Monday, December 28, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(J. J. Abrams, USA, 2015)

A good point of comparison would be the lumbering, over-produced Jurassic World, this year's other ultra-hyped pop cultural "event."  Abrams is both trusted and experienced enough to shepherd the film without too much interference from the conglomerate people, and he clearly has the credentials as a nerd.  So he pulled it off.  My own nostalgia was awakened by the film, somewhat unexpectedly, as I had anticipated much more eye-rolling than I actually wound up performing.  Yes, it's front-loaded with a slew of impossible and self-contradictory expectations: please the hardcore nerds, win brand new fans who couldn't care less about the originals, make a perfect holiday outing but also a real movie, with a genuine sense of danger; pay fealty to the original, and resurrect some of its characters, but also create new characters, a new mythology, that can sustain the inevitable deluge of sequels and spinoffs and reboots to come.  And in successfully doing so, Abrams all but guaranteed that the film was going to be a kind of fine-tuned simulation, utterly in thrall to the social and monetary forces that gave it rise, but lacking a soul of its own.

These are all givens, but, perhaps surprisingly, and in what we can now recognize as being essential, necessary: Abrams is happy to deliver.  He is not concerned about his movie having soul; the soul is external to the film, a collective essence made up of the excitement and great hope of the legions of fans, old and new, a kind of pervasive, all-encompassing field of energy, a force, if you will, and you see where I'm going with this so I'll just stop there.  Abrams's reverence for the originals is manifest everywhere, in practically every frame of the film.  The acrobatics the action sequences, which are unflaggingly thrilling and exquisitely choreographed (the initial chase of the resurrected Millennium Falcon through and around the ruins of a Star Destroyer is a masterpiece) signify the advances in movie magic since the original Star Wars, and also the increased budget, but otherwise, everything is kept scrupulously lo-tech, in harmony with the scrappiness and ingenuity of the older films.  There are moments when it all feels too faithful, almost sedulous, and the air drains from the film.  But mostly, it is great, indulgent fun, brisk and clean-cut and deliciously plotted.  Abrams doesn't lose sight of his own instincts, and particularly in his casting of the major roles, does a marvelous job.  The newcomers are excellent, and their being almost unknown is a big part of the appeal.

It's handsome, wholesome, all-American entertainment, the kind that might even restore a glimmer of faith to the hard-hearted among us, who have all but written off entertainment on such a scale.  If you think for too long about The Force Awakens, and the insane amount of anticipation and discussion it has prompted in the culture - this unsettlingly eager, almost desperate embrace of nostalgia and bald sentimentality - you might easily find yourself tilting dangerously close to the dark side.  Better to take it as what it is at it's best - a well-crafted adventure movie - and then go back home and have some more leftovers. 

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