Monday, December 21, 2015

The Force Awakens: Lots of Fan Service = Fewer Fans [SPOILERS]

I liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But I didn't luuurrve it. Please, rabid fans, don't egg my car.

I don't think I'm alone. I saw the movie Sunday night in a packed theatre, and there was a relatively subdued audience reaction...some scattered applause for the first appearance of Han Solo and R2-D2. That's about it.

For the record, TFA has a lot of good. John Boyega as Finn makes a good protagonist. He hits the right balance between comedy and drama, and he's one of those lucky actors who's immediately likable. (And, from a story perspective, Finn's origin is compelling.) Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron, Finn's rescuee, has the same kind of charisma - so much so that the Finn/Poe friendship is more interesting than Finn's possible relationship with Rey (Daisy Ridley), the Force to be reckoned with in this generation of Jedi.

TFA also has a good, sensible answer for what happens when someone who is clearly not a Jedi uses a light saber. Answer: They can use it, but a real Jedi will clean their clock. Speaking of which, there is more than enough X-Wing and light-saber action for even the most die-hard fan.

Finally, it's wonderful to see Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill again, older but still so important and so good that their gravity practically warps the space-time of any scene they're in.


What I really learned from this movie was about JJ Abrams, not Star Wars. For instance, I learned that JJ's primary motivation for doing sci-fi is blowing up planets. (Seriously, every Abrams movie I've seen has mega-death in it: Star Trek, Into Darkness, The Force Awakens...) I've learned that he provides not just fan service, but film-geek service. (Lots and LOTS of shot-by-shot homage to the first trilogy.) And I've learned that in some ways, he's an insecure director. He's too scared to relax.

The JJ Abrams formula is to keep the action coming - at the expense of time to breathe, to reflect, to build character and relationship and new worlds. For instance, the first Star Wars movie took time to show Luke being trained. That explained the Force to us; it helped us understand the limits of a Jedi's capabilities; and it built a genuine relationship between Luke and Obi-Wan. That relationship was vital. If it had been treated in a cursory way, Obi-Wan's death wouldn't have been nearly as powerful as it was.

But TFA can't be bothered with something so low-key and time-consuming. Rey magically picks up her Jedi skills after one Force-enhanced interrogation by Kylo Ren, the evil Jedi of this installment. You could argue that we've already seen Jedis trained ad nauseam. Fair enough. Then why choose as your central character a young woman who doesn't yet know she's a Jedi? If you don't want any more Jedi training, then don't write yet another Star Wars coming-of-age story.

Leaving blast-shield helmets and training drones to one side, TFA has at least three stories that could each fuel a movie all by itself [spoilers] - Finn's finding his soul and deserting from the Storm Troopers; Han's attempt to recover his son; and the search for Luke - but they are shoehorned together and forced to take a backseat to yet another strafing run against a Giant Sphere of Death. The result is that we are invested in none of these the way we were in Star Wars (one basic story) and Empire Strikes Back (two basic stories). We don't have time to connect with any of the new characters the way we did with the old ones.

It's a big, big problem.

Oh...and Kylo Ren is a weenie.

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