Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Star Wars Recap: Episode VII

Okay, so my friends basically insisted that I write a review for this before The Last Jedi arrives in theaters in 50 hours, so here it is.  I was so pumped for this movie, but I was afraid that it would be more Terminator: Salvation, rather than Batman Begins. It exceeded my expectations on many levels, but it wasn’t better than Hope or Empire.   It has aged (if a movie can age in two years) pretty well.  Maybe not as well as Jurassic Park, but not nearly as poorly as the prequel trilogy.  It’s not perfect, and there are legitimate reasons to be a detractor from the overwhelmingly positive response.  However, for the saga, in my humble opinion, it was a win. 

What I liked/loved: 
Fan Service
Some people may see this as a detriment, but I happen to see it as a strength in this circumstance.  Sure, some people have rightly pointed out that there are some undeniable similarities to A New Hope – right down to camera angles and character reveals.  JJ is a huge Star Wars fan, so you know that he and his writers have an affection for the characters, both old and new.  Even with a bigger Death Star-type weapon, an orphan in the desert, a Falcon vs TIE dogfight, and the eventual reveal of a batty, old Jedi, there was plenty of good natured heart to the film and even a bit of self-awareness to the familiar beats. So, yes, it might not be the most original writing, but it reengaged a new generation who might not have been familiar with the saga.  Plus, it helped wash the taste of the prequels out of the mouths of bitter fans.  Seeing the Falcon fly again – epic.  Cheers went up in the crowd when Han and Chewie burst onto the screen.  Even just the brief audio of Vader, Yoda, and Obi-Wan just amped up the nostalgia.  Look, you’re not going to make all fans happy – that’s the real impossibility here – but balancing the old with the new was always going to be a struggle.  And for every person who complains that they didn’t do enough new with the saga, there is probably another fan who will say that there was a good balance of reminiscence to new ground being broken.  Now, going forward, I’d say the franchise needs to blaze more new trails rather than proving that this new trilogy knows where it came from.

I’ll get into the affirmative action underpinnings further down, but Rey works.  She’s plucky, and someone who you can easily root for.  Casting Daisy Ridley was brilliant.  You might think that she had big shoes to fill, carrying a Star Wars film, but considering Mark Hamill and Hayden Christensen portrayed the primary protagonists of the prior trilogies, it wasn’t an insurmountable feat.   She brings a strength tinged with vulnerability to her role that outshines her predecessors.  Plus, she’s not whiny or angsty, so that helps.  It does annoy me a bit that she rejects the notion of chivalry when Finn shows up, but ultimately, she’s the one who saves his skin anyways.  Sure, she’s probably just a little too good at everything she does – fighting with her staff, piloting/engineering the Falcon, and honing her Force sensitivity on the fly – but you could probably just chock that up to her being a go-getter with a high midiclorian count.  Too soon? 

As with the original trilogy, Han has the best lines.  Harrison Ford had some serious pull with this role, and rightfully so.  As “Family Guy” so poignantly points out, he’s the only actor whose career wasn’t essentially ruined by those movies.  And he’s a major box office draw – or at least, he was before that Crystal Skull misadventure happened.  Still, fans wanted to see him back with the blaster and the Falcon, and they were rewarded.  Again, he has the best dialogue.  Again, it’s fun to see him play off Carrie Fisher, even if there’s a lot more gravity to most of their scenes.  Everyone knew Han was going to die.  But it wasn’t a cheap death, nor was it a bombastic, guns blazing exit.  It was subtle and tragic.  And Ford – despite being known for his quippy lines and charm – delivers in that scene.  I’ll admit it: I teared up.  Also, that bit where he corrects Rey about how many parsecs it took to make the Kessel Run – priceless.

The Music
Seriously.  John Williams is a boss.  He’s effortlessly blended new and old themes, with a rich score that ranks right up there with the rest of his work from the prior trilogies.  The music has been the most consistent element in these movies, and Williams doesn’t disappoint. 

The Force
So here’s the thing, most of this revolves around Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo).  The opening display of his power is one for the ages, not only force-paralyzing Poe Dameron, but also FREEZING A FREAKING LASER BOLT IN MIDAIR.  Everyone I saw this with gasped.  So, this isn’t force pushing some battle droids aside or flirtatiously moving fruit across the table for the subject of your dismal excuse for wooing to spike midair.  This is the force used as, well, a force to be reckoned with.  Kylo tortures Poe and Rey both using methods that would make Code Pink activists advocate for waterboarding.  There are inferences that Snoke has more to teach his clearly conflicted pupil, but doesn’t get too far into the weeds on that.  And really, I think it’s Kylo’s “fault” that Rey’s force abilities were, well, awakened.  His tormenting of her backfired, allowing her to dupe 007 into letting her go.  Oh, and her force vision?  Pretty epic, if confusing.  Sure, her accelerated ability discovery makes for some pretty convenient plot points, but when she beat Kylo in the pull the lightsaber battle, it made me smile and almost forget the feminist underpinnings.  It does make me wonder how Kylo would’ve fought if he were firing on all cylinders, but I was okay with the outcome.  Oh, and she totally would’ve killed him were it not for that plot-convenient rift.  All that being said, it was nice to see an expansion of the force mythos.  Also, the excessive use of the force by Kylo where he pulls the officer across the room in to a literal choke…probably my favorite force moment. 
Rapid-Fire Miscellaneous Items:
  • BB-8.  Love that little guy.  The “thumbs up”…adorable.
  • Kylo’s lightsaber (aka “Satan saber) and temper tantrums. 
  • Pacing.  Brisk when it needs to be, slowed down when central characters need developed.
  • Maz Kanata.  Enigmatic and sassy, she’s hard not to like. 
  • Minimal Luke.
  • Chewie flirting. 

