Friday, December 25, 2015

The Force doesn't awaken so much as reboot

Let's get this out of the way right now: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS BELOW, so if you haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, you do not want to read what follows. Of course, if you really liked the film, you probably also don't want to read what follows...

Finn's (John Boyega) expression above is probably the best rendition I could find for what I was feeling through most of the movie. Note the mild scowl, the slightly cocked eyebrow, and the just parted lips, on the verge of saying: "Fer reals?" I mean, seriously, if I wanted to watch Star Wars: A New Hope again with flashier graphics, I can do that in about 15 different formats and for far less money than the full IMAX 3D experience that I sat through this morning. I say that because The Force Awakens is virtually a note-for-note retelling of the first film, down to the young person discovering the Force on a desert planet with a droid carrying a crucial piece of info, and getting transported to the Imperial base to both rescue a hostage and destroy the galaxy's ultimate weapon. The only real difference is that this time there's two of them.

Don't get me wrong. I respect JJ Abrams' attempt to put this thing back on track after Lucas' abominable prequels and if his route for doing so is essentially the same thing he did with Star Trek: rewriting the lore but with different people and a few funny moments, I can understand that. But that's exactly what it is: a reboot. That's not "Episode 7". It's a retelling of Episode 4, which comes out feeling like a cheat, rather than an actual step into the future.

So... you're saying you didn't like it?
The key thing for me in most films is story. I don't care about your flashy lights or beautiful people or funny one-liners or skillful camera work in and of themselves. I appreciate all of those things but, dammit, tell me a story. Give me an idea (or even more than one!) that makes me think while I'm watching; that makes me say to myself "Yeah, that's a good move there."; or, best of all, that lets me lose myself in the film as it's proceeding. The worst thing for most fictional tales is to lose your audience's immersion in the plot. The water for this one never even got to knee-high on me because there basically wasn't a plot that we hadn't seen 38 years ago and countless times since. Most adventure films can be broken down into the basics of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, but they can rarely be as linear as this and remain interesting, especially when someone has told the same damn story 4 decades ago. At the very least, tell me a story that equates to more than one half-hour episode of a Saturday morning cartoon (Hero discovers unknown power, hero finds friends who help her use said power, hero uses power against evilest people in the universe. The End.) The first film was never more than a straightforward fairy tale. Harlan Ellison dismissed it as the equivalent of a B-level Western. He was aghast that people would call it science fiction because he felt it lacked depth. He was right. It was never going to be deep because Lucas based it on old Flash Gordon serials that he saw as a kid and then perpetuated that monochromatic approach in the prequels. So along comes JJ Abrams with an opportunity to right some of the wrongs and instead he walks the road most traveled by and came up with no difference at all.

On the positive side, no one's performances were abysmal. I think Boyega and Daisy Ridley as Rey did well with the material they were given, which was far more than anyone else. The two of them functioned like actual humans in that they had lines that indicated that they were thinking and developing in the changing circumstances while playing their roles, rather than just regurgitating fan-serving one-liners like, say, Harrison Ford. Here's a key example: At one point, Han Solo asks for Chewbacca's bowcaster when the latter is injured. In two instances, he spouts lines like: "Wow!" and "I really like this thing!" So, you're telling me that in the forty-odd years of their association, through all of the shady deals and consequent gunfights, that Solo has never traded weapons with his Wookiee partner. Seriously? That scenario plays like a character who's hitting the screen for the first time, not a couple of SF icons who were given an opportunity to play up the legacy of their long partnership a few minutes earlier ("Chewie, we're home!") All it would have taken to make Solo an actual human with a history is a simple change. Instead of "I really like this thing!", you'd have "I always liked this thing!" That's a micro-intensive look at how these characters existed in the minds of the writers and the director. They're not humans. They're archetypes. But you can extrapolate that out to their presence as a whole and discover that Abrams really wasn't saying anything new. He was just getting the chance to say "Star Wars" for the first time and treating all of us like we were in the same boat with him.

