Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens





After trying, and failing, to keep to my shorter review format, I've decided to just write this up as a long review.
To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, I would have written a shorter review, but I didn't have the time.

My Background With Star Wars
My Star Wars story is the same story as every other person my age.  
I was 5 years old when Return of the Jedi hit theaters in 1983.  And it absolutely blew my 5 year-old little mind.  (As was the experience of watching Star Wars on TV, also when I was 5 years old.)
I have since that time achieved cognitive maturity, but because of the power of nostalgia I will never be able to view Star Wars with any sort of objectivity.  Whenever I see these movies, I'm not seeing them through adult eyes.  Instead, I am remembering how they made me feel at 5 years old.  
In other words, these movies are not just ordinary movies to me.  And these characters are not just ordinary characters.
I haven't conducted any sort of scientific poll, but if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, and if the huge anticipation of this movie is anything to go by, most people of my generation feel exactly the same way.

I've always thought it was a mistake to identify Star Wars  as geek culture in the media.  Granted, I personally am a huge geek, but I know many people of my generation who aren't, and they're all huge Star Wars fans too.  Everyone in my elementary school playground was obsessed with Star Wars.  Everyone.  (Fredrik deBoer also recently made this point [LINK HERE] . Star Wars was a huge cultural behemoth which swept over everyone's childhood in the early 1980s.  The bullies as well as the nerds all loved Star Wars.   )

All this being said, there do seem to be limits to the appeal of Star Wars. At one point in my life, I thought everyone liked Star Wars.  But then I began to notice that  people who saw Star Wars for the first time as adults never really got the appeal of it. This confused me at first, but then I tried to view the movie through adult eyes.  Maybe it wasn't as good as I thought.
"Okay," I began saying.  "Maybe you have to see these movies when your 5 years old, or you can never really truly understand their impact on childhood."
I had to revise my opinion still further when I began getting reports from friends of mine, teachers, that kids these days just weren't that into Star Wars.  And I began to realize that maybe the special effects were dated.  And maybe the action scenes, which had seemed so amazing in 1983, were ordinary nowadays.  And maybe the whole pacing of the movie (the first Star Wars especially) was completely different to modern movies.

So, I revised my opinion yet again: "Okay, in order to truly understand how great these movies are, you had to see them when you were 5, and it had to be in the early 1980s," I said.

I've had in mind this year to write a post analyzing the original Star Wars trilogy, and discussing what about it exactly so captivated us as kids.  (I've made promises to write that post  herehere and here), but it was impossible to write.  I found myself trying to either put my finger on something that probably couldn't be pinned down exactly (why Star Wars was such a huge hit, but none of it's many imitators could ever duplicate it's success) or I found myself repeating what had already been said about Star Wars a million times already on the Internet (talking about the character arcs in the first Star Wars movie, for example).
And then, these movies were on TV the other day, and I was watching them, and I thought: You know, it's just self-evident that these movies would appeal to young kids in the early 1980s.  You don't need to write 1,000 words trying to explain it.  It's just obvious by looking at it that kids would love this movie.
I mean, you could write that post, if you were a real cinephile, and wanted to dissect exactly what makes a good movie good.  But you don't really need to explain it's appeal.  It's appeal is self-evident.  Five minutes into the movie, and I was like, "Oh yeah.  It's no wonder we all went nuts for these movies as children.  This is exactly the kind of movie kids would love."
This was especially true in the 1980s, when there really were no other movies like this around.  Admittedly, nowadays when big budget fantasy/action films are much more common, Star Wars wouldn't have made the same impact on today's generation.  But back in 1983, there were no other movie like this.
So, yeah, duh, no wonder everyone went nuts for them.  There's no more to be said.

