Reviews, Theatrical Reviews — December 21, 2015 at 7:10 pm

STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS: A REFLECTION

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star wars title card

In honor of the biggest film opening of all-time, Pete and Justin threw together a few emails over the weekend to commemorate the release. That’s right, you’re about to read 3,000 words about Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.

Wait… no you’re not.

So without further ado, here is a not-so-brief reflection on our experiences of seeing Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. (And this should go without saying, but do not read this if you’re one of the 7 people who hasn’t seen the film yet)

Pete (Friday, 10:30 am)

Since one of (if not THE) most anticipated movies of all-time was released into theaters last evening, Justin and I thought it would be cool to compare notes from our viewing experiences; viewing experiences that took place a mere 3000 miles and three time zones apart. I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, like any intelligent human being, at a very reasonable 8:30PM. Justin, like any, well, you see where I’m going with this, saw the film in LA at the stroke of midnight. That means he’s running on three hours of sleep (this man teaches your children…beware!), and was mentally incapable of crafting an intro as fantastic as the one you’re currently reading. So my first question to Justin is this: was the sleep deprivation you subjected yourself to worth transporting back a long time ago to a galaxy far, far away?

finn

What’s interesting to me about this whole ordeal is how differently we’re both approaching the movie. You’re the quintessential Star Wars fan – someone who probably even has an actual, well thought out opinion on whether or not George Lucas is a genius who gave the world something wonderful or an evil, money-grubbing whore who gave the world something equally evil (yes, I’m referring to Jar Jar Binks). At the very least, I have to think you’ve given the topic some consideration. I…haven’t. As a 33 year old who believes there hasn’t been a truly great Star Wars entry in 35 years, I’ve never been as connected to the franchise as so many people clearly are. Of course I’ve seen all the movies multiple times, and if I’m being honest found things to enjoy in each one, but the release of Episode VII was more interesting to me in terms of what JJ Abrams was going to do and to witness the sheer ridiculousness of your people. Not that the last part is a bad thing at all – people being excited for movies can never be bad. It’s just been humorous watching people these last few months (years?) overreact to the most minute details.

At any rate, I was a fan of The Force Awakens, and mostly appreciated what Abrams brought to the table. I have a few issues that I’ll delve into later with his tendency to get far too cute with referencing the older movies he’s emulating, but that’s probably more an issue with him as a director than it is specifically related to this movie. Still, it bugged me. Otherwise, though, it was nice to feel like we were transported back to movies that felt like the Star Wars movies everyone loves (and if you don’t love A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, I just don’t really know what to do with you). That kind of thing is one of Abrams’ strengths, and his popcorn style is much better suited to the space opera of Star Wars than it is the often harder, more intellectual sci-fi of Star Trek. As such, this movie is a lot of fun, and the melodrama mostly hits the right notes. I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s an inferior spin on stuff that was done better 40 years ago. I’m still unsure how I feel about John Boyega’s Finn – he’s just…good? Why? What made him decide he was good? Why was he SO attached to Poe and Rey, people he just met? He was integral to moving the plot along, and is presumably one of the main characters going forward, so I thought there’d be a little more development of his character. Maybe they’re saving that for the next episode.

Lastly, before I let you give your initial thoughts, they’ve got some nerve billing Mark Hamill SECOND! I understand Luke’s presence kind of hangs over the entire film, but he’s literally in the movie for 30 seconds! And he’s second billed! That’s absurd. That’s obviously a minor quibble, but I’d be lying if it didn’t irritate me when the credits rolled. Anyway, how was your experience on the left coast?

