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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

So, I went this weekend (along with a 1/3 of the world's population apparently) to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I am a huge Star Wars fan, but I approached this with some trepidation. I "like" the prequels in theory, but not in execution. There are great ideas behind the prequels, such as a "manufactured" war, the decay that set into the Old Republic, the Sith's machinations, the Balance of the Force, etc. Unfortunately, they were not well realized on screen. The prequels suffered from poor writing, lack of drama or tension, virtually no (funny) humor, basically all the things that the OT had. And there was the opposite dilemma- there was NO WAY the new movie could live up to the OT. Anyone thinking this film could even come close to those heights were fools. I certainly wouldn't be. I was excited, but guarded.


So- I don't want to do a piece by piece review just now. I will say that the movie is an absolute blast. It is a ton of fun to watch- it gets SO much right that it is in fact a miracle. The actors, the special effects, the humor, the uncertainty (missing from the Prequels by their very nature), the energy- all of it is here. This is the sequel you have been waiting for in so many ways. Now- it is not perfect. It makes a few missteps, and it tries to "copy" parts of A New Hope a bit too much- and yet, despite the flaws, I feel the film works beyond all measure. You, of course, need to see the film for yourself if you are a Star Wars fan. I know at least one fan who disliked it, but just about everyone I have spoken with since have had nothing but enthusiastic praise for it- and some of these guys and gals despised the prequels and had pretty much sworn off Star Wars. Rating this, I'd give it 4 Marks of Chaos- flaws and all. After all- how do you measure "perfection"? If in film a measure is enjoying a movie then I enjoyed the hell out of this, hence the 4 Marks of Chaos. 

In this post I want to discuss a few issues and ideas that I have been mashing around in my head. However, these naturally involve a TON of spoilers. So- I will leave a gap so scroll on down. Go see the damn movie then come back- I ain't going nowhere.

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Final Spoiler Warning!! Beware.


A Start of a New Legend / Trilogy / Adventure

My friend and I  were debating the film after seeing it- he disliked it a great deal while I loved it (as did my wife). One of his chief complaints was that there were so many questions, so many things not explained, that it frustrated him. Immensely. What is the difference between the Republic and the Resistance? What happened between Han and Leia? Who the hell is Snoke? Why does Ren hate Solo so bad? What's Rey's deal? Brian argued that the film left so many things open that he felt it was incomplete and poorly done.



I believe that this "mystery" quality is essential to Star Wars. Look at the OT- they didn't give you EVERY SINGLE DETAIL. The story developed, with twists and turns, over 3 films! They didn't tell you EVERYTHING in A New Hope! Hell, they don't even mention Yoda! Yoda!! Let that sink in for a second... A New Hope left a ton of things open. You had to... dear lord... use your imagination. Like a book, YOU filled in the blanks- conjecture, rumor, friends arguing "what do you think Vader looks like" or "Why is Chewie with Han"... ANH lets you romp around in this universe in the midst of these events. It just goes full ahead- it doesn't spoon feed you all this micro (or even marco) details. I mean- listen to Kenobi "explain" who Vader is in ANH- its so brief and lacking all detail, and yet it works to get you interested.

The Force Awakens gets this. The Prequels tried to "explain" everything- Anakin's fall, the Emperor's ascension, the destruction of the Jedi, Trade Federations, etc. But the prequels went overboard on this- trade deals and taxes and a magical clone army that no one questions... But TFA doesn't fall for that trap. Like the OT, it drops you in the middle of the action- the opening crawl tells you all you need to know (compare TFA crawl with TPM- you can see the difference). The details- the background- are left open to YOUR imagination. That is a huge part of the fun.

But the lack of certain details also gives the next films latitude to maneuver. After all, you didn't learn that Vader was Luke's father till ESB. You didn't learn the identity of "another" till ROTJ. Characters like Han and Leia developed over the trilogy. ANH didn't lay all the cards on the table, and neither should TFA. They were wise in this instance- the mystery and blanks MAKE me want to know more. And that is essential to enjoying Star Wars.


