The Force Needs Five More Minutes

There are some films I like without reservation because I consider them flawless; Casablanca, for example. There are some I like, but with a few niggles here and there, or maybe an element that lets the film down; most films are like this to one degree or another. There are some films I dislike so much I can’t sit through them (I only ever made it through ten or fifteen minutes of Home Alone), and others I dislike despite a few good bits or ideas.

And then there are the films that frustrate me. I want to like them, but they leave me unmoved; I instead spend much time analysing what could have been done better.

(I also really appreciate films that break new ground or show me something I haven’t seen before; Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of art and perhaps my favourite film of 2015.)

In Star Wars terms, only A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are damn-near-flawless to my eyes. The only one I cannot abide is Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, which showed me at the age of 7 what an atrocious film looks like, and introduced me to the concept of milking a franchise. I was the target audience, and I loathed it. It set my bar for bad films – not just bad Star Wars films – and is the reason why I couldn’t join in the prequel-bashing when The Phantom Menace came out.

I enjoyed The Clone Wars animated film.

The only one which frustrated me was Attack Of The Clones. I came out of the cinema wishing it was better, analysing the weaknesses and thinking about what might have been done to improve it.

The Force Awakens had the same effect.

If you haven’t seen it yet, but want to, then you should probably stop reading now.

Star Wars: The Fanservice Awakens

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Yes, it’s been overhyped. 12120132_1041973019187632_2105846703986571812_o

The film starts strong -very strong- but loses direction. It’s a film set in the Star Wars universe, and there’s a ton of Star Wars moments in it… but it doesn’t feel like a Star Wars film.

It’s incoherent. Like the poster, there’s too much clutter (and I have a pretty good idea which sequences they should have cut, starting with a pointless chase from computer-generated tentacles on a cargo ship).

The whole is less than the sum of its parts. The plot is weak, and makes me wonder what Michael Arndt’s earlier, abandoned script was like, since it was based on George Lucas’s original outline.

Clearly, this film did not need to exist – they don’t need to call it ‘Episode’ anything, because it stands slightly apart from the rest of the Star Wars saga (yet remains utterly beholden to it). It’s got some interesting ideas, and most of them are well-executed. Others, not so much. And some are utterly predictable, robbing them of impact.

Who’s Who

I love the new heroes: they are well-conceived, well-written, and well-acted (or puppeteered). The female protagonist Rey is already self-assured and competent, which doesn’t leave much room for development, so whatever growth her character will have, it will be emotional maturity.

The most interesting character for me is Finn, a lowly stormtrooper who has somehow resisted his mental conditioning and abandons his post. He is impulsive; both cowardly and brave, he just wants to run from the New Order, yet will make a stand when he has to. He perfectly encapsulates the sort of desperation that drove the characters in the original trilogy.

I think the new droid BB-8 is an instant success: a real-world, practical creation imbued with as much charm and personality as R2D2, Chopper or Wall-E.

Poorly served by the script is Resistance pilot Poe who sets off the story, disappears, and then pops up later on flying his fighter. He has the potential to be the cocksure, wisecracking Han Solo of the new films, but his precious screentime is stolen away… by the actual Han Solo.

The new villains are a bit disappointing. The new iconic baddie Kylo Ren comes across poorly. His voice is muffled and unmasked he looks a bit geeky. I feel no threat from him; he’s merely a piddly-knickered playground bully. His motivation is… that he’s been led astray. There’s no hint of past traumas, and it’s hinted that he’s simply always ‘been bad’. He gets no respect from the other villains. Potentially, he could have been an impulsive despot styled after Kim Jong Un. The fact that he loses his first lightsaber fight to Rey drains him of any menace. He displays immense powers we’ve never seen before and only kills unarmed victims. I can’t help but feel he’s been written rather inconsistently (which should not be mistaken for ‘complexity’). I suspect – I hope – there’s a payoff to such a weak start for this character.

Of the other baddies, General Hux for some reason reminds me of Michael Palin as Pontius Pilate in The Life Of Brian (“Destwoy the Wepublic!!!”). I suspect he got to be a general at a relatively young age the same way the new Captain Kirk got to leap from cadet to Captain in a single film in JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek.

Supreme Leader Snoke looks like a generic CGI monster stuck in the Uncanny Valley, as if computer-generated characters haven’t moved on since Gollum. If he doesn’t look real enough, I can’t see him as a real threat.

The only one I found convincing is the sadly underused Captain Phasma, the only one who showed any personality; her authority is slightly undercut by a comic scene, but I hope she returns in the next film, suitably pissed off.

Losing the Plot

For me, I think the film was derailed the moment Han and Chewie appeared; after that, what was quite an engaging introduction to the new crew degenerated into plotless fanservice, reliant on coincidence rather than consequence (“Hey R2D2 woke up! Just in time for the end of the film!”). Compared to The Search For Spock (for example), the search for Luke… didn’t really work for me.

