Monday, December 28, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force is Meh with this one...

In 1977, Star Wars was a revelation. I never thought of it as science fiction, because it isn't, but it was fantasy that I could love. Give me blasters and spaceships over broadswords and horses any day of the week. And then The Empire Strikes Back came along and it was even better. It's been downhill ever since. The Force Awakens does very little to reverse that.

Some 30 years after the fall of the Empire, a galaxy far, far away is in a state of upheaval. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi Knight, has vanished. In his absence, the First Order has risen up from the ashes of the Empire, and seeks to crush the nascent New Republic. A Resistance stands in opposition, led (at least in part) by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) who sends one of her finest pilots, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on a mission to recover information that may lead to Skywalker's whereabouts because he is, apparently, her only hope. Everything hits the fan.

I'm going to avoid outright spoilers here, but even discussing some of the characters may result in light spoilers and plot details. If you want to avoid all of that because you are one of the two or three people in the world who haven't already seen this film at least once, then let me summarize and say: It's not a bad film, it's just disappointing. "Meh" comes immediately to mind. TFA is also so chock full of setup that I wonder whether it may even be properly reviewed until Star Wars VIII comes out in 2017. Even The Fellowship of the Ring felt more complete, despite being nothing but setup for two more films.

That said, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you got to see characters learn things and evolve. Here, everyone is instantly competent. Discussions about TFA introduced me to a new term, Mary Sue, meaning a character who is ridiculously competent. The internets are alive with the debate as to whether Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a Mary Sue and I'm here to tell you, woo boy, is she ever. She's a scavenger on a desert planet who can fix, quite literally, anything, fly like the best fighter jockey in history, fight with near impeccable skill, and...well, do all sorts of other stuff that we've come to assume requires at least a hint of training. She's absurdly competent.

At least with her erstwhile companion, Finn (John Boyega) there's a vague learning curve, but even here you get flashes that he's a Marty Stu (or is it Gary Stu?), the male equivalent of a Mary Sue. You get a glimpse of his lightsaber duel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in the trailers, and how Finn lasts more than one swing is beyond me.

And please, don't rev up the response that I wouldn't be making these comments if Rey was Ray, a dude, because yes, yes I would. Back in 1977, criticism of Star Wars was rife with the noting that Luke went from zero to hero a little too quickly, but at least within that film there was a hint that Luke may have latent abilities. For example, Luke's father was a Jedi knight so it wasn't surprising that Luke had some talent with the force. Further, Luke was established as being "quite a pilot." These were tossed in lines, but they were something. None of this is present for either Rey or Finn.

It's a leap of faith to believe that all will be explained in the next film, and that's the most serious problem with TFA. It simply isn't a standalone film. Characters have abilities without explanation. Things happen which have no bearing on the story or characters here, but may come to mean something a film or two down the line. This isn't a cliffhanger situation, a la The Empire Strikes Back. This is nothing but threads everywhere, while at the same time representing a sort of "soft reboot" or even an outright remake of Star Wars.

The callbacks, rehashes, repeats, etc., just keep piling up. R2D2 carries information vital to the rebellion in SW; BB8 carries information vital to the resistance in TFA. The main character of each lives a hard life on a desert planet. Cantinas and bands abound. The retreads keep coming at you and bounce you right out of the film. I was no sooner beginning to settle in then, boom, another rehash or callback or whatever the hell you want to call it. Oh look, an old, wizened, and wise tiny alien. Good grief, there's even a rehash of Luke's underground trial in TESB. In SW you have to fly down this narrow trench to hit your target. In Return of the Jedi, you have to fly into the heart of the Death Star. In The Phantom Menace, spinning is a good trick as you fly into the enemy spaceship and blast The Important Component. In TFA, you fly down the trench AND into the installation AND do some spinning, too.

Ugh! There is absolutely nothing new under the sun. TFA is less of a film and more a series of fanfic's greatest hits. No wonder it's a hit because it's rank wish fulfillment.

There are good aspects. I really like Finn and his bromance with Poe. There's an authentic warmth here and I really want to see where they go with Finn's character. I want to like Rey and all may be explained in future films; she may develop into someone I give a flying fig about.

I'm having a love/hate relationship with Kylo Ren. Mask on, he's all menace and threat; mask off, he's a wuss of a first order. And he throws temper tantrums, which is the very definition of weak.

Everyone else generally sucks. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is hilariously awful. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) chews scenery and little else. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) is a Yoda wannabe, while Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) is a throwaway. The greatest sin is Captain Phasma, which is a waste of the (literally) towering talent of Gwendoline Christie; Phasma registers as less than zero and buckles under the slightest of threats.

So, summing up, as it's own film The Force Awakens is a wreck. As the first of a trilogy, it maybe gets the job done, though we won't know until all three films are in the can. I have high hopes for SW VIII because with Rian Johnson it has a vastly superior director at the helm. If the powers that be give him sufficient creative control, he may redeem all that is wrong with TFA and advance the series in much the same way that Irvin Kershner advanced things when following up George Lucas. Until then, TFA is typical JJ Abrams work, which is to say, "Meh."

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