Saturday, December 19, 2015

Unanswered Questions - A Review of "The Force Awakens"

J.J. Abrams has finally figured out the solution to his Mystery Box problem.

If you're unaware, J.J. Abrams is somewhat infamous for a TED talk he gave a long time ago where he explains his philosophy when it comes to creating an air of mystery around his work.

Anyway, so one of the things that I bought at the magic store was this: Tannen's Mystery Magic Box. The premise behind the mystery magic box was the following: 15 dollars buys you 50 dollars worth of magic. Which is a savings. Now, I bought this decades ago and I'm not kidding. If you look at this, you'll see it's never been opened. But I've had this forever. Now, I was looking at this, it was in my office, as it always is, on the shelf, and I was thinking, why have I not opened this? ... But the thing is, that it represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential. And what I love about this box, and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do, is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential. And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination.

The Mystery Box has been present in everything J.J. has created. It's why his trailers tell you next to nothing about the movie, why so many questions are always tantalizingly left unanswered, and why "LOST" was so popular.

However, the Mystery Box has always had a major flaw that J.J. Abrams never found a way out of. While he could set up questions and mysteries better than many, unlike in real life, he could never quite leave the box unopened. Infinite possibility space is exciting, but it's exciting because eventually the box is going to be opened and since it's a big secret, we imagine that it will be something incredible.

J.J. Abrams has never ever paid off a mystery in a way that was worthy of the setup, and that's largely because he doesn't have a very good imagination. This was the biggest reason I was worried about him taking on "Star Wars". While I knew he was a fan, I could see that he was setting up a number of mysteries that he was ill-equipped to pay off.

But, thankfully, he finally cracked the formula. He figured out how to pull off his Mystery Box, and the solution is actually fairly simple.

He just decided not to answer the questions he raised.

This obviously wouldn't have worked in many other contexts. A self-contained movie can't set up things and then refuse to pay them off. But this is "Star Wars".

J.J. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan set up great questions and mysteries and then decided to pass them off to the next team that's handling Episode VIII.

"The Force Awakens" is the beginning of a relay race. Like "The Empire Strikes Back", it's an exciting and wonderful entry in the series, but it only succeeds because it doesn't have to carry the burden of story alone.

It reminds me a lot of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek", which similarly was a good setup for a new franchise, but this time around, Abrams won't have to follow it up. This will be left to a filmmaker with a greater wealth of imagination and narrative talent.

And that is what makes "The Force Awakens" work as well as it does. J.J. Abrams gave us his gift of setting things up while sparing us his inability to do anything interesting with it.

I know I sound backhanded in my praise, but let me make it clear: I love "The Force Awakens". As of this writing, I have seen the movie twice, so it passes my "Attack of the Clones" test (the first time I saw "Attack of the Clones", I had such a good time that I was convinced that the movie was amazing, upon a second viewing I realized how much a midnight showing can influence your feelings of a "Star Wars" movie). It easily has the best acting and dialogue of any "Star Wars" movie, the new characters are, with rare exception, incredible and fascinating.

But for all this movie does well, its successes are afforded entirely by deciding to leave Chekhov's Guns laying about all over the place. Who is that? How did they get that? Why did that happen? Even the titular "awakening" is left completely unexplained or even remarked upon beyond that one line that you probably already heard in the trailer.

It's all done so that the movie's pace sprints along for the entire duration. There's no time to explain! Just take this! Go here! Do the thing! FIGHT! FIGHT SOME MORE! RUN!!!

Let me make something perfectly clear... this should not have worked. The plot of "The Force Awakens" is basically just "A New Hope" with names changed around, which was one of the things I was dreading. And the movie moves along so quickly that most casual audiences won't notices or care. But I did. And in spite of myself, I loved it anyway because these characters are just that good.

I love them all and I want to know more about them.

I wish this movie gave me more than it did, but I'm also glad it didn't, because Abrams and Kasdan were probably unqualified to do more than they did.

So what we end up with is a movie that leaves me wanting more, and since I know that we'll be getting more, that can really only be a good thing, so long as the movie itself isn't skippable.

I think "The Force Awakens" could have done a number of things better, that they could have put more effort into thinking things through as far as the world-building was concerned, but I love it for what it does right and what it wisely chose NOT to do.

