Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Force Awakens: The End of Star Wars As We Know It



I think most people came out of The Force Awakens feeling a mixture of joy and sadness. For me, it was mostly the latter, but for all the wrong reasons. Here's the thing: The Force Awakens is not a terrible movie, but in a way, that makes it all the worse. It's just not a Star Wars movie.

Sure, the trappings are there. A sandy, barren planet (Jakku, rather than Tatooine). A droid bearing a secret map. Gritty practical effects and quirky aliens and vast empty reaches of space. The entire galaxy hinging on the domestic troubles of one family. Harrison Ford. Carrie Fisher. Mark Hamill. But all of these details are in new hands, in a new universe, with a new style. Ross Douthat nailed it when he predicted the movie to be a massive work of calculated fan-service, much like the Marvel franchise.

[Mild SPOILERS regarding basic plot]

In brief, the story is this: After the Empire fell in Return of the Jedi, a new Republic was established. When Luke Skywalker disappears, Empire sympathizers organize as a new enemy: The First Order (neo-Nazis, basically). In addition to these two groups is the Resistance (Why is this different from the Republic? That isn't explained, as this movie is as vague on politics as the prequel trilogy was mind-numbingly specific).

The story begins with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance pilot, secreting a map on new droid BB-8, instructing him to bear it safety. The map will supposedly reveal the location of Luke Skywalker. Fleeing into the night, BB-8 is befriended by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger, and our protagonist. Poe, meanwhile, escapes the First Order with the help of a gawky stormtrooper, FN-2187 "Finn" (John Boyega), pursued by a Vader-esque villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey and Finn team together to deliver the map to the Resistance.

Going into the movie, I was optimistic. I'd just rewatched the original trilogy, finishing Return of the Jedi that very morning, and had slipped easily back into the galaxy far, far away. It's a simply story, really. The mythology stands stark and clear, unambiguous. Shots of Luke Skywalker gazing across a barren desert to the glorious sky, coupled with John Williams' soundtrack, are moving in their wordless power.

Not so The Force Awakens. It begins with an action sequence which wouldn't seem out of place in one of the Abrams Star Trek films: kinetic and flashy, it may be lacking in lens flare, but nothing else has changed. Here is none of the elegant, airless action choreography of the previous films. The violence is grittier, leaving behind angry wounds instead of relatively bloodless black burns.

Things seem to settle down when we find Rey on Jakku, and the ten minutes spent introducing her spare existence are some of the best in the film, but they are over far too quickly, throwing us back into the chaotic violent pacing of the rest of the film. Not that this approach doesn't have its moments. There are terrific sequences, like Finn and Poe's escape from a Star Destroyer, or the first appearance of the Millennium Falcon, or when monsters chase our heroes through the cramped halls of a spaceship.

But the speed and restless camera mostly go towards distracting from a depressingly derivative plot, crippled by modern blockbuster ingredients. It plunders the structure of A New Hope, adding little of interest beyond nostalgia, CGI, and a postmodern sensibility. Despite J.J. Abrams’ promise of practical effects, CGI is still front and center. Supreme Commander Snoke (an Emperor imitator so inessential to the plot that he didn't even make it into my summary) is so obviously CGI that he’s robbed of all menace. 

[REALLY SERIOUS SPOILERS]

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Speaking of which, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren makes for a complex villain, but is worryingly reminiscent of Hayden Christensen (he does take after his granddad!), and having one of the most badass characters of all time die at his hands is frankly insulting. Han Solo deserved better.

Another bad decision: that so much of that subplot occurred off-screen. Because of that, it was difficult to give events sufficient tragedy. We began by hating Ren; we ended by hating Ren even more. There are so many things left unexplained here. What was Han and Ben’s relationship like? I suspect they were not the type of personalities to mesh easily: did Han drive him away? Did Han feel guilty about that? How in the world did Han Solo and Leia Organa raise a son like whiney Kylo anyway? Leia is not the type to brook much teenage angst, and I suspect any of Han’s children would have a lively sense of humor. We’ve waited 38 years: we want to know how our favorite characters spent that time, instead, we’re expected to fill in the blanks with…Kylo Ren. And what a blank (blankety-blank-blank) he is. Yes, yes, all of this is so much better than Anakin’s story, but that’s a pretty low bar to meet. The best thing to come out of this is the Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren.

That said, while I saw it coming miles away, Han’s Bridge of Khazad-dûm moment still made me die a little inside. Harrison Ford's mere presence packs nostalgic weight.