Instead, Han Solo steals the film. I love Han to bits. It’s great catching up with him, and he has some great lines (especially with Leia). But he should be used sparingly. This film is not his story. The Star Wars saga is not his story.

His death is too drawn-out and obviously telegraphed (even from the moment Leia tells him to bring their son back you know he’s a goner). Compared with Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death or Luke’s hand amputation – they were more sudden and shocking for it. Still, Harrison Ford got what he wanted back in Return Of The Jedi: Han Solo serving no plot purpose and getting killed.

I didn’t much care for Starkiller Base, either. It is merely the second rehash of the original Death Star, except it is now planet-sized (no idea how it was paid for), and in one cringingly bad scene it destroys ‘The Republic’ (some of it? all of it?); and all of these exploding planets can be seen from a completely different star system (unlike the destruction of Alderaan, there is no emotional connection to these anonymous worlds; whatever feeling I was supposed to experience, I didn’t have it.) This is a problem I had in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films. There is a recurring theme of making the bad guys’ vehicles bigger and more gigantic than anything seen before. At least I could excuse Spock witnessing Vulcan’s destruction by pretending he was watching from a nearby moon. If it happens again, someone should stage an intervention.

And anyone who makes comments about the prequels using too much CGI should get in the bin after this. This film uses plenty of CGI, and in three stand-out cases to poor effect:

  • the pointless chase through a cargo ship with space pirates and tentacled monsters; there is no reason for this sequence to exist
  • the aforementioned Starkiller Base ‘destroying the Republic’
  • Snoke: seriously? This is the new trilogy’s supervillain?

CGI is not the problem people think it is. Sure, it’s fake – but then, so are toy spaceships with matte outlines around them. The niggles I have with the prequels are to do with the scripts, not the special effects or sets (which, incidentally, use plenty of models and practical effects as well).

Conclusions

I’m baffled at the critical outpouring of gushing praise this film has received. Just as JJ Abrams made Star Trek films for people who don’t care for Gene Roddenberry’s vision, he has made a Star Wars film for people who don’t care for George Lucas’s vision. I expect this will be the anti-Phantom Menace; ‘fans’ are amazed whenever someone says they don’t hate it. I imagine they’ll be just as amazed at anyone who doesn’t unconditionally love The Force Awakens.
*(Update, 4 January 2016: this has been borne out by the number of angry and irrelevant responses to this post I’ve added to my trash folder.)

I didn’t hate the film; it just left me in a critical/analytical frame of mind. As I mentioned, I loved the new heroes, and the film started strongly. The biggest problem is a lack of story focus. The script is excellent, but it’s not sufficient. Having a plot is necessary.

I can see a Star Wars saga story struggling to get out from behind the Han Solo/original trilogy mashup/fanservice stuff. The prequels had a great story, executed awkwardly. This film is executed rather well, but has no story. It makes me wish George Lucas stuck around, just for this one. I suspect a George Lucas story, with a Lawrence Kasdan script, directed by JJ Abrams might’ve worked best. In any case, I certainly can’t fault the acting or artistry. (If there’s one thing you can usually rely on it’s a John Williams score, but this one lacks hummable new motifs or sweeping themes and I was left wanting.)

Yes, I will watch it again (I still rewatch Attack Of The Clones) for the good bits, but my initial impression is that they could’ve done a lot better with a thorough edit.

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4 responses to “The Force Needs Five More Minutes

  1. Speaking as someone who is not a big Star Wars fan – I liked the first two well enough, can’t help thinking the description of Return of the Jedi as ‘Muppets in space’ has a ring of truth about it, fell asleep during Phantom Menace and haven’t seen the other two – I think your review nonetheless rings true. Harrison Ford (and to a lesser extent, Carrie Fisher) steal the show, which isn’t going to work over a whole new trilogy (well, leaving aside the fact that short of a Dynasty-style ‘it was all a dream’ retcon, Han Solo is well and truly written out now) and I couldn’t help thinking that Finn’s character was rather unevenly plotted. And there wasn’t really much of a story beyond ‘Death Star 2’. On the other hand, it was entertaining enough, and better than the similarly over-hyped Spectre.

  2. I was wondering why the whole evil Empire had been allowed to come back – I mean, it was almost identical, just… younger? Which leads me to suspect this film is not for our generation (I’m a year younger than you): we’re probably supposed to be taking our own kiddies to it, and they would be all starry-eyed and impressed.

    • I gather the new baddies are an offshoot from the remnants of the old Empire; in effect, the civil war never ended.

      Not sure if it’s a generational thing – merely a ‘this film is for people who don’t care for George Lucas’s Star Wars’ thing.

  3. Pingback: Rogue Fan | Observaterry·

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