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December 19, 2015

RE: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

First things first: Ryan and/or Rory, if you’re reading this, then this isn’t the ten-thousand-word post you’re looking for.  But it’s something for now -- with a Star Wars reference to boot -- and the real post will go up this coming Thursday.  Assuming that all goes well and there’s no major catastrophe, but you get the idea.

Just as well, though.  I’m sure that not everyone’s gotten a chance to go out and see the movie for themselves (as of this post), so the smart thing to do is to wait until a little time has passed.  Not only that, but it’s a good idea to let the movie sink in.  I personally prefer having time to digest a movie before talking about it in full, and in a lot of ways that’s preferable to spewing a bunch of words before everything settles in.  With that said, I’ll make a slight exception this time around.  Because A) I feel like I’ve done more than enough digesting at this point, and B) I might as well take part in this cultural event and do what everyone else is probably doing.  Because relevance.  Or peer pressure.  Or self-righteous vindication.  Take your pick.

So, this post is NOT a review.  It will NOT have spoilers (i.e. anything beyond what’s been in trailers and widely-released info online).  Granted some stuff might allude to events that happen, but I’ll try to keep things vague.  This post is more of a reaction, full of my opinions, thoughts, and biases -- as is my standard.  You know, in case anyone out there ever thought they should take me seriously.

 Ready?  HERE WE GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!


(Straight to the hoop.  Yeah.)

All right, so the big question at hand is this: is Star Wars: The Force Awakens a good movie?  It’s a legitimate question.  It’s been years since the last canonical movie -- a little over a decade since Revenge of the Sith -- and the prequel trilogy has long since taken heat for being, you know, terrible.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that moviemakers leave well enough alone, for fear of sullying the brand name even further.  Then again, this is an era where the running joke is that Hollywood (and indeed, plenty of other entertainment industries) has run out of ideas, so they’re willing to mine the past for those sweet, sweet nostalgia bucks.

The best jokes are the ones with a kernel of truth to them.

Anyway, Star Wars.  This seventh episode can be viewed in a very mercantilist sense -- it’s here for nostalgia-baiting, it got made (and has already pretty much one) on the strength of its brand name instead of its quality, it’s going to start a wave of merchandising that makes the average tsunami look like ripples in a pond, et cetera, et cetera.  There’s a lot to be wary about, and even negative about.  But if we set aside all the baggage and all of the (justified) distrust, we have to do what’s right.  Simply put, we have to judge the movie as it is: a piece of media, and art overall, that’s meant to be consumed and judged.  And with that in mind, how does Star Wars: The Force Awakens fare?

It’s…okay.  It’s the most okay movie I’ve seen in a while.


That’s not exactly a glowing recommendation, I know.  But hear me out on this: I went in thinking that all it had to do was not be Jurassic World.  And yeah, it’s a better movie than Jurassic World.  Finn, Rey, and Poe are pretty cool characters, and are strong enough to carry this incoming new trilogy by themselves; it’s helped by the fact that not only are they actually characters, but there’s some very good synergy between them.  A number of action scenes are impressive, with some nice tricks here and there that provide both spectacle and insight.  There are ideas running through that make for something a cut above the expected big-budget blockbuster.  Some of the jokes are good, too -- not every joke, granted, but this is no dour melodrama or pretender clawing at the “epic” tree.

One of the key villains in the movie is Kylo Ren, AKA “the Darth Vader clone”.  He’s got more to him than that, though; I wouldn’t call him the movie’s best or most interesting character by a long shot, but he’s definitely got a level of intrigue to him.  I can’t say much about him now because that ventures into spoiler territory -- and I hate it when that happens, believe you me -- but I’ll say this: there’s more to him than a black costume and a fancy lightsaber.  Still, if lightsaber fights, dogfights, gunfights, and fight fights are what you’re after, TFA will provide.  Big-budget productions may have their stigma, but there are moments in this movie where it’s obvious that the money went to a good place.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut


I saw it with my brother, and he had no problems saying it was “an okay movie”, even though he expected it to suck.  He gave it a 7/12, and that’s a fair assessment…but personally, I’d skew a little lower than that; certainly no higher than a 6.  (This is where the personal opinions start coming in, so keep your pitchforks and torches and ICBMs at bay.)

I said that this movie is better than Jurassic World, and I stand by that; at the very least, the good guys in TFA don’t hamper their chances by breeding their own unstoppable killing machine.  With that said, I’d still put TFA in the same tier as Jurassic World, because it has some problems that are really hard to ignore.  I’m wary of using this word to describe the movie, but I can’t think of another way to put it: this movie reads and plays out like fanfiction

There’s good fanfiction out there, for sure, but with this movie -- this multi-million dollar movie of unrivaled cultural significance -- the story is not nearly as tight as it should be.  Worldbuilding elements are barely given the time of day.  The sheer number of coincidences is astounding, to the point where things only happen because the needs of the plot outweigh the needs of the logic.  I know I said there are no spoilers here, but the things that could be spoiled are so inconsequential that you can practically guess them all before going into the movie.

And that’s partly because of the movie’s fatal flaw: the nostalgia-baiting.   


