The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Finale: The Remake Problem

My final complaint about the movie is one that’s already been widely aired, but it’s worth laying out again. Like Abrams’s previous movie, Star Trek Into Darkness, it can’t decide whether it wants to be a remake or a sequel. Let’s look at all the many, many ways that it plays like a remake:
  • We begin with a shot of a huge evil ship, then a big black-clad bad guy interrogates someone about the resistance.
  • We cut away to a robot-buying scene in a desert culture with a discontent working class hero.
  • Our hero finds a plucky droid with hidden info that demands to be taken back to the rebels.
  • She flees the planet in the Millenium Falcon with Stormtroopers one step behind.
  • (out of order) She goes to a cantina-like bar with Han Solo
  • She gets taken on board a planet-size super-weapon.
  • The resistance blows it up after identifying its one big weakness (And they’d already reused this one, but this movie did it for a third time!)
But does that have to be bad? After all, I love the James Bond movies, and they’re nothing if not derivative of each other. As with everything else I’ve covered this week, it’s starts out okay and then gets depressingly problematic over the course of the movie, inducing a collective eye-roll by the time we get to the “plan the big attack” sequence.

But the real problem is that the movie only makes sense as a sequel. Goldeneye may be derivative of the best Bond movies, but it doesn’t create emotion by bringing back Pussy Galore and killing her off. This movie, on the other hand, is all about cashing in on old value. This is most obvious in the killing of Han Solo, but an even bigger issue is the movie’s driving force: the search for Luke Skywalker. Why? Why is anybody besides Leia searching for him? Do they need him to help the resistance? Does he have key information they need? Why would Rey or Finn care about finding him?

The only reason that anybody cares about Luke, on-screen or off, is because of our affection for the original trilogy: this movie gives us no reason to like him or want him to join the cause.

If the movie wanted to do an ultra-faithful Bond-style pastiche, then it had a responsibility to create its own story value, instead of coasting on the pre-created value. On the other hand, if it’s going play like a sequel, it’s got a responsibility to give us a fresh story.

The biggest problem with the remake issue is it required them to instantly flush away the happy ending of the original trilogy. Somehow the politics have instantly rebooted back to the original set-up: Scrappy rebellion vs. huge fascist army. How hard would it have been to simply make the “First Order” into an Al-Qaeda like group? Shouldn’t they call themselves the resistance/rebels, and denounce the ruling Republic as a new empire in disguise?

That would have been an interesting chance to flip and critique the politics of the original trilogy, but instead we just get a reset button, because a virtually-scene-for-scene remake wouldn’t make sense under those new parameters. It’s a slap in the face to the original trilogy and the epic journey that we took with those characters.

Oh well. It’s a fun movie to watch, and I can’t begrudge it its huge success, but it certainly has massive problems. Will I get sucked into watching the next one? I guess. But will I enjoy the inevitable fan fatigue and critical backlash if they stick to their plan of making a new movie or spin-off each and every year into perpetuity? Boy oh boy yes.

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Part 3: Ren and the Old Gang

When I heard that JJ Abrams was rebooting Star Wars right after the fiasco of Star Trek Into Darkness, I was mortified, but then I thought, “Well, I dunno, the first two seasons of ‘Alias’ were good fun, and he says he likes this franchise a lot more, so maybe I should give it a chance…”, but then I heard that the original cast was coming back, and I thought, “Oh, never mind,” because it seemed to me that there was no way to bring back the cast without quickly writing them out again, and the only way to do that would be to make them victims of the new story, sacrificing old value for future value.

So was I right? Yeah, pretty much.