That's about all I want to say without going into specific details. I loved it. It's not perfect, or even close, but it does enough to justify its existence and it serves as a spectacular new foundation for the Disney era of "Star Wars". Go see it if you haven't yet, because everything else from hereon out is SPOILER territory.

Now that we're all in the know here, let me get the big obvious stuff out of the way first.

Yes, I'm a little disappointed that Finn isn't a clone, but it's just as well because he's not Force-sensitive either. And Finn is still a spectacular character. After having so many great trooper characters in the "Clone Wars" cartoons, it's great to finally have a prominent central character that embodies that kind of role, right down to the "nickname". Also, having an ex-trooper around creates a great way to bring up things about the troopers that we never knew before. We learn all kinds of things about troopers that we never had a chance to learn before because there was no way to organically bring it up in the story. Finn does that job, and on top of that, manages to be a wonderful character in his own right. He's clearly in over his head, but when he's in the thick of it and things go his way, his excitement is downright infectious.

I'm glad that Rey isn't just another Skywalker, but this is one of those mysteries that will probably never have a satisfying conclusion, which is why I hope Rian Johnson doesn't lean too heavily on this. Still, Rey is easily the most intriguing mystery the movie leaves for us. She's clearly very gifted with the Force. And not just because she's able to resist Kylo Ren's mind-probing or because she masters the art of Force Persuasion without even understanding how she did it. When she touches Luke's lightsaber, she demonstrates a very rare ability in the universe known as psychometry, a gift that canonically has only been demonstrated by the character Quinlan Vos. It is what (probably) allowed her to see glimpses of the lightsaber's history. As I've only seen the movie twice, I haven't been able to recognize everything, but we definitely saw a hallway in Bespin where Luke Skywalker fought Darth Vader and we definitely heard the line, "You've taken your first step..." which is probably from Obi-Wan telling Luke that he'd taken his first step into a larger world on the Millennium Falcon (where the lightsaber had also been present).

Put simply, Rey is a prodigy, perhaps eclipsing even Anakin Skywalker's gift, and he was the bloody Chosen One.

But Rey has no prophecy. No known family name to live up to. No training or understanding of what she's capable of. She is likely tied to the "awakening" Snoke referred to, but we don't really know what that means. All we know is that she's absurdly powerful and a very very fast learner.

Rey is the infinite possibility space that J.J. Abrams always aspired to create, and she is his greatest triumph. She's without question my favorite character in the movie and the one I want to know the most about.

Poe Dameron is a great character, but he doesn't get a ton to do. For some reason, Abrams decided that the movie would be more interesting if we thought that Poe was dead for about half of it, and I don't really know why. I mean, yeah, it gives us a great scene where BB-8 is sad and it pays off when BB-8 finds out he's alive again, but there was no reason we couldn't have had a side-plot showing Poe waking up and getting back to the Resistance, giving him a chance to have more screen time and to show a little bit more of the New Republic.

And that's one of my biggest beefs with this movie. We don't even get to see the New Republic in any meaningful way before the First Order destroys it with Starkiller Base.

Now, I know they basically did the same thing in "A New Hope" where the senate was dissolved only a short while after we found out it existed, but the destruction of the Old Republic took three whole movies to accomplish, and the Empire that took its place also took three movies to destroy. I know the New Republic isn't exactly completely destroyed, but without the senate or their fleet, they might as well be.

I can't help but wonder how the First Order was able to build a planet-sized super-weapon that literally eats stars without the New Republic or the Resistance knowing. The far less powerful Rebellion was able to find out all about the Death Star, which was much smaller and stealthier. And we know that the Resistance didn't know about Starkiller Base, because otherwise, they probably wouldn't have been wasting their time trying to find Luke.

I did like the symbolism of the destruction of Starkiller Base. Rather than just exploding and leaving a blast of particles, it crumbles away and gives birth to a new star. It's not just destruction, it's creation. It's pretty cool.

Sorry, got sidetracked. Poe is a great character and I hope we get more time with him in the next movie.

