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Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Fanboy Reawakens - a less than honest opinion

SPOILER ALERT. Wait, if you still haven't seen this movie, you're either at the wrong webpage or in dire need of reevaluating your priorities in life.

Enter the holy grail of geek culture, the space opera fantasy that, since ages immemorial (at least for 90s kids), mandated that every man, woman and child fit for society should hum the Imperial March in reverence to the likeness of Darth Vader upon sight, Star Wars. From indoctrinating the young to the idol worship of Stormtrooper figurines and LEGO Star Destroyers to establishing that emotional attachments to fictional characters are socially acceptable while homosexuality isn’t, these events that transpired a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away have defined the way we see the universe. That being said, Star Wars is not merely one of the world’s highest grossing franchises - it is a way of life.
After a train wreck of prequels that culminated in a redeeming finale that was not nearly sufficient to keep creator George Lucas from going into exile, the series’ fan base was segregated into two factions – the Dark Side loyalists whose emotions had been played with by his treachery, and the Light Side optimists who ruminated on his mistakes so hard, they brought Darth Plagueis back to life and elevated Jar Jar Binks to the status of Sith Lord. Nonetheless, with the announcement of the third trilogy and the passing of the baton to Mickey Mouse’s fun house and J. J. Abrams, the man who did rather well with that Sci-fi franchise that the uncultured often confuse with this one, millions of voices suddenly cried out in anticipation, and were suddenly screaming all over the internet as the hype train once again took the world by storm. Two-minute teasers sucked away hours of everyone’s time as the countdown to Christmas 2015 began, with the familiar scream of TIE Fighters tearing through the atmospheres of unnamed planets, backed by John Williams’ timeless score, sending shivers down the spines of grown men and women who struggled to contain their tears. YouTube’s storage capacity stood challenged by the innumerable hour-long analyses, debates and speculations born of the mere five minutes of material that had been released to the public. To a large section of the uninitiated, the fanfare served as a call to arms, with catch-up marathons keeping people up late so as to keep them apace with their more enlightened peers’ everyday conversations. Star Wars was back, and the world would not sleep in peace till their tickets for the opening day were in hand.

How to sell a teaser in 2 seconds
While those of us in India were inconvenienced by the higher popularity afforded by a pair of films with two hours of dance sequences and two minutes of plot development, our honorable brethren from the far west took great care to ensure that we walked into the theaters a week later than them with no more than the trailer to go by. When the day finally arrived, I donned the attire of Han Solo, abandoning the calm, jocular demeanor of the master smuggler in favor of uncontrolled excitement, a sentiment shared by her worshipfulness Princess Leia, seated beside me, as numerous advertisements and trailers streamed by unnoticed on the IMAX screen, the final test of patience before the conscious mind allowed the fantasy it had molded and twisted beyond reason over the course of a year to take proper form, nurtured by the senses alone.
Star Wars movies are a wholesome experience right from the start, with the 20th Century Fox fanfare giving way to the Lucasfilm banner halfway through, followed by the tense silence accompanying the phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”, the calm before the storm of trumpets heralding the march of the opening crawl to Williams’ legendary Main Theme - a potent cocktail of immeasurable grandeur that leaves longtime fans with eyes so watery they can hardly read the text as it ascends towards the stars. Disney could not, of course, replicate the first part of this sequence, but the experience remained unadulterated, and fulfilled its established duty of setting the tone for the odyssey that lay ahead.
The opening scene is one of the finest in the series, introducing the new Rebel Alliance, the Resistance's friendliest pilot, Poe Dameron, his trusty droid BB-8, the Stormtroopers of the post-Galactic Empire Imperial faction, the First Order, who display a remarkable capability to actually hit their targets, and the chief antagonist of the film, and hopefully the rest of the trilogy, Kylo Ren, a seemingly powerful Dark Jedi who demonstrates his frightening ability to stop blaster projectiles midair. We are subsequently introduced to Finn, an exemplary Stormtrooper with a conscience, whose primary purpose is to ensure that no Bothans die while the Resistance plays covert ops. Dameron affirms his flying prowess by adeptly piloting a TIE fighter as Finn takes over its firepower, igniting a passionate bromance that soon goes down in flames just above Jakku, leaving a forlorn Finn to cross the unforgiving dunes by himself.
Writer Lawrence Kasdan proceeds to fulfill the New Hope in the fresh trilogy by following the adventures of a droid with sensitive information sought by the enemy across a sandy planet, accompanied by a budding Jedi who eventually makes a hasty escape to space aboard the Millennium Falcon - a narrative that bears stark similarities to that of the first movie. It is, however, supplemented by dramatic visuals, the most powerful being protagonist Rey’s solitary ride across the sands of Jakku with a fallen Star Destroyer in the background, an ominous throwback to the events of the original trilogy. Abrams whets our appetites for the dogfights to come with an intense Falcon-TIE Fighter battle in a graveyard of Destroyers, ending in an incredible maneuver of the Falcon to align its damaged cannons with the single remaining Fighter, making its pilot, Captain Phasma, feel as weak as her character's development. The film, up to this point, provides an accurate view of its perfect pacing, which is more or less consistent throughout.

