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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Force in Focus: The Force Awakens

I held this post a few days both to let my own thoughts settle and to prevent any accidental spoilage, but at this point, consider what follows to be filled with tons of spoilers. I'm writing this assuming you've seen the movie already. If you haven't, and don't want to be spoiled, don't read below the image.


So there's a new Star Wars movie out now, and that's pretty awesome. Sitting in a theater, the LucasFilm Ltd. logo shimmering to life followed by "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" heralding the blast of the main theme and the title card, well, that's the experience all other movies aspire towards for me, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a little teared up the first time, just knowing that I was experiencing something I never thought I'd get to experience again, an experience I'll be able to share with my son someday (because now they're going to keep making these movies til long after we're all dead). 

But beyond that, the movie was also pretty good. I have some nitpicks, some things I wish they'd done differently, but for the most part, it was a very enjoyable Star Wars movie, on par with the rest of the films in the saga.

Some Things I Didn't Like
I know Abrams and company wanted to do everything they could to lure in forty-something fans of the Original Trilogy who were jaded by the Prequels (and if you're one of those fans, and you didn't like this...I dunno, maybe Star Wars isn't your thing after all?), but I could have done with a little less rigid adherence to the structure of A New Hope, specifically the Empire-like organization building another planet killing superweapon that needs to be destroyed by flying down a trench and blowing up its weak spot, after Han does something on the ground that lowers the shields (obviously, that last bit is recycled from Jedi). Yes, Han hung a lampshade on it during the briefing scene, which helps, but still, they could have followed the basic structure of A New Hope and still varied those details a bit more.

In terms of structure, I also wasn't too wild about the Han/death gangs/Rathtar showdown sequence - of all the action scenes in the movie, it felt the most gratuitous and Abrams-esque (it reminded me a lot of the "Kirk is chased by a monster on Hoth" sequence from Star Trek). Han gets plenty of other opportunities to shine, and while it did a little to build Rey and Finn's characters, it probably could have been cut without sacrificing too much of that development.

For as many callbacks to the Original Trilogy that were put in (stuff like Luke's training remote and the Dejerik board aboard the Falcon), I would have liked at least one or two pre-existing worlds (like Coruscant) mentioned, at least, and it would have been nice if the new cantina scene had included a few pre-existing alien species from the original cantina, Jabba's palace, or the old Expanded Universe, just to help make the film feel more like a part of that larger world.

Two things the Prequels did really well that this movie needed: first, the Prequels were very clear about what the state of the galaxy, politically-speaking, was throughout the story, the relationship between the Republic, the Trade Federation and the Separatists, as well as the role of the Jedi within those governmental frameworks. Whereas in The Force Awakens, the relationship between the First Order, the Resistance and the New Republic, and how they relate to the former Empire and Rebel Alliance, is extremely muddy (at best). Reading the visual dictionary for this movie (published by DK) sheds some much needed light on this, which helps a lot, but while A New Hope had it easy (the bad guys are in charge) and nobody (except maybe me) wants a Prequels-style sentatorial debate over the nature of democracy in the galaxy, a little more clarity on the relationship of the new political entities would have been nice.

Secondly, the thing the Prequels did best was lightsaber fights. Revenge of the Sith was lousy with them, they more or less salvaged Attack of the Clones, and arguably the best one ever is in The Phantom Menance. The one we got in The Force Awakens was pretty cool, but I wanted more. You can never have enough laser sword fights involving superhuman warrior monks!

(And I understand this was a structural limitation made by the decision to chronicle the awakening of new Force sensitive individuals, but at the same time, the story Han told of Luke training a new generation of Jedi only to run afoul of a bad apprentice is something I'd very much like to see on film, even if, understandably, Abrams and company didn't want to kickoff their new film series by telling that story).

