Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Star Warz

The first act is the strongest. Despite what it will later prove detrimental, Abrams' filmmaking verve puts things into motion with an outsider's perspective that is admittedly refreshing to the franchise. There's haunt and lyricism to boot, from the planet-silhouetted Star Destroyer to the three-fingered blood mark upon a stormtrooper's helmet to little BB-8 spying a far off explosion in the desert night. In one instance, Kylo Ren Force-freezes a blaster bolt from Poe Dameron's rifle. As the latter is captured and dragged before his enemy, a tracking shot fallows him directly past the static bolt, inches away (Poe's on the by reaction being one of awe), almost as if that sole point in space and time within the movie has been editorially paused. And yet it still lives, quivering and crackling in midair.

Forget for a moment the larger story; this alone struck me as a promising detail of world-building invention, and is the kind of thing to which I'm more immediately sensitive than any issues of writing or plot-logic. We should feel Star Wars first-and-foremost as a fantasy movie experience that is alive and imaginative. I felt that here. Early on I recognized that a certain standard, at the very least respectable to the previous installments, was being met. If only it lasted.

The setup for The Force Awakens -- opposing galactic powers hinged on tracking the whereabouts of a mysteriously absent Luke Skywalker -- is both new to the franchise and compelling in the way it further mythologizes said central hero of the previous trilogy. The film's actual play-by-play narrative, however, is (not-so) surprisingly uninspired. In this case, likewise, does the first act fire off with the most energy. Poe Dameron's run-in and escape with AWOL stormtrooper Finn paralleled alongside Jakku scavenger Rey adopting the 'plot ball' that is BB-8 propels the story with a steady balance of gutsy enthusiasm and contemplative solitude; with lively action shenanigans -- a tethered TIE fighter -- and revealing wordless behaviors -- Rey with a mouthful of food sporting an old fighter pilot helmet (even vaguely recalling little podracer Ani).

Abrams has fun throwing our two youths together for the first time, giving Finn the doofus end of the stick with his stumbling attempts at chivalry. The First Order attacks, quickly leading to their boarding a randomly parked Millennium Falcon for yet another manic getaway. Many seem quick to weigh-down hard on the dopey logic of these scenes (i.e. the enemy's irrational method of droid retrieval, a conveniently ready Falcon and Rey's conveniently, ever-growing prowess) but, all in all, the movie up to this point is breezy enough. Once our leads reach outer space and (ironically) encounter Han & Chewie, modest verve gives way to numbing mayhem and everything is narratively reduced to a patchwork of meagerly scripted filler and, yes, reskinned story beats from A New Hope; the latter of which were less glaring during the first act's more affecting surfaces.

Han caught-up in a threeway standoff with disgruntled smuggler parties might seem logical in-universe, but as a Star Wars movie experience, the set-piece is so awkwardly out of place, coming across like a budget-strained, sitcomedic leftover from countless 2nd-rate Star Wars wannabes such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly or even friggin' Ice Pirates; with some cargo tentacle monsters thrown in for good measure, it then becomes Deep Rising (?!) I kept thinking, "What the hell is this all the sudden?"

I'm almost willing to give it some credit for its apparent nod to Alien, with terrified Rey crawling up through grids into steam-filled, emergency-lit corridors, but even then the whole intention of the sequence feels at once aimlessly derivative and like something Abrams assumed made for diverting hijinks amid his clumsy Star Trek reboots, so, why not here? I suppose it's maybe comparable to the trash compacter from A New Hope, but where that scene matched Lucas' skewering sense of farce with genuine suspense, here the events merely pad the runtime with some noisy goings-on that feel less the spontaneity of setting/circumstance than they do an artificial script insert for bridging one act to the next.

Still, at least its very aberrancy counts for something, because from there on our heroes proceed along a flatly linear course of what easily amounts to this continuing franchise's most forgettable array of new-worlding. We go to a forest planet, and then another forest planet that's somehow even less defined. And then a sow planet. Along the way there's the sordid speakeasy of alien denizens that, for the first time in Star Wars, feels less tradition and more obligatory, practical puppets or no. It's managed by a discount Yoda in the form of Maz Kanata, who dishes profound wordy wisdom but ultimately has nothing intriguing to add regarding the Force nor our understanding of the 'hero's journey' template long since acquired by the franchise.

This is Abrams and Co. with their cards firmly on the table, no longer hoisted by marketing hype or shrouded in any promotional rhetoric about according OT essences with new and uncharted territories. From this cantina midway juncture to closing credits, The Force Awakens never entirely sinks into a quicksand of ineffectual rehash, but it certainly plateaus with nothing left to offer that grants this installment its pop-mythical distinction/progression from the previous six. It's not just the story content, though, but the storytelling process. About those generic planetscapes, they're but part-and-parcel to what are holistically nondescript cinematic venues.

Lucas milked his narratives visually, abstractly, down to the last drop. Think about all the fascinating discursions throughout his six-part saga and how they emphasized musical movements, evoked audiovisual tone-poems and tapped a universal human psyche, often in relation to specific character arcs: the Falcon's refuge inside a giant space slug, the Jedi's express route through a watery planet core, a sonic speederbike chase through an Ewok forest, a Harryhausen arena battle, wayward droid life inside a desert-roaming sandcrawler ...the list goes on.