Super thug Wookiee face
The entrance of Han Solo and his Wookiee companion Chewbacca elicits a loud cheer from both those well aware of their presence in the movie and waiting for the right moment to proclaim either love or sycophancy, and the genuine folk who hadn’t seen the trailer beforehand, the latter group being merely hypothetical. While his age and his newfound faith in the Force could have made him more mature and boring, Han proved to be the same old sly scoundrel from the original trilogy, attempting to appease the mercenaries, whose kind is still after his head, with his signature sweet talk. The frantic chase that ensues has Abrams written all over it, but is nothing special enough to elaborate on.
The film's excellent choice of set locations is made prominent as the Millennium Falcon descends onto the lush green paradise of Takodana. Maz Kanata's fortress of a cantina has all the charm of a wartime keep, with a spectrum of flags from across the galaxy greeting visitors as they enter. While Kanata herself plays a role very typical of hero-centric plots, she helps reveal Finn's need to escape the terror of the First Order, and aggravates Rey's panic at the visions of Luke Skywalker's slaughtered Jedi Order and their assailants, the Knights of Ren. Their attempts to flee are cut short by the horrific obliteration of the New Republic and its neighboring worlds at the hands of the offspring of the Death Star and a planet, the Starkiller base. The subsequent convergence of the First Order and the Resistance at Kanata's doorstep begins the most exhilarating dogfight in the series so far, opening with a beautiful shot of TIE fighters arriving at the scene to the backdrop of the sunset and several views of the front line of Resistance X-wings racing towards the waterfront. The IMAX 3D experience proves to be utterly spellbinding as I take in the epic tracking shot of Poe Dameron's X-wing hunting down a fleet of unfortunate TIE fighters as Finn scrambles about the battlefield rejoicing at the glorious return of his brother-in-arms - the very moment I couldn't stop thinking about even as I stood in line to watch the movie for the second time a few weeks later.

Now, that's a damn good cameraman!
Nostalgia strikes back in the form of Princess-General Leia, who arrives with her Resistance fleet and greets Han, whose haunting sense of failure is betrayed by his eyes as first lost son and then estranged wife reappear after his many years of running away. While Leia is not given significant screen time, the chemistry between the iconic couple is heart-rending. With their romantic theme from the original trilogy playing softly in the background, time stands still for the small moment when their eyes first meet. Carrie Fisher perfectly embodies her character’s description as being “war-worn and somewhat sad”, bearing an expression that speaks of decades of hardship and a strict dedication to duty while giving a tiny hint of being tired of it all. C3PO’s cameo appearance doesn’t give him enough time to be his old comical self, and R2D2’s almost ridiculous “low-power mode” stretches to an unreasonable extent the notion that droids have feelings, elevating newbie BB-8 to the title of Most Entertaining Droid.

