Saturday, January 2, 2016

Did The Force Awaken?

As a generational Star Wars fan, I was surprised at how much I downplayed my anticipation for the 7th episode that I was able to finally view the day after Christmas. The first red flag came when I learned that Lucas was letting his franchise go to Disney. It was crazy - a total control director relinquishing control to a total control conglomerate! But Disney did well with Pixar and Touchstone, so there was hope. Then I read in a mag article that Abrams and Kasdan did not consult Lucas for the script. They not only started from scratch but rushed it due to the tight schedule - typical for Disney. I think respect for the fan base would have at least let George write them a synopsis and then they could decide what to keep and what to throw away later. But they didn't even consult someone like their own employee Dave Filoni who had been creating stories with Lucas for years in the Clone Wars project and probably knows the Star Wars world inside the man's head better than anyone. Even the Rebels series he is now doing perfectly mixes the old with fresh new material and proves how masterful their team is with the fan base. What I feared at that time, and supported by the trailers, was that Mr. Abrams and company would go too far in trying to imitate the past. Those fears turned out to be well founded.

============= mild spoilers below ============================

Now, let me just say that there is enough entertainment value in The Force Awakens to make it not just a good watch but memorable. The production value, of course, is top notch, and the new stars, Boyega, Ridley, and even Oscar Isaac who plays pilot Po Dameron, are wonderful. There are some really great sequences that work - like the Tie Fighter escape, including the space battle in which Finn and Po quickly establish a friendship, or Han Solo and the smuggler confrontation, or even a small exchange where Han offers Rey a job. There's enough of those wonderful moments to satisfy. But I left also feeling that it could have been so much better, and spent a lot of time thinking about how bad the script had been. So what I thought I'd do here is just list a bunch of specific changes I would make if I were in Mr. Abrams shoes. I'm hoping some other fans out there might be having similar thoughts. But these are going to be major spoilers so reader beware.

============ MAJOR spoilers (and I really mean spoil) below ===========
  • Han and Leia seemed like they were sleeping most of the film. Such tired acting was surprising since both Ford and Fisher have had continuously active careers, and the newer cast members did so well. Could Abrams have been intimidated so much by his childhood icons that he could not get the chemistry going? I mean, if Han is still galloping across the galaxy on dangerous smuggling operations, he should still have the same cocky attitude his character showed as a young man, just maybe a bit grumpier. If Leia is commanding soldiers, should she not be showing more passion? The few moments of emotion she was allowed to show were horribly forced. I personally would not even have been that ambitious with their roles to begin with. I can imagine Han Solo becoming a collector and trader of vintage space vessels on some remote outpost. I can imagine Leia as a prominant senator in the new republic, where such subdued acting would fit better. 
  • Mark Hamill's one shot was pulled off quite well, but did they really need Rey to meet him face to face at the end of VII, rather than at the beginning of VIII? The first meeting of master and apprentice in any film, not just Luke and Yoda in ESB, is a critical story piece that is now rendered impossible in the next film. I would have had Rey travel to the island with a shot of Luke, in meditation, sensing her presence and taking some action indicating he'd been waiting for something for a long time.
  • The little nods to A New Hope were cute but should have been more subtle. The Millennium Falcon was featured in all three of the original trilogy films, but only in ANH did anyone play hologram chess. Even George Lucas knew you only do that once, and it became one of many signature scenes for which that first film is remembered. Replaying it for fun in this film only diminishes that memory. The same can be said for the trash compactor reference, the Kessel Run banter, and Han's "you changed your hair" quip to Leia. You only do this kind of thing when it makes sense to the story - like the use of the old targeting computer images when Finn needs to use the Falcon's guns.
  • J.J. Abrams seems to agree with the very wrong Hollywood notion that if you want to make something better, just make it bigger. He really lost me in his Star Trek reboot when he decided to blow up the entire planet of Vulcan, one of the most entrenched alien civilizations of that world. When the empire destroys Alderaan in a ANH, it is one of the most emotionally poignant moments because it is Leia's own home world being destroyed before her own eyes. In this film they blow up 5 republic planets in one stroke without any emotional impact at all. Bigger is not better, it is just too overwhelming to contemplate. While the first trilogy's emperor was scary because he was an evil person, the only way they thought they could make Supreme Leader Snoke scary was to make him really huge. That only works for little kids. ANH had a little cantina, so let's make it into a BIG club cantina this time! The first cantina worked because it was like a western saloon - its main job was to be scary. The wonderful thing is that the weirdness of the alien customers was the normal part in that world - they were different only because they were the shady players you might find drinking it up in a darkly lit pub. But in this film, Han tells them not to stare before they go in, and the aliens are now just as alien to our protagonists as to us. Disney just doesn't get science fiction.
  • Maz Kanata wasn't a bad character, almost a Yoda type, but what a boring form they gave her. She looks like ET, but with even less facial features. Couldn't they have come up with something a little more creative?
  • Staying with Maz's place, the minute they walk in some random character calls them in to the First Order, and another calls the Resistance. We know nothing about these characters either before or after those calls. What a lost opportunity for some real story to be inserted. At least wait until we get some time to absorb the environment before upping the plot tension. Such basics.
  • Darth Vader wore a mask primarily because he had to in order to breathe, which gave a good excuse for the now iconic look and sound. Kylo Ren wore a mask because... he wanted to be like Darth Vader? Already that sounds quite weak for a villain, and then he takes it off all the time which diminishes even the mask mystique. Look at all Lucas' villains - either mask all the time or never. Boba Fett never even removed his helmet in the first trilogy and look how great that helped his reputation. It just works better for bad guys not to change their look unless they change their character. Maybe if his face had been more disfigured we would forgive the mask wearing outside of battle, but Disney likes their people looking good on camera I guess.
  • Leia's part was written with no contribution to the story. As a general, she made no decision about the course of the war. As Han's partner and Ren's mom, she did nothing to either contribute to or withdraw from those relationships. She should have either been left out or given a real part, but both of those options were too risky for Disney. So she just recites meaningless lines all day.
  • When Han first steps onto the Millennium Falcon, his words to his co-pilot are "Chewie, we're home". What a silly line for Solo - tailored only to fan sentiment! How about "Look at her, Chewie, almost the same as I left her".
  • The confrontation between Han and his son was a bit hollow because there was no prior build up of any conflict in the relationship. If you are going have two main characters collide and one of them dies, you need a back story to give it weight. Now if episode 8 tries to fill in how Ben grew up, how he turned against his father, and so on, it is too late to save the relationship so it is a bit pointless.
  • So C-3PO has a red arm, but do you really think he would apologize for it when meeting Han instead of waiting until someone asks? Even if you do, wouldn't it be more effective to just let it be and let the fan base ponder about it later?
  • Finally, why make fun of the Jedi mind trick? The mark is not supposed to repeat what the Jedi says like a robot. It is more subtle than that. In ANH, the stormtrooper repeats Obi-wan's words to his buddy as if he thinks he is the one originating the thoughts. And it is easy in that case because there is no consequence for that slip - while letting a prisoner out of a cell will cost a stormtrooper his life. That would be hard for a mind trick to overcome. Is it surprising that George Lucas understands the rules of his fantasy world better than other people do?
I could keep going but that is enough to make the point. It is one thing to leave audiences wondering about the who, what, and why of various elements in the story. But while everyone is trying to do just that, why can't we call Disney to account for their bad script writing?  They need to know that if they wanted to "get it right", the trick was to give the creators time and freedom, something Disney hates to be liberal with. Just throwing money at it doesn't work. Let's hope they learn something on the next time around.

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