Sunday, January 17, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (and Saturday Night Live : 1-16-16)

J.J. Abrams Star Wars:  the Force Awakens (2015) contains two astonishing moments:  the first occurs early in the film, when one of the characters takes counsel from a wise old man who is recognizably Max von Sydow -- how old is this actor?  Curiously, von Sydow looks more hale and hearty than the desiccated Harrison Ford, his mouth twisted into a sardonic grimace that looks, unfortunately, like the twisted features of an apoplexy victim.  The dour Swede also seems more alert than the matronly Carrie Fisher who recites her lines contemptuously as if she had learned them phonetically.  The other amazing moment is when the menacing Darth Vadar character (Kylo Ren) agrees to remove his arachnid-styled black mask.  Up to this point, the guy has been speaking through transistors that make his voice sound like HAL from 2001 if that computer were speaking through a McDonald's drive-through system.  Off comes the helmet and who stands revealed as the film's arch-nemesis?  it's Adam Driver, the dude who plays Lena Dunham's boyfriend on HBO's GirlsGirls is one of my favorite shows and, anyone who has followed that program, will have a number of nude sex-scenes involving Lena Dunham and Adam Driver indelibly etched in their brain.  The guy is big but not menacing in the slightest degree -- with his wet puppy-dog eyes and impressive nose, Driver is saturnine and soulful, but he couldn't be frightening if he life depended on it and, once we know that he is inhabiting the black mask and cape, all of the character's antics simply seem petulant, fits of pique thrown by someone who has consumed a little too much Starbucks coffee. 

This new reboot of the Star Wars franchise is not so much a bad movie as one that is absurdly superfluous.  First, as has been widely recognized, no one bothered to write a fresh script for this outing -- the movie simply recycles on a louder and more grandiose scale the plot of the very first picture in the series.  There are the same chases through slot canyons, the same characters, more or less, and the same ultimate threat -- this is revealed with startling honesty in a scene in which someone shows that the bad guys, here called the First Order, have simply scaled-up the Death Star that had to be attacked and destroyed in the first film:  a blue-print shows the previous Death star, about the size of a billiard ball, compared to the basketball-sized circumference of the new and improved weapon.  This shot is pretty much emblematic of the whole film.  Since I can't recall much of the plot apparatus of the first movie, a lot of the action makes no sense at all-- and there is absolutely no effort to clarify plot-points that require knowledge of other movies in the series.  The story involves the New Order, a group of space-Nazis, who are trying to locate someone named Luke Skywalker.  It's completely unclear why they want to find this fellow or how he is significant.  (In the final shot, an incredibly portentous and overblown ending to the film, one of the characters encounters Skywalker -- he seems to have hidden himself in the outer Hebrides or Orkney Islands and is simply standing around atop an ocean-girt mountain.   The scene is totally absurd and looks like an outtake from a bad episode of Highlander and it begs the question, what are these heroes doing when they're not fighting the bad guys -- apparently, they go to picturesque locales, put on monastic robes, and simply stand there brooding until the Plot Gods summon them again to the action.)  Another aspect of the film that makes it seem superfluous is the redundancy of the action:  periodically, Adam Driver, dressed as Darth Vadar, unsheaths his light sword and, in a childish rage (Rats! Foiled Again!) chops up some of the scenery -- this happens about every twenty minutes.  Every main character is locked into some kind of torture table and subjected to "stress postures" and other forms of discomfort -- sequences that leave me a little queasy since after all, we Americans are now the world's foremost proponents of torture.  Made only about 30 years after World War II, the first Star Wars movie obsessively re-fought that conflict.  It would seem that our contemporary world with its new and ghastly conflicts might serve as fodder for some of the film's imagery -- but, not so: the minions of the New Order are simply space-Nazis complete with Sieg Heil! salutes and the aerial combat scenes are even more explicitly shot from the perspective of ball-turret gunners in American Flying Fortresses circa 1944.  The space cruisers are rigged up to look like destroyers or aircraft carriers and the scenes of pilots scrambling for their space-ships could be footage from Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor.  (In the opening shots, we get POV images of storm troopers riding amphibious vehicles -- the jerky handheld editing and the management of the scenes of the storm troopers pouring out of the fronts of the personnel carriers derives from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and we are momentarily disoriented:  are we supposed to be identifying with these white-helmeted goons?  This is one of the rare aspects of the film that I admire -- it turns out that we are supposed to be a tad more sympathetic to the storm troopers since one of them, a defector, will turn out to be one of the protagonists of the story.)  The movie sags badly in its middle third, although, on the positive side I should note that at least the insufferable Yoda doesn't appear in this movie -- "in this movie does Yoda not appear."  Furthermore, the fascistic Jedi knights are pretty much in the background of this film.  Yoda and Jedi knights were major snoozes in the other films -- you could pretty much plan to go out to t he lobby for popcorn when those characters populated the screen and they don't really figure in this movie.   As if anxious to make sure the audience is amused, the film stages just about every major action sequence as a concatenation of perils -- as an example, Harrison Ford and his buddies are chased around by hordes of storm troopers in a labyrinthine space cruiser while also being pursued by hairy and ravenous eyeballs with tentacles.  (These monsters remind me of the Spanish Irregular verb that chases Kugelmass in Woody Allen's sublime short story.)  At the end of the movie, the two principal characters engage in a light sword duel while the planet on which they are fighting breaks apart hectare by hectare, vast rafts of trees and snow falling into the abyss but never exactly where our combatants are laboring away at one another with their neon sabers.  Some of the alien creatures are inventive:  there is a bad guy who sits on a holograph throne with a face like an elderly tortoise -- he's sort of a combination of the big bad Nosferatu-style vampire in The Strain and a Galapagos tortoise.  A little barmaid creature looks like a superannuated ET and threatens to become as gaseous and vapid as Yoda -- fortunately, the movie has other fish to fry and scoots quickly away from the distraction of that character.

All of the pretentions of Star Wars: The Force Awakens were categorically burst by a short comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live (January 16, 2016).  Adam Driver hosted the show, more in the persona of Lena Dunham's boyfriend than as the cruel and menacing space condottieri and in the best bit, the show parodied a TV series that involve tough bosses dressing up in mufti and infiltrating their own work places to learn how the rank-and-file views them. In this case, the space villain pretends to be a minimum wage temp named Kyle.  He sneaks into the company cafeteria where the storm troopers are enjoying coffee and doughnuts -- a big sign reminds them:  Remember to take your helmets when you're done eating.  It suffices to say that as Kyle the boss can't resist throwing various fits, even though he is bullied by an officious black woman -- and he has to exercise all of his self-restraint to keep from strangling his co-workers with his bellicose brain waves.  After he hurls one of the fat cast members through a vending machine .the bemused character says to the camera:  "I pretty much knew he was Kylo Ren when he used his mental powers to throw me through the pop machine." 

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