Sunday, January 17, 2016

The STAR WARS Franchise Is Perfectly All Right Now, It's Fine, It's All Fine Now, Thank You...How Are You?

(directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Buzzfeed offers countless listicles for toys we recognize if were grew up in whatever decade. Nickelodeon launched a late night TV block reviving its classic 80s/90s programming. Any Republican running for office is virtually required to win one for the Gipper. Nostalgia blinds our better judgement, bathes us in a warm pool of familiarity, and strokes our hair as it reassures us, "You're not mistaken - things really were better then."

It's a cynical tool, for sure, wielded by those hawking what they want us to buy. But in the right hands, it's also a noble one. Enter "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which preys on fans to a calculating degree, tweaking our impulses and desires and memories like it's scanning a car radio. And it's not only enjoyable, it's kind of inspiring.

I've always thought pop culture plays a crucial role in our lives, more than filling the silence before bedtime. Pop culture serves as a great uniting force, piercing through our veil of differences and giving strangers something to share in our dumb, random lives. Watching "The Force Awakens" with a sold out IMAX crowd at nearly one in the morning drove that home. As a movie - and ultimately that's what it is - the gears of the machine churn exposed. You can sense it laying franchise groundwork here. You can feel it hitting the obvious emotional buttons there. And yes, you can see it essentially remaking the original "Star Wars" all over the place.

But is that a problem? As noted by Matt Zoller Seitz, "The Force Awakens" is the movie writer/director J.J. Abrams was put on this planet to make, and sure enough, it's nimble and sure-footed, whip-fast and brazenly entertaining, modern yet boldly retro, with just the right amount of heart and brimming with confidence, announcing itself from the iconic opening title crawl as a movie that knows what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. Tapping into the power of nostalgia, it doesn't create a new world as much as it plugs new, dynamic characters into the one we fondly remember, and through that, Abrams makes an artistic statement that's both powerful and surprisingly personal. 

He does so by populating "The Force Awakens" with new characters consumed with looking back. Swaggering pilot for the Resistance - the good guys - Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) opens the movie on a quest for the map leading to now vanished Luke Skywalker. Villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), young leader in the First Order - the bad guys - models his look, attitude, and very existence on the legendary Darth Vader. Farmgirl Rey (Daisy Ridley) and stormtrooper-regretting-his-decisions Finn (John Boyega) know the legends of the original trilogy by heart. And then there's Han Solo (Harrison Ford having his most onscreen fun in ages) and Chewbacca returning to the series hunting for their treasured Millennium Falcon, which they lost years prior. 

Look. I get it. Abrams and Disney don't exactly reinvent the wheel in "The Force Awakens." At best, they're like the kid with an old-timey tire and a stick; if the tools aren't new, we still marvel at how well he's spinning it. George Lucas' original "Star Wars" felt radically fresh - throwing everything he loved about samurai pictures, westerns, Saturday morning serials, and California car culture in a blender - while the resulting mishmash served a structure as old as storytelling itself, the hero's journey. He used the new to reframe the old.

For "The Force Awakens," the old is the "Star Wars" series itself. Abrams wields these familiar tropes and beats of the series as a weapon, and without being too cleverly self-referential, he transports us to where we were in our lives when we first fell in love with these movies. Judging "The Force Awakens" for aping other "Star Wars" movies might be valid criticism as far as criticism goes, but that doesn't see the forest for the trees. The very soul of Abrams' script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is people chasing faded glory or people whose glory was never realized. People facing aging, failure, lack of purpose. People trying to atone for the past and people hoping there's something better on the other side.

Unlike the "Star Wars" prequels that became consumed with mythology, "The Force Awakens" cuts right to the core. And even when I didn't understand broader missions of the characters, I understood their specific motivations and why they're doing what they're doing now. Sometimes that's all you need from storytelling.

That's why Abrams' much ballyhooed return to (mostly) practical special effects is more than a stunt to draw cheers at ComicCon. Beyond a movie purist's love for the tangible, it signals the technical wizardry in service of an old-fashioned story, and not the other way around. Joy palpitates off the frame with the world "The Force Awakens" creates, and Abrams captures it not with the detached gaze of the prequels, but with a kind of boyish reverence. His camera moves and flows, but it remains steadily fluid, ensuring we soak in everything.

We're not held at arm's length by the cold technical prowess sometimes brought by modern special effects. We're invited to live here for a couple of hours.

"The Force Awakens" rarely zigs when it can zag. Truth be told, you can step out to check your online dating profile and comfortably guess what you missed. What it offers instead is whip-sure confidence. The dialogue crackles with wit and soul, allowing for unique, individual personas. The action sequences create clear stakes so we're invested in them when they arrive. The sets feel aged and lived in, like they existed before the movie started and will exist long after it's done. And it's a testament to the depth of the new characters that I'd pay to see a movie exclusively about them with nary a Han or Luke or Leia cameo in sight.

A little late to the party on this, I know, but "Star Wars" is back. I'm not talking the merchandising or the extended universes. I'm talking that fundamental feeling of seeing a movie you love and talking to others who say they love it too. That power of movies as a time machine, taking you not only to a galaxy far far away, but to that place where a great movie is all that matters.

"The Force Awakens" is what we talk about when we talk about blockbusters.

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