Thursday, December 31, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was written by Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams and Michael Arndt. It was directed by JJ Abrams.

Kasdan of course wrote two of the films in the original Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, as well as Raiders Of The Lost Ark. He also wrote Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado and Wyatt Earp (all of which he directed as well). Arndt previously wrote Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3, Oblivion and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

JJ Abrams previously wrote ArmageddonJoyride, Mission Impossible III and Super 8. He directed Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness.

I was hoping that with a pedigree like that, Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be a brilliant new addition to the Star Wars franchise, chock full of fresh ideas and originality. To quote Thorin Oakenshield, "I have never been so wrong in all my life.''

You'd have to be living in a cave to not be aware of this film. Rarely have I seen so much pre-release hoopla and anticipation. Tickets went on sale months before the premiere and sold out in minutes. It was like 1999 all over again, as the exact same thing happened when The Phantom Menace was released (and we all know how that turned out, don't we?). You'd think people would learn from the past, but they never do.

JJ Abrams was given the chance of a lifetime— the keys to a beloved kingdom and a lucrative franchise. He could have taken Star Wars in a bold new direction, but instead of moving the saga forward, he moved it backwards and gave us the same old story in a bright, shiny new package. Whether this was his idea or Disney's, I can't say, but whoever's responsible, it's a disappointing development.

George Lucas tried to do something a bit different with his Prequels, but they were rejected by the fans for not feeling like Star Wars. Abrams goes too far in the opposite direction here, virtually copying and pasting huge swathes of the Original Trilogy into this film. There has to be a middle ground somewhere.

Like all of JJ Abrams' films, this one is slickly produced, fast-paced and has a wonderful sense of fun. It breezes by as you're watching it and it's not until later, when you've had time to actually think about what you saw, that you realize very little of it makes any sense. Plot holes pile up like cars on a California freeway, accompanied by coincidence, plot contrivances, odd character motivations and nonsensical "science."

Most fans have been quick to say this is the first Star Wars film in a long time that actually feels like Star Wars. Well, they're certainly right about that. The Force Awakens manages to capture the tone of the Original Trilogy perfectly. Unfortunately it does so by copying the earlier films almost to the letter.

Abrams has never been one for originality. One look at the films he's directed is all the proof you need of that. But in The Force Awakens he cribs elements from the previous movies so freely that it's more of a remake than a sequel. I realize everyone and their dog has already noted this, but that doesn't make it any less true.

It might sound odd to criticize a Star Wars film for a lack of originality, considering the first film was a pastiche of Flash Gordon, movie serials, comic books, war films, samurai epics and Arthurian legend. But Star Wars was inspired by those elements, combining them in a new and original way. The Force Awakens cannibalizes A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and even Return Of The Jedi, cherry picking the best bits and tossing out the rest. This isn't a new film, it's Star Wars' Greatest Hits.

Virtually everything that happens in The Force Awakens has an analogue in the Original Trilogy. There's an orphan living on a desert planet who finds a droid carrying important information inside it. There's an evil, black robed, mask-wearing figure who controls an oppressive empire. There's a visit to a cantina packed with extraterrestrial denizens. There's a tiny, wizened alien who spouts advice and expository dialogue. The orphan has a mentor who dies a tragic death. And of course there are lots of aerial dogfights and light saber duels. Most incredible of all, there's yet a THIRD planet-sized weapon that has to be blown up real good!

Since this is a sequel, it's only natural that there would be repeated motifs and plot elements— that's just a given. But the entire goddamned movie shouldn't be a retread.

This is at least the fifth of these "stealth remakes" I've seen in the cineplex this year— movies that are ostensibly sequels, but are actually straight up copies of the original. It's a sneaky and underhanded trick on the part of Hollywood, but one that's proven to be very effective and lucrative. Why knock yourself out writing a new chapter in a franchise when you can take the original story, add a hot new cast and some state of the art special effects, then sit back and watch the money roll in?

Mad Max:Fury RoadJurassic WorldTerminator GenisysVacation and Creed are all perfect examples of stealth remakes that came out this year. And with the exception of Mad Max, they were all pale, lackluster imitations of the originals. The sooner this trend dies a well-deserved and horrible death, the better.

Coincidence seems to fuel the plot engine here. Granted the original Star Wars film had its share of unlikely plot contrivances, but it's pushed to the limit in The Force Awakens. BB-8 just happens to run into Rey, who's destined to become The Most Important Person In The Galaxy. Rey and Finn steal an abandoned ship, which just happens to be the Millennium Falcon. Minutes later they just happen to encounter Han Solo and Chewbacca, who've been looking for their lost ship. Rey just happens to find Luke's original light saber in Maz Kanata's basement. And on and on. Coincidence is the crutch of the lazy writer. 

