Underwhelmed by the Force

I know what people are going to say. First, I am going to get accused of click-baiting. The only reason I am criticizing this film is to get attention, they’ll say. This is, perhaps, what is most depressing. Social media creates peer pressure, to the point where you’re afraid to voice your true feelings. Whether it’s 97% for Star Wars or 14% for Fantastic Four, the hype train takes on a life of its own, and everyone is expected to get on board. It reminds me of middle school. My sandwiches were getting smashed in the paper bags we used to carry, but only babies bring lunch boxes to the cafeteria, until you get to college, that is. Then they’re hip and retro.

swlunchbox

Not cool for middle school.

For the past fifteen years, I have defended the prequels, not because of some blind love for all things Star Wars, but because I actually (call me crazy) loved the movies. Now, in many ways, I feel that I owe the haters an apology, but not for the reasons you might expect. I now know the crushing disappointment they must have felt in ’99, and I can relate to their need to vent.

Star Wars has always meant different things to different people. For some, it is a gritty space-adventure with zingy one-liners. But for me, Star Wars is boundless imagination, spectacle and inventiveness epic in scope, sheer visual poetry. Lucas uses the screen like a painter does a canvas. You can just freeze the frame and hang it on your wall. His worlds feel alive even when you’re not watching. He is like a documentarian, only filming what he found. We may not have understood the political machinations of the Galactic Senate, but that was the whole point. Like THX1138 and American Graffiti, Star Wars was “found footage.” This has always been Lucas’ style, and it’s one of the reasons I love his films.

With the prequels especially, Lucas had something to say. Despite most people not wanting to think (just look at the travesty that is the Trek franchise) he espoused philosophies and explored political ideas. Maybe the dialogue felt wooden, and the acting abysmal, but at least his characters had something interesting to say. I’ll take Padme’s, “This is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause,” over 2 1/2 hours of vacuous lines—however well delivered—any day.

People act as if Lucas suddenly became interested in effects, at the expense of story, but this is demonstrably not true. The original trilogy was cutting-edge for its time, and George used every technique available to him, limited only by what he could imagine. When we got to the prequels, he did what he knew best, pushing the visual envelope. Now, for the first time in Star Wars history, the franchise has taken a deliberate step backward. While everything in Episode VII feels more gritty and real (JJ uses almost entirely real sets on real locations), what does it matter, when we’ve seen these places before, in other films, and with our very own eyes? I’ve walked through a forest before, and a beach, and a snowy mountain. I don’t need to go to a galaxy far, far away to visit Jakku. Heck, my parents went there this summer; it’s called Dubai. And if I had a Millennium Falcon, I sure as heck wouldn’t take a trip to Clearwater Beach, 10 miles down the road. I’d want to see a giant sinkhole planet, like Utapau, or a termite-mound world like Geonosis, or the planet-wide cityscape of Coruscant. I’ll take imaginative and unconvincing over boring and realistic any day. National Geographic may look more believable than anything Frazetta can paint, but what does it matter, when we’re talking Sci-Fi/fantasy?

frazettascape

Looks fake? Who cares!

Now, I’d be willing to overlook the mundane settings if at least the story was original, but it isn’t. The Force Awakens is a near-identical retelling of A New Hope, only, and I am not kidding here, the ’77 version told it a lot better. And if you are reading this and want to remain spoiler free, this is your last warning:

 

