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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Episode VII- The Force Awakens, a Review

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... 

The kids and I just back from viewing Episode VII the Force Awakens. In general, all three of us liked it, but like a lot of people I found there were definitely some weak points in the story. I will say to start off that my earlier trepidation here was largely incorrect, but not entirely unfounded. I liked Episode VII, it was good, but not Empire Strikes Back good. I will also note I was fairly accurate on my initial musings from a year ago.

Some Brief Notes
Note: if you haven't seen Episode VII yet, you'll want to stop reading now as its spoiler time. Also of importance is that while I'll be mentioning the Star Wars Expanded Universe in passing, I'm doing so for two reasons: 1 to provide contrast and 2, to delineate where some ideas may have been used from. Its been years since I read the EU and I certainly did not read all of them.

The Movie itself
Before I kick off my review: A few points off the top of my head: the movie is really well done in terms of look and feel, the cinematography is excellent. Its noticeable right from the beginning as it was actually shot on film as opposed to digital, its warmth shows throughout. In fact the Kodak logo was prominently displayed in the end credits.

The familiar screen crawl was great to see on the big screen for the first time in more then a decade!
  • The start of the movie with the focus on Finn was nice touch as for his "origin story" as it were. It progressed well and reminded me of Episode I, II and III as well as IV where they got to the action right away. 
  • I also liked the introduction of Poe Dameron right off the bat too; bad that he wasn't in the film more. I have a feeling we have our "Core Three" characters going forward. 
  • The Storm troopers actually hitting something was a nice surprise!
  • Max Von Sydow's appearance and the initial village were well-done as was the fight and the introduction of the New Order and the fact that they too were looking for Luke Skywalker. It was cool to see he knew of Leia, but it isn't implicitly said how. He was a minor character so it didn't have to be spelt out.
The early sections were great for their visuals of the crashes Star Destroyers and other detritus littering Jakku. Even if it is just a clone of of the desert world of Tatooine, the weathered look,

coupled with the shots on actual film made it look directly from original trilogy. The haze of the desert looks very believable, the sand, the dust. But again we're talking about Tatooine II.

I did like Rey's initial reluctance to embrace her destiny and her "home" inside of a AT-AT. She is looking to the past, counting days until... what we don't know (later on we know she is hoping her parent(s) come back for her. Rey's isolation is palpable as she lives alone and scavenges alone. A fringer for sure and a very closed one, well done. Even Luke as orphan at least had has Aunt and Uncle in the Lars family, she has nothing.

The initial interactions with Finn and Rey were good as were the depictions of how they meet. Finn in a rare moment is fast on his feet (more on that below). The referring to the Falcon as junk when Finn and Rey "acquire it" was a good nod to "What a piece of junk!" in a New Hope. The initial battles with the Falcon and the Tie Fighters is very good and visually stunning. But after that the action slows...

The middle sections tended to drag a bit (at least it seemed that way to me), but Han and Chewy getting the Falcon back was cool to see if a bit jilted in its execution. Han trying to talk his way out of the situation is heartwarming in the sense the old scoundrel is back and sets the stage for references to the previous movies throughout.

One middle section scene I especially liked the various factions/gangsters having the same opinion of Solo and the dialogue matching perfectly. Solo has gone back to his old ways and owning money seems to be a big part of how he operates, even thirty years later!

Leia's reunion with Han was over all too quick and felt too rushed, as if JJ Abrams was pushing the story through that particular plot line; knowing he had to have it in but was in a hurry to get it over. with. I don't think it really helped in the tracking down of Kylo Ren as it was up to Han not Leia to redeem him. Her dialogue while understandable is not really necessary.Then again she is barely in the movie so they had to include her. A quick point: some people have been dogging Carrie Fisher for any number of reasons in regards to the movie, but news flash. She is not the slave girl from 30 years ago anymore... If anything it was her voice that made me pause, it was gravely. Other then that she was good , not sure about great.

The biggest part that stood out in the middle is the finding of Luke's saber and the implication that it means going forward for the next movie. The dream sequence and Rey's reluctance were well played. The imagery was very vivid as it the movie viewer was right there in her place.

Then there is the death of Han. To a point, this was all known going in for anyone paying attention: all of this was alluded to thirty years ago when Harrison Ford wanted Han to go out in blaze of glory in Return of the Jedi only to be denied. The scene left me a bit mixed in terms of reaction, in some regards it was emotional in others it seemed a tad contrived. If anything the emotion is carried by Chewbacca throughout the scene.

