yamanin


Thinking Out Loud

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The Force Awakens (Relax; No Spoilers)
yamanin

Preface

When I was a kid, I loved a rather obscure movie called One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing. Watched it over and over. On my list of top 100 movies of all time.

After many years of searching, I find a copy of it. I watch with glee. I realize...this movie is not that good. I still love it and enjoy it, but I can acknowledge now in hindsight that it's a barely coherent cornball, unabashedly racist, and not even well put together. Ah, well.

I bring this up because a frequent accusation of fans who adore the original Star Wars trilogy but abhor the prequels and Special Editions is that they're looking back at the original trilogy through the uncritical lens of their youth and comparing it to what they're seeing with the cynical eyes of adulthood. My ability to be objective about the quality of a film I loved when I was young gives me confidence that I can be objective about Star Wars.

I loved Star Wars when I was a kid, perhaps a little more than was actually healthy. For several years I poured my allowance into buying sourcebooks for West End Games' Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. In the mid-to-late 90's I followed the Expanded Universe novels religiously, but even before the Special Editions, I was starting to cool on the fandom. I had mixed feelings about the Special Editions from the beginning: there were some shots that were definite improvements, but most of the additions were clumsy and hackneyed, and I could recognize that even as a teenager.

The Phantom Menace came out while I was on my mission to Italy, so I missed a lot of the hype. Saw it upon my return, hated it instantly, for the usual reasons. I tried to run Star Wars RPGs in college, but the fanbase was already splintering between purists and revisionists and it was nearly impossible to get through a game without arguments about canon. My roommates roped me into a midnight showing of Attack of the Clones, I went with skepticism, and my doubts were confirmed. I washed my hands of the franchise; Star Wars has been essentially dead to me since 2002. I did break down and see Revenge of the Sith several years after it came out, just to get it over with, and was forced to admit it was a kind of decent movie, but not 'good' or enough to make me want to watch it twice.

The Original Trilogy

Over the course of the past week, Stephanie and I marathoned the original trilogy. The original original trilogy: a fan-made recut made to match as closely as possible the original theatrical versions.

So, reassessing the original trilogy as an adult and an ex-film student...these films are good, but not great. The acting's kind of hokey, the writing's not terrific, the effects are a bit dated - though they've stood up to time better than A Bug's Life. The Force and the Jedi have no coherent ethics or philosophy, and are barely 'good' guys. There are plenty of plot holes and inconsistencies.

What makes it so magical is the way it makes you feel like this is a real universe where people live and work and get dirty. Stuff gets mentioned in a way that is very organic - the way people reference real things that exist, not the way movie characters dump information to an audience. It's enough to make you suspend disbelief, and ignore the flaws in acting etc. unless you're really looking for them. You had teams of dedicated artists scuffing up props, making deep space look used and lived in. And while actual Jedi philosophy is a mishmash of barely-coherent platitudes, it gives Star Wars the illusion of spiritual depth through the solid (and, at the time, groundbreaking) application of Hero's Journey theory.

I think what happened is that when George Lucas made Star Wars, he was a young-ish adult writing movies for younger adults, teens, and tweens, even though that wasn't really an established marketing demographic at the time. He added more violence to avoid getting a 'G' rating. And in the intervening years, he became a grandfather and came to believe that these movies had always been intended for children. He was seduced by the power of CGI and lost sight of what made the originals watchable, and thereby fragmented and alienated the fanbase.

Hypothesis: A defining difference between movies for children and movies for young adults is that in a YA movie, the protagonist actively chooses to answer the call to adventure, whereas in a children's movie the adventure just sort of happens to the protagonist without any real volition.

Consider: The Lion King: Simba doesn't really choose to go on his hero's journey, he's driven out. Toy Story: Woody doesn't choose to go on a life-changing road trip with Buzz, it just kind of happens to him. Wizard of Oz: call to adventure by tornado. Bolt: call to adventure by accident. Even Brave: Merida takes action to take control of her life, but she really just wants her life to stay the same - the adventure that causes her to become more than she is is thrust upon her.

Contrast: Star Wars: Luke steps up to Obi-Wan and says, "I want to go with you to Alderaan." He could have stayed at Tashi's Station and stocked power converters. He could have gone to the Academy, or any number of other things besides answer the call to adventure, and he chose to become a Jedi. Empire Strikes Back, too, he's a war hero, a leader among men, he's helping the Rebellion, one could say he's doing 'enough'; he's called to become more than he is, to go to Dagobah and really become a Jedi, and he chooses that path without a gun to his head. Hunger Games: "I volunteer as a tribute!" Most superhero movies.

The prequels? Anakin is never really given the choice to stay home and stay who he is. He's naturally gifted and bought by a Jedi. He blows up a command ship basically by accident. He just kind of does as he's told. By my metric, the prequels for are movies 'for children', and they get a lot of hate because people were expecting movies 'for young adults'.

