Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I will try to avoid major spoilers, but this is a discussion of the new movie. There may be spoilers, especially in the comments.

The Force Awakens is a competent but unimaginative movie. It's like Disney asked "What are the elements of a Star Wars movie?" and then went down the list and added in equivalents of each item.

The prequels were bad movies, significantly worse than The Force Awakens. But even they had a sense of vision that TFA lacks. Lucas was trying to tell a story, to tell something new. To add something to his universe. While watching TFA, I got the sense that this movie was so insistent on reminding you that it is a Star Wars movie, that it forgot to be its own thing.

As a result, TFA comes off as a pale copy, a second-rate Star Wars. That's true of many elements in the movie as well. The First Order is a second-rate Empire, Kylo Ren is a second-rate Darth Vader, Jakku is a second-rate Tatooine, BB-8 is a second-rate R2-D2. There are a lot more parallels, but that gets into spoiler territory.

But a second-rate Star Wars is still a pretty good movie.

There are many good things about TFA. The two new leads, Rey and Finn, are solid, engaging characters. Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford, and pretty much steals every scene he's in.

I think Finn is a bit of a missed opportunity. He's an ex-Stormtrooper, but the film went to great lengths to make sure you know he's a good guy and never did anything bad. He might have been far more interesting as a redeemed bad guy.

As for Rey, she's a decent heroine. The problem with Rey is that she is ... excessively competent.  (Though this is probably mandatory for a female lead in an action movie these days.) Compare her character to Luke Skywalker from the first movie. The problem is that she has no path to growth. I rather think the only way she'll become interesting is if she falls to the Dark Side.

I should note that complaints about Finn and Rey are minor at best. In many ways they were the best part of the movie.

But I keep returning to the part about "adding something". The really good works in an extended universe make that universe richer and more interesting. As an example, take Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy. Those books may not have been the greatest literature but they gave us Grand Admiral Thrawn and the Chiss, among many other elements. The Force Awakened really does not expand Star Wars in any direction.

As well, I think that I am not a fan of J.J. Abrams, at least his movies. So far, he tends to string together frentic action scenes instead of making an actual movie. It's like "action sequence, glue scene, action sequence, glue scene, repeat". It's not as bad as the atrocity which was Star Trek: Into Darkness. However, I think TFA would actually have been better with fewer action sequences.

To be fair, I think a lot of modern action and sci-fi movies have the same problem. I blame the extensive budgets of modern films. The the older films couldn't afford to make the entire film a special effects extravaganza, so they saved up for a few really key sequences. But now budgets are such that directors can and do go crazy, and I think the films suffer for it.

In any case, that's what I thought of The Force Awakens. It's decent enough, but unimaginative. If you were asked what a Star Wars movie "designed by committee" would look like, you'd probably come up with The Force Awakens.


  1. "The problem with Rey is that she is ... excessively competent. (Though this is probably mandatory for a female lead in an action movie these days.)"

    I watched Sicario a couple of days ago. There, main character Kate (Emily Blount) is mercilessly pushed around by Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), two macho dudes, members of CIA and the Medellin cartel respectively. I expected her to stand up to them right up to the end of the movie, but the moment never came.

    Althought competent in her field of work, she doesn't stand a chance with Matt and Alejandro. It's Man's world in Sicario and she's merely a woman. (And Sicario isn't an action movie after all.)

    1. That's the twist (or one of them anyway) of Sicario; you are lead to believe Kate is the 'main character' of the movie, and so you expect main character things to happen with/to her, but ultimately she is just a pawn to the real players that make things happen. She is added on to satisfy paperwork, which was an excellent justification for including her to the team to begin with. Her partner, a male, is basically in the same spot, but just isn't shown as the 'main character'.

      It's not about her being female, its about her being DEA in a world were the DEA is powerless and subgroups of the CIA run things.

      Sicario is an amazing movie too, highly recommended.

  2. I think it's fair to criticise the film for not being original enough, but at the same time I can't help but feel that Disney probably made the right call here. A lot of the disappointment about the prequels stemmed not just from things like bad acting but from a feeling that George Lucas didn't really "get" what people liked about the original trilogy. I think there was a lot of trepidation about what would happen after the change at the helm, and Episode VII is basically Disney saying: "Don't worry, we get what you liked about Star Wars. This stuff." I'm hoping that they'll dare to bring in some more new ideas from Episode VIII onwards.

    As for Rey being "excessively" competent, this article says it better than I ever could. :) I also don't see how being a competent fighter from the start means that she has no room to grow... it's not all about thwacking things after all.

    1. The thing is that Rey encompasses all three main characters from the original trilogy.

      - She has the determination and stubborness of Leia (resists interrogation by the Sith Lord).
      - She has the ace piloting skills of Luke, Han Solo, and Lando.
      - She has physical fighting skills beyond all of them.
      - She has the saber skills of Luke *after* his training with Yoda, maybe even from Return of the Jedi.
      - She's as good a shot with a blaster as Han is.
      - She has as good with fixing mechanical things as Han is.
      - She is more powerful in the Force than Luke was until RotJ.

      She's basically all three characters from the first trilogy in one package. Is there anything that an original character could do better than her?

      At the very least, she should have lost her saber duel with Kylo Ren. The way it is now is the equivalent of Luke beating Vader in a saber duel in the first movie.

    2. That last comparison doesn't ring true at all. Luke started ANH as a pretty clueless farm boy, while Rey is introduced as a survivalist who is skilled in close combat, able to fight off multiple attackers at once with her staff. The movie also makes it quite clear that Ren isn't as good as Vader, not to mention that he's already heavily wounded by the time he gets to duel Rey.