All of this builds to the ending which is rather like: "Haven't we seen all this before... twice even?" Indeed it was. The problem is that because its Star Wars we're going to watch it again regardless. So we have the space battle going on while we have a light saber duel, re-hashedx3. I hope going forward this is the last time we hear about planet killing weapons. Poe and his interactions with BB8 were cool; I hope the two of them pair up to allow for the familiarity of the two droids, R2 and 3PO to shine through going forward with the new characters.

Then there is the end which takes place in a whirlwind and certainly a minuscule amount of time compared to the rest of the story. But in the end it is somewhat satisfying: there he finally is: Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Master; looking every bit the part and looking at Rey and his father's light saber...

One of the bad guys. Strangely, despite the weak name I liked the concept of Snoke; I rather disliked Kylo Ren. After the physically intimidating presence of Vader we get a watered down version. Snoke was mysterious, obviously derived from the Emperor in terms of imagery, but Kylo?

Kylo suffer from an uneven character and his powers, like-wise precisely because his eventual antagonist in Rey was so unskilled he is largely has to be brough down to her level. In the movie we have him force mind reading, stopping blaster bolts, raging out and having been trained by the only Jedi left in Luke, to get "beat" by Rey? Think about it, he has abilities never seen before, flings her about and dispatched Finn with ease, but then they have to bring him down to almost a neophyte. If anything the fight was a "tie". I get he was wounded, but the story could not have progressed as a New Hope did with Rey just learning her force abilities and having to face the new "Vader." So in a way the "Jedi fight" is a let down here which for me is a shame as that is what I look forward to in each movie. With no Obi-Wan to kill off, (Han takes that role) but for a different reason.

So we get this uneven bad guy with what level of power exactly?

The New Order. I liked the idea of the Star Killer base (warmed over as it is) but the whole organization left me cold. They seemed rather stiff and not that interesting which is odd given how they were envisioned (what would have happened if some factions survived Nazi Germany after World War II). The speech by General Hux was anything other then inspiring or threatening to me.

Gwendoline Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth in the TV adaption of Game of Thrones) as Captain fan-boy sake (which I never got)

Phasma was definitely underused. I hope there is more of her going forward but I also hope she doesn't get the "Boba Fett" effect of being popular for the sake of it...  Suffice of to say she looks more bad-ass then Kylo Ren.

The soundtrack was uneven throughout to me. This was unusual as in most cases music at its best fits the movie and you don't think much about it but there were times where it was actually making me notice it, and not in a good way. In fact it might have been the weakest soundtrack out of all of the movies.

Predictions for Episode VIII
These will hardly be "earth shattering" or is that Starkiller/Death Star caused? :)

1. The likelihood that Rey will not be named Skywalker as her surname? That approaches zero in my opinion. There are just too many things point to the fact that Luke is her father: the innate piloting skills, the innate mechanical aptitude just like her grandfather Anakin and her natural understanding of the Force without any training?  The ability to grab the light saber with the Force, the unskilled use of a Jedi mind trick, the intuitive understanding of BB8 and Chewy. All of these and many more equal one thing: Rey Skywalker.

An aside on Rey: with everything she can do so well she could slide into Mary Sue territory, Daisy Rey plays her well, but it does happen. I don't have strong feelings on this per say, but it was a bit over the top at times. It doesn't detract from her character in terms of warmth, but there it is. Some like it, some don't, but she excels at everything and fails at nothing? Seems dull.

While this movie is not based on the Star Wars Expanded Universe per say, (aka the flood of books after Return of the Jedi), there is the fact of Jacen and Jaina Solo who were twin brother and sister who appeared in a number of stories. Jacen turned into a Sith Lord (Darth Caedus) and then Jaina kills him in a duel. Why do I mention this in relation to the new movie? A movie that has little to do with the EU? Simply because if Rey is Luke's daughter, then she will be facing off against her cousin Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo) in Episode VIII. Which if not a direct lift is a rather striking parallel.

2. Finn- Finn is well positioned to become the new Han Solo. The Millennium Falcon needs a new Captain, he's already a wise-cracking bit of a rogue and he does not seem to be force sensitive (that's Rey's path). He can't seem to do anything on his own right now (Rey does literally everything) but perhaps that's so his character can grow, after all he worked in sanitation as a Storm Trooper...

