Friday, January 1, 2016

"Are we really doing this?" Thoughts about Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I wasn't certain I would bother seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the theatres. The trailers made very little impression on me - simply seeing the Millennium Falcon or Han Solo again doesn't cause me to "geek out." I was perfectly fine having no more Star Wars films.

Still, it did cause me to reflect a little upon the franchise in the months leading up to the film, thus leading to my six-part look at Roy Thomas & Howard Chaykin's Star Wars comics (part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5; part 6). I also told the story of how I watched the Star Wars prequels, which was an anecdote I'd long been meaning to share. Finally, I listed my top 10 favourite moments in Star Wars #51-52.

When my friends Al & Nathan asked if I would like to watch The Force Awakens with them, I said yes. As part of my ongoing effort to not be a jerk, I've resolved that I won't refuse watching films with my friends (unless the film they want to see is truly dire). Further, I had a suspicion that Force Awakens would be at least as good as J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek and that was entirely watchable. My friends tasked me with buying them tickets and after we sorted out which night and time we would go, it transpired that we wound up going on cheap movie night and the showing was in the "reclined seating" room. I had never seen a film with reclined seating before and being able to reserve our seats (no need to arrive early) and recline while watching was so pleasant (and at $8 per seat, affordable) that I was already in a pretty good humour as the film came on.

The lights came up and Nathan asked, "What did you think?" One word came to mind:

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE

"Safe." Then, reflecting on that word added, "...Which is a strange way to describe a film that killed Han Solo."

Star Trek fans may argue about when the franchise lost its soul, but I think we mostly agree that has happened. The two Abrams films were fairly generic action adventure/science fiction films (hence why I'm known to refer to them as "Space Dudes") which succeeded in making money despite being extremely superficial in how it approached the material. Now Abrams has come to Star wars and the difference is striking; although Abrams makes filming choices which Lucas wouldn't (the tight close-ups, off-center angles, lens flare), and yet at the same time submits to the audience's expectations from a Star Wars film. The music, sound effects, vehicle designs, costumes, props and screen wipes which one would expect in Star Wars are there and the plot is (as many have noted) very much like that of the original Star Wars.

Nathan told me he wished the film had been less safe - "taken risks" - but as the beginning of a new franchise which hopes to spawn a limitless number of new Star Wars films, the way to start is definitely to assure the audience that things are much the same. You know, it's like poetry: they rhyme.

On the one hand, I don't really want to see more Star Wars - I liked the ending of Return of the Jedi, which pretty much has to be overturned in order to generate another conflict. It also seems disingenous to continue Star Wars without Lucas as those films were so tied up in his interests, particularly his love for old serials. When Lucas did a screen wipe in Star Wars, it was an expression of his love for Akira Kurosawa. When Abrams uses a screen wipe in Star Wars, it's an expression of his fidelity to Star Wars. Star Wars was a thing which nostalgia spawned; now it has become the nostalgic thing which references itself. We have gazed too long into that abyss.

On the other hand, The Force Awakens is... good. Like, I enjoyed it more than either of Abrams' Star Trek films. How'd that happen? To again sum it up with one word:

FINN

As I said, I wasn't sucked into this film by the power of nostalgia. Thus, I was extremely pleased to find something in this film which I truly enjoyed - the character of Finn, who has a pretty good case for being the story's protagonist. He's a sort of audience surrogate - familiar with the past history of the franchise but uncertain of what the new plot is all about. I really enjoy stories about characters who are self-involved and gradually become heroic (it was basically Han's arc in the first film). So Finn, the reluctant Stormtrooper, escapes the First Order and has to think on his feet, trying to get out of danger. When he volunteers information to help assault the First Order's Starkiller weapon - his motivation being to rescue Rey - he finally becomes entirely selfless (and, noticeably, more confident in himself).

I know there are some concerns about Finn not being a Jedi, as the advertising suggested. I guess it would have been a big deal for African-American audiences? I mean, Rey being a Jedi has to be a big deal for women, but why would Finn being a Jedi be so huge for African-Americans? We already had Samuel "Internet Meme" L. Jackson as a Jedi - albeit, one who held as much intrigue as a rice wafer. But isn't it enough that Finn's a great character? When Kylo Ren demands Finn turn over his lightsaber and Finn answers, "Come and get it!" I was more engrossed in the picture than at any other moment - 'cause I knew Finn didn't have a prayer of winning, but I really wanted to see him succeed. The real triumph was that he was going to try and beat the villain on his own terms.

I also admire that Finn helps muddy the waters around Stormtroopers, making them less acceptable as cannon fodder. Now that we know they're not all evil and others might possibly want to switch sides. As a guy who's often bothered by the callous treatment of life in sci-fi epics, to me the redemption of Finn points the value of all lives.

How much do I like Finn? Having previously been unengaged with these films, I am now pre-sold on the continuation because I want to know what will happen to Finn!

Then there's...

KYLO REN

Man, can you believe we used to make jokes about Anakin Skywalker being the "emo Jedi?"

There's something formidable and ridiculous about Kylo Ren. Formidable, because he demonstrates force abilities which Darth Vader apparently didn't have (halting blaster fire mid-air, immobilizing people) and has an extremely loose temper which causes him to smash up perfectly good electronics (which makes sense to me - if the Sith are supposed to be the ones consumed with anger, fear, hatred, etc, then they shouldn't all be calm and collected). He's ridiculous in the way that he tries to emulate his grandfather. I felt it was a mistake to unmask him before his face-to-face encounter with Han Solo because his big dorky face seriously defangs him. Still, as soon as you see him unmasked you finally understand who he is: he's a nerd. He cosplays as Darth Vader, prays to his collectibles and isn't quite as powerful or dangerous as he likes to pretend.