—- SPOILERS AHEAD —-

So, the day before I go into the movie, I am having a conversation with my nephews, and here is what I said, “I bet Kylo Ren is going to end up being somebody’s son, either Luke’s or Han’s.” It was Han’s. “I bet Finn holding a lightsaber on the poster is a red-herring. At the very end, Rey is going to pull out a lightsaber, proving (to herself and the audience) she is a Jedi.” This is exactly what happens. But this is the worst part, “I really hate that Starkiller base is a knock-off of the Death Star. It’s bad enough we have a Vader clone, more tie fighters and more X-Wings, but did we really need another super weapon? I swear, if they have to fly their X-Wings inside of it, to blow up some tiny reactor so that it implodes, I am going to be really pissed.” But my older nephew gave me hope. “Maybe not,” he said, “maybe JJ will do something cool and unexpected, like have Luke pull a moon down on top of it, destroying it with the Force. Remember how Yoda said, ‘Size matters not?'” Had they done that, it would have been amazing. In fact, his idea made me consider how JJ could take a familiar element (like the Death Star) and do something unique with it. Alas, we got nothing of the sort. I predicted almost the entire movie, scene for scene. Now compare The Force Awakens to the first Star Wars sequel. Who could have imagined, after A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back? With the introduction of Yoda, and Vader telling Luke, “I am your father,” and Han getting frozen in carbonite? Had Lucas let 20th Century Fox make a sequel to Star Wars in 1980, I imagine we would have gotten something like VII. There’s even a character in it, Maz Kanata, reminiscent of Yoda, and an Emperor-type character, who appears only as a hologram, Supreme Leader Snoke.

I admit, I was excited about seeing Snoke and Kanata. Up to that point, the absence of CGI is bluntly apparent, an effort to pander to the haters and apologize for Jar Jar Binks. So many puppets and costumes are on display here, that the movie, at times, looks outdated. Considering modern Sci-Fi, like Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s kind of ridiculous. Unconstrained by the weight of nostalgia, director James Gunn was free to try new things, and embrace modern effects, something Star Wars has long prided itself on. I don’t care what people say, CGI creatures look more real to me, because they move more fluidly, and their expressions are more lifelike. Why else did nobody think to use a hand puppet for Rocket Raccoon? So, I figured, at least we get to see some aliens that look alive. Only, these CGI characters could not be more boring. Supreme Leader Snoke, particularly, looks so human, I don’t know why they didn’t just make him human, or an actor in makeup. It makes the CGI look less convincing than Jar Jar.

All this aside, I did not hate the film. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed it, mostly for the nostalgia trip that it was. Watching the Falcon dodging tie fighters, and seeing the old gang together again, was great. Newcomer Daisey Ridley also gives a superb performance as Rey. But if Star Wars did not precede the title, the movie would not be causing such a stir, or come close to making the 2 billion it will undoubtedly make. As a standalone film, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy and even The Martian are better. But Star Wars has a history behind it, a pedigree of expectation, and this was the first time in the series that I walked out of the theater not feeling thrilled or inspired, or even really wanting to see it again. Even John Williams’ score, which never fails to impress, is routine. I can’t think of a single memorable piece of music, nothing to compare with Duel of the Fates or Across the Stars. Perhaps most disappointing for me, The Force Awakens gives us little to nothing to talk about, and I doubt anyone will be discussing it, or debating it, in the next ten years.

At this point, I realize, it doesn’t matter what I think. Episode VII is riding a wave of positivity, and any dissenting opinion (like mine) is bound to get washed away. But to the people who really loved this movie, I only ask, “Does this improve on the Star Wars saga as a whole? Were we not better off, leaving it at Return of the Jedi?” Lucas said he never made a VII because there was no more story to tell. And, quite honestly, it saddens me to know that Han is killed by his own son, and that he and Leia don’t get to live happily ever-after, and that Luke becomes a hermit somewhere. Jedi was the perfect ending to a perfect story. Now, we have this ugly, uninspired imitation tacked on to it. While I am happy to see my favorite franchise return, I would have preferred a clean slate in another era, perhaps something along the lines of Knights of the Old Republic, but then Disney would not have been able to cash-in on the nostalgia trip.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Underwhelmed by the Force

  1. I had read some of your posts before, and I think you make great, well argued points here. Like you, I enjoyed the movie, and if they nail the 2 sequels it can turn out to be quite good in retrospect despite the lack of inventiveness, but as you imply it is far from being a given and it is certainly not “crushing the prequels by writing the wrongs” or any such crap. I just wrote my own long reaction on the mf.com boards, and I do read similar views online more and more, which is kind of healthy… so the wave of “positivity” is strong, but not that strong, all fans are not conform stormtroopers.
    Cheers from France, keep sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Xavier. Yes, I am seeing more and more dissatisfaction with the film. But I am not a hater. My hope is that Disney will listen to us, the way they listened to the fans who complained about the prequels, and give us something new. I am also hoping that, now that they have the support of the “OT only” fans, they won’t be afraid to take a bold new direction. And if you think about it, how derivative could the next one possibly be? VII copied most of IV and V. I don’t think there is too much more to copy, to be honest. I mean, what can they do, Death Star #4? An assembly line of Death Stars? The next film is also being helmed by a different director, Rian Johnson. While not the biggest name in Hollywood, at least his films, Brick and Looper, had a spark of originality. Here’s hoping!

