Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Listen, the spoilers are strong with this one, so if you haven’t seen the film and you keep reading anyway, well, you have your reward.

I don’t review films, not really, not often. Mostly I don’t care to, and when I do most of what I’d say has been said elsewhere and better.

But Star Wars is a little different, isn’t it? It’s more of a generational touchstone, a sort of culture-shaping thing that transcends its ambitions and obvious limitations to become this thing we all partake in. In one way or another.

I went to see it in IMAX 3D, and I have some thoughts.

IMAX 3D

I saw it in IMAX 3D because I had to. Not because I wanted to. I don’t like 3D except in rare cases where it’s used for a specific reason. This time was no exception.

But before going on about that, a little bit about the IMAX experience. It’s… okay I guess? The screen is a bit bigger and curved, the sound is a bit louder and they obviously invested a lot of money in subwoofer technology. But the experience ends up being just incrementally better than a regular cinema experience, especially if you’re going to a cineplex. I don’t think it’s worth the extra few dollars. The seats leaned back, so that was something, but if anything the seats felt narrower than normal theater seats: I’m a big dude and I felt wedged in there at points.

Now for 3D. When I got to a theater my brain expects to pan left and right to follow the action. When I have to pan left, right, forward, and backwards, I find this distracting. I don’t like having to constantly adjust my focus. Not to mention that with modern theaters, the resolution they’re capable of producing is absurd, and 3D makes everything look blurry to me. What’s the point of dim and blurry bits and pieces flying at my head?

Modern action filmmaking actually makes this a lot worse. The constant cutting, steadicam, and lack of visual coherence is bad enough on a 2D screen; on a 3D screen it’s unbearable.

The only thing I really liked about the whole IMAX presentation was assigned seating. Which leads me to…

Theatres

This is a big one for me. I don’t actually enjoy the theater experience. I mean, I like the screen and the sound, but I don’t like having to get there an undefined amount of time before the showing for the chance to get a seat in the “good seat zone” (aka center middle). Or worse, doing this with a group of people.

The crucial bit of technology to get me to the theater more is well within reach here. I could see the seating charts online when I did the IMAX purchasing. I knew where I was going to be sitting, and I knew we didn’t have to show up a half hour before the showing in order to get 2 seats together in a decent place.

If I can buy tickets online, know where I’m going to be sitting, print them out at home or show them my phone or whatever, show up, walk in, and watch the film, I’ll go to the theater more often. I know it. It takes away all the annoying “unknowns” of the situation.

I guess I understand why theatres don’t do this. They want to upsell to experiences where they do it, and the probably also think they’ll sell fewer tickets if you know you’re going to be sitting in the front row getting a crick in your neck. But there are plenty of people who still walk in and buy tickets not caring about that stuff, so don’t tell them where they’re going to be sitting. Just have the algorithm assign them next best seating. Or maybe have a section of the theatre (again, center middle) that are specifically reserved for people willing to pay an extra dollar to have assigned seating in a particular place and then have everyone go into overflow.

Anyways. If you were counting on a review of the actual film, sorry about all this theatre bullshit. Technical stuff like this matters to me sometimes more than the actual film (but only sometimes).

Technical Stuff About The Film

Okay, so before I get into what I thought about the film proper and what kind of job they did on the character and story and whatnot, let me get into some good and bad stuff about the film technically.

First off, there was almost no steadicam in the film that I remember being there. This is a good thing. It’s a part of what makes a Star Wars film feel like a Star Wars film: The technique in them has always been more stately and restrained than other more recent action films. I really appreciate that, and I hope that action movies as a whole knock it off will all the unsteady camera work. Part of the reason for this is that when the camera is “part” of the action it really breaks immersion for me. If I’m noticing things about what the camera is doing, if it really seems to have a personality, I can’t help remembering that yes, this is a camera, yes, this is a film. Not great.

The action itself was at once a lot more restrained than other action films, and a lot (a lot lot) more complex than the original Star Wars trilogy. When I say restrained, I’m thinking especially of Marvel movies where a lot of computer generated stuff is flying around and hitting a bunch of other computer generated stuff in a way that’s obviously artificial. The Avengers movies are particularly bad at this, as are any of the Thor setpieces in Asgard. Those action scenes feel meticulously designed and cold, almost built to be too much to handle. I don’t particularly like them. They make me feel removed from the film as an experience. They’re scenes to be marveled at (ha!) but not really grasped and felt. This doesn’t have to be bad: Mad Max: Fury Road did action setpieces on an extreme scale for extended periods of time. I’ve struggled to understand what the difference is between these two franchises, but I think it has something to with scale (Mad Max takes place on a much smaller scale, even when the action is intensely bonkers) and intelligibility (Mad Max makes a kind of visual sense that’s hard to explain; Marvel movies seem chaotic and random in comparison).

