Long Shot (2019)

In a lot of ways, the Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron two-hander Long Shot is a traditional, by the books romcom. Two socially mismatched idealists spark an unlikely romance after a chance meeting in the first act, then gradually learn to be more like each other through the ups & downs of their early months together (most romcoms bail before the real work of building a relationship starts, once that early emotional rush cools down). It’s arguable that Seth Rogen’s overgrown stoner-bro humor is a little out of place in that context, but the Apatow style of modern comedies where he cut his teeth were basically just romcoms with some lagniappe improv takes, so even that influence isn’t much of a subversion. If you find it comforting to watch two characters fall in love over a series of quippy one-liners and farcical misunderstandings, Long Shot is more than willing to deliver the formulaic romcom goods, building an amiable romance between two adorable leads with oddly believable chemistry. What’s really interesting about the film is how it manages to pull that off while discussing something most formulaic romcoms actively avoid: politics.

Charlize Theron plays a US Secretary of State who’s poised to make her first presidential bid in an upcoming election. Against the guidance of her campaign advisors, she hires Seth Rogen as her speech writer for the early stages of the campaign trail – both because she respects his leftist idealism and because she thinks he’s cute. In apolitical romcom tradition, the unlikely couple inspire each other to edge closer towards the political center from their extremist starting points. Theron relearns to stick to her guns ideologically without giving up too much in political compromise, while Rogen learns that compromise & reaching across the aisle are sometimes necessary to accomplish larger goals. It’s a relatively safe, careful approach to modern politics – an arena defined by increasingly violent extremes. As such, the movie leaves little room to make clearly stated, concrete political points without risking the fun-for-everyone charm of romcoms. Its only clear political stances are detectable in Theron’s campaign platform that centers The Environment, and in the way working in the news media spotlight is unfairly difficult for her as a woman. As far as modern political topics go, gendered scrutiny & saving the trees are about as safe as the movie could have played it, and you can feel it struggling with how political is too political for a romcom when addressing nearly every other topic.

One major way Long Shot avoids alienating half of its audience with its political stances is avoiding declaring which political parties it’s actually talking about from scene to scene. Theron’s environmentalist crusade and the feminist lens through which she views media coverage of her public persona both suggest that she’s a registered Democrat, but the movie is careful to never make that association explicit. Her role as Secretary of State is in service of a bumbling president (Bob Odenkirk) who is even more amorphous in his declared politics. Neither Democrat nor Republican (at least not explicitly) Odenkirk is a cipher for more universally acceptable jokes about how all politicians are more obsessed with celebrity than policy and how they’re all corrupt goons in lobbyists’ pockets. The only time I can recall the words “Democrat” or “Republican” being verbally acknowledged in the film is when Rogen is mocked for being horrified by the revelation that his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a member of the GOP, when he supposedly should be willing to find common political ground with his best bud. That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time when Republicans are actively trying to outlaw abortion access and in a time when, as acknowledged in the film’s opening gag, many “Conservatives” are literal Nazis hiding in plain sight. Still, it’s the only position the film can really take without risking its traditional romcom cred.

For a more daring example of how the romcom template can productively clash with modern politics, the Jenny Slate vehicle Obvious Child is commendable in the way it plays with the genre’s tropes while also frankly discussing Pro-Choice stances on reproductive rights. The closest Long Shot gets to saying something specific & potentially alienating about modern politics is in its parodies of Fox News media coverage (complete with Andy Serkis posing as a hideous prosthetics-monster version of Rupert Murdoch), which is a joke that writes itself. The difference there is that Obvious Child is a subversion of the romcom template, one that nudges the genre closer to an indie drama sensibility. By contrast, Long Shot is more of an earnest participation in the genuine thing. It is, for better or for worse, a formulaic romcom – with all the charming interpersonal relationships & tiptoeing political rhetoric that genre implies. I can say for sure that the romantic chemistry between Theron & Rogen works completely. The gamble of bringing modern politics into an inherently apolitical genre template is a little less decidedly successful, but at least makes for an interesting tension between form & content.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Panther (2018)

Oh man oh man oh man, the magic duo of people’s sexiest man alive Michael B. Jordan (not to be confused with People‘s Sexiest[?] Man Alive[?] Blake Shelton[?]) and Ryan Coogler has done it again. Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too.

