Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Spoilers, durr.

There was a Star Wars movie out, did you hear?

It was pretty good, and it's making tonnes of money, so... there's that. I finally got to see it 10 days or so after it came out, thanks to report cards and stuff, but I liked it very well when I saw it.

There are spoilers in this article... but really, this long after the film came out, if you still haven't found a way to see it, I don't feel that bad about spoiling it for you. And if you're mad about spoilers this long after a film opened, next time take that energy you're using to be mad, and apply it to getting your butt to a cinema.

Late late screenings: worth it. And better, so that I don't have to take time away from the kid I should be hanging out with.

Juniorseyo watching Star Wars: He loved the original film "A New Hope"/Episode 4, and wanted to watch it again the weekend he first saw it. However, he hasn't wanted to watch it again since, so I'll wait till he's older before dropping The Empire Strikes Back.

Best thing: The three young heroes.

Give him his own spinoff movie: Poe Dameron, Oscar Isaac's ridiculously watchable, likeable pilot. He's assured and confident and high-spirited, like the resistance's best pilot probably really would be. He's the one I finished the movie wanting to hang out with.

But John Boyega! Yes. I like him a lot. Go see him in Attack the Block, a fantastic monster movie. He completely commands the screen.

What's a Mary-Sue? It's someone who's a little too perfect, and a little too good at every single thing. VOX explains. In fan fiction sometimes the new kid at Hogwarts beats Harry in dueling, beats Hermione on tests, makes out with Draco, and gives Neville a pep talk that helps him find his inner badass: they're so perfect it's obvious the author of the fan fiction has inserted him/herself into the story, in order to win at everything/act out the fantasy. It stretches or breaks suspension of disbelief to play the Millennium Falcon like a Stradivarius, resist a mind attack from a trained force user, and beat him in a lightsaber battle too. And not even be whiny. Follow-up films better either explain Rey's talents, or give us some chinks in her armor, or the series just won't be as fun.

The dumbest thing: Other than the thing I'll discuss later under "Diminishing returns" -- probably how murky the political situation was (specifically, I bet) made, in order to frame Leia, Han etc. as the underdogs again. They defeated the Empire. The "rebellion" is now the establishment, the new republic. The First Order is never described as taking over the Galaxy or establishing a new empire, only as up-and-comers, yet "the good guys" are described as "The Resistance" and the base we see and the strategy room meeting looks just as disorganized and sloppy and un-institutionalized as the hidden bases we saw in the original trilogy, despite being the Powers That Be in the galaxy for a generation. Just to make them look like underdogs again. It didn't wreck the movie, but it put my "Suspension of Disbelief-o-meter" in the red "hey wait a minute" zone.

When Spoiler Uses the Jedi Mind Trick: 
I like her derpy face. Usually her face is very expressive and her earnestness works, and echoes Skywalker the whiny moisture farmer. I also like the way Rey moves: she moves like someone who could actually handle that long staff and win a fight or chase somebody down. But I'll have to check if her face goes herpderp every time she uses the force now.
hurr durr herp! herp derpity derp!
(note the Sean Connery eyebrow. Interesting because the current James Bond played the Stormtrooper guard in this scene)
Checked the interrogation scene. Definite non-derp. A little hunuhunnnnuh, but no derp.

Reaching out to the force at the end. OK. She only goes full derp once. We're cool. This is definitely more of a "Ooh. New hot tub has waterjets!" not a "derp derpity derp"

Why Kylo Ren Works: He's young and unstable -- clearly an emotional mess, which make his fits of rage both believable and terrifying, in that Heath Ledger's Joker "I actually, really don't know what he'll do next" sort of way. If he were as cool and calculating as Darth Vader, well, Star Wars is never going to equal Vader, and it's silly to try. I like his voice, which also manages to be menacing yet unique from that other masked guy. I like his physicality too, which is quite different from the other star wars villains we've seen in film. His menacing crouch works: it's the kind of thing a fanboy wanting to pose as a badass would come up with.

Why unstable Kylo Ren might backfire: it's like running zombies vs. slow ones: it sacrifices longer-term "he's unstoppable" menace (which Darth Vader nailed) in favor of short term "whoa look out!"  We totally believed Darth Vader was sly enough to lead Luke Skywalker into a trap in The Empire Strikes Back, and it killed us to see him toy with an overmatched Luke in that climactic scene. Kylo Ren is completely not subtle enough to play cat and mouse with anyone, nor patient enough (as he is now) to bait a trap and lay in wait. This makes him more threatening in this scene we're watching right now, where he might flip out and ninja kick somebody with berzerker power, but less formidable as a main antagonist across an entire trilogy when he seems too impatient to lay a trap, find someone's true weak spot, or manipulate someone successfully.