The Things I Did Like
As a vehicle for introducing a new generation of Star Wars heroes, the movie succeeded astonishingly well (even if, ultimately, Kylo Ren turned out to be kind of a chump). Rey, in particular, was tons of fun to watch, moreso than I was anticipating, and I'm legitimately excited to see what happens to the character next. Also, for as much as the plot of the film borrowed its structure liberally from A New Hope, the creators did a masterful job of making sure the central three heroes (Rey, Finn and Poe) weren't just straight analogs of Luke, Han, and Leia. Poe starts off as Leia (delivering secret plans in a droid, captured & tortured, only to be rescued by someone in Stormtrooper attire), but by the end, he's Luke at the end of A New Hope, blowing up the Death Star, with a touch of Han in his cocky bravado. Finn is Luke for awhile, rescuing Poe and wielding Luke's lightsaber, but he's also Han, the former Imperial cadet-turned-traitor, defusing tension with humor. Rey is obviously most like Luke, another Force sensitive laborer on a backwater, desert planet yearning for more, and an accomplished pilot in her own right, but like Han, she shows an affinity for the Millennium Falcon, both in terms of flight and mechanical aptitude, and like Leia, she does a pretty effective job of rescuing herself when the boys come up short.

Hands down my single favorite moment of the film was when Rey Force summoned Luke's lightsaber away from Kylo Ren as the Force theme burst to life.

Similarly, my favorite single image from the movie is the shot of Rey and Kylo Ren forming a slash of lightsaber blades, as Rey forces his blade down while extending her's upward.

Chewie's bowcaster! I'm pretty sure that's the first time we've actually seen the dang thing fire in a movie - all throughout the OT, he usually ended up using a confiscated weapon (we also saw him use his fingers in detail, for the first time, I believe).

I honestly wasn't sure if we'd get any familial revelations this movie, but it turns out that they gave us at least one (and to their credit, it wasn't held until the climax). So one half of the "Rey and Kylo Ren are the Solo twins" theory is intact, with Kylo revealed to be Ben Solo (thus keeping the Ben Skywalker and Jacen Solo of EU fame alive, sort of). The Star Wars saga is, ultimately, a saga about family, and just as the Anakin/Luke dynamic drove much of the first two trilogies, it looks like the Solo family is going to be the main relationship of the new one (I'm still not sure if Rey is Kylo's sister or his cousin; given the way everyone, from Han to Leia to Kylo, seemed to give her the side-eye upon meeting her, it seems likely she's someone's kid or relative).

Han's death - well-executed, I'm really glad he tried to bring back his son, and Adam Driver did a great job selling the conflict in Kylo Ren in that moment without saying a word. Plus, with Han gone, there's more room for Luke awesomeness in subsequent films.

Speaking of Luke, I'm really glad he showed up wearing Jedi robes at the end there - one of the only overt references to something from the Prequel Trilogy in the film.

The sound design work whenever Kylo Ren used the Force was really impressive - it sounded raw and jagged, reinforcing the notion that he's powerful but largely untrained. 

The montage of images Rey experienced when she first held Luke's lightsaber was not only a neat tease of backstory and, presumably, plotlines for future movies to explore, but it also featured the voices of Ewan McGregor & Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan, and it represents a unique stylistic departure for the series, which usually tells its stories in real time, without flashbacks or flashforwards (for example, Luke's Force vision of his friends in danger on Cloud City in Empire is depicted via his words, as the audience watches him, rather than showing the audience what he's seeing). 

I love that the Empire's complete disregard for personal safety carried over into the First Order's design aesthetic; there's barely a railing in sight on Starkiller Base!

It took me until my second viewing to really appreciate it, but the score for this movie really is fantastic, some of Williams' best work in recent years. In addition to the familiar cues like the Force theme and Princess Leia's theme, the new theme for Rey particularly resonated, filled with both the playfulness of Yoda's theme and the yearning of the main Force theme/Luke's theme.

17 comments:

  1. I agree with some of your criticisms. There was a bit too much reliance on the old forumla and I was completely lost with regards to the relationship between the Republic, the New Order, and the Resistance. I also would've liked to see more familiar aliens among the new ones. There are no Twi'leks on Jakku or in the Resistance? The old EU canon generally had them as the most populous species in the galaxy after humans.

