Thursday, January 7, 2016

Spoiler Wars: Episode VII Point 1 Old Stuff

I’ve calmed down somewhat to be occasionally coherent when looking at individual details of The Force Awakens.  Not completely, though since I’ve also gotten caught up with Rebels which impressed me enough to go back and start watching  The Clone Wars...Plus my daughter wanting to continue going through the films means I'll be watching the prequels again, which will lead to re-watching the  Originals, and Special Editions if I know me.
Also there’s the evidence of the uncontrolled expansion of the Hot Wheels spaceship collection.  But I can string a few words together without going, “WOO HOO!” So that’s something.

WARNING:  STAR WARS spoilers below.  If you want a spoiler free review, CLICK HERE.

The Story:

Considering its on track to break every box office record in the universe, it feels silly that I need to defend this movie.

Most films pushing forty would get a flat out remake, in this case it’s a revisitation of what made the original a cultural icon, while preserving the universe it introduced and building on it.

I don’t think it’s as much of a direct copy of the original Star Wars as it is accused of being.  Rather, both stories set the Hero’s Journey in the same universe.  Death of the mentor, refusal of the call, belly of the beast- these and others are key elements of that tale.  Parallels are established, but I’m betting we’ll see more surprise twists rather than direct followings.   

There isn’t really a direct mapping of Rey, Finn and Poe to Luke, Han and Leia.  The coming attractions were sneaky enough to make it look like there were, providing surprises throughout the adventure. Each character is going through Campbell’s Journey in unique ways.   

Yes, it is another Death Star. That’s what the Empire builds.  Look at either political party to see examples of governments that try the same thing over and over again regardless of success rate.

There were some changes. 
A) This monstrosity was better protected requiring multiple “impossible” steps by different individuals to get it to blow up.  Han was the only one experienced enough to know, “there’s always a way.”
More importantly:
B)  This one worked.  Instead of taking out only a single peaceful world, the referentially named Starkiller Base took out the home system of the Republic and most of its fleet.
C) It blew up much more slowly allowing a vast amount of First Order troops and ships to evacuate.
The latter two likely offset the loss of the weapon since Snoke’s main base, The Finalizer Big and Tall Star Destroyer and the Knights of Ren were elsewhere.  Those elements combined with the fair amount of First Order hardware that escaped should easily terrorize the Resistance and the now shattered Republic for at least two more films.

Here’s a question:  Did the First Order come up with engines that could move a planet?
Did the Star Vacuum side of the thing have equally crazy long range as the beam emitter?

Either way, the thing technically wipes out two distant systems at once…dang!

I’m guessing the physics defying beam splitting comes from using whatever mega-super-ultra-shielding that keeps everyone on the planet from being cooked during sun sucking and obliterator firing to make a multi-pathed space corridor for the shot.  I’m also guessing the world they weaponized only became a frozen wasteland after they ate its sun, or at least flew away from the warmth of it.

I had one problem with the story, which I think stems from the “clean slate” decision on the expanded universe.  The positive side is no one runs a franchise like Disney, promising high quality interconnected books, cartoons, comics, toy commercials and sock puppet shows for generations to come. 

The negative side is the ancillary materials may now become required knowledge. 

I wasn’t able to figure out from the film itself what the additional material explained about the relationship between the three “r”s. (Rebellion, Republic, Resistance) or how the First Order could look an awful lot like the Empire in a Republic run post Return of the Jedi galaxy.

Short version- The Rebellion did win in Episode VI and set up the Republic.  Imperial leftover bits congealed in one section of the galaxy as the First Order and took it over.  Those fighting the First Order in that section are the Resistance, which the Republic has only extended minimal help to since they don’t believe the First Order is a true threat. (Because they’ve apparently never seen any of the other Star Wars movies.)

Convoluted? A bit. But at least it isn’t a trade negotiation squabble.

The differences from the original are important enough to not call it a remake, or a rehash, but rather a return to what made Star Wars successful in the first place.

Speaking of returning:

General Leia:

Yeah, she’ll always be a princess to all of us.  Carrie Fisher is perfect as someone who’s been through a long list of personal tragedies and hardships to fight her way through and emerge as a competent and intelligent leader.  Another “not obvious in the film” bit is Leia being the only one in the Republic to understand the threat level of the First Order, actively lead the efforts against it without help from the apparently useless senate. (Nod to the prequels, perhaps?)

Her scenes were limited, but between the burden of command and her plot driving tragic family history, she carried the emotional weight most of the time she was on screen.  This was particularly true when the weight of that emotion crashed down on all of us old Star Wars fans. Her force sensing reaction at the loss of her husband matched what we were all going through.