But first, let’s once again look at what worked:
  • Abrams and company do a great job writing fun and witty dialogue for Han. They split up Han and Leia in a not-overly-depressing way and give Han and Chewie a fun new scoundrel-y life. Ford slipped back easily into the role (something he wasn’t able to do with Indiana Jones) and his line-reading of “That’s not how the force works!” stole the movie.
  • Leia works great as a general, and Fisher is great as well in her small role.
  • Their son Kylo Ren is an interesting new take on evil-as-son figure as opposed to evil-as-father that we’re used to, and Adam Driver does a great job showing us the evil potential of Luke’s old petulance (inspiring a great Twitter feed.)
But then this element is once again spoiled. As the always-excellent Rob Bricken writes here, Kylo Ren killing Han permanently sours both this trilogy and the original trilogy in one fell swoop. All six movies have now inescapably become one big tragedy. Whenever a son murders his father, then his life, his dad’s life and his mom’s life are always going to be defined solely by that horrible moment, and everything else fades into insignificance. (And if he does it with training and a weapon he got from his uncle, then you can toss him in there as well.) 

Why turn this wonderful love story into a horrible tragedy, JJ? What gives you the right? You didn’t create that value, so you have no right to destroy it. If you want to create a tragedy, create your own, don’t take this wonderful story other people created and ruin it for your own shock value.

Worse, this feels like a deliberate slap in the face to the idealism of Return of the Jedi: Once again, a hero insists on confronting a family member and trying to bring him to the light when others think that’s naïve, but this time they’re all proven right. It’s another example of being embarrassed by the idealism of the source material and defacing it while nevertheless trying to extract its value.

It’s one thing for us, who have had 32 years to enjoy the happily-ever-after before having it snatched away, but think of the kids of the future who will finish Jedi and go straight on this this, only to instantly have the exultation of the first trilogy slapped right out of them!  And Chewie watching Han get killed?? That’s something nobody ever wanted to see!  It’s unbearable for me, but I can’t imagine how painful it must be for a kid.  My kids (ages 4 and 1) love the originals (the whole “limited screen time” thing goes out the window with the second kid) and I’ll be keeping them away from this one for as long as humanly possible.

So what’s the solution? Just start a generation later! Let the original characters die peaceful deaths in their sleep and then create all-new value. (Or at least let Han and Leia die peaceful deaths, and then maybe have their son turn evil years later and kill Luke, who was already a bit conflicted from the last two movies.)

This leaves one more problem for tomorrow, the biggest one…

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Part 2: Rey

So let me start out by saying: Rey is appealing throughout the movie. Actress Daisy Ridley is a natural star, and she rises to this very large task …I would say she steals the movie from her co-stars, but that gets to the problem: She doesn’t get a chance to steal it, because it’s handed to her.

The movie takes a bold risk I usually advise against: it introduces its heroes separately, and gets us to care about each of them separately in unconnected scenes. This is a lot more work, and works against our natural inclination (to cling to one character and let that character lead us through the story), but in this case it works great. They win us over to both Finn and Rey in their separate intros, and we invest them equally as co-heroes.

There’s a lot to like about Rey right away:
  • Like Luke, she’s a working-class-hero on a glory-less hard-scrabble backwater planet.
  • As with Luke, we don’t quite get what’s going on economically, but we understand enough to get invested in her financial struggles and frustrations, which is all we need. We think she’s earned those rations and we burn when she doesn’t get them.
  • She has humiliations and tough decisions to make that make us like her, especially with BB-8.
  • She has independence, attitude and gumption. We love her when she says “Stop taking my hand!” (and how she says it.)
Then things start to get a little shaky as we think, “Hey this girl is really good at everything.” She’s never seen greenery before, but she can fly the Millenium Falcon single handedly? Well, okay, I guess she’s naturally talented. She can speak Wookie? Okay, sure I guess there might have been wookies on that planet (but it would have been nice to see one).

Then it gets worse. Everybody is suddenly giving her more praise than she seems to earn: Han, Finn, Maz, Kylo Ren...everybody. We already liked her, okay, guys? You can stop telling us to like her. Then, all of a sudden, she goes from thinking the Jedi were a myth to being a Jedi master in a few hours …and she just becomes kind of a joke.

The turn is so baffling that it’s convinced everyone that she must be Luke’s daughter in order to explain it, but what would that explain? Yes, Return of the Jedi introduced the notion that the Force is strong in some families, but it was kind of an afterthought. Luke didn’t have it easy because his dad was a Jedi: he had to train the hell out of himself, and, more importantly, he had to go on a searching spiritual journey to access the power.

