Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (spoiler-free review)

It's finally here!
(There are no spoilers whatsoever in this review. There aren't even any plot points discussed. You should know that I would never ruin your experience for you, my dear friends.)

When I walked into the press screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the city of Los Angeles had just decided to close 900 schools and keep more than 640,000 students home because of a terror threat. (That threat turned out to be a hoax... but I think we all know that the nation's second-largest school system was justified in taking it seriously.) As we waited for the lights to dim, I started talking with a fellow critic about how scary it is to be raising two young children these days, and how I became physically sick the first time I learned about my three-year-old son's pre-K class having to practice "lockdown drills." Our conversation about the state of this country got more and more depressing until we were saved by the glorious, triumphant first blasts of John Williams' iconic score. The words STAR WARS appeared on the screen... and the tears started flowing heavily down my face.

This strong, emotional reaction to the freakin' FIRST SECOND of the movie was not what I was expecting. In fact, it was kind of like when my five-month-old daughter accidentally hits herself in the face and then looks around all confused and is like, "Did I do that?" That's how I felt when I realized I was crying. I mean, I LOVE STAR WARS and consider myself something of a hardcore fangirl, and I knew going into the film that I was probably going to be a mess throughout most of its running time. But to start bawling at the title screen? What was happening?!?

Still have 'em! (This is not nearly everything, duh.)What was happening is that I was leaving the nonstop, overwhelming fears and worries of this world behind and being transported back in time to a beloved galaxy far, far away. But I was not only being transported to that other galaxy, I was also being transported back to my childhood. Back to me and my brother watching the movies over and over and over.  Back to he and I "playing Star Wars"... not only with the figures, but also by pretending that we were the characters and running around our house like maniacs. (I think me rolling him down our steps in a sleeping bag might've somehow been related to a scene in the movies? Either way, sorry about that, bro.) Back to us standing in line for Return of the Jedi with our stuffed Ewoks. Those were happy, simpler times indeed. So all I can figure is that my tears started a-flowin' thanks to a prehistoric, preprogrammed stress-release response that is somewhere deep in all of us. And I guess there should be no shame in it anyway.

After I stopped crying, then I totally freaked out and all that was going through my mind was, "I'm seeing a new Star Wars movie! This is a NEW Star Wars movie! I'm about to find out what happened to everyone. I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe this day is finally here! I'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovie!!!!!!!"

Then I was like, "Dammit, Erika, you're gonna start missing stuff. Pull yourself together." And thankfully I did.

NOT Keira Knightley.Now, I already told you I'm not even going to talk about the plot. But under the assumption that you've seen at least some of the nonstop marketing for the film and watched its trailers, I will share that I walked into the theater highly confident J.J. Abrams was going to do us right. Someone had asked me if I was nervous about The Force Awakens. My response was an emphatic "no." I realize that not everything Abrams has done has been the best ever, but this IS the man responsible for co-creating the show that changed the course of my career and hence my life. He was quite literally the only man for the job, in my book.

My main concern had been whether or not the female lead was going to be any good. But even that wasn't really a big worry, because J.J. and his team have a knack for plucking fresh-faced no-name actresses out of thin air who turn out to be really, really good. And Daisy Ridley (who plays Rey) is more than good. She's incredible. Say it with me now: phew. Before the movie I got some popcorn and the girl at the concession stand looked at me in my Star Wars shirt (and the five women behind me in line, also in Star Wars shirts) and commented, "I have never seen a female Star Wars fan before." My response was, "WHAT. SHUT UP." Then she repeated herself. All I have to say to that is, 1) it made me sad, but 2) there are bound to be more fangirls out there going forward thanks to Ridley's character. Yay!

BELIEVE it.Next up is John Boyega, who I loved as Moses in Attack the Block. But that movie was so twisted and weird and his character had such a thick South London accent, I was kinda like, "How is THIS gonna work with him being what I assume is some sort of Stormtrooper-turned-good-guy?" First things first: the accent is gone, bruv. Second: his Finn ended up being my favorite character (well, favorite new character). Funny, believable and charming. I was so, so impressed. Another phew and yay!

Another new character is pilot Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. On the day the cast was announced, I honest-to-god squealed when finding out Isaac was going to be in the film. Do yourself a favor and see everything else he's ever been in and then you'll understand why.

