Star Wars – The Force Awakens – Review

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Posted on my Letterboxd account as well. Come on ever and yell at me there too.

There has probably never been a better use of movie magic than STAR WARS.

In its potent mixture of human archetypes as old as our deepest past, laser blasters and starships from as far in the future as we can gaze, in its perfect counterpoints of the familiar and strange, the exciting and deeply moving, this universe George Lucas created 40 years ago is the kind of thrill best experienced in a moving picture. In just its original three films, it contains more iconic moments than almost any other set of films.

Even the maligned prequels, at their most stumbling and frustrating, there is some undeniable spark in what Lucas made, pulling generation after generation into that galaxy far, far away. But more on that later.

Today I come to praise STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, the newest entry in the Skywalker saga, and it feels almost as good to write this review as it felt awful to write on THE PHANTOM MENACE 16 years ago. Back then, my first words for that film were “Writing every word of this will hurt.”

But what director JJ Abrams has done, along with vaunted STAR WARS writing partner Lawrence Kasdan (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI) is return this saga to the glimmering joys, the raw blasts of fun Lucas first provided with A NEW HOPE in 1977.

That’s what makes THE FORCE AWAKENS wonderful to watch, and what puts a cap on its potential.

Like the STAR WARS films, the essential plotline can be summed up simply: 30 years after RETURN OF THE JEDI, a new collection of unlikely allies find themselves pulled into the echoes of the Skywalker saga. Unlike previous STAR WARS films, whose simple storylines covered complex themes and deeper human dilemmas should the viewer care to look, there does not seem to be much interesting going on beneath the surface of THE FORCE AWAKENS.

In broad strokes, the story begins with a diminutive droid (ball of fun BB8) as custodian of a secret vital to the success The Resistance (once the Rebel Alliance) all the while being hunted by The First Order (once the Empire) under the direction of mask wearing, black clad, red-saber wilding Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Marooned on a desert planet, BB8 soon finds a protector in a teenage girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and her new friend Fin (John Boyega). In the midst of the thrills and escapes, it comes to light the First Order has a new, planet destroying mega-weapon pointed at the heart of peace and freedom in the galaxy. We soon find ourselves hanging out again with Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia and C-3P0. Is the structure starting to sound familiar?

Beyond this point, I’ll forgo the plot points and let you enjoy discovering them for yourself. Suffice to say, the galaxy has a weirdly small feeling even while our heroes, new and old, visit planets we’ve never seen before.

As an enjoyable film-going experience, it delivers. What else can reasonably be asked of a movie, after all? As a STAR WARS film, falls somewhere between the original films in the prequel trilogy, and evidences unsure portents of future STAR WARS films.

Having seen it twice, I find myself with the feeling that it will have an aftertaste similar to other Abrams projects: thrilling and enjoyable at first, but less impressive and impactful as my mind pulls with and pulls at specific moments and meanings. Where are most of the film has the familiar greased lightning momentum Lucas first perfected 40 years ago, there are a few moments which seem less mysterious than written-around. There’s a ‘don’t look behind the curtain’ feeling when old story beats aren’t being retread.

When asked a reasonable question by Rey, on the mind of every STAR WARS fan, Lupita Nyong’o’s character literally says, “A good question for another time.” You can almost feel Abrams pointing behind the viewer sitting in the theater and shouting, “Hey, look over there!”

THE FORCE AWAKENS is the work of a world-class mimic. It’s amazing and nostalgic to see Abrams put his toy through its Technicolor paces, but like all mimics, Abrams cannot take us anywhere the original creator hasn’t already tread. As a STAR WARS fan, it’s there we find what might be the film’s biggest shock. Probably not one intended by Abrams and his crew.

For the last 16 years, STAR WARS creator George Lucas has been getting kicked around by fans of his creation, lambasted as tone-deaf and somehow unaware of just what made people love his era-defining creation. He gets thrashed for wrecking STAR WARS, as though he had noting to do with its creation.

But as THE FORCE AWAKENS unspools, it becomes clear Lucas perhaps knew it better than even the most die-hard fans will concede.