Yeah, I kinda felt like this, too.
A perfect example is Carrie Fisher's role in the film. What was she doing there? What was her purpose? She was a minor foil for Han Solo (again) and then she kinda stood around and let people emote to her. They had to have her because they have the rest of the (still living) original cast and at least she's become a general in the Rebel- ahem, Resistance*, but she didn't actually do anything. She's a complete cipher with maybe two dozen lines and none of them particularly meaningful other than to tell her ex-husband to bring back their estranged son, the emotional baggage of which Ford had already expressed to Rey and Finn. I've seen a couple comments around the Web suggesting that she'll actually have something to do in the next couple films. But if all you're doing is a reboot, you could have summed up her role in the opening scroll at the start ("General Leia Organa, off-stage, awaits the return of her estranged son who now leads The First Order...") And that's the key problem again: this is just a reboot, not a story, because one of your supposed main characters has nothing to do in this film.

*And that's another thing. What exactly are they resisting? If the end of Return of the Jedi signaled the return of the Republic and if the First Order are determined to destroy the returned Republic (which they apparently do when we see the Republic's key(?) worlds for all of 5 seconds before being disintegrated by the Starkiller), that sounds like two competing states, not one dominant one with an internal rebellion. Is it a Resistance inside the worlds controlled by the First Order? If so, is the Republic operating a Contra-like army inside the opposing state? Is this a Cold War? None of this is explained because, for Abrams' purposes, it doesn't matter. The Resistance is just the Rebellion because all we're doing is a rehash.

So you're saying you've seen this kind of thing before...?
The aforementioned offspring, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is another fine example. This kid is Darth Vader. That's all he is, down to the same black armor and propensity for torturing people telekinetically. We've been here before. Hell, he even talks to the new Emperor, Supreme Leader Snoke (Snoke? Really? Not menacing like 'Maul' or elaborate like 'Palpatine'. Snoke.) on a floor-lit hologram. If you're trying to tell a story about tragedy, it helps to not expect people to have an emotional response about the same thing you've been running with for 38 years. Driver, at least, was given a fine moment of patricide, where you could see him struggling with his inner demons, but the whole character was kind of a wash to me because a) he was Darth Vader and b) he was the son of two key people in the films. Science fiction will always involve suspension of disbelief by its very nature. But if you're expecting me to believe that the son of two people that were intimately involved with the former dark lord who led the destruction of the Jedi is now walking in those same footsteps because he was somehow corrupted, you're losing me. I get that unusual circumstances and heroic moments are what make adventure stories in the first place, but when it all keeps happening to the same family, we're getting more than a little Die Hard 2 here, which is a film that no one wants to be accused of cribbing from. And I haven't even talked about the fact that, since the Resist- ahem, Rebellion destroyed two planet-destroyers, the Resistance now has to deal with a star-eating, multi-planet-destroyer. This is straight out of Michael Bay. "We had 5 explosions per minute in the last film, so now there has to be 10 per minute! And bigger!" Seriously? This is what it took 4 or 5 years to come up with? Getting a cheap laugh from the audience when you do the "size matters" comparison between the Death Star and the Starkiller?

Snoke. Really. I mean, you gotta be kidding me. Snoke?
The other thing that's sure to initiate my departure from immersion is technological issues in a science fiction film. Yes, it's high tech and beyond that of our world, so it takes that suspension of disbelief I was talking about. I have that already when it comes to Star Wars when you consider things like hyperspace and lightsabers. But here we're talking about basic concepts like, say, navigation. The McGuffin in the film is a mini-drive containing the map to where Luke Skywalker supposedly resides. ... Why in the galaxy would anyone need a map when you have hyperspace travel? Wouldn't you just need coordinates? Give somebody an X, Y, and Z and they should be able to find what they're looking for as long as they have a consistent central point to orient from. If you're using hyperspace travel, you kinda need that central point in the first place. But we're talking basic astronomy here. Using a "map" means we've reverted back to second star to the right and turn left at the nebula. What it is, of course, is an excuse to replace the plans to the Death Star with some other piece of data that is presented as enormously important. Speaking of stars, was there any consideration given to what happens to a planet if you drain its host star of all its energy in order to power your superweapon? Or was that all just lost on the way to the next exponential function of Bayism?

