Dec 21, 2015

J.J. Abrams Has Re-Kindled My Inner Star Wars Nerd

Let’s get two things out of the way: The new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is an excellent film, and I won’t spoil the major surprises for you in this piece if you haven’t seen it yet.
I was not in the theater during for the movie’s opening, the first time in 16 years that I have not gotten myself to taxi-calling levels of inebriation before tromping off to a megaplex with a bunch of costumed fellow-nerds to cheer on the latest installment from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

That’s right, I was dumb enough to go see all three sequels in the theater, so I wasn’t going to be the sucker to watch a potentially ponderous misfire at midnight on a work night just to say that I’d been there. Instead, I went to a late-night showing on Friday.
No matter when you see it, the movie is worth the price of 3-D and theater surround sound.
Now that we’ve all recovered from our collective Star Wars hangovers, there are many returning to internet forums, social media, and to their blogs to pan The Force Awakens. These people are largely hipsters who get their kicks from being contrarian. I know because I get a lot of kicks from being contrarian, too, but I can’t do that to this movie.
First of all, it hits me in the nostalgia zone (that area between the butterflies in your stomach, the palpations in your heart, and the lump in your throat). Seeing Harrison Ford’s Han Solo at the helm of the Millennium Falcon again, or R2D2’s friendly trash-can shaped exterior, Chewbacca’s growl/howl, seeing Carrie Fisher bring gravitas and wit back to the series with her depiction of Leia Organa and the callbacks to iconic scenes (think trash compactor) made me smile and sigh.
It was like I was coming home again.
Like the much-maligned prequel trilogy, there are plenty of new characters introduced. A couple of new baddies – the pseudo-Sith Kylo Ren, the Empire-esque ‘civilian’ commander General Hux (played by Harry Potter’s Domhnall Gleeson) and the enigmatic Snoke have appeared to hold the galaxy hostage with the First Order, the heirs to the Galactic Empire. These characters are not yet ‘round’ — Hux and Snoke are possibly purposefully underwritten to leave room for exposition in Episodes VIII and IX.
Kylo Ren is a nice combination of the whiny, conflicted Anakin Skywalker and the cold-blooded horror of Palpatine. To avoid major spoilers, I’ll say no more, just that there are a few eye-opening reveals about him throughout the movie, and likely more to come if the producers and writers remain close to the Star Wars formula.
The new good guys, Rey, likely a Force-user played by Daisy Ridley, Finn, a former stormtrooper played by John Boyega, Maz Kanata, a strange little alien creature voiced by Lupita Nyong’o and Poe, an ace pilot played by Oscar Isaac, are fully-round characters (the first round good guys introduced into the Star Wars universe since Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian) that steal the show from the heroes of my childhood.
There are three things that put the ‘new’ Star Wars on par with the old:
1) Casting – in the disastrous prequel trilogy, George Lucas was casting for looks - he wanted his Anakin to look like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, so he cast two actors who couldn't really act but looked the part. JJ Abrams and the producers went for people who could fill out roles in this movie. Especially impressive are the outings by Boyega and Ridley, who, though just 23 years old, give believable performances.
2) Effects - using more practical effects, and being able to use digital technology that is 10 years more advanced, gives The Force Awakens a more realistic, immersive feeling than the cold, artificial prequel trilogy.
3) Writing with courage - It took guts to make the first half of the movie so dependent on utterly new characters with little relation to the old. It took guts to kill off one of the most beloved and iconic characters of all time. It took guts to write a villain in Kylo Ren that has so much in common with the much-criticized depictions of Anakin Skywaler in the prequel trilogy. It took guts to leave so many unanswered questions and to not try to write an explanation for everything.  In the prequel trilogy, even the machinations of The Force are tediously explained and rationalized. Every scene in the prequels is written with so much explanatory context that the main characters become props in an overburdened plotline.
By contrast, the original trilogy and A Force Awakens are written in an almost semiotic style where your imagination has to work to fill in the gaps - how did Ren learn the force, how does his lightsaber work, how did the Millennium Falcon end up on Jakko,how did Maz end up with Luke/Annakin's old lightsaber, what happened to the "new" Galactic Republic, where's Lando, who the heck is Snoke, etc. etc. etc. - the viewer, the audience gets to fill in the gaps. That is a difficult thing to do when writing science fiction, as the urge is to come up with an explanation for everything using technology/science or mysticism (The Force). Big cheers for JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan staying to their narrative and not making this into another "Star Wars Encyclopedia" through stilted dialogue.
In the past two weeks, I’ve posted about a movie and music. I still promise that there will be more focused content on this blog, but I’m a nerd and I need to get these things off my chest, otherwise all you’ll hear about is science fiction, zombies, hippie/electronic music and video games.

What are you still reading for? Go see The Force Awakens. Disney needs your money to produce the next 30 installments of Star Wars.

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