Before we leave the spoiler section, a suggestion: instead of another Death Star plot, I'd have loved to have seen an adventure focused on finding Luke Skywalker, which seemed to be the original direction. Rey, Finn, and Poe could go on a tour of the wilder parts of the galaxy, Indiana Jones-style with Indiana Jones.

[END REALLY SERIOUS SPOILERS]

The rest of the story is chalked in with recycled plot points from the original trilogy. It's easy to see what J.J. Abrams wanted to do. The flaws of the prequel trilogy have been discussed ad nauseum, so he elected to religiously avoid Lucas's flaws by religiously adhering to Lucas's strengths. This meant copying what had worked before: A New Hope. It's lazy, worshipful, and certain to make money. What do you do when an auteur's franchise goes wrong? Turn it over to a corporation which will turn out mass-produced, paint-by-the-numbers, efficient copies.

And so, despite everything, The Force Awakens is a bad movie (not terrible, just bad). Daisy Ridley is great. John Boyega is great. Oscar Isaac is great (and under-used). They're great. Of course they are. With this amount of money and pressure, there was never a chance they wouldn't be. Hollywood knows how to find good young actors (step one: look to Britain). Harrison Ford appears and does all the nostalgic things. Carrie Fisher appears and does all the nostalgic things. Mark Hamill appears, all Alec Guinness-y. But all these things are calculated and controlled to please the fans - there is no free creativity here.

It's exceedingly meta. Rey and Finn, the audience stand-ins, are in awe of the Big Three. The new cast geek out about being on the Millennium Falcon and speak in such meme-ready lines as "Droid, please." As someone who has never been very nostalgic about Star Wars, I was less sympathetic to than distracted by their fanboyish glee. Because of its self-awareness, I found it impossible to accept The Force Awakens as canon.

Yes, I enjoyed the movie. There were lots of nice moments, and while, as a fan film, it's only my second favorite, I appreciated all the nods to the original. Daisy Ridley is blessedly free of pretension as Star Wars' first female protagonist. Her relationship with John Boyega's Finn is neither condescending nor romantic - they're essentially equals, but the film isn't shoving that fact in your face (too strongly, anyway: "I know how to run without you holding my hand!") Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron is charming and charismatic, but has far too little screen time - the dynamic between Isaac and Boyega could definitely have been exploited more. Harrison Ford obviously has a grand time walking down memory lane (but, shoot me first, I actually preferred Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the Harrison Ford Nostalgia side). The idea of a lightsaber as a relic connecting Rey to the Force was a great idea. BB-8 is brilliant. I enjoyed spotting Harriet Walter of Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries fame, hanging with Chewbacca.

But all the same, Star Wars is dead. Star Wars, as we know it, is gone for good, replaced by a franchise. Inevitable? Yes. But it still leaves me sad.

I saw The Force Awakens with a friend who had never seen a single Star Wars movie before. She told me this about thirty seconds before the film began, and asked for a diagnosis of genre. "It's...a space opera," I said, and off her blank expression, added, "A fantasy. A myth. A fairytale. Knights, swordfights, princesses. In space." I turned back to the screen, reminded by my own description of what made Star Wars what it was.

The Force Awakens was none of those things, and my friend must have been puzzled both by the film and by my broody silence after it ended. Around me, fans cheered. I wondered if I was the only one, and then turned to my sister. “That didn’t seem like Star Wars,” she said.

Hannah Long

9 comments:

  1. Alright, so you pretty much captured a large portion of my thoughts about this fanfilm. It's cool you saw ROTJ the morning before seeing TFA - I did the same after watching the classic three last week leading up to the new release. Maybe that lent to myself spotting more errors than not, but being a SW fan since I was a little kid (pretty much obsessive during my middle/high school/early college years), I guess my dislike was bound to happen, even though I went in with as much of an open mind as I could. I stayed away from spoilers, I only saw the teaser and theatrical trailer...

    ...but when that first sentence came up during the opening crawl ("Luke Skywalker has vanished") I was already shaking my head. I think this is where I want to focus my comments on - the fact that the classic characters (Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, even Artoo) were treated terribly and were out-of-character.

    Let's start with Han and Leia. Han, who went from a selfish, conceited, argumentative pirate, finished his character arc at the end of ROTJ as being a bona fide hero (a General, actually). He went from not caring about anyone but himself to recognizing his faults and apologizing to Leia after they had an argument after Luke left the group on Endor, even stepping aside when he thought that Leia was in love with Luke at the end of ROTJ.