Furthermore, said awakening of the Force was wildly inconsistent. At one point, you have Rey as young Jakkuan scavenger who has no idea what the Force is and wouldn't care since it probably can't earn her food from the local junk dealers. But then she has a series of elaborate visions just from touching Luke's old lightsaber. Guess there must be a deep connection that's been activated, even though she has no idea what it is or why it's happening. But then, somehow, despite Luke needing extensive training from one of the greatest Jedi masters to have ever lived, Rey employs an almost master-level technique with her power, from the brute force of resisting and then overpowering an acknowledged adept when she beats Kylo Ren (twice) to the incredibly subtle mind trick of confusing the guard of her cell at the Starkiller; all without any guidance whatsoever. And, oddly enough, despite the extensive visions that accompanied her grasp of Luke's old weapon, when she sat there for a minute of screen time in an invisible push-of-war with Ren, we got nothing but the two of them grimacing at each other. Wouldn't that have been a great moment to show how her resistance (ahem) was expanding her mind or exactly what kind of mental darkness Ren was throwing at her? Instead, we got two mimes in a slapfight.

This is the legion of fans who think I'm clueless.
This isn't a case of the film coming in below my expectations, because I really didn't have any. Lucas' prequels had mostly killed my Star Wars fandom 15 years ago. And, like I said, I largely agree with Ellison on the first film's storytelling merits. It's not something that's going to leave you pondering its nuances hours later. But the first film was groundbreaking because of both its visual effects and the broad appeal of its imagery and story. That's why it deserves a place of respect in the genre of science fiction. Why bother to mine that vein again? We've been there, multiple times. What's even worse is that, in the succeeding 4 decades, we've seen countless Star Wars comics and novels with ready-made storylines that were actually original ideas, from 20,000 years before the Star Wars films, to many decades after them. If Hollywood doesn't do anything but reuse established material at the moment, at least rehash one of those stories that dared to make its characters something other than figments of themselves from the 70s. And if I'm supposed to come into the theater and turn my brain off and just enjoy the visual ride (something which is, uh, not me, as you may have noticed) at least give me something different to look at than what I've seen before. Otherwise, it's like channel surfing and stopping on a movie you've seen 20 times because it's familiar and you don't really need to pay too much attention to it. Same thing here. I can do that without shelling out $30, thanks.

So, just like Guardians of the Galaxy, I have little doubt that I'm in the distinct minority on this one (94% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Lucas gave an apparently snippy response to someone asking about the new film, saying that he figured "the fans will love it", as it was made for them. My kneejerk reaction to that was: "You mean it has a screenplay above an 8-year-old mentality?" But, in the end, I think there is some merit to what he said, in that the fans revere the original trilogy and The Force Awakens is basically a carbon copy of the first of those films. Abrams isn't directing the subsequent episodes, so there's reason to believe we'll avoid the trainwreck that was the attempted rehash of Wrath of Khan (Star Trek: Into the Darkness of Screenplay by Committee.) But if the replacement is simply The First Order Hits Back, then I have zero interest in seeing any more of this. Do I regret losing the two hours of my life? No. I'm just wondering why, with all the possibilities, would you do this again?


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  2. While I agree with a large portion of what you say here, I still found the movie (mostly) entertaining. My initial thoughts were:

    1. Reboot, yes. Not thrilled, but fine so long as the subsequent episodic movies make real progress.
    2. Being a lifelong superfan of the original trilogy, I will say that this movie felt like a Star Wars movie. The visuals and music were good -- this was important to me.
    3. Why the hell doesn't the entire New Republic fleet(or at least the ships close enough to reach it in time) show up to deal with this existential threat?
    4. I thought Carrie Fischer was godawful.
    5. The one-liners were (mostly) funny on the first watch opening night in a crowded theater, but will be super cringe-y on subsequent watches.
    6. The physics issues were enough to break the suspension of disbelief. Hur-dur-dur let's just suck up our star!
    7. As you say, how the hell can Rey command the force so readily?
    7.5 How the fuuuuuuuck did Finn last more than 0.25 seconds against Kylo Ren in a lightsaber fight? For that matter, why didn't Ren just force choke him and be done with it? Pride?

    These are just some of my gripes, but I still think it was an enjoyable movie. That view may dim over time, but I plan on seeing it again in the theater.

    The thing that is most disappointing to me about all of this is that, as you noted, they scrapped the existing post-Jedi canon. That was my childhood. My bookshelves had (almost) nothing but dozens of Star Wars novels on them. Awesome stories that would have made for bad-ass movies.

    Can you imagine how damn awesome an Heir to the Empire movie adaptation could be? Rogue/Wraith Squadrons? Fuck yes. I, Jedi, and every-damn-thing-else Corran Horn was in, please...