Once More Unto the Seat

The addition of lightsaber glow alone is enough to justify all the fuss.
The addition of lightsaber glow alone is enough to justify all the fuss.

This post is intended for folks who have already seen the movie and/or are not fussy and precious about reading descriptions of fictional works that they have not yet seen (or read) themselves (aka spoilers). Click here for the spoiler-free, progressive/nerd/parent review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, written after seeing the move on opening night. This is your final warning. 

I resisted writing a fuller, spoiler-filled review of The Force Awakens the first weekend it was out – and I’m glad. Now I can just add some deeper thoughts to what I already wrote and then move on to linking and quoting some of the best, and the worst, that the interwebs has to offer on this multi-billion dollar corporate/pop-culture/archetypal mash-up experience. Because a lot of other people already wrote most anything I had to say about it. Except…

My three complaints

I have seen the movie four times now and I have basically the same complaints I had after the first viewing, but now I can write about them freely without fear of the Anti-Spoiler Legions descending on me:

  1. Supreme Leader Snoke looks really lame.
    #Sorrynotsorry. The dude is just an Voldemort/Gollum hybrid. I would’ve preferred an old, emaciated Darth Jar Jar. Seriously. Is this a substantial criticism of the film? I mean, it is sincere, but not really substantial. I just think that Andy Serkis in costume would’ve been better than the CGI dude. Makeup could’ve done the head wounds, you know? It was the only part of the movie that, the first time around, made me momentarily grip my seat and think “this thing could still go Phantom Menace on us.” So glad that didn’t happen.
  2. Finn’s use of lightsaber was just for promotional misdirection?
    So I don’t know for sure if this is the case or not, but it really does seem like Finn only had the lightsaber in the movie a few times so that he could be shown using it on posters, in trailers, etc – all to misdirect people from figuring out before the release that Rey would be the up & coming Jedi of the new trilogy. This is one of the two complaints I alluded to in my first review and there is no way to know if Finn will become a Jedi later, or if lightsabers will come into common use by the resistance later on in the trilogy, or what else might happen to put this part of the story into another context. I’m open to changing my mind in the future. For now, it looks like the whole thing was a head fake and personally I think that is a bit shit.
  3. Starkiller Base should be renamed The Derp Star.
    This is the second of my original two complaints: Starkiller Base is aggressively, epically, distractingly stupid. Of my three complaints here, this is the only one I would say is truly critical of the film itself, not just a matter of my personal taste. Even in the fantasy galaxy of Star Wars, there must be some nods to reality.

    Let me count the ways that this particular doomsday weapon is absurd: A planet can’t get that close to a star and if it did, it sure as shit would not be covered in snow; after the planet is incinerated by the star it would also be vaporized by the fuel it draws from the star; you can’t drain a star without it eventually imploding (it’s not a fucking candle that gets dimmer, it is a massive orb of nuclear explosion, for fuck’s sake); if the beams from Starkiller Base fire at hyperspace speed, you wouldn’t see them from the bridge of a ship; for that matter, the people on the planets would not see the blasts before they had already impacted the planet; the explosion of planets in a distant solar system would not be visible for many years from another solar system and certainly not immediately visible to folks standing on the surface of a planet in another solar system; when such a base is destroyed, it would explode, not turn into a new star; if it did turn into a new star, it would destroy all the nearby spaceships, not illuminate their escape. That’s eight distinct, unforgivable fails for this base just off the top of my head.

    (My reality-based criticism of Starkiller Base is not to be confused with the other common complaints. Some have wondered “why would they build a bigger Death Star after the first two were destroyed?” while others have complained “why do they keep making super weapons with a glaring weakness?” So, think about a crossbow. Then think about a ballista. Now think about how either is rendered useless by simply cutting a cord. Also, go watch The Pentagon Wars. The size and and vulnerability of the weapon are not what make it stupid and/or distractingly unrealistic.)

But really, that’s all I’ve got to complain about and it is not much. The most common complaints about the film – that it obviously set up sequels, that it mashed-up the original trilogy into one movie or that it mirrored A New Hope too much – all seem to me to be misplaced hate (more about that later).  My only other gripes are just aspects of the lore in between Jedi and Awakens and again, that’s just me personally, for example, wishing to see a new Jedi order up and running, but not actually a flaw of the film.

