Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

24Dec/151

There Has Been an Awakening

Have you felt it? I ask because there's a good chance you haven't yet. IMAX screenings have been sold out since Thursday, and some folks hate standing in line or dealing with crowds even if tickets are available. Some people have, I don't know, other obligations. In any case, about half my friends still haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even friends who really want to, so I will tell you right now there will be a point in this update where I throw up a huge spoiler warning. If you don't want to be spoiled, you'll be safe reading up to that point, but then all bets are off. You have to be strong here! Turn away when I tell you to! You've done it for a week, so I know you can handle it now.

First, my non-spoiler thoughts. In the months leading up to The Force Awakens, any number of fellow geeks asked me if I thought it'd be good. It made me realize we have to be very clear on what constitutes a good Star Wars movie. There are people for whom Star Wars is inextricably linked with the best parts of their childhood. They still haven't forgiven George Lucas for releasing three kids' movies bearing the Star Wars label after those poor fans grew up. Of course Jar Jar is silly. So was C-3PO. So is the whole concept of the saga, for Pete's sake. It's well documented that Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon serial, but was unable to get the rights. Instead, he mashed up Dune and the Lensman series with old Westerns and Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. It's as simple and brilliant as that. The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie and probably always will be, but it still includes phrases like "scruffy-looking nerf herder" and "alluvial dampers." (Is there a problem with the flow of river soil in the Millennium Falcon? How would people in a galaxy far, far away know what a falcon was anyway?) We have to accept that part of Star Wars's essential charm is it's for the kid in all of us. Don't be surprised or put off when it seems a bit childish. No one's claiming this is Shakespeare. So if it sounds like I'm willing to overlook a bit of childishness in The Force Awakens, I am. J.J. Abrams and company make no secret of the fact that they were aware of and trying to duplicate the "goofiness" (their word) of the Original Trilogy. I don't mind it; if you do, however, I can't really argue with you. The point is, it's unfair to demand that The Force Awakens be as good as your favorite movie of all time. No storyteller can simply decide to make a classic. It doesn't work that way. You can only aspire to please most of the people most of the time, and then hope for the best.

See, it's like I've been saying about Star Wars for the last year: everything people say about Star Wars is true. It really is that bad, and it really is that good. I'm on record as saying I don't think much of Return of the Jedi as a movie. People blame the late '90s "Special Editions" for mucking it up, but it was never very good. As my sister observed during a recent viewing, it doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be or whom its primary audience is. The plot is a beat-for-beat outline of the first Star Wars (later tagged A New Hope), but with a flippant air of what-the-hell-ever. There are great moments, of course, which is why we still watch Return of the Jedi all these years later, but as a whole I find it comparable to the much-derided Episode I. So believe me when I say if you find fault with The Force Awakens, that fault was in the Star Wars saga all along.

Just as Jurassic World was a beat-for-beat homage to Jurassic Park and Creed was a beat-for-beat retelling of Rocky, The Force Awakens hangs on the outline of an Original Trilogy Star Wars film. Certain things you expect to happen will happen. But y'know what? There's a reason for that. Lucas likes to say his episodes "rhyme." For years I thought of that as an excuse for unimaginative writing. Now I view things a bit differently. A Star Wars movie is not just, or even primarily, a movie. It's a social event, like a holiday. When you wake up Christmas morning, don't you have a set list of moments and activities you demand every year? Have you ever said "it wouldn't be Christmas without" them? I do, and I wasn't even raised celebrating Christmas. So when certain things happen in Episode VII, they happen because it wouldn't be Star Wars without them. I'm not saying they're good or bad. I'm saying they're part of the ritual. Abrams knows that ritual, and he follows it to the letter. To an adult, does it seem unimaginative? Yes, at times, but I also wouldn't have it any other way. Now that we're back in the flow of the story, it'll be up to Rian Johnson, the director of Episode VIII, to take more interesting narrative risks.

In short, as I watched The Force Awakens, my heart lifted. I flew along with the Falcon. I adore the new characters, especially Rey. I love the fact that she needs friends, not saving. She never whines. She never complains. She just gets her stuff done, and it's everyone else's tough luck if they can't keep up. I think Kylo Ren is a more interesting antagonist in some ways than Vader. BB-8 is a star on arrival. And let's not forget, we've known of these characters for a year now. It's easy to forget this over time, but writing new characters is hard. Abrams and his cowriters, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, deserve a galaxy of credit for what they've accomplished here. As you weigh the pluses and minuses of the new film, don't gloss over how amazing those characters are just because we got used to them months ago. They're one of the two best things about the new movie.

The other is this. As I came out of our Thursday night screening, I passed a friend going in. I told him he'd love it. "It does many things well," I said, "but what it does best is make you rabid for Episode VIII." And that's the truth. They should've allowed us to buy tickets as we walked out. I'd have reserved the whole theater. Folks who resent cliffhangers can rest easy; this episode tells a complete tale. But it also finds a closing note that promises vaster adventures to come, and that is also a very high tightrope to walk.

Now.

Here we go. It's spoiler time.

Did you hear me? I said it's

SPOILER TIME.

If you don't want to read details of a movie you haven't seen, this is your cue to hit the back button and get the hell out of Mos Eisley.

Okay.

You've been warned.

So here are things I didn't like about the movie. Did we really need not one but two instances of "we've got company?" Is there any bigger cliché in modern screenwriting? It was probably overdone back when A New Hope used it in '77, let alone now. How many people had eyes on this script before Abrams shot it? Was it not glaringly obvious in the editing bay that they'd used the same line twice? It's indefensible. I mean that. There's no way anyone can tell me that wasn't a blunder. I know it's minutiae, but Star Wars doesn't have minutiae. We fans memorize each line over the years. We kind of need them not to match so damn often. I'll allow, even encourage, another recitation of "I have a bad feeling about this," but "company" just plain has to go.