I'll try spinning, that's a good trick!
Without thoroughly debating the degree of realism observed by a universe in which stars can be absorbed by their orbiting “planets” and fired at solar systems in concentrated beams, sneaking into Starkiller’s atmosphere at warp speed was an incredible comeback stunt for the Falcon and her favorite pilot. The sensitive ground operation undertaken by Team Falcon is led by Finn’s sugar rush, mediated at times by Han’s timely sarcasm. Captain Phasma’s incompetence is exploited yet again by her least favorite subordinate as she is forced to lower the base’s defenses. Following the X-wings diving in formation to take out the vulnerable stronghold, we are once again pulled into the action and reminded that 3D effects aren’t always superfluous.
The change in atmosphere as Han catches a second glimpse of Ren is palpable. Abandoning his immediate objective in a seemingly final attempt to win a more personal battle, Han cries out to his son in a tone that leaves the audience frozen, muttering “Don’t do it” again and again as the beloved smuggler’s inevitable fate, as envisioned by Harrison Ford himself, unfolds before our eyes. While it is well known that the Dark Side brings out the worst in people, the act about to be committed seems unreal – Han Solo, who survived being encased in frigid carbonite, shone like a true veteran in the Battles of Yavin and Endor and stole a great number of the original trilogy’s many memorable moments, thereafter attaining legendary status in Star Wars lore, couldn’t possibly die, right? Even resigning to the obvious outcome of the situation at hand and how it makes perfect sense in the larger scheme of things does nothing to quell the outburst of emotion as Ren ignites his savage saber to impale Han, who tenderly touches his son’s face before becoming one with the Force. Leia is struck by the same pang of sorrow that Yoda was forced to endure as Order 66 was being carried out to destroy the Jedi Order of the Republic. A haze of uneasiness hangs over the gathering, threatening to persist through the rest of the film.

Bring our souls back. :'(
Star Wars has always explored its central theme of the conflict between the Light and the Dark through Lightsaber duels, subduing the chaos of the surrounding war in favor of a more intimate contest of skill and willpower between the main characters. The original trilogy’s heavily plot-driven and psychological trials and the prequels’ beautifully choreographed, operatic showdowns (yes, they’re awesome; haters, go away) have served as the series’ most defining moments. The Force Awakens does justice to this legacy, upholding the quality of swordplay advocated by the prequels while employing the OT’s narrative approach, thus providing an opportunity for the combatants to bare their personalities for a thorough analysis.
Ren opens the attack with a sudden outburst of force power, rendering Rey unconscious as he singles out the traitor to his cause, his crudely crafted lightsaber arcing violently like the flood of emotions set loose by his recent patricide. At this point, we have been completely convinced of the sheer extent of evil hidden beneath his innocent facade, proved once and for all by the execution of the deed that even Darth Vader couldn’t bring himself to see to completion. The savagery with which he waves his saber is indicative of his lack of training and of the raw fear and anger that had driven him to the Dark Side. His short attacks are separated by asides with him beating on his bowcaster wound, trying to keep the acute pain from impeding his vengeance. Han’s cold blooded murder at the hands of his own son instills in Finn the desire to fight the evils of the First Order, and he picks up Luke’s lightsaber as Ren charges at him, but his resolve proves too weak against the Dark Jedi’s unquenchable thirst for blood.
As Rey pulls the fallen lightsaber away from Ren, his eyes seem to recount her capture: how her initial fear was drowned out by the revelation that she could keep him, a conditioned Force user, at bay while perfectly reading his thoughts, eventually leading to her escape by means of a Jedi mind trick; her growing faith in her abilities had been feeding off of his failure. It’s as if they were the perfect descendants of Anakin Skywalker, with him inheriting his temperament and her his prodigal force sensitivity (not to say that I’m sure Rey is Luke’s daughter). Rey takes on a defensive stance as she is pushed towards a landslide caused by the base’s collapse, when Ren offers her a chance to submit to his tutelage and unleash her potential in the Dark Side of the Force. That brings us to a small bad part – the utterly cheesy manner in which Rey realizes that the Force can help her fight back, being conveniently reminded of its omnipresence by the sound of its name. It is, indeed, rather unfortunate that Ren was subsequently defeated by a fledgling with such ease, but he cannot be held responsible; what burns is that every time I watch this movie again, I will have to relive this pivotal moment that almost seems to pay homage to Lucas’s abysmal dialogue writing. All bitterness aside, Rey’s innate skill is nothing strange to the Star Wars universe (refer to “Now, this is podracing!”), and the circumstances make it reasonable for her to have the upper hand over Ren, who manages to put on an impressive show in spite of his less than healthy physical and mental states at the time. Their next encounter is definitely worth looking forward to.