It’s been a little less than two years since I wrote out my thoughts on Marvel’s race problem, which I drafted up in response to the whitewashing of the character of the Ancient One in the then-upcoming Doctor Strange film. That film was a disappointment on more levels than that (there’s a reason our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. coverage hasn’t resumed, as every time I think about rewatching Strange I get depressed) Since then, superhero broadcast and cinematic media has gotten better about addressing the ongoing issues that are shaking the foundations of our society, and even our democracy. For instance: Supergirl continuing to knock it out of the park as far as political commentary goes, from Cat Grant’s speech in the season two finale (appropriately entitled “Nevertheless She Persisted”) to the show’s episodic intro for this season (“My name is Kara Zor-El. I’m from Krypton. I’m a refugee on this planet.”). The CW also premiered Black Lightning at the beginning of this year, which I’m also finding both to be both moving and entertaining in addition to drawing more attention to issues that middle America tends to ignore. In the first episode alone, our hero Jefferson Pierce faced disproportionate police violence against communities of color, the preponderance of racial profiling in America, the bias of media when reporting on black citizens in comparison to treatment of white citizens. Our media should and must address these vitally important issues that demand attention and discussion in our culture right now, when the Attorney General is using (barely) coded language to signal to white supremacists that they have tacit approval from and are welcome to be part of law enforcement amidst dozens of other horrors.

I’m speaking out of my lane a bit here, as neither a woman or a person of color, and I’ll be the first person to admit to that. I’m not the final word on this, and I have no authority to speak to these matters. What I do have is a responsibility to do so. As Bell Hooks tells us in Homegrown: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege” (emphasis mine), and as such I want to take a second to talk about Star Trek: Discovery (I know, I know, but hear me out). The Star Trek franchise flirted with queer themes a number of times before this most recent series with episodes like TNG‘s “The Outcast” and DS9‘s “Rejoined,” but those episodes, when they discussed queer identities and presences in society, did so with a reliance on metaphor to distance the characters from the “taint” of homosexuality in the getting-better-but-still-not-great nineties. In Discovery, when we finally see Dr. Culber and Lieutenant Stamets standing at their sink and brushing their teeth together, then stealing a quick kiss, I cried. It’s hardly important, not plot-relevant (at least at the time), and part of me wants to decry that this is barely good enough, and yet… seeing, for the very first time, a reflection of myself in the fictional universe that had meant so much to me elicited an emotional reaction for which I was not prepared. Culber and Stamets—Hugh and Paul—were not victims. They weren’t dying of AIDS or as the result of violence, neither was the butt of a joke or a sassy best friend, they weren’t having to face systemic oppression or deny their birthrights to be together; they simply were.

People of black African descent watching Black Panther will have some of the same feelings I had watching Discovery and other feelings as well. There are better and clearer thinkers out there from whom you should be getting this information, but just in case Swampflix is the only website you read and are under a cultural embargo in every other way, listen up: there’s no one-to-one correlation between the experiences of one marginalized group and another, and the history of colonialism is baked into every single facet of contemporary life. The current progressive discourse is about intersectionality and rising higher by lifting each other and standing shoulder to shoulder, but white people like myself are still the beneficiaries of a social order built virtually entirely to ensure our supremacy and maintain a status quo that keeps the reigns of power in white (or, given the current political situation, orange) hands. If you’re capable of empathy and the most basic building blocks of open-mindedness, you either already know this or are not surprised, but down here on the ground in flyover country, even in a progressive urban enclave like Austin, we’re still trying to get the White Gays™ understand intersectionality even just a little bit. Their claims of having have an “inner black woman” are misogynoir in the first degree, their vocal disgust at people of size is fascism of the body, the sexual fetishization of black men is racism, and the claim that sexual attraction to only one (or all but one) ethnicity is “just a preference” is, at its core, a statement of “I treat people differently based on the color of their skin.” Institutionalized homophobia and racism are both legacies of colonialism that (just in case the people in the back didn’t hear me the first time) is a factor in every level of Western society; we’re struggling to slough off like so much dead skin, but some people will take any small advantage that they have without a moment’s hesitation or a second thought to those whom they may be stepping over. That’s something that the alt-right is happy to take advantage of.