    Also, I couldn't understand how Artoo randomly knew to wake up right at the end there. It was annoyingly convenient with no explanation whatsoever. And lastly, how the heck did the Starkiller work? They said it would drain the sun to charge itself. I took that to mean it pulled some power from the sun, but we later learned that it literally drained the sun dry. Would it not then become totally useless and uninhabitable as it was enveloped by ice? Was it intended as a one/two-shot weapon? Or is the idea that it could travel like the Death Star? This was not explained at all.

    But overall, I really liked this movie. Much as I enjoy the prequels, I have to admit this felt more like "classic" STAR WARS than any of those movies did. But part of that is simply due to the participation of the original cast members.

    I liked all three of the new leads quite a bit, but I think Poe is my favorite character. I love the smug cockiness and I hope he gets a bigger role in VIII and IX. I loved the music (more on that below). And while a lot of it was derivative, it was certainly derived well.

    I'm very curious about Rey. I didn't really notice anyone giving her meaningful looks. I'll have to check it out again (as if I need an excuse). I understand keeping secrets from the audience, but if she really is somehow related to the SKywalkers or the Solos, it seems like somoene would have realistically hinted at that, but nobody did. We got the bit where Kylo was extremely unnerved when he learned Finn had escaped Jakku with a girl, but when he met her face-to-face later, there was nothing.

    My favorite line in the movie is easily Han's "That's not how the Force works!" to Finn. Harrison Ford definitely channeled classic Han at several points in the movie, but that delivery was Ford at his Han-iest.

    Among many other things, I'm curious if Captain Phasma survived. It was implied they threw in a trash compactor or something, and the planet blew up shortly thereafter.

    "Hands down my single favorite moment of the film was when Rey Force summoned Luke's lightsaber away from Kylo Ren as the Force theme burst to life."

    I liked that bit too, but for some bizarre reason, the music used there was tracked in from A NEW HOPE when Luke finds Owen's and Beru's corpses. It took me totally out of the movie because that cue is supposed to end with the Death Star fanfare/theme, but instead it just faded out as Rey charged at Ren. It was really, really weird.

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    1. There are no Twi'leks on Jakku or in the Resistance? The old EU canon generally had them as the most populous species in the galaxy after humans.

      Exactly. I don't need them to be main characters, but it only makes sense for at least a few of the background aliens to be from species hardcore fans will recognize. I want to see a Bothan on screen, dang it!

      Also, I couldn't understand how Artoo randomly knew to wake up right at the end there. It was annoyingly convenient with no explanation whatsoever.

      I took it to mean he woke up when Rey "woke up", that Luke told him not to share the map until someone worthy showed an affinity to the Force or something, so Artoo could bring that person to Luke.

      But Abrams has said in interviews since that the real explanation was much lamer: basically, when BB-8 went up to Artoo in the Resistance base, he was like, "hey, I've got part of the map, wake the eff up and give me the rest of it!" and then it just took Artoo a long time to wake up (like your computer starting up) because he had been dormant for so long, and that Abrams specifically had it take a long time so his awakening would happen after the climax, when he felt the audience would need some good news after Han's death.

      And lastly, how the heck did the Starkiller work?

      Yeah, that made very little sense on screen as well, but like the relationship of the various political entities, I assumed some of that is spelled out in one of the guidebooks (probably the cross sections one).

      Harrison Ford definitely channeled classic Han at several points in the movie, but that delivery was Ford at his Han-iest.

      Definitely. That was easily my favorite humorous bit in the movie.

      I'm curious if Captain Phasma survived

      Apparently, she did (though I have no idea how). At least, Kathleen Kennedy has said the whole cast, including Gwendolyn Christie (and not including, presumably, Harrison Ford) is back for Episode VIII.

      the music used there was tracked in from A NEW HOPE when Luke finds Owen's and Beru's corpses.

      Was it literally tracked in, or did Williams just re-use the arrangement? Maybe I liked it *because* it was missing that transition, letting that cue stand on its own for the first time. *Shrug*.

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    2. "I want to see a Bothan on screen, dang it!"

      Which brings up an interesting question (unless it's already been answered in the comics or something): Do Bothans in the new continuity still look like they did in the old? Maybe they've been completely reinvented. They might be lizards or something now!

