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Date Posted: 09:58:40 01/06/16 Wed
Author: cjl
Subject: My take on STAR WARS and "The Force Awakens" (warning: Death Star-sized spoilers for TFA)

Happy New Year, everybody.

A quick update before I get into the heavy reviewing: we are, for the most part, fine. I am still at the bank, working part-time (still); my wife is teaching fifth grade, getting used to kids who meet her eye-to-eye; and the boy is in first grade, knocking down A’s on his report card. Did I also mention he sang like an angel at his Christmas pageant and he’s now a red belt in tae kwon do? (I didn’t? Well, hang around me long enough, and I’ll work it into the conversation somehow.)

Not everything is good news, though. On New Year’s Eve, we lost one of our family pets, our Maltese, Ruby. Yes, I know she was 14, and she had been sick a long time, but it’s always tough when you have to say goodbye and then come home to that empty space on the couch. (Rest in Peace, Rubes. You can bark at all the strangers in heaven.)

Coming the long way around to the point, I guess I’m working through my melancholy by posting about the one bright spot in what turned out to be a sad Christmas vacation: our family trip to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

A note about my relationship to the Star Wars phenomenon: up until about two years ago, I was never all that invested in this particular universe. I saw the original in 1977, on the big screen, with everybody else in the world, but I think I was too old to be awed by the movie like the wide-eyed pre-adolescents out there. (I was eighteen at the time.) It was fun, it was a lark, I enjoyed it, but I was really a Star Trek guy, and I didn’t consider Star Wars “serious” science fiction, something that dealt with IDEAS.

The Empire Strikes Back changed my mind… somewhat. It was a superior, more mature cinematic experience, and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay clearly brought out the mythological elements that Lucas had been working towards all along. I’ve often mocked the whole Campbell-ian “Hero’s Journey” motif that has become a standard in genre fiction since Star Wars (a few times on this forum!), but let’s face it, when it’s done well, it’s pretty damn powerful:

We see Luke Skywalker grow from callow farm boy to bumbling padawan to full-fledged Jedi Knight. He loses the comfort of the only home he’s ever known, goes out into the big, scary universe, confronts the father figure who demands that he follow a certain path, and after a series of heart-rending trials, forges his own path and redeems the irredeemable. It’s freaking Classic, and Mark Hamill—let’s give it up for Mark Hamill, shall we?—sells every emotion along the way. (Is he the greatest actor in the universe? No. But he got the job done when other actors stumbled over Lucas’ dialogue and were upstaged by the creature features buzzing all around them.)

Luke’s journey was the through line that made the first trilogy cinematic gold, and it rescued Return of the Jedi from being a disaster. Honestly, anyone who’s complaining about The Force Awakens recycling bits from the first three movies needs to go back and watch how ROTJ nearly xeroxed the Death Star assault from the original and hoped we’d be too charmed by the Ewoks to notice. (The Ewoks. Sigh. How can we take the Han/Leia relationship chit-chat seriously when there are teddy bears with headdresses and spears dancing around them?)

And that, unfortunately, brings us to the prequels.

I loved the idea undergirding the prequels: the fall of Anakin Skywalker paralleling the fall of the Republic--absolutely brilliant. I thought Lucas executed the political machinations perfectly: every movie ended with the good guys “winning”, but Palpatine actually took another step forward in his plans for ultimate power. Lucas created a half a dozen new worlds that were just fantastic eye candy; I couldn’t have imagined a better version of Coruscant in a million years. (And Samuel Jackson was a m-f Jedi! How cool was that?)

But George, George, George, oh my god, where was the HEART? The core of the prequel trilogy was the descent of Anakin and the love story of Anakin and Padme, and it was just… laughable. Natalie Portman looked completely lost under Padme’s enormous costumes, and Hayden Christensen… has there ever been a less convincing protagonist? (I’m listening to Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine luring Anakin to the Dark Side in the audience of the opera during Revenge of the Sith; the speech is beautifully written (Tom Stoppard, I believe?), and McDiarmid is playing it like a symphony orchestra, but Christensen just sits there like a block of wood, giving absolutely nothing back. It’s infuriating.)