My praises far outnumber and outweigh my complaints

I really could go on for a while about how much there is to appreciate in this movie – as a film, as a Star Wars movie, as a space fantasy story, as a cultural phenomenon – so I will try to limit myself to the things not already said in a hundred other reviews.

  • The redemption of Star Wars movies – and of J.J. Abrams
    It is a little complicated for me, as a Star Trek fan first and foremost, that J.J. Abrams has received so much (more) fan scorn for aspects ofThe Force Awakens when he got not nearly enough scorn for the execrable 2013 Star Trek: Into Darkness. But Star Trek, as a franchise, is clearly still in a wilderness from which 2009’s fantastic reboot was only a momentary escape. And I digress. Star Wars movies have also been in the wilderness for a while. Not content just to shit on all of us via the prequels, Lucas continued to tinker with the original trilogy on each subsequent release (re-release in theaters, DVD, Blu-Ray) right up until he sold LucasFilm to Disney in 2012. Ever since, Star Wars has been on the mend. The Clone Wars series (Netflix) was pretty good stuff. Star Wars: Rebels (Disney XD) is a good show and I would recommend it to both kids and grownups. So Disney had already established some credibility and, with Abrams only signed on as director for the first of the new Star Wars trilogy, it was reasonable to hope that he would deliver something as good or better than his first Star Trek offering.

    And he did! For all the criticism (both passive and aggressive) of how Episode VII so closely mirrored Episode IV, it is all in service to the movie itself and the greater good of Star Wars as a franchise. We needed a good movie – and this is a good movie. We needed a good script – and this was certainly the best script of any Star Wars movie (in space opera, best writing doesn’t mean it is the best installment, but it is still an achievement). We also, I think, needed a cozy, familiar story structure in which to sit down while the really bad news got delivered – the Alliance failed to destroy the Empire, the Republic started back up but oops it is gone now, the remnants of the Empire are ascendant in the galaxy, Han and Leia got married then left each other when their son turned to the dark side and destroyed the new Jedi order, and then Luke – once again the last Jedi in the galaxy – decided to disappear, and nobody has even been joyriding in the Millenium Falcon as a silver lining.

    Lucas tried, and failed, to make his prequel trilogy an allegory for the imperialism of the Cheney-I-mean-Bush administration. In the process, he lower-case-t-traumatized nerddom with a trilogy of Star Wars films that weren’t just not as good as the originals, but were not even competently made films. Now comes J.J. Abrams, and he has succeeded in beginning the new trilogy as an allegory for the harsh truth of our time: the Baby Boomers achieved many things, but their revolutions ultimately all failed, and now Millennials are left to fight the same battles all over again. As if that is not achievement enough, Abrams delivered a spectacular story full of new and exciting characters joining old and beloved characters for an adventure that is fun, well told, and works like a 2 hour cinematic EMDR session to resolve the trauma of the prequels. Well played, sir. Very well played!

  • Kylo Ren is the perfect Star Wars villain for our time
    I am almost too excited about this, even now, to settle down enough to write about it clearly. Where do I even begin? Powerful as he may be, he isn’t actually a Sith lord or a Jedi. He is a Darth Vader wannabe, a fan boy. He is how you would imagine the owner and abusive moderator of /r/VaderLives, brought to life and put in charge of a fascistic interstellar army. “You know I can take anything I want, don’t you?” “That lightsaber! It belongs to me!” Fuck yes. This is the real villain of progress, the young enemy of the future, who dreams of clinging to the power and privilege he imagines people like him had in the past. I mean, come on, he kills his father in his quest to become more like his dark side idol –  who himself actually turned from the dark side in order to save his own son. Kylo Ren is powerful, but weak. His ambition is driven by fear and inadequacy. His ideals are premised on lies he tells himself about the past. He carries around a powerful, almost mythical weapon… …that he mostly uses to throw tantrums! He has a little room with a Vader souvenir that he uses like a liveblog!

    I am so stoked for more Kylo Ren and very, very hopeful that there is some kind of Luke/Kylo confrontation in the future. Maybe we could get some more of the backstory, too? Whatever – Kylo Ren is just perfect.

