Sunday, January 10, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Early Thoughts

I am spoiling everything been warned you have.

In the interest of full disclosure I’ll say right now that I was going into this film with a ton of bias.  Star Wars was my first sci-fi.  I’ve seen the originals, and the special editions of them, I’ve lambasted the prequels.  I’ve read a large chunk of the expanded universe and enjoyed it.  I liked reading about how the characters grew and changed after the war was over and the building and maintaining of the New Republic began.  I liked many of the new characters including Jacen and Jania until the New Jedi Order series when the whole thing crashed down into…this movie actually.  So I was hesitant when I learned all of that was being erased with this film.  I was also hesitant because I don’t like JJ Abrams.  I don’t like what he did with the Star Trek reboot.  I don’t like the way he does action, never holding the camera steady so you can actually see things, and I don’t think he really cares about distinguishing himself as a filmmaker and that bothers me.  So needless to say this film had a big hill to climb to win me over and unfortunately it didn’t quite make it.  It’s not horrible, but it ain’t that great either.

Well let’s start with what I do like about this film and that’s our new characters.  I like Finn and his redemption arc in a way.  When he first doesn’t fire on the villagers in the opening my first thought was that maybe he was part of the Resistance, but it was nice to learn that he was just a guy who realized that what they were doing was wrong and took the first opportunity he could to get away.  I liked Rey, especially her introduction where we see her scavenging old ships and carving another line alongside so many others.  It lets us know she’s been barely getting by in the wasteland for a long time.  It conveyed the story visually so we didn’t have to get bogged down in a lot of exposition heavy dialogue.  I know of all the complaints of her being a Mary Sue, but I’d like to address that later in the review.  Poe was also a fun character, but I wish we had seen just a little bit more of him.  I mean I know he’s a great pilot and…?

I like the return of Han Solo here too.  Sure it’s for cameo purposes, but at least he had something useful to do!  He helps get our heroes and B88 to the Resistance.  It’s the same role he had in A New Hope and I’ll get to that problem in a bit, but I still liked it.  I like that he took the initiative to go to the Starkiller base without prompting.  I like that it was his plan with the Falcon that succeeded in getting them in.  I like that he basically ran away and went back to doing the only thing he thought he was good at after he lost his son.  It makes sense that he would see himself as a failure as a father when that happened, and it connects him to Finn who is also running away from his past.  In fact I think it could have been a little bit stronger if there had been just a little bit more talk between them when they were heading into the base.  Rather than Finn saying he was only in it to rescue Rey and then not anymore because…she got out herself I guess?  Maybe I missed something.   

Now this being Star Wars the effects are really good as always and I like that there is some kind of explanation for why a ton of the technology is just updates from A New Hope.  The First Order uses what they have left over from the Empire.  The Resistance uses what is left over from the Rebels.  However, this does lead to the first huge downgrade in the film and that is…what the hell is going in that galaxy far, far away?  Why is there a Resistance?  Why aren’t the Republic and the Resistance one unit?  The First Order is said to have come from the ashes of the Empire in the opening crawl and I like that.  It makes sense that just because the Rebels destroyed the Deathstar and the emperor in Return of the Jedi that doesn’t mean the Empire just up and vanishes (that’s why I’ve always preferred the tiny Ewok celebration in the original film over the galaxy wide celebration we got in the special edition.)  It make sense that there would still be factions in the galaxy still loyal to the Empire.  That there would be people seeking to grab power for themselves now that Vader and the Emperor and a whole bunch of other top dogs are gone.  But how do they now have the power and resources to steal children away from their families?  How did they manage to build a planet sized Deathstar?  I mean there’s a throw away line in A New Hope about the how the last of the Galactic Republic has been squashed and they won’t interfere with the Empire’s plans, but that film was the first one out of the gate it can afford to leave certain things out.  It makes clear in the opening crawl that this is a civil war between two factions and the opening shot lets us know that the Empire is the one with all the power and resources.  The Rebels and Empire are clearly the only two things that really matter to the central conflict.  The Force Awakens doesn’t have that luxury because it’s a sequel.  If it was taking place directly after Return of the Jedi there could have been some dialogue in an opening space battle like:

“I thought things were supposed to get better with the Emperor dead!”

“You take out the top guy in power it creates a vacuum, and there’s always someone looking to fill the void.”

But it doesn’t this film takes place thirty years after those events so knowing how the balance of power has managed to shift so dramatically in that time is important.  Yes, exposition heavy dialogue is boring, the prequels have clearly shown that, but you don’t have to have people just talk about it.  You could do it visually, you could stick it in the opening crawl instead of all that stuff about how Luke Skywalker has disappeared and the First Order wants the last Jedi destroyed.  Why I don’t know since the force is back to being a myth even though Luke was said to be training other Jedi and with him helping to defeat the Emperor by returning Vader/Anakin to the light side you’d think that would have ended up on a news feed at some point, but apparently not.  Also why does the stupid map Mcguffin exist?  Why would there be a map to a guy who clearly doesn’t want to be found?  Why can’t we have something that’s character driven for this like Leia and Luke reaching out for each other and connecting when Han dies and she tells Rey where to find him?

