fredag 18. desember 2015

Star Wars episode VII: The Force Awakens - a review (warning: spoilers)

The first time I watched any Star Wars film with interest and enthusiasm was back in 1997 when the original trilogy was re-launched in theatres across the world having been digitally remastered. I watched it on a massively huge cinema screen (with THX sound) with my father and ever since I have been a big fan of the franchise. There is something immaterial about the original trilogy that makes it unique. A certain tone, making the films have this magical mix between science fiction, humour, action and adventure that no other films quite manages to capture. They make you feel good, and the universe created by the original trilogy seems like a real place (only far, far away).

This is why everyone with any taste or passion for the Star Wars universe hate the prequels with such burning, everlasting hatred. Episode I-III are directed by an elderly George Lucas, a Lucas whose brain no longer functions outside of making money and a fetishist love of green-screen usage. The prequels are cartoonish movies made for little kids and have no soul, no passion, no nerve, horrible script, plotholes galore, terrible cinematography and awful acting. They almost managed to murder the idea of Star Wars and George Lucas should, as we know, be arrested for crimes against humanity. The prequels terrorised the world for three long years, and every time the new one was announced the fans feverishly hoped that this time, this time it would be good. It never was and we are all scarred by it to this day.

With this in mind, it is understandable that when George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, it did little to calm a world of traumatised fans. Disney isn't exactly known for mature films with an adult audience. When the somewhat controversial director J.J. Abrams was announced as the new director for episode VII, we all remembered how he had raped the cerebral Star Trek franchise and imagined what horrors he would inflict upon our beloved galaxy. I even wrote pre-emptive disclaimers, announcing how I expected nothing but mediocrity, although hoping I wouldn't be horribly disappointed yet again. My expectations were put to eternal shame, because Star Wars episode VII: The Force Awakens (or TFA as I'll call it from now on) is nothing short of a modern, science fiction masterpiece. I absolutely love this film and before we go into details, I will boldly state that this is the best Star Wars film to date. Yes, even better than Empire (episode V).

The characters: One of the worst things about the prequels was the terrible casting and the soulless characters. The choice of protagonist (or the lack of one) was also ruinous to the movies. But in TFA, we are immediately presented with relatable and (importantly) likeable characters. The first character we are introduced to is actually not the main protagonist, but an elite rebellion pilot named Poe. In the original trilogy all the characters were white, so it's unfamiliar to see other ethnicities in key roles; but it works very well. The actor playing Poe, Oscar Isaac, is Latin-American; but he is not the token-ethnic-guy role. After all, in a massive multi-system galaxy, it is highly plausible that the appearance of humans are diverse since they will live on many very different worlds. Poe reminds us of the Han Solo from the original trilogy. Cocky, handsome, funny; with a mean streak. You find yourself immediately rooting for the guy. A feeling I have been missing since 1997 in a Star Wars film. In short succession the audience is then introduced to the two main protagonists; Rey and Finn, a very beautiful white young woman and a handsome black young man. It actually takes a while before they are put together on screen, which is a stroke of genius (or simply competent filmmaking). We are properly introduced to the characters, and Abrams takes the time needed to do so. It is a treat to watch a Star Wars film that doesn't rush everything. Finn, played by the very unknown (but very competent) John Boyega, is a Storm Trooper for the evil First Order. He is involved in his first battle, which in reality is a massacre of innocent civilians in order to find a missing map. Again, we are treated to something missing in all the prequels; an actual character arc. Finn is ordered to execute innocent civilians, but finds he is unable and subsequently struggles with his place among the Storm Troopers. The main protagonist, Rey, is struggling to survive on a desert world with limited resources and cutthroat inhabitants. Obviously a nod to the first Star Wars film where Luke Skywalker is living a harsh life on Tatooine. We are shown, through action and actual plot elements, why she is slim and in good shape, why she can fight and why she is an expert climber. When Finn and Rey meet, their chemistry is immediate. These two actors play off each other's strengths very well and their relationship (no horrible love story, thank you so very, very, very much Abrams!) develops gradually and logically. It's a thing of beauty. The great thing about Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, is actually that she is a woman. It was a bold choice by Abrams to cast a woman as the lead role. As we know, Hollywood often ruins female roles by having them be stereotypically sentimental, sappy, overtly sexy and dependent on the strong/competent men. Rey is beautiful (this is a mainstream big budget film, after all), but she does not play on sex at all, is not overly sentimental (but she still shows human feelings) and is very independent. But she's not a "man with breasts", a woman basically playing a man. Finn tries to hit on her (no wonder, she's amazingly gorgeous), Rey screams like a girl when hurt (not like a girl trying to emulate a man) and she is definitely feminine without being in any way weak.

Now, onto the most exciting thing about TFA; the original cast. All three main characters from the original trilogy are in TFA: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Before I saw the film, I was very sceptical of Ford once more piloting the Millennium Falcon as Han Solo. Much because Ford in his latest films usually plays one role; that of the grumpy curmudgeon. Han Solo was not a grumpy old man, he was a devil-may-cry, dashing, grinning and passionate young man. But again, my fears proved unfounded. Ford does his best role in many, many years as the older Han Solo. Yes, he is not as funny and dashing, but that's to be expected from a man in his seventies. But he is unmistakably Han Solo through and through. He still pulls one-liners that work, he's still friends with (a now less spry) Chewbacca and he still often let's caution go to the wind. Carrie Fisher was the object of many boys' budding sexual fantasies back when she played a young Princess Leia. Leia was gorgeous and who can forget her skimpy bikini-clad body in the lap of Jabba the Hut? So, when we know how hard life has treated Carrie Fisher (let's just say Jabba, rather than Leia, seems to have been her inspiration after the original trilogy), many of us dreaded having our fond memories of Leia sullied. Again, Abrams eases all our anxieties with ease and General Leia, as she is now known, is a handsome older woman of whom loyalty is demanded by a silent, natural authority. Fisher doesn't have a big role in the film, but does play a key part in the plot and every scene with her in it is memorable. Especially endearing is the relationship she has with Solo and how they work together on screen. It's obvious that these two actors either foster great respect and love for one another or are simply world class actors who manages to hide their true feelings extremely well. The chemistry here is, again, stellar. So who's missing? That's right, Luke Skywalker himself. Mark Hamill. So far, all we are told is that everyone on screen is looking for him, but he has yet to show himself. We are shown Luke only at the very end of the film, and Abrams manages to make even a cliffhanger ending into a crescendo, even without any dialogue and seeing Hamill on screen after all these years gave me goosebumps all along my spine.

So that's the main good guys. All of them inspiring, very well portrayed and believable as real persons (instead of robots reading lines, as was the case in the prequels). Now, the bad guys are the real challenge. When you have a film with two polar opposite sides doing battle (typically good versus evil) it is difficult to portray the bad guys because it's so easy to go overboard; thus making them cartoonish and a parody of evil. You can also easily create a supposed bad guy that the audience ends up rooting for instead of the main protagonist if the protagonist is poorly portrayed. It can also happen that the bad guy isn't really portrayed as a bad guy at all, making the whole film confusing for the audience. None of these scenarios come to play in the latest instalment in the Star Wars saga. Our main bad guy, Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver), is the coolest villain I've seen in a film since Silence of the Lambs. Ren is a Sith who's thoroughly corrupted to the core. He's not "misguided", he's a psychopath. It's obvious that Abrams and Driver have read up on sociopathic and psychopathic behaviour in preparation for this role. Ren is in many ways a better villain than Darth Vader, at least compared to the Vader in episode IV, as Ren isn't a faceless brutal machine executing the Emperor's orders; but rather a fully formed psychopath. He finds enjoyment in torturing those in his power and he has a clear personal agenda. We are also shown his backstory, not through three horrible prequels that never get to the point, but simply by effective dialogue between Leia and Solo. Desperate to get her son back, Leia pleads with Solo to find Ren, their son, and bring him home again. It couldn't be simpler, yet it works so well and explains many of the actions of both Ren and Solo. Finally, the "helmet voice" of Ren is fantastic. Deep, dark, sonorous and sinister. Just the way a Sith should sound.

The script: The Star Wars films are not stand-alone films, at least; that's not the original idea. Star Wars is a space opera, with many characters and an overarching theme of the evil Empire/First Order/Dark Side versus the good Republic/Rebellion/Light side. If you deviate from this central idea, like Lucas did in the prequels; you create a space mess. Abrams steers TFA expertly like a science fiction Mozart and presents the audience, right from the opening floating text-intro, with a simple plot: The Empire lies in ruins, but The First Order has risen in its place and threatens the fledgling Republic with annihilation. General Leia desperately seeks her brother Luke Skywalker, to help the Rebel forces fight, but his location is unknown to all; except maybe a little droid carrying a certain map.  That's how easy it can be done. No convoluted mess about trade embargos, space taxes and galactic senate sessions. Just an epic quest to find a Jedi master. And much like in A New Hope (episode IV), all plot elements build up to the conclusion of the main storyline, consolidating it. As I've mentioned before, pacing was a massive problem with the prequels. Lucas jammed as much action and people and things into every scene as he could in them. And often we saw drawn out scenes of drudgery go straight to messy action gangbangs without any semblance of transition. Not so in TFA. Abrams takes his time to develop his characters and background, but all scenes build up to the next part in the main storyline; in a timely manner. Even though we are presented with an epic space opera; the script is so tightly constructed that even a child can follow it; without the film coming off as dumbed down to cash in on those sweet kiddie dollars. The film is divided into four clear, easy-to-follow parts: the beginning, the opposition, the climax and the ending; and they flow into each other seamlessly. It's almost as if, oh I don't know, like Abrams actually hired some real writers instead of eating four kilos of amphetamines and scribbling out the plot on toilet paper.

