Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: My review of the billion dollar baby

Look, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the biggest and most successful movie in history. Only Episode VIII can dethrone it, so yeah, I decided to review it.  ALSO SPOILERS. BIG FAT SPOILERS.
My favorite movie of all-time - and the film I consider the greatest movie ever made - was created by George Lucas and stars Harrison Ford. But this isn't about Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones, this is about that OTHER franchise... so let me preface this. I was maybe in 6th grade when I discovered Star Wars. This was in 1995, my dad had boxes of old VHS tapes and one day I happened to pick out and pop in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Looking back it could have been the marketing push that really prompted me to watch the movie as we were on the cusp of the resurgence of everything Star Wars. Prior to my discovery of Star Wars, the superheroes of DC and Marvel were (and still are) my primary interest. But when that wave of everything Star Wars hit (ultimately leading up to the releases of the Special Editions) I was ENTHRALLED. I had the Kenner figures, the Micro Machines, I was Han Solo for Halloween in 6th grade... I was HOOKED.

I remember much of 7th grade (and 1997-1998) being about Star Wars PC games, specifically the X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter series and eventually Shadows of the Empire. Shadows is still my favorite Star Wars story, Han Solo was replaced by Dash Rendar as my favorite Star Wars character (yes, you can argue that Rendar was just a proxy Han, but whatever). So yes, I loved Star Wars. It was ALWAYS secondary to the superheroes, but I was totally all-in.  (I still collect Han Solo figures... mostly because they never made another Dash Rendar).

Then the prequels happened. I hung on for a while... I still played fantastic games like Jedi Knight and what not... but it was losing its appeal. After Episode II, I was left so indifferent to Star Wars that I just didn't care (I didn't even bother to see Episode III in theaters). So when everyone was having their religious experiences when The Force Awakens trailer hit, I was still left feeling empty about this franchise and I kept saying "this movie has to deliver."

Did it? Well, yes and no.

I'm not going to analyze every little detail. Nope. We've seen enough of that. Rather, I'll just say what I did and didn't like and a bit about why... like this:

The Yay!

1) The new heroes. Poe, Rey and Finn. They are great.

I really liked Poe for the relatively brief amount of time he was actually in the movie, but I also like my morally infallible heroes. Poe is also the embodiment of everyone who ever played X-Wing. He's a good man, an ace pilot and while I really wonder what role he'll really play in the overall saga, I thought he was fine. He's the prototypical character I tend to like, so I obviously gravitated towards him.

Finn was the embodiment of so much rolled into one great character. I personally liked the idea of a defecting Stormtrooper because many of the Expanded Universe characters were defecting Imperials. It makes sense and it's cool to see the First Order's grip isn't as tight as they believe. I thought my friend Jamal Igle did a really nice job explaining why he loved Finn, so I'll just leave that here:

I love Rey. I'm not going to waste time on the Mary Sue nonsense. What a stupid argument. Rey is the quintessential Star Wars character. She's BOTH Episode IV Luke and Obi-Wan rolled into one, so I totally understand the fan theories. "She's good at everything." What's your point? That's half of what made her so endearing. She was a great character and portrayed perfectly by Daisy Ridley. I liked everything about her and I thought her resourcefulness was refreshing.

2) BB-8. I'll be the first to admit, this little droid was a lot of fun. It's that simple.

3) The visuals. J.J. Abrams proved one thing with Star Trek... the guy can do space. Visually, the film is stunning. Absolutely stunning. The special effects look great and yes, felt like Star Wars.

4) Jakku. I really liked Jakku. The visuals of it, the characters (especially Unkar Plutt, the scrap merchant played by Simon Pegg). It really felt like a place that had been ravaged and left to deal with the consequences of that Battle between the Empire and Rebellion.

5) The Force stuff. The whole Jedi thing was never why I really loved Star Wars. I loved Star Wars because of the vision and expansiveness of the universe. I always liked the bounty hunters, smugglers and the real scrappy "real life" characters. That more than any other reason is why I'm really looking forward to Rogue One. But the way the Force was handled in this film - especially with Rey and the "awakening" was really neat. The lightsaber battle was great.