Kylo Ren is a captivating villain, but he's really hard to pin down. Sometimes he's flippant, other times he's disarmingly straightforward. He's unpredictable, but I think it's largely because of how inconsistent he is. One thing that really confuses me is when the unfortunate officer tells him about "a girl" and he completely loses his shit, Force-grabbing him instantly. It suggested that he knew something about this girl, but it turns out he knew absolutely nothing about her. I thought maybe he knew that she had something to do with the "awakening" that he and Snoke felt, but he seemed shocked when he discovered she was Force-sensitive, so that couldn't be it. The only conclusion I can draw, therefore, is that he just irrationally overreacted to finding out that there was a girl involved in the droid's escape.

Don't get me wrong, I love Kylo Ren. I agree with a lot of people who say that he's kind of what George Lucas was trying to accomplish with Anakin, but well-acted and compelling. I think he benefits from the fact that he's not a Sith. There aren't a lot of good reasons for someone conflicted with the light side to be loyal to the Sith without being put under severe mind control, but Kylo Ren seems to be trying to blaze his own path in the dark side. Obviously, he's being manipulated to some extent by Snoke, but Snoke also gave him a certain degree of trust. There's still a lot more we have to learn about him and what drives him, but his relationship with Snoke feels less like Anakin's relationship with Sidious, and more like Luke's relationship with Yoda. Snoke reluctantly sent him off to confront his father, and now that he has proven himself, he must return to him and complete his training.

Actually, I've noticed that the biggest difference this movie has with the Original Trilogy is that the bad guys are sort of the rebellion this time around. Starkiller Base wiping out the New Republic's military and senate was akin to the Rebel's destruction of the Death Star in "A New Hope", and the destruction of Starkiller Base is kind of like the destruction of the Rebel base on Hoth in "Empire" (it's even on an ice planet). The First Order is back on the ropes, and while they'll likely have time to lick their wounds and rebuild their strength while the New Republic fills the power vacuum and starts building a new fleet, they didn't quite overthrow the government in control of the galaxy, just like how the Rebellion didn't quite finish off the Empire just by destroying the first Death Star.

I like this not just because it forces the good guys into a slightly different position, but because it means that the nest movie can't just be another "Empire Strikes Back". If anything, it'll be more like "The Republic Strikes Back".

What I find most interesting is that while General Hux is fixated on destroying the New Republic, Snoke and Kylo Ren seem vastly more interested in finishing off the Jedi. They prepare to attack the Resistance not because they want to finish it off, but because they want to do it now before they have a chance to find Luke. The rest is just politics.

Speaking of Luke... While I'm glad they explained that Luke tried to recreate the Jedi Order but Kylo Ren killed them all, they didn't really explain why Luke reacted by going into hiding. The best guess I can come up with is that Luke went to the first Jedi temple in order to try and rethink his approach to rebuilding the Order, so that his next attempt wouldn't result in failure, but it seems kind of weird to decide to do that before dealing with Kylo Ren and Snoke. That seems like it should be Priority One. Then again, Luke has always been pretty bad at prioritizing.

Maz is a really interesting character, and what I find even more interesting is that she's the only character we've met who was alive when Yoda was born (I suspect this is intentional). Not unlike Yoda, she acts as a very wise character, but I like that she's not a hermit. In fact, she's the exact opposite, running a cantina. While the cantina scene is probably the most shameless homage in the film, it serves as a great way to introduce Maz and to give Finn and Rey their "refusal of the call to action" they're supposed to have in order to satisfy the Campbell formula that was a great inspiration for the original film.

Still, there are a lot of weird choices where the movie is blatantly repeating stuff from the old movies, but decides to arbitrarily change the names and practically nothing else. Jakku is a desert planet that looks almost exactly like Tatooine, but with only one sun. Aside from that difference, it's practically identical, from the architecture design to the moisture condensers. Yes, I know that a desert planet would always need moisture condensers, but do they have to be the same ones? This is a completely new planet and since they made the conscious decision to make it not be Tatooine, they should have gone the extra mile and made it different in ways that weren't so pointlessly superficial. If they wanted it to be Tatooine, it should have just been Tatooine.