A kind of controlled experiment has been going on since A NEW HOPE was released, and only now can we really see its full shape. When it came to the greatness of STAR WARS, what part was Lucas, and what vital parts were provided by others?

In the 1970s and 80s, with Episodes 4-6, Lucas was a growing filmmaker with a studio to please, serving as director/executive producer/story guru as he worked with others to flesh out and vitalize his pocket universe. What he created were three delightful, moving and amazing films, STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. They stand alone as unrivaled imaginative achievements, different and challenging each in their own way.

Each one highlights a different and unique cinematic thrill, both new and as old as Republic Pictures serials: In A NEW HOPE, the X-Wing attack on the Death Star; in EMPIRE the walker attack on the Hoth base, Han Solo frozen in carbonite and the wrenching the climactic lightsaber fight between father and son; in JEDI we have the swashbuckling fight on Jaba’s sail barge, the blinding fast speeder bike chase through the forests of Endor, and the space battle to end them all around the new Death Star.

Under the surface, Episodes 4-6 examined the way humans move through their lives, how they choose who they want to be and what those choices mean for the world around them. They were quick and brilliant amazements, almost perfect at every moment, playing at a pace every 10-year-old could enjoy and most adults could appreciate. They stood alone in the history of film.

But who did what to make them great? From the outside, it was hard to know.

By the 1990s and 2000s, with Episodes 1-3, Lucas was an industry legend, bankrolling his own films with only his creative impulses to placate. We got to see a STAR WARS without the influence of anyone but Lucas.

What he created were THE PHANTOM MENACE, ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENG OF THE SITH, which highlighted Lucas’ genius for binding story structure with theme, but buried all his good work under his anti-talent for dialogue and directing actors. We learned Lucas needed someone to blunt his worst impulses.

The talent for melding the familiar and imaginative were on full display; MENACE’s BEN HUR-style pod race, the threeway light saber fight in the techno-catacombs of Naboo, the capital-of-the-galaxy nightscape of Coruscant; CLONES gave us the seascape army-factory of Kamino, the gladiator arena of Geonosis; SITH revealed to us the perfect setting for Anakin’s fall to anger, the epic saber fight on the lava planet of Mustafar, the heartbreaking sequence of Order 66, and the grim way tyranny is usually begun with the votes of free people. All new vistas, and all unique and different from Episodes 4-6.

At their core, the prequels were less occupied with human level questions than how corruption and systematic collapse tear apart what has endured for 1000-generations, and in the midst we watch a young boy, Anakin Skywalker, trampled under that galaxy-wide push and pull until he is manipulated into Darth Vader’s suit of evil.

In the prequels, the awful and the wonderful were smashed together so tightly they could not be separated, becoming a frustrating mix that still drives fans to distraction 10 years after their release. The poetry of human pain and regret rests side-by-side with Jar Jar’s pratfalls. “You were my brother Anakin. I loved you. You were supposed to bring balance to the force, not leave it in darkness,” rests side-by-side with “Yipee.”

Now, beginning with Episode 7, we see STAR WARS without Lucas’ hand at all. And we learn STAR WARS without Lucas is missing an eye for the new horizon. While Abrams never visits a familiar world, Jakku may as well be Tatooine. Starkiller base may as well be Hoth. The Resistance’s military base may as well be Yavin. Abram’s new entry is it cycles back and reveals just what Lucas’ strengths as a producer and world builder were. As we found Lucas needed the influence of others to make STAR WARS, THE FORCE AWAKENS reveals STAR WARS just might need Lucas’s influence for the same reason.

Say what you will about Lucas, but he never had a fear of treading new territory, even while his audience might not want to follow. Abrams seems content to play with the pieces as given, reliving past story moments with new sheens, never really showing us the kind of strange and imagined vistas which are a key to what we love about this.

Overall, THE FORCE AWAKENS is enjoyable but somehow blunted, as though everything had been channeled through an enthusiastic focus group. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, which say what you will about the prequel’s, was not a fault they shared.