He's no Darth Vader, but he works well enough as a villain (certainly better by far than any prequel foes). But strangely, the most contentious character is:

REY

Although I didn't look up anything on the film before watching it, I did occasionally see article headlines which gave away certain details. Some time before seeing the film I saw Rey called "Mary Sue." Having seen the film I have to say - I kinda agree? I mean, she's not a Mary Sue in the sense that I don't think she's the author's surrogate. However, she does seem unreasonably perfect; she avoids the temptation to surrender BB-8 for food; she doesn't need Finn's help in a fight; she can fly the Millennium Falcon, fix everything aboard it, seems to know it better than Han; she escapes the First Order before she can be rescued and she turns out to be so good at using the Force that she doesn't even need training to figure stuff out. She has maybe two failings: she lets out some monsters by mistake while trying to help Han (but the monsters wind up helping anyway) and she loses in her first enounter with Kylo Ren. For much of the film she's great at everything and is just waiting for the necessary motivation to do something.

Some online have countered that Luke Skywalker was pretty good at everything he attempted in the first film. To which I counter: not really. He whined an awful lot (fans have yet to forgive him for a certain line involving "power converters"), even during his one training scene and he tried to backseat drive with Han when he had no idea what was going on. Rey doesn't whine, gets by without training and is pretty much a peer to Han.

Then again, my favourite super hero is Captain America, a guy who I'm steadfast against being laden with personal failings, so what do I know? (but of course, Cap doesn't always win fights, he just tries - which again, is an attribute I noticed in Finn) I hope that the next film will give Rey some kind of personal troubles which will counteract her seemed "perfection" in this debut film.

It does seem odd to me that Kylo Ren accuses Rey of looking up to Han as a father. At that time she'd known Han for what, six hours? (probably Kylo reflecting his own Daddy Issues)

There's still a lot of mystery surrounding Rey so I'm not ready to praise or condemn her yet. The jury is out.

WHAT ELSE?

Nathan felt the movie had "just enough" C-3PO for him; I could have taken a little more, as his reintroduction was one of the funnier moments in the picture. And yet, Abrams might not be comfortable with the slapstick antics C-3PO normally generates. BB-8 was a welcome source of cuteness and comedy, however.

R2-D2's reawakening at the end of the film makes no sense. Did he wake up then because he read the script? I bet that's it. Maybe it was the will of the Force.

In addition to Finn's redemption, I like that the Stormtroopers have picked up some new tricks. That baton which could withstand lightsaber strikes is a pretty great weapon for future films since it gets boring when Jedi can't be stopped by their enemies (re: battle droids).

This must easily be the first Star Wars film to pass the Bechdel Test (even if you include Abrams' two Star Trek films). This film just be the first time two women in Star Wars spoke to each other about anything (in fact, the female quotient seems higher than usual).

My relatives wanted to talk to me mainly about how much Han Solo had to do in the film (they thought he'd show up for only a cameo). Perhaps a greater surprise is how much Chewbacca had to do, considering his lack of English dialogue. Heck, it might be the most demanding part Peter Mayhew has ever played.

Anyway: Star Wars! You already have an opinion.

2 comments:

Craig Dylke said...

We're mind melding again.

Pretty much my take on the film.

Finn saved it, and does in fact have me excited for future films (though I'm still meh on this one). I have to say my 2nd fav character was Poe, and it wasn't cause he flew a X-Wing (though that didn't hurt :P) it was his scenes with Finn. Loved those.

My biggest complaints against this film was incredibly lazy universe building and nostalgia substituting for it.

I would have loved a Indian Jones style race across the new universe to find Luke. Thus we are organically introduced to the universe, and we can build to things...

This one was such a story mess that when we got to the Darth Star shooting, I really did not care one bit. Who was shooting? Who was being shot? What impact is this going to have not? Oh you're not going to tell me, then I don't care.

While visually I liked the space fights, you'll be shocked to hear the end one fell completely flat for me :( I was all over that lightsaber fight.

Han Solo was probably the most irritating thing in the film for me. He was just like Old Spock in Space Dudes, he stole the spotlight from the new people. I found I was fine with the rebooted status quo until Han showed up, then I desperately required exposition to explain how we got here from Return of the Jedi... and again I never got it.

So good characters, crap story, and incompetent universe building.

Michael Hoskin said...

There certainly isn't much of Poe, but I did like his snarky remarks to Kylo Ren (again, pointing to Ren as inferior to Vader - no would speak like that to Vader and survive). But I do like the Finn/Poe friendship despite the inevitable "omg they r so gay lol" internet reactions.

Considering how much I know you love space fights, upon reflection I can guess the film did indeed do very little for you on the front. I suppose the brief aerial skirmish over the lake was the high point for you, in that regard?

I was fine with Han skipping over the exposition because Star Wars has a tradition of being a "lived-in" universe where details are glossed over. Like, the upcoming Rogue One is, to my mind, a much more incompetent idea because it's going to dramatize something we didn't need to see dramatized, anymore than I need to know the story of how Luke's lightsaber wound up in a cantina basement. That's the sort of thing better left to the EU (and we both know how the EU turned out).