Friday, January 1, 2016

A review of the force awakens

This review is not spoiler free. Deal with it. You've probably seen it 5,000 times already.

I just saw The Force Awakens a week or so ago. While this movie has gotten mostly positive reviews and even a really bad one from the Vatican, not surprisingly, this review that follows is more middle of the road. Mainly because that's what this movie left me with. While I found there were some really great moments, some of which nearly brought tears to my eyes, the film as a whole and other elements within it were really sub par. Like the ridiculous storyline, for example. Despite what the movie reviews say, The Force Awakens certainly did not feel like a return to old star wars at all and I really don't think it was better than the prequels. Any of them. The reviews that say "forget the prequels" are way off base, and probably written by casual fans who only liked the originals and never read any of the expanded universe books. I actually like the prequels a lot, but I was watching them from a different perspective than most people. I also think if you watch all six movies a few times in order, you'll see a much deeper story. The prequels are not perfect, but they are enjoyable. George Lucas, if you read this, I enjoyed the prequels a lot. The OT defined my childhood, the PT defined my early adulthood. Let's talk sometime, I really would love to tell you what impact Star Wars had on my life.

I got to tell Timothy Zahn once.

Back on track, The Force Awakens was a mediocre film, which is more than I should be able to say given my feelings about Abrams' Star Trek reboot. I hated the first one so much that when my dad gave me the second one, I never removed it from the plastic. On the whole, TFA didn't really add anything new to the series, rendered moot my 20+ year old collection of Star Wars novels, was a confusing mess in places, and killed Han Solo.

Despite that, it was not the worst movie I've ever seen. That honor goes to this gem.

I guess starting off I had terribly low expectations for TFA going in, so that may be why I liked the film overall despite its flaws, the movie wasn't terrible. My expectations stem from having read many of the Expanded Universe books, and having bought nearly all of them, thankfully mostly second-hand. I really thought the books, up to a point, really continued the Star Wars story in the right direction. Having enjoyed those stories, I figured there was no way TFA could measure up to the movies in my head. And considering the director. Thus I expected a terrible film.

I suspect that everyone who loved the movie had low expectations due to the prequels and probably hadn't paid much attention to Star Wars since Return of the Jedi.

My first thought upon sitting in the theater, apart from how can I find a seat with this many people, was a tinge of excitement, like when I saw the prequels. I also felt something when I heard the opening crawl music and saw the episode number. But my excitement was short lived. As I watched the crawl unfold I was struck by how strange and cheap the text looked when compared to what I recalled from the prequels and even special editions. It looks super fake and animated. More than normal I mean. Cartoonish even. Something was off. I'm not sure what they did different, but it is strange.

From there, the opening with the First Order star destroyer was kinda cool. I applaud Abrams for showing us a different angle than what we've seen previously, while still having the traditional OT style opening involving a star destroyer. It wasn't aesthetically blowing me away, but it was a risk and it was refreshing. Actually, despite changing the names and places from episode iv to make Episode VII and largely remaking a new hope, I thought TFA at least gave us some great visuals at times.

The landing assault on the Jakku village was really stunning and I was really, really happy to see solid, actual people in solid actual stormtrooper costumes. The clones in the prequels were obvious CGI, though the ones in Revenge of the Sith were leaps and bounds above the ones in attack of the clones, but using real troopers was an improvement. I would have liked to have seen the First Order use an updated version of the Republic gunships (I loved those) but it didn't happen. Flesh and blood stormtroopers though added tangibility and menace and was a great move.

Once Kylo Ren was on the scene, and actually before the attack even started, the film gave off the vibe of a TV movie. The same kind of vibe that the Phantom with Billy Zane gives off (at least with my Blu Ray player and inability to stop the Soap Opera effect on my BR movies). Yes Max von Sydow is a good actor, I guess, but this part and the arrival of Ren felt like a TV movie. Not sure why, but it just did.

Some people are baffled at this point by why Finn chickened out during the raid, but it's pretty obvious. He reveals later on that he had previously been in sanitation, hardly a battle hardened veteran. After seeing his comrade die, and then watching villagers get massacred, what Finn had was a normal, human reaction. And because of this, Finn's character was one that I liked. He also had a lot of funny moments that weren't over the top. It was refreshing too that Finn wasn't exactly the most forthright at times, which is kinda new for heroes in star wars.

I'm also glad to see a black character take such a prominent role in this series, though I still feel that Lando got the shaft this time. Billy Dee needs to be in more stuff. So does Ernie Hudson.

