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December 28, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Unleashed: Revelations: Revengeance

So the other day, I had an epiphany.  Well, maybe not a pure epiphany, but at least the sudden insight needed to ask a certain question: “Do I actually hate Star Wars?”

It seems implausible, at a glance.  My understanding of Star Wars, even beyond its unshakable place in culture and history, is that it’s storytelling pared down to its most simple and effective form.  (That’s not so true of the prequels, I hear, but everybody would rather ignore those, so I will too for now).  So by that logic, hating Star Wars means hating the fundamentals -- if not the very concept -- of fiction.  That’s kind of a problem for a guy who’s trying to become a purveyor of fiction in his own right.  Obviously, I’m not that far off the deep end.

But I haven’t cared about Star Wars for a long time, if at all.  I know what’s in the movies, because -- cultural osmosis outside -- I’ve seen each of them once or twice.  And I’ve never had any real problems with them, even in the face of things like the Plinkett reviews.  They were just kind of…there.  I’m basically like, “Oh, Han Solo?  Yeah, he’s all right.”  And then I move on.  It’s not as if I’ve never been moved to tears by a fictional character, but even if the seven movies (to date) have their strong points, I can’t share the enthusiasm of others.  I’ll just shrug and say “Yeah, it’s all right.”  And then I’ll move on.

That’s the case with The Force Awakens, as well.  And I’ll explain why (with full spoilers) in a bit.

I saw the movie twice, but only needed to see it once to get my fill, find the good, and be ready to move on.  And let’s not be complete contrarians here: there is plenty of stuff to like about TFA.  Everyone who isn’t me has more than enough reason to say it’s amazing, or it’s a worthy successor, or “Star Wars is back”.  Despite my issues and tone in the past couple of posts, it’s not as if I hate the movie, or think that it’s bad.  Trust me on this.  If you’ve read stuff on this blog before, you’ll know when I’m ready to dish out the hate.

But I stand by the fact that the movie could have been way better than what we got.  And before you ask?  It’s not entirely because of the nostalgia factor, call backs, and references (though they do factor in).  I was consistently pulled out of the movie’s good points because TFA asks you to accept a fair bit of nonsense to make it to the goal -- to those emotional moments that don’t have the logical foundation needed to make them even stronger.  Disagree if you want, and I won’t fault you for it, but for me?  There’s too much shit that doesn’t make sense.

But we’ll get there eventually.  For now, let’s focus on one last good bit.

NUMBER SEVEN: Kylo Ren is a Secret Poindexter

It’s worth noting upfront that -- as expected of someone so apathetic to the franchise -- I didn’t exactly follow the news on TFA closely.  I did pick up on some things prior to release, with one of them being the name of a key baddie, Kylo Ren (who I jokingly called “black Star Wars man” when I saw an action figure of him in the mall).  I knew just a few things about him -- that he had a lightsaber with a crossguard, and that he would probably be a main baddie -- and the rest remained under wraps.  So I guess for once, I let a product keep the element of surprise. 

Naturally, Ren is the enemy ace for a reason.  He stops a laser blast in midair, uses the Force to paralyze his foes, and practically rips the info he wants out of people’s brains.  He even tanks a blast from Chewie’s bowcaster that sent regular Stormtroopers flying.  If not for some late-game developments, he would’ve mowed right through all of our heroes with a few callous swings.  So obviously, he’s a threat to our heroes and their noble efforts.  He should be.  But there’s more to him than that.  Later on in the movie, he takes of his helmet after being goaded by Rey.  And I almost laughed.

Ren is no Darth Vader clone.  Some may call him a pretty boy, but to me, he looked like Alan Rickman and Zach Braff did the fusion dance.

And it’s perfect.

Ren may be an accomplished fighter, but he’s full of faults and weaknesses -- and beyond that, things rarely go his way throughout the movie.  Finn turns traitor and makes an explosive exit with the Resistance’s best pilot; the mere Stormtrooper continues to evade capture (and death), and brings the droid with the data he needs closer and closer to enemy hands.  Ren and the First Order pretty much have to chase a bunch of nobodies across the universe when that time could have gone toward something more interesting, like…I don’t know, chilling out to some sick tunes.  Rey ends up slipping out of his clutches, so he’s 0 for 2 when it comes to holding people captive.  And of course, Starkiller Base ends up getting blown up on his watch.