I think I could have tolerated a dozen Jar Jars and a million of Lucas’ CGI gewgaws if he could have just gotten the central characters right. And what bothers me most is I feel that getting those central characters right just didn’t interest him--he was more interested in moving the emperor’s grand design along and playing with his CGI toolbox than telling a relatable, human story.

It’s a shame, because what makes Star Wars special is that it takes the old story of a young person going out into the world and fighting the beasts and monsters that everyone fights while Growing Up, and puts it in a new context for the modern era--a complete, amazing universe that kids who have never heard of Odysseus or Camelot can take into their hearts as their own. You need both--without the human story, the big, wide universe is just an empty shell; and without a convincing universe surrounding it, the human story is… ah, but I’ll get back to that later.

Fast forward ten years. 2015.

Up until last week, my son had never seen a Star Wars movie.

But damn, that kid knows everything about Star Wars. He’s got Darth Vader and Storm Trooper pajamas, he’s got Star Wars micro-machines by the dozen, there are Lego AT-ATs and snow-speeders and X-wings piled up in our spare room, and a gigantic figure of General Grievous stands guard over the boy’s bedroom, all four light sabers at the ready. There are some nights when he asks me to read him a version of one of the first six movies encapsulated in this Lego book we bought him, and I swear, it’s like I’m reading a passage from the Bible.

So, like most parents of young Star Wars fans, I began to see the saga through new eyes. And when Disney announced they had wrested control of the franchise from Lucas and we were actually (no kidding, no baloney) going to get Episode VII, with all of the “legacy” characters intact, I was excited about a Star Wars movie for the first time since I sat down for the Phantom Menace in 1999. But as the release date approached, I was increasingly apprehensive: movies? (Because you know the boy is going to drag me to all the new movies…)

Well…

Abrams damn near lived up to the hype.

What Abrams accomplished, with the help of Lawrence Kasdan (thank God Disney got him back) was craft a Star Wars movie that was highly (perhaps overly) respectful of the original trilogy, and yet positioned the franchise to travel in new directions—an almost impossible balancing act.

The happiest news is that virtually all of the new characters are good to great. My favorite is John Boyega’s Finn, a Storm Trooper fresh out of training who freezes during his first battle and decides he wants nothing to do with decimating small towns on desert planets and being cannon fodder for generals with galactic ambitions. (I loved that the violence in this movie is more… violent. Not gratuitously violent, but enough so that Finn’s trauma is appropriately wrenching and his change of heart is convincing. It also makes you think about the poor bastards behind those white helmets, and that’s not a bad thing.) Boyega’s face shows you every feeling coursing through Finn, probably as he’s experiencing them for the first time, and it’s just a joy to watch.

Finn’s openness and emotional vulnerability makes him the perfect “focal point” character to establish relationships between the newbies. In about fifteen minutes of screen time, he has a sweet little bromance with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs). Poe’s super-coolness calms Finn down a bit, and he leaves Finn a jacket that represents a mission, a purpose, and something to aspire to (even if Finn is too panic-stricken to realize it at the time). That gets him over his initial “what the hell am I doing here?” jitters, and sets him up for the meeting with Rey.

If you’re going to have a first crush on a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is probably as good as you’re going to get: tough, resourceful, courageous, intelligent, ace pilot and mechanic, with gorgeous skin and perfect hair (really, all that heat and sand on Jakku doesn’t seem to bother her complexion at all). Going from zero to Jedi in 2.5 seconds, she’s less desert scavenger and more the goddess Diana descending from Olympus. Finn seems to look at her with a combination of desire and awe (and no wonder).