The Force Awakens also suffers from an acute case of "trilogitis," the condition in which a film spends so much time setting up subsequent installments that it forgets to tell its own story. The Original Trilogy did this to an extent, but was a bit more subtle about it. There's a difference between sowing seeds for future tales and blatant setup. Heck, at one point, Maz Kanata literally deflects a direct question by saying, "That's a story for another time (!)." 

In the past few weeks I've heard many fans shouting from the rooftops that The Force Awakens is "the best Star Wars sequel ever" and even "The Best Film Of The Year." Hardly on either count. I'd place it somewhere between the Original Trilogy and the lackluster Prequels.

In the end, it doesn't matter what I or anyone else thinks of this film, as it's already grossed well over a BILLION dollars. I can criticize the film until my face turns blue and it won't hurt Disney President Bob Iger's feelings one bit, as tonight he'll slumber on a solid gold bed, covered with blankets woven from the finest unicorn manes. Disney knows exactly what they're doing here. They studied what made Star Wars so popular, and with cold and calculated precision, crafted a sure-fire, can't miss replica.

As usual, much is being made of the film's record-smashing box office performance. Fastest film to ever pass the hundred million dollar mark, fastest to ever reach a billion worldwide, and on and on. To that I say a hearty "So what?" Unless you're a Disney executive or a shareholder, who the hell cares? Do Star Wars fans feel an actual sense of pride when the film they had absolutely no part in creating performs well? 

These box office records are meaningless. Of course the film is grossing billions! That's because movie tickets cost more now than they ever have! Plus this one's in fake 3D, so that's pumping up the gross even more. And in a couple years ticket prices will be even higher, and then another film will dethrone this one.

Butts in seats! Count the NUMBER of tickets sold, not how much they cost. Then I might be impressed.

SPOILERS, IF YOU'VE NEVER SEEN A STAR WARS MOVIE BEFORE!

The Plot:
Have you seen A New Hope? Well, this is pretty much that. Plus a little of The Empire Strikes Back and a bit of Return Of The Jedi.

OK, OK, I can do a little better. Years after the destruction of the Death Star II, Luke Skywalker has disappeared. The evil First Order has formed from the remnants of the Empire, and of course wants to wipe out the Republic and destroy Luke.

General Leia Organa, Luke's sister and leader of the Rebellion, er, I mean the Resistance against the First Order, has sent pilot Poe Dameron to the desert planet of Tattooine, er, I mean Jakku, for answers. Poe meets with elderly villager Obi Wan, er, I mean Lor San Tekka, who gives him the plans to the Death Star, er, I mean a map to Luke's location. Suddenly the village is attacked by First Order stormtroopers. The troopers are under the command of Darth Vader, er, I mean Kylo Ren, a mysterious figure in a black robe and mask, who's strong with Dark Side of the Force.

The stormtroopers destroy the village and kill its inhabitants. One of the stormtroopers appears to have a conscience, and refuses to fire on innocent civilians. Poe gives the map to his droid, R2-D2, er, I mean BB-8, and tells him to find help. Poe's captured by stormtroopers and taken to their ship. There Kylo Ren uses the Force to extract info from him, and learns of BB-8. He orders his troops to scour the planet for the missing droid and the map it contains.

FN-2187, the stormtrooper with a conscience, decides he's had enough. He frees Poe and the two somehow cram themselves into a TIE Fighter and escape. Poe gives FN-2187 the name Finn. They're shot down and their ship crashes on Jakku. Finn survives, but can find no trace of Poe in the incredibly compact wreckage (?). He stumbles off into the desert, looking for help.

Meanwhile BB-8 finds a small settlement on Jakku, and just happens to run across Luke Skywalker, er, I mean Rey, a young girl who makes a living as a scavenger. Rey can somehow understand BB-8's bleeps and bloops and befriends him. Finn just happens to run into Rey and sees BB-8, realizing it's the droid Poe told him about. Just then a squadron of Ren's TIE Fighters attacks the settlement. Rey, Finn and BB-8 steal a derelict ship, which just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, and flee.

