Friday, December 18, 2015

The Force Awakens: Fanservice Galore, Some Cool Stuff, and Some Bothersome Bits (SPOILERS)

People clapped when the Lucasfilm logo signaled that the trailers were over and Star Wars: The Force Awakens had begun. People (including me) cheered when the yellow Star Wars logo popped up against the starfield, concurrent with John Williams' triumphal theme.

At the end of the movie, there were just a few scattered claps (not including any from me).

There was a lot that I loved about this movie, and nothing I hated. But I did have some problems with it.

Starting with the positive, everything felt real and solid. I expected nothing less than a seamless blend of real special effects and CGI, and I got it. Also, BB-8 was indeed cute.

I loved the multiracial cast. I loved that women had strong, active roles.

I loved the fanservice, up to a point. There were many callbacks to the first six movies, from the opening crawl to other things that I'll start mentioning after the spoiler warning. 

SPOILER WARNING!

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SPOILERS HO!

The opening crawl is followed by a pan to a Star Destroyer obscuring a desert planet (callback to Episode IV). I liked the callbacks, but there were so many of them that they started making the movie feel like a retread sometimes.

What really bothered me: Oh My Goodness, another Star Wars movie featuring a whiny, murderous post-adolescent brat. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for his anguished conflict between the light and dark sides of the Force? (Bonus callback to III: He started his career of evil by killing the other Jedi apprentices in Luke's academy.) I had more than enough of this type of character before, and I didn't want a reminder of that trilogy. At least he's not a protagonist.

I'm sure they were right to have this guy Ren be Han and Leia's son, because other than that and his rather interesting face, why would we care about him at all? But that brings us to this also being  OMG  another Star Wars movie with a father-son conflict theme. J.J. Abrams, haven't you worked out your daddy issues yet? Well, at least my memories of the father-son arc in V-VI are positive, and I must admit I admired how it was resolved here: The son killed the father! Leia had told Han she was sure their son still had some good in him, so Han walked across a narrow bridge over a deep mechanical canyon (callback to V  don't ask me to explain this galaxy's architectural designs!) to try to talk him back to the light side. Ren admitted he was torn, said he knew what he had to do, and asked Han for help. Han said "Anything," so Ren stabbed him with his lightsaber, and thanked him. I guess that resolved his inner conflict! Han fell off the bridge and out of sight, but we know he's really dead because Leia felt his loss through the Force.

Aside from how it happened, I really like that the father-son conflict WAS resolved in this movie (although the mother-son conflict will doubtlessly continue from afar). But the whiny brat arc was NOT resolved: Although Rey defeated Ren, and he was injured, he's surely not dead, and the not-Emperor (Supreme Leader Snoke  SNOKE, really?  of the evil First Order) will have rescued him to plague us further. Eventually, either he'll be redeemed  like Anakin, murderer of many, who nobly decided to save his own son turn back toward the light side, which I don't want to see again  or else he won't, in which case I would much rather have seen him die here and let us get on to new stories.

But I guess we can't have that, because substitute-father Luke will have to have his own confrontation with Ren, his apprentice who turned to evil. Speaking of Luke, I'm glad they saved him for the very end of the movie, so our new protagonists had more of a chance to shine. I love that the protagonists had thought of him as being just a myth  probably just a PR icon for the Resistance, right?

Anyway, it's finally time for me to talk about the protagonists! I love Rey, and how she evolves from a scavenger who didn't want to get involved to someone who decided to face her destiny, after reluctantly being convinced to give up on An Old Hope; where she ended up going, and how she got there. The Force is awakening within Rey, and although I think she gets too good at it too soon, it can be argued that the vision she had when she found Luke's old lightsaber (callback to Luke's vision within the tree during V), along with the mental probing she got later from Ren, may have spurred her latent talents. Now she's met Luke, we'll see whether he'll teach her to be a Jedi, although she's been learning on her own and may end up teaching him a few things, too.

