<em>Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens</em>: The Joyous Case for Merely Good

There are times when Abrams leans too heavily on the in-jokes and those nostalgic inversions -- the reintroductions of the original trilogy characters are especially awkward. But when the film focuses on its new characters, as it does more confidently in its latter half the more it becomes its own thing.
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As presented on Hour of the Wolf.

I'm going through a terminal case of the Christmas blues right now, and the last thing I want to talk about is Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Not because it's a bad film, because it isn't -- J.J. Abrams isn't God, but he is a good director, and so I was always confident that, at the very least, this was not going to be a torturous two-plus hours. And it is not, it is good, at times very good.

But that's just it, it's a good film, and that's all. To have to give it the attention accorded to it by nearly a year's worth of hype and heightened expectations -- even on my part, I'll cop to that -- calls for a level of energy I'm not sure I can invest right at the moment.

I will say this, though, and this will sound a little weird: The most important moment of The Force Awakens for me came not with any of the big, effects-laden battle scenes -- impressive as they are -- or with the light saber duel between new bad guy Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, and former scavenger and soon-to-be Padawan Rey, played by Daisy Ridley -- wonderfully choreographed though it may be -- or even when Rey finally stands face-to-face with Luke Skywalker, much as Mark Hamill really rocks that Obi Wan look. (By the way, if you're a Skywalker fan, don't get your new hopes up too much -- he gets about thirty seconds in this installment.)

No, what caught my attention came in the first few minutes of the film, as some stormtroopers raid a village, taking some casualties in the process, and one of the fallen reaches out to smear a blood-stained handprint across the helmet of another. It's not that the one who receives that imprint reacts visibly with horror, even under the mask, setting the stage for the introduction of Jon Boyega's renegade stormtrooper Finn, but that, for the first time in my memory, a stormtrooper is represented as something more than a convenient target to be mowed down, that there was an actual cost to the loss of this particular life. Of course, after that Abrams goes back to lining up the plastic-bedecked ones for easy laser-blastin', but don't discount that small moment of grace. The Empire's -- now called the First Order's -- battle plan may be the same as ever, galactic conquest, but Abrams' plan is a little different from what the series was operating under when George Lucas was calling the literal shots.

That is, when Abrams brings himself to implement the new strategy. The Force Awakens feels like a film pulled in two directions. Abrams' game plan in working with established franchises appears to be to take what's already been done and skew it at a new angle, sometimes dramatically -- you get the feeling you've covered the terrain before, but now you're seeing it from a new perspective. Star Trek Into Darkness was The Wrath of Khan pulled inside-out, and at base The Force Awakens requotes A New Hope, but with a bit of gender-bending to put a rootless female scavenger in the Luke Skywalker role and some deepening of the Dark Side to give this chapter's Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, an actual face and a different set of daddy issues. (I could actually elaborate on that more, since Abrams had the good sense to reveal that plot point in the film's first forty-five minutes, but I'll defer, just out of respect to those who haven't yet seen the film. Another day, my pretties.)

There are times when Abrams leans too heavily on the in-jokes and those nostalgic inversions -- the reintroductions of the original trilogy characters are especially awkward. But when the film focuses on its new characters, as it does more confidently in its latter half (and let's have more of Lupita Nyong'o's benevolent barkeep Maz Kanata, please) the more it becomes its own thing, and demonstrates that at least there's plenty of life left to be explored in this particular, far, far away galaxy. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is not a great film -- I frankly don't think any of the Star Wars episodes are great films, but that's me -- but it is fun, and immensely entertaining, and given how things were left the last time we visited this universe, that's a very good place to be.


And, that should be enough action and fun and special effects for one week, but if you want more, you nutty person, you, there's also Mojin: The Lost Legend, a Hong Kong action epic about a group of tomb raiders seeking a rare flower that can bridge the realms of life and death that's kind-of like Indiana Jones if George Lucas and Steven Spielberg both dropped acid and wrote the script while staring intently into a pinball machine. The director, Wuershan, did similar, eye-popping work a few years ago with Painted Skin: The Resurrection, and he's not letting up now: Lot's action sequences, fight scenes, the craziest, booby trapped subterranean tomb ever -- just lots of good stuff that doesn't let up for a second. This is essentially what popular filmmaking became once Star Wars rewrote the rules, and when it's done well, it's just cool. Mojin: The Lost Legend is done really well, and it's just really cool.

Tune in to my movie reviews every Wednesday night at 1:30 AM on Hour of the Wolf - WBAI 99.5FM in New York.

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