Like I said, Finn, Rey, and Poe are all good characters.  Enjoyable characters, for sure.  The problem is that the new characters and new plot elements and new ideas and new everything go underutilized.  In exchange?  The stuff from the old movies crowbars its way into the movie, and it has a devastating effect on the story and pacing alike.  I want to see more of the new three characters, but I can’t get that because we have to have Han Solo take center stage.  Hell, Rey’s the first new character to get named in the end credits -- and she only gets fifth billing.  I guess that’s to be expected when you have the 73-year-old Harrison Ford playing the same roguish gunslinger he did almost forty years ago.  Props are in order, if not required by law.

I couldn’t even make it through half of the movie without getting frustrated.  Like Jurassic World before it, there’s a sheer onslaught of nostalgic references, allusions, and arguably entire plot threads.  Very rarely are they woven naturally into the story; it’s like the moviemakers had a script ready, then someone came in and jammed Character A or Iconic Item X into a scene.  It’s without hyperbole that I say there’s literally a moment where a character appears out of nowhere and shoves their face into the shot, even though the camera angles before the appearance would at least allude to their presence.  And before you ask, no, this character does not have a perceptible effect on the plot.


It wouldn’t be fair to call the movie a shot-by-shot remake of A New Hope, because there are new things in it.  And yeah, when the new stuff is the focus -- and the shakiness of the actual story is minimized -- then it’s more than possible to enjoy the movie.  Finn, Rey, Poe, Ren, and even improbably-spherical ball droid BB-8 are all their own characters, each offering appeal to audiences without trying to tickle nostalgia-bones.  The problem is that TFA acts like it’s afraid to be new -- like it’s not confident in its strongest tools, and instead banks on “the sure thing”.  The sure thing, of course, is to rehash A New Hope (and to a lesser extent, Empire and Jedi).  And even if you’re not a Star Wars expert -- and I’m most certainly not -- cultural osmosis has made those story beats lose their impact.

I mean, in the old movies Obi-Wan says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, and the movies that followed -- the prequels especially, if CinemaSins is to be believed -- ran that line into the ground.  So what does TFA do?  Zoom in dramatically on a character’s face so we can watch them go “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”…even though that was blatantly obvious from the moments before it, and having it added in so awkwardly makes me realize how dumb it sounds when put under the spotlight.  To borrow a quote from the Best Friends Zaibatsu, “I’D RATHER HAVE NOTHING.”


I will be fair, though.  The problems I have aren’t necessarily problems that’ll hamper normal people with average-sized heads.  It is possible to live with Han and the countless references, because there’s a fair bit of charisma throughout -- between old characters, new ones, and beyond -- and all things considered, it’s a breezy adventure across a smattering of planets.  I don’t think anyone can accuse the people behind this movie of being asleep at the wheel, because obviously some real love and care went into making sure that this was the franchise’s return to form -- even if there are some familiar elements, which in all fairness isn’t a bad thing.  Some things don’t work, and some efforts were misguided, but overall?  It’s an okay movie.

But shouldn’t it be better than okay?

How much money went into the movie?  I don’t know.  Plenty, probably.  Plenty of money, plenty of time, plenty of talent, plenty of technical wizardry, and so on.  For all of it to lead up to a final product that, when gauging its net worth, simply makes it up to the level of “competent” feels like something very close to an insult.  Not 100% an insult, mind, because there’s far worse out there than this.  But…this movie should be better than it is.  The framework is there.  The elements are there.  The potential is there.  Yet here I am, teetering on the thin line between ambivalence and annoyance.


Like I said, this movie is in the same tier as Jurassic World.  That movie’s more or less passable, as well -- at least in the sense that the average Jill or Joe can watch it without complaint.  But the problem is that both JW and TFA, in my eyes, occupy an unfortunate space.  Both of them should be better movies, without a doubt.  Both of them are passable…ish.  But the big issue is that down the line, being passable or just okay with such notable flaws can actually have a negative effect.  It’s not just in the binary “would you recommend this, yes or no” sense, either.

The more I think about JW, the more I resent it.  I resent it for squandering its good ideas, screwing up at the very first turn, banking HARD on nostalgia, and basically struggling to offer up any new content of merit.  I’m more inclined to remember the bad stuff or things that annoyed me than the good stuff -- which means that eventually, I’ll stop thinking of it as “passable” and outright say it’s bad.  That is, if I haven’t in an earlier post.  And now with TFA released in theaters, I’m worried it’s going to share the same fate.  The same negative space.  The same sense of disappointment that turns into disdain.

That’s not what I want to take away from this movie.  But it’s probably going to happen.  And I guess that’s…okay.

                                                             
So that’s about all I’ve got for now.  Sorry if I ruffled the tail feathers of any superfans, but I have to be honest here.  And more importantly, I have to explain why I feel the way that I do -- with more concrete evidence.  With that in mind, I hope you’ll join me next week for a more in-depth post on TFA.  I won’t say that you SHOULDN’T see the movie if you haven’t, because you need to form your own opinions -- just as I did.  But be ready for anything -- for the good, the bad, and everything across the scale.

There.  Two thousand words down, eight thousand to go.

…Well, more like seven thousand, eight hundred to go.  But who’s counting?  Besides Microsoft Word?



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