What does this mean for the future of STAR WARS? At this point we can’t say for sure. We’ll have to cast our eye to the horizon, watch the twin suns set, and wonder about the future like someone we all know.
Christopher Allan Smith was the news editor of the late, great EonMagazine.com and Cinescape Magazine. Since then he has become an Emmy Award winning producer and director. His first novel, JETT JERGENS AND THE INFINITY KEY, is due out in 2016.

Feel like arguing about this? Come over to my Letterboxd page and let’s fight. Or, if you only have time for 140 characters, find me on Twitter at @JettJergens

Originally published on AssignmentX.com

Retro review: STAR WARS EPISODE III

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(Originally Published May 19, 2005)

May 1999 was an awful month for many Star Wars fans.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first movie in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy to his revolutionary Star Wars films, was hitting screens. It was getting thrashed by critics and disappointing many fans. I know, because I was among the critics thrashing and the fans disappointed.

At the time I had a job at an online entertainment magazine in Los Angeles. The critics’ screening was in San Francisco seven days before the release, but I loved these movies enough to think driving 350 miles was no price to pay. Afterwards a fellow editor and I drove back through the night, talking Episode I the whole time.

Gone were the charms of the original Star Wars. No mythic portent of a Luke Skywalker driving toward his destiny. Gone was the strut of a Han Solo. A quick mouth like Princess Leia’s couldn’t be found. In their place was a shiftless story, the awful acting of Jake Lloyd as proto-Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker, and the noxious pratfalls of Jar Jar Binks, an offense to race, comedy and special effects all at once.

By the time we arrived in Los Angeles, the shock of seeing a bad Star Wars film had morphed into an examination on the insanity of fandom. Why did anyone place such devotion to movies, TV shows, rock bands and sports teams when those things could not love you back? Was this our lot in life?

We drove past Grauman’s Chinese Theater and saw the rabid fans camped out for tickets, sleeping with their plastic light sabers and chest-covering Darth Maul tattoos like kids on Christmas Eve.

Santa was coming with a lot of coal.

With a job covering Star Trek, The Matrix, The Simpsons and all things nerd, I was used to talking to geeks about the loves the rest of the world abused them for. Now I was wondering if I was a fool to love Star Wars as I did.

My non-fanatic friends tried to console me with “it’s just a movie.” The sentiment seemed false. Popular culture can mean a lot more than a fun night at the movies or a great summer read. If someone dismissed Casablanca or The Shawshank Redemption in the same way, I’d rightfully wonder if they knew anything about the heartbreak of struggle or the better parts of human nature. The Great Gatsby was a smash on the best-seller charts. Isn’t this why we have culture?

It’s a hard argument to make given the world Lucas’ success has wrought. When Return of the Jedi left screens in 1983 and the studios rushed in for those blockbuster dollars, most of what followed was nothing more than teen boy revenge fantasies. Enter the murdering robots of The Terminator, the gunmen of The Matrix and the vapid noise of Hollywood’s Michael Bay quarter.

It irked me because when you really talk to Star Wars fans, they don’t talk about light sabers or space battles. They talk about that moment in the original film, when farm boy Luke Skywalker stared off at a twin sunset wondering if he’d be able connect the dreams of his youth to the years of his adulthood. It doesn’t inspire cruelty or cheap irony but a durable, hopeful outlook that even if your dad is evil and cuts off your hand and it turns out you’ve had a crush on your sister, if you work hard and use the Force, everything can come out OK. Let’s see this summer’s Batman Begins do that.

Since 1999, being a Star Wars fan has been a mixed bag. Once the cool fans of geekdom, we’ve watched as The Matrix Trilogy made off with our zeitgeist swagger and The Lord of the Rings outstripped the Original Trilogy’s sweep. Once a phenomenon, where everyone was a Star Wars fan, we were now seen as being a mild kind of crazy, consigned to sit with Star Trek fans who have seen their franchise turn into something akin to a computer trying to write poetry. Many have made the same charge about Lucas’ prequels, with wooden acting and stilted dialogue marring 2002’s Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and so there’s not much hope for Episode III.