This would be the part where I say “Ren takes it like a champ”, but he doesn’t.  He busts out his lightsaber -- which sounds like it’s exploding each time -- and carves up whatever’s in range.  Or, alternatively, he’ll choke out (and likely kill) anyone who gives him bad news.  That’s kind of a cheap way to establish that he’s a bad guy -- and I can’t imagine any universe where smashing his HQ and killing personnel is OK -- but overall, it works.  He’s not the stoic warrior that he modeled himself after.  He’s a fanboy who has to look to bigger and better forces than him to gain recognition, satisfaction, and peace of mind.  Except it doesn’t work.  And really, that’s entirely the point.

A funny thing happened on the way out of the theater the second time around.  My buddy gabbed on about the movie, and joked about how Ren was actually an emo crybaby, and actively wanted to see a stone-cold badass instead.  Moreover, he seemed genuinely surprised when I said I didn’t have a problem with how he was portrayed in the movie.  Kylo Ren as a stone-cold badass would’ve provided more spectacle, but it would’ve made him significantly less interesting.  He’d lose a lot of his thematic heft.

Setting aside the fact that he’s already a badass, Ren isn’t supposed to be this emblem of power and coolness.  If anything, his problems -- which, again, are entirely the point -- stem from the fact that he’s trying to reach some unattainable ideal, especially because he’s not suited for it.  He keeps looking to Darth Vader for guidance, to the point where he talks to the remains of his helmet (side note: Return of the Jedi fans, is it feasible for him to own that?  Discuss).  And when it’s not Darth Vader, he’s eating from the hand of Supreme Leader Snoke -- who despite the less-than-intimidating name, projects himself as a thirty-foot-tall giant.

I’ve heard that he’s actually only seven feet tall, but there’s a part of me that wishes the REAL Snoke turns out to be ten times bigger than his hologram.  It’ll be nuts.

In any case, Ren is yet another flawed character among the cast; much like Finn and Rey, he’s a coward who’s afraid to face the truth, and running away from his problems.  Combined with them, they all feed into this thematic current -- an overall message that they’re trying to impart between the lasers, ships, and laser swords.  Finn and Rey are able to move past their foibles and become braver, stronger people, as you’d expect of heroes.  Does Ren also become braver and stronger?  Arguably, but he only does so by committing heinous acts -- and even then, he’s still under the thumb of the baddies, one of which is using him like a tool, and the other of which is dead.  (Also, I guess he’s willing to overlook Vader’s last act of redemption at the end of Jedi.)

But if we step back, there’s even more to the theme than “be brave”.  Maybe it’s not necessarily about being some brave, flawless image of strength.  Maybe it’s just about being the best that you can be.  Yes, it’s fine to look up to heroes, and take lessons from them.  But at some point, you have to be willing to stop looking at them as embodiments of perfection.  You have to be willing to accept that you don’t have to live up to certain ideals or forebears.  You have to stand up one day and say, “Hey, I’m not you, and I’m not perfect, but that’s all right.  You can go be you, and I’ll go be me -- the best I can be.  I can’t follow in your footsteps, but I don’t have to.  I can go my own way.”

That’s basically what the movie is saying.  The problem, of course, is that it breaks that thematic heft over its knee.

NUMBER EIGHT: The History Lesson That Goes On and On and On and On and On and On and

All right, let’s get down to business.  I don’t have any problems with Han Solo.  I don’t have any problems with Harrison Ford.  And even though I’ve mostly dodged talking about him so far, he still synergizes with the cast.  (The same extends to Chewie, even if he can’t exactly fire off the one-liners.)  It’s not like Han Solo is some black hole that drags the movie down.

No, what drags this movie down is the main character: Star Wars.  We may be following the characters, but we’re also following the entity that shrouds them.  It informs every decision made by every member of the production crew, Abrams or otherwise.  What should be the ultimate, flowing, free-flying experience ends up getting chained to the ground because of conventions, expectations, and legacies.  So in spite of TFA’s strong points -- and again, there are strong points -- I can’t shake this feeling in my heart that they aren’t maximized because of the shackles around the movie’s neck. 

And in order to explain my point -- and fan the flames of you folks waving torches -- I have to fall back on an old standby.  So let’s talk a bit about Kamen Rider.