      "Was it literally tracked in, or did Williams just re-use the arrangement?"

      To my admittedly amateur ear, it sounded tracked from A NEW HOPE. It just sounded different to me from all the other music in the movie. I feel like it wouldn't have thrown me so much if it was a new recording of the original cue.

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  2. "I love that the Empire's complete disregard for personal safety carried over into the First Order's design aesthetic; there's barely a railing in sight on Starkiller Base!"

    I mentioned this after seeing the movie. It seems to be some strange design aesthetic in the STAR WARS universe. The Death Star had smiliar rainglingless walkways over bottomless chasms, and I seem to recall the Naboo reactor core was built that way too.

    "It took me until my second viewing to really appreciate it, but the score for this movie really is fantastic, some of Williams' best work in recent years."

    As is my custom going back to PHANTOM MENACE, I got the soundtrack and listened to it prior to the movie. I like to use the score to increase my anticipation and to try to imagine what might be happening when any particular cue is playing. My wife says it's almost like I'm willfully spoiling myself -- and in a way I am -- but it also leads to some surprises. For example, the Han/Leia love theme plays at the end when Leia hugs Rey. But hearing it on the album, I naturally assumed my theory about Han dying was wrong, and that he would be reunited with Leia at the end. So I was legitimately surprised after all when he died.

    I love Rey's theme, I like "The March of the Resistance", and "Scherzo for X-Wings" is fantastic. Too bad it was almost entirely drowned out by the sound effects. I also love the quick bursts of the "Rebel Fanfare" throughout the movie, especially for that first shot of the Falcon right after Rey calls it garbage. That was just about perfect. (I also like the idea of Han losing the ship to a series of swindlers, because it's kind of classic Han.)

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    1. I did the whole "listen to the soundtrack before the movie thing" for the Prequels, but I didn't for this one, for some reason. Maybe I was worried about spoilers, but then again, the TPM score spoiled Qui-Gon's death and that didn't stop me from listening to the AOTC and ROS scores, pre-movie...

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    2. "Obi-Wan's mentor dies" was hardly an unsuspected development when going into movie. I'd bet in cinema or two there was a call to "come ON, cap the Rob-Roy already!"

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    3. How well I remember picking up the EPISODE I soundtrack at Target in 1999 a week or so before the movie, and seeing the track title "Qui-Gon's Noble End" on the back. It's one of those weird little memories which will stick with me forever.

      Funny, I never considered this, but the original STAR WARS soundtrack had something similar: there's a track called "Ben's Death and TIE Figher Attack". There may not have been as much anticipation for that movie though, since it was the first one, but still I'm sure some people were spoiled if the soundtrack album was released early.

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  3. "Chewie's bowcaster! I'm pretty sure that's the first time we've actually seen the dang thing fire in a movie - all throughout the OT."

    This sentence really got me thinking. In the Force Awakens the Bowcaster is insanely powerful, moreso than a regular blaster, and the entire time I was wondering if he upgraded it or something. But now that you mention it, I don't remember Chewie firing it at all in the OT (Minus the part in ROTJ where he shoots a speeder bike and it explodes). Can anyone clarify this?

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    1. The thing about the bowcaster is, are we really to believe that was the first time in the forty-plus years they've known each other that Han ever tried firing the thing?

      But more importantly -- and at the risk of looking like too much of a nerd even for this crowd -- all the old STAR WARS RPGs generally disallowed people from using bowcasters unless they had great physical strength; the justification being that it was too heavy and unwieldy, and it packed too much of a recoil, for a normal humanoid to use. The movie seems to reinforce this -- if a bowcaster is that powerful, then why doesn't everybody use them?? Why aren't they issued to all Imperial and Rebel troops? I feel like JJ opened a can of worms for the sake of a little gag.

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  4. I feel like I more or less nailed it on the theories post you made a while back Teebore (patting myself of the back).

    I agree with you that there could have been much better explanation as to the Galaxy's political setup, but I assume it will come in the next ones and do kind of like the mystery. If you think back to the original, its not like we knew much then. We got light mentions of the Imperial Senate and the Emperor and that was about it.