I’m sure that, among readers with a moral philosophy that differs from the values I hold, this will be interpreted as some bleeding heart liberal cuck virtue signaling. Maybe a review of Black Panther isn’t the place for me to air my grievances with the White Gays™ and the fact that even my beloved Supergirl anchors itself pretty solidly in the garden of white feminism; I’ve gone a bit off track, but I just wanted to point out to you, dear reader, that even if you are not a person of color, Black Panther is still a movie you ought to see, and basic empathy means that you should be able to grasp some small part of the immeasurable importance of this film, even if its message of empowerment isn’t aimed at you directly. Despite the issues within my own community, I as an individual recognize the awesome power that representation has, and moreso the power of representation that forsakes the trappings of the meager pittances of visibility that came before. Not every movie about The Gays has to be Philadelphia, not every trans* movie has to be Boys Don’t Cry, and not every movie about the black experience has to be 12 Years a Slave. Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.

Away we go! Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War, showing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the technologically advanced isolationist African nation of Wakanda, preparing to take on the mantle of king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in that film. He retrieves his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from the mission she is on as a “war dog,” a term for Wakandan spies living in other nations, and returns home to be greeted by his mother, Queen Ramonda (actual goddess Angela Bassett), and tech wiz younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). His coronation is preceded by ceremonial combat, in which he engages M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a different tribe, for control of the throne. Filling out his coterie are: General Okoye (Danai Gurira, who steals the show), leader of the Dora Milaje, elite female warriors who serve as kingsguard; spiritual leader, tender of the garden of heart-shaped herbs that give the Black Panther his power, and overseer of the transition of power Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who also hides a shameful secret; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s confidante and Okoye’s lover. Meanwhile, a literal and figurative world away, American black operative Erik Stephens (Jordan), aka Killmonger, has teamed with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from Age of Ultron) to raid Wakanda in order to steal vibranium, the precious metal that fell to earth long ago and accelerated the technological advancements of Wakanda far beyond its neighbors. Stephens, however, has a greater purpose than Klaue has dreamed, and their machinations lead T’Challa to reunite with American CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Unexpected revelations occur, the long-term reverberations of a shameful act that happened in 1992 echo through the present, and fierce debates about the potential for colonialist interventionism to arise from pure and honest intentions, the de facto violence of isolationism in a world teetering on the precipice, and the wisdom of building bridges versus the foolishness of building walls arise.

That’s a lot of discourse to wrap up in a 134 minute superhero film that has to introduce nearly a dozen heretofore unseen characters, establish vital information about the history of a fictional nation that is unlike any society in the real world, and create a stunning afro-futurism aesthetic that looks cooler than anything else we’ve seen before in this franchise (only the colorful world of Ragnarok really comes close). On top of that, the film also has to give the audience the action thrills that they’ve come to expect: a (badass) car chase, two slugfests on a waterfall outcropping, a (kind of forgettable) opening sequence under the cover of darkness, a casino shootout, and the final climactic battle. But Coogler manages to compress all of those things into that runtime, and churns out an early contender for one of the best movies of the year. Just like Get Out last year, this is a February release that I predict will continue to be part of the conversation for quite some time to come. Granted, Disney is essentially a national economy unto itself, and this is a “product” for them in the strictest sense, but Marvel Studios seems to have learned the lesson that getting out of the way and letting their directors have extensive creative control makes for better art (who could have guessed?). The only bad thing about creating a movie with so many rich layers and elements is that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin discussion.