6) The final scene. Just wow. Great storytelling, great visuals, great acting. That final scene is really something else.

7) The mystery and questions surrounding well... everything... even the plot holes.

8) Han the character... see #1 in "Meh"

The Meh:

1) Boy does it pain me to say this... Han Solo. Look, Harrison Ford is hands down my favorite actor of all-time and this isn't a critique on his second most iconic character (Indy is more iconic). He was perfect in every way, he slipped right back into the role he notoriously hates like it was 1977 all over again and I loved it. But Han's story, and where Han has been over the past 30 years is just downright depressing. The Force has literally destroyed his life. Han is a shell of what he once was. His marriage has fallen apart. His son has turned to the dark side. He lost his ship (though conveniently finds it for the movie). You know, that irked me the most about Han.. the prototypical space cowboy... the rogue.. the swagger... the suave... lost his ship. YEARS before this movie takes place. 

2) The First Order. So is this a cult? It's not the Empire...  they have the look but they didn't have the feel of the Empire to me. If they were really trying to rebuild the Empire and Imperial rule, we should have at least seen them conquer a planet or two, rather than just destroying one.

3) General Hux. Someone has serious Tarkin-envy. Or is it Thrawn-envy?

4) Leia, C-3P0 and R2-D2. "Meh." 

Between Meh and Nope:

1) Kylo Ren. I'm more indifferent to him than anything. He was almost too petulant. Comic writer extraordinaire Gail Simone was fascinated by him, and it seems people like him or hate him. But Gail said his mentality was basically that of a school shooter. That is a VERY good assessment for sure, but Kylo just didn't resonate with me. Maybe he will as he builds a little more conviction in the upcoming films, but he just didn't seem real imposing. I know that's part of the story, but at the same time it just didn't work for me. I did like how he was a little more "loose" than Vader. He made jokes, he was very "matter of fact" about things... so I thought that worked in his favor.

2) Snoke. Awful name aside... is he Darth Plagueis? That's really the only way I see this going. Which is interesting, but I didn't get the same sense of fear and general evil I got from Palpatine.

The Nope:

1) Han's death, or more specifically the way he died. Nope. Nope. Nope. I hated it. It was pathetic and it felt forced. Had he set off the detonator before falling into the abyss... then yeah, sure. Han deserved to go out in a blaze of glory, even as his death came at the hands of his estranged son. Look, I knew Han was going to die. That's the ONLY reason Harrison Ford agreed to do this movie. Ford was getting what he always wanted and could finally be rid of the character he hates. But Han's death means NOTHING. When Obi-Wan died, he "became more powerful than you could ever imagine." A Force Ghost... guiding Luke to Yoda, keeping Luke on the light side. Obi-Wan's death was meaningful. You can argue the "but Kylo Ren needed to do it, yadda yadda," no he didn't. He killed his dad in cold-blood, not because he needed to be "set free." That will be the confrontation with Luke. If you really read into it, and the relationship with Kylo and Rey... Kylo Ren wasn't abandoned by Han, he was abandoned by Luke, likely for Rey. 

2) Captain Phasma. Great job, marketing team. Seriously, she was completely inconsequential. Still, what a great look.

3) The rehashing of Episode IV. Yes, okay; Ring theory. Yes, okay; the originals borrowed stuff too. The Force Awakens borrows so much from A New Hope that after a while it's off-putting. The entire thing starts to feel uninspired. So many of the story beats are redone that everything feels almost TOO familiar. I made a joke calling this movie "Star Wars: Into Darkness" because yes, it borrows heavily and twists predictably... which leads to...

5) The overall plot. There are some plotholes in this movie. Some of them big enough to drive a truck through. It's choppy  in a lot of places and there are a TON of head scratchers (Oh! Poe, you're alive! How perfect!). But more than anything the rehash of Episode IV... and you know "let's build a BIGGER Death Star, with a very specific weakness, that can be destroyed by combining the way the first two Death Stars were destroyed." The Supreme Leader ain't wise. 

