movies Uncategorized

What worked (and what didn’t) in ‘The Force Awakens’

Yesterday, I complained about the convenient coincidences that litter J.J. Abrams’ Force Awakens film. In hindsight, I probably should have first explained how much I enjoyed the movie, then moved on to pedantic quibbles.

Better late than never, right? Here are the things I liked—and a few more I didn’t—about the latest Star Wars film. Major spoilers below!

The good

  • The Force Awakens doesn’t over-explain every little detail. We’re told that the village elder who hands over the Skywalker map is an “old friend” —but we don’t know anything else about him. Similarly, Han Solo references new misadventures with Chewbecca, but these are left to audience’s imagination. We learn that Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Preparatory School crashed and burned, but we don’t know why or how. Suddenly, the Star Wars universe feels big again—as if the franchise has many stories left to tell.
  • When Stormtrooper FN–2187 (later “Finn”) attends to a fallen comrade on Jakku, his helmet gets smeared with a bloody handprint. That’s clever filmmaking; the mark makes it easy for us to the audience to distinguish him from his white-clad colleagues.
  • I love BB–8. That droid has more personality than most human characters from the prequels.
  • Rey is fantastic. She has an interesting backstory, she’s capable, she’s vulnerable, and she’s playful. I love how the film subverts the traditional “damsel in distress” trope; Rey doesn’t really need Finn to rescue her, and she resents his attempt to play her “knight in shining armor.” I can’t wait until my daughter’s old enough to watch Awakens; I’m glad to have mainstream entertainment that I don’t have to revise for her sake.
  • The movie covers a lot of ground, but it also takes the time to tell Rey’s story properly. We understand her, because we see her life in detail. We know she’s bold, because we see her confidently exploring a cavernous wreck. We know she’s lonely, thanks to her chalk-mark calendar. We know she’s afraid that she’ll never escape Jakku, because we see her watching the elderly scavenger. He know she’s desperate, because she wolfs down her insta-bread. We know she’s got a adventurous streak, because she gazes in wonder at a departing starship. With very little dialogue, we’ve learned exactly who this character is. By the time the sequence ends, we’re fascinated and eager to see what’s next for her.
  • Kylo Ren’s a fun baddie. He may look and sound like Vader, thanks to that bizarre mask. But this character isn’t a rehash. In fact, Ren’s temper tantrums and occasional missteps make him more intriguing than Vader ever was.
  • The bickering between the imperial commander and Kylo Ren felt real to me. Ren subverts the First Order’s clean chain of command in an unpredictable, interesting way.
  • There’s real camaraderie between Finn and Poe Dameron. Their excited banter in the TIE fighter made me grin.
  • Han Solo worked well as this movie’s “Obi-Wan.” After his lackluster recent career, Harrison Ford deserves credit. So do the film’s writers; they made us care about Han Solo again (after his boring Return of the Jedi sleep-walk).
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force guru, is the best CG character I’ve ever seen, besting both Davy Jones and Gollum. I was particularly impressed with the character’s facial expressiveness.
  • I loved that we hear Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice during Rey’s vision. Force ghosts are speaking to her, but she’s not quite attuned enough to hear them yet.
  • Han Solo’s murder helps cement Kylo Ren as a bad guy. I despise Ren more fervently than I ever did Darth Vader or the Emperor. Yes, I’m bummed that Solo’s gone, but I’m glad he was sacrificed for a good cause: to make the new trilogy’s villain compelling.
  • I loved the movie’s last scene: the swelling orchestration of the Force theme, the dramatic reveal of Skywalker’s face, and the proffered lightsaber (a wordless invitation back to the fight). That’s how you do a cliffhanger.

The bad

  • See yesterday’s post for nitpicky gripes about the plot line.
  • Does the Republic exist simply to be destroyed by the First Order? I understand the basic conflict between the Order and the Resistance. But then there’s the Republic, which we learn has its own fleet. Why weren’t they fighting the First Order? Why leave your defense to a ragtag insurgency with no big ships? And even if the Republic had underestimated the danger posed by the First Order, why doesn’t its fleet come charging in once Starkiller Base destroys the galactic capital?
  • Snoke didn’t quite work for me. I get that he’s this film’s Palpatine—a mysterious menace who won’t show up in the flesh until later films. But I don’t understand his motivation, and he looked hokey. He reminded me of the alien from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
  • There’s too much nostalgia and fan service. For example, the Han-Leia relationship doesn’t click. Better actors might’ve redeemed the stilted dialogue, but Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford can’t quite hack it. Another sentimental misstep? Han’s familiar line aboard the freighter (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) felt forced.
  • The climactic lightsaber battle dragged on too long. Even the longest sword fight in Empire changed scenery once in a while—from the freezing chamber out to the dangling platform. Rey’s duel with Ren never leaves the woods.

Again, I enjoyed The Force Awakens. The film’s weaknesses don’t sink it. In fact, I’d probably rank it ahead of Episode IV—but well behind Empire Strikes Back. Like “A New Hope,” Episode VII sets the stage for later—hopefully better!—sequels.

movies Uncategorized

Is ‘Empire Strikes Back’ the only good ‘Star Wars’ movie?

Those who denigrate the Star Wars prequels forget that the original trilogy had its problems, too.

Star Wars (i.e. “A New Hope”) was remarkable for its time: a rollicking sci-fi adventure with astonishing special effects. But that first film hasn’t aged particularly well. Or, rather, it was never particularly good, and the outdated special effects no longer mask its stilted dialogue and over-telegraphed plot twists. Mark Hamill’s performance as a petulant Luke Skywalker grates on the nerves. Alec Guinness seems disinterested (he was). The final battle lasts ten minutes too long.

Return of the Jedi isn’t great, either. It establishes the misguided trajectory that would eventually doom the prequels. As with Episodes I through III, in Jedi, storytelling takes a backseat to merchandising interests. The Ewoks are the original trilogy’s equivalent to Jar-Jar Binks: cute, fun characters who sell toys but do little to improve the film itself.

Also like the prequels, Jedi feels derivative; the filmmakers seem to run out of ideas. The Death Star superweapon threatens the galaxy again? Luke leaves his companions to visit Dagobah… another time? The film can’t even find anything interesting for several key characters to do; Han Solo’s character arc flatlines, and Harrison Ford sleepwalks through the picture.

That leaves Empire Strikes Back, easily the strongest film of the original trilogy.

What does Empire get right? In short, the movie makes bold gambles that pay off. For example, it skips past several years. That interval might have confused the audience; instead, it helps us believe that our heroes have developed some genuine camaraderie. Another Empire risk? It stakes the entire film on a puppeteer’s performance. Somehow, improbably, Yoda works. Finally, Empire gambles by scaling down the story. A New Hope and Jedi go big, depicting critical battles in a galaxy-wide fight for freedom. Empire goes small, focusing on individual relationships: the hero trio with each other, Luke with his new mentor, Luke with his dad.

Speaking of that paternal reveal, “I am your father” is the primary reason Empire’s climax works. Without that horrifying revelation, the Cloud City sequence would feel too small, almost mundane. “Han and Leia chatting in their hotel room” hardly feels like the build-up to a grand finale. But because Vader’s declaration is so delightfully shocking, it lends gravitas to Cloud City’s dinner parties and dull chase scenes.

Empire is the only great Star Wars film.[1] It retroactively redeems A New Hope, transforming that film into an essential preface. It redeems Jedi, in that Empire’s so good that it makes us curious to see the story shake out. It even nearly redeems the prequels; after all, we wouldn’t have cared about Anakin Skywalker if Empire hadn’t made Vader so enigmatic.

  1. Well, at least until now.  ↩