As the escape and "out of the reactor core and into the supernova" moments unfolded, I was interested and surprised, but I found that the camera was often too close to the actors making the movie seem cluttered. This was a gripe throughout the movie, too many, too close shots. In the prequel and classic trilogy, there was a good balance of close ups and wide field shots, and even the close ups were typically far enough away that you see multiple characters on the screen without it feeling cluttered, and you could often see a lot going on in the background. Those shots felt epic. The close ones in force awakens felt less so.

I think that these close shot contributed to the TV movie feel of the film. On TV, it's more crowded and intimate because you're dealing with a medium that is viewed upon a smaller screen, and a lower budget that can't get away with showing much on the sidelines because of budget. Another foot to the left on TV and you've gotta build a new set.  But even when Star Wars was low budget, it never conveyed the squished screen and showed us an expanded world on the periphery. Lucas gave us enough on the sidelines to imagine more, Abrams did not.

Whatever you say about the prequels, Lucas was right. He often had his creative team making changes to a storyboard, scene or an art piece because it looked like it was on a set. He'd have them open up the frame or pull back. The more money Lucas had to make his films, we got to see more and cooler stuff. And it worked aesthetically because Lucas knows how to make his shot visually appealing. Looking like a set isn't always bad, but going back to that look of a set so completely after the prequels was not a good move, especially since we got to see more exotic stuff in the PT. It was aesthetically jarring to see a complete return to average sets. What Abrams should have done, besides pulling the camera further back, is used a better balance of CGI and practical and not eschew CGI except as a last resort. Practical effects are not the be all end all, and neither is CGI. There's a way to do both, Im sure. Naboo is a perfect example of how to balance both for optimal effect. There are some Naboo shots that I can't tell where practical ends and the cgi begins. Unfortunately, this movie went too far in the opposite direction of the prequels trying to use the nostalgia of practical effects to woo the audience.

It seems to have largely worked for people.

Back on track, after the hijinks have ensued and the heroes are looking to escape Jakku, we get the Millenium Falcon. This to me was kind of a big kick to the groin, but also bittersweet and a great film moment. For some unknown reason, Han Solo has been without the Falcon for a number of years, which is a travesty. The bad part of this, is that it flies in the face of everything the old trilogy and EU sold us. The Falcon was Han's ship. Period. Ok, it was sometimes Lando's, but it was HAN'S SHIP. The EU books also kept this as a solid foundation, Han always got his Falcon back whenever it was lost. Even that time that it was taken by Thrawn and the time it got shot down on Kessel. I find it hard to believe that the Falcon could have been lost to Han for however long he'd lost it, which seemed like a while. Especially since he was in the neighborhood, which comes in a moment.

The great part of this moment as a film moment though is when the Falcon is revealed and Rey's line about the ship being garbage was soon disproved, and seeing the falcon about to save the day again, as a viewer, was a high point. So, good, bad and ugly, the Falcon, Han's absence and Rey's reaction to the Falcon made for a bittersweet moment.

One that kicked me in the groin, then gave me an ice pack and an aspirin.

This was followed by another bittersweet moment, and one of the biggest deus ex machinas in cinematic history. Once in space, the Falcon is picked up by none other than Han Solo! Convenioincidence of all time, because wouldn't you know it, Han was delivering a shipment of hideous hell-beasts to...well, it's never made clear who and we move on from there qucikly. Han solo's appearance nearly brought a tear to me, and I have to say that as much as Harrison Ford has badmouthed playing Solo in the past, the man delivered probably the best performance in the movie. He was still able to pull off Han Solo convincingly, and even portray that Han's life has been full of hardship. He gave us the Han we remembered, but he also showed us that the years had been unkind. Even with this joyful reappearance, it was truly sad to see Solo regress back to owing lowlifes money for botched jobs. It sort of regresses his character arc from the OT too, because we see him go from being a scumbag to becoming a hero because of the love he and Leia had. To see him sans Leia and back worse off than he started was heartbreaking, in a bad way. That's kind of another sore point for me, the ending of Jedi didn't accomplish much, and we might just as well have had the ending were Han dies, the Falcon is destroyed and Luke goes off ala Clint Eastwood.

At least the EU had a significant victory and the EU kept Han and Leia together, respecting and extrapolating on the growth he had in the OT. She made him an honest man, and like most men, Han married up. Even when Chewbacca cacked in the books and Han went Mr. Depresso he and Leia made up and reunited.

