Saturday, December 26, 2015

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

finally saw Star Wars: the Force Awakens on Wednesday, and Spoiler Alert: I really liked it.  I don’t know if I liked it quite as rapturously as some of my friends did, and certainly there have been reviewers gushing about it in terms that are usually reserved for far more serious films, but it is fun and funny, and it pays off very nicely at the end.  More to the point, it succeeds in its mission to reboot the Star Wars movie franchise in a way that is decidedly nostalgic for the Original Trilogy.  It doesn’t break a lot of new ground, unfortunately, in terms of in-universe storytelling, but it does set up some story questions which ought to get asses back in seats when the as yet un-titled Episode VIII rockets into theaters in 2017.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This post is not a review of the film.  There’s no point in reviewing a movie that has already made $700M, especially since everyone I know has already seen it.  I’m assuming here that you’ve seen it, as well.  The movie has long since embedded itself into the pop-culture zeitgeist.  In fact, I bought my wife a BB-8 bead for her Pandora bracelet immediately after we left the theater, and she’s not even a Star Wars fan.  But that’s the way these things go.  
Regardless, folks have asked me what I thought of the movie.  These are my thoughts, for better or worse.  

The biggest issue I have with the movie is this nagging feeling that it’s the first of the series to cover the Jedi junior varsity team.  Kylo Ren has strong mental powers and enough command of the Force to stop a blaster bolt in mid-air, and both of those things are very impressive.  However, he still gets cut in half by an untrained Padawan in her first lightsaber duel, and that is much less impressive.  It bugs me.
Kylo Ren and company.
Ren idolizes his grandfather, but the one thing Vader did every time he went out was kick ass.  Vader went to war for the first time at age seven, fought his first Sith Lord at nineteen, killed his first Sith Lord in his mid-twenties, and went on from there to massacre the Jedi en masse.  In a lifetime of fighting, Anakin loses exactly three fights--once to Count Dooku as a Padawan, once to Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi immediately after his wife left him (not his best day), and once to his own son on the bridge of the Second Death Star.  Even then, one could argue that Vader loses only because he’s struggling to find the will to win.  We know that Vader didn’t want to kill Luke.  By the time Return of the Jedi ends, he’s been trying to not kill his son for two full movies.
By contrast, Kylo Ren is a petulant child.  J.J. Abrams plays him that way on purpose.  He kills his father, and that’s horrible, but he also has multiple temper tantrums, and he talks to a burnt-out helmet when no one is looking.  He’s a teenager playing warlord, and he lacks conviction.  That’s why he loses to Rey on Starkiller Base, and it’s why he would have lost to Qui Gon Jin or Darth Maul or pretty much any other Jedi or Sith that we’ve ever seen.  Frankly, Ren is lucky that Anakin’s old padawan Ahsoka isn’t still running around somewhere.  She would have cut his goddamned head off.  I suspect that the only reason that Luke didn’t cut Ren’s head off is that he didn’t want to kill his sister’s kid, especially after having been forced to watch his father die so many years ago.  That’s a hard thing to explain at Thanksgiving dinner.
"Kylo Ren, my ass!"
While we’re talking about the Dark Side, who the Hell are the Knights of Ren, anyway?  We get a bit in the cantina scene that implies that the Sith are gone, but the actual image of the Knights flashes by so fast that I thought they were stormtroopers the first time I saw it.  The Knights get less screen time than Bosk and IG-88 got in The Empire Strikes Back.  That bugs me.  
I kept waiting for a little exposition about the First Order, the New Republic and the galaxy’s overall political situation.  Ben Kenobi gives this in the original Star Wars, and it’s both a necessary and interesting scene.  All we get in The Force Awakens is Han Solo saying that he didn’t used to believe in the Jedi, but “it’s true; all of it.”  
I already knew that!  
Granted, more information is available in the book Star Wars: Aftermath, but this movie had more than earned a backstory scene between Leia, Finn, and Rey.
Here is what I think I got from the movie and the various write-ups online:
We thought that the Empire would fall when we killed the Emperor.  We were wrong.  Instead, the galaxy divided up into warring factions.  Those forces that stayed loyal to the Imperial ideal have consolidated under the First Order, which is technically at peace with the New Republic, but…  We’re still fighting.  We use this underground Resistance movement to try to protect the illusion of peace, but we have the tacit backing of the New Republic, and we rely upon the New Republic’s fleet.
But if you’re technically at peace, why did the First Order build Starkiller Base?
Because they’re losing, Rey.  People want to be free.
Starkiller Base gave them the power to stop pretending, and the First Order used it to annihilate the New Republic.  If they get us next, there will be no one to stop them.  They’ll intimidate the galaxy into submission, and the Empire will return.  
Remember, fear is the tool of the Dark Side.  That’s why the Emperor built the Death Star, and it’s why the First Order built Starkiller Base.
