PASSING THE LIGHTSABER: Movie Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Howard Casner

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sw 3The new Star Wars film (Star Wars: the Force Awakens to be exact) has a simple theme: the only thing that can stop a bad guy with the force is a good guy with the force.

All in all, I would have to say that this new entry in the franchise is both better than the original Star Wars and not as good as the original Star Wars.

It’s better acted than what is now known as A New Hope; the dialog is a bit more pithy and witty; the characters are somewhat less one-dimensional; and the special effects less cheesy.

But there’s one thing the original space opera had that the new one doesn’t, can’t and will never have.


sw 1In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, the new wave in U.S. film hit. One of the characteristics of this period was that filmmakers starting taking what was often B movie genres from the 50’s (when many of these artists grew up) and began treating them as if they were worthy of A level filmmaking.


Thus we have Roman Polanski with Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown; William Friedkin with The Exorcist; Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather; Arthur Penn with Bonnie and Clyde; and Steven Spielberg with Jaws.


But last, and hardly least, George Lucas gave us Star Wars, a movie harking back not just to sci-fi, but to those weekly serials, chapters of which would end on a cliffhanger that would only be resolved the following week when the next entry was shown at a theater near you (he soon followed this up with the even more so Raiders of the Last Ark).


I remember seeing Star Wars when it first opened. I was there in my seat, squirming with keen anticipation. when the lights softly dimmed and “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” scrolled past followed by…a little, dinky space craft putt-putting its way across the screen.


And I thought, “That’s it? That’s what all the buzz was about”.


And then suddenly, a huge gigantic battleship, bigger than any spaceship ever shown before, engulfed the screen like the shadow of death.


And I thought, “Okay, Lucas knows what he’s doing”.


But at the same time, after the end credits ran, I knew that Star Wars was hardly a good movie in and of itself.


I mean, c’mon. The characters were cardboard cutouts; the dialog clunky, stilted and clichéd; the acting (with the exception of Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, James Earl Jones and those two androids) wooden and flat; the psychology and philosophy shallow.


My two favorite memories of the movie are Harrison Ford reportedly telling Lucas, “You know, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it”, and Alec Guinness begging Lucas, also reportedly, not to include Obi-Wan Kenobi in the sequel because he just didn’t want to have to say those lines again.


For the life of me, I never did understand why Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a far superior movie in all regards, didn’t get a Best Picture nomination or screenplay nomination at the Oscars, when Star Wars did.


But Star Wars had something that few movies can ever have. It was something we had never seen before. A sci-fi, adventure story treated as if it were a prestige picture. And in spite of its faults, it was fun and exciting and thrilling.


It affected us and stuck with us and left an impression on us in ways that far better movies often don’t.


And for those of us who saw it when it first came out, it was a movie going experience that we never forgot.


And this is something no future entry in the franchise will ever be able to duplicate. And because of this, it’s unlikely that any future entry in the franchise will ever feel superior to the original.


sw 5So in the seventh film in the series we now return to “long, long ago…”, but 36 years later for all those concerned. The dark side of the force has been resurrected because the light side of the force (i.e., that Luke Skywalker dude) grew frustrated and discouraged in his inability to prevent his pupil, Solo and Leia’s son, from embracing the evil of the Empire. So he does what any follower of the force would do: throw a hissy fit and go off to some planet where no one can find him.


But now he must be found again before the Empire is once more powerful enough to rule the known universe.


Everything in The Force Awakens is bigger. The Death Star is about the size of four or five of the old ones; the action scenes are more extravagant; the destruction more…destructive.


At the same time, the emotional impact is less. In the original, when the planet Alderaan was blown to bits, the audience gasped at the depths of evil this showed.


Here, five Alderaans are destroyed and it hardly registers at all (though I sometimes suspect that when director J.J. Abrams destroys, he does it to make the audience go “wow, neat” rather than have them shocked by the horror).


Still, the movie is fun and never boring. And there is something very effective here in watching the lightsaber being passed from one generation to the next.


sw 2And this new generation of actors, John Boyega (of Attack the Block) as a stormtrooper gone AWOL; Daisy Ridley (looking like Keira Knightley’s younger sister) as a nobody on a nothing planet who slowly discovers that she may be somebody; Oscar Isaac (of Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina) as a soldier for the good side, all do satisfying work here. Even Adam Driver (of Girls), who seems like the last person one would cast as the modern day counterpoint to Darth Vader, actually acquits himself quite admirably here.


The just when you think it’s not possible, the filmmakers have also included a new android who is even cuter and more adorable than R2D2 and C3PO.


And it’s not only in the acting arena where the lightsaber is being passed. J.J. Abrams takes over from George Lucas as the director, and he and Michael Arndt (of such films as Toy Story 3) join together with one of the writers of the original, Lawrence Kasdan, in crafting the story.


It’s too bad that, in many ways, the story is only repeating the various tropes of the earlier movies, with only enough changes to make them little more than variations of a theme. Even at the core, the whole movie, like the first, is driven by daddy issues.


Still, and perhaps ironically, it’s the actors of the original who could do little with all the “shit” Lucas gave them to speak, who now steal the show.


sw 4Harrison Ford as Hans Solo and Carrie Fisher as Princess (now General) Leia have palpable chemistry together. Their withered visages and years of acting bring something to the story that the younger generation can’t quite do. They provide a deeper emotional resonance to the movie than perhaps even the filmmakers could have expected.


Mark Hamill himself, strangely enough, looks far more handsome now in a beard while wearing a world weary face, than he did as a clean shaven innocent from years earlier.


With Max von Sydow in a cameo at the opening as the chief of a tribal community; Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata; and Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux.


Also with Daniel Craig as Stormtrooper 007.



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