Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Review of "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens"

I managed to catch the new Star Wars film on opening (Thursday) night without reserving a seat months in advance. In fact, the ticket-buying experience was shockingly conventional. I just walked up to the box office at 7:20 pm and bought a ticket for the 8 o’clock show. As it turned out, I could’ve waited until the last second, because the theater was mostly empty. There were only about 20 people there. I figured my chances of getting in were good at the Mann St. Louis Park Cinema 6. Even though it’s in a busy commercial district on Excelsior Blvd next to Hwy. 100, it always feels like a ghost town inside. There’s definitely an 80’s-or-90’s-Suburban-Cineplex-That-Time-Forgot feel to it.

Much to my disappointment, I was not swept away by nostalgia at the opening strains of John Williams’ iconic main theme. Years ago, someone commented that the reason all us grown-up Star Wars fans felt betrayed by the prequels was that they failed to literally transform us into 12-year-olds. That may be why the latest installment in the saga left me cold. Also, the fact that I saw it alone in a nearly empty theater with a bunch of strangers probably didn’t help. This is one of those movie-going experiences that would be greatly enhanced by the addition of a communal aspect. 

As it was, the Star Wars universe felt as old and worn-out as those wrecked Star Destroyers gathering dust on the desert planet of Jakku. I guess we’re supposed to feel comfy and cozy starting another trilogy on another desert planet, but I felt little connection to the setting or the characters. It would’ve helped if Rey, the gutsy, orphaned scavenger played by Daisy Ridley, had any real attachment to Jakku. But she’s just trying to scratch out a living on a cruel, desperate world.

It wasn’t until afterward that I saw the parallels with the current sociopolitical climate. Jakku works as an allegory for the Great Recession. Just as the desert planet’s denizens are surrounded by the ruins of the Galactic Empire’s fleet, we’re surrounded by our own imperial luxury that, for most people, has been gutted and stripped clean of all meaningful benefits. Our social safety net and communities have been shredded, leaving us to wander the metaphorical desert in search of useful relics from our overshadowing past. (I don’t know if that metaphor works for you, but it works for me, so I’m goin’ with it.)

While Rey’s plucky millennial navigates the economic wasteland left in the wake of an empire’s fall, we meet Finn, stormtrooper-cum-cubicle-drone, who’s having reservations about his corporate mission. He was taken from his family as a child by the First Order, the essentially faceless monolith that has emerged to fill the fascist vacuum left by the defeat of the Galactic Empire. I can certainly relate to his predicament. Maybe I wasn’t forced into the corporate world at gunpoint, but it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of other viable job options out there anymore.

Luckily for Finn, he’s put in charge of a captured Resistance pilot, with whom he manages to escape Starkiller Base, the planet that the First Order has turned into a megaweapon capable of destroying whole star systems. This is just one of the items J.J. Abrams ticks off on his journey down the nostalgia checklist. Stormtroopers? Check. Restless orphan on desert planet? Check. Escape from said desert planet aboard the Millennium Falcon? Check. Moon- or planet-sized megaweapon capable of destroying planets? Check. 

I don’t mean to imply that any of this repetition undermined by enjoyment of the picture. Honestly, I’m just using it as fodder for comedy. Every part of the production was handled competently. I just didn’t feel like there was any juice left in this fictional world. But, judging by the reaction of almost everyone else who’s seen it, I may just be dead inside.

Well, getting back to the plot, Rey and Finn are thrust together and join forces with Han Solo and Chewbacca, who bring them to their new family, the Resistance. (Sorry for skipping over a lot of stuff, but, like I said before, the movie didn’t really suck me in.) The film gets better as it goes. Harrison Ford is old, and Carrie Fisher’s face, due to “having some work done” I assume, is not terribly flexible, but they bring a bit of that old magic back to the screen, just enough to set the table for the newbies. 

Unlike Rey and Finn, Han and Leia’s son, now known as Kylo Ren, is well on his way up the corporate ladder. Unfortunately, he’s chosen the Dark Side (although, frankly, I don’t think the corporate ladder has a Light Side), along with the centerpiece of the Dark Side Junior Executive starter kit: a helmet that makes his voice super-creepy. (Check!) Han tries to reconcile with his son on a long, skinny walkway over a seemingly bottomless pit. (Check!) Alas, Kylo impales his dad with his red lightsaber and lets him fall into the bottomless pit.

Ya gotta give Abrams credit for killing off Han Solo, the most popular character in the franchise. The estrangement of Han, Leia and their son is also affecting. It kind of echoes the plight of Baby Boomers as parents. “Sure, Mom and Dad, you fought the Man, but now you want me to play it safe? Fuck that, I’m joining the Dark Side!” (I think I may be projecting too much onto this movie.)

Suffice it to say, the Death Sta- excuse me, Starkiller Base is destroyed by a motley crew of X-wing pilots, complete with fat guy! (Check plus!) I probably should’ve mentioned that the movie begins with the Resistance’s top pilot transporting a droid that has a map to the secret location of Luke Skywalker, who’s been off the grid since he got discouraged about losing Han and Leia’s son to the Dark Side and decided to go looking for the first Jedi temple. (Check infinity!) 

The movie ends on a high note, with Rey finding Luke at the top of a jagged little island. Mark Hamill’s aging serves him better than Ford or Fisher. His gray beard and weathered face perfectly suit his Obi-Wan-ish robe. When he lowers his hood and faces Rey and us, it’s kind of a thrilling moment, even for my dead soul. Hamill overplays the gravitas, but the thrill endures as Luke contemplates reclaiming his central role in the galaxy and the camera circles the promontory.

So if you’re looking for a good time at your local cineplex, this is the movie for you. If you’re looking for a way to reconnect with your lost youth and innocence and reclaim your soul, I’d recommend something less weighed-down with commercial and emotional expectations.

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