In any case, The Force Awakens is mostly fairly intelligible. There are some Tie Fighter vs X-Wing scenes that honestly lost me. Like, I understand what the intention of the scenes was, but especially at the end, right before the trench run… they mostly just left me thinking that yes, I had just seen a bunch of things happen, but no, I didn’t know exactly what. Maybe I was just tired. I’ll have to watch it again.

I don’t want to compare TFA to the prequel trilogy, but I do want to compare it to the original trilogy. Obviously the original trilogy was limited in its approach to space action by the technology of the time, but it was massively simpler. And it made more visual sense. I suppose it lost a sense of scale in not being able to really show a massive space battle in all its chaos, but I’m not sure that being able to show chaos is actually helpful the viewer.

But on balance TFA was very good in its action restraint.

One thing I really noticed was the pacing of the film. There’s not a lot of breathing room here. It’s a modern blockbuster after all, so there’s not much time devoted to just slowing down and taking a moment. This is mostly okay, and it lets the scenes that do breathe (like the introduction of Rey scavenging the bowels of a crashed and abandoned Imperial starship) really speak for themselves. And, frankly, this film was approaching too long as it is. So I understand the pacing. However I would have preferred some of the cuts to last a little bit longer. Like just a few seconds. I felt like the film cut away, especially from faces, a bit too soon. So maybe what I’m trying to say is I would have appreciated a film that kept a similar pace with fewer or less frequent cuts. The editing wasn’t terribly obvious, and definitely wasn’t the sort of stylized editing that draws attention to itself as technique, but it was often cut quicker than I would like. So I did notice it despite its lack of a particular flair.

The staging and locations were uniformly great, though two stick out as really top shelf: The desert planet at the beginning (more on that later) and the lighsabre battle in the snowy woods at the end. Almost every location was an archetype a la vintage Star Wars: Everything is either forbidding or lush. There’s no nondescript temperate planets here.

Characters

The new characters are just great. Just flat out great. Unlike Luke Skywalker, who I originally wanted to punch right in his whiny throat, none of the characters seemed out of place or annoying. They didn’t really need to be changed or redeemed in some way, they were just fully formed right from the start.

Rey is a treat, probably the breakout performance of the whole film. Finn is an unexpected twist, being a fully humanized Stormtrooper (even before he defects, he’s obviously stricken by what he’s seeing done and being asked to do). He does get a little mouthy and jokey as the film progresses, but again, more on that later. Poe is fantastic, though underused (how can you get someone as pure 100% good as Oscar Isaac and not use the crap out of him?). He’s constantly referred to as the best pilot in the whole wide universe, blah blah blah, but we get to see very little of him actually doing that. Of course the film is already jam packed without having to show, not tell us that he’s super duper pilot man, but this character is clearly set up to be important later on. I wish I would have seen just a bit more about him.

I have to say, I had some mixed feelings about Adam Driver as Kylo Ren going in. I’m a fan of Driver as an actor (he’s good in Girls, great in While We’re Young). But nothing about him really said “villain” to me. Until I saw TFA. I just bought it. I loved the character. The idea of a conflicted villain trying desperately to stifle his best impulses is a sly twist of the Force as it’s been revealed so far in the Star Wars universe.

Kylo is a clear inversion of the Luke trope, where Luke avoids killing his father by turning away from the dark side, Kylo does the opposite, killing his father (Han Solo just in case you weren’t paying attention) in order to fully turn toward the dark side. This sets up Kylo as effective antagonist to Luke, having walked the same path and chosen differently.

His bursts of uncontrolled anger, or him punching his own wound to (presumably) level up his dark side powers, all great touches. But allowing him to be wounded, to show his vulnerability, this is a great touch too. He obviously needs to finish his training to get on Vader’s level, formidable as he is.

I think Kylo has been set up to be irredeemable in a way Vader never was: Where Anakin was seduced and eventually taken over by the dark side, Kylo is chasing after the dark side. It’s his goal. It’s the thing that he wants, to finish what Vader started.