They manage to escape the planet and the First Order, but the Falcon breaks down. It's then captured by a larger ship, which just happens to be piloted by Han Solo and Chewbacca, still doing the smuggling thing after all these years. After some superfluous trouble with space pirates, Han, Chewie, Rey, Finn and BB-8 abandon the larger ship and escape in the Falcon. Rey tells Han that BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke's whereabouts, but she doesn't believe he's real. Han tells her that Luke, the Jedi and the Force are all indeed real. Apparently years ago Luke tried to rebuild the Jedi Order, but one of his pupils, Kylo Ren, turned to the Dark Side and wiped out the other students, which doesn't sound anything like Anakin Skywalker's life story at all. Luke felt responsible for the deaths and went into exile.

Han says he knows someone who can help, and takes the group to Dagobah, er, I mean Takodana. There they enter the Mos Eisley Cantina, er, I mean a bar owned by a small, wise and ancient alien named Yoda, er, I mean Maz Kanata. Han hopes that Maz can get BB-8 to the Resistance. Rey hears voices and is drawn to a trunk in the basement of the cantina. Inside she finds Luke's original light saber (that he lost on Bespin). When she touches it she has disturbing visions of her childhood, and hears voices of various past Jedi. She flees into the woods. 

Meanwhile on Hoth, er, I mean the Death Star, er I mean Starkiller Base, General Hux meets with Supreme Leader Snoke, who appears via a fifty foot tall hologram. Snoke orders Hux to activate the base, which is pretty much a snowy, hollowed out planet converted into a Death Star. Hux addresses a huge army of stormtroopers and says they're about to witness the death of the Republic. The base fires a massive beam into space that somehow splits apart and destroys five different planets at the same time, including Coruscant, er, I mean Hosnian Prime, the center of the Republic. Somehow people all over the galaxy can look up in the sky at the same time and see this happening, because JJ Abrams doesn't understand anything about science.

Snoke then tells Kylo Ren that he senses he's conflicted, and in order to truly embrace the Dark Side of the Force, he must kill his father Han Solo (gasp!). Stormtroopers then land on Takodana, destroying Maz's cantina. For some reason Maz gives the light saber to Finn for safekeeping. Finn uses the light saber to effectively battle the stormtroopers, despite never having picked one up before. Eventually Han, Chewie and Finn are surrounded by stormtroopers.

They just happen to be saved by the coincidental arrival of a squad of Resistance X-Wing fighters, led by Poe Dameron, who's somehow still alive. Kylo Ren spots Rey in the woods, senses she's seen the map, and realizes he no longer needs BB-8. He captures Rey and flies off with her in his ship, which is witnessed by Finn.

Ren takes Rey to Starkiller Base, where he interrogates her. This apparently awakens the Force within her (hey, that'd make a good title!), and she manages to resist. Ren conveniently leaves her with a single stormtrooper guard. Despite having absolutely zero training in using the Force, Rey somehow manages to use the Jedi Mind Trick on the guard to escape. Ren orders Starkiller Base to fire on Yavin, er, I mean D'Qar, home base of the Resistance. Due to the massive power the base uses, it'll take several hours to charge.

Han, Chewie, Finn and BB-8 travel to D'Qar, where they're met by General Leia and C-3PO. Han and Leia's reunion is tense, as they've apparently been separated for quite some time. Not to mention the whole "our son is a Sith Lord thing." With Finn's help, they devise a very familiar plan to blow up the Death Star, er, I mean Starkiller Base, consisting of lowering the planetary shields so the fighters can attack. Han looks at BB-8's map, and realizes it only shows a small fragment of the galaxy, and is useless. Finn talks Han into helping him rescue Rey. Leia makes Han promise to be careful and bring their son back alive.

Han and the others come out of hyperspace and crash land on Starkiller Base. Finn admits he doesn't know how to blow it up, and lied so Han would help him rescue Rey. Just then, they just happen to run into Rey, who doesn't need rescuing, thanks. They lower the shield and the attack begins. Han and Chewie set explosive charges in an apparently very vital shaft. Kylo Ren appears and Han confronts him. He tries to get his son, whose real name is Ben, to stop all this silly Sith Lord business and come home with him. Ren looks conflicted for a minute, and then runs his light saber right through Han, killing him. Chewie roars in anger and shoots Ren, wounding him. 

Chewie then detonates the explosives, which destroys the Base, and destabilizes the planet. The injured Kylo Ren chases Finn and Rey into a nearby forest. Finn uses Luke's light saber to fight Ren, somehow managing to hold his own for a while. Ren eventually gets the upper hand and wounds Finn. Rey then picks up the light saber and battles Ren, kicking his ass before they're conveniently separated by a fissure that opens in the ground. Chewie arrives in the Falcon just in time to save Finn and Rey before the planet (yawn) explodes.

