‘Force’ Majeur: Abrams Awakens A Flatlined Franchise

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015
Recently, in this galaxy, I saw a film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I bet you did too.

The film has already grossed a predictably record-shattering $240(ish) million in the United States, and more than twice that worldwide. The internet and all media and every single human person on the planet are abuzz with all things Star Wars. And here’s some more.

My childhood was consumed mostly by Batman and Jurassic Park. I saw the original Star Wars trilogy, first on VHS and then in the theaters when they were re-released with new “cutting edge” digital effects. And I somehow managed to see all the prequels, which I started out liking well enough. (Contrary to popular belief, I think Revenge Of The Sith was the woooorst. So much squandered potential!)

Truth be told, I was never a huge Star Wars person. I admired the original trilogy, and like all sane people, believe that The Empire Strikes Back is the strongest entry in the series. But 2015 already saw the reawakening of my favorite franchise in Jurassic World, so the Star Wars mania is largely lost on me. (I’m also not as big of a fan of the most recent Star Trek films as many are.) I was coming into The Force Awakens with reasonable expectations and moderate excitement.

It met those expectations.sw-the-force-awakens-domnhall-glessonAt this point, anticipation for a new Star Wars movie is such that Kathleen Kennedy and Disney could have turned the reigns over to Lars Von Trier and it still would have broken box office records. They could have done anything. They played it safe. Abrams has proven his skill at jumping into existing franchises (Mission: Impossible), rebooting dormant franchises (Star Trek), and flat-out aping the style of a legendary auteur (Super 8). There was probably no safer bet than J.J. Abrams to make a crowd-pleasing, down-the-middle Star Wars movie. And that would have been enough.

But the movie gods were smiling upon us, because Abrams, Kennedy, Michael Arndt, and Lawrence Kasdan did something they really didn’t need to do — they made it good. At a Q&A following my screening, Abrams and his co-writers explained that, before they broke the story, they sat down and thought about what the audience wanted from this movie. They came up with some concepts: “mythic,” “fun,” “caring about characters.” This is a sensible thing to do, of course — but it’s not the way movies like this are generally made. Can you imagine what might happen if every director and producer of a blockbuster took the time to consider what the audience actually wants? Not what toys they’d buy, or how they’ll be affected by marketing. Just what they want. What a concept!

They thought about what the audience would like to see, and then they put a girl and a black dude at the center of the action in what could very well become the biggest grossing movie of all time. They could just as easily have not. Would anyone be terribly surprised if the new Star Wars starred a beefy white dude? That’s what we’ve come to expect from this kind of thing. But Kennedy, Abrams, and Disney elected to use their very secure position as helmers of the most anticipated film of all time to give us a film that checks off both the “race” and “gender” boxes. (Now where’s our gay Wookie?)han-solo-chewbacca-harrison-ford-the-force-awakensOf course, there’s already been plenty of praise for the team in giving us something besides the usual white male protagonist we find at the center of every other blockbuster. What The Force Awakens manages to do so expertly is make that choice organic to the story, without having it feel, um… forced. Despite the welcome return of the original trilogy’s core cast — Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill — the latest Star Wars introduces us to new characters who are so immediately compelling, the older cast is hardly needed at all. (But hey, it’s great to see them!)