      She definitely has some "chosen one" vibes about her, similar to Anakin in the prequels, but for all the complaints people have about those, I don't recall "bah, why is this Anakin guy so powerful" being one of them. I don't know if you read the article I linked, but it also cites examples of extremely powerful and skilled (male) characters in other movies that don't get picked apart nearly as much.

      For what it's worth, there were parts about Rey's power that I also found a bit odd, such as when she basically uses a Jedi mind trick on that one storm trooper, because the film hadn't shown her observing or even ever hearing about those kinds of Force powers before. However, considering that we know absolutely nothing about her background (which is where I personally see huge development potential), I'm happy to just wait and see. One of the already more popular fan theories is that she actually also received Jedi training at a young age and was hidden away after the Kylo Ren "incident" to protect her.

  3. (Plugs fingers into ears): Blah blah blah I CAN'T HEEEAAAR YOU!!!!!

    It's gonna be a while before I see the movie, so I skipped right to the "add your comment" and added this... ;-)

    1. Heh, I figured the internet and especially SWTOR would be unbearable unless I saw the movie, so I made the effort to see it early.

  4. Rey is like Annakin in the 3 that should not be mentioned... She talks every language, pilots stuff, fixes everythign and was a slave(ish). My guess is she will be the annakin that doesn't fall to the dark side.

    Btw the comment about Finn... he is the guy that says: "I know how to turn off the shield, you can attack np." then has no idea and only cares about saving Rey. Not a good guy, at all.

    1. Well, Finn isn't a bad guy either. He doesn't shoot the civilians, and he runs away from the First Order as soon as he can. That's what I meant. The fact that he isn't precisely heroic, but a bit cowardly and selfish makes him a little more sympathetic, I thought.

  5. Exactly what I thought: this is a lame fanfic. Every scene is stolen from one of the original movies. Except for the one where the spherical monster is rolling after Han Solo. That was stolen from Indiana Jones. The result: I always knew what will happen in the end of the scene. Jar Jar was bad, but was unique and was going somewhere. The new characters are just lame echoes of the old ones. Old Leia is the most orignial among all characters, even Han Solo failed to show any improvement over 40 years. I mean seriously?! The hero of the rebellion, the husband of the new leader and the father of the bad guy is ... a pity smuggler in the SAME damn bar?!

    Another horrible thing: Poe, who supposed to be an ace fighter and that's it, he has no other scenes than being ace fighter. How did he survived that crash, why did he not look for his droid?! Any decent director would expand his story or fully omit it and replace him with "nameless pilot #15465".

    The problem with Rey isn't that she's competent. After she drives the Milleneum Falcon and Finn shoots, they both acclaim on their surprise how did they do it, hinting that *someone* was watching over them. It is that she lacks any feminity. Strong women overcome the difficulties that sexism causes them (like Leia killing Jabba with the chain he placed on her to be his sex toy). I think her character was written as an ubermacho cartoon male and some higher-up ordered the director to put in a female lead and the actor was replaced with an actress without any further changes. She isn't fencing with a lightsaber, she is brawling with a stick that was CGI-ed to glow blue. Hell, Vader had more feminine elegance than her.

    The role of the Republic is a complete mess. What are they and how are they connected to "the Resistance". Why don't they fight a war with the First Order?

    Kylo Ren worships Vader, despite Vader was redeemed and his spirit joined the light in RoJ. Why isn't he appears before him and set him right?

    BB-8 behaves and treated as an adorable puppy, instead of a droid. Droids in the original stories were very useful and valuable tools, but still just tools.

    I'm afraid we have no one but ourselves to blame. Part 1-3 had problems but were solid movies with story, unique characters and scenes. We hated them and rejected them to the point of bullying Lucas out of the project. We cursed everything that wasn't like the old ones. Now we got a film that is EXACTLY as the old ones.

    1. My bet is that the early versions of the script had Poe play a larger role in the movie, and be present in the Jakku scenes. But then the writers decided to focus more on Finn and Rey, rather than a triad, and cut Poe from Jakku.

      As for your femininity comments, the best way to explain it is that North American culture no longer believes that that style of femininity, I'll call it grace, is or should be universal among women. That grace is a learned part of behaviour, rather than innate.

      In this view of the world, it's not surprising that an orphan female scrounger would grow up on a harsh world without learning grace.

    2. Actually, according to Abrams, Poe was meant to die in the crash in the first draft. Because Oscar Isaac didn't want the so small a part he expanded the role, never explaining the crash survival.

  6. I've yet to see the movie, but I haven't shied away from spoilers such as those in RedLetterMedia's related videos.

    It was clear before TFA released that what we were getting was a soft reboot. Not so much an expansion of the existing story as a new base, free of the prequels, to move forward with. It's a new hope for Star Wars.

    Your thoughts on Rey's competence make a lot of sense.. perhaps unfortunate, but we'll see how her character plays out in future movies. Imagine how blah Whedon's Buffy would have been had she started out so competent; she was still seen as a strong female role despite her weaknesses and more interesting as a result of them.

    When I first heard about all of the Ep4 parallels, I was reminded of another RLM video covering Bay's Transformers movies. They watched a few side by side and commented at how often types of events (such as introducing Bumblebee, or random hot girl) occured at near enough the exact same timestamp. Bay's "recipe for success".

    Perhaps Disney played it safe, in an effort to recoup their investment, by using Ep4 as a recipe to get started?

    I agree that movies need less action/special effects and more focus on story. I've no doubt they could find a balance that wouldn't bore us with the likes of Lucas' "A camera, B camera bench shots."