  • The bad guys are scary again
    This is one of those times where complaints about mirroring A New Hope seem to miss the value of doing so – Star Wars is supposed to be a bit scary. While I may be totally in the tank for Jedi, even I can admit that 1983 is when bad guys stopped being scary in Star Wars, and that was a problem. The Imperial assault of the blockade runner in Hope, like the attack on Hoth base in Empire, established the Empire as not-to-be-fucked-with. Then in Jedi the got taken down by stone age Teddy Ruxpins, in Menace the droids were comic relief and Darth Maul was cool – but not scary, in Clones Dooku was… …meh and Fett was just eye candy, and in Sith Palpatine was cartoonish while Grievous was the cool-but-not-scary bad guy du jour.

    The opening sequence of Awakens reestablishes the bad guys as scary – the frenetic music and lighting of the Stormtroopers on their way to Jakku, the sound of their blasters charging up, the fact that they are able to hit their targets on the ground, the end of the sequence where they slaughter the villagers – all of it is harsh and a bit frightening. Yay! And of course, thanks to the riot trooper who fights Finn in the ruins of Maz Kanata’s castle, there is also a veneer of badass on the First Order’s boys in PVC. Another nod to Abrams et al. here for showing how the bad guys can provide comic relief without becoming entirely silly (there are some hilarious moments involving First Order troopers and officers dealing with the, umm, stress of sharing an office with Mr. Ren.)

The music was great, especially the theme right at the end when Rey is on the island looking for Luke. The lightsaber props for this were actually lit up, which had never been the case before in a Star Wars movie, so in the movie you can see blue and red light on their faces and bodies and on the surroundings and it really is just fucking magical. I think the lightsaber glow, more than anything else, makes me want to keep going back to the theater. Rey is a fantastic hero, just as good or better than Kylo Ren is a villain. Han Solo is a scoundrel again! And yeah I could just go on and on. The movie is much more accomplished than it is flawed. For the total 180 on diversity in the franchise alone, it deserves heaps of praise.

Star Wars 7 mini-Reax

Of course, there has been much written and said about the move since its release. Here are some of my favorite links, annotated of course. I should mention now that while these links include both good reads and hate reads, it is by no means a comprehensive collection of all the reviews and articles out there. Because, you know, time is finite and I don’t hate myself and all that.

See the movie twice (hey Disney, you’re welcome)

It is easy to miss some of the awesomeness the first time through. I thought the movie was much, much better the second time. Gone were all of my hopes, my suspicions, the rumors about this or that, and I was really able to just settle into this movie for what it was: the beginning of a new Star Wars trilogy. Germain Lussier at io9 felt the same way and said it well, describing how it was to see the movie without all of the expectations, etc:

And seeing The Force Awakens with no baggage was amazing. In fact, it was the experience I had wanted that first time around. On a second viewing, my mind wasn’t spinning at the awesome exposition in the opening crawl and first conversation. I wasn’t dying to figure out who Max Von Sydow was playing. I didn’t have to obsess about each new piece of information about Finn, Rey, the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo. I could watch the thing, laugh, and just enjoy it. In particular, I enjoyed the banter between Finn and Rey, the awkwardness of their relationship, the humor in it. Those new characters juxtaposed with the old ones just felt right in this vast, creature filled world. And that’s just the opening of the movie.

I really couldn’t agree more. I also suggest this to anyone still complaining about the similarities with previous Star Wars movies. Each time I see Awakens (four and counting), it seems less and less like a redo and more and more like a very fresh take. [Disclosure: I do not get kickbacks from Disney or any theater company, but I would totally take them if offered.]

No, really – see it a second time.

Writing at Vox, David Roberts was one of many to say critics were not being hard enough on the film for mirroring previous Star Wars episodes:

It’s far too much borrowing to count as mere homage. But the films are different enough that The Force Awakens can’t be taken as a retelling or, as Ezra suggests, a “retcon” of the original (to my mind, the presence of characters from the original, still in the original timeline, rules that out).

So what is it? It’s just … peculiar, an unnecessary choice that doesn’t pay off.