Also, I love Finn! He has a great origin story, as a Stormtrooper who just doesn't want to be part of the killing, and then he starts lying to evolve himself into a better place, which is fun to watch! Lying to Resistance pilot Poe as he uses him to escape; then accepting Rey's assumption that he's Resistance, and furthering that lie; deciding to leave but then coming back when Rey's in trouble, and lying to a lot more people so they'll get him to where he can try to rescue Rey! Han had a soft spot for Rey, but really he had a lot more in common with Finn.

Han and Leia were both great in this movie. They'd been separated for years, and their reunion was bittersweet, wry yet warm. However, one thing that felt slightly off was when Han saw her and said, "You changed your hair." IIRC, her hairstyle changed twice each in IV and VI, so you'd think he'd be used to that. Maybe it's become a joke between them?

A last bit on characters: I quite like Maz, the nearsighted little orange alien, who knows about Jedi though she isn't one. I wonder why Luke left his lightsaber with her, and how it can have belonged to both him and his father. Luke lost Anakin's blue lightsaber, along with his hand, at Cloud City in V; after that, Luke built his own green one. This is blue, so it could have been Anakin's, but how and why would Luke have recovered it, only to store it with Maz? I hope we get to find out more about her. 

I also hope we get to see more of pilot Poe in the next movie. Maybe he can have adventures with Finn while Rey is off questing with Luke.

One final thing bothers me: the whole plot about finding the map to track down Luke after he disappeared when Ren killed the other apprentices. 

First of all, why is Leia so obsessed with finding him now, after all this time? Sure things look bad, but she's a diplomat first and foremost, even though she's a General now. I feel she should be focusing on building alliances and making things better with the people around her, not trying to find one person to magically cure the ills of the Resistance and the Republic. (Oh, and it's a generation later, and those are still separate entities. Why did they never merge? Did this continuing schism encourage the rise of the evil First Order?)

Secondly, the map itself: Once BB-8 shows his map segment to the Resistance, they say they can't figure out where it corresponds to in the galaxy, but eventually, R2-D2 boots up and projects a starmap where this fits, so then they know where Luke went. Did they just need more context? Also, why did Luke leave this little puzzle? I guess he had a general sense of where he was going, so he left that with Artoo, but then, if he wanted Leia or the Resistance to find him, why be so cryptic about it? Sure, a letter could have been intercepted by the bad guys, but they intercepted the code-carrier anyway and were confident they had enough other information to decode it, until she escaped ... so, a lot of good THIS method was.

Final callbacks: 
VI, IV: Ground mission with Han, Chewie and pals to disable a new, greatly improved and enlarged Death Star (now Starkiller Base), so hot pilot (now Poe) can get in close and destroy it!
Cantina in IV: I love that Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of "Hamilton," wrote the bar scene music (with J.J.), and you can actually hear him singing a little bit of it!

Despite my quibbles, I certainly recommend this movie to any Star Wars fan. I don't feel any strong urge to see it again in the theater, the way I did for Mad Max: Fury Road, but this was still great fun to watch. And maybe now that we've had so many callbacks, the next movie won't need to use them so heavily, and the storytelling will feel less like a retelling of the saga, as welcome as that was.

Update 12/20: I've seen numerous people on social media telling quibblers to admit that all their quibbles were after the fact, and that the movie itself was just a glorious ride, and they shouldn't ask any more than that. In my case, the opposite was true: Everything I've written about here did occur to me while I was watching the movie; it was distracting. However, a few days after seeing it, my frustrations with the movie have faded, and mostly I'm left with satisfaction and affection for a successful revival of the franchise. In case I didn't make it clear, this was my favorite Star Wars movie after the original trilogy (IV-VI), and I look forward to the continuing adventures of these new and old characters.

Edited to Add: I took out the word "buddy" from my original posting because I don't want any constraints on what kind of adventures Poe and Finn have together. You go, guys!

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