Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why The Force Awakens is the Star Wars movie we've been looking for

I'm not sure if you guys have heard about this, but there's a new Star Wars movie out.

I don't usually talk about big Hollywood blockbusters on my blog, because what am I going to add? Go read Rottentomatoes or something. But this is different. I grew up with the original trilogy, and after the disappointing prequels, I was still left aching for a new movie that really "felt" like Star Wars. This is personal for me.

So first things first: The Force Awakens is AWESOME. It's everything I want in a Star Wars movie, and probably more.

I've noticed not everybody shares this opinion, though, and that's just unacceptable. I'm not sure, but it seems to me that there's something of a generational split here. So let me list the reasons why this is a great Star Wars film.

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

1. Rey. Hey, did you know Luke Skywalker was originally supposed to be a girl? Anyone who's bitching about Rey being female (really? in 2015?) needs to shut up. And I don't know where they've been hiding Daisy Ridley - so much charisma, and just the right balance of strength and femininity. If the entire story arc of these films ends up being mainly about her, I'm completely on board. (Yeah I like Finn, but this feels like her story.)

Oh, also, she's definitely Luke's daughter.

2. Kylo Ren. Such a contrast to Darth Vader's perfected Sith-ness, Kylo Ren is an imperfect, developing villain - a wannabe gangster who's prone to temper tantrums and has limited command of the Force. Even his saber-building skills seem questionable - only his own saber glows with that "dirty" light that looks more like fire, which suggests that he just doesn't really know how to build them right. This is all a lot more interesting at this stage of the game than if he was an unbeatable Vader-like badass.

Some people have complained that he's basically Annakin II, but the big difference here is Hayden Christensen vs. Adam Driver. Also, Annakin's character was a whiny little weasel-man who was nevertheless really good at being a Jedi/Sith. Kylo Ren talks a good game and looks the part, but he is currently very bad at his job. They're complete opposites, in fact. (But, you know, Vader is his grandfather, so... a little similarity is pretty understandable.)

3. The OG cast. I admit, I teared up a bit when I saw Han and Leia together again. And somehow, Harrison Ford looks younger than he did in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. He slipped right back into the role of Han Solo - older, hopefully wiser, but still snippy, wisecracking and swashbuckling when he needs to be. And while his fate made me sad, this was still basically Han Solo's movie - and that was an unexpected treat. Meanwhile, Carrie Fisher didn't do a whole lot but her presence is pure fanservice, and there's nothing wrong with that. Mark Hamill had very little screen time (and no lines!) but man, he made the most of what he got. What a moment for him!

4. The First Order. What a bunch of incompetent fools! And that's great. This is not the Empire - this is a cult of terrorists trying to copy what they know of the Empire, and getting a lot of it wrong. It's a parallel to ISIS, Al Qaeda or other real-life terrorist cults. Lucky for them, the New Republic has demilitarized since the fall of the Empire, so it's not strong enough to crush the First Order outright. But both sides are having to re-learn everything about war - and that makes total sense at this point in the overall story.

I've seen plenty of people elsewhere online who just do not get this. They think the First Order is the Empire by another name, they don't understand why they seem like such idiots (including Kylo Ren). But not only would that be uninteresting (we've, uh, seen the Empire before, guys), it also just wouldn't be any fun if the bad guys were an impenetrable wall of death for the protagonists, who themselves were just minding their own business before stumbling into the story. None of these people are well trained, and half the fun of the movie is seeing them try their best to fight.

This is also why I have no problem with what amounts to a third Death Star. The entire point is that the First Order is (clumsily) trying to do exactly what the Empire did!

5. Mysteries are back! One of the great things about the original trilogy was that it didn't explain everything. What were the Clone Wars? How did Annakin get turned to the dark side? What is the Force, anyway? Nobody ever really explained these things, and they didn't need to - that let us have something to chew on after the movie ended. In The Force Awakens, 30+ years have passed and we only get glimpses (both literal and figurative) of things that happened in that time. We're left with a lot of questions - what actually happened between Kylo Ren and Luke? How did Han and Leia split up? Where does the First Order get its money?? Some of the backstory will no doubt be fleshed out in the next films, but some probably won't - and that's totally okay.

6. Emotion is back! The original trilogy were highly emotional films - Obi-Wan's death, Darth Vader's big reveal to Luke, the final removal of his mask, etc. All of that was gone in the prequels, which had scripts that felt like a checklist (but tried really hard to force some emotion right at the end, long after we'd stopped caring). But there were at least three points in The Force Awakens that got me choked up, and all throughout I really cared about these characters because they all seem so human. I also thought the ending was the most emotional moment of the entire series so far. Even the saber battles finally felt meaningful again - and it's that meaning that gives them weight, not how flashy or fast they are.

7. A sense of perspective. The prequels tried really hard to be sweeping epics, with a huge cast and a ton of stuff going on in every frame. But The Force Awakens has downsized the series to what it once was - the story of a few iconic characters with a ragtag fleet just trying not to get blown up. At the start of the movie, the entire "Resistance" fleet seems to consist of about 30 X-Wing fighters, plus (eventually) the Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile, the First Order controls just one planet, and while their presence does strike fear at least within their own star system, it's not because of sheer numbers but because they have a habit of torching entire towns as soon as they arrive.

And remember how in the original Star Wars, the Empire sent just four TIE Fighters against Luke and the Millenium Falcon, despite he and the stolen Death Star plans being the most important things in the universe to them? Plenty of moments like that in TFA too. You don't get the sense that anyone has unlimited resources like you did in the prequels. And it's a lot easier to care about what's going on, because every person and even every piece of equipment you see is important.

8. Real sets, characters and props. Go ahead and watch the prequels again - they look and feel like cartoons. Nothing looks real. And hardly anything was - even basic sets were almost all CGI, with much of each movie shot against full green screen. But in The Force Awakens, while there's still plenty of CGI, stuff that "should" be real is real. If an X-Wing is sitting on the ground in a shot, there is an X-Wing sitting on the ground on the set. When Kylo Ren drops his helmet, it clangs on the ground, because it's made of thick metal and it's heavy! The whole movie feels real as a result.

9. Acknowledgment of the fans. George Lucas eventually got to a point where he seemed to enjoy torturing long-time fans of the series - he hated the people that made him a multi-millionaire. The prequels were basically a giant "fuck you" to all of us, and even the original trilogy was made worse over the years in the name of Lucas' own vanity.

But JJ Abrams is one of those fans, and he's given us basically exactly what we've been asking for all these years. This series is fun again. It feels like it was made for an actual audience, not for Lucas' own personal collection as a joyless, soulless old man.

I did feel like the pacing was a little inconsistent at times - the final shot was pretty damn impactful but the ending scene itself felt tacked on until that very last moment. Events prior to it should maybe have not dragged on so long (which made that feel like the ending, and the actual ending an epilogue). In general, it is a long movie and it probably could have been tightened up in several scenes.

But goddamn, I still want to see it again. And I'm excited for whatever's coming next.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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