STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015, J.J. Abrams)
Finally, they made a good STAR WARS. Okay, I’m being a little disingenuous — THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was perfectly fine, and I didn’t even seen Episodes II and III, so what do I know. STAR WARS isn’t my thing, so don’t listen to me if you’re a fan.
But if you’re not really into this space opera mythology, FORCE is a pretty entertaining Hollywood popcorn adventure. Like most of Abrams’s filmography, it’s focused on being hyper-competent, well-paced (for the most part — the third act of this drags a bit), disarmingly funny, and a little chilly on the emotional front. His MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III is not one of the best of the franchise, but it’s rock solid and eminently rewatchable — which can most likely describe FORCE AWAKENS as well.
The single biggest problem with the Lucas-helmed films in the series (and again I haven’t seen a couple of those) is that they were terribly directed. Lucas would screw his camera to the floor and let his actors walk awkwardly into the frame to deliver their clunky exposition. He filmed the droids from human-waist height, so they looked like human waste. Abrams’s camera is the spaceship to Lucas’s junk heap: it soars and glides, and gets down to the floor to gaze up at R2-D2 — the angle from which he should be revered. It catches up with the performers rather than imprison them. And in one damn good scene, John Boyega’s Finn is confessing to Daisy Ridley’s Rey (he’s great in this, she’s fine) and Abrams puts her a step above him. In classic over-the-shoulders, Abrams watches them share a reckoning, and it’s done with Finn looking up to Rey literally and figuratively, with her in a position of strength and judgement. This, my rose-colored-glass-eyed friends of the ’70s, is good directing. George Lucas knows nothing of that.
Structurally, though, this definitely feels like the seventh episode in something. It gives the same story beats we’re used to, and has plot holes galore. And as good as Boyega and Ridley are, there’s also strong supporting work from Adam Driver (a surprise not that he’s good — he always is — but that he’s so good as a pure villain) and an unrecognizable (because it’s a voice/mo-cap role) Lupita Nyong’o. But there’s also Domhnall Gleeson, who’s become an increasingly annoying omnipresence on screen — annoying not only because he’s everywhere being lame (FRANK, EX MACHINA, BROOKLYN) but because watching him is like when you put socks on out of the laundry and they’re still wet. Here he’s a villain, and not only is he the least threatening presence imaginable (perhaps Abrams’s goal), but he inspired outright guffaws. It’s a huge disaster.
He does, however, get the only scene in the film that seems to draw Abrams out of his shallow competence stupor and try to say something relevant — albeit fairly thin, the Gleeson speech to the troops has a distinct air (in the production design, the colors, the response, and staging) of North Korea and Kim Jong-un. And in a movie about an arms race, dictators, and world-destroying weaponry, that’s its one potent piece of imagery. Kids can look the other way, though — this movie was made to sell BB-8 toys, and luckily BB-8 is very cute. Sign me up for Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII.