The Force Awakens…

The Force Awakens has been out for a couple of weeks now. I hate the obsession with spoiler warnings on everything (people need to take some responsibility for their own internet click-choices, especially once things are on general release), but because such a big thing has been made about spoilers with this film, I’ll make it clear. Here There Be Spoilers!

 

I’ve been resisting writing up my thoughts on The Force Awakens since seeing it… For many, including friends of mine, it is THE Star Wars film they’ve long dreamed of, especially for those in their 30s/40s who have formative memories of the original trilogy as a cornerstone of their childhood. I get that. I really do. This is what we all hoped of the prequels… (Those hopes were cruelly dashed, whatever some Lucas apologists may now claim.)

And yet…

TFA has much to love.
– The new characters are interesting and (mostly) believable (Rey in particular is a highlight… Finn is interesting, but relies on “heavy breathing/shoulder-heaving” too much to show inner torment… remember that next time you watch!);
– there are some great (funny) lines of dialogue. With BB-8, they have cracked the challenge of the comic sidekick, without being naff;
– the special effects are (mostly) fantastic;
and it all just feels right. Star Wars-y.
Chewie… We’re home” indeed.

I made a mental note after the first scene that it gave us two characters that we care about, and at least one other that we’re interested in. This is about as much as any opening scene can do, for any film. There has even been some discussion about coded meanings behind the first line “This will begin to make things right”, as if Abrams wanted to insult George Lucas… seems unlikely to me, but this is in a different league to the prequels, and if this is the aim of the film, it delivers.

And yet…

The main bad guy, Kylo Ren, gets a bunch of screen time, showing us both his power and his vulnerability… Yes, there is the danger of some seeing this as Darth Tantrum (there is already a twitter account for “Emo Kylo Ren”, with thousands of followers), but the reality is more nuanced, more dangerous than that, his ragged lightsabre pulsing in tune with his anger. His lightsabre battle in the snow with first Finn, then Rey at the end, is amazing… especially the moment where Kylo tries to force pull the ‘sabre to his hand, only for it to fly past his face and into Rey’s outstretched hand, her powers in the ascendant. That is a fine cinematic moment, for any film.

And yet…

There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.

This feels too much like a fan-made reboot of the original Star Wars for me to love this as a stand-alone. This is not just a case of setting this within the Star Wars universe, or the standard “hero’s journey” arc that begets familiarity. Apologists who point to the way that the original Star Wars painted its references on its sleeves (Flash Gordon, WW2 cinematic dogfights, Seven Samurai, etc) are missing the point – that took a RANGE of influences and melded them into one whole. It did not look to ONE reference point and remake that with bells, whistles, nods, winks, and a more diverse cast.

When we learn about Starkiller Base, and the plan to destroy it in a decidedly-Death Star-style, I was thinking “didn’t we just leave this party?

I loved the start of the film, introducing us to Poe, Finn, and Rey… and then Han Solo turned up, doing exactly what he was doing thirty years ago. Would you watch Ferris Bueller’s Midlife Crisis, with Ferris acting exactly the same as he did thirty years ago? It could work as a tragedy, but not a comedy… and yet here we are in Star Wars, playing the same beats. Han is also too old to be a believable action hero (Harrison Ford is older than Alec Guinness was in the original Star Wars), sneaking around Starkiller Base without so much as a support team this time ‘round.

Would you watch Ferris Bueller’s Midlife Crisis, with Ferris acting exactly the same as he did thirty years ago?

Han is central to the film, and his death provides the “gasp” moment that the spoiler-averse are trying to protect (his death is telegraphed, yet it still hits you in the gut), BUT the amount of screen time he is given means that the focus is taken off the new generation, to the film’s detriment. He is also central to by far the worst scene in the film, where the rathtars are accidentally set loose on the Falcon… this brought to mind the prequels, and not in a good way. A splurge of pointless CGI, a convenient way out for characters… and no feeling of genuine threat to the characters (the rathtars kill everyone immediately, except for Finn).

Still, this does distract from the fact that Han managed to find the Falcon the moment it took off from Jakku, despite having been apparently searching fruitlessly for years before. Ah, those beloved SW plot holes… I suppose that is consistent with the originals too…

There are narrative problems with the film, too, that get glossed over… I can’t claim to understand the magnitude of what was destroyed by Starkiller, or how the New Republic worked, or whether the First Order has further resources elsewhere in the galaxy, or how big the Resistance is, or why in a galaxy of billions the Resistance seems to be made up of about fifty humans and a token handful of aliens, or even why Maz had Anakin/Luke’s lightsabre (in an unsecure box)…

There is always a balance between exposition and explosions, but a bit more context would have been nice…

Not to mention other problems, like Chewie being completely ignored by Leia after Han’s death, and Chewie just walking off to hang around with other pilots at the edge of the screen, as Leia hugs Rey (who, for all we know, only met her five minutes ago).

The internet has been working overtime since the film, making links, filling in plot holes, coming up with ridiculous explanations for each character’s back story. Congratulations, Abrams, you’ve got a lot of people in a frenzy, and all the speculation, sensible and wild, will only help with the marketing of future Star Wars films. I understand this, but still think there could have been a place to tell a more cohesive, less derivative story, rather than an extended set-up for the sequels. Ironically, this is something that A New Hope did really well…

This is not tall poppy syndrome, or trying to be ‘cool’ by not liking the biggest film of all time, or being critical for the sake of it. This is the genuine regret of someone who loved Star Wars, until this film. (As blogged at length previously: https://altheauthor.wordpress.com/star-wars/ ). Now, despite one last night together with some amazing fireworks, I can see that we are heading in different directions. Maybe I’ve just grown, grown up, changed, gone respectable… but this is a goodbye from me.

Yes, I’ll still watch the coming onslaught of Star Wars films, but I won’t be queuing desperately to see it within days of release… I might even wait for the DVD. I will enjoy it, I’m sure, but a large part of that enjoyment will be the parental thrill of seeing the joy on my son’s face. This is his to love now.

So long, Star Wars, and thanks for all the lightsabres.

 

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For those who just can’t get enough of The Force Awakens, there are a number of links below that you may be interested in. I don’t agree with all of these articles, but all are worth a quick read.

If you are in the 5% who didn’t enjoy the film, for whatever reason, you’re not alone:
http://www.theblaze.com/contributions/fans-divided-over-star-wars-the-force-awakens/?utm_source=facebook

http://movieweb.com/star-wars-force-awakens-everything-wrong/?page=11

Salivating for more? These are questions that need to be addressed in VIII and IX:
http://io9.gizmodo.com/33-questions-we-desperately-want-answered-after-star-wa-1748953034

http://movieweb.com/star-wars-force-awakens-unanswered-questions/

Another way of viewing “questions that needs answers” is that they are plot holes… :
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-abramson/40-unforgivable-plot-holes-in-star-wars-the-force-awakens_b_8850324.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-abramson/20-more-plot-holes-from-s_b_8856844.html

Kylo Ren is everything that Anakin Skywalker should have been, and other prequel comparisons:
http://io9.gizmodo.com/kylo-ren-is-everything-that-anakin-skywalker-should-hav-1749606647

http://now.howstuffworks.com/2015/12/28/10-times-the-force-awakens-nods-the-star-wars-prequels

Remake, or not? I disagree with this one (it seems to confuse a shot-for-shot remake with a remake/re-boot, for one thing):
http://mashable.com/2015/12/23/force-awakens-is-no-remake/#j2ugCj2KZsqQ

This one goes too far, but it does make some interesting points about the “Disney-fication” of Star Wars (anyone remember Winnie the Pooh?), and the drum beat of “money, money, money” behind it:
http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-star-wars-the-force-awakens-stinks-20151226-column.html

FWIW, this review most closely matches my own views (and how much would I have loved to see Han in a t-shirt saying “You’re damn right I shot first”!):
http://www.theverge.com/2015/12/18/10543196/star-wars-the-force-awakens-a-new-hope-nostalgia

May the Force be with you, whatever your view of The Force Awakens!