Rey's Quick Guide to the Force

One of the criticisms I keep hearing is that Rey was able to use the Force way too quickly. At first I agreed with that, but then I paused a bit. I had to "unlearn" what I had learned- mostly from the Prequels. In those, it took YEARS to train Jedi in the Force. The Jedi believed in training infants- so that they could be brought up without attachment or other problems. It took decades for a child to become a Jedi.


But... that IS NOT what it was in the OT. Indeed, look at the facts. In ANH Luke meets Obi Wan. They talk about the Force. Obi Wan lets Luke use a lightsaber on a practice drone for 5 minutes. Before you know it, Luke is turning off his targeting computer and using the Force to guide his hand in destroying the Death Star. How long did he study with Obi Wan? A day or two? By ESB, some time has passed (but not THAT much), and you see Luke's skills are getting stronger (he pulls the lightsaber to him), without ANY training from Obi Wan- he has an intuitive feel for the Force (or, perhaps, it has "chosen" him). In ESB he trains with Yoda- but again, for how long? Even if you want to say the Falcon hid in the asteroid field for a week- or even a month (pushing it, but still)- that means Luke was training with Yoda for a short time as well. And yet, by ROTJ, Yoda says that Luke "knows that which" he needs... and surely Luke does things in Jabba's that Yoda didn't teach him.

In other words, one needs to forget the prequels a little bit. Luke, already older, learned things quite quickly. So Rey- similarly chosen by the Force- is able to wield it quickly as well. Now- I suspect Rey is either Luke or Leia's child, and hence is naturally gifted with the Force (again, a mystery). The Force gave her the power necessary to defeat Kylo Ren, as it gave Luke the ability to destroy the Death Star. Using the OT as the guide, you can see that it is very possible.

Snoke Spoke?

Another of the issues that some have had is that Supreme Commander Snoke is a huge mystery that is NOT at all answered in the film. He is obviously a user of the Dark Side, as well as the leader of the First Order (new empire). He appears to be 50 feet tall and is one of the few CGI characters in the film.


Now- who is he? Snoke is portrayed via motion capture by Andy Serkis- right there you should have some confidence. He is quite nasty sounding as he growls orders to his flunkies, such as General Hux. He appears to be huge- but they show you quickly that it is a hologram. Just as Palpatine appeared huge to Vader in ESB, so too does Snoke look enormous. But it is only a hologram image.

But- who is he? The character is evil, but with no background. This is on purpose, as it will no doubt be explored in the next films- you don't get Andy Serkis just to do a throwaway guy. So- here is where we go theorizing- I believe Snoke is none other than Darth Plagueis the Wise. This Sith Lord is mentioned by Palpatine as he tries to lure Anakin to the Dark Side in Episode 3 (the best of the Prequels). According to Palpatine, Darth Plagueis found a way to "create life" and "keep those he cared about from dying"- basically, he could "cheat death". It is HEAVILY implied that Plagueis was Sidious' master, and Sidious murdered him to become the main Sith Lord. It is also implied that Sidious did not know ALL of Plagueis' secrets. Suppose- Plagueis is like Yoda/Obi Wan- they have found a way to merge with the force upon death, becoming the so called "force ghosts". Spirits. But- let's say Plagueis did something similar- but instead of being spiritual, his rebirth was corporeal. He cheated death- AND the natural order of things- as Sith are wont to do.


In film terms, who can possibly be a bigger threat than Emperor Palpatine? Answer- the Sith who TRAINED Palpatine. Where's the evidence? First, Ren's line that his master is "very wise" (Darth Plagueis the Wise is what Paplatine called him). Then, there is the music. It is VERY reminiscent of the music in the Opera Scene- where Paplatine talks of Plagueis. It is VERY similar in tone. It isn't the same, but damn its close. In a meta way- if he is Plagueis, one of the few things they are going to take from the Prequels- what better way than to present him as CGI? That last one may be a stretch, but the other factors are just screaming that this is the solution. Now- I bet you have a different theory. Isn't this speculating a huge part of the fun?

The Heart and Soul of The Force Awakens

Now, I want to get to the "nitty gritty". Forget the action. Forget Starkiller Base. Forget the politics. All Star Wars films are about individuals (not all are Skywalkers) being confronted by these galactic problems. These characters are forced to make decisions on what to do when faced with the Galactic Civil War. Luke, Han, Leia, Lando- they all make choices and these decisions impact them personally, but also with wider implications for others. This is what gives Star Wars its real punch- not the space ships, but the drama. The inter (and intra) personal conflict. This is where TFA succeeds the most.


