The Force Awakens — Prologue

Let me frame this series by saying that I was giddy throughout most of The Force Awakens. The opening night crowd was a delight, applauding the major characters when they appeared on screen, just like theatre stars of old taking the stage. Even seeing it the second time (in glorious, laser projected 3d Imax), I teared up the moment the logo hit the screen.

Fin and Rey are brilliant new heroes to take up the story, and Harrison Ford does some of his best on screen work ever. I am thrilled that The Force Awakens is the most diverse Star Wars ever, and hope that trend continues in the next installment.

But I can love something and still be critical of it.

So this first post will be a brief critique, so you can see where I’m coming from. As commentaries have been popping up all over the internet, I’m not going to belabor this, just provide context.

And then in a following series of posts I’ll explore some counterfictional ramifications of what’s on film.

The majority of my issues with the movie relate to my fundamental disagreements with the way JJ Abrams tells stories, and are very similar to my objections to his Star Trek movie.

  1. He will always choose the cool thing he wants to do over a different, but probably equally cool, thing that makes more sense.
  2. JJ has serious problems with interstellar scale.
  3. There is no earned weight to destruction in JJ’s universe.

WARNING: THIS POST IS FULL OF SPOILERS

On Echoes and Nostalgia

There’s something to be said for the cyclical nature of the hero’s journey in the Star Wars universe. And if a handful of the elements had been the same (say, the opening sequence or a droid entrusted with a message OR an orphan on a desert planet OR another X-wing run on a massive base), I think it would have come off better.

But Disney is a nostalgia machine, and J.J. revels in it (see Super 8, for example, which is basically ET meets Goonies in an ode to a semi-imagined childhood and his filmmaker idols.) The thing that Star Trek screenwriters Kurtzman and Orci, and JJ, their frequent collaborator, really nail is capturing the essence of what people love about a story in the small details. The character beats in Star Trek, the handful of very satisfying lines in the mostly terrible big screen A-Team.

With TFA, JJ executes the small nods very well, and his sensitivity toward character, combined with Kasdan’s writing, make for some great moments. The middle of TFA is, to me, the best Star Wars since Empire. There is a lot that is admirable about this very well made film.

But all of those small victories are in danger of being overwhelmed by wholesale borrowing of plot points and set pieces.

One can dramaturgically justify the repetition of A New Hope, if one wants to see Rey’s journey as mirroring Luke’s. But that reasoning only goes so far, especially considering this is the second time that JJ has remade A New Hope (take another look at the plot of his Star Trek movie.)

Lucas has recently said of Disney, “They wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that. Every movie, I worked very hard to make them different. I made them completely different — different planets, different spaceships to make it new.” (To which we all reply, really George? Death Star 2?)

Beyond that, his argument is the extreme in the opposite direction: newness for the sake of novelty (and more toys to sell).

One of the best things about TFA is a smooth evolution of the technology and world as exhibited in production design… as opposed to the Prequels, which adjusted the aesthetic of technology so much that there wasn’t a believable track to go from there to the original trilogy in only a couple of decades.

On The Nose

Disney wants everyone to understand exactly what their movies are about, with little to no ambiguity.

There are so many moments that are almost classic in TFA, but then go on too long. For Example:

HAN
I saw him. Leia, I saw our son.
He was here.

If the line had been, “I saw him, Leia. He was here.” it would have perfectly captured their relationship, where they always say more without words than with.

Similarly, the later Han/Leia dialogue:

HAN
 Listen to me, will you? I know every time you… every time you look at me, you’re reminded of him.
LEIA
 You think I want to forget him? I want him back!
HAN
 There was nothing we could’ve done.
(hard for him to say)
 There was too much Vader in him.
LEIA
 That’s why I wanted him to train with Luke. I just never should have sent him away. That’s when I lost him. That’s when I lost you both.
HAN
 We both had to deal with it in our own way. I went back to the only thing I was ever good at.
LEIA
We both did.

Could be much more economical:

HAN
 Listen to me, will you? I know every time you… every time you look at me —
LEIA
 You think I want to forget him? I want him back!
HAN
(hard for him to say)
 There was too much Vader in him.
LEIA
 That’s why I wanted him to train with Luke. I never should have sent him away. That’s when I lost you both.
HAN
 I went back to the only thing I was ever good at.
LEIA
We both did.

But this expansion definitely feels like a studio note. Disney wanted to make damn sure the audience knew who Han was talking about.

This same trend can be seen in a number of Disney’s other properties. The mostly very good live action version of Cinderella explicitly states its theme “have courage and be kind” every few minutes, to the point of distraction.

Theatre artist Robert Wilson recently said in an interview, “It is OK to get lost! You don’t have to understand every second. I think that’s the problem. Let the audience get lost. It’s OK.” And while Wilson’s work can get particularly… obscure, the spirit of this idea is endangered in our popular culture.

This is one of the things that is, in my opinion, so genius about my favorite movie of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road: it does not feel the need to overburden us with textual explanations. It presents us a world as is, and in avoiding overstatement, ends up being internally consistent and open to interpretation.

On ending a Star Wars movie

The way a Star Wars movie ends is with a tableaux of the principals either looking out at a scenic vista, or facing the camera. This is one of the things that is consistent between the original trilogy and the prequels, and an obvious missed opportunity for an homage that did not seem forced.

TFA should have ended with a tableaux of the Resistance, Leia, the droids, and Poe (and maybe Admiral Akbar for the hell of it) looking on as the Falcon took off in search of Luke. What a perfect echo of the end of Empire it could have been.

But, again, this feels like a studio note. They probably insisted that Luke appear in the film. Still, there was a way to do the final shot in a way that felt more Star Wars and less JJ.

Summing Up

So the above provides my framework for the installments that follow.

To sum up:

I liked The Force Awakens. I love the potential of the new heroes. It felt like a Star Wars movie in a way that none of the prequels did, and that’s more to do with character and production design than plot elements.

In some ways I enjoyed it even more the second time (3d lasers help).

I fundamentally disagree with ways that JJ Abrams chooses to tell stories, and probably always will, but acknowledge that a lot of people love his work.

I hope that now that Disney has shown it can make a movie that feels like Star Wars, this new trilogy can diverge in more interesting directions.

Now, on to the fun stuff…

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