Come to think of it, TFA that whole sequence on the freighter with Han, Rey, Finn, and Chewie, minus a few redeeming moments, was kind of stupid and pointless. The performance and the acting was great, but the setup was contrived and unnecessary. It was kind of filler.

Han's little spiel of exposition was most welcome, and frankly could have been longer. Thirty years is a big gulf to fill, and we almost need a prequel trilogy to the force awakens that fills those holes in. We'll probably get it too...

The next part that comes to mind is the whole sequence with Maz Kanada, which is hopefully not a play on the song Mas Que Nada, though probably is. I found Maz and her den of scalawags to be uninteresting and unappealing on the whole. With the exception of this guy, I didn't find ANY of the aliens (even in the whole movie) that compelling and didn't feel that they possessed a Star Wars feel. This section, though just felt wrong. We could have had some familiar aliens sprinkled in for good measure, that typically makes introducing new aliens easier. In the EU (comics, etc.) new aliens are shown with old or put in Star Wars familiar aesthetics. Even in the books you can use the the alien guides to imagine the new aliens with the old.

Aside from some much needed exposition, and a really cool Force vision, the like of which we've never seen before, the whole section at Maz's place was just a contrived way to get Rey the Skywalker lightsaber. How did Maz get it? At least the retrieval of it in the EU made sense. In the EU, Vader retrieved  the lightsaber and Luke's hand pretty quickly from some poor ugnaughts and sent the pair of trinkets off to Palpatine's trophy room for "top men" to look into. There it waited until Zahn's The Last Command. The chain of events in Zahn's book at least makes some sense.

Here in Episode 7, nope. It's just there in Maz Kanada's basement, ready to be donated to space-Goodwill or sold on Watto's Pawn Stars. Seems just anyone can walk down there too, which in a den of reprobates is probably not that good of an idea if you want to keep something valuable. But this sort of makes you wonder if Kenobi's, Yoda's and Mace Windu's lightsabers are down there too.

It couldn't hurt to look. Dibs on Windu's.

The next thing I recall was the appearance of Supreme Leader Snoke, a villain who did not live up to the hype, in my opinion. He was absolutely the least threatening antagonist since that time Captain Tarpals zapped Jar Jar with that electro staff. Aside from having cool and ominous theme music (that is similar to, but quite different from the Darth "Jake" Plagueis seen in Episode III) there is not much to be scared of. Snoke's design isn't that compelling and he just seems like a randomly inserted retcon character. A character who looks like he's been around a while like Maz Kanata, but who is strangely absent in any existing material. I suppose you could say the same about the old EU stuff and EU villains, or even Yoda, but at least some of those villains had origins in the original material, or at least tried to mesh well with it. Yoda at least fit pretty well too. In the EU, the later stuff like Yuuzhan Vong, lost tribe of the Sith and several other villains give off a similar vibe to Snoke, that is, they're villains created just to prolong conflict and make stories/money. So I guess it's par for the course, but there's nothing about him that feels like Star Wars, and little about him that's threatening. In fact, Snoke is one tummy ache away from being Lord Nebula from Captain Simian.

Andy Serkis is great at motion capture and I've enjoyed his work, as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar but he just is not that menacing. Especially when he talks. I felt the same way with his Klaw performance in Avengers:  Age of Ultra-Cash. In contrast, Ian McDiardmid as Palpatine has menace. The dude smiles and it's loaded with evil. Snoke just doesn't measure up to Palpatine, Vader, Dooku or even General Grievous. And Grievous was way overhyped.

Perhaps that will change.

And while I know many people think he's Darth "Jake" Plagueis, I have a wildly different theory. But you'll have to wait for that blog. I think it's obvious in looking at Snoke that he is not a Muun and it's pretty well accepted that Plagueis is a Muun.

Rounding out this section of weak elements in the force awakens is Starkiller base. The super weapon thing was already done enough times in the EU that EU fans complained, and the refrain was like so:  no more super weapons. Now in the EU there were a few superweapons that made sense, but not every EU story had a super weapon. Heck, a lot of them didn't even have really good lightsaber duels. I had really hoped this movie would not have had a superweapon, because Timothy zahn gave us a whole trilogy with no super weapons and very minimal lightsaber action. And it was excellent.