Back on D'Qar, the Resistance celebrates their victory, while Leia, Chewie and Rey mourn Han. Suddenly R2-D2, who's been "unconscious" and in low power mode ever since Luke's disappearance, activates. He reveals he has a nearly complete map of Luke's whereabouts. When combined with BB-8's map fragment, they're able to pinpoint Luke's exact location. Rey, Chewie and R2 take the Falcon to an ocean planet. Rey finds Luke waiting there for her, and hands his old light saber to him, as the credits roll. 

Thoughts:
• I really missed seeing the 20th Century Fox logo and hearing that fanfare at the beginning of the movie. Sorry guys, but a silent Lucasfilm title card just doesn't cut it.

This is also the first ever Star Wars film not released in May.

• In an effort to not be completely negative, here are a few things I liked about the film. 

I very much liked all the new characters, specifically Poe, Finn and Rey, and am looking forward to seeing more of them. Especially Poe. Somehow he was likable after just a couple of minutes of screen time. Abrams may not be able to write an original plot to save his life (oops, that was negative!), but he knows how to create engaging characters.

I even liked Kylo Ren a bit too. It was interesting to have a villain who wants to be a bad ass, but isn't in control of his powers and is prone to throwing tantrums.

The film also did a good job of introducing these new characters by name. So many times these days I have no idea what a character's name is until I see the end credits.

I liked just about everything in the Jakku sequence in the first third of the film. The wildlife and various aliens were all very well done.

In the past, Harrison Ford has seemed pretty indifferent toward the whole Star Wars phenomenon, at times seeming like he regretted ever being in the films. Not so in The Force Awakens. He looks like he's having the time of his life playing Han Solo here. Of course the fact that he was reportedly paid between ten and twenty million for the role might have had something to do with his giddy mood.

At long last, the light sabers in this film all give off real light, illuminating the characters' faces as well as their surroundings. Kudos!

I appreciated the fact that Abrams shunned the unnecessary use of CGI and used practical effects whenever, er, practical. When you're trying to get the audience to buy a completely alien world, it really does help if there's something real for them to latch onto.

I was surprised by how much I liked BB-8. He was very emotive for something that's basically a salad bowl balanced on a beach ball. Best of all he was another practical effect (well, mostly)! In fact I spent a good deal of time before the film came out trying to figure out how the hell he worked, what was inside him and how his head could possibly stay atop his body (I eventually figured it out).

OK, that's it for the positives.

• Despite the fact that I really liked BB-8, what good is he in the world of the film? He rode in Poe Dameron's X-Wing, so I guess he's supposed to be some sort of astromech droid, but... he doesn't seem capable of doing much. He's just a ball. I assumed he had mechanical hands that would pop out of the circles on his "body," but all we saw were a couple of grappling hooks and a little blowtorch. I'm sure we'll see additional tools in the subsequent movies, but right now I'm at a loss to understand just what this class of droid is good for. Besides rolling around and looking cute, that is.

• OK, OK, so my theory that Kylo Ren was really Luke Skywalker turned out to be hogwash. I still think it's odd that they'd introduce a brand new character who wears a mask and has a distorted voice. Such tricks are generally used to hide a character's identity— it's Screenwriting 101. But we've never seen Ben Solo before now, so he had no identity to hide. I guess he dressed the way he did because he was trying to emulate his grandpa?

I will say that despite the fact that it doesn't make story sense, I'm glad they hid Adam Driver's face for most of the movie. His emo, hipster features just aren't very intimidating.

• Once again we get a desert planet, and ice planet and a forest/swamp planet. Yawn.

Tattooine has popped up at least four times in this series already, and now we're getting yet ANOTHER desert planet? Surely there are other environments they could have used? We briefly saw some pretty cool alien worlds in the "Order 66" montage in Revenge Of The Sith. Why not explore planets like those in more detail?

I suppose it comes down to money. It's no doubt cheaper to film in a real desert than to spend millions creating an alien planet covered with twenty foot tall mushrooms.

• On Jakku, a villager shoots a blaster at Kylo Ren, and he casually uses the Force to freeze the bolt in mid air. I have my doubts as to whether that's actually possible, but I've got to admit it was pretty damned cool.

• This is a very minor nitpick, but here goes— apparently they don't know about tally marks in the Star Wars Universe. Rey marks off the days she's been living on Jakku, but instead of drawing four vertical marks and then crossing them with a fifth diagonal one to make easily identifiable groups of five, she just makes one mark after another. That ought to be easy to total when she steps back and stares at a wall full of five or six thousand marks!