None of these were necessary to their respective plots but were absolutely crucial to enriching a fantasy universe with all manner of mysterious nook and cranny; crucial to expressing stories through cognitive imagery teeming with monsters and strange environs and alien cultures ...or just the raw power of exotic sound. Even when the plot is in fact pivoting on a certain set-piece, like Anakin's podrace, such is in favor of celebrating the sequence as its own mini-movie vignette, for all its big screen sound and fury. And even much of the PT's infamous political jargon and starchy romance is nonetheless set amid epic vista connotations, like a floating senate rotunda, or illustrated through key gestures in set decor and sophisticated costuming.

The Force Awakens appropriates that same universe and realizes what is there with top-notch production and visual FX artistry, but what is there bears very little on a conceptual level. This, is a big deal. Nitpicking over finer discrepancies in personal preference can come later (if at all) but this...this is NOT nitpicking. We're getting down to the integrals here. Strip away any lofty notions of pop-mythic resonance or, hell, even the most basic need to entertain with accessible characters and space-faring pulp energy; if nothing else, "Star Wars" remains synonymous with "design". Star Wars is design. It is a fantasy world designed entirely from scratch.

If the cinematic medium is the language of Star Wars then conceptual design, I would argue, is the true content of that which is being communicated, beyond dialogue, beyond plot. In turn, whatever criticisms can be laid against the PT for its allegedly poor scripting and two-dimensional performances, or for Lucas' eccentric sensibilities with digital, I can't imagine anyone in their right mind faulting those movies in terms of their world-building conceptual design, or lack thereof, to be specific. The six-part Star Wars saga altogether remains unprecedented in its sheer volume and variety of 'imagination station'.

Does The Force Awakens drop that ball? Nnnh-no, not quite ...but it marks the first Star Wars movie to fall back so heavily on preexisting design/art direction when every installment before it pushed forward with new sights. This, is a big deal. Question: What new vehicles or starships can you remember from this movie? Moreover, if any, just how memorable were they? Ask the same of, say, The Phantom Menace and the response you get is nothing short of encyclopedic. Now, of course I understand the chronology rationale in maintaining a certain degree of design continuity carried over from the OT; don't get me wrong, the reappearance alone of X-wings and TIE fighters and Star Destroyers, along with the fan favorite Millennium Falcon, is by no means unwelcome. But it's a big galaxy, and a new era within its storied timeline. One cannot stress enough how The Force Awakens all but bankrupts this space-opera-age of its creative potential long since instituted some 37 years ago.

The sinkhole domains of Utapau and the swamps of Dagobah. Stormy Kamino's island cloning complex and Bespin's floating cloud city. Mustafar's rivers of lava and the planet-wide jeweled metropolis that is Coruscant. Naboo with its Renaissance architecture and the forest moon of Endor with its treetop Ewok villages. Each example overwhelms with a sense of locale identity. A New Hope made the most of its near-binary settings between Tatooine and the Death Star, establishing the very aforementioned paradigm. If it feels minimal in comparison to the rest of the saga, keep in mind that it was the first, least expensive and most technologically undeveloped installment out of the gate.

The Force Awakens has no such excuses, nor does Abrams' implied aesthetic logic of grittier earthen textures feel like anything more than strained reactionism to the prequels and their (over-exaggerated) array of greenscreen sterility. Again, this is no slant against its own artistry. Rey's wordless introduction inside the carcass of a Star Destroyer, for instance -- her exiting through its stadium-sized thruster and sledding down a sand dune -- is plainly stunning in scale. Most of Jakku for that matter is where the movie works best with its immersion, but even here the imagery-scape isn't above riding coattails of prior iconography rather than erecting its own—I can think of few opportunities more wasted, given this being the introduction to a new trilogy, a whole new generation.

And that in a nutshell describes the bigger pie that is this movie's storyline conflict between the Resistance and the First Order. To be clear, it's not that the premise is inherently bogus. One might extrapolate from it certain budding themes of nature's abhorrence to a vacuum, in that fallen tyrannical regimes are oft prone to immediate replacements facsimile in form while possibly even more extreme in conduct. Such is definitely an idea, yes. The question is, was it the inspiration rooted in Abrams and Kasdan's story outline? Proof either way is simply too unfeasible and too obscure. Only can one's perception when watching the movie offer any real insight and, honestly, my gut impressions left me with no other opinion that the filmmakers involved principally opted for marketable fan-servicing.

Why necessarily is this a bad thing, you may ask? Is appeasing audiences with the fuzzy warmth of familiarity really such a crime? Meh, I deem it a foundation of superficiality. It doesn't ruin the movie from top to bottom, per se, but it's always there, burdening with unoriginality what could-and-should have otherwise been, well, ANYTHING new. I mean, really ...let's step back for a moment consider the clean slate possibilities left in the wake of Return of the Jedi. From a revived New Republic they could've taken the story in numerous directions bold and new, or at least curiously distinct. What we get instead doesn't even do much to arouse its own aforesaid thematic potential.

The First Order is bigger, scarier. One professional critic referred to its Starkiller Base as a "Big Gulp" version of the Death Star(s) and I can't help but share similar feelings that everything here is just the product of bigger-is-better repackaging (remember when sized mattered not?) bent on playing it safe with Disney's $4 billion dollar investment. Third Reich allusions are evermore prominent and remain effective in their own right, but likewise imprint upon us nothing we haven't seen before from the franchise. The Resistance meanwhile is even less defined than the Rebellion before it.