After one movie, Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and Kylo Ren manage to feel instantly iconic and just as essential to this universe as Han, Luke, Darth Vader, and Leia — no small feat, considering these are the most beloved cinematic characters of all time. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are the MVPs of The Force Awakens, though Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac aren’t far behind. (Meanwhile, folks like Lupita N’yongo, Simon Pegg, and Gwendoline Christie appear also, though less directly.) The Force Awakens gets its characters exactly right, which is not something you can say for every reboot. The script is spry and amusing, hitting all the major beats a true Star Wars picture needs.star-wars-force-awakens-john-boyega-daisy-ridley-finn-reyThe story, on the other hand, is lifted directly from the original trilogy — which, along with the look of the film, makes The Force Awakens feel as much like we’re watching it on VHS in 1983 as a new theatrical experience. (Thankfully, Abrams uses more practical effects than George Lucas did in his misbegotten prequels, having learned well from Lucas’ failures.) This, perhaps, causes The Force Awakens to fall a wee bit short of being truly mind-blowing entertainment. (I’m hoping for the more daring, more visionary Rian Johnson to remedy that in the next installment.) The Force Awakens is basically A Not-So-New Hope, which might have been disappointing if the new cast didn’t come in feeling so fresh and invigorating, and so ready to carry more Star Wars movies.

Abrams’ aptitude for mimicry is at its peak in The Force Awakens. He’s not the guy you go to for a breathtaking original vision, so you won’t find that here. The story beats are simple. Some work quite well. Others, you can ignore and move past. The emotions are as big and broad as they were in the 70s and 80s, but thankfully without the overwrought, melodramatic earnestness the prequels strived for. Somewhat surprisingly, The Force Awakens makes virtually zero updates for a 21st century audience. Everything looks the same, feels the same, is the same — except for the excitement of having characters like Finn and Rey at the heart of the action. Abrams doesn’t even create any new set pieces — every setting is borrowed from the original trilogy. Desert planet? Check. Snowy place? Check. Forest? Check. Incredibly dangerous-looking thin walkway on a Death Star over a gaping chasm? Check!star-wars-the-force-awakens-daisy-ridley-bb8There are literally dozens of callbacks to tropes from the originals. Meanwhile, the humor is of the brand Joss Whedon brought to The Avengers — as well as Serenity, his space opera that borrowed heavily from Star Wars, which Abrams may be aping here. (Serenity was basically really good Star Wars fan fiction, but it beat The Force Awakens to the punch with its kickass heroine.) The Force Awakens also has a fairly lame, Marvel-y supervillain named Snoke (Andy Serkis) who is this story’s weakest link, and through Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux, the Nazi symbolism is laid on about ten times thicker than it really needed to be.

It’s hard to say what a new Star Wars would have looked like if episodes I, II, and III hadn’t been so dismaying. Would dipping back in that original well have worked if fans didn’t need so desperately for a new film to reclaim that old magic? It’s only because Lucas went so astray that it works for Abrams to take us right back to the original Lucas, giving us new versions of old scenes from A New Hope. (And a few homages to Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, too.) Star Wars is never not going to be successful, but from a creative standpoint, the series flatlined with the arc told between The Phantom Menace and Revenge Of The Sith. From a conceptual level, a Darth Vader origin stories could be great, but not a single beat of it was satisfying or resonant in execution.star-wars-the-force-awakens-oscar-isaac-poe-damaron

There’s never any financial risk in making new Star Wars. Sure, people could hate it, but a lot of people hated the prequels and they still made gobs of money. Lots of movies people generally hate manage to make gobs of money. Allowing Daisy Ridley to be the new Luke Skywalker — a true epic hero — was never going to cause Star Wars fans to riot and refuse to see the new movie, but it’s an admirable choice all the same. And more than that — it made for a better movie.

It takes a man with Abrams’ strengths — and even his weaknesses — to get a franchise like this back on track, and now that it’s been reawakened, I hope to see it do more. This is the Force’s awakening — but once it’s had its morning coffee, then maybe we’ll really see something bold. Abrams needed to get back to basics to earn the audience’s trust back, but from here, Star Wars can go just about anywhere. So let’s hope it doesn’t just stay stuck in the past. I hope that the nostalgia ends here, with this movie, and Johnson feels free to take more creative and stylistic risks in the next one.

For the time being, I’m optimistic that that’s exactly what can happen, while being content with what we got. Looks like this Star Wars thing may have some staying power…

Carrie Fisher plays Leia in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. ©Lucasfilm.

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