Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Thoughts On The Force Awakens (Yes, SPOILER alert. IT'S BEEN TWO WEEKS PEOPLE)

Can't touch this.

This WILL HAVE SPOILERS. Although it's been two weekends now, let it go people, let it go... If you don't wanna read this, you don't have to.

Once you get past the thrill and enjoyment of there being another Star Wars movie, you can examine your feels and consider the actual merits and value of the movie.

In the good news category: The Force Awakens is a fun, well-crafted, well-acted piece of entertainment. In the bad news category: It's not a GREAT movie, mind you, nothing along the lines of MAD MAX FURY ROAD. Then again, few will be.

If I had to rank the movies this year by level of SHEER AWESOMENESS, it'd be Fury Road at the WITNESS IT level of YOU WILL ARRIVE IN VALHALLA SHINY AND CHROME, Force Awakens right behind it at the YES OMG IT'S GOOD, Age of Ultron about five or six levels below around Thank GOD Marvel Knows What It's Doing, Ant-Man in the middle of the pack at Exceeds ExpectationsJurassic World about twenty levels down around At Least There's a Dinosaur Battle, and Fantastic Four reboot in the trash-heap at Please Put 20th Century Fox Out of Our Misery.

Don't ask me how I feel about the Jem and the Holograms disaster. /cries

If you want me to go into greater details about what I liked and didn't like, here goes. (If you want someone else's view, I found this one, and John Scalzi's, and Flick Filosopher's view here, and maybe more)


They did an incredible job casting the new lead actors/actresses. Daisy Ridley as Rey is a goddamn find: with only a handful of television and independent short film performances to her credit, she's tasked with being one of the primary characters in one of the largest film franchises of all time, and she hits a home run in her first big movie lead. She plays Rey with the right balance of pluck, wistfulness, smarts, emotional heft, and glee.

John Boyega I knew from the criminally undervalued Attack the Block movie (a cult classic that deserves more love and should get more play now that Boyega is a superstar), so when they cast him as the co-lead Finn I already knew they hired a quality actor and what to expect. He didn't disappoint, and even displayed some comic timing I wasn't expecting, which added to the movie's appeal.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, the hotshot pilot of this new trilogy, impressed early on as a charismatic figure. Playing Poe as a confident veteran of an ongoing war, he interacts well with Finn during the first third of the film and provides a great way to re-introduce the audience to how the good guys - the Resistance - think and act. It's actually a problem the movie has when he disappears for most of the first and second acts of the story...

Adam Driver did excellent work as the saga's newest prominent villain Kylo Ren. Saddled with playing behind a mask for much of the movie, he does what he can with voice acting, and conveys the anger and arrogance of a Dark Force acolyte with exacting purpose. Once he does remove the mask, his angular yet oval face makes his villain appear boyish, almost innocent: except when the petulance kicks in, and when his fear gets the better of him...

BB-8. You keep forgetting that this machine is literally a film prop, just a remote-controlled droid, and yet it is so imbued with personality and care that you think the metal soccer ball is alive. It takes all the cuteness of R2-D2 and multiplies it by 100.

Just the way all three leads - Poe, Finn, Rey - play with BB-8 like kids believing the puppet is real and having fun doing so. The bit where Finn gets BB-8 to cover for him - and sharing a thumbs-up 'cause yeah dude - is both heartwarming and funny.

I liked the in-universe references to the previous movies. Building on its own history, this movie is filled with nods, homages, and nostalgic reminders. The opening world Jakku is littered with the debris of such history - Star Destroyers collapsed upon the sands like broken pyramids - signalling the passage of time and how events from the original trilogy are passing already into rust, dust, and legend.

Every re-introduction of a familiar face just makes the old veteran of the Star Wars - hooked since 1977 - like me break out with hoots and applause. Like the reuniting with old friends.

The characters are running from a wave of TIE fighters strafing the Jakku trading post.
Finn (points to an off-camera spaceship): What about that ship?
Rey: That one's garbage! (keeps running towards a shiny ship further away)
Shiny ship gets blasted by the TIE fighters.
Rey (shrugs): The garbage will do...
Both characters start running towards the Millennium Falcon half-shrouded like an abandoned hunk of junk. (audiences start cheering when we see it)

Han: Chewie, we're home...
Chewie: Rawwrrrr.

Chewie getting laughs every time he shrugs as Han digs himself into deeper holes dealing with space gangs.

Harrison Ford shifting the way Han Solo is played: no longer the cocky smuggler anti-hero, but now a Mentor figure to both Finn and Rey, becoming the Obi-Wan figure that Alec Guinness played in the first movie (there is some irony there). Playing father figure to the new leads in a way that humanizes Han even further and adds to the emotional nostalgia the film is already giving the audience.

The way Carrie Fisher - no, Leia - shakes her head seeing Han as they reunite when the Resistance shows up to fight the First Order on Maz Kanata's world.

Everyone knowing how a Sith / Dark Lord of the Force handles bad news. When Kylo throws a temper tantrum, he means it...

Two Stormtroopers patrolling a hallway come across Kylo throwing an epic conniption in a nearby room, and quietly turn around and walk away.

An overall upgrade to Stormtroopers, period. Jokingly considered bad shots the way they never hit our heroes, always used for cannon fodder, and eventually beaten by teddy bears, in this movie they're more formidable and thus memorable. In particular, the baton-wielding Trooper has become the One Scene Wonder of the movie, standing up to a lightsaber and winning that fight (until Han shows up with Chewie's bowcaster).

Rey confronting Kylo. First, in the woods as Kylo uses his experience with the Force to hunt, taunt, and capture Rey. Second, when Kylo tries to use his Force powers to mind-probe Rey, only to have Rey discover SHE has the Force and can use it to block his effort and read HIS mind. And Third...