Han Solo and Kylo Ren are the heart and soul of the film (one could argue Rey- but hang on to that for a bit). When we left Han Solo in ROTJ, he was a rebel hero ("respectable"), and it seemed that he and Leia would live happily ever after. However, when we see him in TFA, he is back to his rouge-ish ways, and he and Leia aren't together anymore. Some grumbled about that- but heck, that's life. It takes twists and turns we don't expect. Life gives us happiness and tragedy at random sometimes. Who can say that Han and Leia would be exempt from that? Indeed, TFA wisely makes Han and Leia more human as a result- they are not the fairy tale couple. It's not "wonderful",  but it is more real.

Now, they were always bouncing off each other in the best of times- there was friction in their relationship from the beginning. But- what really broke them up as tragedy; a crisis of incredible magnitude. Their son, Ben Solo- known to the galaxy as Kylo Ren- has fallen from the light and is now the dark warrior of the First Order.


The film handles this brilliantly. Rather than reveal it at the last minute a la ESB, they tell you, almost off-handedly, that Han is Ren's father (it seems that it was only a secret to the audience). They reveal this about 1/3 of the way into the film, give or take. This is a great decision. They are not cribbing ESB with a "climactic" revelation. Rather, they have introduced an element of ongoing dread and tension. Will Han and Kylo meet? What will happen? What will Han do? The revelation early on allows it to breathe and permeate the whole film.

They make it clear that Ren was being taught by Luke, but was seduced to the Dark Side by Snoke. The details are sketchy, but I guess Snoke appealed to Ren's desire for "glory" (such as his grandfather had achieved). As a result, Ren turned, and did bad things- killing Luke's other students it seems. Han and Leia make it clear- once this happened, Luke blamed himself and vanished. Leia and Han's relationship fractured, and they broke up. The fall of Ben Solo to the Dark Side broke up the "trinity" of Han, Leia, and Luke.  It certainly wrecked Han and Leia's relationship. Han suggests that whenever Leia sees Han, she thinks of their lost son. Take the natural friction between these two (they always had a tumultous relationship), and add this sad loss of a son to evil, and their relationship breaks down. Han leaves and goes back to smuggling, and Leia buries herself in her work as leader of the Resistance. Frankly, this is a very realistic response to such a tragic event, and I give the creative team props for handling it so well.

One of the questions that many have asked is "Why does Ren hate his father so much"? In this respect I think they have it wrong. It isn't that Ren hates his father, though he does make a snide remark to Rey about it not "living up" to expectations. I would wager that Han was probably a pretty "cool" dad, but not as "successful" as a parent. Could you imagine growing up the son of Leia and Han? Lol

But seriously, those looking for the answer to the "hate" question have it backwards. In fact, Ren LOVES his father. Indeed, THAT is the conflict for Ren. On the one hand, he wants power, glory- to live up to the Skywalker heritage. But for Ren, the only way to achieve that power and strength is to turn fully to the Dark Side. Yet- how can one give oneself to the Dark Side if there is still love in your heart?


No- Kylo Ren / Ben Solo kills his father BECAUSE Ren loves him still. Ren wants to purge himself of the last vestiges of light. The only way to do this is to kill Han. To toss him aside totally and utterly. Ren struggles with that- even Snoke mocks him for it. On the bridge, the anguish isn't a ploy- the tears are real. He loves his father, but wants to be stronger than anyone. To achieve that level of power, he must strike down Han. Only then will be one with the Dark Side. Indeed, it is very telling that, after Ren fails to kill Rey and is defeated, Snoke says he wants to finish Ren's training. Snoke couldn't FULLY indoctrinate Ren until the last vestiges of light were extinguished. Killing Han accomplished that. Kylo Ren, I suspect, will undergo Sith training and will become Darth Something Something by the end of the next film.