Justin (Friday, 4:00 pm)

Let me begin by defending my decision-making process last night:

We had a group of 10 and wanted to get tickets for opening night. We also didn’t want to wait in a line outside of a movie theater for several hours (coughLIKEYOUcough) so we went the assigned seating route. Unfortunately, when we explored the idea of buying tickets on OCTOBER 20th (two goddamn months ago) the midnight showing was the only one that resulted in us being near each other. Every. Other. Normal. Showing. Was. Sold. Out!!! Amazing. This thing is gonna make ALLLLLLL the money

I arrived home after the viewing about 2:45 this morning and my head hit the pillow at 3:00. My alarm went off a little before 6:00. I’m completely worn out. But I’ve seen the newest Star Wars movie already. And now I get to spend the next two years debating all of it’s intricacies. I also wrapped up the Fall Semester today so I have the next 23 days off. I think I can catch up on my sleep… when I’m not figuring out how to balance my time of buying Christmas presents, hanging with the family, and seeing The Force Awakens as many times as I can

I say that because the film I saw late last night was fantastic. It took all of the leftover residue from the alarmingly bad prequels and blew it into the Jakku air. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. I have quibbles like you (which I’ll get to) but overall, the experience was something truly special. As we have discussed over the months leading up to it’s release, I completely abstained from all information/photos/trailers about the film. After the initial teaser showed me that I had nothing to fear with J.J. Abrams at the helm, I put myself in the unenviable position of avoiding any and all Star Wars-related material. And I did it. So that meant that last night was the first time I saw 99% of the images that came across the screen. And that made it ohsomuchbetter. I’m sure there’s an abstinence-only-education supporter out there who has a metaphor for me and I guess I couldn’t put up much of a fight. Waiting made it better. Go figure.

(Oh and about this statement: “(Is) George Lucas a genius who gave the world something wonderful or an evil, money-grubbing whore who gave the world something equally evil (yes, I’m referring to Jar Jar Binks)”… The answer: Yes.

So, The Force Awakens. I get what you’re saying about it being an “inferior spin on stuff that was done better 40 years ago.” The only thing I would throw back at you is this: If the original trilogy is considered one of the most beloved of all-time (even casting aside the ewokiness of Return of the Jedi) isn’t it acceptable for this this one to be inferior? Did you really expect it to exceed the originality and excitement of A New Hope? I know it was a low bar, but I had always laid out the idea that as long as it exceeded the shlock that was Episodes I-III, then it would be considered a victory for Abrams and Co. And I think it’s undeniable that Abrams has been able to connect the sentimentality and emotion of the original trilogy with the technology of a modern film and gave us something that serves as a fantastic foundation for this new trilogy.

Ok, I’m rambling (and being tangential)… let’s go rapid fire for my last responses:

Finn: wired to be a killer but can’t stomach it once he sees that stormtroopers are actually killed more often than they kill. His desire to live exceeds his desire to take lives. So now he’s good. (Read: this is one of those plot details I’m banking on them delving into more over the second and third films) And his instant connection to Poe and Rey is simple in my mind: they start as a means to an end, but then his emotions get the best of him. This proves his humanity, which, again, is against his “type” since he’s, ya know, a stormtrooper. Maybe it’s heavy-handed. But I don’t care… yet.

Hammil’s billing: minor quibble indeed! I honestly didn’t even watch the end credits. As soon as it said “directed by J.J. Abrams” I switched off my viewing brain. It was also 2:30 am so I can’t say I was 100% aware of anything at that point

rey

Ok, let me hit you with three minor quibbles of my own and see if you have justifications or defenses of them: 1) Rey is fantastic. I have no issues there whatsoever (#GirlPower). Truth be told, I was petrified that when she got captured that the film was gonna fall into the usual “damsel in distress” storyline, but nope! She escaped all on her own! She’s awesome! But looking at it objectively, she might have been a little TOO awesome. Within the course of this movie, she goes from a scavenger unaware of the presence of “the Force” to not only using it, but using it WELL. And to add on to that, both her and Finn used the lightsaber really well for never having picked one up before. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say if I picked up a lightsaber for the first time, I would definitely spend the first hour doing everything in my power to not cut myself in half. 2) The ship that Han and Chewie are on when they “capture” the Falcon… um… what is it? And how many loading docks does it have on it? And how secret are they, because those gangs seemed to just hop right on somehow without our heroes knowing?

And finally… one of the greatest generals in the history of the galaxies has just met his untimely death and at the hand of his gone-to-the-dark-side-son (we can discuss ALL of that more, too, if you’d like – but my thoughts on that plotline are, quite simply, bittersweet PERFECTION)… does nobody mourn this man?!?! We got independently sad-faced Rey and Leia for two scenes, they shared a hug (that was their first time meeting… right?!?!) and then… nothing. Was it just a we-don’t-have-a-body situation? Or was Han’s abandonment of the rebellion something no one could stomach?

