Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why "Revenge of the Sith" is the Worst Star Wars Prequel and Film

The picture that sums up the film.
On the internet, one reads a lot of dumb opinions. Among these are the arguments that "Revenge of the Sith isn't that bad", that "Revenge of the Sith is the best of the Star Wars prequel films" and, above all, that "Revenge of the Sith is better than Return of the Jedi." Good grief. Needless to say, I heartily disagree. In my opinion, not only is Revenge of the Sith the worst Prequel and the worst Star Wars movie overall, it's probably one of the worst films of its type ever made, full of empty, meaningless spectacle and flat, clumsy writing. Maybe it's harsh on George Lucas to say that, but he's rich and important, so he'll live.

Fire turns you into a middle-aged Englishman with bushy eyebrows.
When I was in my mid teens back in 2005 I remember being pretty psyched for Revenge of the Sith, although I believe increasing frustration with the prequels had led to the film not garnering the attention and exposure that the previous ones had. I remember being intrigued by the trailer: we were going to see Palpatine revealed as a user of the Dark Side of the Force, there'd be an awesome battle with Count Dooku and there'd be doom and gloom galore as the world of the Prequels fell apart. Furthermore, I'm fairly sure I guessed the title in advance: it's the logical choice to parallel Return of the Jedi. Imagine my reaction then, when I went to see the film, having at least taken some good away from The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, and being flabbergasted by how awful Revenge of the Sith was.

Why is Revenge of the Sith so bad?
Got some ham stuck in his teeth.
Most of what I could say to criticise Revenge of the Sith has more or less been expressed before, but it's worth summing up. The most common criticism of the film is the dialogue. None of the characters talk like real people, and their mouths are full of nothing but unsubtle, in-your-face efforts to express simplistic emotions or pointless exposition about war and politics that means little and goes nowhere. Tied to this is the characterisation, with Anakin Skywalker in this film coming across as a naïve idiot who swallows every single obvious lie that Palpatine feeds to him. Nowhere do you see the grim cynicism of Vader emerging; he's simply duped into agreeing with Palpatine's feeble and paper-thin suggestions that the Jedi are trying to take over the Republic and are a force for ill rather than good. You could potentially argue that there is a political subtext here about politicians and how useful gullible conspiracy theorists are to their cause, but it doesn't work in this film because as I've said it reflects none of Vader's cynicism of the Original Trilogy - which is not to say that Vader isn't also at times a rather sinister idealist, but he's a complex character in those films.
"Now if you'll excuse me, to wrap up recording
I have to make a quick collect call to Skywalker Ranch."
A lot has been made of the weakness of Christensen's performance as Anakin here, although that's obviously tied to the clumsy dialogue. Given that Lucas has admitted that dialogue was a weakness of his, I don't understand why he didn't seek collaborators on these films. In any event, the performances aren't memorable from anyone. Ewan McGregor is obviously phoning it in as Obi-Wan, and he could scarcely come across as more uninterested in the motions of CGI action and exposition-laden dialogue that he goes through, although that's completely understandable. Ian McDiarmid completely hams it up as Palpatine, but again a large amount of this is due to the flawed dialogue. Palpatine goes from being a reasonably believable manipulator in the other two Prequels to being someone completely, obviously evil in this who makes no attempt whatsoever to disguise his malevolence from those around him, making his subjugation of Anakin very difficult to believe and dependent on Anakin being a complete moron. What this film needed to do, I would argue, is not make Anakin into such an overtly furious character who is drawn to the Dark Side through what largely amounts to anxiety, but rather to realise him as an embittered, power-hungry cynic who sees service to Palpatine as a vehicle for his own ambition. This only emerges as a single piece of throwaway dialogue in the film when he suggests to Padmé, as he does to Luke, that the Emperor may be overthrown. The transformation is unsatisfying and at no point do we see Anakin metamorphose from a fundamentally good Jedi and friend of Obi-Wan to becoming the character we see in Star Wars of 1977.

Those are more or less common complaints. I have two others, however. The first of these is the relentlessness of the CGI. Revenge of the Sith is an entirely fake-looking assault on the senses from the opening battle above Coruscant to the final duel on Mustafar. The film is so visually noisy, full of overly crisp-looking computer generated ships, environs, soldiers and creatures that it looks more like a sequence of mid-2000s video game cutscenes strung together than a film, and visually would probably have worked more effectively as pure animation rather than what I believe was an almost entirely green screen based production with almost no sets whatsoever. The action, which primarily involves incoherent laser blasting battles and shots of Jedi bashing away endlessly at each other's lightsabers, is so excessive and fake that it is not remotely exciting or suspenseful; rather it is boring and weightless with no sense of reality. This is particularly bad in this film compared to the other Prequels, where almost every surface and texture in the film is a bright, hyper-realistically crisp computer generated polygon that simply does not look real. As such it's unconvincing and mind-numbing: at no point can I believe, even compared to the other Prequels, that these are things that are meant on some level to be actually happening, and they make the chasm between the Prequels and the Originals even more pronounced. Simply put, almost nothing in the film looks real, and this is a serious problem. Some people have more of a tolerance or less of an eye for CGI, but I can certainly detect it here and it really affects the experience for me.