You can click on the link to read the entire article which is still there, with all of its disdain, despite the fact that this is now also written at the end:

ADDENDUM: Last night, I went with my extended family to see the movie for a second time. My experience: I enjoyed it way more! With my critical antennae down a little, I was able to relax and appreciate the film’s pleasures for what they are. I wouldn’t bother to mention it except both my brothers and several in-laws said the exact same thing: lots of stuff that bugged them the first time around worked much better the second time.

Apparently, putting an addendum, which dismisses all that was written above, at the end of a five page post is preferable to just taking down the clickbait-titled screed or, you know, putting a nice “nevermind” at the top.

No happy endings for our childhood heroes

I’m not the only one who felt the pain of realizing that the bonfire on Endor was probably the last party that any of the Alliance folks got to enjoy. Rob Bricken has a great writeup at io9 about how he felt upon discovering that life has been miserable for the heroes of the original trilogy:

And “miserable,” I think, is the correct word: Han and Leia not only had a kid who turned evil, but this was so traumatic that it tore their relationship apart, separating them for years. Luke tried and utterly failed to revive the Jedi order and not only got a bunch of people killed in the process, but failed to prevent his nephew from falling prey to the dark side. He’s spent years in self-imposed exile as a result. There’s no silver living here, no way to spin it—our heroes, the ones I grew up with, spent most of their adult lives alone, in anguish.

Would now be a good time to promote Nihilist Memes on Facebook? I am not involved with the page, but I’m a fan, and they’re good comedic relief for existential dread. Try them! Or don’t. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.

Rey is the perfect heroine of our time

I thought about gushing about Rey as perfect protagonist right along with gushing about Kylo Ren as the perfect antagonist, but Megan Garber already did it better in The Atlantic. Garber makes a keen observation about how the (very few) heroines in previous Star Wars trilogies reflected the (mainstream) feminism of their time, and how Rey does the same now:

Rey, however, is a character for a time that is coming to a new peace with feminism. A time that is replacing feminism-as-a-movement with feminism-as-a-way-of-life. Rey’s feminism does not protest too much. It is not insistent; it is not obvious. It is, instead, that most powerful of things: simply there. Rey, tellingly, is not an archetype, but rather a fully realized character, subtle and nuanced and human. She, as a character, luxuriates in her own subjectivity.

I encourage you to read the whole article. Garber gets into some fun and interesting detail on Rey’s clothes, her (lack of) makeup, and all of the aesthetic implications for the character. I really liked her outfit at the end of the film, too. Not to mention that it is deliciously subversive how the film just grants Rey all the usual Skywalker tricks – natural leader, skilled warrior, good with technology and machines, great pilot – without trying to give her the “girl version” of any of those things. Looking for your usual archetypal warrior inventor guy? Here she is.

The Petty Boorgeois

Man, some people really didn’t like the movie, or at least they don’t like that Disney made it with an eye to making more, or maybe they don’t like that we all liked, or maybe they didn’t even see it… …I don’t know, but here is a quick sample of one such hatefest, by Michael Hiltzik in the LATimes:

This isn’t to say that it’s not an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. If you’re among the millions who plainly have done so, bless your heart. The issue, however, is whether “The Force Awakens” even deserves to be considered as a movie, because it’s not. It’s the anchoring element of a vast commercial program, painstakingly factory-made for maximal audience appeal, which means maximal inoffensiveness. The result tells us a lot about the state of entertainment today, and about the future of Hollywood.

It is an epic feat of derp, this piece. To say that a film which inspired more-than-zero people to boycott it because of the diverse cast, faced a poseur-nerd backlash for having a black Stormtrooper, and handed the reins – and the lightsaber – of the Skywalker saga to a young woman, is somehow trying not to offend anybody is… …well, I mean, that’s just really stupid. It makes you wonder: Did Hiltzik see any coverage of the movie before it came out? Did he actually watch the movie? (He also talks about several movies he thinks are more important to cinema than Awakens, and they’re all full of white people (mostly men). Just sayin’)

But we don’t need to hate on Hiltzik here, as I’m sure legions of nerds have already bombarded the LATimes with their feedback and thus proven that trolling nerds is good online business. I just wanted to provide the piece as an example of the kind of contrarian trolling that has become common and was inevitable after the overwhelmingly positive initial response to the movie’s release.

