Sunday, January 10, 2016

Shocked by the Force: movie review of The Force Awakens


Rey & Finn (Image from IMDb)

I was shocked by how well done the new Star Wars movie is, although it's pretty obvious that The Force Awakens (Episode VII) was made with older fans in mind.

The plot is more or less the same as A New Hope (Episode IV).  Sure, J. J. Abrams style of directing isn’t unique—it’s practically a carbon copy of George Lucas’ early work.  That’s okay.

Han & Chewie (Image from IMDb)

The Force Awakens reinvigorates the Star Wars mythos with a modern feel while being respectful in style and story to the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, & VI).  I loved seeing familiar faces (I couldn’t help smiling when Han Solo and Chewie entered), and the new characters intrigued me during their heroic turning points (e.g., when Rey takes Maz’s advice and stops looking backwards, she discovers her Jedi powers; and both Finn and Kylo Ren undergo similar moral crises yet choose opposite directions).

Why was I shocked?  You probably know the answer.

Palpatine & Anakin (Image from IMDb)

Like many fans, I was disappointed with the prequels (Episodes I, II, & III).  They weren’t horrible, but they weren’t good—they were below average at best.  With some exceptions (Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine), a lot of acting was painful to watch.  Dialog and character development were superficial: Anakin Skywalker came across as a whiny juvenile rather than a fallen hero, and other portrayals were idiotic (aliens depicting racial stereotypes).  Plot was rushed and underdeveloped: Anakin's virgin birth was never explained minus some esoteric talk about being created by "midi-chlorians" (microscopic lifeforms that somehow communicate with the Force).  There were well executed scenes here and there that nearly salvaged this plot: the opera house scene in Revenge of the Sith (Episode III), for example, where Palpatine tells Anakin about manipulating midi-chlorians to create and destroy life.  Perhapssome of us thoughtPalpatine created Anakin and kills Queen Amidala as part of his evil plan to concoct Darth Vader … but no, this talk becomes pointless, and Amidala dies for trivial reasons (she loses her "will to live").

Jar Jar (Image from IMDb)

Need I even mention the extremely unfunny Jar Jar Binks?

However, this post isn’t a Why-The-Prequels-Fell-Short discussion.

Rather, I wish to speculate as to why The Force Awakens avoided a similar disaster.

The Force Awakens has an apt title.  What is the Force?  There are many spiritual interpretations (the Force signifies Divine Grace, Tao, Buddha-Nature).  Another interpretation sees the Force as a kind of yin-yang, symbolizing balance (or imbalance and conflict) between humans and their technologies.  The Dark Side of the Force represents imbalance: losing your humanity by becoming a machine, living as a mere tool for an impersonal empire (or what Lewis Mumford calls a “megamachine”).  Hence, Kylo Ren, like his idol Darth Vader, opts to wear a mechanical mask, signifying that he's more machine than man.

Kylo Ren (Image from IMDb)

So here’s my speculation … 

The prequels fell to the Dark Side: they lost their humanity by becoming obsessed with digital machinery.  Lack of plot depth, weak characters, and insubstantial dialog were symptoms of an obsession with special effects.  Episodes I - III resulted in CGI extravaganza, but they overlooked what connected fans to the original trilogy: father-son relations and the magnitude of friendship, love, and self-sacrifice.  By recovering meaningful characters within a mythic narrative, The Force Awakens recovers the heart of Star Wars (even if the original thrill of Star Wars gives way to nostalgia in The Force AwakensLucas has criticized it for being “retro”).  And it did so with special effects that didn’t distract from the story.

Regarding these special effects, here’s a final thought.  There’s an authenticity to The Force Awakens that the prequels lacked, a kind of tangibility.  While the prequels obviously involved actors trying to play in front of green screens, The Force Awakens, like the original trilogy, used real movie sets in physical locations—later embellished, as opposed to replaced, by CGI.  I imagine that this tangibility must help actors visualize and perform their parts.  Why?  Perception itself requires embodied interaction with things, so there should be no surprise that movie aesthetics appear more authentic when cinema uses tangible art (in fact, the word ‘aesthetic’ originally meant ‘perception’).

(Image from IMBd)