    Disney obviously must think SW fans are idiots, or at least blind to the character development we witnessed in the classic films. In TFA, Han is back to being how he was when we first met him in ANH, save for one moment we see with his son... Which he doesn't really act in character at all. He never would have put himself in that compromising of a position, regardless if it was his kid or not. But worse than that, Han and Leia split? Look, I know it's a Disney movie and we can't have any couple stay together for long (it's a Disney trope that the parents have to be separated or at least one of them dead - they killed two birds with one stone here), but this is Han and Leia. We saw them grow attached. We saw the love. And what, we're supposed to think that just because their son turned to the Dark Side, they have to separate? Han and Leia would have fought tooth and nail to get their son back. That would have brought them closer together. It's disgraceful. And don't even get me started on Han's death, and how Chewbacca was robbed of the life debt that he owed Han. Chewie would never have let Han get into that kind of a compromise without at least a plan.

    And now, Luke. I mentioned earlier that I was shaking my head at the opening crawl. Luke Skywalker, the Luke from the classic trilogy at least, would never have just "vanished" from the picture. Is this really the same Luke who cut his training short to save his friends? Is this really the same Luke who sacrificed himself to save his friends by turning himself in to the Empire to face the Emperor, after he picked himself up, dusted himself off, got himself a new hand, built a new lightsaber, trained harder in the Force, and came back to face Vader again to finish what needed to be finished? Now, the training in Luke's new school goes badly, so instead of fixing the issue, Luke... Runs away? Absolutely pathetic. That's absurdly out of character.

    And Artoo in a "low-powered state?" That guy was caffeine-ridden in the classic movies - he was ALWAYS wanting to help, to see what was going on, to act when nobody else could. Instead, Disney literally makes him deus ex machina, and activates him when they couldn't move the plot along any other way. The whole map idea is stupid anyways (what, Luke had a GPS system plot everything before he decided to go off and sulk?), but it doesn't make sense for Artoo to just sleep everything off.

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    1. This movie is so millennial. We have a sulking, moody dark Jedi. We have a sulking reclusive Luke Skywalker. Han Solo goes off to do smuggling things and leaves his wife (when clearly they both needed healing) and bury his feelings in his work. Leia does... what exactly? (What is the relationship between the New Republic and the Resistance? The political aspect was so avoided that it's clear as mud) Artoo is powered down because I guess he's sad Luke's gone too. It's like I walked into a Hot Topic store on a Friday night watching these grown adults (and droid) act.

      And I'm not even going to get into how they pretty much completely rewrote how the Force works.

      My other angle is taken from the fact that Disney is hacking the old Expanded Universe novels to pieces and putting them together in uninspired and forced situations (no pun intended). The novels were so much more respectful of the universe and the characters. Not sure how much you've read of those, if any, but they're leaps and bounds over what Disney has put out so far.

      That all being said, yes, TFA was a fun movie, but it's because we've seen it all before. This wasn't a new movie - it was a remake of "A New Hope." Plot point by plot point. The only new thing was Finn's defection - which I wish there was more dealing with that, as it was the only really fresh thing in the whole film. There was a lot to enjoy about TFA, but it's overshadowed by the fact that it's just a clone (haha, another SW pun) of ANH. So disappointed.

      Thanks for taking the time to write your review... And for reading my rambling comment (if you got this far)!

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    2. I agree. Of course, there's a part of me that enjoyed seeing Han do smuggler-type things again, but it's completely ridiculous and insulting to Han's growth as a character. Parenthood and age would have changed him, but I tend to think in more positive ways. And whatever happened to the type of Han Solo who would shoot first and ask questions later? He knew he was signing his death warrant stepping onto that bridge and that just doesn't seem like Han Solo. It was a pointless sacrifice. Y'know what would have been more interesting? If he'd tried to kill Ben. Way more Han, and definitely dramatic.

      Luke disappearing seems far too broody for the character, though I think it's a great idea for motivating a search. It'd have worked better if he'd been kidnapped, or simply gone missing involuntarily in some fashion.

      A big problem, too, with the flaws of the Big Three: they're never seen as flaws. We're supposed to sympathize with them so much that we don't consider how cowardly they were in dealing with the situation. I wouldn't mind examining their flaws, but accepting them without criticism or comment? Not good.

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  2. I will clap for this excellent review, which is what I didn't do at 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'.

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    1. No, thank you!
      There are a lot of things that I can do well and I have done them. But I honestly can say that I couldn't have written the above review as well. You have talent, Girl! Never let anyone convince you otherwise.

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    2. And thank you, as well! Merry Christmas, Darrell.

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  3. I just don't understand why J.K. Abrams cast Princess— pardon me … General Hermione as a black woman. But I'm a simple man, and the racial politics of galaxies far, far away often confuse me.

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    1. Well, that was all fine until Chewbacca and Han Solo got married and Elrond performed the service. I wish, too, that Kylo Ren hadn't killed Gandalf.

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