The plot mechanics that bring our heroes into the fray between these mega factions is shaky at best. In A New Hope the Death Star was directly connected to the MacGuffin, being the stolen construction plans hidden inside R2-D2. The superweapon itself was also established early on as a story point that kept the dramatic stakes centered throughout, in turn keeping our wayward heroes on the same page by such circumstances that drew them into the narrative. Return of the Jedi, too, incorporates the 2nd Death Star with a distinct game between Rebels and Empire in a manner that gives its second-half narrative a center of gravity, still allowing for original set pieces both on the forest moon and as a whole newly realized space battle experience leading into the Death Star itself.

The Force Awakens vies for two separate story motivations of which the script never bothers to make any narrative sense in connecting or even coinciding. The plot begins with Luke Skywalker as the motivating factor: the missing map inside BB-8, Poe's retrieval of BB-8, wherein Finn gets caught up with the former and Rey with the latter, and with Kylo Ren playing offense, looking to make his interception. All of this is oddly cast aside nearing the end of the second act. First of all, I was never exactly clear as to why Maz Kanata was necessary in further routing BB-8 to General Leia and the Resistance.

Why couldn't Han and the gang just fly there directly? Their detour to forest planet # 1 seemingly served no other purpose than to house some scripted coincidences too lazy even for a Star Wars movie. Wouldn't ya know it, Kanata just happens to have a Skywalker family token lying around the premises for the benefit of Rey's character arc. This same location (amidst an entire galaxy far, far away, no less) just also happens to be within plain '4th of July' sight of some planetary executions carried out by the Starkiller Base—a superweapon that, up until this point, was apparently unknown to everyone and therefore cut into the proceedings with zero narrative credentials.

Think of it as the giant Kool-Aid Man crashing through the wall of the movie's anterior plotline. In other words, we now have two plots that all but ignore one another. As a futile third act dramatic devise compared to the better plotted Death Stars from the OT installments, the Starkiller Base is destroyed in imitation -- it's weak spot concluded out of thin air, a frenzied trench run lacking geographic coherence -- and with little fanfare while the riddle of Luke Skywalker's hideaway is mandatorily wrapped up in the last ten minutes or so by an alarm clock R2-D2.

Imagine if The Force Awakens hinged its finale on the Resistance taking over the Starkiller Base, usurping its command center from the First Order and thus having championed the superweapon in their favor as the ultimate means of defending the New Republic; cue Episode VIII exploring the moral dilemma of such destructive power in the hands of peace. That was nothing. That was just me, amateur Cannon, spitballing on the spot any possible variation or subversion of the OT formula that might've better justified the Starkiller Base as a story point. Took me about three minutes. Is it too much to ask of seasoned writers, Abrams and Kasdan, that they generate over the course of nine months anything more than a blunt retread for its own sake?

If these criticisms come off too easily contrived or pedantically removed from the movie for obsessive probing, let me be clear that mine is but an attempt to understand how that movie as a fluid piece meant to be enjoyed for its simplest pleasures nonetheless flowed with little depth and in so many instances left me feeling rather numb. I went into it only with a box of Goobers, not a checklist.

It all goes back to the capacity of cinematic narrative. The Force Awakens delivers one with accelerated pacing that, true, never trips over its own feet, but only because it's running in place, never further mining the Star Wars universe for all its worth; instead, swapping-out vague backdrops while main characters stand around indirectly emphasizing through fits and plights how important they are as main characters, or while others merely monologue the significance of some larger story arc or heroic journey. In short, the movie spends a lotta downtime posturing.

In previous entries, sages and hermits and statesmen alike would share their own perspectives in ways that sneakily allude to larger story fates at work, insofar as to compel our heroes in making certain narrative choices. Yet it was always the narrative itself, clearly assorted, along with cinematic presentation both vivid and dreamlike that would tell the story. Here, Abrams and Kasdan deal in inertia but disguise it with equal parts pretense and commotion, or simply distract away from it altogether with easy nostalgia. The whole thing's kind of a ruse when you get down to it.

Another habit carried over from Abrams in particular is the proverbial "mystery box". This happens when Rey wonders into a cantina cellar, discovers the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker and, upon touch, glimpses a rapid flashback via the Unifying Force. At face value I actually thought this an effective scene in how its jolting, phantom imagery lures us with hidden secrets. Alas, it too is really just a cheap trick—a product of Abrams' TV formula (Alias, Lost, Fringe) where just enough bones are thrown to the audience to sustain ratings over a 24-episode season. Luke and Anakin's respective Force visions were still disciplines of good storytelling, yielding key narrative consequences before the credits rolled. By comparison, what more is Rey's vision than just a 'tune-in-next-week' hook?

I like the two kids. Hard not to. I've never been one to deny the relative inaccessibility of the prequel leads, only that such an attribute at its fullest is not the be-all-end-all of what makes for compelling characters. At any rate, Rey and Finn require no terms or conditions. They're open books.

Interesting to note how Daisy Ridley is the first to play an unsexualized heroine in Star Wars; comely but her character too boyish in semblance and utilitarian in behavior to ever fully illicit any notions of intimacy, while going about seemingly oblivious to Finn's veiled come-ons. In many inner circle criticisms much has been made of her unwavering competence against any challenge (i.e., the "Mary Sue" dilemma) and indeed she proves something of a clown car of opportune skills, to say nothing of her eventual 'instant noodle' Jedi powers. I can't say this bothers me all that much. It's a technically valid criticism but, at the same time, I'm open to the idea of a Force potential re-inForced with fringe-survivalist instincts, and whose gearhead savvy is the result of reverse engineering picked up through years of starship scavenging.