Starkiller base looks like a scaled down Unicron, and while I was wrong about its functionality, I was right that it did destroy suns. I mean, with a name like that, what else would it do? But here's my problems with it, besides rehashing the superweapons thing and being kinda lame. So, 1) it was unclear what planets were blown up, and there was no emotional impact to me when that happened and when the sun was drained. Were they in the same system? Another system? How close were they together? How could people see it on Maz's planet? 2) if the Death Star is the size of a small moon, and the Starkiller is slightly bigger, how does the Starkiller suck up an ENTIRE SUN, then blow up at the end and then when it's gone, there's a whole sun again? Did the makers of this film have any concept of physics at all? Even Star Wars physics? 3) How was it even made and where was it all this time? Was it moveable? Could we get some explanation about this? It's basically just there to have some threat. Like Snoke, Starkiller is a threat from nowhere for the sake of creating conflict. It sucked.

Megamaid from Spaceballs was more believable and more threatening.

I guess that's it. Starkiller base went from sucks to blows.

The rest of the movie was pretty entertaining, though again full of convenient plot devices and deus ex machina. The infiltration of Starkiller was kinda cool as was Rey's interrogation and use of the force. It actually makes sense to me how quickly she picked it up, she had been surviving for years and the force likely helped with that. She also had to have picked up good street fighting skills. The actors were all spot on, even if the story and plot weren't, and this is what saved the movie for me. Han's death at the hands of Ben was sad, and I have to say that Kylo Ren was an A-hole for it.

Adam Driver looks a bit like Han, and he's a good enough actor. Certainly not what I'd envisioned for Jacen Solo, but driver does have a Harrison Ford-ishness. I hope we get some background on his fall to the dark side, because I'm not really invested heavily in his character at this point.

Daisy Ridley also gave a good performance. I'm curious as to who her parents are. I initially thought she was Ren's twin, but after seeing the movie that seems unlikely. Unless Han left Leia pregnant and Luke had Rey hidden after Ren's fall.

Which brings us to the end. Seeing Rey seek out Luke was a touching scene. Mark Hamill was instantly recognizable and the look he gave Rey was quite curious. His was the only character that seemed like he was where I'd expect him to be, given Disney's reboot. He's the only character who, despite the lack of screen time, didn't get totally dissed.

Despite all of the weak moments I pointed out, uninspired designs and being full of plot holes, The Force Awakens was a decent movie. It's not one I'll go to the theater again to see. It was good, but not great. Like I said, it felt kind of like a TV movie. Sort of like the cinematic and theatrically released Clone Wars that was a pilot. In contrast to TFA, with the prequels I saw Episode I three times in the theater, Episode II twice and Episode III five times. The prequels answered questions I had (and some I didn't) and really expanded the original trilogy. I can watch the OT and see different things now, and that is awesome. Episode 7 glossed over 30 years of time and left us with more questions than answers, probably incentive to sell Disney's new expanded universe materials to replace the old EU material.

The stuff in the movie doesn't always feel like a natural progression from what we left in ROTJ. It sometimes feels like an obvious retcon, which it really kinda is. Luke's exposed robot hand being one thing. The names of planets like Jakku, Takonada. The existence of Snoke and Maz Kanada. The Falcon getting lost. The lack of any familiar aliens in the bar scene. None of it fits in my eyes. It's like my favorite characters and factions from Star Wars were sucked into an alternate universe.

At the risk of sounding like a butthurt fanboy, I think the old EU was a more faithful continuation of Star Wars post Episode 6, at least to a point. And it was even approved, to a point by George Lucas. So I will consider TFA as "legends" and the old EUas canon. Heck, TFAis basically Expanded Universe with a budget, kind of less so since George Lucas had no involvement with it. The old EU had had the power to say yay or nay when he wanted.

It would have been nice, since Disney is using EU ideas anyways, if they would have kept a majority of the EU intact and made movies from that point. At least then there'd be some available background story going into Episode 7. They could have kept everything up until the New Jedi Order and cut everything thereafter, and that would have been fine with me. I am more curious of what Lucas' treatments for Episodes 7 - 9 were than ever before.

But like as not, Disney jettisoned all that and the old EU because they couldn't make money on it, but they could by rehashing the same timeframe with new stories. In short, by replacing the stories they can make money and own the rights to the new stories.

So, I didn't hate TFA, but I didn't love it either. It was good seeing a new Star Wars movie, but it also hurt a little. As a mindless cinematic popcorn muncher, it did its job. I was entertained. I enjoyed seeing a movie with my wife. But as  longtime Star Wars fan who reads the books, I was greatly disappointed in the attempt to redo the EU.

Long live the EU Rebellion!

PS, please share your thoughts in the comments!

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