"Another crappy landing!"
My second complaint is the character of General Grievous. This awful secondary antagonist, who is pulled out of nowhere, obviously exists only to sell action figures as the "cool cyborg with four lightsabers". Not only does Obi-Wan spend ages chasing him on a big lizard that goes "whoop whoop" but there's simply nothing to him as a villain. He's just some guy. As has been stated countless times before, Darth Maul should obviously have been the secondary antagonist for all three films, or failing that Dooku should have fulfilled the role in this one. Instead of the class of Christopher Lee, in this film we get a CGI cyborg who only exists as a crude foreshadowing of Vader with his robotic limbs and raspy cough. Otherwise he serves no purpose beyond getting Obi-Wan away from Anakin for a bit. Furthermore, think about how stupid his role in the opening sequence is. If you consider the situation, with the captured Chancellor on board, you have all three leaders of the Separatist movement in the heart of battle where they're incredibly vulnerable rather than coordinating things behind the lines: you have Grievous, the military leader, Dooku, the political leader, and Sidious, the true leader behind the scenes, all in the one place. If anything goes wrong, the entire plan goes up in smoke immediately. The Separatist Council are just a bunch of businessmen and trade unionists; they can hardly be expected to lead the war if the others are captured or killed.

Is that Tarkin, or Odo from Deep Space Nine?
There are other things as well that are more on the "don't really seem to follow from the Originals" front but are worth dwelling on. For instance, I really don't think Palpatine needed to fight anyone with a lightsaber. Note that in Return of the Jedi he refers to Luke's lightsaber as "your Jedi weapon" as if such things mean little to him. Within the context of the Originals, it's perfectly easy to explain that the reason Vader wields a lightsaber is because he's a former Jedi and not because all Force users, light or dark, wield such weapons. Palpatine also doesn't need to get his face all messed up. Couldn't it have just been explained as old age and the wear and tear of the corruptive Dark Side? As has been said elsewhere, Order 66 makes the Jedi, who previously have been shown in the Prequels as amazingly resilient, look hopelessly incompetent. Beyond the straightforward massacre at the Temple, there's no sense of what Obi-Wan describes in Star Wars as Vader hunting down the Jedi, although I guess you could argue that that happened afterwards.

This is how I felt.
I should also point out that it has the worst opening crawl in the franchise's history, at least as far as the first paragraph is concerned: "War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere." If you can't see the sheer awfulness of the opening exclamation and those two unbelievably juvenile closing sentences then I don't know what to tell you.

How is it Not Better than Return of the Jedi?
By piloting Anakin's ship, is R2-D2
somewhat complicit in his crimes?
I shouldn't have to even dignify this with a response because of what an utterly absurd proposition it is to argue that Revenge is better than Return. By any standard, Return of the Jedi is a better film. The acting is better. See the confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor on the second Death Star for an example of character drama done reasonably well, by Hollywood sci fi action standards. The action is better: the lightsaber duel and the Battle of Endor are both composed in a way that is coherent, rather than just a nonsensical mess. Return of the Jedi also succeeds by actually having a plot, which Revenge of the Sith doesn't, even if it's derivative of Star Wars (1977). In Revenge of the Sith a bunch of shit just happens in order to get the pieces in place for the Original Trilogy. Return of the Jedi ends on a meaningful note with the image of Anakin's redemption, unlike the utterly meaningless shot of the unambitious Uncle Owen posing like Luke at the end of Revenge of the Sith, even though Owen is completely unimportant - it could have at least been Obi-Wan. The effects are also better. Observe the creature feature of Jabba's palace for enjoyable, practical effects, compared to the mind-rotting CGI of Revenge at every turn, especially Obi-Wan's lizard thing and the inhabitants of that planet. A shortcoming of both films is that many characters have nothing to do, like Leia and Han in Return and Padmé and arguably Obi-Wan in Revenge (these characters no longer develop in any significant way except for Obi-Wan realising, in the context of the Prequels, what an abysmal failure he's been as Anakin's master) but I can't mark Return of the Jedi down for any greater reason than I would mark down Revenge. Return of the Jedi is also criticised for the use of the Ewoks, and while the Ewoks are overused and implausible, at least the sequences involving them utilise actors in locations doing real stunts, not just CGI nonsense like the battle on Kashyyyk with a token effort to have Peter Mayhew in the background as Chewie. In any event, I would argue that Return of the Jedi is a stratospherically better film than Revenge of the Sith, and I would struggle to understand the mind that could position Revenge of the Sith's categorical awfulness over the many good qualities of Return.

"Strong relations with the Wookiees have I.
...but not that strong."
How is it Worse than the other Prequels?
Firstly, the obsessive use of CGI is a big one, but I've hammered that home more than enough. I think in some respects the acting and writing gets worse in this one, largely because of McDiarmid hamming it up and McGregor phoning it in in Revenge to a greater extent compared to the others. Revenge of the Sith also has the worst secondary antagonist of all three, as General Grievous is a stupid character with neither the presence and mystique of Darth Maul or the Christopher Lee-derived class of Count Dooku. I would argue that the action in this one is more incoherent and unbelievable. Furthermore, the score for Revenge does not include a single memorable new track that I can recall. The Phantom Menace at least had Duel of the Fates and Attack of the Clones had Across the Stars. While Jar Jar is annoying in The Phantom Menace he never really bothered me that much, and I find that his qualities are drastically outweighed by the utterly leaden dialogue and delivery of much of Revenge, especially in the case of Anakin. Padmé has less to do, pregnant or not, and even R2-D2 and C-3PO deliver less in this one, especially due to R2's investiture with even more absurd gadgets that never appeared in the Original Trilogy. All in all, though, it comes back to that "assault on the senses" factor. To a greater extent than the other two, Revenge of the Sith is a hollow, empty piece of bombast with no drama or interest. It's crap, and I want to propose its rightful place as the utter nadir of the Star Wars film franchise. Even while I'm a bit iffy about The Force Awakens in some respects, it's a far better film than this, and as a deeply flawed film which lacks a lot of the charm of the Originals, that's saying something.