6) The fan service and nostalgia. A little bit here and there is fine... but there was almost too much here, so much so that it was distracting. But it's almost brilliant that the film plays on the viewer's nostalgia so much that you don't see the faults because it "feels like Star Wars" or "it's more Star Wars than the prequels."

7) The sense of failure. When Return of the Jedi ends, you feel satisfied. The journey complete, Darth Vader redeemed, the Empire crushed. The Force Awakens takes all of that and rubs it in a giant pile of feces. The war has never ended. Han failed at life, Luke failed at being a Jedi master... I mean I hope Episode VIII shows Cloud City evolve from mining colony to Fhloston Paradise so at least Lando enjoyed the victory. But holy crap, the galaxy might have been better off with the Empire. The heroes of the original trilogy are essentially massive failures and there's just an overall sense of sadness. This article actually does a really great job and echoes many of my feelings:

8) Experience over Film. This is a bit odd, so I'll try to explain. I saw The Force Awakens in a relatively empty theater (believe it or not). This is how I prefer to watch movies, because I want to take in the story, I want to take in the characters. I want the FILM. When you're in a packed theater of people equally anticipating the same thing, your opinion of something is going to be swayed by people cheering uncontrollably the moment they see the "Lucasfilm" logo. It was abundantly clear, oh, around the time of #ForceFriday, that The Force Awakens was not going to be a "film." This was going to be an experience, and frankly, the "Star Wars Experience" outweighs "Star Wars the film" and the critical reviews back up that claim. Also, the insane fervor over spoilers also supports that claim, no one cared about their movie being spoiled, they cared about their "experience" being spoiled. THIS is why the movie is shattering box office records... because of the experience that people want to feel again and again.

So overall: I liked The Force Awakens. I didn't love it. Best movie of the year? No. Not even close. (That title belongs to Mad Max: Fury Road which sits comfortably in my Top 5 favorite films of all-time).

I went in feeling indifferent about Star Wars, and left feeling slightly less indifferent mostly because of the potential of the next stories. Individually as a film, it's okay. Setting up the larger saga with the new characters, it's great in that it offers plenty to debate. The best thing to come of it all for me, I recently bought the entire X-Wing collection from now THOSE games are PURE Star Wars. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't interested in what's to come, or that I didn't like the movie. But it terms of full-fledged 7th grade-like Star Wars love? I think that ship has sailed.

I said it was about a 7/10. And yes, that's where I stand. It's a fun movie, it's enjoyable and it does feel like Star Wars, but Empire Strikes Back or even A New Hope it is not. But for a lot of people, that's enough and that's awesome, and I love that so many of my friends that LOVE Star Wars were so happy with the final product. But for some like me (and I do love Star Wars overall), it lacked (or used too much of) the same magic that inspired the originals.

My fan theories: 

(The only one that matters:) Rey is Luke's daughter. I think the Kenobi theory is neat, but the way she and Leia are with each other, the way she and Luke look at each other, the vision with the lightsaber. But there are also striking parallels between Kylo Ren and Rey with themes of abandonment and identity that suggest they are indeed related.

Snoke is Darth Plagueis. There's really no other explanation for him.

My favorite fan theory: There is a theory I saw floating around on reddit (I think) that suggested that Snoke was preparing Kylo Ren as a vessel to being back Darth Revan. If you don't know who or what Darth Revan is go here: Yes, he's considered part of the "Legends" but yes, Disney has not told BioWare whether or not Knights of the Old Republic is canon or not.  (I think the Knights of Ren are Revan worshippers).

Oh, and one last thing. Stop with the "please make Poe and Finn lovers" stuff. To me, the point of their friendship wasn't any potential romance, but the fact that out there in the larger galaxy, there are no color lines. People come together to achieve a common goal with mutual respect and the need to rely on one another.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

I'm sick of Star Wars

I'm sick of Star Wars. Sick of it.

