Monday, December 21, 2015

Movie Reviews: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
directed by J.J. Abrams
My Dad took my brother and me to see the first Star Wars movie all those years ago. That is a good memory. It was quite the event. Afterwards we had a great steak dinner at Flaming Embers. Good times. So I was interested to see the new Star Wars movie, even though I was a little leery of the director. Now I am unfamiliar with and don't really care about all of the expanded universe stuff that never made it to the canonical films. SO maybe some of those questions are answered there. But as far as I can tell at the end of the first trilogy, the good guys won. The Emperor and Darth Vader were defeated. The Republic was restored. Wasn't that the case? Apparently if that happened it wasn't for long. Because in The Force Awakens, the Empire or at least an Empire inspired bunch of counterrevolutionaries, has been reconstituted as The First Order. We know that these are the bad guys because they have storm troopers and prefer a Nazi inspired sartorial color scheme of red, black and white. Some of the crowd scenes also appear lifted from Pink Floyd's The Wall. The bad guys and bad girls all appear quite dashing if you're into that sort of thing. And what do these folk want to do? They want to do the same thing the bad guys and girls always want to do. Take over the world! Or in this case the Universe. Again, maybe this was all explained elsewhere but for me anyway a tiny little bit of exposition would have been helpful. The First Order has a tremendous number of soldiers and informers. They're armed to the teeth with the best military equipment. Where did they come from? How did they get so powerful? Are they all disgruntled ex-Empire soldiers who were dismissed from their positions? They are opposed by the Republic and The Resistance. At this point shouldn't The Republic and The Resistance be the same thing? But I guess none of that is really that important in the big scheme of things.

People I respect have threatened bloody murder should I reveal any spoilers. Hmm. Well that's actually pretty easy to do and easy not to do. This film is just a remake/reboot of the 1977 movie. If you've seen that film or are just familiar with it via cultural osmosis The Force Awakens not only won't have any surprises, it will also have damn near the exact same storyline and conflicts.
To wit:

  • A white robed person grows up on a desert planet living hand to mouth.
  • A droid has really important information that is critical to both sides of the conflict.
  • The aforementioned droid fortuitously winds up with the impoverished white robed person.
  • The bad guys include an officious general and a weird fellow in a black suit with Force abilities. They don't care for each other all that much.
  • There's a weapon which can destroy planets.
  • There are sinister junkmen/traders who will sell out the good guys for profit.
  • There's a chubby guy in an X-Wing fighter who gets to say "I'm hit!" before his disintegration.
  • An outsider is tricked/manipulated/guilt tripped into helping the good guys because deep down inside he's a good guy.
  • Princess Leia gives off her trademarked non-nonsense aura.
  • A wise mentor dies(or does he) at the hands of the villain in black

And so on. The only real differences are that the hero in The Force Awakens is not a man but a woman. Unfortunately this woman is a true Mary Sue. There is nothing that Rey (Daisy Ridley) can not do in the movie, raising the uncomfortable question of why she needed any of the other actors. This is not the fault of the actress. I think that she did well with the role. This is entirely the fault of the writer and director. In order to be the hero you need to have something to overcome-internally and externally. Rey is shown as hypercompetent at EVERYTHING. She has no flaws or weaknesses. So she's boring. There's no opportunity for growth or conflict. There was much media and online attention paid to the fact that Finn (John Boyega-last seen by me in Attack the Block) was black and presumably the hero or at least one of the heroes. That was pretty obviously bait and switch for some or perhaps trolling of others.. While Finn's not quite comic relief his role does come perilously close to that at times. He's more or less incompetent and has to be saved by many of the other characters. And you could argue that he plays the Sleeping Beauty role. All of this would have been tolerable if Finn was actually good at anything. But he's not. He's earnest, and that's about it. Perhaps his role will be expanded in the sequels. But much like Prince albums or Spike Lee movies I think I will wait to see what other people say of the sequel before I venture to spend my money on it.

If you were looking for a film with a black male hero, this wasn't the movie you were looking for. This is Rey's story all the way.  Again, I don't mind that all that much, but I can't help but think that this sort of thing was better done in Big Trouble in Little China. The white hero (Kurt Russell) saves the day but mostly by accident. His Chinese friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is shown throughout the film as just as competent, if not more so. It's an alliance of equals. This isn't the case in The Force Awakens. Rey doesn't need Finn and lets him know that just about every chance she can. And she's right. Finn brought very little to the story. He's a renegade sanitation engineer. I didn't think it was necessary to almost make Finn a butt monkey in order to raise up Rey. Although the female character who screams and faints anytime anything happens is a useless stereotype better left to some late fifties Hammer films, it's also a useless stereotype when a female character is better at everything than her male counterparts.

Anyway, that aside this film had the normal special effects, swelling music and sound, duels and familial reveals that you've come to expect from the Star Wars franchise. But it just didn't reach me on the mythic level which the first film did. It's very well made with some enjoyable moments. It was good but by no means great. But I've just moved on in my life. Bottom line is that if you were too young to see the original Star Wars this will do nicely. But for me it felt like a pale imitation. It also bothered me a bit that every time a bad guy makes a Death Star, some plucky good guy blows it up. It would seem that after this has happened a few times, the bad guys would try to think outside the box and do something a little different. Don't they teach that in "Smashing your Enemies 301: Do the Unexpected" at Evil Overlord Academy?  Adam Driver is Kylo Ren, Darth Vader 2.0. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamil and Carrie Fisher all reprise their original roles. Oscar Issac is Poe Dameron, the Resistance's most skilled pilot. Gwendolyn Christie is Captain Phasma, a First Order devotee. Lupita Nyong'o is Maz Kanata, a thousand year old pirate/smuggler with information about the missing Jedi.
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