I’m a fan of the franchise, but even I have my limits.  I’ve watched eight installments of it to completion, which sounds impressive…and then you realize that the show’s been around since 1971, with all of the Riders that age implies.  It’s reached a point where fans and officials alike split the installments up into two (and sometimes three) eras based on their air date: the Showa era, and the Heisei era -- which to a lesser extent breaks off into the neo-Heisei era following Kamen Rider Decade and its milestone, multi-dimensional shenanigans. 

In any case, I specialize in the neo-Heisei Riders, mostly because they’re the newest of the bunch.  And while I’ve noticed a trend for each successive Heisei installment to consider (and pull from, or reject) the installment that came before it, each one is its own beast.  The commonality among all KR installments -- and even that’s semi-variable -- is that there’s a guy in a suit with bug eyes, there are monsters that need to be beaten up, the hero rides a motorcycle, the hero’s power is almost one and the same with the monsters’ power, and there are dive kicks aplenty. 

Outside of movie crossovers or preview cameos, each successive entry flat-out drops the characters, plot, and ideas of its predecessor.  The tradeoff is that it creates a scenario where each installment ends with an apocalyptic event that never gets referenced again, but the plus side is that there’s always going to be a specific identity for each Rider, each world, and each adventure.   We don’t need to see Takeshi Hongo or Shocker Combatmen every other episode to know that we’re watching Kamen Rider, or to “prove” that it’s a Kamen Rider series…because the name of the show is Kamen Rider. 

The moment it was announced that a new, official Star Wars movie was on the way, Disney and Lucasfilm won.  With their combined resources, they could’ve made anything as long as it was good -- and that wasn’t a hard bar to clear thanks to the maligned prequel trilogy.  So why, oh why, did they need to remake the first movie with bits of the others sprinkled in?  Why did they need to “play it safe” when they’re practically guaranteed to earn zillions at the box office?  Why were they so afraid that people wouldn’t like the movie because it didn’t have those plot points from the original?

To its credit, TFA isn’t a one-to-one copy of A New Hope.  But for me, it’s way, way, way, way, WAY too close for comfort.  The film crew literally had a universe of opportunities to take advantage of, and what did they do?  Rehash, allude, and reference.  That’s below them.  That’s below Finn, Rey, Poe, Ren, and even BB-8.  That’s below all of us.  But here we are regardless.

I mean, really.  One of the movie’s first shots is a massive ship in the shape of an isosceles triangle, and put against an object for a sense of scale and menace.  A member of a resisting force sends away a droid that’s carrying vital information, and in exchange gets captured by a band of white-clad soldiers and their fearsome black leader.  The droid wanders through a desert planet, only to encounter a down-on-their-luck dweller of said desert planet with lofty aspirations.  The desert-dweller meets up with a wise old mentor.  The desert-dweller meets up with Han Solo.  They use the Millennium Falcon to escape from danger.  They go to a seedy bar full of weird aliens.  It hits the fan during their bar visit.

Meanwhile, the bad guys have a black-clad ace that chokes people.  Military assholes can talk trash to the black ace without getting murdered.  There’s a more powerful and sinister figure at work behind that ace.  There’s a giant spherical machine that fires death rays.  The machine uses its death rays to destroy a planet.  The main cast engineers an escape amidst tons of white-clad soldiers.  One of them -- the elderly mentor -- is killed by the black ace, while the main cast has a full view of it.  The resisting force sends a bunch of ships with an x-shaped wingspan to resolve the situation.  The situation is resolved thanks to a bunch of pilots running down a narrow corridor in the spherical machine.  The sphere is blown up, with a distinct shot of the good guys flying towards the camera and away from the explosion.  The bad guys experience a setback, but live on to fight another day.

That’s not even all of them.  But it’s more than enough -- unless we start going into minor details like props and allusions.  But this post is already long enough, so let’s focus on what’s important.  Now again, I’m not saying that the movie is a perfect retread of the original; the problem I have is that it didn’t have to have the traces of a retread in the first place.  The new stuff is strong enough on its own, and the old stuff is as obtrusive as a couple of training wheels some bumbling parent set on fire.

It reaches a point where the references and such disrupt the flow -- logical as well as emotional -- of the movie.  I don’t think it was necessary to bring back Han and Chewie, but I can live with it.  Leia’s all right too, though there’s a part of me that feels like she’d be better served as an implied presence than a direct one.  But then you get stuff like C-3PO popping into a scene out of nowhere to do his shtick with all the grace of a sledgehammer to the gut -- and it happens when Rey’s been captured, the First Order’s cleaned house, and the good guys are facing their darkest hour. 