And if prepubescent Anakin can pilot podracers at death speeds and later nerve his way through a space battle, I haven't any real issue over twenty-something Rey's ability to perform aerial somersaults with the Millennium Falcon. I came to realize though that her character is at once so outward and so stripped of clause that's she's not even an archetype, as is the franchise norm, but solely an avatar. Her prefab readiness to take the reigns of any situation is there for (female) audience wish fulfillment yet her surface naïveté remains to such a degree that renders her a walking 3D Viewfinder: she looks around a lot, at stuff.  It's a weirdly workable contradiction. Thrown into the larger adventure alone, Rey would be kinda boring. Fortunately, she's not alone—enter this movie's most original character...

For whatever reason, FN-2187 -- Finn -- defects from his Stormtrooper indoctrination where the rest proceed impervious to the horrors of war, but I don't need that reason explained. Sometimes the anomaly is the explanation; think Duvall's Thex from THX 1138 as just another worker bee whose going rogue is but a symptom of a dystopian order coming apart at the seams. What I dig about Finn is his charmingly humble disposition: get the hell outta the galaxy, as far away from anything as possible. I like how such informs his harebrained improvising from one jam to the next coupled with his overeagerness for self-identity approval.

Finn's identity in fact undergoes a clever bit of visual motif, first singled-out as a blood-marked Stormtrooper before feigning himself a member of the Resistance courtesy of Poe Dameron's flight jacket, then eventually "taking up the sword" as a would-be Jedi with the very lightsaber wielded by Skywalkers Anakin and Luke. Throughout it all John Boyega animates the role with gusto. Where Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman were mannered as porcelain figurines forever behind glass display, Boyega is damn near Muppet-like in physicality, so often foregrounded for maximum effect, while his loyal Labrador countenance endears him during moments that require dramatic authority.

Poe Dameron makes for a fine, if not stock, Star Wars secondary. With no arc comparable to Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, he's really more of a glorified Wedge, or maybe Biggs Darklighter who doesn't bite it at the end. Watching method actor Oscar Isaac play the role straight and with a touch of 'happy hero' enthusiasm recalls Ewan McGregor's more Errol Flynnesque moments as Obi-Wan. Further peripheral casting is not without its head-scratchers, though. Why bring in legacy thespian Max Von Sydow only to remove him so quickly in the opening minutes? I would've expected something bit more ceremonial.

General Hux seems like an afterthought, as if they weren't sure whether to go full-Tarkin or reign him in as more of a Piett stoodge. Domhnallal Gleeson gets to snarl a grand speech about destroying the New Republic but elsewhere comes across sniveling (minus any satirical slant) rather than intimidating. Captain Phasma meanwhile is a toy without a character, or even a memorable action sequence; even rabid fans of the film have dismissed her as a bust. Something about Lupita Nyong'o as Maz Kanata rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps I'm seeing too much into it but I can't shake a certain feeling that her casting was to some degree a response to the racial insensitivities supposedly ripe among the PT's Jar Jar, Watto and Neimoidians. It plays like an attempt to right a wrong by allotting a safely indistinct looking alien creature with an exotically "ethnic" actress, where even Nyong'o mugs the vocal performance in as much. I actually prefer Serkis' gravely baritones as Snoke.

With Kylo Ren, I'm still on the fence. On one hand it's actually rather ballsy of Abrams and Kasdan to gamble with yet another incarnation of the mopey, angst-ridden Dark Side inductee. Add to it the specific persona as provide by Adam Driver that, for once, puts into better perspective the much derided histrionics of Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker who, contrary to popular misconception, was never "emo". Lucas' style with the character was too arch for that. Rather, Anakin was plucked from the B-grade category of '50s drive-in teen melodrama, or at least Lucas' further romanticized, space opera version of said subgenre. Kylo Ren, however... Now THAT is emo. Hipster emo. Kylo is the 21st century college campus Anakin. He's the modishly homely, downcast bohemian tucked away in the corner of some used records store, or sitting in the dark in an Off-Off-Broadway theater shouting contemptuously at rehearsals with a crinkled script in hand. He's that guy, with a lightsaber Christsaber.

As a recycled masked main villain in black, I'm willing to give the very presence of Kyle Ren more latitude because, unlike the Resistance/First Order/Starkiller Base, the notion of Darth Vader's mantle inverted by an angry fanboy acolyte does have some spring in its step as an odd specialty cuisine of the continuing Star Wars lore. What I do find chaffing is the whole 'Ben Solo' equation, namely regarding its narrative conclusion (for this film, anyway), which in turn doubles over to how I feel about Han's reprisal.

I personally always felt that everyone's favorite cocksure scoundrel from the OT was, by the end of those films, arced to completion: iconoclast loner fights for the cause, finds love, earns a brother, sacrifices himself and is rescued-reborn. Sure, you can always write more ...because it's fiction i.e., limitless. But at what value? Now all the sudden Han has been tagged with the 'estranged father' routine. This, too, is logical enough in-universe; given his nature, what other kind of dad would Han likely ever be? Yet the issue has more to do with tone and story movement.