"Strike me down, and you will become more
powerful than I can possibly imagine...?"
So there you have it: Revenge of the Sith sucks balls, and it's the worst Star Wars film. Everything about it is bad; I can't really think of anything from it that I like except maybe that it's cool to see Vader and hear James Earl Jones again, even if the dialogue he has to deliver is eye-rollingly inept. Oh, and Grievous' droid bodyguards are kind of memorable. Other than that, I would argue that this is one of those "so bad it's bad" films with virtually zero serious redeeming qualities, and even by the abysmal standards of what passed for "good" sci fi action cinema in the 2000s this is a miserable experience. More like Revenge of the Shit, amirite?

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

The Force sleeps through its alarm for thirty years.
Holy shit, Star Wars is back! By my own admission, I'm hardly the world's biggest Star Wars fan. At the same time, I may have more affection for them than some. When I heard that Disney was continuing the film franchise with a sequel trilogy, I was pretty sceptical, but now the film's out and I've seen it twice. Is it any good? "From a certain point of view", perhaps, but not entirely from mine. The Force Awakens is not a bad film and it has a number of strong elements, but it's very flawed and rather disappointing. To sum up the positives, I'd say that the performances are pretty strong, there were some good casting decisions and effective characterisations, some of the design choices and uses of practical effects paid off well and it gets one thinking about Star Wars again. On the other hand, as I stated in my first impressions post, the plot is very derivative and elements of it are extremely predictable, there is some unnecessary CGI, the storytelling and world building are often weak and the pacing is inconsistent. Overall, The Force Awakens feels like a lavishly produced fan-film: on the one hand it follows that arguably desirable fannish impulse of "let's avoid what we disliked from the instalments we like less" (ie the Prequels in particular) while also indulging a fannish impulse of "let's do what's already been done but bigger and more quickly."
Why do all mysterious sci fi people do this pose?
The use of the standard opening title and crawl is all well and good, although I think the information conveyed is a little thin on the ground. Luke's disappeared and both a Leia-led Resistance and an evil First Order are trying to find him. There isn't much else about what happened between Return of the Jedi and here. Everyone's looking for Luke and some guy's been sent to the planet Jakku for information on him. That being said, and I know it's a soft option to bash the Prequels, but few opening crawls could be worse than one that begins with "War!" and has a first paragraph including the absurdly juvenile sentences "There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere." Anyway, Star Destroyers are present and a bunch of mannequins in Storm Trooper armour are shuddering inside transport vehicles headed for the planet. Down below is a humble village where Max von Sydow gives a data chip or something to ace pilot hotshot Poe Dameron and his highly marketable 'droid, BB-8. He's about to hit the highway in his distinctive X-Wing Fighter™ when the First Order transports land and a bunch of Stormtroopers all charge out with blasters, blazing the ever-loving shit out of the townspeople. I get that maybe the First Order are meant to be just more extreme and unnecessarily violent than the Empire (although tell that to Governor Tarkin), but I was confused here: are the villagers resisting, or are the First Order blowing everything up and causing mayhem just for shits and giggles at this point? Having gone to all the trouble of doing up his seatbelt and everything Poe returns to battle, only to be caught when a mysterious new dark-berobed red lightsaber wielding chappie with a modulated voice arrives. Max von Sydow delivers some sterling words hoping to convince viewers that this new baddie is Luke before being promptly killed. Poe, by contrast, is captured. Once again, I'm not one hundred per cent sure why they bother capturing Poe alive, especially when black robe man orders the Stormtroopers to massacre the locals. The only one to not join in is some blood-spattered guy whose buddy was smoked by Poe, who turns his neutral Stormtrooper helmet expression into a sad frown.
The planet Notooine.
The First Order pisses off while BB-8 has escaped due to his modern ability to move more quickly than the old fashioned R2-D2 prop could. We're now introduce to Rey, who hangs out in crashed Star Destroyers nicking stuff and going for sand dune toboggan rides, before riding into town on a giant floating ice cream. She turns her loot in for packets of dehydrated muffin from giant alien Simon Pegg and lives in an AT-AT, amusing herself as young people do by sitting on the sand with a big heavy space helmet on her head. Then she rescues BB-8 from some alien bloke riding a really slow-moving robot dinosaur thing, and I feel really sorry for Daisy Ridley having to speak the ridiculous alien language she has to shout with in this scene, much like I feel sorry for any actor in these things who has to say the word "Jedi" or talk about the Force. Rey's motivation is that her family ditched her on the planet years ago and she's waiting for them to come pick her up, like a kid abandoned in the endless post-soccer practice pick-up wait of the soul. Rey's a well-realised character in a situation to which viewers can relate: she lives a mundane existence living hand-to-mouth, making do with what little she has and clinging to a nebulous hope that things will be better in the future. Naturally she's the right person for BB-8 to cling on to as they're similarly lost and definitely not just because Rey is a human who speaks English.
Helmets clearly aren't ventilated.
Upstairs on the Star Destroyer, Poe is dragged off for torments most foul, succumbing to the sheer mind-bending terror of Darth Vader-substitute Kylo Ren extending his hand in front of his face. Maybe it's the sight of Ren's rather undesigned hat store style gloves. After spilling the beans that the map to Luke McSkywalker is in a droid down on the planet they leave him be, just in time for our reluctant Stormtrooper of earlier to come to the rescue. He's earlier identified as FN-2187 after he's reprimanded by his superior, Captain Phasma, who, as a Stormtrooper in silver armour with a cape, is essentially an action figure come to life and clearly a minor character intended for kids and fanboys to latch onto. FN-2187's had a crisis of faith and sneaks Poe out to a TIE Fighter so they can escape, but it's absurdly tethered to the inside of the hangar. This was a bit of a stretch to me. That'd be like if a plane tried to take off from an aircraft carrier in a modern navy but it couldn't because all planes were by default tied to the deck with a piece of rope. Also note that while FN-2187 won't massacre the inhabitants of the village, he's perfectly prepared to blow four shades of shit out of all his erstwhile Stormtrooper chums in the hangar. Nonetheless Poe and FN-2187, or "Finn" as he is shortly renamed as being, have a good rapport which is established both quickly and well and the scene of them escaping from the Star Destroyer is a good one. That being said, the Star Destroyer's missile launchers don't seem very "Star Wars" to me. They reminded me too much of the stupid "bigger phasers" that the oversized bad guy's version of the Enterprise had in Star Trek Into Darkness.