So now, really, how is Revenge of the Sith?

In a word, awful. Awful in the old sense, terrible and spectacular, where doom and hope claw it out, and we learn lessons by seeing doom prevail. Awfully good. Awful in the Empire Strikes Back sense of the word. But no, it’s not that good.

From the first scene, with Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) flying through a spectacular space battle to rescue the kidnapped chancellor Palpatine (the wickedly good Ian McDiarmid), this episode flies like a laser shot. Gone are the stilted political maneuverings and meandering spectacles of Episodes 1 and II. Here the fights are great and terrible, striking down, twisting or tarnishing forever the souls of Obi-Wan, Yoda, Anakin and his secret wife Padmà. This is the prequel where all the emotional punch lies, and it’s almost been worth the wait.

Since returning to directing with 1999’s Episode I, Lucas has slowly been getting back the chops he showed in the 1970s, with pitch-perfect blends of technical artistry and emotion in American Graffiti and Star Wars. While Episode II: Attack of the Clones was a vast improvement from Episode I, it still had too few personal consequences to move much emotion. Episode III is a flourish of Lucas’ biggest strengths and weaknesses. The action sequences are better than they’ve ever been. And the nimble clarity he shows jumping his plot from thread to thread to thread reminds us how he acquired his filmmaking empire.

The acting however is … not great. The scenes between Anakin and Padmà (a weirdly flat Natalie Portman) underwhelm when they should be heartbreaking. But the imperfection is not enough to mask the real heartache and tragedy of a man turning his back on his wife, his brothers in arms and even himself. And let’s be honest: The acting in the original Star Wars was similarly ungreat.

The final fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin is as harrowing for its emotions as its spectacular danger. As the climax of seven hours of prequel events, it delivers. And while most of the movie seems a half-step too fast, Lucas still respects his story and fans such that he spends as much time on the ripples of aftermath as the fight.

Still, there are a few moments that strike notes so off-key (one with the newly helmeted Darth Vader nearly sinks the enterprise) they oddly make me thankful so much of this is so good. This is not the film fans had a right to expect after the wasteland of The Phantom Menace. And yet here it is.

So what’s it all come to? Episode III is not as good as those in the Original Trilogy, but it is good enough to closely miss the cut. Given what passes for blockbusters these days, it’s nice to have one last real visit to the galaxy far, far away.

May the Force be with you.

Score: 7/10

Feel like arguing about this? Come over to my Letterboxd page and let’s fight. Or, if you only have time for 140 characters, find me on Twitter at @JettJergens

Attack of the moans: STAR WARS EPISODE II review

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(Originally published in Cinescape Magazine in May 2002)

STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES delivers on every cinematic promise George Lucas has made… and is somehow lacking. Such is the fate of a transforming genius.

In a career spanning decades in directing and producing, Lucas has put his spin on nearly every genre in Hollywood’s pantheon. He reordered the way a generation of filmmakers created stories through the abstract THX-1138 and hot-rod flick scored by ambient rock ’n’ roll with AMERICAN GRAFFITI. He helped revive the lusterless B-movie with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and in TUCKER: A MAN AND HIS DREAM (along with his pal Francis Ford Coppola), unleashed on us a surprisingly blunt creator-in-America tragedy, a dark mirror of his own success.

From his sanctuary of ambitions, Skywalker Ranch, he’s spearheaded the transformation of movie exhibition, inventing new sound systems and higher standards for image projection, as well as stoking two decades of special effects wonders until we now find ourselves in a world where we can never really believe what we see.

He’s constantly been striving for two nearly mutually exclusive things: innovative, cutting edge technology and editing techniques which serve to tell the oldest, most basic kinds of stories. He has promised our eyes, ears, heads and hearts new and dazzling experiences with the daring of a braggart jumping off a cliff without knowing if the lake below is deep enough to catch him safely. And when the culmination of his efforts, STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, debuted in 1999, we were presented with one clammy question: What have all the years to struggle been for?

With its passionless acting, disjointed screenplay and mutations of things we loved about the original STAR WARS trilogy, it seemed as though Lucas had been waiting for the technology of filmmaking to catch up to his capacity to disappoint.