In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull such a theme went down lite as casual merriment with some Hawksian gestures sprinkled in between Indy and Mutt. Here, it's meant to serve Greek tragedy but is awkwardly tacked-on to the proceedings. Or maybe it's not the premise that feels rushed but the end tragedy itself. Han Solo already died, metaphorically speaking. Such was the true weight of his character -- the operatic accumulation -- as that which in part emotionally peaked The Empire Strikes Back, closing with Luke & Leia wistfully agaze and redefining the trilogy's convictions going into its final installment. Two movies later (episodically) Abrams and Kasdan do it again, permanently.

This would be like killing Spock for realz in Star Trek V—been there, done that. And moreover it somewhat trivializes aforesaid drama that came before. I understand over thirty years have passed for audiences, giving one generation over to the next, where Han Solo has long since graduated well beyond a mere recurring sequel character to a pantheon of cinema greats. But that precisely is why his death feels like meta-pandering to a sentimental pop-culture instead of continuing the saga on its own and best terms. If deemed absolutely necessary by the filmmakers, I can appreciate, at least in theory, how it directly informs Kylo Ren's development, but I also think it would've felt more consecutive, more earned, had it been reserved for a later installment of this new trilogy. Admittedly, though, it was kinda cool to see Chewie go Comanche.

As for the character himself back on screen, yeah, I enjoyed it. Ford is Ford. Though, at this point his golden years Han Solo performance is virtually indistinguishable from golden years Indiana Jones. But who's complaining, right? Not me. His moments with Leia are nice, if not brief and muted. A tad too much went into stressing their relationship with 'evil kid' pathos, methinks, along a more general writers' sensibility to naturalize banter that, under Lucas' watch, remained in-check with the livelier tones of old Hollywood homage (another point to Crystal Skull for reuniting Indy and Marion with buckets of charm). Carrie Fisher makes her franchise dignitary appearance but otherwise seems slightly vacant; I honestly got more form 30 seconds of a wordless Mark Hamill.

The acting/dialogue altogether tonally skirts closer to edgier attitudes and newfangled method nuance evident across the board from popular film to primetime television, while early '80s fantasy movie innocence and radio play candor of previous Star Wars lies dormant just beneath, only occasionally shining through by content default.

The movie's humor is a mixed bag. Some of it works and doesn't work even within the same scenes. To be fair, there is a lot of rattling back 'n' forth and off-the-cuff liners in A New Hope, particularly during the middle act between our three leads aboard the Death Star. I'm therefore not adverse to Abrams wanting to hit a similar cadence of levity here. So much of it comes down to gross proportions and intensity, and this is where it's real easy to go 'armchair' in decrying every little finite joke that exceeds/defers from the previous movies as an affront to the franchise. Whedon-levels of flippancy are nominal, which only makes them stick out that much more. Much of the rest adheres to Abrams' usual tempo where actors appear to have been shot-up with adrenaline as they run over each others dialogue in varying states of hysteria, depending on the surrounding pandemonium.

Ford and Boyega make the best of it; their scenes together could almost double as regulars on some golden age sitcom like F Troop or McHale's Navy. One aspect I actually though needed more comedy was the First Order. I always loved how the keystone Stormtroopers in A New Hope gave way to Brazil-like black humor depicting Vader's managerial tyranny in The Empire Strikes Back. The two Stormtroopers who about-face to avoid Kylo Ren's saber fit was fun, as was Rey duping FN-007. But these still felt like supplementary gags whereas Lucas weaved his absurdism more ubiquitously into all things Empire and Trade Federation. BB-8's thumbs up got the biggest reaction during my two screenings but the part that actually made me laugh out loud, mostly for its delivery and curtailed cutaway, was Nurse Finn desperately struggling with a wounded Wookie: "I need help with this giant hairy thing!"
Speaking of jokes...
Hey, J.J., Holland just called. They want all their Dutch angles back.
Yep. Time to talk about the man himself, as a director, as the movie is directed on technical matters. Going down the list...
  • zooms
  • whip-pans
  • track-arounds
  • rack focusing
  • more whip-pans
  • imitation Spielberg blocking
  • a literal marathon of "running" shots
  • oh, and: whip-pans
Ya know, a fraction of this windup toy camerawork spread thin, or selectively, over the 135 minute runtime would go along way. But with Abrams not even more is more...is enough. He's since adopted the same couple three phrase techniques consisting of the above sum but hasn't any discipline nor intuition for a more complete visual grammar. It's like watching an ice skater whose routine consists only of triple axels, over and over and over again; invigorating at first, then robotic, then obnoxious. The intro shot of BB-8 under the night sky is breathless in its sharp POV reveal; umpteen hundred maneuvers later, it's just exhausting—the difference between malleable aesthetic and caked-on cosmetic. By the point when Rey is sneaking around corridors on the Starkiller Base, things start looking like the European influenced Die Hard, sans McTiernan's finer variations in articulation. All this in-camera three-ring choreography makes for a virtually frameless enterprise. It's all so busy. As the only alternate, let me say without hyperbole that half of this movie, bare minimal, is confined within the medium to extreme close-up range,
and more than once or thrice stumbles with some awkward coverage edits. I'm of the mind that, as a generality, close-ups should be treated like natural recourses: they run out. By this I mean the dramatic heft of a close-up depends in part on its very moderation. One too many, or too commonly divvied, and the effect becomes diluted, leaving the movie with an abundance of pedestrian 'talking head' boxes, and rendered all the more desensitized when the given moment is supposed to be one of powerful emoting. Again, this is only a general principle, as one can do wonders progressively.

