Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Love Letter to JJ Abrams

Dear JJ,

Four years ago, you made a film that showed such tremendous potential, it was nearly heartbreaking. Super 8 provided one hour of nostalgic, pure and euphoric entertainment before devolving into an hour of mind-numbing contemporary Hollywood monster movie theatrics. Had the full film lived up to the promise of that first hour – oh, what could have been!

Of course there are spoilers, silly!!
So when I heard it announced that you had accepted the role of writing and directing Episode VII despite your very legitimate reservations about the franchise’s cultural significance, my heart leapt with possibility. Sadly, in the intervening timeframe, I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness and possibility turned to panic. But I remained optimistic nonetheless, as it certainly couldn’t be worse than the prequels…

Could it..?

[Spoliers follow]

On December 18th, my wife and I sat down at 10:30am for an IMAX 3D viewing of The Force Awakens to find out. I avoided all potential spoilers, only peeking to see what casting decisions had been made [I disliked Oscar Isaac until seeing him in Ex Machina; I initially mistook Adam Driver for the most excellent Ezra Miller]. The excitement had been building for weeks, and when the Lucasfilm logo silently and eerily appeared without the 20th Century Fox fanfare, the first signal of a new era of Star Wars films was clearly announced. And the rest..?

It was simply wonderful.

I cannot tell you the overwhelming combination of joy and jealousy that I feel towards a man who grew up loving these films and now gets the chance to himself helm one. Your passion for the source material shows everywhere on the screen. This is as much a tribute film – a fan film, some are saying– as it is an original work. The plot very nearly follows the exact same major points of the original classic Star Wars, but takes the first 30-plus minutes to introduce us to new characters who we will grow to love over the remaining ninety. But after my second viewing in another packed theater yesterday, I have a few specific things that I want to thank you for and here they are:

Casting Daisy Ridley

Nearly every new casting decision in this film is spot on, but none is better than Ridley’s Rey, who balances delicately the gravitas of a teen being orphaned on a barren remote world with the youthful exuberance of someone meeting their childhood heroes in the flesh for the first time (“You’re Han Solo! This is the Millennium Falcon!”). Rey is exactly how each fanboy like myself would act if put in her circumstance. How that role was written is perfect, but how Ridley delivers it is priceless. In another year, this would be Oscar-caliber material if the folks in Hollywood had any sense. 


Hiring Lawrence Kasdan

There is little doubt in my mind that this would not have been the film it was without Kasdan’s input. In our first hero-villain exchange, we see the magic of the signature SW dialogue already returning (“So who talks first? Do I talk first?”). And it continues throughout the film. This is neither the stilted prose foisted upon Hayden Christensen in the tortured romantic scenes of Episode II, nor is it the ad nauseum plot exposition of The Phantom Menace, and it certainly isn’t the atrocious and generic boilerplate action one-liners that Jonathan Hales supplied in Attack of the Clones. Kasdan knows these characters – old and new. He understands their motivations and has fun with them. The best comedic lines are reserved for Solo and Finn, but Rey gets the most emotional ones and, as stated above, gets exactly how to deliver them.

Kasdan has had some real missteps in Hollywood lately (ahem, Dreamcatcher) and unfortunately his whole career seems to have stalled because of this. However, he has always shown a flair for dialogue in his original material , such as Mumford and Silverado. The fact he was not only on board for this film, but also the upcoming Han Solo anthology film suggests that even more good things are to come. 


Using REAL Filming Locations

Arguably, the biggest knock on the prequels is the feeling that actors give wooden performances while extraordinary things happen all around them. These performances have often been attributed to the fact that the actors can’t possibly know what is happening around them because somebody in Marin County hasn’t drawn it yet! But the end product of all that effects work makes all of the prequels, Episode II most especially, look like PS3 cut scenes. They didn’t hold up well, and pale next to the work done in the Lord of the Rings films.

After having seen Prometheus, to me there is no doubt that the day and age of green screen 'location' filming has died a belated death, and the use of real locations for backgrounds was truly stunning. The original trilogy cast members apparently convinced you, JJ, that you needed to use real locations to lend a sense of realism and authenticity to the new films, and in this one at least, it works. Whether it actually be Iceland or Ireland, we still feel like we’ve been transported to another world, and it looks real. It doesn’t look like some twenty-something graphic artist's wet dream; it looks like a place we actually want to visit. I only hope your buddy Rian Johnson feels the same way in making Episode VIII. I'm glad we don't have to wait three years to find out!


 So in conclusion...

JJ, I could go on and on about what there is to love about this movie (and the few insignificant things that I don't), but I only have one more thing to add.

There is a moment late in the film when Kylo Ren extends his arm to retrieve for his grandfather’s lightsaber. The camera holds on his face, expending mental 'Force' energy to reach for something he believes is his, but we in the audience all know is not. It is in this moment, and in how long the movie waits suspensefully for what will inevitably happen next, that I knew you finally got it. There were no phony false surprises like in Star Trek: Into Darkness, no over-the-top, cloying emotions like in Armageddon, and no CGI disasters like the second half of Super 8. The saber whips across the screen and into the hands of the person to whom it belongs, and my eyes flushed with tears of exhilarated joy. Like George did in the original Star Wars, you may have just created the seminal cinematic work of your career. 

But man, I really hope you’ve got more like this one in you.

My sincere thanks,

Buck Stodgers

No comments:

Post a Comment