“Questions That Need Answering”
  • (Obligatory) Who are Rey’s parents? 
  • (Obligatory) Who is Snoke?
  • How does Phasma escape?
  • Why does Leia walk right by Chewie when they return after Han’s death?
  • How did Maz 1) get Luke’s lightsaber, and 2) Obi-Wan’s chest?
  • Why does Kylo remove his helmet for Rey?
  • Why does Kylo keep punching his wound? 
What I loathed:

Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with diversity in its purest sense.  God made us all unique.  I don’t even have an abject aversion to stunt casting (ie The Ancient One in Doctor Strange).  The problem I have with today’s societal trends is that diversity isn’t about broadening horizons as it somewhat virtuously began, it’s now become about entitlement or victimhood.  I could drone on and on about the societal ramifications about forcing racial, gender, and other politically expedient quotas into all aspects of our lives via a government/media/movie industry who think that they know better than us commoners, but I’ll spare you the soapbox and just let you ponder the affirmative action beats in this movie:
Black guy grows a conscience out of nowhere, joins the good side, rescues a racially ambiguous pilot before escaping to a nearby planet where he teams up with a genius girl and takes on his former employer.  Bad guy: white male.  Secondary bad guy: white, ginger male.  Big bad guy: white-ish male.  I guess you could argue that by making Captain Phasma a woman, you’re making the antagonists more diverse too – on top of the fact that there are black and female Stormtroopers now.   And then there’s the argument that one of the heroes is a white male, but he’s the box office draw.  Can you imagine if Harrison Ford had just said, “Pass” to the opportunity to reprise his iconic role?  Oh, and did I mention that he dies?  Maybe he should’ve checked his privilege.  So now there are only minorities to root for.  And don’t even get me started on the petition started by the handful of “fans” who want Finn and Poe to end up together. 
Yes, it could’ve been a lot more heavy-handed, a feminist manifesto, or something more SJW-friendly, but there are points in the movie where I just want to roll my eyes at what Kathleen Kennedy is shoehorning into a beloved saga.  I want to see mythos and storytelling, not politically correct subtext.  Yes, I realize this is very nit-picky, but even bleeding heart liberals must see that there are some PC police in the writing room. 
Based on my comments above, I’m going to probably just be labelled a racist/sexist/bigot/homophobe (read: Republican).  What else is new?  To quote Jack Sparrow, “Sticks and stones, love.”  So now if you’re a snowflake, triggered by the above stuff, it’s time for me to rip on the black guy.  I don’t care what color FN-2187 is, he annoys me.  Nothing about his race has any bearing on what I think of him as a character.  He’s exasperating.  He’s over the top about everything.  Even if a severely brainwashed soldier can snap out of his proverbial programming, it doesn’t mean he’ll go from following orders without question to making quips and being super cocky in a matter of hours.  Plus, he’s merely the deus ex machina character.  He just happens to know how to take out Starkiller Base, despite having only worked in sanitation.  Which is another thing, since when do elite Stormtroopers work in sanitation?  Plus, his motivations are all over the place.  He wants to protect Rey from the moment he meets her.  Chivalrous, but why?  Then he just wants to bail.  Then he comes back.  Then he helps rescue her.  Then he gets all chivalrous again, somehow lands a slight wound to a vastly superior fighter, before being the cliffhanger discount Han.  I’ll give it to John Boyega, the guy has charisma.  But that doesn’t save him from a character with wishy-washy development.  Good thing he’s black though, to help Kathleen’s diversity bingo game.  Also, “Droid, please.”
Rapid-Fire Miscellaneous Items:
  • Ranthars.  Lame excuse to get an Abrams’ monster in this movie.
  • Fast and loose engineering (Falcon issues) and science (Starkiller charging; lightspeed starts and stops).
  • Captain Phasma.  Brienne of Tarth, she is not. 
  • Also, Phasma didn’t hit the alarm while Finn was babbling. 
  • “Resistance” vs “Rebels” vs “Republic”
  • Why doesn’t Leia have force powers? 
  • Hitler/Nazi equivalents. 
  • Jakku.  Discount Tattooine.

I’ll just come out and say it.  I really liked this movie.  I didn’t love it, but it exceeded my expectations.  Is it too similar to ANH?  Yes.  Is reading Emo Kylo Ren’s Twitter more captivating than the primary antagonist?  Yes.  Could it have benefitted from a less social justice/agenda-oriented script?  Absolutely.  But it was still fun, and it made Star Wars appealing to a new generation.  I really think one of the best things that happened to the saga was wrenching it from George Lucas’ hands.  I don’t hate the prequels, but I think that they were a disservice to the original trilogy.  It looks like Disney wants to honor the tradition of the old while blazing new (maybe not so new yet) trails.  
My ranking of these movies – like many things I say – are controversial.
  1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Episode IV: A New Hope
  3. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
  4. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  5. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  6. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
  7. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
I’m looking forward to The Last Jedi, but with a little trepidation.  Rogue One (review coming soon) was good, but kind of left me wanting.  JJ Abrams had a pretty good track record of delivering upon expectations, but Rian Johnson has yet to wow me.  Critics loved Looper, but I was underwhelmed.  I haven’t seen anything else he’s done.  But despite her pandering to SJWs, Kathleen Kennedy doesn’t seem to mess around when it comes to Star Wars.  So, I’m hoping that this movie doesn’t disappoint.  It can’t be worse than Clones, right?  Right?

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