STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. Witnessing the 2015/16 comets of the Star Wars universe, simultaneously impressed by the display and disengaged from the supposed import, I felt inexorably squeezed, like in the garbage compactor scene from the first classic. Bingo! (insert blaster sound)—a good departure point then for swinging my own light saber—as the whole garbage compacting sequence was basically a swipe from old-time serials. Yet it was fun, as were the other elements of the 1977 epic, skyjacked as they were from a movie-starring galaxy dating back to the silents and the peril gimmick of tying someone to railroad tracks.
It wasn’t just the tricked out settings of the old gags and the verve of their re-execution, but “escape this!” gambols like the trash mash worked because we —Hold Popcorn or Forever Still Your Gag Reflex—liked the characters and cared about them. The fresh Han, Leia and Luke as played by the frosh Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were not scripted, directed or acted to graze the outer limits of drama, but we got lost in their space with the kiddie-giddiness we felt back when we caught the science-fiction & monster bug as children. Old-as-the-hills thrills but exuberantly armed with all those amazing new sound effects, ingenious gadgets, wondrous art direction and majestically soaring music.
The wizardly spell George Lucas, John Williams and a teeming mob of geeks and aliens cast in 1977 remained bound into 1980 with The Empire Strikes Back and for 1983s Return Of The Jedi. Alas, sixteen Earth-years later came the Force-feeding of ‘Jar Jar Binks’— and the once noble and seemingly tireless Alliance was spent, flushed, crushed. The Rebellion spell broken, only an Empire’s web remained. Ten minutes into each of the three cosmically expensive, nebulae elaborate 1999-2005 return flights The Phantom Menace, The Clone Wars and Revenge Of The Sith and only by ripping fingernails could I stay awake until they babbled and blasted to their merciful ends. Star-bored.
Those indistinguishable asteroids tore gaping holes in the box-office firmament, storm-trooping old fans and a new generation of droned droids into a black hole of relentless merchandising, including Emperor Lucas’ seemingly vengeful price-gouging on home video formats with a piratical ruthlessness that would make Jabba the Hutt hang his chins in shame at the blatant star-whoring.
The 2015/2016 installments are a major and decided improvement on the previous trio simply because front & center they are easily the best-acted segments in the entire fleet. There’s no point in detailing any of their technical aspects, all of them stellar, and the majority of which are also essentially rehashes of the same fight scenes and jeopardy snares that made the first three such a kick and the second trio an endurance contest.
The Force Awakens works and Rogue One works even better thanks first and foremost to their casts, new millennium falcons whose acting talons go above and beyond to make their scripts (also better than the previous three sagas) seem close to meaningful. They’re…not, at least to me, but the acting is by & large excellent, and they’re entertaining, which, after all, is the point.
The Force Awakens, directed by J. J. Abrams, is blessed with Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac, as well as sentimental sallies from Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill (hats off for a very effective finale). Also doing justice to their craft: John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleason, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max Von Sydow. How, really, do you contemplate a budget of $306,000,000 (another $175,000,000 for marketing) and a gross of $2,068,000,000? (yes, that is two billion). Oscar nominations came for Music Score, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. 136 minutes.
Rogue One was not actually—let us be clear so Tie-fighters don’t zap us on the way to Alderon— a part of the new and final trio, but a stand-alone precursor to the inaugural voyage. It links niftily at its conclusion with the chase that began the whole phenomenon a few decades back. Directed by Gareth Edwards, it stars Felicity Jones (yes!), Diego Luna (a good actor but a bit slight to convince as a hero here), Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn (superb as ever), Wen Jiang, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen (always right-on), Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie and Ben Daniels. 133 minutes, with Oscar nominations for Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. Cost: $265,000,000. Yield: $1,056,000,000. I could have done without the martial arts hokum.
These two are both very well done, yet as impassioned were the performers in their roles, I just couldn’t rouse due passion for their characters. Granting applause to the artists and technicians behind the incredibly detailed action scenes, there is no suspense factor anymore: it’s been done. Stormtroopers are lousy shots.
I saw these with two old and dear friends, who, like me, had both enjoyed the early films in the saga, ditto less so the second batch. On these new and bigger bangs, there was a three-way split in how we felt. One enthusiastically liked them, rating them highly; the other could have cared less, and had more fun standing in line to see them than sitting through their endless pulses of raygunfire. I, The Amazing Dateless Man, was in the middle—and it’s an instance where I think all of us were correct. I know people—smart ones—who snarl that this series is a colossal, childish waste of time and resources. I can see (some of) their point, although I disagree with what I interpret as a casual and overly harsh dismissal of some remarkable craftsmanship and an odd desire to pour water on fun. I know other—equally bright, equally grown-up —fans who unabashedly adore these spectacles, and obviously there are legions of young initiates out there who are every bit as dazzled by them as I was back in the summer of 1977 (purple haze notwithstanding). I submit that’s great. How lucky and fun for them! : it is some pretty amazing showmanship. Why sneer over something harmless that provides so much pleasure to so many people, in search of some relief from a pretty dismal reality?
Mike Klimo has written incredibly detailed and persuasive articles about the “Ring Theory” behind the sequels: the dissers are stubbornly unmoved. For me,— stuck in the age compactor, trying to crack a joke while getting close to the available princess—having seen more than 6,500 movies, watching these is akin to looking up at a glittering night sky, each distant flickering astral body representing some homegrown earthling flick with earthbound movie stars: trying to pick these out among the host is casual fun for a while… and then, well, it’s bedtime.