Fly, yes.
So the ship crashes and apparently Poe's bitten the literal dust so Finn nicks his jacket and stumbles off into the wastes, and despite the endless desert stretching in all directions he happens to arrive at the settlement where Rey comes to trade for her instant muffins. Simon Pegg's after BB-8 but she's having none of it. Finn sups from a big space hippo's watering hole and tries to come to Rey's rescue when shady characters attempt to abscond with BB-8, but she can hold her own thankyerverymuch. BB-8 points him out and she whacks him with a big stick. To save his arse Finn pretends to be a member of the alleged "Resistance" fighting the First Order who needs to deliver BB-8 to headquarters. Then, of course, the First Order immediately show up with Stormtroopers and TIE Fighters galore and start blowing everything to smithereens, forcing Rey and Finn to seek transport in none other than the abandoned Millennium Falcon. Wahey. Rey flips a bunch of switches to make it fly, Finn sits in the baby seat from the original film to blow up some enemy ships and they go into an extended and honestly somewhat overlong chase sequence in which they outfight and outsmart some dastardly First Order types. Saying "Imperials" was easier. The First Order needed a better name. What's so "First" about them? I think they should have had some grandiose name for themselves (or possibly still refer to themselves as "the Empire") and a different, pejorative name used by the Resistance and people who didn't like them. I don't know, the big armies of Stormtroopers and fleets of ships and what not made sense for a huge organised society like the Empire and the latter days of the Republic before it but it seems a bit unbelievable here for what seems to be more like a really elaborate paramilitary organisation. There's no sense that the First Order runs anything or controls any locations other than the one planet. As other reviewers have pointed out, this is a failing of this film: because the filmmakers are so terrified of reflecting the "boring politics" of the Prequels, they completely ignore any substantial world-building, such that the First Order is simultaneously this immense force against which "the Resistance" is appropriately named, and is a fringe organisation rebelling against the legitimate authority of the established Republic.
Make Indy 5 before it's too late!
Nonetheless, everything up until Rey, Finn and BB-8 escape from Jakku feels more or less like "Star Wars", albeit a little contrived and unnecessarily redesigned in some respects. For instance, I don't mind the redesigned Stormtrooper armour particularly, but I'm not fond of the reworked look of the TIE Fighters and other ships. In any event, I'm more or less on board, even though at times this feels more like pastiche than "real" Star Wars in terms of the design particularly, as if they've gone "Let's make things look the way Lucasfilm did previously, but moreso." Then the Millennium Falcon is captured by some other ship and it's piloted by none other than Han Solo and Chewbacca. While their entrance is rather heavy-handed, it's treated unironically enough, especially Chewie. A more insecure and self-loathing production, like modern Doctor Who, wouldn't treat the characters this way. While this film uses Chewie's reactions a little too often as a source of comic relief in my view, at the same time there's no sense that they're embarrassed by or ashamed of using a character from the 70s who's a big brown hairy guy who talks by making moaning noises. Han cracks out some exposition about Luke disappearing after one of his Jedi trainees turned on him, obviously Kylo Ren. Harrison Ford really just feels like Harrison Ford here. He's a fine actor who owns the screen, but I'm not seeing Han Solo, just Harrison Ford, perhaps because we've far more recently seen him as Indiana Jones than as Han Solo. In any event, Han appears to have regressed: he's gone back to being a smuggler who spends his time truckin' across the galaxy with Chewie making dodgy deals. There's a narrative explanation for this, but it still feels kinda lazy to me, like they couldn't be arsed doing anything more interesting with the character or doing something that logically follows on from where he was in Return of the Jedi, which is to say becoming a leader rather than a lone wolf. Now that Han 'n' Chewie have the Millennium Falcon back they're going to ditch our new heroes somewhere, but then a bunch of affectedly "weird" space dudes show up demanding Han pay them back lots of money. It turns out Han's been spending left and right trying to transport a bunch of bizarre Lovecraftian alien squid monsters to some king somewhere. At this point I feel like the film just turns into some generic 21st century space action flick evocative more of Firefly or indeed Abrams' Star Trek than anything else. You've got weird space dudes in silly costumes with out-of-place accents or languages, giant CGI alien thingies rampaging all over the place killing everybody, and a big murky spaceship full of dark corridors. In a sense I feel like this is inspired by films and shows that themselves took their inspiration from exaggerating the "used future" aesthetic of Star Wars itself, and to me this sequence really doesn't fit. It's pointless CGI action that wastes time and doesn't really serve any purpose beyond keeping Rey, Finn and BB-8 in the same place as Han and Chewie.
Is that thing Rey's bike as a transformer?