The magic was still there between her and Han, in the banter filled yet briefly tender moments.  Their conversation made me believe he's come back to see her fairly frequently.  In my head his return to smuggling is only a cover for a personal hunt through the galaxy to find Luke for her.  My head continues to not deal really well with the "Happy Ending" override.

Leia's responsibilities and age are likely what kept her from formal Jedi training.  However, her force sensitivity always looked geared towards empathy, which I’m sure comes in handy in negotiations and government.

Luke went from farmboy to Jedi, then lost one of his students (his own nephew) to the Dark Side, had his class (presumably) killed, and went off to hide and sulk.  Han went from a smuggler who "get's boarded sometimes" to a respectable rebel leader...and then back to a smuggler who "get's boarded sometimes."  Leia went from a young senator, to key figure in the rebel alliance, and now is a competent and respected General in the resistance while maintaining ties to the Republic Government. (Until it went boom.)  She's the only one of the three main characters of the Original Trilogy  who has continued on the successful path she followed in those films.

Still, it’s a shame we didn’t see her flying around taking part in the action a bit more.
Yes, that was a pointless non-sequiter to act as a transition.

The Ships

It was a good call streamlining both sides’ fighter groups to the iconic X-wings and TIE fighters.  The robot drones of the prequels allowed guilt free destruction, and the diversity of craft by Return of the Jedi was visually interesting. However, there’s something extra poetic about the battle dance of groups of the two original fighters soaring and diving in battle against each other.

Yes, I’m aware Y-wings were also an “original fighter” but I’m sure anyone else who wasted multiple hours playing X-wing carries the same set of Dark Side emotions against those slow moving, heinously unmaneuverable clunkers as I do.

In a total contrast of space ship agility…

The Millennium Falcon was as much a character as the rest of the returning cast, and handled equally well with its introduction (garbage), performance (or lack thereof until it really counted) and prop call backs.  (Finally, that holo monster on the dejarik board got revenge.) The sweeping curves of the Falcon in flight are always an inspiringly gorgeous sight to behold.

The Star Wars universe has returned in more than a visual way, and that's key.  It isn't only the look but the sounds that define Star Wars.  The engines, the weapons, the servos...even the doors sound a certain way that let viewers know, they've "come home."  With Ben Burt back on sound design (and John Williams on music for proper accompaniment) the audio components of the spacecraft, and everything else has returned.  Because the artists themselves are back, the audio components are an organic extension of what came before, instead of simple reuse. The Falcon actually sounds older...but she's still got it where it counts.

The USS Enterprise looks fantastic just sitting there, but to appreciate the beauty of the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, it has to be in motion.

I really started to worry that Chewie was going to grief strickenly crash it into the Starkiller’s shielding adding to already painful losses.

Speaking of the big furball:

Han Solo and Chewbacca:

After all these years, it’s still amazing how much emotion Peter Mayhew (and now Joonas Suotamo who looks to be an excellent Wookiee Trainee in the action scenes) can get through that suit.  He’s the conscience and the emotional core of the duo and really the only one that doesn’t let Captain Solo get away with his attitude and excuses.  When Han and Leia have their standoff reunion, there’s no hesitation as Chewie walks up to hug her.  Likewise his despair following his best friend’s death comes straight through the screen to engulf the audience in his sorrow.

Before that sadness, though, was the best visual example ever created of, “It's not wise to upset a Wookiee.”   Chewie’s rampage - tearing through Stormtroopers, wounding a dark force user shown to be able to freeze blaster bolts mid shot, and blowing up the objective - was pure, hairy howling awesome.  I was thrilled to see them staying true to the character when, in spite of his wild emotions, his loyalty to his new friends put him in the role of rescuer instead of kamikaze pilot.

Now is as good a time as any to address the Bantha in the room: Han’s demise.

Han Solo came back, older, greyer and crankier than before, yet appeared to be acting like the guy we all knew and loved.  He got the biggest role of the original cast in the new film. Then the icon of American pop culture mythology died at the hands of his own wayward son.  As the “Obi Wan” of this story, it was inevitable, but it still hurt.

This was a seriously dark twist to what started out looking like Harrison Ford having way too much fun coming back to the role.

But there was more to it.  While seeing Han as his old self was fun, Ford’s greatest achievements came when he shone in the quiet scenes with Finn, Rey, Leia and Ben.  There were all kinds of subtleties and inflections as he acted the heck out of those moments. 

For example:

Reestablishing a connection with his wife that never truly faded. 
Putting reverence, disgust, and about six other emotions into one sentence, when he admits to knowing Luke.
Not quite offering Rey a job.
“Women always find out.”
Desperately trying to redeem a child he knows he has no hope to.

Yes, the man named “Solo” with the usual subtle symbolism of Star Wars names risked it all on an attempt he knew would fail to save his son and confirm his wife’s belief in both of them. 