There are a few things I love about this, and to me make up for any shortcomings with the rest of the film. First, it is an inversion of the Luke/Vader dynamic. Luke won't kill Vader because he is his father. Ren WILL kill Han because, well, he is his father. The killing of Han will cast a shadow over the rest of this trilogy. We (the audience) loved Han. How can we forgive his killer? Kylo Ren's completed fall has more resonance than Anakin's in the prequels, because, frankly, we didn't care enough about any of them. Here, it is different. This should be fun and moving to watch play out. Who would want to redeem Ren now?! Is he irredimable? What will his psyche be like as he grows stronger with the Dark Side, knowing that the cost of his ascension was so high?

The best part is how to complete's Han and Leia's arc. In ANH, Han is a criminal. A smuggler with very grey morals. However, as the OT goes on, Leia (and Luke to an extant) show Han a better, more noble path. People sometimes complain that Han was "softer" by ROTJ, but I felt that was a product of him loving Leia and thus, making him want to be a better man. I suppose that after ROTJ he tried his best, though Leia's "royal" attitude didn't make it easy for him. But, once Ben goes bad, and Han and Leia's relationship breaks down irretrivably, Han leaves. He goes back to his smuggler ways. Time passes- then he gets the Falcon back with Rey and the others desprately needing his help. At first, he rejects them (he offers to put them in pods and send them to the nearest planet). Then he tries to get Maz to help- but she chides him for it. Han is reluctant to get involved again. However, that changes when he sees his son take Rey. At that point he feels bound to go back to Leia and help.

Talking with Leia, Han suggests that their son is too far gone; as Han says, Ben has "too much Vader in him". Han thinks its hopeless. But Leia rejects that, stating that there is still light within their son. Han demurs, saying that if Luke failed, how could he succeed? Leia replies "You're his FATHER". As Han prepares to leave, Leia asks (begs) him to return home with their son.


So- now the bridge scene. Han sees Ren walking- he seems not to realize Han is there (is he too focused on finding Rey?). Han could have slipped past him, or maybe even shot at him. Instead, Han calls him by his birth name (that made my blood run cold). Han tries to bring his son back to the light. When Ren asks for his father's help- Han, looking encouraged, says "Anything". Ren stabs him then, but Han doesn't yell or fight back-he simply touches his son's face.

The irony is that Han did what Leia would have wanted him to do, and he died for it. Perhaps his first instinct was correct- Ren is too far gone. Yet, he still loves Leia on some level (that they never kiss is a sure sign of that, actually), and he still loves his son. So he tries, and he fails. However, in a different view, Han is redeemed once again, leaving his rouge ways behind and trying to fight for his family and the galaxy. A fitting but sad end for Han Solo.


Conclusion

I could go on and on- there are so many things in this film that deserve examination- Finn's transition from drone to hero. Luke's activities. Rey's background. The film has brought new life to Star Wars. The best praise I could give is that it felt like the OT and I can't wait to see where it goes next. The Force Awakens is fun, energetic, and exciting, but with a heart and soul (which the Prequels and many many other big movies lack). It was just a blast from start to finish. I plan on seeing it again (and again) in the coming weeks.

Until Next Time...




3 comments:

  1. This was a great read Prof. Well written. Personally for me, I too loved this movie. They did everything right for this movie ... except having the story line mirror A New Hope a little bit too closely. That was what spoiled the last Star Trek movie JJ directed.

    However, I agree in that this movies was essentially redeemed by some great acting and characters. In Rey, they have found a worthy successor to both Han Solo and eventually Luke. (I'm guessing she's Luke's daughter). Finn was funny and an excellent cast for the traitor Stromtrooper and the effects were generally great.

    The only cringe-worthy moment was the Star Killer base or Death Star v3. That was truly lame. They couldn't think of any other stuff up. Really?

    That being said ... I loved this movie and it made me feel like the 5-year old boy who sat watching Star Wars, wide-eyed and in awe of the special effects. 4 1/2 stars out of 5 for me (damn that deathstar no.3) :)

    By the way, here's wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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    1. I saw it again with my wife- and damn, the film certainly holds up. Even the "homage" to ANH seemed a bit smoother to me this time around. And Harrison Ford does his best acting work in ANY SW film right here.

      Have a happy holiday season!

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    2. I agree. In fact, the missus and I enjoyed it even more the second time around. There was less expectations on my part and I just enjoyed it for what it is ... part homage to fans part continuation of the original trilogy.

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