Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross
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Every Star Wars movie starts the same way; the same thunderous John Williams theme with the same receding yellow outline logo followed by the depth-boasting backstory crawl of text over the starscape background. There have been six of these, and they have too much cultural cachet for a new entry to throw out one of the most iconic components of their formula. But what was once an ingenious and signifier of imaginative escapist fantasy, singular in its design and its gesture towards the infinite stories that must exist in the starscape, has been dulled by decades of parody and repetition. So as STAR WARS slams down on the screen, it hits me: “Oh no. There have been too many of these. And there are about to be a lot more.”

Whatever its merits, The Force Awakens lacks a sense of artistic adventure or purpose. That was surely pre-ordained by the franchise’s acquisition, but I also can’t pretend there wasn’t precedent: as far back as 1983, Return of the Jedi acted as a streamlined corrective to the moral ambiguities of The Empire Strikes Back. Later, the only clear and coherent inspiration in Lucas’s justly-reviled prequel trilogy was its innovation of an all-digital production pipeline. Whatever the case, the post-modern revival of serial sci-fi spectacle that defined the original Star Wars’s frothy adventures and the emotional deepening of that context and aesthetic overhaul of its first sequel Empire were the work of directors who had personal concerns and aesthetic notions that they wanted to show on screen. They wanted to do things with the space opera subgenre that had never quite been done before.

Now that the inexplicably faded talent of George Lucas has left the series, there can be no excuses anymore for the fact that the original film’s pop culture impact was a shockwave that can only be imitated, but never exactly recreated. The tidal wave of hype that has accompanied this seventh episode with stage whispers of “A new Star Wars is coming” have had a ring of pageantry, of yearning to be a part of an event in the same way that audiences in 1977 were.

Does this imitation, this mission of homage, preclude The Force Awakens from being good? No, but it probably precluded it from ever being great. Early in the film, a telling exchange between Resistance (the good guys) pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the First Order (the bad guys) Vader stand-in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) parodies this self-consciousness: “Who talks first? You talk first, I talk first?” It’s a funny nod to the anxieties of stepping into a myth, but it’s also a tacit lowering of expectations, an admission that the re-codification of that myth is not on the menu.

With this in mind, The Force Awakens’s reuse of plot tropes from the original trilogy — especially the original Star Wars — makes sense, and those plot tropes have been recalibrated only just barely enough to keep the whole story a riskless affair. Fine; there is some genuine delight in watching a new dramatic approach to the “Jedi Mind Trick” bit from the earlier films, and seeing Han Solo and Luke Skywalker effectively recast as the Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda of these new films has a satisfying novelty to it (in fact, Harrison Ford's reprisal of his most famous character might be the film's greatest asset). But where Abrams's attempted reinvigoration struggles most tellingly is with its new characters, who at best are exact retreads of old characters (e.g. “R2-D2 as a beach ball”) and at worst are vacuous shells. For his seminally scathing video review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Mike Stoklasa, in character as “Mr. Plinkett”, devised the following test to weigh the new characters of the prequel trilogy against the personalities of the original trilogy, with damning results for the former:

Describe the following Star Wars characters WITHOUT saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was. Describe these characters to your friends like they ain't never seen Star Wars.
Applied to The Force Awakens, this test has some successes (largely for the colourful bit characters), but when it comes to the three most significant new heroes Dameron, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Finn (John Boyega), only Boyega’s AWOL stormtrooper generates much in the way of a distinctive temperament. Rey, an obvious analogue for Luke in the original trilogy, hardly has anything to distinguish her at all beyond a sequel-hook backstory that hardly sculpts a compelling psyche. Kylo Ren, thankfully, is a successful villain, prone to sudden spurts of rage and violence that thinly mask an underlying insecurity (he has daddy issues, much as the movie does).

And the film is, on the whole, well-constructed: John Williams turns in a strong score, albeit one without much in the way of enthralling new material (the old melodies call some awkward attention to themselves as superior to his new motifs); Abrams’s turn towards a more classical style of filmmaking brings out the best in his instincts for visual storytelling yet (though the final shot of the film is terribly conceived); correspondingly, Dan Mindel provides strong compositions with attractive lighting that occasionally yields to impressive conceits (especially the fading sunlight of the climax). The sound design is the worst in the series, which is still generally effective, though at times it is either too sparse or too deferential to Williams’s score. The editing, meanwhile, is largely functional, with no large gaffes to note in general, but it also lacks of the series’s trademark propulsion in the action scenes (which may be as much due to Abrams’s direction as the editors, as Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon are his regular cutting team).

All this adds up to a fine film, as fine as could reasonably be expected from something this reverential. But realistically, that level of reverence is bound to cause problems when it stretches to reminisce while only paying lip service to progress (why is the army of the galaxy’s dominant government called “The Resistance”?). The Force Awakens is another Star Wars movie, alright, and it’s worth seeing — but unless a director is allowed to do something radical and personal, something that fundamentally subverts the rules of the franchise, Star Wars will never be essential again.

1 comments:

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