Monday, January 11, 2016

An Awakening

 "At the end of the day, it is about you, and how much you are willing to be a kid."

       -Filmmaker Oscar Boyson

I recently came across a film critic that refuses to see animated movies, much less review them.  As a person who has so many peoples dream job, I find this unfathomable.  Why?  How can anyone feel so superior to a genre, that they miss out on such great works?  And is animation even really a genre?

I understand not generally preferring one genre as much as another.  But to shut out an entire type of film, seems to make for an unworthy critic. 

I can still remember the ride home, as an eight year old, after seeing The Return of the Jedi.  My grandfather had taken myself and my ten year old sister, upon our pleading.  While we whispered our joys to each other in the back seat, the front seat was completely quiet.  Finally, as we got back to my grandparents home and we got out of the car, he broke the silence with, "That was the strangest thing I've ever seen!"

"They are children's movies," George Lucas always has been willing to remind us all.  But if our grandparents were one generation away from "getting it," our parents were not.   I mean someone was driving all those kids to the theater multiple times.  

Then we grew up and the prequels came out.  And I suppose, despite their low quality, some children did enjoy them.

My generation would sound even older than our years, as we said things like, "In my day, Star Wars films were good!"

Most depressingly, the celebrated genius George Lucas lost his touch.  Heck even C-3PO admits he did.   (In one of his 6 Million languages)

“George has changed a lot over the years but I think he finds it slightly hard to collaborate.  He made decisions that I believe might have been better discussed with other people." 
-Anthony Daniels

The magic of the franchise seemed lost.  Until Lucas decided he was willing to give it up, to as he put it, "white slavers."  White slavers being people at Disney willing to pay him merely four billion dollars.

Poor bastard.

Fans have seemed to understand these characters more than the man himself.  Just look at how Lucas famously changed a scene in the first Star Wars.  The entire "did Han shoot first" controversy is a prime example of Lucas being clueless about his own creations.

But what if a talented fan got hold of Star Wars?  Could it be great again?

A little film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, came out in late 2015.  The movie is everything you might have heard.  From almost anyone.  That is much of its strength and much of its weakness.  Such is how J.J. Abrams revives film franchises.

In his reboot of Star Trek, Abrams started well and then by his second attempt, essentially remade Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan.  While I found it entertaining enough at the time, it also made me want to re-watch The Wrath of Khan, more than anything.

Even Abrams admitted he went too far in making it nearly a remake of that earlier film; the best of all Star Trek movies.

So what did he do with The Force Awakens?  Well, he nearly did the same thing again, but holds back a bit better here.

The result?  Well you can not satisfy everyone.  Abrams necessity to remake parts of the original Star Wars, is both cool and a bit annoying.

That the rebels must blow up a base, seems downright lazy.  Three movies with the same essential plot?  Out of seven?

But in other ways, Abrams and company are pitch perfect.

Daisy Ridley is a revelation.  You feel you are watching the beginning of a true movie star.  It would take a strong female lead to pull off Rey's badassness, while not feeling forced and overly PC.  She handles it like a seasoned pro.  One of the joys of watching the film is the thought it is in such good hands with the new characters.  John Boyega as Finn is both heroic and comedic.  Adam Driver is as good as I expected as a bad guy.  And we get Oscar Isaac, one of the very best actors working today, and in his prime.

Heck even the new droid is worthy of screen time with R2-D2 and C-3PO.

But none of that would mean anything if the script stinks.

If you were to rank all the actors in the original trilogy versus the prequels, you would likely say the prequels cast the most talent.  And yet only Ewan McGregor seemed to get out of those films mostly unscathed.

But here the clunky Lucas dialogue is largely gone.  A few nods are made to remind us Abrams has seen the previous films.  But mostly the script avoids, "Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo," type dialogue.

And yes we do get Han Solo and others to connect the stories and feel nostalgic for how it all began.  Mostly, Abrams finds a good balance.  

A three film story with these characters gets me excited.  But is that the plan?  Being they paid Lucas all that money, probably not.  We know they plan to make way more than three films in total.  Fact is, like The Avengers, there is probably no end in sight.  A Han Solo origin story is already nearly cast.  But instead of getting excited about all the new Star Wars coming our way, I kind of wish they wouldn't.

The original story had a beginning, a middle, and an end.  (least until now)

I enjoyed the first Avengers film I saw.  One of my favorite actors (Robert Downey Jr.) plays my favorite childhood superhero (Iron Man).  Now I do not watch them.  Why?  Because they lack that John Williams score?  That opening scroll?  Or are there now so many stories and characters, I just can no longer keep up?  

Of course Disney is not making an indefinite amount of films and selling an indefinite amount of toys and other products just for me.  As a business, they are rather obligated to do all of it.

But will saturating the market with no break in sight make it less special?  Almost assuredly.

The argument over whether Star Wars ruined the movie business will probably be back loudly before too long.  Is this all that is wrong with Hollywood, or are good movies (4 to 5 of 7 is still a good percentage) that kids and adults both like, much of what is right with the movie business?  It's actually not as simple a conversation as all that.   

Star Wars has been both great and awful for the movie industry. That is a fair argument and one we could have for days.

But Star Wars is also something at its most pure.  A story that began as an homage to movies.  From Kurosawa and Samurai films and to Flash Gordan, Errol Flynn, and Westerns.  Basic "good versus evil," temptation and even romance.  Star Wars celebrates all that we grow up loving about movies and storytelling.  That it would become a problem, and be accused of hurting the industry, is an ironic result of it doing what it intended to do so effectively.

So where does this one rank?

The Force Awakens is a good film.  A legit good film.  And that in itself is worth celebrating.  It is easily the fourth best film in the series.  But then again, it is also only the fourth best movie in the series. So while people are going crazy for it, and I get that completely, let us not forget the original trilogy that started this all, and how genuinely special those films are.

I have great hope for the direction of Star Wars after seeing The Force Awakens.  As a friend said after seeing it, "It is what the prequels should have been."

So I will try not to lament what The Force Awakens is not.  Or Star Wars as a whole for that matter.  And instead celebrate everything that it is.  And once again feel excited for a series of films I loved as a child.

Right up until they make me no longer care, and remind me I am now an adult.

Hopefully that is still far, far away.  

Star Wars:  The Force Awakens

3 out of 4 stars  
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