    However, saying the prequels were clear in their organization is a bit much. That was one of the most convoluted parts. Why was the Trade Federation's blockade legal? Why weren't the Jedi, who were sent to discover what was up by the Republic, brought in to discuss the situation? Why didn't Dooku know what was up with the Separatists vs. Republic when his master was running the show? Plus a million other similar questions. It was murky as hell. Obviously, the Dark Side was clouding everything, including a coherent plot. I liked the intrigue of that too, but it was not exactly well explained.

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    1. Well, like I said, the political situation in ANH is a lot more straight-forward, so it required less exposition: Empire=bad and in charge, Rebellion=good and wants to be in charge.

      But here, we've got an Empire-like organization that we know from RotJ isn't the Empire, a Rebellion-like organization that's not the Rebellion, and also another thing in the New Republic, and how they all relate is given even less lip service than the idea of a senate in ANH.

      The Visual Dictionary makes it all much clearer, and I do hope they manage to work some of that into subsequent films, just for the sake of audiences that don't read the reference material like I do. :)

      As for the Prequels, while the various plot machinations and who knew-what-when are indeed often murkier than they probably needed to be, I still maintain the relationships of the various political entities was always pretty clear: the Republic is the ruling body, the Trade Federation a commercial (rather than planetary) interest with governmental representation in that body, and, eventually, the Separatists are a group of like-minded planets and local goverments banding together in opposition to the Republic, triggering a civil (clone) war.

      We know which group is the "legit" government and which is the rebellious one, something that isn't terribly clear when it comes to the First Order, the Resistance, and the New Republic.

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    2. When contemplating the Trade Federation, think of the Hanseatic League around the Medieval Baltic Sea. Kings and Counts can write checks all they want but do they have what it takes to actually cash them in the Hansa towns and on the high seas is completely another ball game.

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  5. @Matt

    I am pretty sure R2 wakes up because Rey shows up.

    Its not 100%, but it sure seems like she is Luke's daughter. There was just so much symbolism and slight nods to this being the case, it's tough not to think that is where they are going.

    Making her Han and Leia's daughter requires too much retconning at this point. Luke would have basically had to Force mind-wipe them so they don't remember her, which would be pretty dark.

    Meanwhile, there is a pretty clear path towards Luke wanting his daughter hidden away. Plus, unless the Force is skipping a generation, she was so powerful, its hard to think she is not related more directly to the top Jedi's.

    Overall, I liked the movie quite a bit. It was exciting and well paced, with great characterization.

    My favorite part was the Millennium Falcon dogfight on Jakku. That was just awesome, probably the most intense movie going experience I have had from a visual/sound standpoint.

    I move it way past the prequels in quality. I still think the first trilogy movies are better. This one kind of lacked any true originality, as good as it was in adventure and excitement.

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    1. I'm definitely leaning more towards Rey being Luke's daughter (or totally unrelated) than a Solo (especially Kylo Ren's twin), simply because the mechanics of being a Solo seem iffy at this point: she has to be close to Kylo Ren in age, but if they're twins (or just a few years apart), then why did she get ditched on Jakku? If they were trying to hide her after Kylo Ren went evil, he should be a lot older than her.

      Also, FWIW, on my second viewing, I listened closely to the person grabbing Young Rey in her flashback/fever dream, and it sounds an awful lot like Unkar Plutt, the junk dealer who traded Rey food for parts, and it seems doubtful that either Luke or Han/Leia would knowingly leave their five year old daughter in his care.

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    2. Rey as Luke's daughter seems logical to me, too, though if that's the case then I feel like a little more overt recognition from some of the characters who should know her would've been in order. They didn't have to come out and say it since they want to keep it as a surprise, but they could've hinted a bit more openly that people recognized her.

      Though my brother's current working theory is that she's Yoda's daughter.

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    3. Han certainly looked like he knew who Rey was.

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  6. I liked Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness a lot, and found this movie to just be kind of meh. It was visually fantastic, and I was charmed by crusty old man Solo and crusty old lady Leia, but the new characters were utterly uninteresting to me.

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