The Special Editions and the prequels both have a shallow slapstick to them that was absent in the originals - droids swatting each other in the new entrance to Mos Eisley, C-3PO's head swap with a battle droid, literally every scene with Jar-Jar Binks. We saw the same degeneration of humor in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Looney Toons antics where before we'd had - and were expecting - dry wit and sarcasm.

The overreliance on CGI in the prequels and its inconsistent use in the Special Edition is another point worth talking about. Okay, sure, FX was not where it needed to be to show the universe the way George wanted in 1977, and without Lucas' investment in CGI technology, it probably wouldn't be today. But it wasn't ready in 1997, either. I'm sure there were teams of artists, but they never really caught the details that matter to suspension of disbelief: the scuff marks, the footprints, the smoke. A believably deep universe was the one thing that made Star Wars a cultural monument instead of a forgettable B-movie, and when you take that away, you're left with a memorably bad CGI-heavy B-movie built on the ruins of a cultural monument.

What I'm getting at is, I think my objections to the Special Editions and prequels are fairly objective and not a factor of my inability to be critical of the original trilogy. I'm pointing this out because:

  1. I don't think I've really said this before except to those closest to me
  2. Some of these insights and articulations are new as of this week
  3. I want to establish my credibility as an objective reviewer of the new movie

It is not my intent to spoil anything for anyone. But here I will talk about some things in the movie, which could be construed by some to be 'spoilers'. Obviously, I'm not giving away any big reveals about who killed whom or who is whose father, but if you want to go to the theater knowing nothing at all, stop reading here.

The Force Awakens

Right at the beginning, the Star Wars logo is slanted differently from the original logo.

This is a movie written to appeal to the purists. It's very true to the tone, spirit, feel, mood, and all the other intangibles to the original trilogy. It is Star Wars in ways that the prequels weren't. It has a spiritual unity with the original trilogy that the prequels did not, the way some EU novels do and some don't. During the first act, I almost became a True Fan again.

Maybe it's a little too close to the formula. Orphan on a desert planet finding a rotund beeping droid carrying intelligence vital to the Rebellion Resistance? Check. Scary guy in a black mask with a red lightsaber, working for a ruler he communicates with via hologram? Check. Tavern scene to showcase the diversity of the galaxy? Check. Planet-destroying superweapon with a critical weak spot? Check.

It was also a little too eager to squeeze in cameos of the original cast, leading to a density of coincidences usually inexcusable outside Dickens. The film is already quite busy, seemingly trying to contain and top every element of the original trilogy, and then - do we really need the old droids, too? Can't we just let them go to the great scrap heap in the sky already?

And that's where it kind of lost me. In the middle act it just kept raising the stakes, and then deciding that we need to raise the stakes some more. Everything was happening now - somehow spies could make a report, militaries could launch a major offensive and transport ships and troops from another star system, all while the people being reported on were still having the same conversation. No time passing, no 'the next day' or 'a few hours later', no downtime while going from point A to point B for the characters to connect with each other. As a result, the rhythm was rushed and busy.

It's like Star Wars if Star Wars had been made in 2015 instead of 1977 - there's less implicit racism, sexism, and specieism, though I still don't think it passes Bechdel. It was good to see more than a token alien or person of color among the fighter pilots. That said, Finn comes through as very African American, not that there's anything wrong with the African American voice or that it has no place in the Star Wars galaxy - it's just he seems at moments to be channeling that Will Smith bluster, which makes no sense given his character's background and thus interrupts suspension of disbelief.

There's nearly no discussion of what happened between the Battle of Endor and now. The First Order is a replacement Galactic Empire, there is a Republic of Not Appearing in This Film, and also a Resistance, which has some relationship with the Republic, but we don't know what that is. So it's the same freedom fighters/Empire dynamic, not symmetric warfare between polities.

I'm not usually a person to notice plot holes during my first viewing of a movie. They have to be pretty glaring plot holes for me to even piece them together on the drive home from the theater; usually I need a second viewing to really figure things out. This one had a lot of obvious mistakes that I couldn't miss. Other observations:
At what point during the crash did Poe take off his jacket?
That lightsaber? Really?
How is it that all the stormtroopers recognize this guy as a traitor on sight without his uniform?
So there's just this one stormtrooper with a shield and a ridiculous melee weapon?
And there are stormtroopers with no eye holes at all? Great.
For so often being described as 'seductive', the Dark Side sure is antagonistic. Nobody ever says, 'Let me show you how turning to the Dark Side can get you everything you ever wanted.' No, it's always, 'I murdered all your friends, so now join me.'
Is it just me, or is Kylo Ren with his mask off kind of dreamy?
When you think about it, the whole star map thing is kind of ridiculous. At least we don't have to spend the next two movies looking for the other pieces.

Overall, I give it a 3/5. Good but not great. I enjoyed it, and will want to see it again, but there were also several things that bugged me. I find it acceptable, which is better than expected and also better than average for all Star Wars movies.

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