Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

I was thinking…

…nostalgia can be a double-edged sword. It can act as a filter, removing all the negative aspects of a past event, leaving behind only an idealized version of the memory. By emotionally linking us to our childhoods, it can also be the impetus for providing equally memorable moments for our offspring.

But there is that edge that cuts us as well. Like the heartrending scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, when Emily tries to relive her 12th birthday, our search to recapture the feelings of the past can result in a soul-ache, a piercing of the spirit that cannot scar over until we turn our sights back to the present.

Worse still, the aforementioned filter can backfire, limning the past in such an impossible light that any attempt to remake it is met with scoff and derision.

As for the long awaited Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, it has quickly proven to be a nostalgic sword.

In order to avoid spoilers and concurrently avoid the wrath of any who has not yet but is still planning on seeing it, this synopsis will be brief and not very telling:

Taking place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, a First Order has arisen from the fragments of the fallen Empire. Kylo Ren (Adam DriverThis is Where I Leave You, Lincoln), stands near its top. With an overriding goal to locate Luke Skywalker and end the threat he poses, Ren and the First Order are opposed by the Resistance, a splinter and–one could say–offspring of the Rebellion from the original trilogy.

Caught in the middle of the war are a scavenger simply named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a Stormtrooper-with-a-conscience, originally called FN-2187 (an homage to Princess Leia’s cell number in Star Wars: A New Hope) and later dubbed Finn (John BoyegaAttack the Block).

Han, Luke and Leia enter into it as well, but I’ll leave that for the movie itself to disclose.

From the very first scene–and footage revealed in the myriad trailers and commercial spots bear this out–there is instantly a sense of the familiar in The Force Awakens. But here the nostalgic sword is unsheathed. We see a desert planet, which many assumed was Tatooine, the unofficial homeworld of the saga.

But it turned out to be an different desert planet.

We see a green planet with monolithic ruins adorning its surface, much like the fourth moon of Yavin, also in the original film.

But it’s not Yavin’s moon.

Instead we are treated to familiar worlds that are actually not familiar. It is like seeing the face of an old friend across a crowded room. We approach them and then, only after getting closer and even maybe saying ‘hello,’ we realize we are in error. It is someone similar in appearance, but a stranger nonetheless. We feel foolish and somehow cheated.

The fault herein lies not with us but with the filmmakers. Creator of the original saga, George Lucas, explains why this is: “They wanted to do a retro movie,” he says. “I don’t like that. Every movie–I work very hard to make them different; I make them completely different–with different planets, with different spaceships–make it new.”

The Force Awakens is a sort of reboot of the saga in that sense. The planets, the spaceships and even the characters are not completely different, not new. Director J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan clearly sought to re-capture the feeling of the 1977 film by, essentially, remaking it.

Enter the nostalgic sword once more. Some people said The Force Awakens made them feel like a kid again while others said they felt like it was a rehash of the original, containing nothing truly novel. Both sets of people were blown out of their seats nearly 40 years ago because they were seeing something they had never seen before. Ergo, at least for the latter fans, a rehash of the film defeats the purpose for which this new film was made.

There is also a missing nostalgic feel, stemming from Abrams’ decision to ignore the stylistic choices established in the first six films–choices meant to mirror the look of the Flash Gordon serials and older films upon which Star Wars was nurtured. Optical film transitions are perhaps the most notable style change.

For those not au fait with the above term, a film transition is any of a variety of editing techniques meant to bridge the gap between scenes, of which fades and dissolves are some of the most common. It was the wipe transition, however, that was employed heavily during the first few decades of filmmaking; and Lucas, in order to evoke the same storytelling feel, utilized them a great deal in all of the Star Wars films. But they are basically absent from The Force Awakens.

Instead we are greeted with numerous dissolves; grand, sweeping, rotating camera work; aerial photography for the sake of it and, expectedly, Abrams’ signature lens flares. All the camera grandeur aside, ultimately it is rather like listening to Salieri trying to compose and play something that sounds like Mozart’s work. The true maker’s hand is absent and we can sense it, subconsciously if not overtly.

Nevertheless, The Force Awakens delivers a thrilling time with some of these alterations in camera work. Point-of-view shots from the cockpit of an X-Wing, external camera mounts on the fuselages and long takes of the dogfights all are welcome additions to the film. Indeed, they are among my favorite moments in the movie.

Furthermore, the film is riddled with humor. Although laughs were something peppered throughout the original trilogy, the prequels lacked this seasoning somewhat, despite the bucket of bullion cubes the Jar Jar Binks anathema was meant to be. In The Force Awakens, Chewbacca, Han, Finn and, oddly enough, the new droid BB-8 carry the lion’s share of the guffaws.

As for pacing, Abrams and his editors do a fairly decent job, but some scenes go on longer than needed. Like a sequence showing James Bond kissing a woman followed by a fade and then him getting dressed, our minds should easily fill in the blanks (or the gutter). But Abrams, again, ignores this staple–one employed in the original trilogy–by showing more than is necessary. But these lengthy moments are few.

Although I have already mentioned the similarity of planets, there is a case of mistaken identity within the movie as well. Two planets are so similar that if one were to reach down for five seconds to retrieve a bucket of popcorn, one would have no idea the protagonists had actually flown from one planet to an entirely different one. Lucas once said this on the matter of setting: “[It should] be very distinctive. You have to be able to look and in a couple seconds and say, ‘Okay, I know where I am. I know what that is.'”

Although the script is a huge step up from the toothaches generated by the prequels, there are still some very wooden words met with equally wooden performances. A particular briefing scene sounds more at home in a Star Trek movie than it does in Star Wars. Thermal oscillators. That’s all I’m gonna say.

I would be remiss to write about Star Wars and not mention the musical score. Anyone who knows me knows I believe music to be fully half of a movie experience. As my wife can attest, I was looking forward more to hearing the music for The Force Awakens than I was seeing the film itself. And, like the film, John Williams tries but fails to nail the same feel of the earlier work.

Absent are many of the Wagnerian themes and motifs he used. Although Kylo Ren has a simple, five note, bellicose blaring of brass to mark his entrance, only Rey actually has her own theme; and its ebullient flavor is somewhat evocative of Williams’ Harry Potter work. Equally similar in genre-jumping is the “March of the Resistance,” which would make an excellent piece for the Nazis in an Indiana Jones pic. All are decidedly Williams in style and movement and “Rey’s Theme” in particular is quite likable and memorable; but the score is far from Williams’ best Star Wars composition, although it does trump Attack of the Clones’ soundtrack with ease.

I was also particularly disappointed that the music present in the trailers (note the music from the trailer above) was completely missing from the film. These two minute cavatinas or preludes were exactly to what I was looking forward musically. Sucker that I am, I would gladly purchase the soundtrack again were it to include these melodious aperitifs.

After giving The Force Awakens no fewer than five viewings, I found I could finally write about it in an objective manner. Despite its faults (and there are a few), it remains a film worth seeing five times and perhaps more. Although it will never topple the reigning monarch that is the original trilogy of Star Wars films, The Force Awakens does accomplish what its progenitor did a long time ago in a hometown far, far away: it makes movies fun again.

Ammo Dump rating: 7 out of 10 lightsabers

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my (every once in a while) radio show. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @ALphaEXray to find out when I’ll be on the air.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Rated PG-13
Run time: 135 minutes

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