• At one point we see inside Rey's shelter (a fallen and abandoned AT-AT), and she appears to have a homemade doll that looks a lot like an X-Wing pilot, complete with a makeshift little orange jumpsuit.

Most fans believe Rey is Luke Skywalker's daughter, and the evidence certainly points in that direction. I really hope that's not the case though. Every time they reveal that one of these characters is secretly related to another, it just makes this vast universe that much smaller.

• After Finn crashes on Jakku, he wanders through the desert looking for signs of life. Along the way we see him peel off his stormtrooper armor and cast it aside. When he's done, he's wearing what appears to be a black sweatshirt and jeans, rather than a one piece insulated unitard as you'd expect. Is that really what all the stormtroopers are wearing under their armor?

• I was disappointed when Poe Dameron disappears from the movie for a good hour or so before returning in the final reel. Supposedly there's a reason for his absence. Rumor has it he was originally supposed to die in the TIE Fighter crash, but actor Oscar Isaac talked JJ Abrams into bringing him back— with a very lame explanation, I might add!

• There's a distinct lack of new spaceships in this film. So far every movie, even the much-maligned Prequels, have each given us a handful of cool new ship designs. Not so here. Kylo Ren did get a new butt-ugly ship, but it looked a lot like someone just took an old Imperial Shuttle and cut the cockpit and central wing off it. And Han Solo had a new ship, but we never get a clear look at it, as we see a very brief glimpse of just the front.

In fact, the ship design in this movie has actually gone backwards (just like the plot!). These "updated" X-Wings are actually based on unused pre-production sketches done by the amazing Ralph McQuarrie way back in the 1970s! His original design for the X-Wings featured the "half turbine" engine we see here. C'mon, guys! I appreciate McQuarrie's art as much or more than the next guy, but let's see some new designs! X-Wings we've seen. Let's have some C, D, and E-Wings!

We also get TIE Fighters that look exactly the same except for a coat of paint, and what looks like the same (or close enough) Star Destroyer design.

• The McQuarrie-worshiping even extended to Jakku. At the entrance to Rey's settlement, there's an archway with a vague Oriental look poking up out of the sand. That arch was another of McQuarrie's unused designs for Jabba's Palace back in the 1980s!

• The Millennium Falcon looks really odd without its old round satellite dish!

• One of the two groups of space pirates that enter Solo's ship has a leader named Tasu Leech, who looks Asian. He spouts off some subtitled dialogue in what's presumably an alien language, but it sounds for all the world like he's speaking Indonesian or a similar terrestrial tongue. Leech is played by Indonesian actor Yayan Ruhian (who was in The Raid: Redemption, which is an awesome movie by the way) so it's entirely possible!

• Did... did Finn really say, "Droid, please!" to BB-8? I have to admit the line made me laugh, but a second later I thought, "Wait a minute..." Isn't this all supposed to be happening a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away? Do they really have ghetto slang in the Star Wars Universe?

• In the Original Trilogy, the two opposing forces were simple and very clearly drawn. There was an evil Empire on one side, and a Rebellion trying to topple them on the other. Here things aren't quite so clear. Now we've got the Republic, which is the government set up by the Rebellion after Return Of The Jedi, and the First Order, which is presumably the remnants of the Empire that weren't quite stamped out. But then there's also the Resistance, which is fighting the First Order. Why is there a Resistance? Is it separate from the Republic? Why isn't the Republic fighting the First Order? 

I assume maybe the Republic doesn't want to get dragged into a war with the First Order, so they're secretly supporting an insurgency (aka the Resistance) to wipe them out?

And why does the First Order feel the need to wipe out the Republic? They've already got an amazingly vast— and I do mean vast— well-supplied and organized military. Plus they're apparently so well funded they have the funds to hollow out an entire planet and turn it into a powerful super weapon! Looks like they're already doing quite well for themselves in spite of the Republic.

Before anyone writes in to tell me, I'm aware that the novelization answers these questions and there are also dozens of websites that helpfully explain the relationship between these various factions. I don't care. I shouldn't have to do homework or research to understand what's happening in a movie. If I do, then the director has failed. Miserably. This could have all been cleared up with two or three lines of dialogue.

• Several times during the movie, Kylo Ren and General Hux confer with Supreme Leader Snoke (oy), who appears via a giant hologram. Is Snoke really fifty feet tall, or is his hologram just really, really big? I'm guessing the latter, since in The Empire Strikes Back, the hologram of the Emperor's head was twenty feet high.