I mention all this mostly as set up for linking and quoting a fantastic rant by film industry professional Matty Granger, which he posted on his Facebook account. The backstory is that some fool at the SideBoob Gazette Huffington Post spewed forth a big listicle of 40 “unforgivable plot holes” from The Force Awakens. That is par for the course at HuffPo, but apparently a bunch of people (who I assume are new to the internet) actually read the listicle at HuffPo and then shared and reshared the list around Facebook. It caught the attention of Mr. Granger, who then wrote this response, which I believe to be a most worthy polemic. Do please go read the whole thing, it is good nerd fun. Here are a few of my favorite bits from the point-by-point rebuttal (the original listicle entries are bold and Mr. Granger’s responses are below them):

3. Kylo Ren, a powerful Force-user, fights a light saber duel with an ex-janitor who has never held a light saber.

 

Actually, the “ex-janitor”, Finn got his ass handed to him.  He lasted about thirty seconds against Kylo Ren.  Not only that, but he ended up sliced open and left for dead.  What the fuck are you talking about?

 

But let’s entertain this dumb-ass statement a little more.  First off, Finn was a Stormtrooper assigned to sanitation, much like other Stormtroopers would’ve been assigned to various departments around the base.  Nowhere in this movie is it said that Finn was a janitor.  Not once.  And how does he hold his own in combat against Kylo Ren for as long as he does?  I’d hazard a guess that Finn was trained in the same fashion as the badass, laser-baton wielding Stormtrooper he fights at Maz Kanata’s castle.  Setting up the Stormtrooper skill-set is the whole point of showing that fight.  Which incidentally, is actually the first time he holds a lightsaber, not when he fights Kylo.  Learn why scenes are in movies, dude.  It’ll help you not make embarrassing statements like this.

15. Let’s be clear: Han’s son joins the First Order, and Luke’s attempts to train new Jedis goes horribly wrong, and both men respond to these setbacks by, well, abandoning the Resistance to be utterly slaughtered by the First Order.

 

Aside from this article, have you ever failed horribly?  I don’t mean something trivial.  I mean something like…I don’t know…being responsible for turning your nephew into a mass murderer.  How about being the shitty father that completely failed his mass murdering son?  I imagine those type of things could leave a psychological scar or two.  To make it worse, that’s just what we currently know.  We have no idea of the full scope of what happened to these men yet. 

27. How did Kylo Ren manage to get Darth Vader’s mask into his little fetish den?

 

It doesn’t matter.  I can think of a million ways it fell into his possession, as I’m sure anyone could.  The answer will probably end up being in a comic book about some Stormtrooper on Endor.  Quit being so picky.  Make something up in your head if it’s bothering you that much because it really doesn’t matter.

 

28. How does Finn find Rey’s settlement?

 

He happened upon it.  He didn’t know where he was or where he was going.  Watch some westerns.  People have been happening upon plot points in the desert since “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.

34. How do the Rathtars on Han’s freighter get loose?

 

Rey in an attempt to throw some fuses to close the doors between Han and the two gangs, hits the wrong fuse and instead opens the Rathar cages.  She even has dialogue about it.  WATCH THE FUCKING MOVIE!

I also particularly like how at the beginning of the post, Granger assumes the listicle author is some Millenial member of the Petty Boorgeois, only to discover that it is someone much closer to his own age. Clickbait contrarianism, like the dark side, is powerful and exerts an influence on the weak minded of all ages.

May the force be with you

That last excerpt is a fine note to end on. Watch the fucking movie! Watch it a second time if you haven’t already! It is good fun. It isn’t the best movie ever, it is debatable if it is even the best Star Wars movie ever, but it cannot be overstated how great it is to know that Star Wars movies are good again. Best. Christmas. Ever.

Now I think I will take a break from obsessing (and writing a lot) about Star Wars so that I can focus on… …obsessing and writing a lot about the 2016 election. Sometime around October, it will become difficult to balance both political and nerd obsessions since the first Star Wars Anthology film, Rogue One, comes out in December. Trailers releasing the same time as Presidential debates? It’s going to be intense.

Got a question or comment? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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