I’m nit-picking of course… But don’t get me wrong. I loved it all.

Pete (Sunday, 9:10 am)

I actually have zero issues with your decision making process. Seeing event movies like this in a large group is definitely the way to go. I just wanted to make fun of you because, well, it’s fun.

x wing

As for my “inferior spin” logic, let me clarify a bit: I didn’t mean to insinuate that Episode VII should surpass the originals, and I agree with your line of thinking re: its greatest success being it isn’t the prequels. The movie is a massive victory for Abrams, Disney, and fans who love the franchise. It’s an unquestionably strong starting point for this new trilogy/cinematic universe, and for the most part, hits all the right notes.

My issue has more to do with Abrams not just using the original trilogy as inspiration, but going so far as to make what often feels like a disguise remake of A New Hope. Think about how Rey’s backstory mirrors Luke’s (which may be intentional given we haven’t been explicitly told her heritage), or how BB-8 is essentially an updated version of R2-D2, or how the visual language of the film is almost identical to the older movies, or the almost endless amounts of nods to the originals that practically turn fan service into a theme. There’s a fine line between homage and rehash, and Abrams has made a career walking, and sometimes crossing, it.

Super 8 was him doing Spielberg, he made two Star Trek movies that (to put it lightly) were very concerned with what came before, and now we have this. I can’t help but get the impression that he’s more interested in recreating things he loves (or capitalizing on nostalgia, if you want to be cynical) than he is in making something of his own. That’s fine, of course, and millions of people clearly agree with him; it just doesn’t personally appeal to me. He’s a lot like Kylo Ren – pretending to be as menacing and threatening as Darth Vader, except there’s no disfigured monster underneath the mask. None of that takes away from the fun of The Force Awakens, it just bothers me when I step back and evaluate the movie.

As for Finn, I get that he’s choosing life over death, or good over evil, or however you want to put it. I just want to know why. I can understand why a Stormtrooper becomes a Stormtrooper given their backstory. That happens in real life. Children all over Africa are handed guns and militarized far too young and grow up to live lives full of violence. It’s awful, but I understand thy “why” behind it. I don’t understand the “why” of Finn choosing to go the other way, and I don’t see where the movie tried to lead us down a possible path for that. Like we’ve both said, it’s entirely possible, and probably likely, they’re saving that for other movies. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now, but if this ends up being all we get, it amounts to Finn randomly deciding, “I’m just a good guy now.”

I’m with you on all three of your minor quibbles, and would actually call the Han Solo reaction a fairly major quibble. Or just a problem I had with the movie because we’re using the word “quibble” entirely too often. To add to what you said, what about Chewie!?!? I imagine he’d be inconsolable for, like, ever, but instead, he’s hopping into the Falcon with Rey at the end and is all smiles as they embark on their next journey. I always got the impression that Chewie would be irreparably damaged without Han, yet that didn’t seem to be the case. And it made me sad. It felt like a contrived way to slide Rey into her new role as part Han and part Luke. An interesting way to present her character for sure, but they didn’t do one of the best characters in cinema history justice there.

han and chewie

As for Rey, she’s such an amazing character that I really want to overlook how quickly she didn’t just grasp The Force, but became something of an expert in it. My brain just won’t let me do it. Not only did she use the lightsaber well, if not for an untimely (and villain-saving) occurrence, she would have killed a guy who spent HIS ENTIRE LIFE training with lightsabers! I mean, I’m not going to just pick up a samurai sword and inherently have the capability to successfully fight a samurai, regardless of how much natural ability I might have. That’s mostly because I don’t live in feudal Japan, but also because my head would be lopped off in approximately 5 seconds if I did. To be clear though, Rey was my favorite part of the movie. Her character arc was just rushed a bit, and if you compare her transformation here with Luke’s in A New Hope, I think my earlier “inferior spin” point holds a bit more weight.

