December 28, 2015

Reflecting on Star Wars VII *** SPOLIER ALERT ***

As a child of the 80's, the Star Wars original trilogy (OT) has always had a special place in my heart. I still have the theatrical release versions on VHS, and never cared for the "special edition" versions that George Lucas released later on. Nearly all of the additions undermined the charm and character of the theatrical versions (especially Darth Vader yelling "Noo….." at the end of Return of the Jedi. Seriously?). I went out of my way to track down the "de-specialized" fan-version of the OT on the web, quietly waiting for the day when Disney decides to remaster and release the theatrical versions of the film (fingers crossed).

As pretentious as that sounds, I didn't however hate the prequel trilogy. Hell, even Jar Jar Binks kinda grew on me. Granted, there was plenty to dislike about the prequels: the lackluster acting and script, the slightly overwrought plot, the awkward moments. Things were clunky, but overall it felt like what Star Wars should look and feel like before the fall of the Republic. It worked well enough for me.

So how about the Force Awakens?

By most accounts, The Force Awakens was to be a return to the spirit and vibe of the original trilogy: a more personal and character driven narrative. Less about the grand machinations of the empire (e.g. the ridiculous First Order) and more about the characters' own internal struggles, revelations, and triumphs. By and large I think it succeeded. The movie was unquestionably a throw-back to the OT (the plot line was nearly a carbon copy of A New Hope, boarding on absurdity).

First the good stuff. I think Rey, Finn, and BB-8 are awesome new characters, ushered in with a solid script and great acting. Seeing these people (and the droid) on the screen was the highlight for me. It was a big relief to have a script that didn't completely bomb (like most of the prequels). The frequent jab-in-the-rib jokes were amusing and well-placed, stroking our nostalgia as well as providing the comic relief that has always been a part of Star Wars. So job well done there.

The return of old favorites certainly rang of fan service, but it was well executed too. Harrison Ford's performance was good and he brought a great dynamic to the screen. The whole scene on his is trading ship was a little lame I felt, but otherwise his presence was good. Visually, the movie was great (as expected), and felt much more in-line with the flavor of the OT (as expected). And I have to say, they made Mark Hamill look pretty bad ass in final scene. It has me wanting to see more.

My first big grievance is that the film required me to create my own rationalizations for far too many details of the plot and characters, which was a big missed opportunity in my mind. In no particular order:

(A) How/why did Finn have a change of heart? Incidentally, a Visual Dictionary book entry for him mentioned that the opening attack scene was his first live engagement, and a weak point in his training broke his resolve. There was no indication of this in the movie – and I thought this could've been developed more explicitly.

(B) How/why does Rey have the ability to fly spaceships so well (and repair them for that matter)? Please don't tell me it's the force. They could have done anything, like showing her leafing through technical manuals in one of the many ship ruins she was exploring. Or have her house be a crashed space ship (instead of an AT-AT), with her pretending to fly and using the controls. Or show a dream of her flying a spaceship from when she was kid. There should have been something so that I didn't have to fabricate a justification for myself.

(C) How/why did Kylo Ren manage to kill a bunch of his peer Jedi and evade Skywalker to become the uber villain, and then get defeated by Rey who had just discovered her own Force powers moments earlier? Does Rey get some divine aid from the Force-motes? Is Kylo Ren just a wanker that got lucky, and then fell for Rey, got cocky, and was defeated by his own pride and arrogance? I guess? It felt way too contrived. I mean, Kylo Ren stopped a blaster shot in mid-air and he got whupped by an upstart novice? Overalls, Rey's force abilities grew way to quickly to be taken seriously without some better explanation. Maybe that's coming later?

(D) How/why did the First Order decide to make another Uber Laser Weapon? I appreciate the need to blow up the big thing as the climax of the final battle, but the Uber Laser was lame. I was anticipating something more subtle and menacing, something that raised the bar over the Death Star rather than just being an even bigger version of it
My second big grievance is about Kylo Ren himself. I thought he was cool up until he took off his mask. Then I almost started laughing right in the theater. I thought young Anikan was bad. But Kylo Ren just came across as such a wanker. That's the only word I can think of (and I've used it twice now) to describe him. He wasn't particularly intelligent or crafty, wasn't conniving or menacing, and certainly wasn't dark or mysterious. The whole killing his father to give himself fully to the dark side bit was thin and obvious. I just didn't sense enough real turmoil and madness in his character to justify the move. Some villains are terrifying when they throw a temper tantrum, or when they have you strapped down to an interrogation table. Kylo Ren wasn't terrifying at all.

My current theory (I'm taking Bets), is that Rey somehow manages to charm Kylo Ren and bring him back to the light as sort of a grand reversal of Anikan's story. I.e., love brings you to the light side, rather than giving justification for turning to the dark side. We'll see if this this theory holds true. Meanwhile...

The third and final big grievance, is how much the plot is a rehash of A New Hope. Some points of reference:

- Opening fight scene to try and recover a secret document (map vs. plans)
- Interrogation of various civilians by the big bad (Kylo Ren vs. Vader)
- Secrete document hid on a droid (BB-8 vs. R2D2)
- Droid on a desert world lands in the hands of the unknowing hero (Rey vs. Luke)
- Escape planet on a piece of junk space ship (Millennium Falcon both times!)
- Captured rebels and interrogation …
- References to garbage chutes …

I won't write it all out … but you surely get the point. It's nearly the exact same plot, except that this time we've seen it all before so nothing is new or surprising. Arguably Solo's death was the big upset, but the writing was on all the wall for that the moment you find out who Kylo Ren's parent are. I guess I was expecting something more unknown and uncertain to drive the plot and set the stage for the next episode. But on the other hand, A New Hope was similarly self-contained.

Unfortunately, not only was the plot a near clone, the execution and pacing was off in my opinion. Star Wars movies (OT and Prequels alike) always had a comfortable pace to them, striking a nice balance between slower segments and action. In The Force Awakens, every time the action stopped, you could start a 10-second timer before an explosion cascaded into another action scene. The first third of the movie had a nice balance, but after that it felt like one huge action sequence. Did we really need to have a battle on Solo's cargo ship? Or could that have been used to develop the characters more?

Despite all these big grievances, I still greatly enjoyed the movie. As a throwback and piece of fan service it certainly delivered. The script was good and the visuals were great. Hopefully they got the nostalgia out of their system and, having set the stage, the next installments can build in their own new direction.

The new cast and characters are solid. And while I wasn't enamored with Kylo Ren, at least the door is open to develop his character more and I'll be keen to see how that goes. Otherwise, Rey and Finn are great I want to see more of them on the screen. My palms were sweating in the lead up to Luke Skywalkers appearance, but I have to admit that the wizened old Jedi Master vibe is strong with that one, and I can't wait to see what's next.


  1. It's funny, I thought Kylo Ren worked really well - he and General Gingerballs are desperately trying to be Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, right the way up to building the Death Star "but... like... bigger? Yeah, we'll do it bigger!" They're all living in the shadow of their predecessors. Which is a pretty interesting thing to do with what are basically the most broad-strokes Space Nazi villains in cinema.

  2. I guess I didn't find "trying to be like Darth Vadar" to be a particularly compelling motive. The empire from the OT, even before the prequels, felt like it had some weight and context behind it. The First Order really didn't have that feeling (IMHO), and it was almost like they were all "playing at being bad guys" instead of actually being bad guys. Or something like that!