None of this explains the Knights of Ren, though.  We don’t know who they are, and I’ve not seen any hints about them beyond a few vague notes about the Jedi and Sith not being the only Force users in the galaxy.
I find that answer unsatisfying.  It seems clear that the Rule of Two is dead, at least for the time being, but I hope that this is only because none of the new Dark Side Force users are strong enough to claim the title “Darth”.  Kylo Ren’s powers have certainly not peaked.  They are not even close.  Having been cut in half and left for dead on an exploding planet, I expect he’ll be a bit more focused next time.  It won’t surprise me if he’s also been burned beyond recognition and encased in some kind of armored exoskeleton.  In which case, he’ll be much more like his grandfather, and will--perhaps--be ready to take on the mantle Darth Ren.
I’d like to see that.
My favorite part of the old Expanded Universe was
Drew Karpyshyn's Darth Bane trilogy.
This makes me wonder, though.  Are we sure that the Emperor is dead?
Some of the write-ups about Star Wars: Aftermath mention that there were Imperial groups that claimed that the Emperor survived Endor.  Could that have happened?  He certainly didn’t die on screen.  
It’s also possible that Supreme Leader Snoke is the Emperor’s son or clone.  Hell, he could even be Luke Skywalker himself, struggling with the Dark Side and slowly losing his mind.  My buddy Chris suggested that maybe he is Darth Plagueis.  
It’s an interesting mystery.
A few more thoughts:
1. If you’re Leia, you must be pissed as Hell at your brother.  Han died on Starkiller Base taking down the base’s deflector shield.  This is a job that Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker could have done by himself easily.  Granted, Luke clearly doesn’t want to have to kill his own nephew, but once the First Order has used Starkiller Base to wipe out multiple star systems, we’re sort of past the point of no return.  
Unless Luke turns out to be Supreme Leader Snoke, fighting an internal battle for control of his own mind between the Dark Side and the Light, there really is no excuse for his self-imposed exile.  I can maybe see an argument where he says, “The Force is too dangerous.  The Dark Side keeps corrupting people; I don’t want to teach anybody else.”  However, this does not explain why he refuses to help prevent the slaughter of billions.  
He is the last Jedi.  He has a responsibility to the rest of the galaxy.
2.  It seems overwhelmingly likely that Rey is Luke’s daughter, that he’d not realized that she was still alive, and that the grief of losing his family to Ben Solo is whatreally drove Luke into exile.  This explanation also ties into the conflicted nature of Ben’s use of the Dark Side, and it’s also the only reasonable explanation for Luke’s self-imposed exile.  As Kylo Ren, Ben killed Luke’s wife and all of his students, but he was not strong enough to kill Luke himself, and he couldn’t bring himself to kill Luke’s toddler daughter.  So she gets away, but whoever’s protecting her gets killed--presumably leading the hunters away from her--leaving her to fend for herself.
This is by far and away the most likely story, though it does little to explain why the guy who had the map to Luke’s hiding place was hanging out a dozen miles from Rey’s hidey-hole.  It also makes sense for Luke because we have definitely seen that Luke is a guy with a temper.  Perhaps he is so angry at Ben Solo that Luke is afraid he’ll turn to the Dark Side if he and Ben fight.  We know that Luke has seen the Dark Side, that he has been tempted by it repeatedly, and that he has not always been able to resist.  He must know that if he falls, he’ll become a more powerful and terrifying villain than any since Palpatine.  It won’t surprise me if Luke ultimately escaped Ren’s grasp only because he embraced the Dark Side in the aftermath of his family’s murder.  Perhaps he used Force Lightning, killed a handful of the Knights of Ren, and then hauled ass before he could become a danger to the entire galaxy.  In which case, Rey’s arrival at his retreat really complicates things.
This is what a Sith Lord looks like, right before he kills you.
With all of that said, I really hope that Rey somehow turns out to be Obi Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter.  It would be quite a twist for the franchise, throwing even more tragic irony onto Anakin’s decision to keep his relationship with Padme a secret.  Imagine:
By the end, the old Jedi Order was notoriously self-righteous and corrupt.  Many Jedi kept secret wives or mistresses, including my old master, Obi Wan Kenobi.
3.  I feel bad for Finn.  He wants to be a Jedi or a pilot or… something.  Instead, he’s a Jedi girl’s Ken Doll.  And then he gets cut in half.
I was happy that they made use of lightsaber handguards on Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, though.  Given the design, they needed to pay that off somehow.
4.  I’ve talked a lot about the prequels here.  That’s because I’ve been watching the Anti-Cheese Edits on YouTube.  They are a vast improvement.  What I’ve realized is that the prequel trilogy was a terrific story that was executed badly.  Lucas’s self-indulgent editing choices almost destroyed his greatest creation.  
The Anti-Cheese Edit of The Phantom Menace is the best of the revisions, probably because The Phantom Menace itself was the most self-indulgent of the prequels.  This edit removes almost all of what made that movie seem ridiculous--about thirty minutes of total screen time.  What’s left is a tight, fast-moving movie about a badass seven-year-old Jedi who saves a planet from invasion.  It comes across so differently that it’s actually amazing.  I highly recommend it.