Now, in case you think I’m one of those fanboys who’s complaining that Rey is a “Mary Sue”—I’m not. But there’s always a problem with a character who’s just a little too perfect; for a protagonist to truly connect with an audience, she needs to have her moments of doubt or pain. I’m not saying she needs to be rescued by the big, strong male hero at some point in the movie—Rey’s too tough a cookie for that to happen—but I do want to see her struggle a bit on the road to her glorious destiny. Fortunately, I think Abrams gives her enough of those moments to make her a compelling character—especially during the interrogation scene with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

That scene is probably my favorite in the whole movie. Just Ridley and Driver in the room, no special effects in the background—everything depends on dialogue, facial expression and body language. And it is electrifying. First of all, the set-up for the scene is incredibly disturbing—a young woman shackled in a room, with a man in a black mask approaching her in an unquestionably menacing fashion. I know this is Star Wars, and the idea of sexual assault is about a million light-years from anybody’s mind—but with a female protagonist, that specter is always present, and I think Ridley plays off that nagging fear in the audience. Rey is terrified here, not only because of what Kylo Ren might do to her body, but because of what he could do to her soul.

But what’s truly remarkable about the scene is that when Kylo Ren takes off his mask and reveals his relatively unremarkable face, the scene gets even creepier. Kylo Ren isn’t some ogre from a fairy tale, or a scarred, misshapen monster like Darth Vader—he’s a peer, a kid like the rest of the newbies, a confused man-child with some post-adolescent pock marks of acne. He’s what Rey and Finn could be if they take a wrong turn, and that makes him even scarier. So when Rey swallows her fear, digs down deep inside herself, and fights back with the Force, it’s her biggest triumph of the movie. (Again, just excellent acting from Ridley and Driver, on a level we never saw in the prequels, and rarely saw in the original trilogy…)

Young girl pursued down dark alley, turns around and kills the monster. Yes, you could say it was Rey’s BUFFY moment.

And if Rey is our Star Wars Buffy, filling in for Rupert Giles? Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Han Solo. If Luke Skywalker isn’t around, and Leia’s busy leading her army, then somebody has to take the young’uns under his wing, and Han Solo is the perfect man for the job. Harrison Ford can talk all he wants about how he doesn’t love Han as much as he loves Indy, but he dives into this movie in full Corellian swagger, dishing out blaster fire and one-liners with style, and always taking great pleasure in puncturing the pomposity of the franchise (“The Force doesn’t work that way!”).

And yet, for all the joy in seeing Han come home to the Falcon, trading snark with Chewbacca like the old days, there’s no doubt that Han is a sad figure here. Thirty years after we left him and how’s he doing? Is he the head of the largest trading conglomerate in the galaxy? Manufacturing the newest and fastest spacecraft in the universe? Co-president of the New Republic, side by side with his beloved Leia? Nope. He’s running the same old scams, wearing the same old jacket, and his wife is nowhere in sight. Ben turning to the Dark Side ripped them apart, ripped him apart, and when he finally comes face to face with his son on the catwalk, it’s almost as if Han is asking Ben/Kylo to put a stop to HIS pain, not vice versa. When Ben chooses Snoke as a father, Han is dead even before the light saber shoots through his chest. (Poor Han. He should have known that marrying into the Skywalkers never ends well. They’re a toxic family, like the Medicis. Or the Kardashians.)

But even though Han’s story ends as a tragedy (for now), he gets the job done. He shepherds the newbies through the crucible, he says one final farewell to Leia, and two generations of cute droids put their heads together, and the gang finds Luke. All during the battle against Return of Son of Death Star, I was saying to myself, “I don’t really care about this. I know they’re going to blow it up, because they always find a way to blow it up. When are they going to get Hamill up there?” But the ending is perfect. Rey carrying the Skywalker family light saber up those ancient steps, carrying Excalibur back to Arthur just before we go to credits. It’s the perfect set-up for Episode VIII—despite the threat of the First Order, there are limitless possibilities ahead. A new generation. A new hope.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this movie, and the entire family is looking forward to the next two installments. (And the Han Solo solo movie! Let’s see Young Han make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, skirting the event horizon of black holes in The Maw while dodging TIE fighters, screaming at Chewie to shut up and fix the hyperdrive…)

