Friday, September 9, 2016

Where We Started: Brief Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Wow, I can't think of a more out of place posting for a Star Wars review than this blog I created for everything classical and NOT modern.  But, seeing how after my initial posting I allowed this blog to go fallow (sorry, I got caught up in the so-called "micro-blogging" idiocy of Facebook), I figured something is better than nothing.  So....Eh, maybe I will find a way to tie this review in a broader, anti-modernist topic.   Let's see what happens.

After putting it off for some time, I finally bit the bullet and watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Honestly, I have never been a huge SW fan.  While I did love the series as a kid, and while I do consider the first movie, A New Hope, to be an excellent bit of science fiction, and possibly cinematic "space opera" at its finest, overall I think the franchise is greatly overvalued by its fans as it is far from a perfectly executed sci-fi series, something the prequel movies amply demonstrated.  This is why some years ago I found myself nodding in agreement when a sci-fi author quipped (according to my dim memory) "Star Wars and Star Trek ruined sci-fi for the rest of us."  I agree.  Star Wars, along with the other "Star" experience, has definitely been punching above its weight.  With that in mind, I went into this movie with respect for the franchise but not high hopes for the type of breathtaking sci-fi experience that the more hardcore fans seem to get out of every episode.

Overall, I have to say that The Force Awakens was a decent entry to the franchise, but nothing more than that.  It was entertaining, if only initially.  What I mean by that is that I really enjoyed the first half of the movie.  Not knowing what to expect - I never pay attention to movie hype - I was pleasantly surprised to see that JJ Abrams eschewed any reference to the absolutely dreadful Episodes I-III and instead went back to the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, for his inspiration.  I loved this because Episode 4 was always my favorite because it was an expertly told space opera war story told in three tightly distinct acts.  Right from the opening moments of The Force Awakens, it was clear that Abrams was returning to the roots of the franchise, something made clear by all the self-referential material in the opening moments.  Abrams is on the right track here as the best way to wash the bad taste of Episodes I-III from our mouths is to ignore the mess created by Lucas and instead remind us of the glorious beginning of the franchise.  Abrams does just that by bringing in many familiar elements from Episode 4, including a new Darth Vader and starting planet suspiciously familiar to Tatooine, complete with another Luke Skywalker-esque underdog.  Indeed, I found the first half of the movie supremely enjoyable for the reason of childhood nostalgia alone.

Unfortunately, this nostalgia would also become a problem that would ruin the second half of the movie for me.  Well, maybe not ruin as much as deflate.

By the midpoint of the movie, I began to realize that Abrams wasn't making a tribute to the first and best Star Wars movie of all time as much as he was making an outright copycat of a film, down to the smallest plot detail.  Oh sure, he was sure to put his own twist on things (e.g., this time the family squabbles surrounded the Solos), but in the end The Force Awakens was less its own movie and more Star Wars: A New Hope 2.0 (Special Fan Service Edition by JJ Abrams). What Abrams ultimately did was not to create a fresh tale that nods in respect to A New Hope but just a complete remake ("reboot" in contemporary [idiotic] Hollywood speak) of that very film.  In short, what I believed began as a tribute to A New Hope soon degenerated into the very thing I hate about contemporary, Big Corporation-produced cinema:  a lazy cut and paste sequel whose only purpose is to get fans to purchase the same product more than once.  Or more precisely in the case of Star Wars, seven bloody times!  How many Death Stars are we going to blow up?  How many Darth Vaders are we going to duel?  How many "new hopes" are we going to discover?  How many times are we going to be introduced to the same characters and the same ships?  Well, if The Force Awakens is any indication, as long as we keep paying to see the same photostat over and over again.

And this is why I ultimately came to be very disappointed in the latest entry to the Star Wars franchise - a sadly reoccurring phenomenon with this series.   By the time the last act was gearing up, I found myself glancing at the clock, wishing the movie would hurry up and finish as I knew precisely how it was going to play out AS I ALREADY SAW THIS MOVIE BEFORE many years ago.  As a result, Star Wars: The Force Awakens ended not with a bang (even a super-duper, extra large Death Star bang, something indicative of another popular Hollywood cliche: bigger is always better), but with a whimper on the level of wannabe fan fiction.  The Force Awakens didn't give me what I have been desperately desiring from Star Wars over the years - a fresh start with all new characters and a new narrative - but instead just handed me reheated leftovers from the original franchise, courtesy of the fevered re-imagining of JJ Abrams.

Disappointing.  Not unexpected disappointment, mind you.  JJ Abrams pulled this same rubbish with his handling of the Star Trek franchise, specifically his ham-handed reproduction of the superlative Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, this time inelegantly titled, Star Trek: Into Darkness.  Yawn there.  Yawn here.  As with Star Wars and Star Trek, JJ Abrams is also punching above his weight.

I don't want to be too critical as the movie was entertaining, and certainly light years better than the dreadful Lucas prequels that fail as science fiction specifically, and cinema generally.  I particularly enjoyed Abrams excellent use of color and the judicious use of lens flares, two of his hallmarks.  It gave everything a fresh, almost documentarian look at times.  And I truly loved some of the wonderfully artistic shots in this film.  As Peter Jackson successfully mimicked some of the excellent Lord of the Rings artwork  by Alan Lee, Abrams managed to incorporate some wonderful artistry of his own, a grand vision that really brought the massive potential of the Star Wars universe to the fore (I loved that Star Destroyer buried in the sand!).  Sadly, that potential for massive scope has yet to be utilized outside of the original franchise.

And that is ultimately what disappoints me with Star Wars and much of contemporary science fiction:  it promises a galaxy-spanning adventure but quickly becomes claustrophobically narrowed down to a small cast of characters and a specific ship or two.  Be it Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica or Firefly, the Hollywood approach is always the same: take the galaxy and shrink it down to the size of a small town, and populate with a eight or so characters and a familiar ship that we will get to revisit over and over and over again.  What a waste.  The term "dumbing it down" comes to mind.  Sadly, true galaxy-spanning tales, such as, say, The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, will never get to see the light of day as they don't play by the contemporary rules of movie-making.  Unlike the claustrophobic mega-science fiction franchises, those are examples of science fiction that didn't artificially limit their potential, that introduced us to new characters and new experiences on a weekly basis.  Unlike contemporary sci-fi pablum,  The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits demanded that the viewer keep up with its unpredictable tales and its limitless supply of interesting characters.  Today, such an idea seems almost subversive in an era of indistinguishable copycats that dare not tread new ground.  But, frankly, why should they?   When you can profit millions by repackaging the same product over and over again with little to no effort and easily sell it to a gullible audience, why risk innovation?  As they say in the gaming world, iteration trumps innovation.  Making a sequel that duplicates the original is easier and far less financially risky than trying to be original and innovate.  When you are dealing with an audience that is increasingly illiterate, whose expectations have been so lowered that their enjoyment of a film descends to almost a Pavlovian level of simple stimulus response ("Ooh!  Han Solo is in this flick!  I love Han Solo, so I must also love this movie!"), why make science fiction tales as intellectually grandiose as the genre deserves?  Why not just phone it in, as JJ Abrams and the suits over at Disney did here?

Hence, the sorry state of increasingly unimaginative and mass produced contemporary cinematic science fiction.  Rather than being a triumph, Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives as a tombstone that marks the grave of original science fiction.  It should have been a long overdue fresh start for a beloved franchise, but instead arrives as a tired re-do of well-worn territory.

My Score: 3 out of 5 stars

A competently made and entertaining film that should have been so much more than a mere copycat.  I guess we can expect Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 2.0 next.

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