Actually I wouldn't mind if Snoke really was a giant. The majority of aliens in this universe seem to be human sized or smaller, so a race of giants would be something new and different, not to mention cool.


In an interview before the film's release, actor Andy Serkis, who plays Supreme Leader Snoke, said the character was realized through motion capture, because "he was impossible to do as a practical effect."

Really? He just looked like a wrinkly old man with a crease in his skull to me. I don't see any reason why they couldn't have used plain old prosthetic makeup on him. I'm starting to think Andy Serkis just can't act unless he's in a mo-cap suit and his face is covered with dots.

• During one of the many shootouts, Han loses his blaster and grabs Chewie's bowcaster and fires it. He seems stunned and amazed by its firepower. Really? Han and Chewie have known one another for decades— possibly even fifty years. Yet in all that time, Han apparently never noticed how powerful his pal's weapon was, or tried it for himself.

• Actor Peter Mayhew once again played Chewbacca— in closeups. Sadly, Mayhew is suffering from severe knee problems, so in any running scenes Chewie was played by 6" 10" actor Joonas Suotamo.

In a similar vein, this is the first Star Wars film in which Kenny Baker isn't inside R2-D2. He's listed in the credits though as "R2-D2 Consultant," whatever the hell that means.

• Naturally The Force Awakens follows the long-standing tradition of having a character say the line, "I have a bad feeling about this."

• So Kylo Ren is a fan of the work of Darth Vader, and vows to "finish what he started." Apparently Kylo forgot that his Pa-paw redeemed himself at the end of Return Of The Jedi, and went back over to the Light Side.

Man, I just realized how awkward that sounds. "The Dark Side" sounds really cool, but "The Light Side" sounds stupid when you say it out loud.

• Why the hell are C-3PO and R2-D2 even in this film? Yes, I know, it was Lucas' plan from the beginning for them to be in every movie (as far back as the 1970s when he said he was going to make nine and/or twelve films), but they have so little to do here they might as well not have bothered. Their appearances are cameos at best, wedged in to appease the fans.

Speaking of 3PO: Although we're given no explanation for his new red arm, note that Abrams still felt the need to point it out (as if we couldn't see it for ourselves). Why not just say nothing about it? No one ever commented on 3PO's silver shin in the Original Trilogy.

• This is the third film in the franchise to show us a bar full of alien patrons. Four, if you want to count Jabba's Palace from Return Of The Jedi. Hey, if the fans liked it once, they'll LOVE it four times!

 When Solo and his crew arrive in the Maz Kanata's cantina, one patron (the fetching lass seen above) who's secretly a spy sends a report in an alien language. One of the alien words she speaks sounds like "gundam," and the subtitles say something like, "The girl's here with the droid." Coincidence, or a little shout-out to fans of Japanese robots?

• For months before the film premiered, the internet was abuzz about the character of Captain Phasma, the first-ever female stormtrooper in the franchise. Played by fan-favorite actress Gwendoline Christie (of Game Of Thrones fame) and dressed in chrome armor with a fetching cape, she was built up as the new Boba Fett.

Boy, I'll say! Just like Boba Fett, she was in the movie for five minutes or less and didn't do a goddamned thing. In fact if you didn't know she was being played by Christie you might not have even recognized her muffled voice. Was that even her inside the suit?

Hopefully she'll show up again and maybe actually do something in Episodes 8 and 9.

 So how did Maz Kanata get ahold of Luke's original light saber? He lost it on Bespin, along with his hand. Did a Cloud City janitor find it lying on the floor of one of the lower levels and sell it on Space eBay?

• After Kylo Ren tortures Rey, he conveniently leaves her alone with a single guard. She uses the Jedi Mind Trick on him to force him (heh) to help her escape.

Just how the hell did Rey know she could do that? How did she even know there WAS such a thing as the Jedi Mind Trick? She's had exactly zero training, and earlier in the film she even says she thought the Jedi and the Force were myths.

It would be like someone who's heard of the alphabet, but never seen it, suddenly writing one of Shakespeare's plays.

I suppose you could say that when Kylo was rummaging around her mind for info he might have awakened her latent Force abilities. I suppose we could say that, but... I don't see why we should.

• From the minute the official movie poster came out back in October, I was very, very, very disappointed to see that once again there's yet another Death Star that needs blown up. Jesus Christ, they've had thirty years to come up with a new plot, and this is the best they can do? Trotting out a plot element they've already used twice before? 

