Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a Remix of "A New Hope"...That is Both a Good and a Bad Thing

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The sooner we reach that goal the faster I can pull back in the begging bowl and get back to business as usual. As always, if after having taken care of your human and animal family members, yourself, and other obligations, throw some love in the donation bucket so that I/we can continue to grow the site and get our video podcast up and running next year.


I have now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice. Instead of a traditional review, I have decided to offer up some thoughts in the form of questions and answers. Friend of the podcast Bill the Lizard and I will have a special episode of the podcast dedicated to finalizing our thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He and I have been deconstructing and anticipating Star Wars: The Force Awakens since its announcement several years ago. Now we can bring some closure to that conversation and ponder where the sequels should go in the future. I also have a new piece on the The Force Awakens, race, and politics in the Age of Obama over at Salon.

Did I like Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

Yes. Rogert Ebert said that a film review should be centered on how a given film or movie makes the audience—and by implication, the critic—feel. I waited for several hours to see J.J. Abrams’ take on Star Wars. I even got to talk with a reporter from The Chicago Tribune about the new movie. As I told her, my fondest childhood memory is waiting in line for at least 6 hours to see Return of the Jedi in 1983. I hope that a young child now in line for Star Wars: The Force Awakens will have a shadow of that experience, and reflect upon it the same way as I can, now, 32 years later.

The Star Wars Prequels were a very challenging experience. Star Wars: The Force Awakens makes it possible for lifelong fans to no longer express a qualified sense of love for the films. After Abrams’ new movies, we no longer have to say “I love Star Wars but…”

In short, Star Wars: The Force Awakens almost made me cry—not because of the events on the screen but because of how they channel the best sense of what “nostalgia” is…a yearning for a best sense of what the past is, something familiar, a good feeling of childhood innocence, warm, and happy.

Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens a good movie?

It is very good for what it is. Abrams’ Star Wars is not revolutionary. It is nothing new. It will not change the cinematic world the way that George Lucas’ A New Hope did in 1977. The Force Awakens is a remix of A New Hope that also combines elements of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Because it is a homage—even by the standards of the monomyth echoes of the other films—it cannot ascend to the level of singular greatness. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an amazing tribute band. If you are of a certain age you will never have seen James Brown, Elvis, or The Beatles in their prime. Now, the best you can do is a cover band in Vegas. As such, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a damn good take on George Lucas’ first Star Wars Trilogy.

Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens the best movie of the year as some critics have suggested?

No. Not even close. Mad Max: Fury Road is the best mainstream commercial movie of 2015.

What did I think of the story, J.J. Abrams, and the new actors?

As Bill the Lizard and I outlined in a series of podcasts, posts, and other writing online over the last few years, the story of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is very predictable for elite fans of that film universe. An example: the crawl is something that I came up with—and I am sure other die-hard Star Wars fans did years ago—but scrapped because it was too obvious.

I smiled because I was largely correct in the broad outline of the film; I was happy while also being slightly disappointed because Star Wars: The Force Awakens was very predictable. But then again, Disney has spent billions to buy the Star Wars franchise and wanted to do something familiar for old fans and safe for new fans. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a movie by committee that is a soft reboot of A New Hope. To be honest—and never having made a multimillion dollar movie—if I held Disney stock I would have wanted J.J. Abrams to do much the same thing.

If you want a safe movie that is a copy with some twists on a classic, J.J. Abrams is the perfect director. He is a master film imitator and chameleon. He is not gifted in terms of original film-making. Abrams is deft at taking something already existing and putting a new/familiar spin on it, however. As some have pointed out online, George Lucas is the master of Star Wars who knows all of its inspirations and channeled them into something special in his first trilogy. J.J. is a good copycat who does not know the materials that inspired the film he is remixing. As such, Abrams can never come up with something as great as the source material he is trying to work with.

The new faces in the movie have great chemistry. They are composite characters of Luke, Han, and Leia. “Diversity” is satisfied. Why not? This is 2015 and a female and black lead with a Latino compatriot are money for Disney. I agree with that choice not because of some presumed existential value for “diversity” but because this new cast has a great future together.

Our old friends in Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, and for a few seconds Mark Hamill, were wonderful

What were some favorite parts of the movie?

Seeing the Millennium Falcon revealed was awesome. The arrival of Poe Dameron and The Resistance on Takodana made everyone in the theater cheer. Rey’s introduction was charming and heartfelt. BB-8 steals every scene he/she is in. Chewie and Han’s friendship feels very real. Maz Kanata is a great new character. The new cantina is a redux of Tatooine’s—in a good way. The final lightsaber battle is excellent—number five after Return of the Jedi’s climax for me.

What were some less favorite parts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

The Starkiller Base was just a lazy bit of fan service. It was bad writing that actually broke the 4th wall as the movie basically admitted it was a horrible idea that the viewers had seen before. As I wrote at Salon, John Boyega’s “Finn” is a different take on a Stormtrooper. But, he veered to close to the tired stereotype of “black actor as comedy relief” at times. I also never got the sense he would have made it through conditioning and training. Finn? Working as a janitor in sanitation? Come on. He is too humane. Finn should have been both less empathetic and sympathetic so soon (unless that is explained via “the Force awakening” in the sequel.