I think that's probably part of why I have a hard time saying that I like this movie better than the prequels. Yes, the dialogue and acting is far superior, and the mixture of practical and CG effects is blended in a way that is far more believable, but the prequels were inventive and bursting with actual creativity, not just the infinite possibility space given to us by Abrams, which is basically just a creativity IOU. Naboo, Coruscant, Kamino, Mustafar... these locations were memorable, iconic, and felt far bigger than what we got in "The Force Awakens". The closest we get is Maz's planet, Takodana, which I couldn't even remember the name of without looking it up, and even that basically just looked like Yavin IV with a cool cantina in it.

I really wish that George Lucas had acted as a Producer for this film, because his obsession with world-building was sorely needed for this film. Without the characters, the worlds Abrams presented to us would have felt far more lifeless than anything in the prequels. Thankfully, the characters make the world feel genuine, making up for this rather significant shortcoming.

If I was being honest, I'd say that I like this movie about as much as "Phantom Menace". I like it way more than "Attack of the Clones" and a bit more than "Return of the Jedi", but I think I like "Revenge of the Sith" just a little bit more.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but having seen "The Force Awakens" twice, I don't really feel like there's a lot of meat on the bones here. "The Force Awakens" is perhaps a less frustrating film than any of the prequels, but it's also significantly less ambitious. I'd probably be less reluctant to show this film to a random person, but I'd be less likely to watch it on my own. It feels like exactly the sort of movie George Lucas was deliberately trying not to make when he made the prequels. He clearly didn't want to just retread his earlier work.

I feel like the perfect "Star Wars" movie is something in between "The Force Awakens" and "The Phantom Menace". Relying heavily on great characters and great acting, but taking place in a world that is fully fleshed out and visually breathtaking and trying to do new things. Perhaps that is why "A New Hope" is so remarkable, even when compared to the other entries in the series.

I'm hoping that Rian Johnson will restore balance to the franchise. I think that Abrams has given him an incredible new place to work from, and I'm excited to see just where this whole thing is going, but I have a feeling that in a few years, "The Force Awakens" will be seen as the weakest movie of the sequel trilogy.

I've pretty much said everything I wanted to say, but I'm going to finish with a few stray thoughts and observations:

- So is Finn going to have a cyborg spine now? That could be pretty awesome.
- Is Chewbacca just going to chill out and wait for Rey to train with Luke? We didn't see him leave with the Falcon after dropping Rey off.
- I think that when Kylo Ren is saying that he'll finish what Vader started, he's not talking about ruling the galaxy or whatever, but bringing balance to the Force. I think that Kylo Ren believe that in order for the Force to be truly balanced, the Jedi must also be destroyed, just like the Sith. Hence why he created his own schism with the whole Knights of Ren thing, obsessed with Darth Vader, who betrayed both the Jedi and the Sith, ultimately serving neither. Perhaps his devotion to the dark side is out of necessity in order to destroy the Jedi.
- Is the New Republic going to rebuild the senate? Who's in charge now while they go about rebuilding everything? Leia?
- Did Leia ever train with Luke? Why didn't she become a Jedi? Was she afraid that she'd turn to the dark side? She does internalize a lot of tragedy, what with her home planet getting blown up in front of her and all.
- Seems like Chewbacca's family is officially non-canon now. The way Maz referred to him as her boyfriend (even if it was just a joke) suggests that he's single. Plus it looked like he was flirting with that doctor. Lumpy will not be missed.
- The fact that Kylo Ren recognized Anakin's lightsaber suggests that he's seen it before.
- I wonder if Kylo Ren was actually named Ben or if he was named Obi-Wan and Ben was just his nickname, much like how it was for the original Obi-Wan. Either way, when Han cried out, "Ben!" that was probably the closest I came to tearing up.
- Kylo Ren holding that blaster shot in mid-air was probably the single coolest thing in the entire movie.
- The music was lovely, but John Williams didn't really seem to stretch himself creatively this time around.
- The instant bread thing was pretty damn cool.
- The wreckage from the Battle of Jakku was probably the only thing about Jakku that was unique and interesting, and it had absolutely nothing to do with Jakku's culture or history. Still, the wreckage was very visually interesting.
- I think C-3PO's red arm is cool. I hope he keeps it.
- BB-8 is a marvel of practical effects. I love him.
- I like that when Finn reveals that he lied about being with the Resistance, Rey didn't really get upset with him. I hate that whole "liar revealed" trope and it was nice to see them side-step the whole thing.
- Maz is lovely and i hope she shows up in the eventual Yoda anthology film.
- General Hux is interesting, but he's no Tarkin.
- Did Kylo Ren lose his helmet? He left it on the catwalk, so I doubt he had time to get it before the planet became a sun.
- If Starkiller Base absorbed its sun, where did the light come from in the later scenes? I think it was a possible missed opportunity for some cool light design during the final battle.
- Why were there only X-Wings during the Battle of Starkiller Base? Where were the Y-Wings or B-Wings? I mean, especially considering how the main objective was to blow up a very specific part of the base, you'd think Y-Wings would be ideal, what with their bombing capabilities. Heck, why didn't the Resistance attempt to fight a land battle on the base? The First Order didn't seem to have AT-AT walkers and the like. This wasn't like the Death Star where landing on the surface wasn't possible because it didn't have an atmosphere. Starkiller Base was a planet. It was weird that they didn't fight on it like a planet.
- I really liked the riot trooper with the stun baton, but why was he there? It didn't look like they had qualms about killing innocent civilians or whatever. Why bring the nonlethal guy? And more than that, why didn't he try shooting at Finn? He recognized that he was a trooper, apparently, so he probably could have assumed that Finn wouldn't have been able to reliably deflect blaster shots like a Jedi would. Maybe he wanted to take Finn alive so he could be court-marshaled or something?
- I realized the second time around that the trooper that died in Finn's arms at the beginning was shot by Poe. I wonder if Finn was aware of this. Did he know the guy?
- I always find it funny when spies and scoundrels just randomly talk into their comms saying things like "Tell the First Order something something." Shouldn't they start by saying something like, "This is such-and-such. Do you copy?" Otherwise, their important message might be missed while the other guy is on the crapper.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Star Wars" and Cynicism

