Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


October 17, 2013. I write a long essay rooting for the artistic failure of Star Wars, especially in light of how ruthlessly nostalgic the new entry is going to be.

December 18, 2015. I see The Force Awakens. Every prediction I made has come true. The new entry is essentially a remake of A New Hope but even busier and messier.

Here is what I wrote in 2013:
it was announced that Abrams and his cinematographer Daniel Mindel were going to film the seventh SW film using Kodak film stock 5219, an attempting at imitating the grain and texture of the film stock used for the original trilogy. For me, this is an omen that the seventh film will shamelessly try and manifest all the best that makes up the original trilogy.

And I want this to happen. Because when it does, and I’m completely convinced it will, not only will fans be alienated from the project but it will ultimately confirm Jameson and Reynolds’s theories on the sterility of cultural production in the era of late capitalism. The new film will have proven to be a boring copy of a copy of a copy....
Boy was I on the money. Except for one thing. The fans are eating this shit up. So far, Episode VII is sitting at around 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. I hoped that fans would be alienated by this rapacious replication, but so far, it seems that most recognize the flaws but still enjoyed their time with this product.

I put myself in this camp, I confess. It's hard to be a SW fan: the endless disappointment, the rush of anticipation, the thrill of the score, the sounds, the characters. Yet, we would be remiss in not reminding ourselves that the brand is really built out of one and a half great movies and the rest struggling to reach mediocrity (for the record: half of A New Hope and all of Empire). Similarly to my Doctor Who fandom, loving SW is a difficult proposition. We must recognize the flaws which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the positives sometimes.

Episode VII is a greatest hits package of SW tropes and all that implies: this film earnestly brings back the good (space battles, lasers, wizards) and the bad (stiff dialogue, plot inconsistencies, tonal whiplash). And as aforementioned, it's a messier and busier remake of Episode IV, bringing again, the good and the bad together. I don't think it's worth rehashing the plot here, as there are probably hundreds of thousands of words written about VII already, so I'll forego summary and speak of specific constitutive elements I liked and disliked.

Firstly, and most prominently, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, as the two leads, are almost luminescent in their chemistry, enthusiasm, and commitment. Both of them fill their rather thin characters with a rich inner life. It's especially impressive considering Boyega's character is essentially an empty vessel, but he manages to imbue Finn with interiority. Ridley does a little bit less with a little bit more, as her character—in typical SW fashion—has a touch of destiny, a determinism that often makes the galaxy in SW seem claustrophobic and provincial. However, her performance is stellar and the two leads have a confidence and chemistry that easily overtake the original trio from the original trilogy. Here, then, is a compliment I can give J.J. Abrams: he's much better with actors than George Lucas ever was. Two of my favourite sequences from The Force Awakens come from small interactions between Ridley and Boyega that a) advance the plot organically and b) "show" information about their characterization—rather than "tell" that info.

I also quite liked how Finn tries to do the right thing, almost chauvinistically, but he learns through the course of the film that his role is not saviour, but friend and ally. It's almost instructive for male allies of feminism in this way. Rey, Ridley's character, is shown to be quite capable of taking care of herself. The first two acts of the film feature Rey responding naturally and organically as her characterization dictates to stimuli. It's in the third act, the messiest and worst part of the film, that Rey's capability reaches implausible levels, but I will return to this part of the film below.

The other bright spot in this film, one that will be controversial (typical contrarian that I am), is Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. He is easily my favourite part of the film. His performance is so layered and his characterization is developed so well that I would say—without hesitation—that I prefer him as a character to Darth Vader. We learn more about Ren in 50 minutes (of screen time, I'm estimating) than we do about Vader over two films. We learn that Ren is petulant, is quick to anger, is in absolute control of his Force powers, has daddy issues. Ren's character is carefully and slowed sketched out, parceled out at a satisfying trickle; he has a temper tantrum, and we think nothing of it, but his second temper tantrum teaches us a lot more. The revelation that Han and Leia are his parents is disclosed without fanfare, displaying confidence in the audience's ability to glean this from context. Driver's performance is so textured: aggressive, confused, predatory, weak. However, it seems the backlash against Ren has started. Many people have complained that he's a "pussy" or "weak." SW fans wanted Darth Vader 2.0 and were frustrated to be denied such a thing. It's of course the point of Ren to be weak like this. Ren's inability to live up to the shadow of Vader is both symbolically meaningful and affectively redolent.