 

TFA

 

Star Wars countdown – Return of the Jedi

So, this week brought the final part of our Star Wars countdown, re-watching all the films in preparation for seeing The Force Awakens later today. It feels so close now… In fact, by the time you read this, I’ll either be FREAKIN’ THERE in the cinema, or trying to find people that I can finally have spoiler-y chats with!

The Return of the Jedi came out when I was five/six years old. It is the first Star Wars film I remember seeing, and along with ET and Indiana Jones, forms one of the three legs of the chair of my childhood. My father owned a small chain of video libraries back in the day when people had to actually leave their homes to access films. I helped out in those stores, went on delivery runs with him, and knew every film on the shelves, even if too young to watch them. Films were intrinsic to our every day lives.

I know I should hate the Ewok teddy bears, for consistency with my Jar-Jar hate if nothing else, but I was six when first exposed to them. The force is weak in this one. They are possibly the most memorable, defining feature of my childhood at home too, from toys (I loved the Ewok village, oh and also that speeder toy with the operationally questionable self-destruct button) to spinoff films – Caravan of Courage, anyone? – to animated TV series (Ewoks, and Droids). When that ewok tries to move his just-killed friend… I am six all over again, complete with a tear in my eye.

So, when I say that films defined my childhood, I really mean it. Perhaps Return of the Jedi defines it best of all. My father’s video libraries closed down in the mid-90s in a saturated market as the trend for owning films grew, and I similarly moved beyond childhood into teenage awkwardness. An era was over.

Yes, as a film it is inferior to the previous two, re-hashing the best beats from the previous film (another Death Star! Leia says “I know!” More hokey shield-shenanigans!), but to lesser effect. This is all irrelevant to me.

It’s my son’s favourite Star Wars film at the moment. He is also 6. At this age, things get locked in amber for all eternity. I am even less able to judge this film objectively than the original New Hope. I can pretty much quote the dialogue along with the actors (especially Lando, for some reason). The ewoks don’t bother me, working their child-bewitching magic before my adult cynicism had a chance to question the role of teddy bears in this rebellion.

So, some vaguely chronological thoughts:

– Look at the size of those helmets of those staff on the new Death Star… And Vader is looking extra shiny… Interesting to see the Empire’s priorities while building a new Death Star. Spaceballs had an easy target for humour… “I see your Schwartz is bigger than mine”

Ay wanna wonga? Makes me chuckle every time, for some reason, even despite being (over) referenced in the prequels.

Jabba’s a great, and repulsive, villain. For once, we have an alien who is not just a man in a suit. Easy to forget that in these days of wall-to-wall CGI.

– Very slow start to the film… Atmospheric, but a bit dull as all the pieces left separate at the end of Empire are reunited.

– I love the bounty hunter language based solely on the word “yoto“. Was tempted to write this blog post in the same way. Yoto. Yoto.

Boba Fett nods a lot in Jabba’s palace. Certain friends of mine worship the ground he walks on… They obviously subscribe to the less is more approach. Unlike, for example, George Lucas.

– Speaking of which, the gold bikini just doesn’t do it for me, despite being such a fanboy staple. I saw this when I was 6, remember. Leia might as well be wearing a cloth sack.

Luke’s plan to defeat Jabba relies entirely on R2-D2 being in the right place on the skiff, and being able to make that impossible shot of firing the lightsabre to Luke… What if Jabba had just sold him on, or used him for parts?

– “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not”. So wise…

Yoda told Luke he wasn’t ready when he left… Now he says he doesn’t need any more training. Also, that he will only become a Jedi after facing the second most powerful Sith in the galaxy. Not exactly a fair final exam from Jedi school.