Now since I’ve brought up the biggest spoiler it’s time to talk about the man who caused it Kylo Ren.  I hate this character, and not in the love to hate way I think he just sucks.  One problem is that the actor doesn’t look remotely menacing, I think it’s the hair and the lips that are throwing me off, and he looks nothing like Han Solo.  When Han gave the line “when you saw me you’d think of him” I expected there to be some resemblance between them but there isn’t.  I just don't buy this guy as the son of Han and Leia I’m sorry.  So all the tension in the confrontation between Ben and his father on the bridge is empty  for me, because I can’t connect these characters together.  Also I don’t like him being named Ben.  In the EU Ben is the name of Luke’s son and that makes sense given his connection to Obi-wan Kenobi.  Neither Han nor Leia have that connection so why would they name their son Ben?  Unless it’s a connection to someone else like whoever that old guy in the opening was who clearly knows who Kylo Ren is.  The final nail in the coffin for me is that this guy acts like a toddler throwing a tantrum.  He is whipping out the lightsaber to bash away at equipment whenever something doesn’t go his way.  Vader this guy is not and that could have been interesting actually.  The force is strong in the Skywalker family, but if Ben was weak with the force he could have turned believing the dark side were make him more powerful because it’s faster and easier.  This would be a good explanation for why he is able to be bested by someone who has never wielded a lightsaber before.  Now this ties back into the Rey is a Mary Sue idea.  I do think some of her skills make sense.  I think she should be able to talk to droids and other aliens given that she lives in a place that seems to have them coming and going, we know she herself never leaves because she is waiting for her family.  It makes sense that she would know about ships and how they work.  She would have to learn or be taught this to know what parts are valuable to take back to the guy trading tech for food portions.  The piloting thing I don’t get, but whatever it seems to be a given that most characters in Star Wars are good pilots Han, Luke, Anakin, Wedge, Jania the list goes on.  I even think her learning the Jedi mind trick works, because that’s her first exposure to the force.  Ren is forcing his way into her mind and she defends so it makes sense that her first attempt at using the force would be the mental tricks.  However, that doesn’t tie into the lightsaber fight because of the force pull and why she just closes her eyes and that somehow the force is now with her I guess.  Now Kylo Ren just being a sucky Jedi also doesn’t work here because that opening scene shows him able to stop a blaster bolt in midair, something nobody else has ever done, and then by able to split his concentration enough to hold it there and continue giving orders.  Yes he is injured, but I don’t get why he even got injured at all.  He was shown to be able to stop stuff before so why can’t he stop Chewie’s shot?

And now we come to the biggest problem I have with this film and that is: JJ Abrams doing what he does best and that is yanking bits from other films smooshing them together and calling it his own.  We saw it with the Star Trek reboots and we see it here.  This film is A New Hope 2.0 with some stuff from Empire stuck in because it would be cool.  There is important information hidden in a droid, we spend the first act on a desert planet.  We have a cantina scene to find a ship, the red and blue lightsaber duel, Ren killing the old guy in the opening the same way Vader killed Obi-wan.  The mentor figure of our hero dies.  The main villains are being controlled by some spooky old guy.  The Resistance base, on a jungle planet no less, is being threatened by a planet destroying superweapon that’s even bigger and better than the Deathstar you guys!  Yet still can be defeated by targeting one small weak area that will take out the whole base.  Can’t you do anything new!?

This is why I think Abrams doesn’t care about his craft as a filmmaker.  He doesn’t seem to want to grow in his skills, to try different ideas, or film things certain ways as other directors do.  To quote another reviewer he is a me too director.  Steven Spielberg uses lens flares, me too! Only they’ll be more of them!  Nicolas Meyer made a revenge story, me too!  Lucas made a hero’s journey story, me too!  Only mine with have a bigger Deathstar and a crappier villain.  Where’s his drive to stand out?  Where’s his need to tell stories he wants to tell?

That's is why I like the new characters so much.  I like Finn trying to turn away from all he has ever known.  I like Finn and Poe escaping from the base and Poe giving Finn his name, because it’s giving us new information about the First Order, all troops are seen as units to be replaced and move on mass not individuals.  And watching a character struggle to reform themselves is something new.  Most of Han’s development happened off-screen so we could have his surprise return at the end to save Luke.  Vader turns good and then dies.  Finn is different from them and this is good.  Han and Leia’s relationship is different and I like that too.  They are clearly still in love but hurt from the loss of their son so we get to see that they’ve changed over time.  This is why I like Rey scavenging in the ruins of some battle with the Empire that we didn’t get to see, because it’s not a direct reference to the battle of Endor or Hoth.   This was something else that happened that shows that galaxy did actually have events going on between Jedi and now that impacted things.            

So yeah for me it’s good, but not great.  I like the new characters, except for Kylo Ren, I just wish the movie had taken the time to explore them rather than going beat for beat the plot of A New Hope.  Why do you even need the Starkiller in here anyway?  The opening crawl was about Luke disappearing and the map in BB8 is supposed to lead to him, why not just find Luke and save the plant killing weapon for the next film?  And yes I’m sure the next film will try to fill the gaps of what happened between Jedi and Awakens, but why is that the next film’s job?  Why would you build a story that someone else now has to fill in the gaps for?  Since Abrams won’t be directing the next one and has apparently moved on to the next shiny toy.  Having to explain things about your movie outside your movie is bad I don’t care if it’s in a sequel, and we don’t have confirmation that episode 8 will do any of this anyway.  Oh, and if Rey isn’t revealed to be Luke’s daughter or other familial connection to him in the next film I’ll eat my hat, hell I still half-expect Finn to be related to Lando, because god forbid you do stories about characters that have no relation to the Skywalkers. 

In the end this film was okay the action and effects worked, most of the characters I connected with I just wish the creative team had had a drive to want to do something new rather than rehash old concepts, because apparently the goal was to be just better than the prequels and that’s it.

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