But TFA isn’t perfect. There is one huge flaw, one that I touched on earlier…

No, it’s not the concept of “fan service.” I enjoyed all the callbacks to the original trilogy, to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and to the Samurai and Arthurian epics of our collective childhood. (When the Rathtar rolled toward Harrison Ford like a huge boulder with teeth, I almost shouted, “Run, Indy!”)

No, my problem was that the universe wasn’t big enough.

When the opening fanfare comes up and the crawl pops up on the screen for Episode VII, the first thing we learn about the post-ROTJ world is: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”

WRONG!

No offense, but really, if you have to live in the Star Wars universe, who cares about Luke Skywalker? (Is he even a real person?) The First Order has picked up where the Empire has left off, they’re tearing through the galaxy like a plague, they’re this close to perfecting a super-weapon that eats SUNS, for crying out loud, and you’re telling me a guy with a light stick has disappeared? WHO CARES?!

What’s the situation in the rest of the galaxy? What’s the New Republic doing about the First Order? Why is Leia Organa of what-used-to-be Alderaan leading “The Resistance”, like she’s still a rebel general fighting the Empire? (The good guys won in Episode VI, right?)

What we’re missing here is CONTEXT, the sense of a larger universe framing the human story. Long after the movie ended, I read about deleted scenes that would have shown Leia and her associates desperately trying to prod the know-nothing politicians of the New Republic into action against the First Order, and failing miserably. Those scenes would have explained that the Resistance is, in effect, Leia’s private army—which, in my eyes, makes our favorite princess even more awesome. When they heard about those scenes, a lot of movie critics blinked and said, “Huh. That would have explained a lot.”

Yes, it would have. But we don’t have the Disney-certified supplementary materials on the armrest when we go to the movies, so those points are not explained at all in the film itself, and we’re left to do a lot of head-scratching. It may seem like a small point to some of you out there, explaining the larger situation in the universe, and maybe it brings to mind talk of trade routes to Naboo and Separatists. (Blurgh.) But we need this stuff to some degree; if we don’t get the sense of a big, scary universe out there, a universe where important things happen away from our heroes’ story, the playing field shrinks to become our heroes’ personal toy box. The threat from outside forces becomes a little less real, and the human drama loses some of its power.

The idea of the universe as the main characters’ personal toy box isn’t helped by some of the narrative shortcuts in the movie. What are the odds that the Millennium Falcon is on the junk heap on Jakku, just a few meters from where Rey and Finn are dodging First Order fighters? What are the odds that Han and Chewie pick up the Falcon in what seems like minutes after Finn and Rey have left Jakku’s orbit? What are the odds that the Skywalker light saber is in Maz Kanata’s castle, just waiting for Rey to have her vision? Okay, I realize that you only have two hours to tell this epic story, and sometimes, you’ve just gotta move that sucker along. But I hate it when stuff happens because the plot says it’s got to happen now; Abrams, Kasdan, and Michael Arndt are great writers, and they should have been able to work around these problems to give us (IMO) a more dramatically satisfying film.

But, unlike the pitiful attempts at human drama in the prequels, this flaw isn’t fatal to the movie. The new generation—well-drawn characters, both good and evil—brings more than enough excitement to the screen for compensate for any narrative shortcomings. And hopefully--since Abrams has righted the ship--director Rian Johnson will take Episode VIII into more dangerous, uncharted waters. (Same advice to Rian as we had for JJ: DON’T SCREW IT UP.)

Phew! That was quite the core dump, wasn’t it? Hope you enjoyed my personal views on all things Star Wars, and—comment, please! (Pretty please?) I don’t want this to be a forum about aerial antenna installation. Masq deserves better than that.

Bye now.

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