Now onto the negatives, of which there is a significant amount. While it was cool to see Han and Chewie in the Falcon (there's a great shot of Harrison Ford's smile when he sees the cockpit; it feels so genuine, as if it's Harrison himself smiling, not the character), the original actors and the film's reliance on nostalgia is utterly crippling. Episode VII repeats the same beats of IV, to my annoyance. We have a droid carrying important information stuck on a desert planet, we have a young apprentice of the Force learning their abilities, we have an older mentor succumbing to death, we even have a fucking Cantina scene (but with embarrassing reggae). Han, Chewie, and Leia are the weakest parts of this film. I hope all of them are slowly written out in the next two films so that we never have to see Carrie Fisher bored to tears on the screen again. After the initial thrill of revisiting old friends wears off, we're left with actors who clearly aren't interested in being there, playing characters who provide little to the overall film. Their participation in the film is almost wholly predicated on the same patrilineal anxiety that plagues the entire franchise. Not since a Victorian novel have I encountered more anxiety about inheritance and sons. And in typical SW fashion, it simply replicates the same anxiety, saying practically nothing new about this paternal influence.

Speaking of empty replication, the climax of Episode VII features another fucking Death Star called Starkiller Base (presumably a coy reference to Luke Skywalker's name in the original draft) and features another fucking assault on a key component that makes the whole thing blow up. Instead of entirely copying A New Hope, this movie adds the same dual narrative of Return of the Jedi in that Han and Finn sneak into the base to disable the shields. Admiral Ackbar even comes back to say something about shields during the painful exposition scene that laboriously explains all this to the audience.

The third act is a fucking mess. There are too many moving parts and Abrams does not cut between them with enough skill. It's the same problem that Age of Ultron has in its climax: it's far too busy. On top of all the story strands already unfolding, The Force Awakens wants the classic showdown of Empire and the assault on the Death Star of A New Hope at the same time. Instead of any of this neo-Death Star nonsense (which makes no fucking sense: where does it get a second sun if it depletes the sun in its entirety to fire?), the film would've been immensely improved if Ren's confrontation with Rey and Finn had been the sole focus. Again, these giant blockbusters always feel the need to provide more and more and more to the audience at the expense of more interesting and affectively satisfying things such as characterization or meaning. Another giant CG battle with blobs of pixels moving across the screen faster than the eye can follow isn't nearly as emotionally resonating, for example, as Luke's battle with Vader at the end of Episode V.

Again, it's the fucking nostalgia that deflated my enthusiasm around the second act. The more the film echoed the original trilogy, the more I rolled my eyes and groaned. The characters might have just turned to the camera and said, "hey remember this?" I fucking hate nostalgia in this form. It's so facile and infantile. It preys on my memories and commodifies them.

A common rebuttal to the critique that The Force Awakens is too mired in the past is that the original A New Hope was mostly a goulash of cultural objects Lucas liked and wanted to emulate: Flash Gordon serials, Akira Kurosawa and samurai films, Buddhism or Taoism, etc etc etc. By virtue of being first, A New Hope could not reference itself; The Force Awakens is not beholden to the same limit; the film shamelessly references its own brand, amplifying the echo of self-reference.

Of course, all of us SW fans are breathing such a sigh of relief that The Force Awakens isn't a disaster that we're lining up to praise it. The film managed to be competent and mostly engaging, so we praise it for not being The Phantom Menace. I think as the rush of a new film dies down, we'll see some more considered and reasoned responses. Already, the—I don't want to say "backlash"—whatever it is has already begun. Consider Devin Faraci's review over at Birth.Movies.Death. He both praises it and condemns it for the film's slavish adoration of the original trilogy.

After all, this is a product. It's the safest product for the legion of SW fans that were disappointed by the prequel trilogy. This film isn't an artistic endeavour: it's a manifesto. It's a feature length assurance that SW fans won't be forever disappointed by future films. On that tack, it's successful; I didn't hate this film, but I also didn't love it. I was neither disappointed nor overjoyed. There are certainly parts of the film I really liked (the new cast, their characterization and their acting) and parts that I quite disliked (the old cast, the nostalgia).

I'm pleased to write a review that isn't entirely negative. I'm also somewhat pleased that my cynicism over this new film was tempered a bit with time. I'm not quite as angry about the brand as I used to be. I'm also not quite as angry in general. Yet, I can't let go entirely of my suspicious nature. SW was purchased by Disney to generate revenue, not change the world. I wonder how many iterations of the film were screened for board members and business suits with their MBAs from Harvard. It's hard to praise the film as an artistic achievement when its conditions of production are so obviously embedded in the logic of late capitalism. It's another copy of a copy of a copy at this point, a hall of mirrors of references and pastiches.

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