The Fandom Re-Awakens

Really, is there anything else I could write about for my grand re-entry into the blogging world?

That's right. We're going to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

(The film will now pause for ten minutes while the audience applauds wildly.)
Although I could, of course I could, I'm going to restrain myself from talking about the movie in relation to the history of Star Wars; the prequels, the old Expanded Universe, all those sorts of things. I absolutely will go into those issues at some point, because good heavens is there ample fodder for discussion there! But it feels appropriate to start with the movie, not as the obliteration of nearly twenty-five years of continuity (that's right, I count from the Thrawn Trilogy; suck it, Splinter of the Mind's Eye!) or the rectification of the poor choices and missed opportunities of the now-decade-old prequel trilogy, but as nothing more or less than a movie in its own right. Because ultimately, it has to stand and fall as that.

So, The Force Awakens. Is it any good?

Honestly, it's so much better than it had any right to be. In the hands of J.J. Abrams, who has turned in not one but two disappointing Star Trek films, one of which absolutely disappeared up its own ass in terms of ham-fisted 'fanservice', and backed by Disney, which is not exactly famous for its bold risk-taking and willingness to move forwards rather than just endlessly, pointlessly recycle the past (just apropos of nothing, did you know 2016 will see live action productions of Mulan, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, a sequel to Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Finding Dory, and remakes of The BFG and Pete's Dragon?), the latest entry in the Star Wars movie franchise could all too easily have been an underwhelming and outdated retread of an almost forty year old mythological moment. But for all that Abrams and Disney have their weaknesses, they also have their strengths. Abrams' failures with Star Trek were because he seemed to have his heart set on doing a free-wheeling space adventure, which is exactly what Star Trek isn't and Star Wars should be, and the quintessential lesson Disney has learned from developing the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the importance of steady brand development to maintain reliable fan interest. The things that might have raised flags about the trust behind this film are the very things that, I think, helped ensure it's success.

Yeah, this?  This was what we were afraid of.  Just with more lens flare.
But enough about the issues around the film, let's talk about the film itself. Set just over thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the Force Awakens centres around Finn, a First Order stormtrooper desperate to escape the horrific conditions of the imperial war machine, and Rey, a scavenger with an unclear history and an affinity for language and piloting, along with Poe Dameron, a hot-shot pilot and special agent for the fledgling Resistance. The movie starts off beautifully, with an energetic crawl and a great establishing shot, one of the new-model star destroyers looming ominously into frame, and that moment really sets the tone for what's to come. TFA is sharp, it's funny, and it doesn't just have energy, it directs it appropriately.

Now, it can't be ignored that this movie is very much stuffed with callbacks and fanservice moments. Someone having 'a bad feeling about this', the dejarik table in the Falcon reactivating, Vader's mask, Rey's Rebellion pilot helmet, Ackbar, Nien Numb, the corridors of Cloud City, there are a multitude of moments, big and little, that directly refer back to the events of the original trilogy (although, aside from a single mention of clones as an alternative military resource, I can't think of any prequel trilogy references). There are also those who consider the film to be simply a retread of A New Hope, and I suppose I can understand their viewpoint. Stop me if you've heard this one before – an isolated young person, living on a harsh desert planet, comes across a droid full of secret military intelligence, the possession of which leads them off-planet and into the company of a non-government military organization trying to fight an 'evil empire', whose key figureheads are a masked, black-clad Force user and a sharp-faced British-accented naval officer, with the film ultimately culminating in an assault on a planet-sized weapon of mass destruction.

But just because they share similar ideas doesn't mean they're the same film, and TFA purposefully remixes ANH to provide an updated, modern take on that original introduction to the Star Wars galaxy, with the intention of rekindling the same sort of excitement. It's a safe strategy, certainly, one that trades on the comfort of updated familiarity rather than taking bold risks with wild new directions. But I think it definitely works, not least because while the movies share broad stroke plot elements, the execution really could not be more different. And that ultimately comes down to the characters.

