts of Episode VII are the new and strange, and the hints at larger stories and mysteries. (Han Solo confronted by the Greedo equivalents, angry Irish man and space Yakuzah, was definitely my favorite moment, and captured everything I love about Star Wars.)

I'm eager to see where Rian Johnson takes us next, and I sincerely hope that this first film is used as a launchpad to explore a broader Star Wars universe, rather than successive entries simply wallowing in fan service (*cough*Star Trek Into Darkness*cough*). Joss Whedon has repeatedly proven that fan expectation can be leveraged to subvert and surprise, rather than simply appease.

I'm not ready to call him Jar Jar Abrams just yet. In some ways Episode VII is a great Star Wars movie. I'm just not sure it will ultimately be anyone's favorite Star Wars movie.

Or maybe it will. Star Trek Into Darkness might be someone's favorite Star Trek movie if they haven't seen Wrath of Khan.