I've been trying to write a post about "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" for a few months now, but I've never really been able to write something that I was OK with posting, and ultimately, I think it's because I always end up sounding cynical.

I truthfully have mixed feelings about the new movie. On the one hand, I can't wait to see it. I haven't been this hyped up for "Star Wars" since "Revenge of the Sith". On the other hand, I have a lot of reservations about J.J. Abrams' capabilities as a writer and director, and it's not hard to cut together a good "Star Wars" trailer, so I tend to take them with a grain of salt. However, as soon as I start going down the path of talking about all of the things that bug me about what I've seen so far, I start to hate the way it all sounds.

It isn't fair for me to be cynical about this next movie, because honestly, the cynical part of me wants it to be terrible. J.J. Abrams is exactly the sort of "Star Wars" fan that has done nothing but whine about the franchise since "Return of the Jedi". Since I was a kid, all I ever heard from those fans was how much everything sucked. Ewoks sucked, the Special Editions sucked, Jar Jar sucked, the new puppets sucked, the lack of puppets sucked, Anakin sucked, etc. and why oh why can't they just make a movie like they used to!

And now Disney is doing exactly that. Old cast, old methods, a plot that seems to be a carbon copy of "A New Hope" but with different names and places, and disregarding almost anything that has transpired since J.J. Abrams was a kid (unless it happened to make millions of dollars).

A lot of people see this as a love-letter, but at my worst, I see it as the product of a jaded "Star Wars" fan. The sometimes-implied notion that "back to basics" is what "Star Wars" needed all along completely misses the point of "Star Wars" for me.

This movie being terrible would be very vindicating. A testament to how the cranky old fans were always wrong and that their desire to "save 'Star Wars'" was always just about them not wanting to admit that maybe "Star Wars" never needed saving in the first place. That they were just mad that it wasn't pandering to them anymore.