Then you get a big reveal shot of R2-D2, and we’re explicitly told that he may never wake up again…and then wakes up anyway, for some reason, at the movie’s end with the map to Luke in tow.  Also, Admiral Ackbar is there -- revealed at random after a camera cut -- and thankfully the crew had just enough restraint to avoid making him shout “it’s a trap!”  What does he contribute?  A few lines of dialogue.  I guess he’s just happy to be there.

They needed to cool it on the references, but they didn’t -- and each time they draw attention to those references, it’s with some pretty big caveats.  Early on, Finn and Rey are making their escape on Jakku with TIE fighters bearing down on them.  Before they can take flight, some enemy fire blows up the ship they planned on using.  Luckily, the Millennium Falcon is just a smidge to the right.  And it’s just like, “What?  When?  How?”  What are the chances that the fabled ship is right there, and fully functional, no less, despite Rey calling it “a piece of garbage”?  (Also, why does she call it a piece of garbage when she fangirls over the Falcon a few minutes later?  If she knows enough about it to get most of the details right, how can she not know what it looks like?)

If it were any other ship, then it might not have been such an issue.  But because it’s the Falcon -- because of course it is -- it just shines this huge spotlight on the impossibility.  Like, it’s mentioned that the alien asshole handing out food portions is the one who owns (i.e. stole) the Falcon, but why is it sitting there and ripe for the stealing?  How did it even manage to get into the air with the First Order bearing down on it?  Even if they passed it over the first time around because they thought it was a piece of junk, then why would they allow it to complete its takeoff sequence the moment they saw it start to move?  The obvious answer is “because otherwise, there would be no movie,” but that’s not always the best answer, is it?

NUMBER NINE: The Fanfiction Awakens

But that’s beside the point.  Sure, TFA has the new content to justify its existence, but there’s still so much reliance on the old stuff that at times it feels less like a new movie and more like someone turned a fanfic into a multi-million dollar production.  Oh, look!  Han and Chewie are back, and they’re major players in the story!  And you’ve gotta have Leia to see how their relationship has been going over the years…or not!  (I find it hilarious that Han and Leia have somehow become Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade from Mortal Kombat X -- seriously, compare and contrast.)  C-3PO’s back, too, and so is R2-D2!  Well, he’s not working now, but don’t worry!  He’ll be up and running as soon as the plot says so!  And let’s have Admiral Ackbar in there for kicks!  He won’t say “it’s a trap”, but everybody will be thinking it!

That’s not even the worst of it.  Okay, fine, those who say TFA is about passing the torch have a legitimate point, but for fuck’s sake, look at the opening crawl.  The very first line is “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”  The entire plot revolves around finding Luke.  Everybody, good and evil, is looking for Luke.  The MacGuffin is a map that leads to Luke, who in his own right is the MacGuffin.  The lightsaber that wins fights and resolves the smaller-scale part of the plot belonged to Luke.  It’s implied -- or at least inferable -- that Rey is the daughter of Luke.  The final shot of the movie is the camera swiveling around Luke.  A strained gaze and a dropping of the hood are all you get from Luke. 

I recognize that the movie is trying to “pass the torch” -- especially in the sense that the next one will probably venture into new territory -- but how am I supposed to believe that in light of what we’re given?  How am I supposed to believe the film crew is truly trying to blaze their own trail when the torch is held firmly in the clutches of senior citizens forced to pretend like they have robot hands or pal around with eight-foot-tall bear-men?

I ask this because, as it turns out, Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo, AKA the son of Han and Leia, and by proxy the grandson of Darth Vader.  And potentially, the cousin of Rey, and definitely the nephew of Luke.  So the universe of infinite possibilities pretty much gets pared down to one single bloodline, and a whole lot of background noise.

When I first heard the reveal -- spoken slowly and deliberately by Snorkels Snoke, my reaction was pretty much “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…wha?  Wait, did I hear that right?”  It wasn’t out of shock, preferable as that might have been.  Once my brain processed it, my confusion flipped straight into disdain, and my soul practically went “Urrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh.”  Again, they shone a spotlight on a problem that didn’t have to be there in the first place.  That’s the dumbest twist I’ve heard in a good while, because it’s not a twist; anyone who’s ever seen a movie before -- let alone a Star Wars movie -- could have called it.    