I wish I'd felt more after the major third-act development. The movie telegraphs its haymaker, then blows past it without the funerary grief other such moments have been granted. Leia frowns; Chewie goes kill crazy. That's about it. It's never even mentioned again. We've loved this character since we were kids, J.J. He deserved better. I don't mind the way he died or who killed him or why; I hate the short shrift the emotions of that moment were given in the context of the movie. My friend Eric told me he was genuinely hurt when that character passed. It was like he'd lost a well-liked family member. Others have told me the same. I think The Force Awakens will be remembered for a long time, and not fondly, as the episode that pulled its biggest gut punch. What a missed opportunity. I cried hard at a similar development in Creed. I shed nary a tear for the death of one of my all-time favorite literary characters. That, too, is pretty hard to forgive.

I realize the Millennium Falcon is a tough old bird, but can it really be bounced around like two drunks playing Frisbee? Especially when the shields aren't even on? My friend Michael complained that you can't fly the Falcon on its side because "that's not how repulsorlifts work." While I get that, I would also point out that repulsorlifts don't work. Much like the Falcon's hyperdrive or, I don't know, alluvial dampers, they're magical objects. They can do whatever the movie needs them to. I can think of plenty of other times the Falcon has been flown on its side; and besides, I've seen The Force Awakens twice and both times the audience went bananas when the Falcon took off.

I've read complaints that Rey is a type of fictional (originally, fan-fictional) character called a "Mary Sue," essentially an author's wish-fulfillment persona presented as a female character with a superhuman range of abilities. Look, no one complained when an archaeology professor suddenly knew how to fly a plane. No one gripes when Bruce Wayne is both a master criminologist and a martial artist, all while running a multinational corporation. Superheroes are part of how we tell stories, and they have been for millennia. Rey's a kick-ass character who also happens to be female, and God love her! I'm beyond thrilled that this new Star Wars trilogy centers around a female orphan and a black ex-stormtrooper. That's fantastic. It's as good as it can be. It means so much for kids growing up right now. I resent any effort to minimize how wonderful it is, so let's just take a moment to celebrate every proud little girl who lugs her Rey and Finn lunchbox to school.

Others have complained that, as with Abrams's 2009 Star Trek reboot, the entire plot of The Force Awakens hinges on galactic-scale coincidences. Yes. It clearly does. Also, in the Original Trilogy, our hero, a foster child on a desert planet deep in the Outer Rim, turns out to be the son of the worst guy in space, the very guy he's been fighting all along. Oh, and a princess and senator from an entirely different planet turns out to be his sister. And the weirdo living two canyons away turns out to be his father's former best friend. So who are we kidding here? The Star Wars universe is one of those fantasy realms (like certain religions I could name) in which it's assumed there is no such thing, really, as a coincidence.

In Episode VII we visit a desert planet, a jungle planet, and an ice world. Sound familiar? One of my favorite moments in the prequel trilogy was that Order 66 montage in Epsiode III, in which we visit a variety of diverse planets like the psychedelically glow-in-the-dark Felucia. The Force Awakens stayed true to Star Wars's roots by presenting environments you could locate on Earth. Even the closing moments, on a craggy island bluff, are clearly in Ireland. I didn't mind that, but I would like to see more inventiveness in upcoming installments. I've been looking through The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak, and it's obvious the designers are capable of grander ideas.

All in all I found The Force Awakens a joyous return to form for the series. In some ways it's my third-favorite Star Wars movie. In fact, we can all but ignore the prequels now. New viewers should regard the prequels as this saga's equivalent of Tolkien's Silmarillion, an ancillary backstory you don't need to experience unless you feel driven to. I can't wait to see what awaits us in years to come, and how great is it that we only have to wait a mere year and a half for Episode VIII? Don't forget, the standalone film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives even sooner, less than a year from now. I'm rooting for new heroes and intrigued by the return of Luke Skywalker. I suspect all the box office records this movie is setting will shatter in May of 2017. (Incidentally, let's take a moment to consider the fact that Episode VIII comes out only three weeks after Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2. What a month!) I'll be seeing The Force Awakens again tonight, and I'm looking forward to it just as rabidly as I awaited last week's premiere night. I love watching people my age introduce their kids to a saga they adore. Star Wars has become part of America's positive impact on the world. The advent of a new trilogy is a holiday we all share. So Merry Christmas, my friends, and may the Force be with all of you.

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  1. Generally, I agree with everything you say here – I loved the movie as a whole. I wanted to feel more from the big “twist” in the third act as well. That I didn’t has as much to do with the fact that I assumed this would happen from the time the cast was announced, given that a certain cast member had let his wishes regarding his character’s fate known for…let’s say a few years at least. As far as a period of mourning, there was a lovely grace note between Leia and Rey where they said all that needed to be said (though the moment was a little strange if we assume they had never laid eyes on each other before, but I’ll forgive it for the fact that both actors sold it.)

    Only place I disagree a little – I loved that all the locations were non-matte, non CGI heavy. While I also admire the Order 66 montage, every time I saw a new location, my initial reaction was “oh, hey – CGI”. I’m supremely grateful that Abram’s aesthetic veers toward the concrete and away from the computer generated. It keeps me in the movie.

    In fact, one of the aspects of the movie (and trilogy) I’m a little concerned about is that the big bad, Snoke, is CGI based. I can count on one hand the number of CGI characters that I’ve been able to even momentarily forget were CGI (Two fingers, actually – Gollum and Michael Douglas in the 1970s scenes in Ant Man) and even then, it was only momentarily.


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