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  2. I laughed at the irony of trying to be “real” when all I saw were puppets with robotic motions. So much for suspension of disbelief.

    And did anyone notice goats (Jakku village) and seagulls (Luke’s hermit planet)? Come on, seriously? That’s not a galaxy far far away. And the whole lack of creativity. All I saw were humans. The only place with aliens was the cantina (erm, sorry. Maz’s castle). And personally, the alien design was not very appealing.

    The story was also contrived and full of holes. Of all the places in the galaxy, they went to the very place of the person who had Anakin’s lightsaber? Why didn’t R2 wake up when BB-8 went to him for the first time? He had the missing part of the map. Why is there a Resistance when a Republic already exists? Why does this Resistance, with the support and resources of the Republic, is smaller and more limited than the rebel group that attacked the first Death Star? Why is Luke the last of the Jedi (again)? Not a single new Jedi survived? Why isn’t Coruscant the capital? Why didn’t Luke go to the Jedi Temple. So many questions and yet nothing was explained.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. I usually don’t mind minor plot holes and contrivances, if the movie is at least original, has something profound to say, or is beautiful to look at. None of these seemed to be the case, however, with the exception of the Millennium Falcon maneuvering through the ruins of that Star Destroyer. I also found a lot of the practical effects to be downright fake looking. It is utterly preposterous that in 2015, the director of a Star Wars film is forced to rely on outdated techniques dating back to the 70’s, because fans in their 50’s can’t accept that TIMES HAVE CHANGED, and that CGI is the way Fantasy/Sci-Fi films are made nowadays. Who complained about Groot or Rocket Raccoon in “Guardians of the Galaxy”? Nobody. They were utterly convincing. But because of the haters, we have to watch this clunky looking robo-elephant (what the heck was that thing, anyway) hobbling along on what looked too obviously like a couple of guys on stilts. The movie also lacked scope, again, due to JJ’s refusal (or fear of, more likely) of CGI. The Resistance base looked like it was filmed in my backyard. How many X-Wings did they have? Four? Five? To take down a space station the size of a planet? We can only hope that, now that the old fans are on board with this new series, Disney and Rian Johnson won’t be afraid to give us something new (and mind blowing).

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  3. Nick, you are being way too kind to this movie. It was so bad, I wanted to walk out of the theater. First, the camera angles were horrid and were not in the style of the previous six SW movies. It had way too many close shots and not near enough panoramic wide view shots. The camera just did not maintain the kind of integrity it does in the previous films. For that reason alone the prequels are far better. This film could have been shot in my apartment. What is the point of going to a “real desert” if you can’t get wide enough shots to allow us to experience that “real desert”? What is the point of going to a “real desert” if you can’t slow the movie down enough so that we can experience it? As a result of the back-to-back action sequences, we really don’t get a chance to know the characters very well.

    Also, John Williams soundtrack and Ben Burtt’s sound effects aren’t given enough room to breath and assist in telling the story. Much has been made of the surprisingly lackluster score, but I also couldn’t believe it was Ben Burtt doing the sound effects, because they just didn’t sound like Ben Burtt. The music and sound effects just seemed tacked on, they didnt seem like they were actually telling the story.

    As a result of the hectic pacing between action scene and action scene and action scene, a lot of the scenes are not given the dramatic weight that they need. Are you going to try to convince me that a planet can use the sun’s rays to blow up several other planets? Well then, you had better make an event out of that. But because of the ridiculous hectic pacing of action sequences before it, it just seems like another tacked on sequence. And the beam spreading into several other beams that shoot in different directions? That makes the lava surfing in episode 3 look restrained.