The film goes from bad to worse when Han and Chewie take the other three to the planet Takadona. Here they go to some bar which is meant to evoke the Cantina from the original film but is far less interesting and they meet a diminutive orange alien named Maz Kanata who seems to be all knowledgeable about the Force and what not despite the fact that we've never heard of her before. I really didn't enjoy this bit either time. Who's this alien? How does she know all this stuff? Why should I believe her or trust that she knows what she's on about? It doesn't make sense to me; it's like "If in doubt, have the characters visit a wizard." Note that in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda is introduced very succinctly, but introduced nonetheless: Obi-Wan tells Luke that Yoda is the Jedi Master who trained him. It's simple. Who's Maz? Just some person? She even says herself that she's not a Jedi but just knows stuff about the Force. Okay then. Meanwhile, at the Hall of Doom, Kylo Ren gets all pissy when he learns that our heroes have escaped, indulging for the first time his penchant for carving up the room with his lightsabre while some bloke cringes in the background. He's also not on good terms with the more official leader, General Hux, aka Bill Weasley in an SS Uniform. They have a teleconference with Supreme Leader Snoke, a big hologram of a CGI alien dude who looks like the Emperor's foetus crossed with Voldemort. This is a rubbish character who simply didn't need to be CGI, much like Maz Kanata in fact. He looks obviously fake compared to the two people he's talking to, and simply isn't intriguing. He just seems like some generic Dark Lord dude with a robe and a throne. What is the logical progression after the Emperor? It might actually have been more effective if there was no Supreme Leader and that Kylo Ren and Hux were making it up as they went along in a kind of uneasy duumvirate. "Snoke" is also a particularly stupid name in a whole galaxy of silly-named characters. Sounds like something to do with snooker or snow cones. Anyway, he warns Kylo Ren about the challenges of facing Han Solo, who is revealed to be Ren's father. Well, we saw that coming. I mean, those were the two sensible suggestions given in the lead-up to the film: Ren's either Luke, or Han and Leia's son. Luke was clearly a step too far so there you go. The old Extended Universe narrative already did this with one of Han and Leia's children. It's a bit predictable. It's also odd to think that the whole 'evil relative' thing was done in the Original Trilogy after they'd had a whole prior film and three years of waiting. Here the character is introduced and his familial connections are busted out in all of an hour.
On Jakku, real sleeves were a luxury.
Back at the bar, Finn starts having a massive crisis. I thought that his actions here were too much too soon. Suddenly he's freaking out about how the First Order must already be on their way, how there's no stopping them and how he's going to piss off to the Outer Rim and hide. So was he just using Rey and BB-8 to escape from the First Order? At other times before this it seems as if he actually cares about helping the Resistance. Maybe I'm not paying close enough attention, but it feels a bit out of the blue. He asks Rey to come with him, but she asks him to stay. He 'fesses up about his origins, which doesn't really change anything. It's not like he lied about being a member of the Resistance for that long, really. Rey doesn't seem to be especially fussed either way. Finn decides to skip town nonetheless, while Rey starts hearing funny voices and heads down to the cellar where she discovers Luke's old lightsaber in a box and has a bunch of funny visions about Luke and Kylo Ren and R2-D2 and being abandoned as a little kid and stuff. When Maz Kanata shows up to tell her that it's her destiny or whatever, Rey gives the old orange crone the big finger and runs off to the forest for no discernible reason. I guess she's traumatised by remembering her abandonment and being forced to admit that her family isn't coming back for her, but this is all a bit spontaneous as well. This whole double rejection on the part of our two new characters didn't work for me. They happen within mere minutes of each other and both seem to have little build-up for them. Rey talks about needing to go back to Jakku a fair bit, but also seems to have already more or less given up on that. It's odd. She also realises with Maz Kanata's assistance that an alternative to waiting for her family is to go seeking out Luke, and Rey says "Luke" as if they're on a first name basis and that it's really important that they meet up. I didn't follow this bit.
I bet he really has trouble breathing now.
Elsewhere, on a planet that has a big cannon in it, Dildo Ren sits around meditating in front of Darth Vader's mangled helmet seeking guidance away from the Light. Probably talking to the wrong guy. It's a nice idea I suppose, an evil guy trying to resist the temptation towards good, although I'm not sure that really works. Isn't the Dark Side meant to be the easy path? Where'd he get the helmet from anyway? Endor? Guess so. General Hux gives a big speech to a bunch of troops who don't appear to give a shit about what he's saying before firing the really big cannon, a huge laser in the planet that squirts five big blobs of red light across space that blow up a bunch of planets. It's basically the Death Star on crack. Well, that was unexpected. The Death Star again? There's playing it safe and then there's this. It's so unexplained. Hux gives this big spiel about how the Republic is supporting the Resistance and how this will very conveniently wipe out the Republic's seat of government and its fleet in one go, but I'm a little hazy about what's going on. Not enough work has been done to explain the relationship between the Republic, the Resistance and the First Order. They probably should have just given the Resistance a different name. Supposedly it's all explained in spin off crap like Young Adult fiction, but surely the film is the main event. Can't they at least tell us what's going on here? How does the First Order have such a powerful weapon? If the Republic is the galaxy's government, why are the Resistance called the Resistance when they're clearly on the side of the Republic and therefore the established authorities? Hux's speech almost makes the First Order seem like some pissed-off group within the Republic that has gone rogue. I don't know.
"Meanwhile, the sinister FIRST ORDER will not rest
until the true recipe for Wookiee Cookies has been found."
In any event they're conveniently able to see the explosions from Takodana, and Finn decides to go back. Maz Kanata gives him the lightsaber and doesn't explain to Han how she got it. It's a good question. If it fell out of Cloud City into the atmosphere of Bespin, a gas giant, surely it'd fall towards the surface and be crushed by the pressure. In any event, First Order bad dudes are showing up, I guess because they've tracked our heroes there and because some spy sends messages to them earlier. So it's time for another snooze-worthy laser battle as a bunch of guys in white armour run around shooting red laser beams everywhere and stuff gets blown up. Dildo Ren pursues Rey into the woods while Finn develops spontaneous confidence with a lightsaber, enough to fight off a Stormtrooper with one of those anti-lightsaber weapons that Grievous' bodyguards had in Episode III. Convenient how they forgot about them during the Original Trilogy. Han goes on about liking Chewie's crossbow. They've been together for how long and he's never used it before? Fortunately their collective hides are saved by the arrival of the Resistance, and there's a well-shot scene as, from behind Finn on the ground, we can clearly observe Poe's X-Wing taking out a number of targets with skill and confidence. Unfortunately, Ren catches up with Rey and discerns that she's got the map. Getting a little cocky, he puts her in a trance and absconds with her back to his ship, claiming that it's no longer necessary to secure BB-8. Finn gets all upset seeing Rey get captured and Han's like "Yeah, well."