First things first: I can see why this movie is making racists angry, especially those who hate being called out on being the recipients of the benefits of being the descendants of colonizers. Ross is explicitly called a colonizer, and much hay is made of the fact that Wakanda has only managed to reach their staggering technological achievements because of the nation’s isolationism, made explicit in the text by showing other African states being devastated by the slave trade in the film’s opening moments. I come from a rural white family and have family members on Facebook, so I know what its like, as I assume you do, to see the same people who want to “Never Forget” incidents like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, and whatever else you can put a name on that involved Americans being heroic in the face of tragedy (although what defines “heroism” and “tragedy” varies from ideology to ideology, especially when talking about something like the Alamo) but are also vocally resistant to movies like the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, saying things like “why can’t the past be the past?” I’d wager that no matter what walk of life you come from, you’ve got at least one of these people in your social network because of family or work connections; they’re probably going to hate this movie, because this ideology so often goes hand-in-hand with disliking any art made by people of color, regardless of quality (funny that), although they usually couch it in the rhetoric of “it’s not for me” or “I just don’t understand because it’s not something I know.”

And that is not to say that the film is without flaw. Of all the conspiracy nonsense out there, one that I hate the most is the “ancient astronauts” theory. Ever since Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, the idea that various architectural wonders of the ancient world were inspired by extraterrestrial contact has gained wide acceptance among the irrational, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the History Channel’s passive approval of the idea with the launch of TV shows like Ancient Aliens. But the truth of the matter is that the “paleo contact” and “ancient astronauts” hypotheses are also part of a colonial narrative. Europeans in Africa and the New World saw the ziggurats and pyramids that had been built using rope, stone, wood, and gumption and said to themselves “Well, sure Monte d’Accoddi and the Hulbjerg Jættestue and Newgrange were ancient structures that our ancestors built with primitive tools, but how on earth did these non-white pagans do it? [Snaps] That’s it! There’s no way that they could have expressed such ingenuity… on earth. They must have had help from spacemen!” I’ll admit that I’m a huge nerd and, frankly, very little would make me happier than any sort of evidence of extraterrestrial contact, but this “theory” and all the “evidence” for it starts from the presupposition that non-whites outside of Europe were inherently savage and incapable of the same architectural feats as their European contemporaries. This concept was manufactured out of nothing based on the core idea of denying African and South American ingenuity. Again, this is a long aside, but the reason that I bring this up is that there is a smidgen of this in Black Panther, as Wakanda’s futuristic nature is only possible because of the presence of vibranium. One could argue that Black Panther devalues and undermines African inventiveness in much the same way as von Däniken and his followers by showing a nation that is only exceptional because of an external event; on the other hand, real world history often demonstrates that nations can rise and fall based upon the presence or absence of certain natural resources, and that the film treats the abundance of vibranium beneath Wakanda’s surface as such. As a potential problematic issue in the text, it’s minor, but something I expect to generate an inevitable argument about how “Black Panther isn’t as progressive as you think” in the coming weeks. There’ll probably be some complaints about the monarchic nature of Wakanda as well, despite that the potentiality of abuse of power within that method of governance is addressed pretty explicitly in the text.

Everything else is amazing. It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

After Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes is the second time this year I attempted to put my boredom with cinematic war narratives aside to feed my hunger for eccentric creature features. The results were moderately better on this second go. Matt Reeves’s conclusion to his Apes prequel trilogy felt like a sincerity antidote to Skull Island‘s disingenuous SyFy Channel genre film throwback, which was far more conventional than its What If King Kong Fought In The Vietnam War? premise should have allowed. Not only does War for the Planet of the Apes cover similar territory in a more satisfying way; it also adds shades of World War POW camps, the Holocaust, American slavery, and the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr philosophy divide to deepen the context of its Apes vs Humans war for the planet. It takes its wartime primates premise far more seriously than Kong: Skull Island attempts to, yet somehow emerges as a notably better example of summertime blockbuster spectacle, despite the season’s usual penchant for dumb fun. Its superiority to that overpriced B-movie aside, I can’t honestly say much else in praise of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s an interesting film & a welcome excuse to escape the heat in a dark, air-conditioned room for two hours; but its nature as a straightforward war movie & a CG spectacle franchise cornerstone never allows it to amount to anything more substantial than that.