The early relationship(s) between Finn, Poe, and Rey feel rushed. The movie does not do a very good job of explaining how Rey (and yes Finn…and perhaps Poe) can use the Force while not being trained. I cannot explain--within the film’s narrative--how Rey and Finn could take on Kylo Ren and have any chance of surviving. Again, that is a concern that will have to be resolved by the sequel(s).

After a second viewing, I am very mixed on the ending with Rey finding Luke at the site of the first Jedi Temple.

Speaking of Kylo Ren? Thoughts?

Adam Driver is magnetic. He wonderfully combines pain with strength and childish impudence. I would have preferred that he not take off his helmet until the confrontation with his father Han Solo. Kylo Ren commits patricide to prove his allegiance to Supreme Commander Snoke and the Dark Side. As explained in interviews and elsewhere, Kylo Ren wants to bring order to a war torn galaxy in which he has likely not been treated well by his parents, and maybe even (from Ren’s point of view) his former master Luke Skywalker.

What of Rey?

Daisy Ridley gives an amazing performance. She is clearly Luke Skywalker’s daughter. From the X-wing doll in her toppled over AT-AT home, the “classic” starfighter pilot helmet, clothing that is inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s concept drawings of Luke for A New Hope, the sacred object, i.e. lightsaber calling to her in a scene reminiscent of Luke’s trial in the cave on Dagobah, Han’s recognition of her in the Millennium Falcon (it is clear Han, a person favored by the Force, senses or knows who she is), and overall story arc, she is the newest student for the Light—Ren for the Dark Side—and the conclusion of the film brings student/child to a union with teacher/father.

How do I now rank the Star Wars films from best to worst?

  1. A New Hope
  2. Empire Strikes Back
  3. Return of the Jedi basically tied with The Force Awakens
  4. Revenge of the Sith
  5. The Phantom Menace
  6. Attack of the Clones
What were some of my favorite “Easter eggs” in Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

The redo of the trench run with the same original blaster sounds was awesome. Gonk and the Mouse droids made me smile. Hearing Obi-Wan’s and Yoda’s voices sent a chill up my spine. Han firing the bowcaster was pretty damn cool. The flags—including one from the Mandalorians—was neat. Max Von Sydow, an old member of Bail Organa’s court (clearly implied) and who also played Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, one of the inspirations for Lucas’ vision, was really cool. Rey doing her Luke on Hoth with the lightsaber was also a nice touch.

Like most serious Star Wars devotees, I popped for “Darth Plagueis the Wise” aka “Commander Snoke”, Finn saying that he is from “Korriban”, and “The First Jedi temple” (notice not “a” Jedi temple, this emphasis is very, very, important), the latter is a hint to the expanded universe and the Knights of the Old Republic.

A thought: could Commander Snoke be Darth Revan and not Darth Plagueis the Wise?

What must the sequel to Star Wars: The Force Awakens do next?

The long-term integrity and world building in the new movie is heavily dependent on the sequel. Star Wars: Episode VIII must explain why Rey has the Force abilities (and I would include piloting skills) she demonstrates in the new movie. It has been established by the earlier films that it takes many years to become proficient with the Force on even a basic level. Yet, Rey, at least on screen (although I think she was trained by Luke as a child and had her memory wiped before going to Jakku) can use the Force at a level necessary to compete with Kylo Ren who was (at least) partially trained by Commander Snoke. Ren’s being shot by Chewbacca does not explain his inability (or maybe arrogant choice otherwise) to smite Rey and Finn with ease.

The Force has “awakened”. Okay. What does this mean? Did it go out of the universe akin to the end of an age of magic like in Arthurian legend? Has the Force awakened in different people in different ways? Luke is meditating and studying the Force at the first Jedi temple. What has he learned? Who or what is he in communication with? Has Luke been manipulating events from afar? He was driven into isolation because of his failure with his students and Kylo Ren. How will he make the universe right?

Any wishes?

I wish that J.J. Abrams had allowed Luke Skywalker to save the day at the end of the movie. Rey and Finn still could have had their moments of heroism. When the lights from an unseen starship focus on Rey at the end of the movie it could easily have been Luke. This would also have been more believable than her fighting Kylo Ren to a standstill. The audience would have gone absolutely crazy. Luke’s arrival then—as opposed to stoic ambiguous Merlin mode later on—was the climax we were all for decades waiting.

The Force Awakens is a very good movie that plays it very safe. Whatever we want to say about George Lucas, one cannot accuse him of not taking chances. I wonder what could have been if Lucas, for the prequels, had Kasdan, his ex-wife, Kershner, and the other key figures who helped him make A New Hope and the other films, still in play. Those movies would have been much better. George Lucas then, likely, would have had the energy and curiosity to make The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams made something that will please most casual fans and be easy to digest. By comparison, George Lucas could have had a fair chance of making something amazing--and also more challenging.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a very good movie that is not amazing. It is a remix of A New Hope. This is both good and bad at the same time.

A closing thought about what could come next. Anakin was supposed to bring "balance to the Force." Could it be that he has finally done that in a surprising way, posthumously, by being the grandfather of two people, one who is an agent of the Light Side of the Force, and the other who is an agent of the Dark Side of The Force?

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