It’s $1 billion down and another billion to go for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I’m happy to report that the Brosgols made their contribution towards that number over vacation as various combinations of family members went to see it. I, in fact, saw it twice, and it’s a good thing, because I actually liked it a lot better the second time around.
All in all, it was a great movie. It was enjoyable, and at times, yes, thrilling, but at the same time it was basically like seeing the original Star Wars again, or more appropriately, it’s how Star Wars might have been made in 2015 if it hadn’t been made for the first time in 1977. But since that’s not the story, the reality is that The Force Awakens is mostly… derivative, and plays it safe with storylines that don’t really push the franchise into uncharted waters. I had hoped for more, but perhaps that’s all a part of the ploy of the Star Wars Industrial Complex to just tease us for now, and then deliver more with Episode VIII.
The context is familiar. As optimistically and Yub-Nubby as Return of the Jedi left off (at least before they unacceptably changed the music at the end in the 1990s), The Force Awakens is a sobering reminder that while the rebels may have won the Battle of Endor, they certainly didn’t win the war. Set about 30 years after Luke put Vader on a funeral pyre on the forest moon, we learn that the Republic is in tatters and the First Order (nee Empire) is back on the prowl. Once you get that from the opening crawl, though, it’s déjà vu all over again. For 2 hours and 16 minutes. And it probably could have been better than that.
Why? Because when JJ Abrams hit the reboot button on Star Trek in 2009, it was breathtaking. Everything was brighter, edgier, shinier, more modern, and the movie brought the idea of Star Trek to a whole new level. I loved it. But given the keys to the billion-dollar Bugatti of the Star Wars franchise, though, JJ didn’t take nearly enough license, instead sticking to some well-worn narratives, themes, and characters that many of us have known since birth. So, without further ado, let’s play….
The Compare & Contrast Game
(Where I take things from the two movies that are basically the same and juxtapose them)
The Desert Planet
Are Jakku and Tatooine any different? Tatooine was filmed in Tunisia and Jakku was shot in Abu Dhabi. The sand is beautiful, yay, and looks the same. But Jakku doesn’t have any Jawas or Sand People, and Tatooine’s two-suns-and-double-sunsets gimmick stands the test of time. Jakku only has one sun, and the name sounds too much like Naboo. And Naboo was awful.
The Black-Clad Bad Guy
Much was made over Kylo Ren and the hot-or-not-ness of his face after his surprising unmasking, but I wasn’t so excited about him. Ren is the opposite of Vader’s deathly efficient and calm demeanor, almost the ADHD foil to the original as he lashes out in adolescent anger and frustration. (Spoiler alert) Even the unoriginal wrinkle that Han is his father, and his subsequent Han-icide was not only predictable but a little anticlimactic. I did like his general athletic presentation and demeanor, though, and the fact that he is a lot more flesh-and-blood than Vader’s part-man, part-machine vibe, so it’s not a total loss, and there’s also the fact that Ren’s spaceship is very, very cool-looking. But Vader was menacing in a way that can only be described as imperial. Ren presents more like a terrorist. Seriously.
The Evil Mastermind
The Emperor was freaky and he looked like a scary old wizard; I was afraid of him as a kid. Whatever in the universe Supreme Leader Snoke is, I’m not sure, but his enormous and comically-featured head is a little absurd. Plus his name is not intimidating. At all. Who’s afraid of a guy named Snoke? In all seriousness, though, I am a little curious about who he is and what his story is, and what kind of Sith/Force evil pedigree he is possession of.
Advantage: The Emperor
The Cute Robot Sidekick
R2-D2 was a key character who was completely lovable and sarcastic in a very special droid-y kind of way. Not only that, he was instrumental to the plot of the originals. He played it cool with Leia’s message for Obi-Wan, he whistled mournfully as the blast doors closed on Hoth, he fixed the hyperdrive leaving Cloud City, and he helped rescue Luke from the Sarlacc. BB-8, on the other hand, is a cute character with no character, just mannerisms. It’s not even close. But I’ll admit that his roller mechanism is cool.
