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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A calculated first step to a possibly good trilogy buoyed by interesting characters.

We live in an age when the line between creator and audience is thinner and more porous than ever. It seems as though every film above a certain budgetary mark is created not in a creative vacuum, but in a slick laboratory lined with monitors charting fan reactions and cultural buzz. If a film happens to be part of a series, this lab becomes even bigger and the science behind the filmic creation becomes even more finely tuned. With such a system in place, it becomes harder for the magic of storytelling to break through, chained as it is by the creators’ desire to keep those monitors humming in a predictably positive way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like a movie built by some of the most knowledgeable cinematic engineers in the world. Aesthetically and canonically, this is a movie that finds a suitably pleasant harmonic resonance with what people loved about the first Star Wars film. At the same time, it feels overladen with set pieces designed to pay service to those in the audience who will feel that they are owed a certain amount of time with characters performing in a certain way. The movie, for all of its polish and fine-tuned calculation, never feels wholly alive. It is a perfect machine, loaded with extraneous functions, yearning to break free of its constraints to deliver something that, while possibly less clean, could be a lot more fun.

bb8The story begins with the cocky-yet-capable fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) visiting the desert planet of Jakku to receive a piece of intelligence that will aid in the cause of the Resistance. A sudden assault by the Empire-like First Order ends with Dameron in custody and his droid, BB-8, on the run. That same assault leads to a crisis of conscience for rookie Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who realizes that the mission he has been trained for might not be the one he was born for. Meanwhile, a scrap-salvager named Rey (Daisy Ridley) eeks out a meager existence on Jakku by stripping the wreckage of Star Destroyers and various other pieces of military equipment left behind on the planet surface following some unexplored conflict.

By turns both surprisingly, thrilling, and comical, all of these characters and more will be drawn together and pushed toward what could be deemed to be their destiny. All the while they are pursued by the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Darth Vader-worshipping leader in the First Order who has a deep and powerful control over the Force, a power that, roughly, grants telekinetic and telepathic abilities.

The world and characters as presented in the film divorced from the plot are engrossing in the best of ways. The glimpses we get of the way Stormtroopers such as Finn are ‘recruited’ lends a deeper level of evil to the First Order and also raises a (perhaps unwitting) pall of ambiguity over the battles that take place between the Order and the Resistance. Rey is capable and strong without coming off as bull-headed or foolish, easily able to accept help when needed, but also able to fend for herself more often than not. Boyega and Ridley are disarmingly immature in the best of ways, mainly in their interpersonal moments, and convey their characters’ youth without miring them in young adult cliche. It is their energy and wonder that feels the most naive, while the moments that call for them to be actions heroes ring true thanks to the weight they bring to their hard-fought histories.

Oscar Isaac, meanwhile, uses his innate charisma to create in Poe Dameron perhaps the only new character who seems truly born of the old-fashioned serials that inspired A New Hope. Rey and Finn, for all their charm and guile, scan as a much more modern than one might expect, whereas Dameron has the debonair rakishness of a World War I flying ace. Every time he is on the screen the movie sings a little more loudly and a little more wildly. It is not hard to imagine a better film being filtered wholly through his eyes, though odds are that the grand machine that assembled this particular film would never have let that happen. The truth is that every Star Wars film needs to have a younger access point, and Finn and Rey are there to serve that purpose. They do it well, and by the time the credits roll it is hard not to look forward to their continuing adventures, but it all feels like something we have done before.

This is the film’s biggest problem; the gnawing sense that this is a tune we have heard before, and that while it is remixed in an appealing way the lyrics ultimately remain the same. Orphans on deserts and grizzled old men ushering the younger generation into the stories of a bygone era. Rookies learning they have powers and skills beyond reckoning. Masked villains working to destroy rowdy rebels. None of it is particularly new or exciting beyond being able to see how a new generation of actors handles the material. It isn’t bad or disappointing, so to speak, but it is nothing so groundbreaking or entrancing as it would have been had we even simply been shown the story from another angle.

forceawakens4-xlargeDirector J.J. Abrams reins in some of his worst impulses here – people waiting to make jokes about lens flare will be sorely disappointed – but his comic freneticism still seems out of place at times, especially when it tangles with his desire to give his idols something fun to do. The scene that introduces us to Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is at first a pleasant introduction to an old friend, but soon devolves into an utterly pointless farce. It is a pleasure to see Ford playing the slick-talking rogue on everyone’s bad side once again, but the action beats that follow play as cartoonish and pandering rather than a thrilling homage.

This same sense of stuttering plotting and needlessly glad-handing digressiveness takes over in force later on in the film when, so covertly that it might take a while to realize, one notices that the essential plot of the film has changed entirely. The opening crawl leads us to believe that the story will see our heroes hunting one objective, but before you know it the whole film has pitched itself in another direction, forgetting or sidelining what had been our plot for a retread of the kind of ultimate goal we have already seen play out twice before. A lot within this digression-turned-ultimate-plot is truly fascinating, but the impact of most of it is drowned out when you realize that this is essentially a tertiary concern to what had been introduced as the driving thrust of the narrative.

The saving grace of this otherwise confounding tangent – which, again, actually turns out to be 85% of the plot – is that it doesn’t feel clumsy and that it does indeed lead to a lot of solid material for all of our heroes and our villain. Kylo Ren is perhaps the most nuanced and complicated Star Wars villain of all time, which makes him a great foil for some of the best-drawn heroes of the series yet as well. Obi-wan and Luke Skywalker were great archetypes, but Finn and Rey feel like real people, the only concession for modern storytelling that serves to enhance the film in any tangible way over its predecessors. It is easy to let such a bizarre and ultimately lazy storytelling choice get away with its crimes when it offers up such rich material.

Ultimately, Star Wars: The Force Awakens does exactly what its masters needed it to do: it brings the audience back to a world long left to fallow, it introduces fun and interesting new characters, and it sets up the course for the rest of the series while still paying off the plot it set out for itself. This film plays it straight and fair, laying to rest a fair amount of its story while letting grander arcs continue to bend toward the future. It doesn’t attempt to do anything radical with the continuity we are comfortable with, nor does it add anything offensive to the lore we know.

This is a perfect corporate device, calibrated to do what it must with a balance between efficiency and rewarded loyalty. At times it jumps to life with a verve of its own, but more often than not it simply delivers what it was designed to with enough brightness and well-machined cheer to pass as a facsimile of something real. Light and clumsy in story, rich in character, and inoffensive in delivery, this film wears the trappings of a Star Wars film well. We can hope that given this beginning, and with a little looseness in the restraints, it might somehow stumble into a more human soul in the sequel.