Except, Abrams has not the avant-garde touch for camera intimacy. With him it remains a televisual habit of deadening his actors center frame and blurring-out the backgrounds with shallow focus. Like so many other individual elements, such is not the whole movie (this is the director's most spacious work to date) but it is impedingly prevalent, nor does the ever-conventional 3 to 4 second ASL do any favors. I get that this is the trend now. Nobody wants Lucas' stodgy old composition-works anymore. Hell, most were never conscious of them to begin with. But even with him out of the picture, never has a Star Wars movie been so anamorphically indifferent.

Abrams' collaboration with Dan Mindel steers clear of the blue tinted monochrome of Into Darkness. The cinematography here is more comparable to that of John Carter or The Amazing Spider Man 2 (also lensed by Mindel) with its rich contrast and more evened color balance. It's also kinda featureless in the same respect. Location shots have the photogenic bloom of travelogue spreads or luxury car commercials but little effort is made to augment or heighten for fantasy's sake. There are too few artifacts of note.

The movie has nothing equivalent to the gossamer light of the digital prequels or the hot-cold temperates of The Empire Strikes Back. It's color palette isn't creamy Baroque like The Phantom Menace nor starkly coded like A New Hope. Return of the Jedi is the most unassuming of the original saga with its traditional, maybe even unremarkable, three-point lighting schemes (not unlike early '80s Bond fare) and yet that very approach still emphasized the movie as a handcrafted and photo-optic, fantasy FX venture, mutually beneficial with its soundstage art direction for the textured look of storybook paintings with images as simple as:
For all its 35mm pronouncements, The Force Awakens is too clean and color boosted through digital intermediate to ever match or even evoke the above, nor should it necessarily have to be any of those movies outright. This new sequel as a new trilogy starter is no doubt expertly polished, insofar that it's stylistically corrective to slick blockbuster standards and is cut "sexy" like a modern movie trailer. The catch? That's all it is. Kudos to Abrams, however, for following through with his visual voice right down to the closing shot that eschews any tableau frame akin to Lucas. Love it or hate it, I can nary consider a more apropos wipe to credits for the souped-up Star Wars in question than a long-lensed revolving helicopter shot.
From the visual style to the action set piece sensibility, Abrams mildly adjusts himself and does show some improvement from his previous efforts while still unable rise full above the irritating proclivities rampant throughout current action filmmaking at its gaudiest. It doesn't help that one of the previews shown before the movie was Star Trek Beyond.
It is best to think of action set pieces, ideally, as characters in and of themselves. On this I refer again to Return of the Jedi. The sequence of lesson is where our heroes escape the clutches of Jabba the Hutt; his sail barge gang, the sarlacc pit and, once and for all, Tatooine as a story point. Journeyman Richard Marquand does nothing transcendent with the principle photography end, the bulk of it staged and shot matter-of-factly. And yet it remains thrilling, in my opinion. Why? First, it is a clear result of accumulated narrative that exists in the moment, for duration, as the movie experience.

Such is really just a longwinded way of saying, it is a legitimate set piece, structured and complete from start to finish; the conflict well-established, the players and their positions identified, the goal set. It transitions, flowing logically not only from one story act to the next, but internally, from one hurdle to the next: the plank, Boba, Lando, Jabba's chain, the deck gun etc. Holistically, in the swing of things, it is patterned lovingly as a swashbuckling pirate adventure piece, hence character. It has form and flavor. And even if he wasn't reinventing the wheel, Marquand for his part still delivered to the franchise some pretty damn memorable details. Who can forget Luke Skywalker coolly signaling R2 for his lightsaber before catching it from a double flip landing, Solo's comical dispatch of a fan-favorite bounty hunter or Jabba's wiggling death throes at the hands of cleavage-ready Leia?

Now let's consider the scene in The Force Awakens where Rey and Finn flee from a strafing run of TIE fighters. It just sorta happens all the sudden. Lots of instant running around and explosions. I early on described this scene as being breezy, and it is. It's also disposable. There's no pacing for starters; it has but one hurried velocity that further nullifies its only segue from ground to Falcon flight. By contrast, the airspeeder chase through Coruscant in Attack of the Clones springs from one element of suspense (poison bugs), then proceeds to shift dynamically from different levels of physical and geographical action before winding taught on yet another element of suspense (nightclub).

Like the sarlacc pit sequence, it is a contraption of perils. Abrams, however, burns through his movie wringing as much chaotic spectacle from relatively cursory setups. None of it is nonsensical, to be sure, but it's never particularly inventive either. Half the time bad guys just show up or are conveniently absent/in short supply, as when our leads infiltrate the Starkiller Base to plant explosives.

Abrams never builds anything with his sequences, and seldom even builds up to them except when it's time to simply repeat circumstances from A New Hope. One could argue that the droid factory gauntlet, also from Episode II, has little narrative purpose, but it does have imagery purpose. It pillars the movie by juxtaposing the Kamino cloning factory and is delightfully abstract in platform gaming design, with little symbolic gestures of Anakin and Padme, C-3P0 and R2. If nothing else, it stands as its own mini-narrative curiosity; as I've said, you'll find as much throughout the saga on reexamination. Abrams simply doesn't think that way and, as a result, this new Star Wars is never as interesting.