There are a couple of lingering questions:
"Okay," you might say, "I'll grant that nostalgia can make you feel fondly for childhood movies.  Fair enough.  But come on!  There's being nostalgic for something, and then there's being completely obsessed with something."
This obsession with nostalgia seems to be unique to our generation.  I mean, when our parents were our age, they weren't obsessing about the movies from their childhood, were they?   (Or were they?) [This cartoon (LINK HERE) does a good job of pointing out the differences between adults of generations past, and adults of our generation.]
As I said in my previous post on generation blaming, there's no sense trying to blame generations for their unique characteristics.  The only thing you can do is look at the causes.  Is our generation obsessed with movie nostalgia because we were the first generation to be raised largely indoors?  Or is it just that there was never any phenomenon like Star Wars in our parents' generation to compare with?  Or is every generation nostalgic, and it's just that there just never was a big industry to cater to before now?
I don't know.

The other lingering question is exactly when the cut-off dates are for the Star Wars generation.  I'm pretty sure you have to see it in childhood, or you'll never be able to fully understand it's appeal.  This newspaper columnist [Link Here] for instance, was already an adult when Star Wars hits theaters, and writes intelligently on the generation gap between those who saw Star Wars as children, and those who were already cognitively mature when it first arrived.   For a while, I posited that 5 years old was the perfect age to see Star Wars, but Whisky Prajer was 12 when Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, and was also completely blown away by it [LINK HERE].  (I've also heard similar stories from some of my co-workers who are about 10 years older than me.)  So when is the cut off date?  Did you have to see it before you were 10?  12?  15?
And then there's also probably a cut-off date going the other direction as well: the younger generation, spoiled by movies with much better effects and much more adrenaline action sequences,  might not understand the appeal these movies had in the early 1980s. But again, the exact where cut-off age is, is difficult to pin down.  My younger co-workers (21 years old, some of them) were just as excited for this new Star Wars movie as I was.

Anyways, enough of my musings on nostalgia.  On to the main review:

Setting Expectations
Remember how excited you were when you heard that the whole cast of the original Star Wars had agreed to come back for the movie?
This was a minor miracle.  For years in interviews Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had all consistently expressed reluctance to do another movie.  I didn't think it was possible to re-unite the old gang.  But they did it!  And we were all over the moon.  Another Star Wars movie featuring our childhood heroes?  This was too good to be true.

And then, gradually, we found out that the original cast would just be in supporting roles or cameo roles.  And our excitement began to die down again.

Look, I know the torch had to be passed to a new generation at some point.  The original cast is all in their 60s and 70s, after all.  But I would have loved just one last movie focusing on the original cast.  In the first movie, you could have had all the new characters in supporting roles, and the original cast in the main role, and then gradually switched the focus over the course of the trilogy.

That's really the movie I wanted to see.

Instead, most of the original cast gets reduced to supporting roles, or brief cameo appearances.
Han Solo and Chewbacca being the exceptions of course.  Those two admittedly get a lot of screen time.  But Luke, Leia, C3P0, and R2D2 are barely in the thing.
I mean, if you couldn't get all the original cast to agree to come back, I would have understood.  But having accomplished the miracle of getting everyone to agree to come back....well, it just seems like a waste to have them all in the movie, but not get to do much.

That's obviously not the direction J.J. Abrams decided to go in, however, so there's no sense harping on it.  As Roger Ebert used to say: "Review the movie you saw, not the movie you wanted to see."

And to be fair, once I accept that, I have to admit that this is a pretty amazing movie.

The Review

Absolutely wonderful.  J.J. Abrams really hit the ball out of the park with this one.
As much as I would have loved to spend more time with the original cast, I have to admit that the all of the new characters are completely charming.  I loved Finn, loved Poe, and loved Rey.
(I hate to kick Lucas when he's down, but...but it's hard to avoid comparisons with the prequel trilogy, and how wonderful and interesting and charming all these new characters are in a way that absolutely none of the prequels characters ever were.)

This movie has the perfect mix of action, mystery, and humor.

Also, how great was Harrison Ford?  He gave a spectacular performance as Han Solo, in which both he and the screenwriters perfectly re-captured his humor from the original movies.

There are certain movies where you are so thrilled by the experience that you don't really care about any of the flaws.  You know the flaws are there, but you just don't care--you're enjoying the movie too much to be bothered by them.

This was one of those movies for me.

