Throwback: my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (The Boar)

Well, JJ did it. While it’s not perfect, Star Wars The Force Awakens flies faster, hits harder and just resonates more than the prequels ever did or could, while (mostly) satisfying one of cinema’s most unforgiving fanbases.

While it naturally owes a lot to Star Wars (or Episode IV: A New Hope if you’re nasty) and the original trilogy, Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have wisely made this the newcomers’ film. The classic, dearly beloved characters all make an appearance in one way or another, but the nostalgia never threatens to overshadow the fresh new faces on screen. Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper for the ominously named ‘First Order’, Rey (the fantastic Daisy Ridley in her first starring role), a scavenger from the desert planet Jakku and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), “the best damn pilot in the galaxy”, are all captivating in roles that thankfully don’t just cut and paste from the mould of the original trilogy. Adam Driver also delivers an extremely complex and volatile performance as Kylo Ren, potentially one of the most human villains Star Wars has ever delivered. His intimidating profile, mixed with a temper and inner conflict we haven’t ever seen in a Sith – he is both a worthy follow up and a total contrast to Darth Vader and his more cool, collected menace.

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Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren. Image courtesy of Lucasfilm.

This is a story that finds most of its worth in its characters and its action, and how each informs the other – not solely from the plot, which is, admittedly, rather simple, and borrows from the original Star Wars quite heavily, in ways I won’t disclose. However this is not to say that The Force Awakens can be reduced to simply being the same story with different characters – Abrams and Kasdan cleverly use our expectations of what a spiritual sequel to A New Hope would look like, and subvert them. Besides, there’s a lot more going on in this film than there ever was in the original trilogy.

Both in storytelling and aesthetic, JJ Abrams has learned an extremely valuable lesson from the less than well received prequels – less is more.

While The Force Awakens mostly belongs to the new characters, the returning cast of the original trilogy all make great use of their time on screen. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher turn in great performances as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and General Leia, playing the characters as we know them as well as well as how we don’t – weathered and weary from the years we haven’t seen.

Both in storytelling and aesthetic, JJ Abrams has learned an extremely valuable lesson from the less than well received prequels – less is more. We are finally getting a Star Wars film that has nuance in the dialogue and some subtlety where it counts – to say any more than this would be saying too much. This approach also means that the film looks incredible, with more ‘minimalist’ shots that allow a single subject to dominate the frame, giving the audience the chance to actually take things in rather than be overwhelmed by the sheer number of things on the screen, a la the “dense” cinematography of Episodes I though III.

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Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) on the run. Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

There is a perfect balance of CGI and practical effects – The Force Awakens uses painstakingly crafted puppets and animatronics that fans longed for in the often soulless prequels – everything in The Force Awakens is just so tangible – to the point that it’s actually somewhat jarring when fully CGIed characters such as Lupita Nyongo’s motion captured Maz Kanata and Andy Serkis’ mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke first appear on screen. Beautiful landscapes, thrilling and extremely kinetic takes of exhilarating aerial dogfights mixed with pulse pounding, visceral action on the ground, wide shots of giant relics from old space battles are just a small part of The Force Awaken’s visual majesty, the stunning direction mixing with classic Star Wars iconography and sound to make something truly special. This would all be fantastic by itself, but John William’s breathtaking score (“Rey’s Theme” is awesome) punctuating these moments turns the film into something almost overwhelming to take in on the first viewing.

It’s really something else, seeing a new and such a well crafted Star Wars film on the big screen. JJ Abram’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an astounding follow up to the practically mythical original trilogy, and breathes new life into the galaxy far far away – for audiences new and old, fanboys and sceptics alike. It isn’t necessarily subtle and it borrows a lot from the first film, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens is awe-inspiring, and I can’t wait to see where the franchise goes next.

5/5

Film Review: Midnight Special (Written for Vulture Hound)

“This film explores how I feel about my son”, said writer/director Jeff Nichols in his introduction of his latest film, Midnight Special.  A more emotionally honest take on a Spielberg style, sci-fi chase film, Midnight Special is an extremely personal film that explores the bond between parent and child through a thrilling, sometimes horrifying and harrowing sci-fi lens, evoking memories of Spielberg’s touchy-feely sci-fi of the 80s and 90s such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, without ever feeling like a clone. Midnight Special is minimalist sci-fi with a soul, the most apparent parallel probably lying with Superman, and perhaps the recent adaptation, Man of Steel – the desire to belong, being worshipped, being alienated and the pain of being nearly omniscient are things that Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent and Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton deal with in earnest – although the eight year old boy seems more clear of his purpose than the 33 year old Clark ever did across Snyder’s two Superman films.

Roy, played to subtle perfection by Nichols’ regular Michael Shannon (he made a point of this in the introduction, he will always cast this man), is on the run with his son Alton. One of the first things we see in the film is the amber alert for the supposedly ‘kidnapped’ boy, and the film takes its time peeling back the layers of intrigue from there, to extremely satisfying effect. Divulging much more would take away from the excitement, wonder and power of the film – the less you know going in, the better.

It becomes clear that the boy possesses superhuman powers, his strange connection with the world leaving him extremely, almost lethally sensitive to sunlight. The first time we see him is under a blanket, reading comic books through blue-tinted swimming goggles. The film ultimately leaves some questions unanswered and the mystery may unfold a little too slowly for some, but it definitely helps that all the actors involved do a fantastic job. Lieberher is a great actor, and makes the tried and tested cliche of the “all-powerful pre-pubescent child” and makes it entirely compelling again.

Kirsten Dunst’s character Sarah acts as a balance to Shannon’s more ferocious nature concerning the protection of his son, while bringing some fierceness of her own. The character appears refreshingly tender and kind in comparison to the comparatively grim Roy and Lucas (a pretty reliable Joel Edgarton) transporting Alton for the first third of the film. That said, Michael Shannon’s character is never uninteresting. Roy is fiercely protective of his son, and Nichols relishes in showing and not telling – showing us that this man would kill a state trooper in cold blood, so to keep their location hidden. It’s a morally confusing moment, and the first of many throughout the film as multiple factions conflict over differing interests in Alton.

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The film’s minimalist nature extends to its direction and soundtrack; the cinematography is beautiful, really bringing out the horror, pathos and sense of wonder –  but never gets too flashy or showy. Similarly great is Nichols’ long time collaborator David Wingo’s soundtrack, a simple yet rousing piano motif that plays from the beginning of the film, telling us pretty immediately that this is going to be a very different kind of chase film or sci-fi film – Nichols strips everything back to a minimum and the film is much more rewarding for it, always stylish without ever showing off too much.

Midnight Special is Nichols’ largest film yet, filled with plenty of supernatural mystery and sci-fi grandeur, but it remains grounded by the subtlety of the characters and the very high quality of acting, the intense chemistry and bond between father, mother and son.  For those unfamiliar with the work of Jeff Nichols, it’ll seem strange and different, but one thing is for certain: Midnight Special is thrilling and touching from beginning to end.

4/5

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