star wars: the force awakens (2015)
As the longest-running film serial with a continuing storyline, Star Wars opens the book once a generation in a 'but wait, there's more..' fashion. Each entry should provide a re-evaluation of the entries that came before it, and deepen the understanding of .. whatever it is that lies at the heart of this increasingly chaotic and unfocused plot. With the newest entry, JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have been tasked with making some sense out of it all, to excite a new audience and provide the jolt needed to revive the dying property and keep it ticking for another few decades or so. Rather than widening the scope, or deepening our understanding, The Force Awakens sends us spiraling in circles, sealing the door on the echo chamber of self-reflexive, closed-loop narratives that risk, and in this case succeed in, becoming only "about" themselves at the end of the day. It's a series that begins with an ancient rivalry, two mystic factions of old vying for power; the weight is placed on the youth to do what the elders cannot. When the youth fails, it throws an entire society into fascism, which is only set right by redemption through the bonds of parents and their children, the next generation. Now, when the children have children of their own, we see the reverse, the destructive power of family, a hard-won peace not appreciated by those it was handed to, the shockwaves reverberate still. The film, by means of an endless series of mind-numbing closeups and fast cuts, tries to obscure the fact that it is a mirror, it is "about" the audience, the faithful who gather to watch Star Wars. You stare at it, it stares back. The Force Awakens is a religious ceremony, watching a series of familiar things paraded past the altar, with no context, rhyme or reason for being, just a quizzical "Isn't this what you came in here looking for?" from the faces on the screen. You went to the movie because they made it, they made the movie because you'd see it.
There's enough sure-fire buzz-inducing sci-fi nostalgia to distract us all from the realization that there's no movie behind it. These films are a pretense, Abrams here does what he does best, he highlights. Like making notes in a book he likes, the segments of interest are bright yellow, the rest fading into the background. In Hollywood, popular movie-making has seemed to follow a general trajectory of adaptation and derivation from the start, eventually giving way to formula. This was of course further refined into an embracement of formula through homage and strict definitions of genre (something I still think the chain video rental stores and, more recently, NetFlix, only exacerbated), each with its own checklist to fulfill. Now, as Richard Brody phrased so well, we've seen the solidification of the 'pre-fab' movie. To be clear, this is not Kill Bill-style antics of genre-blending and riffing off of such tropes, (I can still see the value in such an exercise) this is writing the next chapter in a cinematic novel by pasting in passages from the previous chapters. Abrams has taken his favorite highlights from the series so far and connected them, like a YouTube fan clip reel, so that fellow devotees might revel also in the fantasy of re-living those moments of childhood dreaming of space battles and using the force. Abrams leafs through the other films like a catalogue and selects an arrangement in the style and color that suits him. "Won't that Cantina scene look great next to that flashback sequence we got on the trip to Paris last month?" It seems to say. In short, we've come full circle as the series seems poised to give fans what they've always wanted in an endless series of adventures involving the universe that Lucas built. In all honesty, none of this is the fault of the filmmakers, as all who are implicated in a system like the EVIL EMPIRE cannot escape it. Our most identifiable character is that of Kylo Ren, a young boy's mind trapped in a grown man's body whose urges toward following his convictions are quelled in a daily brainwashing by a decrepit hologram overlord. There are all manner of good ideas at play here, the thing reaks of someone ambitious, yet under the gun of a corporate deadline whose best intentions are thwarted by a constant "fuck it, good enough, let's move on" both in production as well as the end product itself. Woe is Abrams, who, like Spielberg before him, is a mogul at heart and a director by trade (the difference here is Spielberg's penchant for directing effective films and his almost spiritual connection to the medium) who will likely go the way of his predecessor, becoming one of the primary custodians of Hollywood, like the lost order of the Jedi who must pass on their ways and continue to exist in a changing world. One can only imagine Spielberg's pep talks to Abrams, "when 900 producer credits you reach, look not as good will you".
Kylo Ren has Darth Vader's helmet. He talks to it. He talks to it in a quick, barely noticeable 30 second scene that should have been a five minute Shakespearean monologue; Hamlet in a galaxy far, far away. Why isn't it? Because the film seems terrified of its own audience. "I know you love Star Wars, but you hated those other ones and I just spent billions on this .. please, please .. just enjoy this" it seems to say with every scene. Is the idea here that if the audience is given a moment to breathe that they'll suddenly realize what a vacuous pop-culture house of worship Disney is erecting? If the film has any cultural commentary, it's that. A Space opera about adventurers and rogues in the style of a wild western and chivalrous samurai epic has turned just as cute and commercial-friendly as Disney previously ventured with the idea of pirates a decade ago. Whitewashed like everything else. The Force Awakens isn't telling us that rebellion is pointless it tells us that as long as there's a buck to be made, we'll dance until the music stops, and this particular jig is called "war". Doesn't seem natural for there to be an enemy force? No problem! We'll just make one that's just as convincing as the real thing. I digress, honestly, I liked the movie .. can't you tell? Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, etc. all inhabit some cool characters, and the returning cast does their best to pretend it's 1983 and no time has passed. A plot of some kind randomly seems to develop out of the endless heaves of "cool potential story ideas for the next one" that Kasdan and Abrams seem to vomit all over the screen. The only 'shoulda' I'll allow this review is in the overall construction of the central conflict here, which should have been smaller and personal to latch us on to the new characters and connect them to the old. The film is overly focused on its own real-world situation "We're starting a new trilogy/direction for the franchise, we want to net a new audience even if they're not fans of the old films" when, in story-reality, this is the final third of a very long story. This is the time for conclusions, tying the prior six films into an overall meaning. In any case, Star Wars has resurfaced in the culture and it isn't going anywhere.