For example, before I went into this movie, I had heard that J.J. Abrams basically repeated all the same plot points from the original Star Wars movies.  (This Salon.com reviewer [LINK HERE], among others, tipped me off to what I was about to see.)  And I was all set to really hate this.
This repetitiveness has long been my least favorite thing about the Star Wars franchise.  I really hated that in the Star Wars prequels many scenes were just there purely for the purpose of reminding us of previous scenes.  And in my review of Star Trek Into Darkness, I wrote about how stupid I thought the whole idea of repetitive history was, and how I really hoped J.J. Abrams wouldn't do it in the new Star Wars.

Well, J.J. Abrams did exactly what I was hoping he wouldn't do, and yet...and yet I was so charmed by the overall movie experience, that I'm largely willing to forgive it.  Who cares if we've seen this same story before.  It was exciting, it was fun, it was thrilling, it was tense and suspenseful and funny in all the right places.

I don't know, maybe it should have bothered me more, but the movie was just so much fun I am willing to forgive a lot.

Similarly with the plot holes, coincidences, and macguffins--I know they're all there, but it this movie was so much fun, it didn't really bother me that much.

Also in a previous post, I complained that The Force was a really boring part of Star Wars, and expressed hope that the new movie would downplay that aspect of Star Wars.  This movie did not.  (The Force is a big part of the story.)  But I didn't mind.  It was well done.
The Force is still the most problematic part of the Star Wars universe (it's confusing and inconsistent), but in this movie, it was used as a way to build up the drama and the tension between the characters, and I found myself leaving the movie theatre without one complaint.

Well, okay, I do have a couple nitpicks:
I'm willing to forgive a lot of repetition if you can give me a fun movie, but that last part about blowing up the Death Star again was just a bit too on the nose.
If that part had been left out, I think most of the critics would have forgiven all the other repetitions.
And the pity is, the movie didn't need it.  You could have just canned that whole "blowing up the death star" bit, and it wouldn't really have affected the other plot lines that much.

Furthermore, the blowing up the Death Star scenes were perhaps the one part of this movie that suffered by comparison.  In both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, there was a fair amount of suspense created in the space battles around the Death Star.  In Star Wars, for example, we could see the faces of all of the fighter pilots.  There was building tension as they all got picked off one by one.
Unfortunately, there was none of that in this movie. J.J. Abrams generally did a good job of creating interest and suspense in all of his other scenes, but the space battle scenes are the one part of the movie where he really dropped the ball.  All the more reason why this whole part of the movie should have been cut, and nothing would have been lost.

And One More Big Complaint...
So, everyone knows Han Solo had to die at some point.

All Star Wars geeks know the history--Harrison Ford had wanted Han Solo to die since the original trilogy.  He reportedly thought it would add a sense of sacrifice and loss which would heighten the drama and reality of the series.  And he reportedly argued bitterly with George Lucas about this, but ended up getting over-ruled by Lucas.
I strongly suspect that Harrison Ford only agreed to come back for new Star Wars movies on the condition that they finally give him that Han Solo death scene he'd always wanted.
So as much as I hated to see Han die, I knew it had to happen.

But here's the thing though--it shouldn't have happened the first movie back.  This scene should have been pushed back to the second movie.  (Assuming, that is, Harrison Ford could have been talked into delaying it for one more movie.)
For one thing, I think fans kind of deserved one movie just enjoying Han Solo again before they had to say good-bye to him.
I mean, I want to enjoy all that classic Han Solo wit and one-liners that are fully on display in this movie, but it's so bittersweet now, knowing that this is also the movie where I have to say good-bye to him.

Secondly, and more importantly, this movie can't handle the emotional impact of Han's death.  There's just no room in the movie for the impact of the death to register.  No sooner has Han died, then Rey and Finn rush out into the woods for the climatic scene with Kilo Ren.  And don't get me wrong, that final climatic scene is great--it's very emotionally strong in its own right, but the emotions of that scene over-shadow what happened in the previous scene.
Come on!  This is Han Solo.  HAN SOLO.  You don't just kill him off and then rush on with the rest of the movie.  If you're going to kill him off, at least give him the full scene.  Let the camera linger.  Have a scene where the characters (and the audience) get to absorb what has happened before rushing off to the next scene.