Still, there are bright spots. I mentioned the tethered TIE fighter, and it was neat to be inside its cockpit for the first time from a hero's angle. I dig how the 'Riot Control' Stormtrooper announces himself by throwing down his shield -- "Traitor!" -- and arming his tonfa shock-baton, then moments later is sent spiraling through midair by a bowcaster with visceral oomph to it. The continuous ground-level POV shot of Poe Dameron dogfighting his way through the enemy enticed from me a measure of giddiness reminiscent of, say, Obi-Wan topping his skid-landing into Grievous' flagship with an aerial saber attack. And perhaps the single cleverest bit of scripting-to-action was Han Solo hyperspacing the Falcon past the Starkiller Base shields to explod through a snow-covered tree line. I just wish these gems were among a treasure of doubloons instead of fool's gold.

The end lightsaber showdown makes good use of its snow forest setting (fresh to the franchise) with faces bathed in strong glows of blue and red matched against the cold gloom, and neat environ effects like surrounding trees felled by wildly swung sabers. The choreography, too, rightly matches the curbed skills of each of the three combatants respectively (eh, Rey's "power-up" notwithstanding). Abrams wants hack 'n' slash brawl in place of fine fencing but his staging and editing is a bit too catchall to ring the conceit for all it's worth. Note how Irvin Kershner would emphasize a similar bout over tricky terrain between novice Luke and handicapped Vader by punctuating his frames and pacing his shot-flow more thoughtfully. I scrutinize here because I deem critical how these saber duels are executed as focal points meant to encapsulate their grand fictions and express subconscious things. I also think this the best melee action Abrams has directed yet. So, there's that as well.

If the sequence has a major weakness, story is to blame. It's no surprise that none of the characters will die here. The same goes for Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Sidious in the prequels, except Lucas never really banked on the suspense of their survival. Rather, the duels in those movies were each handled in a way as to champion heroes coming into their own or succumbing systematically to darker natures; to revel in the sheer glory (or horror) of unassuming wizards in full throw-down or to pin those wizards against one another in a theater of democratic suicide—with thunderous applause.

The finale duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan, for example, has nothing to do with tension. It's a love tragedy between brothers illustrated through Peking Opera and Wagnerian backdrops. What unfolds in this new movie can also be pegged as both characters developed and themes dramatized through combat. The problem is that its all just a little too slight. The duel can only be as affecting as the larger story supporting it and, for reasons argued much throughout this review, the entire story approach to this movie is severely hampered. That leaves us with a bunch of kids the woods "playing Star Wars" until it's time to go home to their predictable sequel trajectories. It's the movie spinning its wheels.

Lastly, the music. Reviewing a Star Wars score is like microcosmically reviewing a Star Wars movie. In this case, truancy speaks volumes. But wait... Let me preface the following with a clear acknowledgment that any time John Williams returns to a galaxy far, far away, the outcome dwarfs 99.7% of every other fantasy-action-adventure score from anyone who isn't John Williams, especially those in today's business. He's the Hattori Hanzo of classicalist film music, and at 83 mounts The Force Awakens like a burgeoning composer less than half his age. Pulp happenings sparkle with articulation as always, action heroics have never soared higher (approx. 1:00 mark of 'I Can Fly Anything' = awesome).

Where the score could be argued as underwhelming concerns its lack of complexity. Rey's theme, or 'The Scavenger', is best of but two to take away from the listening experience. It's beautiful, delicate, feminine but also encouraged and courageous. I just can't decide if it constitutes a full movement strong enough to carry the movie akin to 'Across the Stars' or if it's really only a starter, or minor-theme, stuck doing the heavy lifting. The other of the two is the 'Jedi Steps' heard at the end, and also in one of the trailers. It is very good in a sacramental sense but, as an appendix, comes off more like a sample of what might fallow in the next installment.

Williams has been tasked, or taxed, with going back and reiterating the very idea of Star Wars "Mickey Mousing" circa 1977 by stripping things down to another good guys vs. bad guys dichotomy with a few variations in marching arrangements, familiar cues from the first two OT movies and, of course, the saga's mainstay theme that is The Force. With the PT scores now firmly a part of his oeuvre, a degree of referencing is innate. 'Finn's Confession' nicely incorporates Rey's theme with a texture of numerous elements from The Phantom Menace, by my ears. The deep throaty chanting that designates Snoke's theme is a blunter, less nuanced rendition of 'Palpatine's Teachings', as is the music heard during the destruction of not-Coruscant-Planet-X, or 'The Starkiller', when compared to that which was composed for 'Anakin's Betrayal' involving the Order 66 montage.

What's missing from all this is the exploration of finer and finer musical motifs that would otherwise serve new world designs/cultures, an original cast of warring power structures, or at least a forward take on the New Republic, and more complete set piece vignettes; missing, for obvious reasons (i.e., the main thesis point of this review). Film composers are like editors, in that they cannot create from what isn't there. I'm of two minds here. While watching the movie it seems that Williams has been shortchanged the opportunity to create and in turn narrate as well, as he has done so much more dominatingly with the previous entries. When the music in your Star Wars movie tips over into to feeling complementary, something's amiss.