His back-story being a large blank canvas means that they will be able to take his character in any direction they choose. I'm also pleased that he really had "little" to do with the storm troopers per say. A huge section of Episodes II and III had to do with the creation of the clones who would become the Storm Troopers. I think having him as part of the New Order storm troopers make sense as he was "raised" by the New Order not cloned (as was alluded to in the movie no less).

Plus they already have him interacting with Chewie. I think he'll be a good fit. I also think they did a good job by throwing a curve ball of showing him with a light saber. As I noted above, he's probably not the one who becomes heavily involved with the Force, but that was to deflect attention away from Rey.

3. While Episode VII was a passing the torch movie with the death of Solo I wonder if the same fate is in store for Luke? I think not. Episode VII really revolved around Han, but I imagine that Episode VIII will have far more to do with Luke being the central character. He was barely on the screen but his presence was felt throughout the whole movie and Daisy Ridley as Rey performed beautifully here with her reaction to the name of Luke Skywalker, you could feel her wonderment.

4. R2!!!!!! Damn it, I understand he was vital to the way Episode VII unfolded but he's the real hero! BB8 was nice and all but how magically was it when R2 finally wakes up! Its as if you feel the passage of time R2 has been in a low powered state at Luke's orders waiting for the right time and then bam!

With that BB8 was missing his 3PO. What made R2 so memorable in the first six movies was his interactions and how ridiculously brave they were, more so when pointed out by C3PO.

5. The Resistance AND the New Republic?  I'm unclear as to the relationship between the two. One thing is for certain that after millennia of rule of the Old Republic and then a several decades by the Empire that there is no one singular over arcing authority as there was in the past. I think this will be a benefit going forward for future film installments. Sweep away the New Republic to set the stage going forward for Episodes VIII and IX?

In summing it all up, I was entertained by it and despite knowing what was coming in terms of the story. I liked it l,but it certainly wasn't great. It also did not fit with my expectations that it wouldn't feel like Star Wars, it did but in a sort of reheated fashion.

Lastly, with all this said, this is how I rank the movies  as of now after viewing Episode VII.

1. Empire Strikes Back ('natch).

2. A New Hope

3. Revenge of the Sith

4. The Force Awakens

5. Attack of the Clones

6. Phantom Meance

7. Return of the Jedi*

* For those that follow by blog, you know why I rank RoJ so low... '

To close, those calling it "A Newer Hope" are right, it certainly derivative, but an entertaining movie none-the-less. 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

STAR WARS Episode VII, still not sure what to think.

Less then 17 days to go til The Force Awakens hits the big screen and I still don't know what to make of the reboot. That's right I said reboot because that's basically what it is. Now that Disney has the keys to the kingdom, err...galaxy you can bet they are going to run with it for all its worth.

But why say reboot?

Because I have a feeling this movie is going to be nothing more then a "pass the torch" movie. By clearing out the old characters Disney and JJ Abrams are going to be able to create what they want: a generation of fans unencumbered by the expectations of the original movies. If (and that's a mighty big if) Han makes it out of the last scene will be shocking. I know this is hardly controversial as Harrison Ford wanted Solo to die in Return of the Jedi. I know the internet has been rife with the speculation and in some cases for years, but to me I have this feeling that Episode VII will revolve around tying up the loose ends of the old generation of characters.

The main thing that makes this fee "re-booty" is the character of Rey, why don't we call her Rey Skywalker? I have a suspicion that we will be very shortly. And if not, expect her character arc to be the present day telling of Luke Skywalker. And if Kylo Ren does indeed turn out to be Luke, will we see Kylo/Luke telling Rey "I am your father" in Episode VIII? If that happens I promise you I won't be surprised.

To close I'm still on the fence on this one. I wonder if like a previous generation of fans with the prequels this will be "the bridge to far" for me. Maybe I'm getting old, but I wanted to see the further adventures of Luke, Leia and Han and I am left with this feeling that based on Abrams work with Star Trek he's going to do the same thing with Star Wars. The difference(s) compared to what changed in Trek is this is going to be much more massive in my opinion.

It looks, like Star Wars, it sounds like Star Wars, problem is it doesn't feel like Star Wars. I expect it will be a big hit (any Star Wars movie is). But to counter and paraphrase Han in trailer #2 "Chewie, it doesn't feel like home." I'll be taking the kids to see it, but for the first time I'm actually not looking forward to seeing a Star Wars movie, weird but true.