And that's the one thing that really bugs me about this movie.  This is what brings the movie down from a solid 10 out of 10 to a 9.

9 out of 10 stars

Other Notes
* So, by all reports, Billy Dee Williams would have been perfectly happy to come back for this movie if someone had just phoned him up and asked him.
I'm a little bit puzzled as to why he's not in it.  Granted, there wouldn't have been much for him to do in this script.  He would only have been a cameo character--but then C3P0, R2D2, and Leia were also pretty much also reduced to cameos, so why not have Lando Calrissian also just hanging around at the rebel base?
For the moment, I'm going to put this as another negative on the film's score card.  But if it turns out in episode 8 that they were saving Lando's reveal for something really cool (and there are hints of this on the Internet rumor board) then I'll go back and remove this negative.

* According to this Wired.com article, Disney not only has plans to do this trilogy, but to release one Star Wars film a year forever.  (Or as long as people keep buying tickets).
I was so charmed by this film that I'm giving it a complete pass on its recycled plot.  But going forward, I think there is now a real question of how many stories Star Wars is capable of telling.  Are we just going to get the same movie over and over again 40 times over the next 40 years?  Because if we are, at some point I'm going to stop forgiving that.

* I've already linked before to this Charlie Jane Anders piece on the confused politics of Star Wars. Lucas was of the generation that was traumatized by the Vietnam War, and originally the evil Galactic Empire and its scorched earth policies were supposed to represent how the United States had acted in Vietnam.  But because of the confused messages of Star Wars, and because it represented a Manichean (W) universe in which there is little room for moral ambiguity, the film was perceived by many Americans as a message about the importance of keeping a strong military so as to continue the fight against evil.
Matt Zoller Seitz (writing on Roger Ebert's old site) thinks he sees a continuation of the Vietnam War's influence on Star Wars in the new movie, and I don't think he's wrong.  He talks about the "My Lai-style massacre" in the beginning of the film, and also says:
Many film historians have noted the way Lucas's first film, which came out two years after the end of US involvement in Vietnam, flipped that war's script upside-down, making defeated Americans identify with “rebels” who were essentially Vietcong-like guerrillas, and root against an industrialized military whose literally-scorched-earth tactics were all too Western. A shot of a storm trooper roasting a hut with a flamethrower brings the original trilogy’s Vietnam obsession full-circle
I'm not entirely sure the Vietnamese appreciate this part of their history being played out for science-fiction fantasy on the big screen.
As it happens, I saw this movie at a theater in Vietnam, and when this scene was playing, it seemed to me that a ripple of discomfort went through the theater.
(Or I don't know--possibly I was just projecting out my own discomfort at being the only white guy in the theater during this scene.  But I thought I could feel something in the air.)

* For my other thoughts on Star Wars, I wrote once before on Star Wars nostalgia back in 2005 (in anticipation of the release of Revenge of the Sith).  And then I reviewed Revenge of the Sith when it came out.  And then there's this post from 2012, in which I first reacted to the news that Disney was planning to resurrect the Star Wars franchise.

Link of the Day
On Power and Ideology


dpreimer said...

Saw it last night and liked it well enough -- though I am here to tell you that 3rd row from the IMAX screen is a bad, bad idea (didn't have too many options, alas).

I didn't notice the parallels with 77 until they were pointed out to me during the ride home -- a really weird "narrative glaucoma" on my part, as I'm usually hyper-sensitive to bricks-and-mortar plot construction. There were (chiefly) two measures of slight-of-hand that combined to distract me from this: 1) the incorporation of LOTR brutality, which I didn't mind seeing; 2) the new characters, whose introduction I enjoyed a great deal more than I did "catching up" with the old cast (you want to talk retirements -- I am so ready to bin C-3P0. We've had way too much of him, IMO).