Blowing up the Death Star once was perfectly fine. Twice was pushing it. Three times is completely unacceptable, and only points out how creatively bankrupt Abrams and company are. 

Plus they make the exact same mistake George Lucas made forty years ago. When he wrote the original Star Wars, he never in his wildest dreams expected there to be any sequels, so he blew up the Death Star at the end of the film. Once the movie was a huge hit and Fox demanded more films, he said he wished he'd saved the super weapon's destruction for the end the trilogy. In fact, he apparently couldn't think of any other way to finish off the last film, so he just had the Empire build a new Death Star for the Rebels to blow up again.

Abrams and company didn't have that problem. Here they knew damned good and well they were setting up a trilogy, so once they created their incredibly original Starkiller Base, they should have had the foresight to save its destruction for the third film. Don't be surprised if Episode 9 gives us yet another Death Star that needs blown up.

• Speaking of the Death Star, er, I mean Starkiller Base, nothing about it makes any sense whatsoever.

It's a planet with an impossibly huge trench dug into its surface, with an enormous gun sitting inside. In order to work, the gun sucks the energy from a nearby sun inside it, then fires that energy through "sub-hyperspace" at a distant planet.

The Star Wars franchise is a space fantasy, and as such has never concerned itself much with scientific accuracy. And that's fine. Moon-sized space stations and swords with blades made of light are cool and fun. But everything about Starkiller Base is beyond ridiculous. It makes Ed Wood's Solaranite Bomb (a weapon which causes all light in the galaxy to explode) from his masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space look like hard science.

How the hell do you aim a planet? Doesn't it rotate? Can you only aim it once a day? What the hell is "sub-hyperspace?" Is that a faster realm than regular hyperspace? How does a planet store all the energy from an entire sun, which is hundreds of times bigger (they must have a hell of a battery!)? Why does it even need to blow up a planet? Wouldn't draining the energy from a planet's sun pretty much doom it and its inhabitants? 

Does Starkiller Base move from system to system, like the Death Star did? It would pretty much have to, since it needs to drain a sun to work— otherwise it would be a one-use weapon. If it does move, how? How do you propel an entire planet through space, without causing massive quakes? Does it travel through sub-hyperspace as well? What happens to the troops living on the planet as it flies through the galaxy, with no sun nearby? Do they have to live underground? Is that why it looks like an ice planet? How does it fire its incredibly powerful beam without burning up its own atmosphere?

Once again, I'm aware the novelization and the interwebs answer some of these questions, so please don't write and tell me. As I said earlier, I shouldn't have to do homework to understand a film. Most of these questions could have been answered in the movie itself in the briefing room scene.

• Someone reeeeally needs to sit JJ Abrams down and explain to him how outer space and planets work. 

When Starkiller Base fires its main weapon, the beam somehow travels through sub-hyperspace to the planet Hosnian Prime. So far so good, I suppose, as that tells me someone on the writing staff realized that a destructive beam of light would take years or even centuries to travel the vast interstellar distance to its target.

But then Abrams shows a handful of characters— on several different planets scattered throughout the galaxy, mind you— looking up in the sky of their respective worlds and seeing the Starkiller beam sail overhead.

Jesus wept.

This is not how outer space works, JJ! Space is vast. Heck, even the light from our sun takes eight minutes to reach Earth. And Venus, Earth's closest neighbor, looks like a star in the night sky. You can't stand on one planet and look up and see what's happening on another, like you're looking at the Moon! 

Abrams did the same goddamned thing a few years ago in Star Trek. When Vulcan was destroyed by a Romulan weapon, Old Spock, who was stranded on the planet Delta Vega, was able to look up into the sky and see it happen(!).

Apparently in JJ Abrams' mind, the galaxy's a very cozy place, about the size of the average football stadium.

 It seemed odd to me to reveal Kylo Ren's face and true identity halfway through the movie. That seems like something they'd want to save for one of the inevitable sequels.

It was also odd that the movie desperately wants us to care about Kylo Ren and his relationship with his father, Han Solo. Their confrontation on the bridge is supposed to be poignant and tragic, but it's hard to work up much feeling for Kylo, aka Ben, when we're given only the briefest outline of his life, and we've known him for all of an hour.

Compare this to Luke learning his father is Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. That revelation was a shock and a punch to the gut because we'd spent almost two movies getting to know the characters, so we had a connection with them. 

In this film Kylo Ren is a virtual stranger, so when we learn of his parentage, the audience can do little more than shrug.