We rejoin the talking ape Caesar, played by eternal mo-cap prisoner Andy Serkis, as he attempts to maintain peace & order among his primate followers through simple credos like “Apes together strong,” and “Ape no kill ape.” Their plans to live peacefully in the woods are disrupted by a human militia headed by Woody Harrelson, who plays a warmonger who’s seen either Platoon or Full Metal Jacket one too many times in his life. This rogue colonel refuses to accept the apes’ peaceful request to be left alone in the wilderness. He slaughters large numbers from their ranks and eventually imprisons the survivors in an isolated stronghold he converts into a primate labor camp. Caesar and the colonel grimace at each other and trade gruff lines about who started/escalated the war and who they’ve both lost along the way for as long as the movie can put off two inevitabilities: an escape plan hatched by the ape prisoners & an all-out fire fight initiated by the humans. Somewhere during this grudge match two new characters introduce themselves to the fold: a mute child who’s clumsily coded as an archetype of Innocence & a Steve Zahn-esque buffoon played by sub-David Arquette buffoon Steve Zahn. As the war rages on, the developing details of the virus engineered in the first film are gradually revealed, opening the door for a kind of decisive finality to the series. The events of the film are tightly contained to a singular conflict, but dialogue hints that the struggle is linked to a more significant global crisis we never get to see.

I’m not sure that if you swapped out the apes with a more plausible rebel group like, say, Anarchists or Socialists, that I would find that same plot all that interesting, given my general aversion to this dour wartime end of cinema. That’s not the only issue making War for the Planet of the Apes feel like a moderate-at-best success, though. The apes look great; they’re believably animated in an eerie, modern CGI rendering that recalls the Disney-funded majesty of last year’s live action Jungle Book remake. The problem is that kind of CG spectacle isn’t all that interesting in the long run. As realistic as the apes look, they’re still just slightly off in a way that’s more distracting than it likely would have been if their image were more stylized. I’m not sure there was any point during the picture where I wasn’t thinking about the quality of the special effects, which isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of cinematic priorities. That kind of summertime special effects showcase typically comes with a long line of normalizing, Major Studio requirements too. There’s an oddly conspicuous Coca-Cola ad placement involving an abandoned 18-wheeler the camera lingers on for an eternity. The movie opens with a labored text scroll that attempts to walk the audience through the plot points & the “Rise/Dawn” title confusion of its two predecessors. It attempts to head off critics’ readymade puns like “Ape-ocalypse Now” & “The Great Esc-Ape” by making those allusions itself, which feels like a Major Studio brand attempting to control the conversation instead of allowing the film to be its own weird self. The whole ordeal just feels meticulously calculated & restrained.

 Without question, the second entry in the Apes trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, remains my favorite film in the franchise. There was something oddly wild & unpredictable about that film, which gifted the world one of my all-time favorite action movie images: the ape on horseback simultaneously operating two machine guns. I’m not sure there’s anything to be found in this follow-up that’s half as exciting as that image. Even Woody Harrelson’s character, who’s clearly supposed to echo Brando’s Colonel Kurtz performance from Apocalypse Now, feels fairly run of the mill for a crazed war movie villain. He nonchalantly shaves his head with a straight razor, wears sunglasses at inappropriate times, and eats apple slices off a combat knife; all of that macho posturing feels cinematically overfamiliar. By the time a Jimi Hendrix needle drop finds him listening to Vietnam War era rock alone at his boozy command station I felt as if I had already met this character a thousand times before. It was a beat that made me roll my eyes just as hard as any of Steve Zahn’s attempts to resurrect Pauly Shore humor or his silent little girl companion’s similarly cliché visual representations of Wartime Innocence (complete with tenderly earnest offers of a single flower). If it weren’t for the presence of CG apes in its central roles or the movie’s lengthy, silent stretches of sign language communication, War for the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t feel much different from any number of big budget war movies or grim franchise-closers. It’s competently made and visually impressive. It’s got a strikingly sorrowful brutality to it that helps distinguish it slightly from the other bombastic works of calculated studio bloat floating out there in the summertime blockbuster heat. Still, titles like Dawn or, better yet, Okja are exciting reminders that CG spectacle can be something much more idiosyncratic, more passionate, and more memorable than that. At least Kong: Skull Island is a fresh-on-the-mind counterpoint signaling that it also could’ve been much worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