"I think our son was adopted."
Then the Resistance lands and we're reintroduced to Leia and C-3PO. Carrie Fisher is perhaps even harder to believe as Leia than Ford is as Han. She just looks like someone's grandmother, and that's no bad thing, but there's little identifiable continuity between her character here and her character in the older films. I guess she just mellowed out a tonne. Anthony Daniels sounds a little different as C-3PO as well. I'd forgotten about him so his appearance was a pleasant surprise. Han reveals that he's seen their son, it's all very grim and then they head off to yet another planet where the Resistance has its very Rebel Alliance-esque headquarters. Apparently this planet is called D'Qar: I can see why they never bothered to explain that. Finn discovers that Poe survived the TIE Fighter crash earlier in the film and was rescued. If they were able to rescue him from Jakku, why couldn't they find BB-8? It's deeply unclear. At the First Order base, Kylo Smile-o is trying to get Rey to reveal the map (although surely she'd only have a fairly hazy memory based on the brief glimpse she had of it) but she's too strong with the Force, and this gives us our indication that Ren's not necessarily all he's cracked up to be, lacking training and finesse to get the job done and being overconfident. It's not bad actually, although I think it could potentially be argued that Rey's a little too competent a little too soon here. She also mocks Ren by telling him he'll never be as strong as Darth Vader, and it sounds a little odd given that she's never mentioned Vader before and previously regarded all that history as myth and legend. I guess she just read his mind and was using the terms that would upset him the most, but hearing Daisy Ridley have to say "Darth Vader" with loads of intensity and gravitas is a bit much, obviously meant to be more for the benefit of the audience than the characters. This can be contrasted to a good moment with Han and Leia discussing their son in which Han says "there's too much Vader in him". That works, I think. For his own part Ren sees Rey's visions of an island, which looks towards the end of the film and is something that confused me both times. Without his helmet, Ren just looks like some young guy with longish hair and a big nose. As a fellow big nose haver, I sympathise. One thing that this revelation does succeed in emphasising is the sense that the members of the First Order seem to all be quite young, which creates an atmosphere of insecure, impressionable people being manipulated to evil things by a cynical, exploitative figure. Ren doesn't look much like he'd be Han and Leia's son, though. In any event, he's messed up by failing to get the map once again, and has to go tell Snoke-and-Mirrors that Rey's a powerful Force user who should be trained. I don't remember what Snoke says back, probably just more waffle about Han Solo.
Poe's ultimate weapon: flipping the bird.
At the Resistance Base, Finn reveals that he knows where they've taken Rey: Starkiller Base, which is like the Death Star only bigger and capable of firing more shots. Now I kind of get what they were going for here: the First Order don't have the resources to build an entirely artificial station capable of generating its own energy like the Death Star, so instead they've hollowed out a planet and turned it into a kind of crude improvised weapon which gets its power from sucking up fusing star matter. That's interesting, but the justification for its existence is based largely on implication. It's more just presented here as "There's another Death Star we've gotta blow up," and that's pretty tired after the original film, Return of the Jedi and, if you think about it, the Droid Control Ship from The Phantom Menace. Finn says he needs to go there in person, and it's clearly just a trick so that they'll help him rescue Rey. There's an interesting thing here about how Finn lies a lot in order to try to do the right thing, which could be important later. As usual there's a weakness: take out the shield generator and you can blow up the oscillator which keeps the star matter under control. It just feels a bit Star Trek to me: I'm not sure we need to know how Starkiller Base works, just that it does. Stuff about sucking material out of stars and so on feels like something that belongs in other sci fi properties that are more concerned with how things work than Star Wars traditionally is. It basically only exists to stop Starkiller Base from feeling even more like the Death Star, and they could have handled it differently. Don't ask me how, but they could have. So Han, Chewie and Finn are off to take out the shield, rescue Rey and maybe bring Kylo Ren back to the light before the X-Wings fly in to blow up the weak spot. The one arguably nice thing about all this is we get to see some old favourites like Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb. The rest of it feels a lot like "new Star Wars film, better have a bunch of people in a control room talking about how to blow up a big superweapon." As it has nothing to do with the plot's main thrust, finding Luke, it seems like an arbitrary obstacle placed into the film for the sake of a climax. It would have made more sense if, instead of having this fake Death Star and gaining the map at the beginning, they only knew where the map piece was and had to try to get it and get out before the First Order did. Yeah, look at me coming up with my good ideas. Take that, Hollywood.
Only $19.99 at Toys R Us.
Rey escapes by tricking Stormtrooper Daniel Craig into releasing her, showing her Force powers once again developing at a prodigious rate. I wonder why Craig did this cameo. In any event Kylo Ren gets pissy again and we get a mildly amusing moment as two incoming Stormtroopers turn around and walk away rather than risking walking by. The Millennium Falcon arrives and there are a couple of other amusing moments when Finn, revealed as having no idea what he's doing, says that they'll just "use the Force" and Han Solo says that's not how it works, while Chewie complains about being cold. They go into the base and force Phasma in her one other role in the film to lower the shields. It's pretty simple. Apparently she can just lower the shields and no one like Ren or Hux or any of the other high ranking officers are alerted. Then they see that Rey's already escaped so they run into her and concoct a plan to blow up the building they're in for some reason. Maybe to stop the shields going back up or something? It might be to give the X-Wings an easier time. The odd thing is that Kylo Ren tells them to lock down all the hangars to stop Rey from escaping, yet the TIE Fighters are released to attack the X-Wings anyway. It would have been more interesting if they were thrown into confusion.
I wonder if it burns your hand at the top of the grip.