– “Many Bothans died to bring us this information…. “Has ever a planned spin-off been based on less information in the main source? Also, does the fact that the Emperor let them escape diminish their sacrifice?

The Forest Moon of Endor… So, is that a moon called Endor, or a moon around the planet Endor? This has always bugged me. Happy to be enlightened!

– What possible reason would there be for taking C-3PO with them onto a forest moon to attack an imperial base? You know, when everyone’s in stealthy forest mode, and he’s a useless, irritating, shiny GOLDEN robot. Who can’t shoot. Even R2 is a stretch.

– “You know, fly casual.” I love this line. There’s not enough of Han in this film (in his defence, that’s probably because he starts the film as a wall decoration in Jabba’s palace).

– “I see you have constructed a new lightsabre” Darth Vader says to Luke… When did that happen? Did he knock one out while rescuing Han? Are they as easy as making daisy chains?

– re the final 3-part conclusion – ie in the Death Star, in space, and on Endor – did this film set the template for so many great action films that followed (and Phantom Menace)? Do any film buffs know if this device ever got used before?

– The make-up on the Emperor is better in this than in Revenge of the Sith. This isn’t a rose-tinted memory, but the reality from what I’ve just been re-watching. (Although his eyes do seem to have a little Morticia Adams-style lighting around them.) And where’s his lightsabre gone? Or his penchant for unnecessary twirling?

– Why does Vader saving his son’s life count as redemption for all the lives he has taken? I remember the younglings…

– Why does the destruction of the second Death Star result in galactic celebration? They’re still controlled by the Empire, even if the Emperor himself is dead, along with some of his key ships/stations. Why is this time different to the first Death Star being destroyed? Did that huge fleet watching the action around the Death Star get routed, or did they all just fly off, quit, and settle down to raise a family and a farm on a backwater planet?

– Why have your shield generator on a moon, rather than, ooh, within the structure being shielded?

– Wouldn’t the exploding Death Star have rained destruction down on Endor?

Ewok heads are tougher than stormtroopers armour. Fact. The white armour seems to be made from paper. Presumably following the metal shortage caused by building yet another Death Star, and significantly extending the helmet lengths of desk staff.

– Does the Emperor’s plan – to risk the safety of the new Death Star and the Empire itself to trick Luke into turning to the dark side – make any sense at all? Really? Anakin was seduced to the dark side, never tricked.

– Luke does seem awful comfortable (not to mention much better with a lightsabre) channelling his darker, angry side against Vader. “Once you start down the path to the dark side, forever will it dominate your destiny…” Wonder if Yoda’s right. Better go find out 🙂

Must dash. There has been an awakening….

 

rotj

Star Wars countdown – The Empire Strikes Back

As part of my countdown to the release of The Force Awakens, this week it was time for The Empire Strikes Back. (We’ve tickets to see the new film on Sun 20th, so will be timing our countdown to watch ROTJ on the Saturday night before that.)

ESB is many people’s favourite Star Wars film… I prefer the narrative clarity of A New Hope over this. ESB just doesn’t work as a stand-alone story, despite all the (many) things in its favour.

So, some random thoughts/questions, and then I’ll get onto that structural point.

– Why does the opening scroll say that it’s a dark time for the Rebellion? They’ve just won a major victory. I have to doubt the quality of their strategic leadership… Plus, have you seen this? http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/35008095/star-wars-experts-calculate-cost-of-death-star-and-its-destruction The universe should be in an economic depression of galactic proportions at this stage.

– How does a massive, hairy Wampa sneak up on a Jedi wannabe? There is a lack of natural cover on Hoth… Then, when Luke does free himself and he chops off the Wampa’s arm, why does he not finish the job, and stay in the relative warmth and comfort of its icy home, rather than fleeing out into the (supposed night) cold?

– Where does the Wampa buy his Jedi-foot-glue? That stuff’s amazing! Is there a little corner shop/ general store somewhere outside the Rebel base?