This movie flushes all that spirituality down the toilet: It’s 2015, who has the time? Yes, it’s neat to see a girl do all this stuff, but it feels empty: it’s unearned and it cheapens Luke’s journey along the way, implying that it was all in the (midichlorian-filled) blood, not won through trials of the heart or soul.

How could they have fixed this problem? Either have her just not be a Jedi until the next movie (James Kennedy pointed out that Luke never even used his lightsaber in battle in the first movie, back when we had patience), or make her a life-long would-be Jedi groupie who takes to it instantly because she’s a book-taught amateur and she’s just been waiting for her chance to put her fandom into practice. (That would also explain why she’s suddenly so eager to find Luke at the end, when she couldn’t care less before that.)

Tomorrow, let’s get to the guy whose ass she kicks…

The Force Awakens Was Great Until It Wasn’t, Part 1: Finn

So you all know that I’m a Star Wars fan. And you all know that I’m a curmudgeon. So will I be a fan or a curmudgeon when it comes to the latest movie to have “Star Wars” in its title? Eh, both. I thought the first half was shockingly good, but then everything I liked about the first part turned sour. So let’s spend a week looking at those elements and figuring out how they lost me.

Let’s start with Finn, played by John Boyega. A stormtrooper-turned-deserter is a great idea for a character, for so many reasons:
  • It’s something that we never saw, or even imagined, in the original trilogy. It implies right away that this movie will venture into new territory, and not just be a retread.
  • It automatically sets him out on a great Maslovian journey, going from literally zero to hero.
  • It gives the actor a lot to play, and Boyega does a great job with it.
  • It recreates the thematic idealism and inherent pacifism of the original trilogy: if a stormtrooper can be redeemed, then anybody can.
  • It gives us something else that we’ve never seen in a Star Wars movie before: an everyman. A guy who is essentially new to this universe and to heroism, who gets to plunge in over his head, get confused, say gee whiz to some things, and roll his eyes at others, just like we’re doing in the audience. (That wasn’t really what Luke was like. He was actually a pretty canny operator throughout.)
But it’s that last quality that gets him in trouble in the second half. Here’s the thing about everymen: they have to come into their own eventually. We love to identify with a hero at first, but then we want them to leave us behind: we don’t want to play a video game in which we have to push the joystick in order to get our avatar to move.

This brings us to the other problem big problem with Finn: his motivation never tracks after the first half, even though it could have and should have.

These two problems both come to a head in a bit of dialogue that gets a nice little laugh in the theater, but harms the character irreparably: when he reveals to Han that he was actually just a janitor in the big base, and he lied to the rebellion about being able to blow it up. That’s bad enough, but then he compounds the problem by implying that he doesn’t particularly want to blow it up and he’s actually there to save his would-be girlfriend.

I’m sorry, what? This is an everyman trope too far. He’s a stormtrooper, he’s agreed to lead an assault on the stormtroopers’ planet-destroying weapon, so everyone he’s just met and indeed the entire galaxy is counting on him. This is his chance to use his special skills and become the big hero we all want and need him to be, but he’s too busy crushing? Suddenly I hate him.

And the movie doesn’t really seem to like him that much either. Did you notice that they never put him on the same level with Rey, literally or figuratively? In the cantina scene where he wants to ditch out on her, he is for some reason on a lower step and a head shorter than her. Why? And that hug they have when they reunite at the base, he’s hugging her low, which makes for the most friendzoney hug of all time: His big romantic gesture (I’d rather find you than save the universe!) results in zero romantic sparks. Is it any surprise that he gets knocked out and misses the finale (not even waking up for the epilogue)? At that point, he’s been totally sacrificed as a character, rendered to just the role of not-Rey. It’s a bummer because it turns a potentially-great character into an impossible-to-cheer-for dud.

But hey, what about Rey? Let’s get to her tomorrow…