The problem with the helmet: Say whatever you else you want, and I like it, and I like that his identity (obsessed with Darth Vader, trying to cosplay him, self-righteous, overestimates his ability and intelligence, not quite in control of his rage) seems a direct poke at geek identity (others have also noted this here and here)... but the silhouette of Kylo Ren, with his helmet on, reminds me of a Prince Valiant haircut.

especially from behind

Why Spoiler Had To Die: So that the new team could actually have the movies be about them. Han Solo is just too beloved, and too awesome and iconic a character: I loved seeing him, but he would also suck all the oxygen out of the room if the new kids had to get their hero on in the direct shadow of the prototype.

Why Spoiler Had To Die, And Luke Skywalker might Too, II: the stakes just deflate like packing airbags if we feel like Luke is going to swoop in like Mr. Miyagi and save the day if the kids ever get in over their heads. In the original trilogy, Luke was playing without a net, so we invested in him. Yoda was too old, Obi-wan lost on purpose. We wanted him to save the galaxy so bad because there was literally no one else.

The Law Of Diminishing Returns: OK enough with the flipping giant planet-sized, planet-destroying weapons, please. Seriously. We have seen three really big round things blow up now. Each one was a little bigger, and each one had one more step to make it blow up (IV: ventilation shaft, VI: disable shield ... THEN up the core; VII: disable shield, sabotage core, blow up the thingy that John Boyega pointed out. Adding another step, until episode 9 is an entire galaxy-killing rube goldberg machine, will not continue to impress us.

Dramatically, a death star blowing up is great, because it is such a spectacular climax for a film. But it just is not believable that the bad guys would blow all their resources by building three in four films now. Unless planet destroying super-weapons was just a thing in galactic warfare in that galaxy, in which case I want to see Leia commanding one.

And if not, seriously.. where do you go next? Another even bigger one? They don't look any bigger on the movie screen, because the movie screen is already full.
the clumsiest bit of exposition in the whole film
Plus, they already did that twice. How about five small ones defended by an adequately large fleet of other ships (the way aircraft carriers always roll with about a dozen other ships) instead of nothing but gnat-sized TIE fighters? That makes more sense strategically and resource-wise. We're watching aircraft carriers defended by motorboats right now. It made sense in Jedi, where appearing undefended was part of the trap, but it strains credulity here. It's no fun beating the bad guys if they're dumb and repeat mistakes. Voldemort should have shot a gun at Harry Potter or strangled him after failing twice to kill him with avada kedavra.

Marvel, and superhero films in general are bumping up against this ceiling right now: after blowing up downtown Manhattan in The Avengers, you just can't go any bigger than that. Blow up the boroughs too? Man Of Steel equalled Avengers but couldn't top it. Because you can't top it: the amount of destruction in Avengers was exactly the amount of collateral destruction you can put on a movie screen before it all blurs into sameness and we can't get our heads around it anymore, and diminishing returns kick in.  Dropping a town from the sky (Avengers II) blowing up another city center (Man of Steel)... how about... blowing up two downtowns? Maybe toss in some famous monuments, because that's never been done before. Studios have to think up a way to surprise us now -- go in a totally new direction we haven't seen -- because we've now seen emphatically that CG lets us get as big as we want and that's no longer an interesting way to go.

Go on. Destroy the Statue of Liberty again. Maybe it'll surprise us this time.

Bad storytelling. The last third of every blockbuster action movie is the same now. Yawn.

So give us a chase scene as varied and complicated as the chase scenes in Indiana Jones or Mad Max: Fury Road. Give us an underwater battle (Thunderball is still my favorite 007 film). Give us a stealth mission where everything hangs in the balance (like the finale of World War Z); give us a bloody moral quandary that isn't cut and dry: that'd be a new one in the Star Wars universe. Trap the heroes in a labyrinth, stalked by monsters and Sith. Get the drama from something other than scale, because scale isn't doing it anymore. Been there, done that. Raise the stakes instead of the effects budget, by making us care about the characters and what they want, rather than just numbing us with another really big explosion. Please don't blow up another downtown or build another Death Star, or I'll be over here checking my phone.

Oh, and while you're at it, ask any German speaker: please don't name any characters Darth Spoiler. (Vader is the German word for father.)

OK. That's everything I have to say about Star Wars.

Coming soon: my horribly late recap of the comfort women deal.

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