So with this as prologue, what do we find in the second installment of his prequel trilogy STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES? What do we, his longest-time fans, fearful on his recent work, still basking in the glow of his earlier brilliance, see in the second film of his prequel trilogy?

Glimpses of wonder, fun, spectacular showmanship, and a sophistication of emotion touched on briefly in EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. We see all his bets threatening to pay off.

Like his best work, the plot outline for ATTACK OF THE CLONES is deceptively simple. Ten years after the events of EPISODE I, which saw Naboo’s Queen Padme Amidala fight back a droid invasion and witnessed young slave Anakin Skywalker liberated from bondage by Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin is now all grown up and wielding a light saber of his own in the defense of Senator Amidala. His Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, meanwhile, is trying to track down the assassin bent on killing Amidala before she can halt the Chancellor Palpatine’s efforts to create an Army of the Republic and halt a separatist movement lead by onetime Jedi Count Dooku.

The table set by the opening titles, CLONES kicks into high gear with its first full action sequence, Obi-Wan and Anakin in a speeder chase for an assassin through the cityscape of Coruscant. Far from being a car chase transferred to a city-of-the-future setting, the sequence is the best speed-demon tendencies of Lucas melded with the kind of computerized special effects that lends amazing reality to the most fantastic images. With the action, the audience corkscrews, pinwheels, skydives and cartwheels with Anakin’s pursuit, going from miles in the sky to a skidding crash in the deepest recesses of the planet city. What Lucas’ years of effort have produced is an artificial world as believable almost as our own. The crystal clarity of the imagined world and the free movement of his camera made possible only through massive computing power, allow us to suspend disbelief more freely than ever. It is a thrilling run of something literally never seen on screen before. And after 100 years of film, how often can you say that anymore?

And yes, Lucas did something very similar at the end of EPISODE I, with the CGI Gungans fighting the CGI droids. But considered beside EPISODE II, EPISODE I seems like the tentative test run of a hotrod, a nervous trip around the block after its owner spent his savings just to get the bucket back together. EPISODE II is the first Saturday night at the drag strip, and it wins every race it runs.

Lucas has regained his joy of filmmaking, and for the first time is truly liberated by his technology. Along with an ease of effort not seen since from him since GRAFFITI, Lucas is as playful as ever, cribbing images not only to cowboy movies (in a battle in a GLADIATOR-like arena) and THE MATRIX (when Yoda finally pulls the gloves off), but even referencing an AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME joke which itself was a referenced joke to the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (watch the leader of the Techno Unions in the meeting with Count Dooku, and you’ll see what I mean). And the final stages of this film are the most lush visual rocket ride through the STAR WARS universe we’re likely to see. We get to see Yoda act as Patton and Bruce Lee in the space of ten minutes, and we’re treated to Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu being as bad an ass as we had hoped.

But the most important improvements and strengths go deeper. While Lucas vacillates in interviews between dismissing the saga as Saturday afternoon fare and building them up as mythic capsules of wisdom passed to new generations of kids who have stepped away from religion, we know they can be a perfect blend of both. Like his mentor Francis Ford Coppola’s highest achievement, THE GODFATHER series, Lucas’ best work has been produced by a belief that high ambition, high art and high entertainment are not mutually exclusive, but mutually necessary. You can find any ten arty pinheads to laud a smear of paint on a museum wall, but to connect real, normal people, that is truly succeed as an artist, a creator has to enliven the senses, the mind and the heart with the same piece of work.

This is what Lucas attempts and succeeds in with CLONES. Like all the WARS before it, the dialogue is bland in spots. Yes, the characters are simple, though there are enough sharp exchanges here to revive the vivid blend of visual and auditory thrills these films can hold. Something his harshest critics have never understood is Lucas works in broad, bold strokes. We’re not going to get minutely pitched and finely calibrated character studies, with Robert DeNiro style acrobatics required to pull them off.

Lucas has found that fine line between thrill and myth, and with every action here by Anakin, Padme and Obi-Wan, there are reverberations of fate and destiny that lace through their actions to the events of Luke and Leia which come later.

