Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Few pop cultural entities have harbored as much significance as Star Wars. Barring the innumerable reviews and think pieces the franchise has garnered over the course of six feature films and recently renounced expanded universe, I felt the need to air my thoughts on the most recent canonical entry. Redundancy aside, it’s safe to say that Abrams’ heart and mind were in the right place during the inception and subsequent production of something so simultaneously pandering and satisfactory to those who appreciate George Lucas’ brainchild in a palpable capacity.

Set decades after 1983’s Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens focuses on The First Order’s tyrannical, Empire-esque stranglehold on an oppressed galaxy that’s spearheaded by one of the few remaining practitioners of the force, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When defecting Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) morally objects to following said regime’s gameplan, his decision to free ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) from Ren’s clutches unexpectedly thrusts him into the company of destitute scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley): a young girl struggling alone to make ends meet, foolishly awaiting the return of the loved ones responsible for her abandonment.

Having just viewed the original trilogy in its entirety roughly a year ago, I’m more or less new admirer of Star Wars as an epitome of longstanding, similarly licensed cinema during this continuing rash of obsessive nostalgia. It’s as much a staple of a more genre-inclined niche as it is an historical juggernaut, spawning a breadth of fanatics that are willing to live or die by the questionable integrity of an increasingly floundering legacy in the wake of ghastly (subject to opinion) prequels. J.J. Abrams has thankfully done the unthinkable in rehashing the allure of this galaxy far, far away, even if he doesn’t reinvent the wheel as he does return the franchise to a desirable form that competently opens the door for expansion.

Furthermore, it’s no secret that The Force Awakens is almost embarrassingly emulative of A New Hope in terms of overarching structure. Ren is the Vader to Rey’s Luke, Starkiller Base a larger iteration of the preceding Death Star(s) and so on – it’s all been discussed and dissected to death following a surprisingly spoiler-free but unsurprisingly record-breaking opening week. Even still, the sheer enthusiasm emitted from series newcomers and the film’s equally giddy sense of self help transcend the weak and stilted trappings of the prequel trilogy. Boyega, Ridley, Driver and the lot are all very much invested in portraying their characters with conviction, of which is particularly important given the series’ adherence to characters and characteristics over that of the overtly thematic. Star Wars has always prided itself on its world-building capabilities and unfettered escapism, and The Force Awakens reinstates this strong suit with aplomb, even as foreseeable nods to its predecessors become increasingly questionable in terms of quality and relevance.

The Force Awakens is merely a retread that thrives thanks to how easily it subverts the low expectations established and sustained from 1999’s The Phantom Menace onward. The action, the charm, the nostalgia – it’s all here and in gleeful abundance as Abrams knowingly employs and borderline exploits the strongest suits of this storied franchise. Key players return with a requisite amount of gusto amid the newcomers’ welcome introduction, and despite the obvious and unavoidable homage paid to legendary predecessors, The Force Awakens is a lively and reinvigorating slice of simple-minded entertainment that does its job and nothing more. It’s a solid chunk of big-budgeted filmmaking that’s aptly self-aware in a way that doesn’t mistake fans’ adoration for weakness, all the while meshing the old with the new in a balanced manner that ensures the earnestness of future installments.

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Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto

In light of all this talk about there being no originality left in cinema nowadays, it’s at least mildly refreshing to happen upon the one adaptation, reboot or remake that successfully recreates what made the source material appealing while incorporating its own intelligible creative flourishes. As for the Planet of the Apes legacy, one may say it was almost irreversibly tarnished by Tim Burton’s catastrophic remake, inevitably raising audiences’ apprehension nearly a decade later upon the announcement of Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Fortunately for us, Wyatt’s graced us with the sole intelligent blockbuster of this already dreadful summer season, aptly proving that originality isn’t always everything regardless of what some may say.

With a premise at least partially grounded in reality, Apes focuses on fledgling geneticist Will Rodman as his invention of an experimental drug becomes the first step in curing neurodegenerative disease. After an accident results in the termination of the research program, Will reluctantly agrees to house baby chimp Caesar in an effort to keep the dream alive and reach his goal. A whole lot of bonding and unethical behavior ensues as Will grows fond of his new houseguest, establishing the friendship that blossoms between the two as something more than just a doctor-patient relationship.

While said relationship and the interaction between Franco’s Will and Serkis’ flawless portrayal of Caesar comes of as eerily authentic and even heartfelt, Wyatt’s ability to place an appropriate emphasis on every relevant plot component ensures that things seldom feel out of place, rushed or superfluous. Outside of some silly yet admittedly well-placed intellectual ramblings, the film’s more action-oriented sequences carry with them an inherent sense of likability and visual panache, although the action itself isn’t the intended centerpiece as much as man’s involvement in the apes’ inevitable rise to supremacy truly is. Obvious as this emphasis may be, the message being delivered is startlingly simple and something we’ve all heard countless times before: Testing anything on animals, especially advances in medicine, is bad.

As for the performances, everyone involved does a fine enough job with aiding the film in standing out among a slew of disappointing summer hopefuls. Franco’s efforts are predictably worthwhile but nothing to write home about, as are those of his ailing onscreen father Charles played by John Lithgow and Brian Cox as the arrogant, mostly detestable proprietor of the primate sanctuary Serkis’ Caesar is thrown into following an unfortunate altercation with a neighbor. Speaking of Serkis, the motion capture work provided by the man in question compliments the equally outstanding visual effects wonderfully, putting forth yet another wholly convincing and even compelling performance as a member of a species other than his own.

In spite of everything Wyatt does right in establishing the film as a return to form for the Planet of the Apes franchise, I personally wasn’t as enamored by the film as much as my film advocate cohorts were. Astonishing as the visuals and Serkis’ portrayal of the lead ape may be, the underlying message isn’t as poignant as it was back when the original films were released, leaving us as viewers with a sporadically entertaining blockbuster that does manage to surpass the recent less fortunate in several areas, if barely. Best of the year material it certainly isn’t, but as an average blockbuster that focuses more on relationships between characters than it does on mind-numbing bouts of loud nonsense, Rise of the Planet of the Apes adequately fits the bill.

Rating: 5/10