Interestingly enough, much like the original trilogy, there’s no mention of the Sith. So Kylo’s master may indeed be a Sith Lord, but we only hear him referred to as Snoke. Much like the Emperor was the Emperor, not Darth Whatever. I like this ambiguity; as the canon of Star Wars stuff got more granularly explained, it lost the magic you find in things that you can’t or don’t need to explain. Sith, Jedi, midichlorians, these things are all best left behind the veil and trotted out for novels and whatnot.

The standout character introduction though has to be BB-8. That thing is adorable! Say whatever you want about JJ Abrams, he has a knack for knowing what not to put in his movies. Jar Jar Binks this is not. The droid has real personality in way that even R2-D2 never had, as affectionate as we may feel for the older model droid.

So that’s the new characters. On to the old. I’ve been hearing rumblings around the web about some older characters looking older. Yeah, Leia and Han look worse for wear, but these actors are actually old now, you know? Even Mark Hamill (who looks very, very good in the movie compared to, oh, the last few years) looks worn out and trampled down. This is expected, I think, and if this seems weird to you, maybe stop pretending people don’t get old.

Han Solo is around for most the film until he dies. Ford puts in a pretty good performance, but honestly I could have done with him dying a little sooner. A lot of the screen time is sucked up by Han Solo, more than I think the character deserves. Yes, he’s a huge part of the charm of the originals, but I didn’t expect TFA to be quite the Han Solo show that it was.

He’s there, Carrie Fisher shows up being all generally and whatnot, and of course we see Mark Hamill at the end. They’re all fine, I guess, and I suppose there are some people who get misty eyed at seeing them again, but I could have done with seeing them a little less.

Before we get to story, I’d just like to say this: C-3PO can go ahead and fall into a volcano. I hated him in the original trilogy, I triple hated him in the prequels, and I hate him now for talking up valuable real estate that could be given to just about anything or anyone else.

Story and Miscellanea

So here’s the thing. Before I watched TFA, I was very familiar with JJ Abram’s work. He’s a good filmmaker, not great, but good, and very solidly good at that. He hasn’t made any real stinkers (I even liked Into Darkness). But where his real genius lies is his chameleon-like ability to imbibe the essence of a thing and then produce something that smells the same. None of his movies are original ideas, they’re all remakes or entries in series, and his strange proficiency with capturing the tone of a property makes him something of a reboot auteur. (Before you say anything about Super 8 being an original property, I’d like to point out that in Super 8 JJ captured and reproduced Spielberg; the movie might be original script but it is not by a long shot an original property.)

I used to think of the Star Trek reboot as a dry run for doing Star Wars. I don’t know if that was the intention at the time, but it just looked like the obvious next thing. And so here we are. When they announced Abrams was doing Star Wars I wasn’t surprised… but I was a little worried.

And my worries were borne out here. I said on Twitter before I went to see the film that I was afraid that TFA would be such a faithful reproduction that it would be old hat before I saw the film.

There’s nothing about the story that’s really hugely different from anything Star Wars has been before. There are some subtle twists and some things are certainly done a lot better, but it’s a beat-for-beat photocopy of Episode IV. Everything that Episode IV did, TFA does, just bigger. It starts on a desert planet like Tatooine… but worse. It has the Empire… but more Nazi-ish than the Empire. Our heroes get sucked into the Resistance which is just… the Rebel Alliance. There are space fights… but bigger. There’s a Death Star… that kills stars and planets and is as big as a planet. There’s a trench run to blow up the thing that makes the SuperDeathStar blow up. All the archetypes are there, all the plot points get hit.

Thing is, that’s kind of what we need. Star Wars is in need of a cathartic release, a reawakening if you will, to cleanse it from the stink of the prequels. If that means taking the original Star Wars movie an half-rebooting, half-remaking it, then so be it.

This film doesn’t have to be a great film, it just has to be a great Star Wars film, and in that I think it does the job really well. I enjoyed most of it, and I want to see where the next episode takes the universe. As long as the next film isn’t The Empire Strikes Back 2.0. I really want a Star Wars installment that takes the series and universe as a whole in an unexpected direction. I want not just to be given what I already know I want, but what I don’t know I want because I’ve never seen it before.

I will buy this film.

You can force your story’s shape, but the color will always bloom upstream.

