Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

When the movie ended, I mulled over how to react. It took a lot of mulling. I could not instantly say "This was great!" I certainly couldn't say "This was bad!" Is it good? Is it great? Is it good only in the context of the Star Wars saga, or good as movie qua movie? Is it just another sci-fi movie with Star Wars nostalgia thrown in to appeal to fans? Or is it a better movie than the usual crop of sci-fi movies?

(For context, I love the original trilogy (RotJ a bit less) and I do not hate the second trilogy. I disliked the enhancements that Lucas made to the original trilogy: they didn't add anything and they really look kind of hokey, but they didn't ruin the movies for me. The second trilogy had some pitifully bad acting, midichlorians were a useless and stupid addition, and Jar Jar was annoying, enough to stress my enjoyment of the first movie. The pod race went on for too long. It was insane that none of the Jedi could see that Annakin was a complete failure as a Jedi (he was so transparently unable to control his emotions that it was criminal to let him be a Jedi), and the final fight between Annakin and Obi Wan ended really stupidly, what with the "high ground" and Obi Wan letting his friend burn to death instead of putting him out of his misery. But I didn't find the taxation and blockade plots boring. I liked Amadalia's spunk, the light saber fights was awesome, and I thought the plot hung together fairly well. Remember that Return of the Jedi had stupid Ewok battle scenes and really bad acting from Carrie Fisher (who acted fine in the first two movies). Something about the second trilogy movies were still appealing to me: that thing that made Star Wars. Which may simply be the well-choreographed lightsaber battles.)

Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Um... maybe?

It is entertaining and plotted well, even if they leave out a number of explanations to fully understand some of the plot details. However, it is missing parts of what made Star Wars unique. The first is development between the action scenes, like Luke talking to his Aunt and Uncle or looking out over the horizon, Han and Leia talking, Han and Luke talking, Obi Wan talking to Luke and training him, etc. This movie has one conversation between humans, and it is flat and forgettable. It has a few slower scenes, and they are great; but more were necessary. Another is character transformation, like Luke learning to take on responsibility, Han turning back to save the rebellion, or Darth Vader, for that matter. There are two transformation in this movie: one is early in the movie and very quick, so it hardly counts, and the other is non-mental and not really a kind that makes you feel invested in it. It just happens, and you're left wondering why. Mostly, what is missing from this movie is mysticism. No one is reaching out to a higher cause or into the unfathomable unknown. Mysticism is nearly, almost, kind of struggling to be there in the movie, but it doesn't happen until the very last frame of the movie.

The nostalgia is there, but not overwhelmingly so. We get some of the old characters on screen for a while, and they don't just stand there looking wistful. I realize that it's hard to strike the right balance. Nevertheless, it is mishandled a bit. The movie tries to copy the original trilogy too much; there really is too much New Hope in it. A planet sized weapon attacked by X-Wings and Tie fighters, plans hidden in a droid, a freakin' alien bar scene. There is even a father son conflict. We did these already, didn't we?

The cinematography is vastly better than the first or second trilogies. Ships and hovercraft move in erratic patterns with oddly tracked shots full of detail as the camera focus swirls around. Ships don't look like models or sterile backdrops; they are fully realized and lifelike. If Lucas was trying to "update" his original trilogy with enhancements to make it look more modern, this movie shows how far he failed in doing so. THIS movie looks incredibly good, so much so, that it feels un-Star Wars, which has always been a bit less complicated and a bit more hokey than the modern sterile sci-fi we are used to.

It was great to see a mad dash to save the girl only to find out that she doesn't need saving. It was nice to see diversity, but really, there is only one black dude in the galaxy, so far (unless Lando is hiding somewhere). BB-8 is really good as a WALL-E type droid, though mostly a substitute for R2-D2 who is awol for much of the movie.

The acting is universally good. Like the original movie, there is nearly no on-screen romantic dialog, a welcome change from the worst elements of episodes II and III. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are charismatic, and even have a bit of chemistry. On the other hand, Adam Driver as Kylo (the villain), and Oscar Isaac as Poe (a hero) are both uninteresting, flat characters.