We will watch your careers with great interest!
Rey’s first meeting with Leia is suspiciously intimate, adding to the growing dilemma of her parentage. Meanwhile, R2 reverts to “high power” for some unexplained reason, helping BB-8 reveal Luke Skywalker’s refined taste in exile destinations, something his late master Yoda could have certainly benefitted from in retirement. The flight of steps that takes Rey to her new master seems like a tribute to the martial arts in pop culture that gave rise to the ways of the Lightsaber. Luke, now a world-weary Jedi Master, certainly looks the part, silently conveying all he needs to say as his apprentice-to-be holds out the lightsaber that he could have sworn had fallen deep into the gaseous bowels of Cloud City. As their eyes meet, he understands what must be done, and the mellow background score transitions to the epic Force theme for one final moment of glory before the curtains fall. We choose to remain seated through the credits, allowing Williams’ magical soundtrack to wash over us as we slowly gather ourselves for the return to normal life.
With Episode VIII within sight, there comes the fervent hope that we shall never have to witness the destruction of yet another Death Star. The biggest expectation from the sequel is a significant focus on the training of the arch-nemeses Ren and Rey in parallel, thus forging a rivalry the likes of which cinema has never seen before. Ren is, however, the more interesting of the two simply because villains seldom debut as fledglings, and the potential that lies in a Dark Side version of The Empire Strikes Back is immense. On Rey’s end, the big reveal about her lineage will be disappointing if it makes her story look very similar to that of Luke and Leia, especially after all the rampant fan theories bringing Obi-wan and even Palpatine into the picture. Also, given Finn’s origins, more encounters with the First Order seem inevitable, particularly a climactic confrontation with General Hux, whose evident rivalry with Ren is also worth developing. Two very significant players in the upcoming movie had, however, barely made an appearance in TFA.
Supreme Leader Snoke, puppeteer of the First Order and master to Kylo Ren and his “Knights”, is more or less left in the dark, as Darth Sidious was before him, and this raises many questions regarding his connection to the Sith, if any, his activity in the era of the Galactic Empire and, finally, how tall he really is. While his position in the grand scheme of things calls for a generous backstory in Episode VIII, it would be nice if he remained a supporting villain unlike the Emperor, nurturing his apprentice for the role that could serve as inspiration to the fallen Jedi of Disney’s universe, placing him even above Vader. It would be delightful to see Snoke fall to Kylo Ren as the young Jedi attains mastery in the Dark Side.

Tired to death of family surprises
Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, has other expectations to fulfill – from the New Jedi Order to his nephew’s fall and why he chose to leave a jigsaw puzzle leading to him in the first place, there’s plenty to shed light on. Given his extreme reaction to the fate of his Padawans, his state of mind is worth exploring, particularly what would happen if he came face to face with Ren again. And it goes without saying that he knows what fate befell Han; a stream of tears upon seeing him reunite with Leia would be most welcome. And we all know who held Poe Dameron’s title in the days of the Empire. Thoughts of an aerial assault on the First Order led by the Falcon and two proficiently piloted X-wings, matching or even outdoing the standards set by Abrams, add to the sheer potential of the experience to come.

While the vast canon of the Expanded Universe has been cast aside by Disney, it is evident that Star Wars is headed in an interesting direction, with Rogue One and the Han Solo anthology filling the long wait for the remainder of the new trilogy. Rian Johnson will now proceed to work in an environment constantly abuzz with talk of the franchise, hopefully improving where Abrams fell short, namely the repetitive, predictable plot, and building on every other aspect. Having documented this affair in the present tense after almost a month of its occurrence, I am still hungover from the excitement at the return of Star Wars, which is evident from the rather redundant list of suggestions YouTube offers me nowadays. Lucasfilm has set its clock ticking, and before long, the world will once again turn oblivious to the mundanity of everything else Hollywood has to offer.

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