I can’t tell if J.J. Abrams’ current career status would be a nerd’s wildest dream or their worst nightmare. Both? Simultaneously tasked with commanding sci-fi nerdom’s two most beloved properties, Star Wars & Star Trek, I’m sure he’s giddy with the power of adapting two franchises he surely grew up loving. Nerds are a tough bunch to please, though, so there’s an absurd amount of external pressure to not muck up their sacred texts, a pressure even Star Wars creator George Lucas wasn’t protected from (after he admittedly mucked them up spectacularly). One of the most delightful things I have to report about Abrams’ first Star Wars feature (of presumably many to come), The Force Awakens, is simply that it is by no means a misstep or a failure. I’m in a nice sweet spot of expectation where I grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy, but not to a rabid, detail-obsessed degree that would leave me nitpicking whatever Abrams delivered. Coming from that perspective, I can’t exactly speak on behalf of Star Wars fanatics, but as a movie lover it’s hard to imagine that they’d be anything but pleased by The Force Awakens as a finished product. A great balance of enthusiastic fan service & promising new ideas/story threads, the latest entry in the Star Wars universe is far from the muted, just-good-enough, tragedy-averted compromise of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie (or Abrams’ own Star Trek work, for that matter). It’s an actually-great, entirely successful new birth for the franchise, sometimes feeling like it could be in contention as being nearly just as good as Episodes IV or V. The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.

Of course, because the film is so fresh & so highly anticipated, there’s an intense fear over the possibility of spoilers among some viewers, so I’ll try to tread lightly in this review. Even a simple roll call feels like a small betrayal, but it’s a somewhat necessary one. On the fan service end of Abrams’ well-calculated formula, the film could’ve just as easily been titled Star Wars Episode VII: The Gang’s All Here. Luke Skywalker’s importance to the universe has escalated to mythical proportions as he’s reported to be “the last Jedi.” His sister Leia has graduated from princess to general, establishing herself as the figurehead of The Resistance. Speaking of which, The Resistance is an obvious stand-in/update for The Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy, just as its The First Order big bad is a stand-in/update for the older films’ Galactic Empire. The only figure that seems to not have changed a lick is swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, who remains as steadfast in his personality as a droid would, just as unable to evolve in his demeanour as the same-as-ever C-3PO. The characters are far from the only elements re-purposed from the franchise’s origins, though. A quest to locate Luke & the wisdom of Jedi knowledge is very much reminiscent of Luke’s quest to train with Yoda. There’s also some major theme callbacks like struggling with identity in the context of parentage and, of course, the eternal struggle of Good vs. Evil (in the succinctly-framed balance of The Force) mixed among much smaller tips of the hat to details like space chess & the infamous Cantina scene. I also had a lot of fun with the way it indulged in recreations of the older films’ exact screen wipes & Force-manipulation battles (which are essentially 100% sound cues & intense trembling). The greatest trick The Force Awakens pulls off, though, is when it finds a metaphor for its own existence in the callbacks. For instance, an almost exact replica of The Death Star is represented here, except that it’s 20 times larger, much like Abrams’ budget vs. what Lucas was originally working with. And then, of course, there’s the BB-8 “ball droid”, which is essentially a cuter, more technically impressive, surprisingly versatile version of R2-D2. It’s a modern update to a classic model, much like the film itself.