While setting the charges, Han realises it's time to confront his son, revealing that Ren's real name is Ben. Han steps out onto a big thin bridge over a crevasse and we know he's going to die, especially when he asks Ben to come back and Kylo Ren says he needs help to do something - of course he means to kill him, that's what they've been going on about for ages: Ren's struggle is not to go back to good, but to fully embrace evil. So of course Han gets snuffed and after thirty years Harrison Ford gets the resolution to his character that he wanted. I suppose that makes sense, but it's obviously very similar to Obi-Wan getting killed in the original film. Furthermore, it's not the most glorious exit for the character, getting duped by his rogue son into getting killed. Then again, a stereotypical self-sacrifice may have been a little banal. It would probably have been too much of a stretch to have Ren convert back this early, but it might have been more effective if he'd been wracked with Hamlet-like indecision and rendered impotent as a result (not in the reproductive sense). There's an okay cutaway to Leia obviously being affected "through the Force" or what have you but the best part of this is when Chewie shoots Ren in retaliation. The survivors high-tail it out of there, but somehow Ren gets ahead of Finn and Rey, despite being shot, and fights them, firstly engaging Finn in a lightsaber duel. Gone are the over-the-top lightsaber battles with loads of jumps and flips of yesteryear. Here it's just people whacking the shit out of each other's lightsabers, which confused me at first, but I guess it's a more back to basics approach. Finn's able to hold his own surprisingly well, which either makes Ren look inept, or is meant to show us that Ren is inept, basically a Darth Vader cosplayer with delusions of grandeur. I'm not keen on Ren's lightsaber. I get that it's meant to be something cobbled together by an inexperienced guy, but it just looks like them trying to do the "Darth Maul's unconventional lightsaber" thing again. Finn is overcome, however. When I originally watched this I foolishly thought that Luke was going to arrive to save the day, but of course Rey steps up to the plate and with the aid of her immense Force powers overcomes Ren and gives him a bit of the old stabby-stabby. Then with the planet disintegrating due to the successful X-Wing attack, the ground absurdly splits open exactly between them, separating the combatants in time for Chewie to come to the rescue in the Millennium Falcon. Back at base, R2-D2 wakes up so that he can combine his map of the galaxy with the missing piece held by BB-8 to show where Luke is. Why do they need the map? I get that they seem to have lost a lot of space knowledge with the collapse of the Empire, but it still seems pretty contrived. Couldn't it just be coordinates? In any event Finn's still out for the count so Rey heads off with Chewie after a perfunctory "May the Force be with you" from Leia. They go to a watery type planet, Rey walks up some steps and beholds the sight of craggy old Mark Hamill, now going down the Obi-Wan route with the cloak and beard, but not speaking any lines. Thus endeth the film.
On the poster, Rey's positioning makes
her look like one of the bad guys.
The more I think about it the more I think that The Force Awakens isn't a bad film but it could have been better. It's certainly not the masterpiece that many, but not all, viewers and critics are hailing it as being. My "initial (bad) impressions" as linked above are more or less my main ongoing criticisms of the film. I don't like the middle act on Takodana, I don't like Maz Kanata or Snoke and I don't like the plot's lack of ambition. On the other hand, the returning characters are welcome if a little unimpressive (apart perhaps from a few particular moments in which Chewie gets to shine), the new protagonists are pretty likeable and the whole thing looks quite nice (apart from the aforementioned unnecessary CGI). More world building would have been useful, less generic sci-fi crap like the stuff on Han's other ship would have been appreciated and a more original plot wouldn't have gone astray. Oscar Isaac also should have received more screentime as Poe Dameron. I wonder if much was left on the cutting room floor and, although I daresay Disney would perhaps consider this too similar to the widely-disliked Special Editions, if there's room for a Director's Cut of this film to introduce some valuable material that might have been omitted for cinemas. Kylo Ren is okay but I found him a bit predictable and he seems to really exist to maintain the Vader cachet in the unavoidable absence of that character, which is something Lucas at least avoided with Dooku if not with Maul. For me the standout from this is Daisy Ridley as Rey. John Boyega's good as Finn but I think has to do a little too much comedy; it's not that he's bad at the comedy, but it makes his character as a man trying to discover his identity amid a world of confusion and horrors (note that he trades the certainty but tyranny of the First Order for the freedom but confusion of life outside it) less prominent and at times makes Finn seem more like a bit of a buffoon. Considering the returning cast, hopefully there's plenty of Luke in the next film, but I'd like something a bit more true to form from Mark Hamill than Harrison Ford's routine performance in this as Han Solo. Carrie Fisher's Leia really seems to just be there for the sake of it, and I can't help but wonder if the film would have been more successful if they hadn't bothered with returning characters. Abrams balances a lot of new and returning characters by doing something familiar with the plot, and arguably that pays off, but a somewhat more ballsy effort in the writing department could have transformed this passable film into a truly striking new direction for the franchise. As it is, this is a competent piece of filmmaking and a reasonably well-handed sequel to some beloved films, but they do little to rival the originality and significance of the films they try to evoke. The direction, dialogue and acting are all probably stronger than the prequels, but that's no great achievement and the very limited involvement of Lucas makes them feel inauthentic and fan-service-focused rather than completely natural developments of an existing narrative. I should also mention that, apart from the use of existing pieces, the soundtrack is wholly forgettable. I can't remember a single new tune from it. People talk a lot about Star Wars viewing orders and how the parts fit together, but really I think this film, like the prequels before it, is a product of its own time, and is probably best appreciated when viewed as having a kind of nebulous connection with the originals rather than having a hard-wired link to them in an artistic sense. Nonetheless, I'll be interested to see the next one, and that suggests that they did at least some things right.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens": Initial (Bad) Impressions