At the end of the day though, The Force Awakens reinvigorated a franchise that desperately needed it. This was always going to be the biggest movie of the year regardless of quality, but the fact that we got something really good has people talking about Star Wars in a way I’ve never quite seen. I remember back in 1999 when the hype didn’t come remotely close to matching the actual product. The prequels all did well financially, but there aren’t many people who hold those movies in high esteem or would call them essential. This time, it just feels different. Nearly $250 million in three days means Avatar is in it’s cross-hairs, but more importantly, it feels like we just got the first installment of something that’s going to be remembered for the right reasons and truly matter. And as familiar a name as J.J. Abrams is, Rian Johnson having a seat in the director’s chair for Episode VIII is a step up. Episode VIII actually does have the potential to compete with A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, and that’s about as exciting as it gets.

Justin (Monday 12:00 pm)

What a weekend it has been.

Since Friday at 1:00 pm, I’ve driven around 250 miles, met my beautiful niece, Erica (born Saturday, immediately causing me to forget anything that ever occurred before the moment we locked eyes for the first time), had a dinner party with my in-laws and their extended family, and witnessed my Cardinals absolutely shellacking your Eagles last night. I’ve run the gamut of emotions over the last 72 hours.

falcon

And yet, that whole Star Wars thing still weighs on my mind.

I’ll keep this as brief as I can since I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind actually reading all of these words, but let me echo one thing you said and explain how I hope it doesn’t spell doom for the remainder of the trilogy.

The Force Awakens IS a lot like A New Hope. And I do think that was the right play by Abrams and his minions. He HAD to play this one safe. While dropping the ball here wouldn’t have completely derailed all the plans that Disney has for Star Wars, it would have put a massive blemish on it all. They’re building Star Wars Land for god’s sake! Let’s say that this one sucked like the prequels sucked… and then you think about Return of the Jedi is just mostly ok. Then Disney would be putting billions of eggs into a basket of a series that is 2 out of 7. This one absolutely had to be good. And going with familiar (while injecting a hint of the new) was the way to do that.

That being said, they cannot follow the exact same pattern and have VIII and IX be a retread of Empire and Jedi. So…what? Rey is a potential jedi, right? So, Luke trains her, ends up facing off with Kylo and gets Obi-Wanned by his former apprentice? Rey then finds out that her and Kylo Ren are siblings and she was put in hiding on a desert planet. She believes there’s good in him, convinces him of that somehow, he kills the giant Harry Potter-looking villain, but succumbs to the injuries he gets in the battle. Throw in whatever they replace the Ewoks with this time around and doesn’t that sound like a plausible storyline? But…. WE’VE SEEN THAT BEFORE! But on the other hand, we’re definitely gonna check it out. Because of course we will.

Here, then, is my hope: I desperately want Rian Johnson to surprise us. He happens to be a very original storyteller (time travel issues be damned – Looper is awesome) and I can only cross my fingers so hard that he was able to come up with a story with Abrams that pushes some of that nostalgia to the curb and gives us something extraordinary AND original. As we have discussed, the foundation is there and there are some supremely interesting characters to work with. And we will ALL be waiting expectantly to see what direction they take this new-fangled series.

Lastly, it remains impressive to me that just short of 40 years after the release of the first film, Star Wars has never been bigger. The ghost of Qui-Gon willing, it WILL beat out Avatar as the highest grossing film of all-time and then we can all rest easy because the biggest Sith Lord of them all, James Cameron, will be unseated from his box office throne. In fact, I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure that happens. Round Two happens tomorrow morning; I’m taking my brother and dad who have yet to see it… And I’m beyond stoked to catch everything I missed amidst the overwhelming giddiness I felt being at that midnight showing.

At least this time I’ll be wide awake for it.

3 Comments

  • Great read, guys! I agree with everything you’ve said here. It’s actually been really great reading everyone’s thoughts, I was so giddy watching it that there were so many little details I missed. But that’s what a second viewing is for, right?!
    – Allie

  • Great analysis, and I totally agree that Abrams HAD to play it safe. There was so much pressure inheriting this massive franchise!!! It left me fully satisfied 🙂

  • Man I love this movie. I was smiling throughout the whole thing and then I was sad cause it was over.

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