And even if the new movie is bad, it won't really hurt the "Star Wars" canon for me. The next director, Rian Johnson, inspires a great deal more faith in me than Abrams does. He's an old fan, but he's brimming with imagination. "Looper" impressed me by being a time travel movie that had a pretty simple plot, but managed to feel incredibly unique. Who randomly puts telekinetic powers into a movie about time travelling hitmen? Rian Johnson, that's who. And it doesn't stop there. Every movie he has made is unlike anything I've ever seen, and all without straying outside of convention. "Brick" was a film noir set in a high school. "Brothers Bloom" was a quirky caper comedy with a genuine heart and a gut-punch of an ending that still finds a way to be enigmatically optimistic so that it doesn't sour the overall tone of the film. It's the same kind of magic that made "Star Wars" work from the beginning. It's that kind of "chocolate and peanut butter" logic that makes perfect sense when you see it, but it takes a genius to come up with it in the first place. And hearing him talk about the job, it just sounds like he's exactly the sort of person I want handling "Star Wars". If J.J. Abrams botched this, it wouldn't really hurt "Star Wars", it would just hurt Abrams and all of the fans who thought that this was what "Star Wars" needed.

I can't really lose. Even if this movie sucks, I'll still get to be smug about it from now until the next movie comes out and saves the day.

And yet... I don't want to hate this movie. I want to love it. I want all of the things I'm hoping to see to be brought to life. And despite my issues with Abrams, he's consistently very good at directing actors in a way that George Lucas never was. He's not so good at writing and his movies almost always have incredibly disappointing third acts, but maybe collaborating with Kasdan will make the difference.

I have dozens of reasons why I might hate this movie. I'm worried that the third act will just be blowing up yet another spherical super weapon. I'm worried that the movie will tie itself into a convoluted knot to explain why the good guys are still underdogs even though they won in the last movie. I'm worried that too much of the movie will be about making winking references to the original movies, or worse, thinly-veiled put-downs directed towards the newer canon. I'm worried that Abrams is hiding the fact that certain characters might have the last name Skywalker or Solo just so he can give us a convoluted "surprise" reveal like he did with Khan in "Star Trek Into Darkness" that isn't actually surprising and often requires a lot of pointless plot gymnastics to justify. I'm worried that the incredible and imaginative production design I'm used to will be reduced to just replicating things that were in previous movies, are remarkably similar to things that were in previous movies, or are just realizations of old, unused concept art. If there's more stuff like BB-8, I'll be fine.

But there are some things that would make me giddy as a schoolgirl. Finn turning out to be a clone would be an amazing revelation, especially if he's actually Force-sensitive (the implications!). Luke's "exile" turning out to be less about doing the hermit thing like Obi-Wan and Yoda and more about training the new generation of Jedi in secret would be nice. I'm hoping Captain Phasma turns out to be a sort of Stormtrooper Javert; Lawful Neutral to a fault. The Knights of Rey turning out to not be inherently evil, but a group misled by Supreme Leader Snoke (the new Emperor, basically) would be an interesting angle. The possibility that Finn isn't Force-sensitive, but Rey is would be cool because then you'd have a Force-sensitive character who doesn't use a lightsaber and a non-Force-sensitive character who does use a lightsaber.

In general, I'm just hoping that there's more to this movie than it seems. That there are real surprises hidden inside Abrams' "mystery box" this time around.

However, one thing I've decided is that even if the movie is terrible, even if all the "surprises" fall flat and it's just a cookie-cutter rehash, I don't intend to be cynical about it. I'll probably rant about it for a blog post or two, certainly, but I don't intend to fall to the dark side like many of the fans before me. I won't spend the next decade complaining about everything it did wrong. Hell, I'll probably still watch it whenever I decide to marathon the series, because even bad "Star Wars" movies tend to have something worth watching. And I won't have to put together a "fan-edit" to make it "the way it should have been". I won't act like the series has been ruined. I won't look forward to "Episode VIII" any less. And I won't be a jerk to the people who inevitably decide that this is their favorite movie in the series.

In a little over a week, I'll be going into a little theater near my hometown with my girlfriend, my brother, and some friends to see it on opening night. We will have a great time no matter how bad it might be because it's "Star Wars". And I'll probably go see it again the next day, even if I hated it, because it's "Star Wars".

Young children (but not super young children... the movie is rated PG-13, parents) will be seeing "Star Wars" for the first time next week. Good or bad, they'll hopefully walk out of that theater wanting to swing lightsabers, fly the Falcon, and feel the Force. They'll go home and dive into all the old movies and cartoons and they'll become a part of a fandom that, in spite of its darker side, still loves this franchise because of the way it connects all of us through our collectively captivated imagination.

How could I possibly be cynical about that?

May the Force be with you.