Like these ones....
The trio of TFA (really, a duo with a scene-stealing supporting member) is made up of pieces of the OT trio, but blended and tweaked and mixed together into new wholes. Finn is our everyman, a role shared by Luke and Han to varying degrees in ANH, but you couldn't mistake him for either; he lacks Han's killer edge, but isn't nearly so naive about the universe as Luke. Rey is the isolated youngster on a desert world, but not only does she not dream of adventure, as did her Skywalker predecessor, she actively tries to return to her previous life, which is a rather more Solo-esque trait. And while Poe has Han's smirk and daring-do and Luke's skill in a cockpit, he's also Leia to some extent, needing to be rescued, yes, but also attached to something bigger and more dangerous than the other two. Each of them has elements of the original trio, but because they're different people, in different settings, with different experiences and histories, those traits get a chance to bounce off one another in very different ways. You'd never compare Han trying to suave up Leia with Finn stammeringly asking if Rey has a boyfriend, a cute boyfriend.

But there's more to a movie than its heroes; there are villains to consider, as well. Lord Snoke is roughly as much of a cipher as the Emperor was during the first two films, but that still leaves us with his villainous diumvirate. Kylo Ren and General Hux stand in place of Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, but again, both are very different characters. Hux lacks Tarkin's assurance, tending to squabble with Ren as an equal rather than presenting as a respectful superior, as Tarkin did, and seems more inclined towards grand gestures and speeches, as compared with Tarkin's quiet, brutal efficiency. Ren is the real standout, though, a villain still growing into his role, acknowledged both in-unverse and out of it, a threat just starting to take its full, awesome shape. One can't help but feel that watching Ren's character arc over the course of the trilogy is going to be every bit as fascinating as whatever Finn and Rey might go through.

... and these ones.  And yeah, there's a reason Phasma's tiny, in the back.  Sorry Phasma!
So, with strong characters, characters that are familiar but still distinct, still new and different, and broad-stroke mythological elements remixed for a new generation, both onscreen and in the theatre seats, the last question for The Force Awakens would be presentation. After the blandness of the prequel trilogy, which managed to be both unengagingly broad and claustrophobicly narrow, it's a pleasure to say that TFA deserves top marks here, as well. The emphasis on physical sets and props may well have been a bit of a bit of a dig at Lucas, but it can't be said it didn't work; the movie has a weathered, lived-in, real look to it that harkens back to the original trilogy. Jakku, the Resistance base, Maz Kinata's castle and the Starkiller Base and its surrounding environs have a physicality that lets the actors really inhabit a galaxy far, far away, though Abrams is of course happy to use CGI, as any modern action-heavy scifi film-maker must be. The dogfight scenes between TIEs and X-Wings are wonderful and frenetic, though the apparently-fearsome rathtars never quite seem to break from the 'computer cartoon' view that robs them of some of their power. That sequence could likely have done with some tightening up, and with at least a few more physical props for the actors to work with. Still, it's a relatively small failing in a film that otherwise mostly avoids such things.

That's not to say that The Force Awakens is perfect, of course. The movie's biggest flaw is simply that it's not very good at exposition, in spite of having an opening text crawl and not one but two everyman characters that can serve as audience surrogates. Whereas A New Hope gave us a very simple formula, The Force Awakens complicates things. It's hard for the viewer to really sink into this aspect of the universe, since it's so baffling trying to understand what the relationship is between the various elements at play; the First Order is fighting the Resistance, but launches its first major attack at the Republic, which is supporting the Resistance, which can't be officially associated with the Republic, which is for some reason not fighting the First Order? Compared with that, A New Hope's contrast between brave Rebels and the evil Galactic Empire is a model of perfect simplicity, giving the fewer everything they need to think they understand what they're seeing in just two phrases. While the tight focus on the central characters works wonderfully, it does leave the wider galaxy something of a question mark.

Also, like, does this thing move or what?
Still, this is a problem that can be solved easily enough in the coming films, and of course the supplementary material is only too happy to go into beautifully intricate detail about the sociopolitical tensions of made-up states. But as Chuck of SF Debris so succinctly puts it, you don't get credit for things you didn't put in the movie, because you didn't put them in the movie!

So, the film does have flaws, certainly. But nothing is perfect; to expect such would be the height of foolishness. The important thing is that the film has strong characters with varying interactions, sharp visuals, well-plotted action scenes and appropriately deployed humour. It's a wonderful reintroduction to a much-loved universe, but it also stands on its own, as the first introduction for a whole new generation of Star Wars fans.

The saga continues....

And continues, and continues, and....

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