The Hotshot Pilot
Han Solo was who every guy wanted to be. He had a quip for every situation, a funny excuse when things went wrong, and was a lovable scoundrel. He was clumsy and brilliant, dashing and romantic, plus he was right that deep down, Leia did want to be with him. Poe Dameron is an ace pilot who wears a nice jacket and might be gay (more on that later). His first line to Kylo Ren about who was supposed to talk first was unfortunately his best one- I got the feeling that he could be funny, but was totally undersold in that department and upstaged by Finn, who is given a lot more comic license to play with. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement. Han is more of an Alaskan bush pilot/space pirate hybrid, while Poe seems to be more like Goose from Top Gun- he’s not nearly edgy enough to be Maverick. Who wants to be Poe Dameron? Nobody. Who wants to be the young Han Solo? Everyone.
Advantage: Young Han
The Space Station With A Lethal Weapon
Death Star I was pretty cool. Death Star II was probably cooler because it was fully operational even when it looked uncompleted. But Starkiller Base? Well, the name is awful, but the superweapon, which I guess can strike across the galaxy with light-speed speed once it drains the necessary energy from a star, is probably the best one (I think that premise is quite fascinating, truth be told). Plus I thought the whole battle-against-darkness thing to time out the attack was pretty neat, and the Inception-style landscape was gorgeous.
Advantage: Starkiller Base
The Undersized Intellectual Character
Yoda is a character for all time. He spoke in Yodaspeak, he lifted Luke’s X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp without blinking an eye, and he even fought Count Dooku in a lightsaber battle (although we can forget about that because the prequels should all be forgotten). Plus, he was a freaking actor. Remember the look on his face when Luke fought Vader in the cave, or when Luke didn’t believe in himself? It was palpable sadness and disappointment. How do you show that on an inanimate object?!?! It was, and is unreal. Maz Kanata is fine. But she’s just another alien thing in this movie, even though she, for some reason, is in possession of Luke’s old lightsaber for reasons that will no doubt be cleared up in the next movie. Ultimately she is no big deal. Yoda is a huge deal. He is transcendent. End of story.
The Millennium Falcon
It is well past time for a next-gen Falcon. In the original trilogy the Falcon was the fastest bucket of bolts in the galaxy- now she looks like an antique. I had a real hard time getting excited for her again this time around, especially with a tech array that is more befitting a name like the Millennium Sparrow, or the Millennium Pigeon. And I get that the prequels were CGI’d to death and that the new ones are going to be more true to the originals, but come on… the new Enterprise in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek was so cool. The Falcon deserves similar treatment, because in this movie, she looks a lot like Kobe Bryant looks for the Lakers right now: washed-up and a shell of her former self.
Advantage: Not really a fair question, as it’s the same ship, but the old Falcon wins.
The Force is what this whole Star Wars thing is all about. The Force explains everything! Manipulate it, use it for good, use it for evil, move things around magically… the Force is all over the place in the originals. While it’s clear that Kylo Ren knows how to be a Force bad-ass (the shot of him freezing the laser blast is phenomenal), it’s basically a Force-less movie most of the way through except for a very, very suspension-of-disbelief moment when Rey mind-tricks a Stormtrooper. The scene when Rey out-Forces Kylo Ren to get her lightsaber back was excellent, though. This critique isn’t super-fair, I get it, as the Force is awakening in Rey for reasons that we can only speculate about, so we can’t expect her to be uttering Force-isms throughout the move, but I can’t help it. I missed The Force. I have a feeling that we’ll see a lot more of it next time around.
Advantage: The old Force
The What I Liked Game
With all that same-ness, I did get a kick out of a few upgrades to mythology, starting with a refreshing three-pack of characters who shatter the white-men-rule-everything paradigm that permeated the early films. A female Jedi assumes the role of universe-saver, a black Stormtrooper emerges as a key protagonist, and we meet a woman Stormtrooper for the first time ever.