Look, I'm glad it's coming back. I'm glad people are excited, I love seeing the excitement on my good friend and co-worker James Wortman's face whenever something Star Wars comes up. It's fun, it's great.

Star Wars was never religion to me. I never had what I can only equate what some people have to being a religious experience because of Star Wars. I was really into it at one point. Around the time of the last major push, right before the Special Editions. I was also really into Star Trek at one point. Collected the toys, played the games... all that stuff.

Looking back, of the original three movies, only one of them is really exceptional. Empire Strikes Back is the perfect sequel on top of being a great film. A New Hope is fun, but it's heavily flawed and much of what has been built around it actually convolutes the plot quite a bit. Return of the Jedi is fun, The Ewoks never bothered me and it's a satisfying conclusion to that original trilogy. Though really, Han and Chewie NOT flying the Falcon in the finale? C'mon.

Frankly, Shadows of the Empire remains my favorite Star Wars story and I absolutely loved how they created a cross-media project, the movie without a movie. Now as an adult, I look at what Lucasfilm pulled off with Shadows and it's just insanely brilliant. If there is one thing I hope remains canon in Disney's new universe, it's Shadows (it still has not been determined where it stands).

But here's the thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This puppy has to deliver. It has to deliver big time. The rollout has been pretty good, the only major hiccup being the lackluster Star Wars: Battlefront - gorgeous game, real shallow, frustrating and repetitive. Oh and pay $60 for half a game and $50 for the rest! Ugh.

The marketing for the movie has been brilliant, I mean where the hell is Luke Skywalker?! The secrecy around the bigger plot moments has been pretty solid, I mean do we HAVE to watch Han and Chewie die? Are Rey and Kylo Ren the Solo twins from the expanded universe?! All these questions are neat, they help generate the excitement surrounding the movie. But it's not enough to totally rope me back in... yet.

What happened with me and Star Wars? The prequels happened, obviously. I'm not going to waste time bashing them or whatever. I can get past the tweaks to the Special Editions (Han shot first though), but I can't get past those prequels. They are just awful, awful movies. And I am proud to say I am a defender of about 85% of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I was fully ingrained in a lot of Star Wars stuff... I  did religiously play the games - Kyle Katarn is my homeboy and I was an ace X-Wing/Tie Fighter pilot. And honestly, I  generally enjoyed most of what came out around those movies... The original Star Wars Battlefronts, Bounty Hunter, Republic Commando, etc. Yes, the prequels had their bright spots - Darth Freakin' Maul, Sam Jackson Jedi, Yoda fighting... all that was cool. But overall, my Star Wars fandom died with those movies. I never really got into the Clone Wars cartoon, mostly because it reeked of prequels. 

One of the things I honestly didn't like about the prequels and Star Wars in the early '00s was how everything starting skewing Jedi. I get it, it's the major element of the universe, the movies are about the Skywalkers... but I always gravitated to Han Solo, Dash Rendar, Boba Fett and pre-Jedi Kyle Katarn. I loved the idea that there was more out there than just The Force and the prequels really moved away from that. It does look like some of that is being brought back.

Since the awakening (get it?), I've been really enjoying the new canon via the comics from Marvel. They are some great books all around. I've only bought two figures - a Stormtrooper because I think the new armor is real sleek, and Captain Phasma because she just looks bad ass. I got Battlefront... mostly disappointed with it... but I'm not alone.  I've been playing the mobile games on and off too, (Uprising and Galaxy of Heroes) they are neat. I also have bought all 3 hardcovers of the original Marvel comics... because they are great adaptations and the remastered coloring looks great.

So I'm kind of on the fringe. Maybe I just don't want to be disappointed. Who knows. Maybe the movie will blow me away and throw me back into the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon. Maybe I'll just be indifferent. 

Either way, I know James Wortman will be the happiest boy.

Hello from the other side....

Been doing a great many things... too many things. More to come in subsequent posts.