Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Star Wars:  The Force Awakens feels like an imperfect imitation of a Star Wars movie, like they mostly got it right, but not quite.  Let's call it Star Wars-lite.  One of the many things that struck me was the lack of powerful Jedi.  You have Kylo Ren, who is a Darth Vader wannabe, still learning the ways of the Dark Side, but he is no Darth Vader.  Let's call him Vader-lite.  Then you have Rey, who is just discovering that she has force powers.  Let's call her Skywalker-lite.   What is left of the Rebellion is now called the Resistance, and likewise what is left of the Empire is now called The First Order.  In this movie neither group seemed particularly impressive, like they are both rag-tag leftovers from a previous war.  So we have Empire-lite and Rebellion-lite duking it out.

Visually the previous Star Wars movies had a very clean and sterile look to them, which is visually how many science fiction movies look.  The new film looks a little different in that the style that they are going for is more of a gritty realism.

The music from the previous films is not used very much, and the new music is simply sleep inducing.  This is the biggest problem with the movie.  In this teaser trailer, we hear the classic Star Wars music as Rey drives her speedster across the desert, but the same scene in movie has some very uninspiring music.  For the film, this is a huge opportunity lost.

The original Star Wars movie stood on its own extremely well.   Had there been no sequels, the ending of the original film would have been quite satisfactory.  In fact, even though all the previous Star Wars movies were part of a greater story, each movie concluded in a way that had enough finality to it to keep the movie goers satisfied until the next movie came out.  Not so with Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.  The ending leaves us hanging, in the same way the first The Lord of the Rings movie left us hanging.  When these movies ended, I felt like the story had just barely begun.  This makes the movie mostly feel like a setup for the next film.

I see now the difference between J.J. Abrams and George Lucas.  Abrams knows how to make an entertaining movie, and does so here, but the movie barely treads any new ground.  Lucas on the other hand is a visionary.  No matter what you thought of each the original six films, each one was visionary in a very different way.  There is some innovation from the new movie, but it doesn't remotely compare to how visionary the previous films were.

In fact, the movie feels too "safe" like it is mostly recycled from the previous films.  In a way, it feels a little too Disney.  Plot point after plot point seems to come from the earlier films:

  1. Secret plans are hidden in a droid which the Empire is looking for.
  2. A Jedi student turns to the dark side, kills the other Jedi students, and joins the Emperor.
  3. The Jedi master goes into exile.
  4. A Death Star like weapon is blowing up planets, and the Rebellion is the next target.  They must destroy the weapon using X wing ships before the Rebellion is also destroyed.
  5. A young force sensitive person who lost her parents is stuck on a planet and yearns for a better life among the stars.
  6. They go into the enemy's stronghold to free a prisoner.

Although I did not hear this mentioned in the movie, yesterday the wikipedia article referred to Rey's full name as "Rey Skywalker".  The article doesn't say that today, like somebody realized that this was a mistake and changed it.  I also just found much speculation on the Internet that Rey is Luke Skywalker's daughter.  If this is true then it would give the ending of the film considerably more significance.  I was waiting for Luke to acknowledge his relationship to Rey, but he doesn't.  In the movie Rey's parentage is left as an unresolved mystery.

Watching the movie in the theater held a few surprises for me.  First of all, the audience was quite young.  Most of these people were teenagers and young adults.  I didn't see many people like myself who were actually alive when the first Star Wars movie came out.  Many people were dressed in costume, and a few were carrying toy light sabers.  I was also surprised to see half the audience stay to watch the full credits.  This is because many movies are now including bonus scenes at the end of the credits.  Most of those who stayed were standing around talking about the movie.

The audience applauded at the finish, so they must have really enjoyed it.  I thought it was good, and maybe pretty good, but lacking the greatness of some of its predecessors.  The original Star Wars movie is a film that I have seen 17 times over the last 38 years, and likewise all the other Star Wars films I have seen many times.   They are so great that I can watch them over and over and still be entertained.  I just don't see myself doing that with Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.  I might watch it one or two more times in case I missed something the first time around, but after that I will be done with it.

Rating:  * * * .5

POSTSCRIPT:  I needed to know if I was being too harsh on the movie, so I couldn't resist seeing the movie a second time.  On the second viewing it is easier to forgive some of the imperfections because the movie is a thrill ride from beginning to finish.   In my review above I said the film is not visionary, but it indeed does have a vision, even if it didn't quite meet my expectations.  As such the movie is very entertaining and deserves its place as part of the Star Wars saga.

Rating:  Still * * * .5

Honestly, the movie feels like an opportunity lost.  We could have had Yoda as a Force Ghost, or Luke Skywalker as the wise old mentor.  Maybe the next movie will have these things.

There are a few scenes that don't quite make sense to me in terms of story or why characters were in certain places at certain times:

  1. I couldn't understand how it is that R2-D2 was suddenly able to find the rest of the map to the location of Luke Skywalker, or why they even needed a map and not just a set of coordinates?  
  2. Why was Rey the one chosen to go meet Luke since she was a newcomer to the Resistance?  And why in the Millennium Falcon?
  3. General Leia seemed tight lipped as she talked, like she couldn't open her mouth all the way.  Did this woman have a stroke, or just too much plastic surgery?
  4. What was the fate of Captain Phasma?
  5. The scene where the planet of the Republic is destroyed seems underplayed.  Did billions of people just die?  If so, why wasn't it played for more emotion?
  6. How is it that their interstellar weapon can cross the vast distances of space without using hyperspace?  
  7. How is it that they know exactly when the weapon is going to fire?

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