...I wrote a whole long article about this on my political blog. About how Rey as the Hero of Campbellian archetype is a transformative figure. Because in that Third Confrontation...

...Rey uses her new-found link to the Force to summon Anakin/Luke's lightsaber to HER rather than let Kylo take it. This is a huge moment in the movie, arguably in modern cinema. The moment she grips that lightsaber and turns it on (with John Williams' epic score blaring a combination of Anakin and Luke's leitmotifs), it confirms that a woman CAN be the Hero of the Monomyth on her own terms.

Speaking of Rey using the Force, how she uses that new talent to Force Persuade a Stormtrooper - Ident JB-007 - to unlock her from the torture chair and leave the cell door open. Here's the thing: it takes three tries for her, it's not like she's just a brand-new person just mind-tricking everybody off the bat, she has to get a FEEL for how the Force works.
Rey (thinking quickly): And you will drop your weapon.
JB-007 (zoned out): AAaaaaannnnddd I will drop my weapon (does so).

And speaking about how the Force works, Finn gets it in his head during the rescue mission for Rey - as well as going off to blow up the Death Star 3.0 - that they can just rely on the Force to provide them with all the luck they need.

Han (remember, he started off not even believing in this stuff): THAT'S NOT HOW THE FORCE WORKS!

...and yet, all the plot points fall into place, so yeah, that IS how the Force works...

The final battle sequences, with all the fighting and the blowing up of things and good guys getting the shot in that takes out the Evil Empire First Order's superweapon, because that's what you do in a Star Wars movie, only this time there's no explosion it's just the planet-sized weapon turning into the star it just tried to consume, which is about five different kinds of symbolism there.

And the final scene. The poignant, painful expression on Rey's face as she holds up Anakin's lightsaber, offering it to the one person who can teach her the ways of the Force so Rey can become a Jedi... like her father... (yes, I believe that theory)

No Jar-Jar. Sorry, Ahmed Best, it's not you, it's how George wrote the guy.


The massive gap in the narrative when Poe drops off the screen. He'd been set up as a major character, desperate to rescue his droid and recover the map that leads to Luke Skywalker... and then he's seemingly killed off and disappeared, only to come back for the big rescue battle ending Part Two and opening Part Three of the movie. We find out from other sources that there's a reason he disappears, but we never see a good explanation in the movie and it's just this huge plot hole that needed filling.

All this build-up for Captain Phasma being a badass and... nothing. Even Riot Stormtrooper Guy does more and does more AWESOME stuff. All that happens to Phasma is getting dumped into a garbage compactor for Han's amusement.

It feels as though Maz was criminally underused.

Snoke is being set up as a Major Big Villain but comes across as a poorly rendered CGI cartoon version of the Emperor Darth Sidious. I don't really care what the big secret about him is going to be.

Not enough Rey.

Things I Can Live With, Because Yeah:

Biggest complaint I've heard from other people is how the plot recycles the Death Star as a MacGuffin-like target for the good guys to destroy. Thing is, as a student of history and with an awareness of tropes, I know this was unavoidable as a plot point. Remember: the Empire was a fantasy version of the Nazis (the uniforms alone are a huge freaking hint), and its offspring the First Order emulates that role. The whole "overwhelm, occupy, impose order" theme requires them to deploy massive weapons as a means of generating fear and cooperation, as well as let them wipe out massive opposition with a single blow.  As a result, OF COURSE the First Order is going to build a planet-sized superweapon, it's what the Nazis would have done (and did, post-war discoveries showed how they kept building larger and more improbable weapons like super-tanks as though they were going to intimidate armies and nations into sh-ting their pants and surrendering).

Having Kylo Ren turn out to be a whiny, emo Darth. That's kind of the whole point about those who fall to the Dark Side of the Force. They are, when you take away their threatening names and metal masks, scarred children decimated by overhyped expectations and abandonment issues. Driven by personal fears of inadequacy and failure, they turn to anger to express themselves, letting that hate dominate their view and turn them into power-hungry control freaks bullying everybody else and yet who secretly write really bad poetry into a diary book while listening to British punk music. Having Kylo smash up every other chamber in fits of rage, make poorly thought-out temptations to Rey to turn her Dark Side to no avail, and turn on his own father makes perfect sense.

The confrontation between Han and his son Ben Solo, now Kylo Ren. I've seen criticisms online that the scene is dull, emotionally flat, boring. I didn't see that. The whole character arc for Han in this movie is the despair and regret he has of losing his son to the bad guys, and for Kylo the fear that he can never be as evil (and what he views as powerful) as Darth Vader. The scene on the chasm walkway where Han tries to talk sense to his son, where Kylo describes the emotional conflict he's feeling, and where Kylo proves to himself his final acceptance of the Dark Side by killing his own father, is actually pretty powerful, emotional stuff.

The way the movie ends, with Rey hiking up the island mountain into a sparse, open-air temple of Jedi solitude, finding Luke standing there overlooking the ocean view, and the wordless conclusion between them. It seems frustrating that the whole movie leads up to discovering where Luke fled, and then when found leaves us hanging without any kind of confirmation or confrontation between Luke and Rey (considering the theories floating out there). But upon further thought, the whole point of this movie is the emotional impact of everything: dialog and interaction are nice, but the mood and the awareness of the characters convey more weight. Leaving us with a vision of Rey and Luke standing there, still waiting for a decision to be made between them, hooking us for Episode VIII, was perhaps the best way to end this movie after all.

There. Got my feels said. Still in the mood to go see this movie again. I may go a total of five times, so I can equal my enthusiasm for Fury Road. That's another story...

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