After we'd met the various new characters on screen, I kept thinking stuff like, "OK who's supposed to be the new Han... who's supposed to be the new Luke... hmm, that sounded kind of Han-ish," and so on. Until it hit me that they're just their own characters and they're the ones who are going to be taking this franchise into the future. I am pleased to report that it's in good hands, and no one even needs to be the "new Han" or "new Luke" or "new Leia" or whatever. Ridley, Boyega and Isaac were surprisingly funny on top of just being totally immersed in their characters. You know how all of us think of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill (I actually just wrote Luke Hamill first) and Carrie Fisher AS Han, Luke and Leia? That's already how I feel about these three. They ARE Rey and Finn and Poe. Forever and ever, amen.
If there was any new character that we all got to know before the film even came out, it was BB-8, the ball-looking droid. Nerds like me even bought their own BB-8s earlier this year. It's not a spoiler to say that BB-8 is in the movie A LOT, and he can more than hang with R2-D2 and C3P0, as far as instantly-lovable droids go.

Speaking of the old-school characters, everyone knows that the original three leads are back for this installment. My favorite of those characters is Han Solo (I even have a framed still of him in my house!), and I'm happy to say that his role is no small cameo. Han and Chewie (rrrrrrhhhhwwwwuuuurrrr) have a ton of scenes and pretty much every single one of them was The. Best. And the first time the Millennium Falcon appeared on screen? I lost my breath. One of my favorite scenes in the entire film involves that old "piece of junk," too. I gotta say that on top of putting so many of the original trilogy's characters into the mix to appease us older fans and provide the needed transition for the future films, Abrams also included several other sly shoutouts and callbacks that made me smile, because he himself is also a megafan. Again I say, "right man for the job!" (Of course the inclusion of Lawrence Kasdan on the writing team—he also co-wrote TESB and ROTJ—helped significantly on this front, too.)

Come at me, bro!
What about the bad guys? From the trailers you're probably aware that Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, who's like a Darth Vader wannabe with an upgraded light saber. Domhnall Gleeson (another one I shrieked about when the cast was announced—LOVE HIM) is General Hux, a leader in the First Order, which is like the new Empire. They're both fine, but I just don't think there's ever going to be a better villain than Darth Vader. #sorrynotsorry To me Kylo Ren was like a spoiled-brat villain-poser and I wanted to just smack him several times. If I had one issue with The Force Awakens, it had to do with how some of the bad-guy parts were explained (or not explained), but then someone reminded me that not everything was always crystal clear in the original trilogy, either.

Let's see... a few other things: The first time I saw it was in 2D. The second time was in 3D and while I usually hate 3D, I'll admit that it did add a little to the experience—there was one part in particular where the whole audience kinda laughed at how a huge ship was sticking out at us. It didn't give me a headache like it usually does, either. I'm seeing it again tonight (yes, really) but didn't have a format choice because there was only one seat left and it was in a 2D theater... and I'm fine with that. (I'm seeing it again because I feel robbed of a true hardcore fandom experience so far—seeing it early with mostly silent critics and then again in a half-full theater at noon aren't the same as a nighttime screening on opening weekend where I know everyone will be cheering and clapping and reacting loudly throughout. That's what I want. That's what I NEED!)

The last thing I'll comment upon is what a great job they did with the various "creatures." If you rewatch the originals, all of the various aliens and weirdo characters still have their charm, but many of them look straight-up fake because of technology and effects restrictions back in the day. That's no longer the case, obviously!

We're ALL home.
Everything else I want to say—which is a lot—about the parts where I laughed, I cried, I gasped and I cheered, is all spoilery, so I better start wrapping this up. I haven't been able to stop thinking about the film since I saw it. My mind has been replaying certain scenes over and over and whirring away with theories about what might happen in the upcoming installments. I have been DYING TO TALK ABOUT IT WITH MY FELLOW NERDS. It's the first time I've felt like this since LOST ended. (Speaking of my favorite TV series... there are a few fun LOST connections in the movie, too!) But perhaps most importantly, I left the theater with a renewed sense of hope. (Kinda-sorta reference to the original film not intended.) Yes, there's a lot of bad stuff going on in our galaxy, and that's not going to end any time soon. But it's not likely going to be any world leader or famous person or human version of a superhero who's going to make things better. It will be ordinary people like you and I who choose to get involved in causes we believe in and stand up to fight the good fight when it would be easier to just do nothing. As cheesy as it sounds, all of us, every day, have a choice: the dark side, or the light. And that is why the Star Wars franchise has been so beloved for decades and will always be so beloved—it reminds each one of us that we can make a difference in some way. We can make things better. The bad guys don't have to win. (Although they will apparently keep coming back again and again and again in various masks. D'oh!)

OK, before I go, I've decided that I AM going to spoil you on one big thing: Jar-Jar Binks does NOT make an appearance.

Can we get a final phew?


- e

p.s. I WILL ALLOW spoilers and plot points in the comments below because I am dying to talk about the movie with others. So don't take a look-see down there until you've watched the movie for yourself. In a few days I intend to post all of my theories about various characters and what I thnk could happen in Episodes VIII and IX, but feel free to write whatever you'd like now before I get to it.

You have been forewarned!

The next generation of female Star Wars fans begins with my daughter.