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Library Clerk who enjoys anime, manga, fantasy, sci-fi, comics, GNs, Gunpla, and 'FiM.'

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May the Fourth Be With You - How the Force Slept In · 1:24am May 5th, 2016

As this is my review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you can expect the usual amount of spoilers.

Big Issues In The Set-Up
In the interests of full disclosure, I have been a fan of Star Wars for a long time: I saw all the movies, I've read a decent number of the books, and I've played X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Dark Forces, among some other games. As such, I have been immersed in the old Expanded Universe, and that set me up with certain expectations, not only in how characters would evolve and grow over time, but for the overall feel of the Star Wars world.

On top of that, George Lucas left the film chronology with a big problem because he refused to expand the universe post-Jedi, and as everyone must have noticed by now, the original actors have only gotten older since their original trilogy. This means that when it came time for Disney to try their hand at a new post-Jedi film, and they wanted to use the original actors for nostalgia's sake, they had to advance the timeline to match. The major problem with this approach is how it limits possibilities in regards to storytelling, because what happens in that story has to come to pass, even if you go back afterwards and tell what happened in the intervening years (between Jedi and TFA). On top of that, in order to go back and tell that story, you have to recruit younger actors in any case. It's not as if this should be a huge problem: Disney has JJ Abrams on hand, the man who sold us Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Simon Pegg as Scotty -- and had many, if not most, fans accept them in their roles (of course, these were, in many cases, slightly altered versions of the characters were knew and loved due to the alternate timeline thing). Anyway, message for the original cast: you're getting too old for this stuff. Time to let a new generation take over.

And then there's the hype. Not just the year+ during which people were posting countdowns on Google+, but the 30+ years since Jedi. You see, I can't be the only one who was clamouring for a new movie that tells the story of the rise of the New Republic. I know this because I recently read the annotated version of Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn. This was the book to officially relaunch the Star Wars franchise in the '90s, and according to those notes it was incredibly well received, quickly selling out in copies and requiring a third print run. So I'm surprised George didn't go 'hey, we could make even more money out of this by adapting it to film.' Instead, he released altered versions of the original films, and then we got the prequels, which are often panned by critics. I will say they were 'okay, but not nearly what I was expecting.' Anyway, the 30+ years of hype is the issue at hand. The thing about hype is that the longer it stands, making fans wait, the more those fans' feelings turn against the product and its producers. In this case, fans have been feeding their need for new Star Wars stuff on the books, games, and other merchandise because there weren't any decent movies, but we held faith that eventually we would be given what we wanted. I remember being so pumped for The Clone Wars trilogy, before finding out that the clones would only come in the latter part of the second movie, and in the third movie. Huh? LucasFilm went against these expectations, and well, the prequels aren't as well-liked as George expected them to be, I guess.

This is the kind of environment into which Disney decided to insert The Force Awakens, the first movie to tell the story after Return of the Jedi, and they even chose to have the original actors reprise their roles after 30 years of waiting.
This cannot end well.

Attack of the Spoilers
Forget the clones, please, unless you're talking about Karen Traviss's books. As I said, 30 years is a long time to let hype build, but I also hinted at the year-long hype train to TFA, where numbers and images were posted obsessively anywhere I looked on the Net. It wasn't long before the first big spoiler hit me: a picture of Han Solo being impaled on Kylo Ren's lightsaber. You can't kill Han Solo! Then another: Ren is Ben Solo. Solo? You're kidding me, right? Not long after that I found out about Luke's hermitage and Leia becoming a general. Already I had four character decisions that I didn't like, since they go against my understanding of the characters -- and the movie was only just coming out. I admit I hesitated.

You see, my parents and I usually go to the theatre to see a movie for my birthday. TFA came out around that time (and I was born the year Jedi came out, so no wonder I was such a big fan, huh?). But because I saw things I didn't like, when it came to the question of whether I wanted to see the movie for my birthday, I flinched because I just didn't know, with my expectations being jarred. And then my oldest brother saw it, and said that while it was good, it also referred to things that were previously done, so there isn't all that much about the movie that's actually original. That was when I decided not to see TFA in theatres. I wanted to wait, in other words, until it came out on disc so I could borrow it for free from one of the three library systems I frequent, and thus not have to pay for the experience in anything but time (see also my previous blog post on the subject).

Then, finally, I saw it. I saw it and realized I was right about those character decisions. I was right in that while I enjoyed the references, they didn't make the story. All told, I was right about TFA being a disappointing experience after all that time waiting. By the same token, however, it was better than the prequels because there wasn't quite as much that came from left field, and I did enjoy the character interactions and the action sequences. Still, though... it could have been much better.

The Review
By the end of the title crawl we found out about Luke and Leia, so those weren't as big spoilers as they could have been. Still, I think these were decisions that were made in error:

Leia, we learned from the earlier films, grew up as a princess in the Alderaanian house of Organa. She learned diplomacy and politics from her foster father, Bail Organa, who Tarkin killed when he ordered the Death Star I to fire on the planet. In other words, Leia grew up training to become a senator like Bail. In the books she often advised Mon Mothma and the rest of the Council, and even at one point became Head of State to the New Republic. She was never really a general or military leader, although she has ordered others to fight, and she was far from shy about taking up her own blaster, and later her own lightsaber. But here she's a general.