So, like, is this that J.J. Abrams “mystery box” thing at work?  If what I’ve heard is right, he’s got this reputation for hiding story details as a way to get asses in front of the TV screen, or in theater seats.  “There’s a mystery to be solved!  Do you want to know the answers?  Tune in and find out!”  Except you didn’t need to tune in to find out that there’s a giant monster, or an alien, or it’s Khan, or Kylo Ren is somebody’s kid. 

I mean, it’s starting to seem like shrouding a character in mystery is the quickest way to signal that there’s a plot twist coming, which kind of defeats the purpose of a twist.  Especially one like this; what is there to reveal in a Star Wars movie besides blood ties?  I mean besides Han dying…which in itself wasn’t a shocker when you realize that the old mentor died in the first movie, so they have to do it again thirty-eight years later.  Because legacies and shit.

I was under the impression that Abrams and crew geared TFA to be an experience -- a film full of emotional appeals to make audiences stand up and cheer, or laugh out loud, or get the tears going.  And sure, there are emotional appeals in there that work; unfortunately, there are other appeals that land with a resounding thud.  Han’s death should have been an event that shocked me to my core, but even as he tumbled into the depths of Starkiller Base, I pretty much just shrugged and went “Okay.” 

The reveal of Ren’s lineage should have been a major turning point for the movie, but it feels more like a minor detail that pales in the face of the character’s other elements.  Rey pulling the lightsaber into her hand -- and later on serving Ren a decisive defeat -- should have been a moment of triumph, but it played out more like the means to an end -- a transparent, predictable resolution to the plot that even a well-made battle couldn’t hide.   

NUMBER TEN: Hatred is Part of a Balanced Breakfast

I guess that really is the problem.  The movie is at its best when it’s being original and unpredictable -- which would help explain why its humor, new characters, and action beats have landed with audiences.  And let’s be real here: being predictable isn’t exactly a death knell.  Any given Marvel movie is going to play out the same way.  Establish the good guy, establish the bad guy, lots of fights, the darkest hour, the hero rallies, hero beats bad guy, etc.  Whole media empires have been built by virtue of staying safe and predictable.  Most fictional stories out there featuring good guys and bad guys will have the same general beats -- up to and including “good guy beats bad guy”.  Basic doesn’t have to be bad.

But with TFA?  It’s complicated.  The problems that I have with it didn’t have to be there; Ren could have struggled with his inner light without being tied to Han and the rest of the Skywalker family.  Rey could have longed for her family without that family (probably) being Luke -- and she could’ve continued to be a tech wizard instead of slotting into the Jedi role just ‘cause (or at least not so quickly).  I know that what I’m asking for is pedantic and probably unfeasible.  Basically, what I’m suggesting is that this Star Wars movie would be better if it wasn’t a Star Wars movie.

So maybe I really do hate Star Wars.

Maybe.  If being a Star Wars movie means believing that you need to be bound to events, characters, imagery, ideas, and items under the imaginary penalty of death, then I guess I do.  And it sucks that I have to think as much, because -- once again -- there are good parts in the movie.  But the current rushing toward the future is undercut by the undercurrent of the past, and it didn’t have to be that way.  Nobody forced them to add in a scene with Han’s holographic chess board, or a cameo from Admiral Ackbar, or a third Death Star (only bigger).  I know this, because if they were being forced to remake the old movies, then they would’ve just made a straight remake of the old movies.  We wouldn’t have had Finn, Rey, and the rest in the first place.

I understand that there are those who don’t mind the call backs to the earlier movies, and would probably be all right if they made A New (New) Hope.  But they didn’t.  They made a new movie, and that’s what people have been singing praises over for the past few weeks.  Abrams and crew captured that Star Wars feel with the new content, irrespective of how many references and allusions they tossed in.  They took a step forward with their storytelling.  So why didn’t they take two?  Why were they so afraid of an audience that can, has, and will like a movie that isn’t called Star Wars?  Why is a ship that one of the main characters called a piece of junk able to outrun top-of-the-line war machines made thirty years later?

I have a lot of questions.  And it’s going to take one more post -- and one more story -- to get to them.

Eleven thousand, seven hundred down.  Negative seventeen hundred to go.

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