Based on that snippet, I’m hopeful Upstream Color will continue Primer’s low-fi sci-fi lead.

I really wanted to love you, but you made it impossible

Sometimes a tv show, a book, or a film comes out, and the pedigree of those involved is so strong that it must be good. You feel compelled to love this product. But you don’t. And maybe you feel guilty about that, or disloyal for not loving their creation.

It happens to everyone. It happens to me regularly. So I’ve decided to put together a list of things I should have liked, but didn’t.

Steven Erikson’s “Dust of Dreams”

“Gardens of the Moon” is such a wonderful book, as are most of the rest of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, up until “Reaper’s Gale”, which is good but muddled and very, very slow. “Dust of Dreams” is muddled writ large: The book slogs its way through 800 unnecessary pages before anything actually happens. I like a good character study as much as anyone, but like the TV show “House”, a large part of the book seems to be people’s and creatures’ mumbled introspection. Most of this introspection reads like they just got their character description and used a thesaurus.

I’m reading through “Dust of Dreams” a second time; hopefully this second reading will help change my mind about the book (which I desperately want to like), but so far it seems to be clarifying why I didn’t.

Snow Patrol’s “A Hundred Million Suns”

“Eyes Open” was a fantastic album. It wasn’t an ambitious technical and artistic masterpiece, but it was full of great riffs, great tunes, and get-to-the-point lyrics. Even “Final Straw”, with it’s many missteps, can be forgiven its weaknesses in light of its strengths. But “A Hundred Million Suns” was utterly forgettable. I listened to it once and forgot about it… until I was unfortunately reminded of it again today.

When “A Hundred Million Suns” first came out, I was excited to hear it. I love Snow Patrol, in spite of myself. I wanted it to be another permanent-repeat record like “Eyes Open”. But it wasn’t. It’s alright, I suppose, but a thousand other bands are doing more exiting things.

The Good Guys

Let’s be clear here: I love Matt Nix. Burn Notice is a fantastic television series (and USA is a fantastic network for a particular type of tv show). I love Bradley Whitford. If he wasn’t part of the cast of The West Wing, I don’t think I could watch the show. I love Colin Hanks. He has a sort of baby-faced good-boy charm, which explains his casting. His appearances on Numb3rs were some of that show’s highlights for me.

But The Good Guys? Meh. Blah. Feh. It should work. It’s got that impressive pedigree. It’s got the low-key humour, the action, all that stuff, but it doesn’t have the edge that Burn Notice has. It’s lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. Hard to put into words, but I get fidgety when I watch The Good Guys. I want to do something else. And so it is that I’ve stopped watching.

Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, Cars

Ah, Pixar. So very many fabulous films have flown from your beautiful nest. Toy Story was (literally) a revolutionary film, but also a film full of wonder and adventure. Toy Story 2 was even better than Toy Story in almost every way. Monsters Inc (still the best Pixar film in my opinion) was stunningly original. The Incredibles is probably the best superhero film ever made, bar none. Wall-E was minimalistic, retro-futuristic, delightful, and showed that even without much dialogue and exposition, a film can be moving and pointed. Up was almost indescribable; it had at its core a love story, but a love story wrapped in action and adventure. It was delightfully different from any other animated film I’ve ever seen, not simply in content, but in theme (who else could build an animated film on nostalgia alone?).

And then there are the other. Finding Nemo. A Bug’s Life. And especially, Cars. I didn’t connect with these films or enjoy watching them. I wanted to like them. I really did. I want to think the whole Pixar canon magical. But I can’t. Because of these three films.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

I’m starting to think Aaron Sorkin is a one-hit-wonder. He probably shouldn’t exist in television, instead sticking to plays and films. But there he was, first with Sports Night, an utterly baffling sitcom/not-sitcom. Not surprisingly, Sorkin was writing about writing. Then came the West Wing, where once again, Sorkin was writing about writing but managed to find a way to wrap the writing about writing in something a bit more exciting. The West Wing was a fantastic show for 4 seasons, and a middling show for 3 more, but it deserved the praise and the viewership it got. I especially enjoyed Matthew Perry’s bit part, as I quite like a lot of Perry’s work.

So let it be said that I adore Mr Sorkin’s writing (about writing or about anything, really; he could write about a toaster and toast and I would watch it), I like Mr Perry and wish him every possible success, and I think Mr Whitford is among the best television actors of our times.