The precursors to the original trilogy come fast and thick. There are more than a few echoes of Luke’s adolescent torment of A NEW HOPE. For every note of hope and destiny for Anakin’s boy, there is a counter note in CLONES of tragedy and pain. In fact, in probably Lucas’ best moments in the film, Anakin finds his fate turning on the same dune on the Lars homestead where Luke watched the twin suns set in A NEW HOPE. Hayden Christensen as Anakin produces perhaps the most revelatory performance in any WARS film, allowing us into the wrenching transformation of Anakin from a boy with a future to a man with a grim fate. And there is more and more that can’t be fit in here.

The rough points, and they are here, fall well within the imperfections of the original trilogy. While not every moment hits on all emotional cylinders, the misfires don’t hit the sour, clanging notes of MENACE. For first generation STAR WARS fans, MENACE hit the senses like a fever-fueled nightmare: familiar, close to the heart, but strange and horribly foreign in so many important ways. CLONES hits like something close to the second coming of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

The biggest blemish is technical. The digital images captured by Sony’s High Definition video cameras are not ready for the big time. While I’m sure it helps cut out technical steps in the melding of actors and special effects, I believe Lucas when he says all those levels of work with film degrade the image from the original pristine 35 mm film image, the HD image is so pixilated (especially in Amidala’s apartment, and several other dark settings) it is the worse of the two choices on balance. Perhaps things will be worked out for EPISODE III. Another sore spot, unfortunately, is Natalie Portman’s performance as Amidala. It veers from a listless flat reading to a trembling, fragile that makes he haiku speed romance with Anakin believable… but only just. We’ve seen Portman’s acting abilities are far beyond her years, but like MENACE, her best work does not make it to the screen here. And while there’s so much to love, there are a few moments of tin-ear acting which jar at the eyes like anything from MENACE. When… and if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want a big spoiler, skip over the next paragraphs… Anakin finds his mother only to watch her die in his arms moments later, her death is the worst kind of gasping, GENERAL HOSPITAL departure yet seen in the STAR WARS saga. She literally throws her head back and exhales like a child play dying on a schoolyard.

But the wonders outdistance the imperfections with ease. Yoda’s CGI incarnation is a revelation. While we’ve known his character since EMPIRE, it is only here where we can read his expressions with the subtle wit that his words always carried. Yoda’s role returns from the bland President of the Jedi from MENACE to the cipher of wisdom and cagey teacher of EMPIRE. After MENACE, one could almost forget Yoda’s persona is, by and large, that of the magical frog in fairy tales. Like the methodology of the frog in those tales, he’s not small and frail because he’s weak and vulnerable, he’s small and frail because it’s the best camouflage for his immense powers, and it draws out the true character in those around him. Here, we find out just how thorough and confounding the camouflage is.

Following his blistering fight with Dooku, he returns to his familiar cane and crouch, but he does not return to his small stature in our minds.

And here’s the biggest shock. I can’t believe these words even as I’m writing them, but here they are: I liked Jar Jar Binks. Where in EPISODE I he pounded our hopes with the worst kind of Stepin Fetchit fumbling (the voice is still in evidence here, but the damage has already been done to the series) his appearance in CLONES actually uses the basics of his character to humorous and chilling effect. Palpatine’s manipulation of the water-brained Gungan comes off like a twisted and very funny joke. In EPISODE I he was a reincarnation of a Hollywood tradition best left in the past. Here he’s the stand-in for apathy in a democracy (if you can believe it) and the consequences of his uninformed exercise of power are as instructive as they are warped.

So with that final amazement, I’ll simply say drop what you’re doing and go see this film. The series, the closest to my heart in all the film world, has regained its footing and promises to do what Lucas has threatened all along… entertain the child within us while revealing the wisdom of the world in a Saturday afternoon lark.

Score: 6/10

Feel like arguing about this? Come over to my Letterboxd page and let’s fight. Or, if you only have time for 140 characters, find me on Twitter at @JettJergens