That’s all I’ve got.  Have a Happy New Year!


  1. I didn't want to post spoilers on G+'s main article. I was really upset by exactly how little Substance there was:

    1. Was the Republic successfully created, or did it split from the Empire, or like some of the EU did it Replace outright and then have a Schism?
    2. What's the First Orders history and role in the last 30 years? What part does 'Supreme Leader' Snoke play, and why did they use such a lame name for this villain?
    3. WTF is with the major buildup of Captain Phasma...only to so easily, and amateurly, ambush her?
    4. Why would Han and Leia name their son, Ben? More importantly, if you aren't going to use Jacen and Jaina, why would you throw gas on the fire by naming the Solo kid Ben, when the EU fandom is going to take that as a slap in the face?
    5. It feels like a Copout at the end. You've got this new, improved death star created from an actual Planet, and it so cheesily destroys 5 planets in a system terribly distant. Ignoring most of Star Wars lore, and Physics, because it seems to be able to travel and guide itself so it doesn't intersect any other space body, and does so instantly. On top of that, why with that magnitude of power wouldn't you just destroy the systems Star (Starkiller Base, anyone?!), thereby causing destruction to EVERYTHING in the system.
    6. And Then, somehow, what doesn't even qualify as a full Wing of X-wings (no Y-wings, A-wings or B-wings) and no Capital support engage what Should be the First Orders most heavily defended Installation. So they took down some Shields, big whoop. Where are the Multiple Wings of Tie Fighters a planet can house? Where's the System Fleet that any Imperial headquarters or major installation should have for defense? Why would they not better protect what is SO Obvious a weakness that the rebels identify it by 5 min's of review (without the death of many Bothans...)

    The more I type, the more pissed I'm actually getting. In it's own way, it's worse than the Prequels, because it unlike the Prequels, the entirety of the EU was stripped as Lore to pave its way. Only to produce this bastardization of the Original Trilogy.

    I really hadn't intended to gripe so much. I've been trying to acknowledge to myself what was done right in the Movie, but it's so heavily outweighed by the negative in my opinion. Even Han and Chewie didn't feel like themselves...they seemed more like bad impersonations by people who thought they should act like a bad Grumpy Old Men knockoff...