How did Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip manage to stink so much? I’m not exactly sure. But its cancellation was a mercy killing. While writing about writing (again!), Mr Sorkin displayed a stunning lack of the funny that he somehow managed to bring to The West Wing, which was truly charming at its most jovial, and bitingly awesome at its most pointed. Something that Studio 60 lacked. Completely. For a show about comedy… it was too serious.

I’m not sure what Mr Sorkin has in store for the rest of his career (though I can image we’re going to have a show where Mr Sorking writes about writing something), but I think there’s a lesson to be learned here.

That’s All, Folks

I’m out of time here… but I’d love to hear some feedback on this. Anything you were supposed to love but didn’t? Hit me up in the comments.

It was the bullet and the cell phone.

Look, I can deal with a flying dude in a suit made out of unobtainium who never gets really hurt, ever. I can deal with all the ridiculous stuff surrounding Batman, but what really ruined The Dark Knight for me was the fingerprint off a fragmented bullet and the cell phone sonar thing.

I mean, come on.

Illegal != immoral

David Pogue writes an article in the NYTimes in which he relates an anecdote that seems to illustrate a generational difference in copyright morality. It’s an interesting article, though the comments are much more revealing than the article itself.

In that vein, let me comment.

There are several important factors to take into consideration here. First, I don’t think young people today have less of a moral bent than their parents. But let’s assume they do for a second, and ask where this dubious shift in morality comes from. Obviously, parents shoulder part of blame, as does society at large for situational morality. Yet, one can point to the big media companies who have for years put out product that glorifies every manner of immoral behaviour (showing, of course, these companies’ lack of moral fibre: they’ll do anything to make a buck, sell anything as long as it turns a profit), and I think you’ll feel a lot less sorry for them as they lie in the bed they’ve made. I think we call this, “sowing the seeds of your own destruction”.

Whether or not today’s youth have no moral compass, while an interesting question, is less pertinent to me than simple market economics.

When I buy something, it belongs to me. This is a central understanding in most of history’s transactions, except where otherwise stated, or where it’s obvious that you have to give it back.

When something belongs to me, I can do what I like with it, within reasonable limits. This is true of everything I own, from my house to my car. However, when media companies sell you something, they seem to believe it is still theirs, that they can tell you what to do with it, and even though you never have to give it back, that they can somehow control its use. This runs against human nature, though, and they should be thoroughly unsurprised when people invent tools to enable them to do what they like with what they own. This is one market, the ability to do what I like with what I own (device-shift, share, lend, et cetera).

Another market is in obtaining media. Right now the easiest way to get media is on the internet. Content owners saw this coming and did nothing to corner this market, for whatever reason. Another market a black/grey market sprung up to distribute media. When the content owners eventually came to their senses they were relegated to a ghetto of their own making, and with the lackluster efforts thus far, will continue to be. Not to mention that the media distributed by these content owners tends to be low-quality and locked into a specific device/format. Doubly ironic is that file-sharers can get a better copy (and keep in mind that this has not been historically true in many other black/grey markets) and a copy that they can do with as they see fit. Those who keep the law are penalised by the content providers and legislators who give them an inferior product, and those who break the law are rewarded by better availability and a better product.

The media companies have done their monopolies unimaginable harm in not taking the internet seriously. Much like IBM ceding control of the entire personal computing market to Microsoft, the content providers have dropped the ball so hard and so far that they seem unable to even find it to pick it up again. If anything, they seem to be hellbent on securing their place in the dustbin of history.

People take the path of least resistance. This isn’t about morality. It’s about the who will provide the best market for goods. And the content providers still don’t get that.

Add to this that (obviously) illegal and immoral are not bound at the hip. Plenty of things become illegal without being immoral. And when media companies begin to (obviously) buy the allegiances of politicians to see draconian laws made to limit how people may use what they have purchased, the immorality of file-sharing (for instance) becomes even more of a grey area.

The causes of this “moral shift” are many and varied. The internet is not an easy thing to adjust to, especially for monopolies (see Microsoft as an example). However, if the content providers made a better product, if they had more availability, and if the price was reasonable, they would be doing a roaring business on the internet. This is not a hard concept to grasp, and not a terribly difficult thing to implement in these days of almost-free bandwidth. The question become whether or not they’re not giving the market too little too late.

Human behaviour is economic behavour, and the content providers are stuck in a decade-old market with very few paying customers.