Speaking of BB-8, that little bugger has got to be the most exciting new addition to the Star Wars canon right? It’s at least the film’s breakout star, a kind of acknowledgement to the merchandising end of the franchise (in that it’s super cute & palatable for children), but also a ruthless, shrewd, determined, even dangerous character in its own right (possibly in a conscious effort to distance its cuteness from the heavily debated, somewhat purposeless existence of Ewoks). For the full year of advertising we all survived in order to get to this point, all I could think about in relation to this film was BB-8. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ four second delivery of “I’m Ball Droid. I gotta roll on out of here,” got me more hyped on watching The Force Awakens more than any particular ad did (and, of course, that clip continuously played through my head once I actually got to watch it). There are a lot of of other great, new characters introduced to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, including a new possible future for the Jedi tradition, a rage-filled Sith-in-training prone to on-brand temper tantrums, and a Storm Trooper With a Heart of Gold, but in a lot of ways they feel like echoes of characters we’ve seen in the past films (well, except maybe for that Storm Trooper dude). There’s just something really special about the BB-8, whether or not it’s taking up the baton from a still-beloved R2-D2. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in character design as well as exploitation of body language & subtle vocal manipulation. For new viewers entering the Star Wars universe for the first time with The Force Awakens (and they do exist) a lot of old, well-established familial ties & big concepts like The Force are going to be somewhat off-putting, since the film is not going to be able to hold their hands through the catch-up process, but BB-8 is such a great encapsulation of what makes the franchise work for so many people that it might not be a problem. It’s the perfect little tour guide for a space-set soap opera that’s only going to get more tangled & complex as these films continue to be produced (which will probably be for eternity, considering how much money this one will make at the box office). It’s instantly loveable & accessible.

I’m not going to pretend that The Force Awakens is perfect. I was a little off-put by some of the CGI reliance, particularly when it came to intimate interactions with alien faces. A lot of the CGI is nicely restrained & deftly employed, but it gets tiresome to look at (and is guaranteed to age poorly) whenever it’s used on a green-screened character with more than a line or two of dialogue. I also felt that the action sequences could sometimes go a bit long in a way that softened their impact, but that’s a small quibble, especially considering just how visceral & vicious things get in the climactic lightsaber battle. For the most part, though, it’s a remarkably difficult film to complain about. Even with lines like the racially-tinged throwaway gag “Droid, please”, which should fall flat in a very uncomfortable way, the film somehow makes it work. It’s easy to tell that Abrams & his collaborators were huge fans of the franchise doing their best to deliver a film that most people could love. He finds an immensely satisfying balance here of recreating past successes from the original trilogy, but with entirely new purpose. Much like the universe it inhabits, The Force Awakens feels old, beat up, lived in, the exact kind of world-building last year’s The Guardians of the Galaxy strained to establish in just one film, but this time with an extensive back catalog of content for support. The film’s ragtag group of heroes more or less winging it in their quest to overthrow The First Order may be very reminiscent of a similar motley crew who tried to overthrow The Galactic Empire (for instance, a female lead most certainly not in need of constantly being saved shouts “Stop taking my hand!”, which could have very easily been an old-school Leia moment), but they’re more of a refreshing evolution than a shameless retread. Sure, The Force Awakens can rely on work already put in by past films for lines like “Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force” to actually mean something, but it also finds its own touching moments, like in the question of when is running from a threat a form courage & when is it a submission to fear or in finding the simple goodness of people in exchanges like “Why are you helping me?” “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Most importantly, it feels like all of the ground work of pleasing fans through callbacks & establishing its own competence as a unique property are now out of the way, which is in a lot of ways a burden lifted. When the film ends, you’re genuinely excited to see where the story goes next because the future of the franchise is promised to be less self-reflective, more open-ended, uncharted territory. I’m already getting amped about Episode VIII‘s release in Spring 2017 as I type this, which I guess is a sign that Abrams did something exactly right in The Force Awakens.

Bonus points: There are a lot of great new-to-the-scene actors in this film – Adam Driver, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, etc. What really made me giddy, though, is that both Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac made the cast, which makes for just about the most unexpected Ex Machina reuninon I could possibly imagine. Those two films are so far from one another on the opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum that it’s difficult to justify that they’re billed as being in the same genre at all.

-Brandon Ledet