So I just saw The Force Awakens, the new Star Wars film. It was, in my opinion, not very good. That being said, there was a massive cock up at the cinema where I saw it, causing me to miss the first couple of minutes, and the immense frustration at that may have coloured my experience, but at this stage I can firmly say that I did not find much to enjoy in this film. Here's why:

1. It's a massive rehash of previous Star Wars films
Ever seen Star Wars, now known as A New Hope? Then you've seen The Force Awakens. Good guys have secret information inside droid, bad guys want droid, bad guys have huge superweapon that they use to blow up a/some planet(s) no one cares about, good guys blow up huge superweapon, old guy dies. Also Kylo Ren is just Darth Vader as a son rather than a father, so you can throw some rehashing of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in there as well.

And yeah, they did the whole "blowing up the superweapon" thing in both Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, and it was pretty unoriginal then; it doesn't somehow make it less unoriginal here.

2. The CGI is crap
There are some practical effects in the film, which is nice. As such, what's with the CGI? There are two characters in particular, some little orange lady with big glasses who reminds me of Edna Mode from The Incredibles called "Maz Kanata", and the Palpatine substitute, Supreme Leader Snoke (who I'm fairly sure is referred to interchangeably as "Snoke" and "Stoke" in the film), who are completely obviously computer generated in contrast to the aliens done with practical effects. The "Maz Kanata" character is bad enough because she comes out of nowhere yet apparently knows everything about everything (if so, why have we never seen her before?) but having an important antagonist like Snoke merely as some crappy and incredibly fake-looking CGI creation is beyond the pale.

3. It doesn't look like a Star Wars film
It looks like a J.J. Abrams film. Yeah, I get that in some respects that's a really stupid thing to say because he directed it, but it does. The "visual grammar" of Abrams' style, as seen in his rebooted Star Trek films, is very evident: shots of space ships flying through tunnels are extremely reminiscent in terms of composition, as well as the delayed reaction humour and some of the framing of the actors. I'm not a film expert so it's a little difficult to describe, but to me, even though they weren't all directed by the same people, there's something relatively consistent about the original Star Wars films which isn't present here, and yet was present to a greater extent in the prequels (even though I don't think the prequels are very good).

This is what comes to mind at this stage. Number One is the most glaring because the film's plot is so devastatingly unoriginal in many respects. I'm going to reiterate that my poor experience at the cinema almost certainly coloured my viewing situation, and I'm prepared to rewatch and reassess the film, but at the same time in this age of appalling mass consumerism and hype trains people need to stand up and say "No, I disagree."