– This is sci-fi world building at its best… Hoth, Dagobah, asteroid fields, a city literally in the clouds…

– We are introduced into this film via Han Solo, and some great action scenes. Straight into the action, without too much boring exposition this time ‘round. Han does a lot of the heavy lifting in this film, and his charisma is one of the reasons why this is many people’s favourite.

AT-ATs can only fire forwards, and lumber around at a glacial pace… So why do the Rebels keep circling and putting themselves in harm’s way? (Just fly behind them and blow their legs away!) What are these Rebel shields that can resist bombardment from space, but are vulnerable from the ground? There are massive inconsistencies in the use of shield technology throughout this scene – both in when it works, and when it fails…

– Ever been tempted to go off the grid and live in the wilderness on your own for years? Yoda may put you off that idea. He’s like an old cat lady who’s lost her cats…

– The training scenes with Luke and Yoda are amazing… possibly my third favourite example of the training montage. Imagine how much my other two favourites – Rocky training on a Siberian mountainside in Rocky IV; Nic Cage doing handstand push-ups as he narrates a letter to his young daughter in Con Air – would be improved by having a Yoda-in-a-bag upon their back…

– (In fact, Nic Cage’s character in Con Air was Cameron Poe. There is a character in Force Awakens called Poe Dameron. Coincidence?)

– Does that asteroid have an atmosphere, comfortable temperature, and gravity? How does the asteroid creature feed? Breathe? Reproduce? It must be so lonely and hungry…

– Am I not giving Luke enough credit in these films? He can fly an X-wing with literally no training, and a couple of days with Yoda and he can take on Vader… Imagine how strong he’d be with, ooh, a full week of training. This does beg the question: what exactly did the Jedis do with the younglings for all their years of teaching?

– Does the Empire have a fast-track recruitment and promotion scheme to replace all the senior officers killed by Vader?

– When Yoda says to Obi Wan, “there is another” – is this evidence of

(a) Obi-Wan having forgotten all about the second of the Skywalker twins, despite having been present at the birth;
(b) Obi-Wan being a massive misogynist;
(c) Obi-Wan fearing that there was insufficient time to train Leia to face the growing threat posed by Vader (really?);
(d) George Lucas making this stuff up as he goes along.

– This is by some distance the most quotable Star Wars film, between Han’s put-downs and romantic replies (“I love you” – “I know”), Yoda’s wisdom (“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”), Vader’s polite barbarism (“Apology accepted“) and Boba’s minimalism (“He’s no good to me dead.”)

– The inconsistency of Han being bound when put into carbonite, then being frozen with his hands held up in front of him, irks me every time…

– Why the theme park funride of death in Cloud City? What possible purpose does that serve? And another health and safety nightmare walkway (see my comments on A New Hope)

– Oh look, the Falcon’s engines have failed… Again. Yawn.

– Why does Leia kiss Luke and Han so much? Is she French?

– Leia definitely kisses Luke on the lips this time, despite the “there is another” hint to her parentage. Ew. Also, ew to everything Lando says when they first arrive, the sleazy little man.

The structure thing

As I said at the outset, this film does not stand alone. You can watch, and enjoy, this without having seen A New Hope, but to see the resolution you have to watch Return of the Jedi. I do not like any film that refuses to give me closure in such a blatant way, and the ending of this film is a definite anti-climax. It starts so energetically with drama on Hoth, has an interesting mid-section on Dagobah, then fizzles out at the end in Cloud City, with the heroes scattered, and the battle lost.

(For me, the film takes a noticeable downward turn once Han is on Cloud City, despite the Luke-Vader showdown.)

The midpoint of the film is Luke’s vision in the dark side cave, which holds up a mirror to his greatest (as yet unspoken) fear – that he will become the thing he is battling against, and give in to the power of the dark side. This resonates with the end of the Vader-Luke showdown, with Luke literally throwing himself to this potential death rather than joining Vader, and also foreshadows that great “I am your Father” revelation… BUT as a midpoint it doesn’t actually change Luke’s behaviour in the second half of the film.