• Rey, Finn and Chewie all recognize a dramatic scene when they spot one, and know to let it play out. They see Han confronting his troubled son on the bridge, and rather than shooting Ren in the leg to incapacitate him, they all politely stand motionless like statues, giving him a chance to kill his father.

By the way, in this scene Han calls Kylo by his real name, Ben. In real life, Harrison Ford has a son named Ben. It's also possible Han named his son after "Ben" Kenobi, even though he barely knew the man.

• I'm wondering how the hell Finn, who doesn't seem to have any Force powers or training, was able to hold his own in a light saber battle against Kylo Ren. Yes, I know Kylo is supposed to be undisciplined and impatient, and he was injured, and Finn probably had stormtrooper combat training, but still... 

If you don't believe me, imagine the fight in our world. Even a terrible fencing student could beat someone who'd never picked up a sword before.

It's honestly a miracle Finn didn't accidentally dismember himself.

• Eventually Kylo Ren gets the upper hand and injures Finn in the back, knocking him unconscious. And that's it for him! Finn spends the rest of the movie out like a light, never waking up. What the hell? That's a strange way to treat one of the heroes of the film. They could have at least had him sit up in his hospital bed and give a weak wave goodbye to Rey before she blasted off to look for her dad, er, I mean Luke.

• Let's talk about the map, shall we? Much of the plot revolves around the electronic map carried by BB-8, which is supposed to show the location of Luke Skywalker. When Han examines the map, he sees it's just a fragment. It only shows a small part of the galaxy, but he has no idea which part, so it's useless.

When R2-D2 finally wakes up, we see he has a map of the entire galaxy, except for a small missing piece.

The missing piece of course is the one carried by BB-8.

So why did they need BB-8's fragment in the first place? Couldn't Han and Leia have just started looking for Luke in the "hole" in R2's map? Yes, that missing piece could contain hundreds of systems, but as we've already seen, in JJ Abrams universe the planets are all just a few miles apart, so it shouldn't have taken very long to search them.

Think of it this way— R2's map shows where Luke isn't, so it seems like it wouldn't be very hard to determine where he is.

Now that I think about it, this is obviously why R2's been "asleep" for thirty years— so the characters couldn't do that exact thing.

• After Han's death, Rey and Chewie blast off in the Millennium Falcon to search for Luke. Why the hell is Rey sitting in the pilot's seat? Shouldn't the ship belong to Chewie now? Why isn't he the captain, and Rey his first mate? Why'd he defer to some teen who's had about an hour of flight time in the Falcon?

The same thing happened at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, when Lando sat in the pilot seat and went off to rescue Han. At least there Lando had the excuse that he owned the Falcon before Han.

• Believe it or not, Mark Hamill is now older than Alec Guiness was when Star Wars was released in 1977. Oy.

• For the first time, Harrison Ford's name appears before Mark Hamill's in the end credits. I can definitely understand why, since Hamill's only in the film for sixty seconds, but it still feels... off somehow.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens could have been an epic new chapter in the franchise, but Disney and JJ Abrams decided to play it safe and tread over very well worn ground, giving us a virtual remake of the original film. The new characters are all likable and compelling, and there are a few enjoyable moments, but the overall unoriginality (yet a third Death Star!) pulls down the score considerably. It deserves a C+ or even a C, but the fan in me who still loves the original film is giving it a B- for old time's sake.

2 comments:

  1. I, for one, welcome your negativity and criticism of what I thought was an ok movie at best. With everyone around me fawning and squealing with joy at how amazing and great this movie was, it's refreshing and satisfying to come across someone else who didn't think it was so goddamned terrific. I absolutely agree on your point about it copy/pasting from the originals, I felt like so much of it was just callbacks and borrowed elements from the old films, I didn't feel like I was watching a new film so much as a tribute or homage to them. So many bits that just seemed to be in there to make fanboys geek out and sell it with nostalgia. The longer I've thought about it and the more I've continued to be told I'm wrong that it was just 'pretty good', the less I like it.

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  2. I think the biggest reason people are flocking to this movie and fawning over it is nostalgia. They're so happy to see a new Star Wars movie in the theater that they're willing to overlook its many flaws.

    Literally everyone I've talked to has said the exact same thing— "I really liked it a lot, even though I had some problems with it, and it's just like the original movie." And then they'll say they want to see it again!

    The same thing happened back in 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out. Fans were overwhelmingly positive about the movie, and once again I think their enthusiasm was fueled by nostalgia. Gradually the glowing reviews turned ugly as people realized the movie just wasn't very good. I'm wondering if that'll happen here as well? A year from now will people still be saying it's the best sequel ever?

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