Thursday, December 24, 2015

Salem Watches a Movie -- Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The spoilers are calling to you... just let them in.

It's 2:17 pm Mountain time, Sunday the 20th of December. I've just left the theatre after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You may have noticed that I'm not in a state of either euphoric bliss nor am I fuming with rage. As I've shamefully admitted before, I'm not really a fan of Star Wars. I'm not big on sword and sorcery type of fantasy to begin with, and setting it in space doesn't do it any favours, as I tend to see background characters and objects and want to know more about them than I do the flashy Jedi and Sith that are prominently in the foreground of the story.

And so, with The Force Awakens, has the story been brought to a level that I can appreciate? Yeah. Yeah, I think it has. One thing that the original films had over the prequel trilogy is that the characters were relatable. Every character in the prequel trilogy, without exception, was either dull and aloof or ham-handedly overacting, but those in the original trilogy were easily identifiable: the wide-eyed, naive farmboy; the haughty but tough princess; the cocky jackass space pirate.

The characters in The Force Awakens definitely veer more towards the original trilogy than the prequel trilogy, and not just the ones returning from the original films. Poe Dameron is the biggest smartass in a galaxy far, far away, Finn's got great comedic timing, and Rey is really likable. I can't think of a single character that could have been replaced with a block of wood to no detrimental effect to the film. (Hayden Christiansen, I'm looking at you.) And most importantly, there was not one comic relief character! Several characters had great comedic moments, yes, but there was no character dedicated to comic relief. Even C-3P0 was toned down from the original trilogy, and not a hint of Jar Jar or Ewoks in sight, anywhere. Even in the big alien bar scene, there were no “funny aliens”; in fact, the only really strange one was a meaningful character.  But on characterization, there are a few points that have been rather controversial lately.

In my opinion, Rey is a little bit Mary Sue. She's a little OP. Given her background in scavenging on a lawless desert planet, I can buy her combat expertise and engineering, but she's piloting a notoriously stubborn spaceship in incredibly breathtaking maneuvers after it has been parked for years, successfully using the Jedi Mind Trick with her first real try, and going toe to toe with the badguy by the end. I think I have eyestrain at this point from rolling my eyes so hard at people defending Rey by saying "Well Anakin was a Mary Sue, too!" People, if you have to compare your character to Anakin Skywalker to defend her, that's not a good thing. That said, Daisy Ridley pulled it off. I still like the character, and am willing to overlook her flaws (or lack thereof, considering that a flawed character is an interesting character) because of her performance. I just feel that people are praising her for the same reason they bashed Clara Oswald over on Doctor Who.

The special effects have advanced to a point where, when watching the dogfights in this film, you really feel like you're watching real spaceships shooting at each other instead of just advanced CGI. Possibly because of the practical effects and model work, and partly due to advancements in technology, this time around it really feels like you're watching actual things and not just a digital approximation of things. Seeing the Millenium Falcon swooping and diving in such visceral style was stomach-lurching, and the first time in the entire series I really felt like I was watching a spaceship in flight. The dogfights between X-Wings and TIE fighters have never looked better.

Choreography is a real sticking point for me as well. Granted, it can be easily explained away by saying 'That's just how the Jedi Order taught people how to fight and Luke wasn't trained by the Order” but in the prequel trilogies, it never felt like any particular swing of a lightsaber blade was aimed at anything but another lightsaber blade. With Luke and Vader, you could tell Luke was really trying to take Vader out. Likewise, in the climactic lightsaber battle of this movie, Finn and Kylo Ren, and later Rey and Kylo, really feel like they're trying to carve bits off of each other and barely care that the other has just as dangerous a weapon. Whereas in the prequel trilogy any strike of a lightsaber felt as if it had no impact, here I cringed every time one made contact. 

And speaking of Kylo Ren... while I don't particularly like him, at least he was a character. Unlike Darth Maul in the prequels, who had two lines and then just glowered menacingly before twirling his baton and flipping through the air like a majorette on whatever they were feeding Simpson over on Jessica Jones. Kylo Ren's character had a purpose, and almost had a story arc (and might still), but overall, he fell in with the other baddies in this film as my main disappointment. Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma got a ton of pre-release hype, but just turned out... less than impressive. The First Order officers came across as comically, over-the-top evil, with uniforms an imagery that unsubtly screamed Nazi allegory, and when the Stormtroopers gave their salute to their leader (whose name I don't think I actually heard at any point), I swear I heard somebody in the theater mutter “Hail Hydra.”

It might have been me.
Erin says: I like to call this scene Triumph of the Whills.
If you don't get that reference, you aren't a proper nerd. 
I'll tell you who my favourite character in the whole thing was: that Riot Control Stormtrooper. The one who spotted Finn, shouted “TRAITOR!” and dropped his weapon, then proceeded to throw Finn a beatdown with an electrified nightstick while Finn was holding a lightsaber.
That guy. Yeah. I want his action figure. Shame he's only available in a 2-pack.

Overall, this movie is certainly worth your time. It's not the most fun space opera I've seen in recent years (I'm sorry, Guardians of the Galaxy still has that spot), but it's close.

Update: I bought the 2-pack. Riot Trooper now stands proudly on my desk.

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