I was screaming “Cute girl Jedi” from the second I saw Rey in the trailer and she did not disappoint; she may end up being the best Jedi yet. Her strong, independent-woman-I-am was pretty believable, and I really enjoyed her action sequences and snappy-dismissive first contact with Finn. If you compare her to when we meet Luke in Star Wars, Rey is a way more compelling, way less whiny character. The Force in her might have just awakened, but over the course of the film you get the feeling that it runs not just strong, but raging river strong, with this one, and her takedown of Kylo Ren in the snow-lit lightsaber battle was awesome. I have high hopes for her in Episode 8, including figuring out who exactly her parents are, and I’m sure that will be a big reveal as the Jedi lineage is fairly limited. Is she Luke’s daughter? Kylo Ren’s sister? Obi-Wan’s granddaughter? We’ll see, although I’m also holding out hope that there are some missing Jedi somewhere on that family tree, or others. Maybe (gulp) Qui-Gon had kids? I just don’t like the idea of “The Last Jedi” or “The Last Skywalker” or anything that sounds like that- it sounds a little too much like “The Last Starfighter”, although I did like that movie when I was a kid.
Finn was the another star of this postquel, a fallen Stormtrooper who returns BB-8 to the resistance and starts bro-ing it out with Poe Dameron so much that the internet is desperately hoping they might end up being lovers in future episodes. He’s part hero, part pretender, part walking identity crisis, and steals the scene whenever he shows up- just like Glenn Whitmann did in Transformers. His backstory will no doubt be interesting as well, as we get the sense he was snatched away from his birth parents into child soldiery/Stormtrooper training at a young age. He’s also entirely lovable, seemingly making things up as he goes. Kinda like Han used to do. And we all love old Han.
Battles and Bad Girls
The aerial battle scenes were pretty good. And I loved, for some chilling reason, when the Stormtroopers “call in an air strike” on the Jakoo droid market. I also loved the gunmetal-silver Stormtrooper Captain Phasma- not only is she clad in a strikingly colored suit, but we have ourselves a female villain for the first time in franchise history.
The Final Word
It’s hard to not compare and contrast this with another recent movie that didn’t try to reboot a franchise, but continue it along a new trajectory- Creed. Like The Force Awakens does, Creed trots out the aging former hero (Rocky/Han-Leia-Luke) to help a new hero step into the light (Adonis/Rey) while telling basically the same story with a few updates. Both movies play on a lot of deeply-ingrained tropes and knowledge to take the story in a new direction while still firmly holding on to the past. My problem is that I definitely liked Creed as a film a lot more than I liked The Force Awakens.
Luckily, though, as a thing-that-had-to-be-seen and movie-going-cum-patriotic requirement, The Force Awakens holds up pretty well, although I must admit that I left the movie theater the first time a little unsatisfied. While I thought it was cute, for a little while, to see Han and Leia again, it required a pretty hard suspension of disbelief to give them so much heavy lifting. I didn’t wait a week to see this film at a time that was convenient and strategize kid coverage with my wife to see a 73-year old save the day and fly around on a Millennium Falcon that really could use a reboot.
Luckily, the second time was better. I watched Rey more carefully (not hard, I know, even my 12-year old son told me she’s cute), paid more attention to BB-8, tried to find more to like in Poe, and realized that I’d been a little harsh in my first take. I also tried to put aside all of my prejudices and deeply-held convictions and just enjoy the ride.
It’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m an old man now, and for a lot of people younger than me this will be the Star Wars that changes everything for them, as their memories of the originals are far less foundational than mine. I remember waiting in line for Return of the Jedi in 1983 at the old Fresh Pond Cinema- I mean, that’s history- and I had to overcome that to deal with The Force Awakens through a cool, calm, and dispassionate lens. While it was certainly better than all of the prequels, I really can’t elevate it over any of the originals…but that’s also not a fair way to rate it. How about I just wait and see how it holds up to Episode VIII (and beyond).
My hopes for the next one? Let’s move on already. Out with the old and in with the new. Can the Falcon and the Han/Leia storyline, have a quick chat with Luke before he sails off into the sunset, and pass the torch to Rey and Finn with a wish for them to (sorry) boldly go where no Star Wars film has gone before.
We’ll be ready. And we’ll we willing to pay another few billion to see what happens next. Release date is May 26, 2017, so reserve your tickets now.