As for Luke, if he ran away from disasters at his Academies those were usually short sojourns in order to find an answer, and then he'd be back to face his responsibilities. We also know this about him from the movies: coming in to face Vader at Cloud City (even though that turned out disastrously for him), and later walking right up to Vader to see Palpatine, because Luke knew then that it was what he had to do. Even in the original movies Luke Skywalker faced his responsibilities head-on, and I think he would have had the guts to do so about his own nephew too (he does in the books. Heck, he even stands trial, for every time a Jedi has severed a limb in the pursuit of justice, without complaint). So why would he run away?

For that matter, how would a single failing Jedi apprentice be able to overwhelm and slaughter every other student, teacher, and staff at the New Jedi Academy, and how would he have been able to get away from Luke? This is a story I'd like to see unfold, so I hope there are plans to tell it, cause I have a hard time believing it. There are actually a lot of moments in this movie where I went 'huh?' or 'yeah, right.' Big, jarring moments that ejected me from the story. That's a problem, especially in a science fiction adventure.

For example, what could have happened in 30 years for the First Order to so completely replace the Galactic Empire as a threat to the New Republic? In terms of the EU, we're in the Fate of the Jedi timeframe here, but even then there was still the Imperial Remnant as well as the Chiss Ascendancy. And then there's the Resistance. Why do they exist at the same time as the New Republic? And why do they only have X-wings while the First Order only has TIE fighters? And why do those TIEs have space for two crew members and a backwards-facing turret? And why do neither fighter seem to have shields? What are the new grey bits on the stormtrooper armour for? If the writers were aware of these questions as possibilities for the audience to ask, they don't show it.

In fact I found the whole setting to be rather vague. Jakku and Starkiller Base are just about all I can remember. The planets Starkiller Base fired on weren't even mentioned. They were just there, and then they got destroyed, so the audience never got a chance to care about them. Travel between planets is also done very quickly, which erases the sense of scale that was present in the original trilogy -- then again, the writers were trying to make between 3 and 6 movies' worth of references in 2 and a half hours. That's far too little time, and the result is that there's very little new story that can be explored, and not to satisfactory depth, which is part of the reason I felt so lost and unengaged.

I did catch on to three stories: the main one was the search for Luke Skywalker, the driving plot. Next was Leia and Han trying to get their family back together. Finally there are the new characters: Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron (where'd Wedge and the rest of Rogue Squadron go?). While Poe is apparently so hot as a starfighter pilot that he can shoot out stormtroopers from his X-wing, Rey and Finn both were trying to find their place in the galaxy. They may have started to do so, especially Rey, and then Han gets impaled. Oops. I'm not even sure why, since not much seems to change plot or character-wise in this movie. Hopefully we'll see something of it later?

Which brings me to Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo. The writers clearly drew inspiration from Jacen Solo, and there's nothing wrong with that (and if this is the case, Rey was probably inspired by his twin sister Jaina). But Ren just doesn't intimidate me the way Darth Vader did. Maybe it's the sunken goggles on the mask, or the way he throws tantrums, or even the improperly-made, unstable lightsaber. I just can't take Ren seriously as a Sith -- and he never gets the title his grandfather held, Dark Lord of the Sith, anyway. The whole time I felt like I was looking at Darth Vader Light. If that's the case, then Snoke was Palpatine Light, General Hux was Tarkin Light (I highly recommend reading Star Wars: Tarkin, by the way), Finn was Leia Light, Poe was Han 2.0, and Rey was Luke 2.0. Well okay, not quite: you see, while Luke had to slowly learn his Jedi skills from Obi-Wan and Yoda, Rey apparently flash-learns them from Force visions that she gets only once she's touched Anakin's lightsaber (Luke's original one). Oh, and she's also a skilled mechanic (probably picked that up from Anakin Solo, Jacen and Jaina's little brother) and pilot. Rey's sudden profusion of skill, despite apparently growing up as a scavenger, seem a bit on the side of Mary Sue to me. Even if it turns out she's not a Skywalker.

Overall, because the original Star Wars trilogy was very much Luke's journey of self-discovery and development and growth, there was this bigger feeling as growth as we went along with him. In retreading that groundbreaking experience, I feel like Disney simply spent far more time than it should have wearing down an old path instead of blazing their own. I have heard the argument that they did what they did so they wouldn't be creatively trapped into the path set out even by the best of the EU authors, but at the same time they've managed to paint themselves into a pretty stark corner. We did get to know the new three characters a little bit, but I think the film would have benefited from more focus being on them instead of on the original cast (and we got to know Finn and Rey far better than Poe). This is their story, so I think we should let them have it. I like the idea of how they're growing, but I believe they could use more of that. Especially given 2.5 hours in the first film alone. There's a lot of opportunity there, if used right.

Mind you, I didn't mind seeing the old gang too, and the action sequences were well-done. LucasFilm had groundbreaking techniques even back in the day, and I hope they can continue to show us redefining techniques with the next two films, in the spirit of Industrial Light and Magic. I also hope that the writers have been able to bring their game up a few notches for the subsequent films. There's only so much farther down they could go, but up? Well, that's what the Millennium Falcon is for.

May the Force be with you, always.

Final grade: B- or C+

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