    The humor in this movie is badly misplaced. Its nothing like the subtle humor in the OT, and the slapstick humor in the PT at east made sense to the characters that were committing the humor, and it made sense in the situation that they were in. If Jar Jar was taken captive and brought to confront a Sith lord, he would be scared out of his mind. He wouldn’t make stupid jokes in front of him like , “So you talk first or I talk first?” (wasn’t that his dad that just got killed by Ren?). In general this felt like a Marvel movie and not a SW movie.

    The characters acted too much like regular people – again – like a Marvel movie. They talked too much like regular people, and not like the mythic archetypes that they should sound like.

    The only good thing about TFA is that it shows how superior Lucas is to hacks like RLM and Simon Peg. It shows just how much he had his finger prints on the OT. The entire prequel trilogy – especially ROTS – is far closer to the style of TESB than this piece of drivel is. The idea that Lucas had nothing to do with the execution of TESB has been exposed as a complete lie.

    Go to the metacritic user reviews and you will see that this movie is not getting anywhere near as good of a reception as the conventional wisdom would have you believe. Even the “mixed” reviews seem far more negative than positive, and a lot of them are saying that it is a fair movie, but a “bad SW movie”. If you add the negative and “mixed” reviews together, that would put the reception about equal to TPM.

    http://www.metacritic.com/movie/star-wars-episode-vii—the-force-awakens/user-reviews

    Here is a good you tube review about TFA. The last 2 minutes addresses the dialouge issue very well.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Texas! For the most part, I agree with everything you’ve said.

      The comedy, I felt, was in keeping with the “witty banter” from the originals. I also remember a lot of people complaining about the humor in the prequel films, especially regarding Jar Jar. They felt that kind of kiddie slap-stick didn’t belong in a Star Wars film, and it did seem in stark contrast to what we had seen before, in Episodes IV—VI. But it didn’t bother me too much. Lucas took things in a new directions with the prequels, just as JJ seems to be taking cues from modern Marvel films for this sequel trilogy.

      I agree more about the visuals. Lucas is unparalleled when it comes to visual story telling. You can watch his films with the sound turned off and still come away with a good understanding of the story. His frequent use of wide shots gives you a sense of the scope and scale of the Star Wars universe, something that was sorely lacking with Episode VII. That being said, JJ does pull the camera back a few times. The panning shot of the crashed Star Destroyer is perhaps the best shot in the film. The problem, I think, is that most of these shots are boring, and tell you very little about the world you are looking at. When Finn climbs over the sand dune and sees that small encampment on Jakku, you could just as well be watching “Lawrence of Arabia.” Nothing screams, “this is a galactic civilization.” Even if the point was to show a barren, desolate wasteland, we learn almost nothing about the other planets. Maz Kanata’s Bar & Grill could have been filmed in Florida. The Resistance base looked like it housed about 4 X-Wings. Leia’s command station could have been filmed in JJ’s garage, for all we see of it. The end result is a movie that feels small, low budget, the kind of Sci-Fi you’d see pre-Star Wars. The worst offender, however, has to be Starkiller Base. “A New Hope” does a wonderful job establishing the ominous size of the Death Star. It’s intimidating and it looks indestructible. When Han says, “attacking that thing is suicide,” you can’t help but believe him. When Luke fires his torpedo and blows it up, it feels like a miracle. In contrast, when Starkiller base is on screen, it’s just there, without fanfare, or build up. Poe Dameron seems to be having fun flying through it, like he’s playing, dare I say it, “a video game.”

      As for the music, I agree it felt muted, but I don’t think we can lay the blame on Williams. Ultimately, the director decides how to use the music. On several occasions, Lucas drops the sound effects to focus on music alone; he also does the reverse, dropping the music to focus on sound. JJ doesn’t seem to get this. Star Wars is like opera. The music is half the story.

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    2. My thoughts exactly. Thank you Texas Warrior. And thanks to Nick, Mike Klimo (Ring theory rules!) and everybody else who stopped by. Good to see thinking people.

      Liked by 1 person

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