One of my main concerns before watching this film was how J.J. Abrams gave several interviews sounding like he was reading a script written by the staff at BuzzFeed or UpWorthy. Lots of bullshit about female representation, how Star Wars had always been a "boys club" and that he wanted to do something about that. Gender politics has no place in science fiction, unless you're making a film about feminists in space; which Star Wars, last I checked, is not. Normally, when Hollywood wants to pander to the female demographic, they throw in lots of sentimentality, lots of love scenes and sappy dialogue. They probably do this because a) women actually love that sort of stuff or b) the Hollywood producers are wrinkly old men without any idea about what women want in movies. As I mentioned before, TFA has no big love story, and it's one of the best things about the whole film. Love stories are possible to pull off, just look at the original trilogy and the love story between Han Solo and Princess Leia; but it rarely works. Most often the love story plot ends up being a distraction, appearing forced in the film just to please the people who like that sort of thing. This is not to say that TFA is without human emotion, the whole film is carried by the very believable interactions between the characters and the genuine love (or hatred) they have for each other. And sure, you do have some hints at possible future love stories; especially between Rey and Finn. He is clearly attracted to Rey (who wouldn't be?) and Finn obviously grows on her as well. But this is all implied and it adds to the story instead of being a distraction. Abrams also manages to avoid falling into the trap of pandering to the "dudebro" demographic (i.e. the non-geek males) by pushing lots of unnecessary action and scantily clad girls all over the film, instead opting for people in the film actually behaving according to their character's personality; not according to a messy script without any direction or coherence (i.e. the prequels).

This film is not an overly cerebral film in the sense that it tries to use lots of symbolism, non-linear storytelling techniques or complex dialogue; but there is no reason it should be either. This is Star Wars, not "Dostoyevsky: the complete collection - an adaptation", and as such Abrams deserves praise. As the plot develops we gradually care more and more about each character and want them to succeed against the First Order. Not just because the film tells us to, but because the actions of the First Order are truly heinous, Kylo Ren is just such a believable psychopath and the Rebels' fight is a believably honorable one. The action scenes, never too long or too cluttered, are timed perfectly and the main battle keeps you on the edge of your seat. The special effects serve the action (instead of camouflaging bad writing) and it's actually difficult to predict how the fight will end, since Abrams manages to throw the audience a few great plot-twists beforehand. I particularly enjoyed the final duel between Rey and Ren. Instead of coming off as a carefully choreographed dance with lightsabers, it feels natural, brutal and unpredictable. The fact that Rey manages to hold her own against Ren and actually saves Finn, instead of it being the other way around (which would fall into the typical damsel in distress trope), strengthens Rey's role as the main protagonist and the next Jedi master.

Bonus points: TFA manages to balance the serious plot elements with great humour. This is so rare these days, almost no film manges to be funny anymore. Luckily, TFA is an exception. The comedy scenes are few, but they work; especially the ones with the little BB- droid. The cinematography is superb, and the many gems we are shown throughout the film makes you want to be in the places you are shown. The deserts riddled with the wreckage of Empire battle cruisers, the moss-infested castle/inn at the edge of the lake on the forest-planet, the awesome-looking rusty Millennium Falcon and of course the misty throne room of Supreme Leader Snoke are all excellent examples of this. Abrams has also learned from the disaster that is the prequels that Star Wars fans don't equate film quality with the number of lightsabers shown at any given time during the movie. The lightsaber is now again treated as a rare artifact, reserved for the chosen few; and this makes the fight scenes with them in it even better. Oh, and there should now no longer be up for debate whether Ren's plasma wrist-guards are justified or not (they are).

In conclusion; this is the Star Wars film the world has been waiting for. Let's all pretend the prequels never happened and treat this as the fourth real Star Wars film, not the seventh.