OK, it sucked, but it’d be hard to stage a better death scene for that character’s arc.

In contrast to the heartfelt and heart rending moments, the “behaving like the Han of old” scenes came off more like pretending to be who he used to be to hide and ignore the pain he’s been through.

His admiration and belief in the force sounded uncharacteristically and completely genuine, however.  It was far over and above the, “May the force be with you,” he hit Luke with to cement their friendship in A New Hope.   Considering his always miraculous piloting and blaster skills, his newly acquired impossible hyperspace abilities (out of a hanger, and inside of a planet’s shield), and his connection with Leia at his passing; maybe he got some lessons from his brother-in-law before Luke went into hiding.

Yeah, I’m clinging to hope for the Han Solo force ghost too.

Luke Skywalker:

Based on his absence from the marketing materials, I figured Luke would be the Force Ghost in this one.  A fair amount of folks believed he was Kylo Ren. The fact that he wasn’t is more evidence that this story is more of a revisitation than a remake.  A fellow fan at work said he hoped the spirits of Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan have been giving Luke a hard time for hiding alone all this time.

Aside: It isn’t clear how long, “all this time,” is.   Did Ben Solo turn as a little kid?  That seems weird.  But Ben isn’t all that old, and Luke seems to have been missing for a while.  Then again, with the whole galaxy thinking major events that happened only thirty years ago are “lost legends” maybe records keeping sucks in this universe, making time seem to pass quicker.

If Luke has been beleaguered by dead Jedi during his hermitage, maybe they drove him crazy. That would mean Mark Hamill isn’t playing the replacement Yoda or Vader. He’s the replacement Joruus C’boath- the insane Jedi Master from the Thrawn Trilogy.  Hey, with three takes on both the Joker and Trickster under his belt, and one Hobgoblin, we know Hamill excels at nuts and dangerous.  Maybe that’s why he didn’t say anything during his final scene appearance, to save the surprise.

Then again, maybe he didn’t say anything because Abrams knew we’d all be cheering too loud to hear him.  WOO HOO!
(Sorry, can’t help it sometimes.)

The Droids and the Rest:

I don’t believe R2-D2 was in an electronic depression or sulking mode.  Considering he saved everyone’s life in the other six films more than anyone else put together AND drove the plot on multiple occasions I think he got fed up when the Happy Ending he worked so hard to achieve was shattered and stopped helping.

Maybe BB-8 reminded him of his younger, idealistic self and inspired him to wake up.  Either that or he sensed something in Rey.  Machine or not, there’s no way the hero of two Star Wars trilogies isn’t strong with the force.

As for his counterpart, once Anthony Daniels retires from Goldenrodding, they’ll either have to give the neurotic interpreter a heroic sacrifice ending, or reprogram him and replace all his parts because his performance is definitive.  From smashing the mood at Han and Leia’s reunion to insulting R2 in the same “breath” he celebrates his friend’s return with, there’s only one 3PO.

Bringing back the original actors to add Admiral Ackbar to the Resistance leadership and Nien Nunb to  Black Squadron was an extra bit of effort to remind us all that the Star Wars universe that we old fans grew up with is going strong once more… WOO HOO!

Sorry again.


The characters and actors returning provided continuity to the original trilogy, but it was the reliance on practical effects that added the weight to the visuals and made The Force Awakens feel like a classic Star Wars film.  Never underestimate the amount of personality that comes through “puppets,” be they manufactured or digital.

The return of themes, environments, special effects, characters and actors firmly set Episode Seven in the classic Star Wars Universe. 

It was the introduction and more importantly the implementation of the new characters that moved that universe forward in new directions.   Because I am an Old Star Wars fan however, I occasionally do need sleep, meaning that analysis will have to wait until next week.

Until then, may the force be with you.



longbow said...

I thought the effects were mostly great except for Snooky who looked like a late 90s TV show.

Also, what's up with Chewie choking the only two black characters in all 7 movies?

Chill up my spine moments: Falcon hanging with power off to line up the shot, when Han says "Ben", when Rey says "lucky" about the door severing the arm holding Finn (limb comes off!)

Adam Driver either seems terribly miscast or the Emo Kylo Ren twitter feed is way too accurate

Jeff McGinley said...

My guess is since we know who Ben is, Snoke will be some major reveal so they kept him intentionally over blurry and staticy.

That was unfortunate. Maybe that's how he deals with people he's upset with but knows he isn't going to kill. We finally got to see the bowcaster in action, I was hoping to see some "arms out of their sockets" as well.

There were a good amount of "chill" moments. The awesome is back. (Without senate meetings to detract from it.)

More on this next week, but I think Adam Driver is supposed to serve as a stand in for nerds trying to emulate Vader when they have no hope of being that cool. (I have some first hand knowledge of that.)

thanx for sharing!