The ever-whingey, “it can’t be done” proto-Jedi decides to bail on his training, against the advice of his mentor, to rush to aid his friends, even though he’s not ready to really help them, ie by defeating Vader. He is again taking the easy path. He hasn’t changed at all.

How much more daring would it have been for him to have stayed on Dagobah, and really knuckle down in a focused way, knowing that the clock was ticking against him, rather than rushing off at the first hint of trouble. Imagine the increase in tension that could have been built in by this. Sure, rushing off makes him a great friend. But it also makes him an idiot, and not someone worthy of the label “Jedi”. I’ve spent longer writing this post than he’s spent learning the ways of the Force!

Overall, ESB is a compilation of “scenes we’d like to see” from the Star Wars universe, rather than a film /story in its own right.

  • Space battles? Check.
  • Lightsabres? Check.
  • Revelations about parentage? Check.
  • Training montage? Check.
  • Quotable dialogue? Check.

And yet…

Still, at least it doesn’t have little furry Ewoks in it, solely to shift some merchandise. Next week, Return of the Jedi!

 

Photo: flickr.com/photos/randar/14430050919

14430050919_e934cfe5d2_z

The Good Dinosaur – not a Good Film

My eldest son turned 6 on Sunday. For a birthday treat, we took him and two of his friends to the cinema to see The Good Dinosaur. It’s a Pixar film, right, what could go wrong

Well, there’s the small matter of the film being terrible, for one thing.

There was a meme that did the rounds a while ago, on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – https://www.pinterest.com/pin/194499277635020646/ . I would suggest they have forgotten their own rules… especially the rule to “get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.” The Good Dinosaur is hugely generic and predictable, obviously borrowing from better films (Dumbo, Jungle Book, Lion King), but losing in the translation, like a piece of paper photocopied again and again, losing resolution each time.

So, in the modern style, here are my 5 reasons why this film sucked. Here, there be SPOILERS.

1 – It’s called The Good Dinosaur. Does the title have ANY relevance to the film? Do they even make good use of having dinosaurs in the film? No.
Dinosaurs have evolved into human-type farmers. This is just another cowboy film.
(Hint to American film producers – I can’t speak for the whole world, obviously, but we are far less fascinated by cowboys, and the Wild West, than you guys… try something different. Please.)

2 – The “driver” for Arlo initially is that he literally wants to make his mark. So what? Don’t we all? This is not a big enough reason to root for him, and the tidal boar that killed off his dad terrified the small children in the audience (as did the pterodactyls later). It all just felt misjudged – something that isn’t usually a problem with Pixar.

3 – The main “plot” is Arlo’s journey home. This is linear and predictable, as are the obstacles that inevitably get in their way. Does Arlo change on his journey? Well, he bonds with the human-dog-child (their relationship is the only bright spark in the film), and becomes less afraid, but… is that it?

4 – The ending is so predictable that the 6 year olds saw it coming… They have seen Jungle Book. There is literally no reason why I would watch this film again. No quotable dialogue, no original characters, no twist in the tail… It’s disappointing on almost every level.

5 – And the killer for me… This doesn’t even feel like a Pixar film. There is none of the verbal comedy, the interplay between characters that we have come to love. Worse still, this just feels like a Disney film without the songs. If this is the future of Disney-Pixar, melding the worst of either side of the equation, count me out. The scenery may look beautiful, but if I wanted only that I’d watch the National Geographic channel.

With the next Pixar films due out being some unnecessary sequels (Finding Nemo is one of the best films ever made, of any genre… but it doesn’t need a sequel… and Toy Story 3 is the best third act of any film trilogy series – inc LOTR – but know when to quit…), I worry that the golden era of this studio has already been and gone.

I sincerely hope I’m wrong.