    1. It wasn't my intent to talk you out of liking the new movie. I liked it quite a lot, but I agree with you that's it not exactly obvious how we got from where we ended in Ep. VI to where we started in Ep. VII.

      1. I happen to KNOW that there's more info out there, particularly in STAR WARS: AFTERMATH, but it's a curious decision to try to use a movie to force people to read a book, especially when it's a book that hasn't been getting particularly strong reviews. TWILIGHT COMPANY seems to have been better received, but it doesn't cover the right time period. I put together my little backstory write-up from reviews of AFTERMATH, but the larger story is far from clear here. This was presumably done because Abrams was trying to maximize Story Questions going forward, but I didn't love it.

      2. They set that up to drive you crazy. The fact that you really, really want to know? That's proof that it worked.

      3. I didn't love that, either.

      4. He was presumably named after Obi Wan "Ben" Kenobi. This is the same reason why Luke might've named his own son Ben, and if you think about it, I think you'll agree that it's an unsurprising name for a male in this franchise, especially when the writers probably want to remind you who Ben Kenobi was--at least subliminally. Kenobi's role in this story remains surprisingly large considering that he never appears on screen.

      5. Yeah, I don't think Star Wars is over-concerned with physics. It's a bigger, badder Death Star, as you yourself pointed out.

      6. This is a recycled plot point from RETURN OF THE JEDI. Starkiller Base has a Deflector Shield because protecting it from suicide snub fighter attack would be functionally impossible otherwise. They are relying on the Deflector Shield, but Han and his team deactivate it, just as they do in both Ep.'s 4 & 6. It's a story call-back, that's all.

      It's worth nothing that we don't know how large the First Order's fleet is, nor do we have an idea of how many snub fighters the rebellion can lay hands on. However, we know that they have Starkiller Base. Without that, though, I got the feeling that the First Order couldn't really go head-to-head with the New Republic's fleet and expect to win.

      To put it another way, the New Order didn't have to combat power to beat the New Republic in a head-to-head fight. So they built a super-weapon because that's what these guys always try to do. Now, however, both the New Republic's fleet and the New Order's super-weapon have been trashed. I expect that this will throw the entire galaxy into lawless chaos, but who knows?

      There's a lot here to like. We have a great new cast, an interesting set of Story Questions, and a lot of room to run. This is why they had to do away with the Expanded Universe. It's true that they consciously recycled plot points, but the movie itself is still enjoyable, and I think from here that they'll have a lot of room to explore new territory. That is a good thing. In the meantime, don't think too much about what is a fun and funny movie... but definitely not a think-piece. Enjoy the mysteries, but remember that this is the crew that created LOST and FRINGE, and thye have a certain style It's not all necessarily going to hang together perfectly.

  2. I think you're probably right on Try, but frankly I was hoping she was just a Youngling from Luke's academy, rather than any blood relation. Starting to feel too dynastic otherwise.

    1. What I've read is that they're using a variation of the Marvel Movie formula. The "Saga" movies stand in for the AVENGERS series, while the "Star Wars Tale" movies stand in for the individual hero movies like ANT-MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA.

      The "Saga" movies are the ones that get Episode numbers like "Episode IV: A New Hope". They are about the Skywalker clan. Think: DYNASTY, set in space, putting Anakin Skywalker into the role of J.R. Ewing. As of this writing, they're supposed to come out every two years, meaning that we'll get Ep. VIII in 2017.

      ROGUE ONE:A STAR WARS TALE is an example of the other kind, the "Star Wars Tales". These are more like vingnettes, designed to expand the universe and tell one-off stories outside the here-and-now of the Skywalkers' struggle to either bring order or freedom to the galaxy.


      BTW, people have been wondering what will bring an end to the costumed superhero era of movie-dom, but I think we know. AVENGERS 2 did reasonably well at the box office, but it got beat by JURASSIC PARK later that summer, and compared to STAR WARS, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe looks like a blip on the radar screen. Considering how profitable this new STAR WARS movie has been, I expect we'll see nothing but STAR WARS and STAR WARS-knock offs for pretty much the entirety of the foreseeable future.