Though the movie has plot problems, little character transformation, and little substantive dialog between characters, I still enjoyed the movie. Partly due to nostalgia. Partly that it is a decent action movie, like the better Marvel or Batman movies. Party because there are lightsabers. And partly due to the charisma of Harrison Ford, Daisy, and John. As for the latter two, we will watch your careers with great interest.

Spoilers, questions, and complaints ahead.

What happened to the clones? Since when did stormtroopers come from recruits?

Really, the Millennium Falcon works that well after not flying for a long time? And Han lost it? And Han just happened to be in the one place in space where he could drag it on board?

It took Han a long time to make the jump to hyperspace in IV. Now you're telling me it can be done by someone unfamiliar with the ship from a standing start? Speaking of traveling in hyperspace, that must be moving about a million times the speed of light, which I'm fine with. I'm not fine with relying on a human saying "now" to know when to cut the hyperdrive so that the ship lands a couple of miles above a planet instead of inside the planet: that's what computers are for. And speaking of that shield, what use is a shield that protects against things flying sub-light speed, but not above light speed? Why can't the resistance just fill a ship with bombs and send it straight into the target at above light speed? It would make a pretty explosion, I think.

Good thing the big monster didn't eat Finn right away like it did for all of the other, less important characters, giving Rey time to save him. Rey's plan was to look at security cameras and chop off the monster's limbs with a blast door? And that was the best plan?

Luke's lightsaber was just sitting in some bar basement in an unlocked box? Really? Didn't Luke's original lightsaber (the one Obi Wan gave him that was once Annakin's) fall from Cloud City on Bespin?

Rey never used a blaster before, but shoots better than people who have trained with blasters their whole life. And unless Finn is a Jedi secretly, how does he use a lightsaber competently after first picking one up against a Jedi who has trained to use it his whole life? Didn't Luke have to train a long time to use a lightsaber?

How did that random stormtrooper happen to have this ... thing that protects against lightsabers? If it's not standard issue, were they expecting a lightsaber attack? If it is, why doesn't everyone have them? Where did it come from?

I was not thrilled to see what essentially amounted to a rape scene (as Kylo entered, or tried to enter, Rey's mind repeatedly to take information out of it).

The screenwriter tried to give Kylo conflict - struggling between the light and dark sides of the force, but it was not well conveyed, neither in the script nor by the actor. As a result, what was going to happen in the scene where Han confronts Kylo was telegraphed from the moment he stepped onto the bridge. Maybe it will surprise some viewers, but it was obvious to me what was going to happen, especially when Kylo took out his lightsaber. A defter directorial hand was needed here.

How come Rey is able to take up the force so easily, with no training? Weren't Luke and Leia the last hopes? Why was Leia never trained in the force?

How come Finn said he was a janitor, when he was clearly out on a mission at  the beginning of the movie?

Why are there no guards at the doors to the bases? Why was that bad guy so willing to shut off the field without a struggle?

It didn't seem necessary for Finn to die; especially with him being the only black guy in the universe; it smacks a bit too much like a trope (the black guy always dies). It wasn't necessary when they already had killed off a main character. I suppose it's possible that Finn isn't dead, but that wouldn't make sense considering the advanced medical stuff they have around him (which should detect any semblance of life).

The wordless ending with no resolution was not entirely satisfying, even though they and we know that we're going to go out and see the next movie. Also, shouldn't she be offering Luke the saber hilt first? I'm kind of pissed that Luke would let so much death and destruction go on while he runs away from some personal failure; who does he think he is, Yoda?

1 comment:

Chris Bateman said...

Thanks for this - still debating whether to go to see it. Still grumpy about yet another Disney megatext acquisition, not to mention them handing it to Jar Jar Abrams after the mess he made of Star Trek. But the nostalgia draws.

We're coming from the same place, I think... we share a perspective on the original trilogy, and like you I'm not hostile to the prequels, despite their flaws. It's hard to do a prequel, let alone a prequel trilogy. These might actually be the best of their kind right now. And like you, the 'updating' of the original movies strikes me as a bigger faux pas on Lucas' part than the prequel trilogy.

The fact that you're not gushing about it encourages me to bury the hatchet and give it a go. But I'll probably run out of time before I do.

All the best,