Yet I'm still compelled to scratch these criticisms in favor of a much deeper assessment that justly praises the range and lush harmonies of Williams' orchestrations as one might better register when listening to the soundtrack separately. Maybe Rey's theme is not enough, maybe it is; where the on screen narrative rushes the character Williams gets twice the mileage with her recurring melody. If Kylo Ren's musical presence isn't as instantly memorable as the Imperial theme, there is something nonetheless grandiose to its 5-note simplicity, which harkens the main title from Bernard Harrmann's Cape Fear. I just wish Williams was given more to work with. I dunno. I suppose the worst I can say about the music here is that it is masterful scoring without ever amounting to a masterpiece score.

J.J. Abrams is not a visionary. Calling him a huckster is perhaps a tad harsh as it insinuates some manner of snake oil intent. Quite the contrary, I think Abrams is very genuine in putting his passions into play. Yet he certainly operates with the strategy of a huckster. This latest Star Wars is filmmaking-by-committee; the twist is that, even when left to his own devices, Abrams embodies that exact mindset. It's not that he doesn't write and direct (and produce) to satisfy his inner-most desires, but that his inner-most desires are to facilitate pop-cultural as the authority of cinema rather than the consumer.

Nor can I even call this cynical, as I truly believe Abrams makes the kind of movies that he as a member of the audience would want to watch. He's even pretty damn canny at it, is he not? Good for him. And good for Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm and Disney. Everyone involved put in a lot of smart thinking and hard work. And now they've gotta bonanza to show for it.

As for the movie itself, well, it wasn't made for me. But I can stand beside myself for brief spells to appreciate it for this or that, and maybe get from as much a degree of entertainment.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
6/10. C+ Nearly as good as Willow.
I honestly don't know what to expect from Episode VIII. I am thus far ambivalent to Rian Johnson. His resume consists of writers' films; each one clever enough and not without some style, but I don't get from him the makings of a strong aestheticist and visual storyteller. However, I'm always ready to be surprised. Story-wise, the dice have been cast: Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and Luke. Proceed from them into uncharted waters and let all the overtly recycled plotlines and fan services fade away on their own, the sooner the better.


  1. Cannon,

    BRAVO! An amazing piece. Enjoyed every bit of it.

    I had to finish writing my own, albeit much briefer, thoughts before arriving here to read what amounts to an excellent examination and conclusion that genuinely captured much of what I felt on the matter.

    Your point about the laser fire freezing in mid air in the first act was indeed a visual highlight for me.

    I felt very much the same way about the tentacle monsters scene. It all just felt rather odd.

    Your point about the original (1977) Death Star being directly tied to the MacGuffin is important and an excellent one.

    I think your additional points about the narrative flow are also spot on. The whole damn thing is clumsily connected.

    I went into it with a box of salted popcorn and I reached in for more popcorn a few times when I was disinterested and there was no more popcorn.

    Your points about narrative expectations is entirely fair. I just don't get it.

    And throughout your analysis you made me realize, after the fact, I actually do have a problem with a small boy as an expert podracer. ha.

    I too enjoyed the cast much moreso than the prequel casting and the dialogue and performance requirements with which they were saddled.

    You make some great points about the rogue Stormtrooper concept in this film and I would add as dark as these forces are required to be there is never a real darkness about it all or the fact he was essentially given a number and reared to be a killer since whenever. I know we should just look passed these things.... but.

    Like you, loved the Chewie Commanche bit. I don't know why, but it was so unexpected and kind of surprised me. I also think you offer some nice evidence at the end of your essay on some of the film's highlights. But given all of the evidence and these truths, it's like the some of its parts just don't quite deliver on the whole.

    You know I had heard a lot of people tell me the humor was off, but like you, and noting the original, it didn't bother me too much. Though it's certainly a bit shoe-horned or a little too noticeable in spots but otherwise fine.

    And finally, your assessment of the scoring is terrific. As a fan of music scores, I'll admit John Williams does not rank among my favorites despite his legend and skill as a composer which are second to none. And, as you note, while the music here doesn't touch the original, I like that you leave open the fact that perhaps more time is required. That's right. Very true sir.

    Regarding Abrams, I'm not sure what it is with his films or big films by Wheedon. They all must be big, loud spectacles but are lacking in a particular vision that once seemed to be a trademark of a great director. Ah, I dunno.

    Your crafting of this article genuinely demonstrates your full and comprehensive understanding of the Star Wars universe as well which makes your assessment entirely fair and annotated.

    Anyway, that was an education and a fun one. It's an exceptional piece. "Nearly as good as Willow." Classic.

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  2. Fan,

    Glad you got something out of it.

    I saw the movie. Thought about it for a week before seeing it again. Then I gave it another week before writing my thoughts down. And, I figured, if I was gonna do that then I might as well leave nothing on the table. So, here it is, as rambling, long-winded and self-indulgent as it may be. I had it get it out of my head regardless.

    I can't say it's all that coincidental that we share much of the same opinions about the film. It seems that many a cinephile across the blogosphere have had a bit more to criticize underneath its shiny veneer compared to the mainstream critics and general audience response. That's not to take away from anyone who loved this new trilogy starter. A whole mass of people seem to just love it for what it is, which is great. I certainly don't intend for my assessment to get in the way of that.

    Anyways, thanks for reading

  3. i want to throw popcorn at you so much for spelling Canon wrong lol