That said, the Rescue The Captured Princess plotline was pretty thin gruel, I thought. And most of that has to do with the age we're living in. We no longer buy that rescuing a captured princess is as simple as walking into an office tower, putting a security guard into a headlock, and sneaking out with the goods -- especially once you've introduced the texture of combat- and fascist-brutality.

But that's just kvetching. I think, in the final analysis, that being introduced to the SW galaxy when you're five is about right. I was 12, and when ROTJ came along it completely blew the bloom off the rose. I ... I want to say, "I hated that movie," but that's not quite what happened. I've grown to hate it, certainly. But the truth is that movie disappointed me on such a fundamental level -- I thought it was probably my fault that I didn't really connect with the final duel between Vader and Luke -- it took me years to work up the emotional energy to hate it. By the time Lucas came around with the prequels, there was precious little he could do to rescue what originally smote me as a kid.

Joel Swagman said...

Yes, agreed, the film did so much to razzle and dazzle and generally entertain that it was completely possible not to really even notice that the plot was being recycled. (In my case, i noticed because I had already read reviews complaining about this. But I was entertained enough not to really care.)

As for ROTJ: I suspect you've seen this already, but this discussion reminds me of Barney Stimson and the Ewok Line:


The joke is itself now dated, since by now a woman who was under 10 years old when ROTJ came out would still be too old for Barney Stimson to date. Time marches relentless forward.

But the principle is still true I think. I loved the Ewoks when I was 5, and even though now I can somewhat get the fact that they don't fit tonally with the rest of the trilogy...I still can't bring myself to hate them.

The big problem to me about ROTJ (and this is the adult me talking now) is that it clearly showed Lucas and company were completely out of ideas. Another Death Star, another climatic face-off between Luke and Darth Vader...Maybe the Star Wars franchise was only ever a movie with one good idea in it, and that it was never meant to be stretched out over several movies?

But even all of that is only to criticize the final act. The first act of the ROTJ, Jabba's palace, still seems incredibly creative to me. A lot of interesting visuals going on throughout the whole thing, and that Sarlac pit fascinated me as a kid. (It was much better in the original edition, without the CGI generated mouth poking out. I was captivated as a kid the idea of just this mysterious hole at the end of the sand trap, that once you fell into it, you were never getting out.)

dpreimer said...

Yeah, Jabba's palace was well-conceived, if middlingly-executed (that blue guy on the piano ... sheesh). As for the Sarlac, well ... the problem, in my case, is that 12-year-olds who saw 77 almost inevitably dove into Frank Herbert's Dune, and, well ... you see where this is going.

Lucas was definitely out of gas. The movies clearly took a huge toll on him -- he was beset with serious health issues through most of the prequels. It's a wonder he didn't sell the franchise earlier, frankly. He's clearly got a lot of will.

Joel Swagman said...

Yes, that Blue Guy on the piano definitely looks dated now. Did not bother me at all in 1983, although it's hard to say if that was because I was 5 years old or if that was because it was 1983.

Other details I think hold up well. The scale of Jabba's palace, especially that Wizard of Oz like opening where C3P0 and R2D2 walk up to this big wall and get interrogated by that.

The Rancor pit as well hit all the right buttons for me when I was 5. I was just horrified enough to enjoy it. (The way that dancer got dropped into the pit, and all you could hear were her screams long before you saw the Rancor. The way that green guard got eaten. It was all just fascinating to a 5 year old.)

I actually never read Dune, but I'll take your word for it that Sarlac's pit was a complete rip off.

I guess a lot of viewing experience is subjective, isn't it? For that matter, the original Star Wars was ripping off other films left right and center. If you were already an adult when the original came out, and you already knew what sources it was copying, then I guess you'd be this guy:


On the other extreme, I hear through the grapevine that there's now an entire generation who grew up loving the prequels because they saw the Phantom Menace when they were 5 years old.
I absolutely hate the Phantom Menace, but I defend ROTJ on the same grounds, so I guess I'd have to give the same lee-way here.

dpreimer said...

Further on Lucas' conflicted politics.

Joel Swagman said...

Thanks for that. And interesting read.