19 December 2015

First Impressions: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Are you ready for the awakening? Take a deep breath - you are about to read the most comprehensive impressions of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) ever put to electrons and sent across the world. To begin, let's take a trip down the road of cultural context. And there will be SPOILERS everywhere for this movie discussion, so if you'd rather not find out that Chewbacca is Luke's biological father, stop reading now.
If only they'd bring him back as Indiana Jones

Here at Norwegian Morning Wood I'm always talking about cultural value. Every film has a commercial value, which is very obvious, and a critical value, which is subjective, but also apparent. How much money does a film make the people who create and distribute it, and does anyone actually like it? Culturally, though, is where films are most important. Film is an art form that can steer the way we think about things, or at least take control of future artistic conversations. This becomes most interesting when we take long-term looks at things. Why is Ghostbusters (1984) a revered cultural institution but no one gives a shit about The Last Starfighter (1984)? Does it come down to the merit of the film itself? Or just certain things that we've tended to latch on to and propagated over the years? What makes Alien (1979) so much more groundbreaking than Dark Star (1974)?

These questions plague me all the time. It's amazing that out of any film series, none is really the equal to Star Wars. Sure, only two of its films crack the Top 50 Worldwide All-Time and only three crack the Top 25 Domestic, but how many people would pick it over AVABAR (2009) or Shrek 2 (2004)? All of them. They all would. Star Wars means more to more people than any other American cultural artifact, and that is more valuable than any box office return.

It was only a matter of time, therefore that in this age of continuous franchise regurgitation, that the great-grandaddy of all blockbusters would take its turn at the podium to flex its muscles. I have spoken at length at my inherent problem with the presence of more of the same rather than creating anything new. I'm not totally into another Star Wars film as much as I'd be into an entirely new nerdy property to gush over. That's part of the reason why I've loved Pacific Rim (2013) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) so much (face it - even though it was based on a comic, no one was totally looking at that as a faithful adaptation or whatever), but it also comes at a steep Jupiter Ascending (2015)-level risk. What's the balance? Well, don't make your world-building mythos retarded is a good bet, but there has still been a financial discrepancy between original and re-hashed properties, which is totes unfortunate.

If you take a look at the other high-profile long-term revivals this year, it becomes more obvious why certain things work and others don't. Creed (2015) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) both pushed their former primary protagonists to the side in favor of new, more interesting people, and although they act as straight remakes of Rocky (1976) and The Road Warrior (1981) respectively, they're imbued with different viewpoints, updated engrossing camera work and scene construction, as well as the feeling of fresh characters, new themes, and a carefree confidence towards casting off a reliance on the past. This creates the illusion of new cultural material despite the fact that it's more typically just re-branded or re-arranged.

The Force Awakens is sort of like this, but doesn't exactly pull it off, in part due to J.J. Abrams' nature as more of a fan than a man of any original ideas. There were minimal lens flares this time around, but by the time of that first circle wipe it was clear that he was trying to emulate Lucas' directing style. With more care for his actors, of course, because for once, they're great in a Star Wars film. Lucas trips over his need for homage far too often. Sticking with the concept of cultural value, despite his aping of Amblin and Spielberg, how much do any of us think about Super 8 (2011)...ever? His shining film remains Star Trek (2009), but even that film was stuffed with a little too much reverence and suffered from a weak villain and ending. I'd consider TFA to be cured of those ills, but the film gets bogged down by the unenvious position of balancing perceived fan needs with actual storytelling.

Now, there are of course moments where TFA elevates from this. The introduction of the Millennium Falcon is nearly perfect, precisely because it's as disregarded by the new crop of characters as the old generation did. It works really well because there's a tacit acknowledgement in the Star Wars universe that the Falcon is a piece of shit. The actual character introductions largely work because of this. Han Solo, Leia Organa, and Luke Skywalker all fit in pretty naturally, without too much issue.

My major problem with the film is that it follows a lot of similar beats to the first film and the OT in general. Lucas called these little homages, which lead to the Star Wars Ring Theory, which is a pleasant read, but totally not his original intention. Now, as I recollect here, there are plenty of scenes that are innovative and great, and I have a pretty positive appreciation of the film over all, but we need to slog through this first.

The film starts off incredibly strong, in media res similar to the original Star Wars (1977), where critical information is stowed in a small, cute Droid unit who then gets lost on a desert planet and is found by an orphan (okay, in Luke's case it was a soon-to-be orphan). TFA tends to amp everything up though, so it's not just any orphan, but a SUPER-ORPHAN named Rey. I don't understand why they used Jakku when they so clearly just meant to have a redux of Tatooine. Sure, I'm grateful that we didn't AGAIN head to Tatooine, but Jakku operates exactly like Tatooine, so who cares? It's actually more like SUPER-TATOOINE with even less civilization and an even harsher way of life. But for the purpose of the narrative it's all the same shit.

There's an old dude living there, Max von Sydow, who is the first of many characters introduced who seemed important and then whose stories are quickly dropped, in this case, due to him being killed immediately. Actually, if you look at this scene, which features him, Po Dameron, BB-8, Captain Phasma, Kylo Ren, and Finn, you'd think they'd all be important, but Po and Phasma are largely tossed aside soon after this scene. I'll get to more on that later.
You did NOT survive this.

Don't take this bitching too much, because structurally and cinematically, the first third of the film is fantastic. You know everything you need to know of all the above mentioned characters and there's a palpable danger to all the heroes, Kylo Ren has a fearsome display of power (I can't recall any Sith ever stopping a laser bolt and freezing it in mid-air so effortlessly), and you can instantly tell which Stormtrooper Finn is because of how particularly he acts. The central MacGuffin, a map to Luke Skywalker is at once something instantly significant both in-universe and to the audience and serves as a simultaneous metaphor to how lost the franchise has been without the steady hand of the old guard of characters.

The film gets better as it introduces Rey, its best character, played by Daisy Ridley, whose eyes can at once display enough strength, confidence, pain, fear, caring, and badassery to carry the entire film. She's truly the Luke Skywalker of the film, a sentiment even echoed in her dress, which recalls Luke's weird bandage leggings from Star Wars. She eventually morphs into an amalgam of Luke and Han as she demonstrates her technical knowledge, becoming the Falcon's new pilot, and learning under his guidance.

Finn, on the other hand starts off very Han-like with his urge to run away all the time, which is also reflected in his wardrobe, although the tan jacket and black undershirt is reverse of Han's typical attire. He eventually becomes more Luke-like as he ends up the unlikely inheritor of Luke's lightsaber and finds his courage. His and Rey's duties in the final battle are split with the same lightsaber, which also echoes the fact that they are both combinations to differing degrees of the same original characters. This is of course all bizarre because the film starts with Po Dameron being Luke-like in the desert with his X-wing and trusty astromech droid, and then revealing a very Han-like cocky attitude, but he's totally forgotten about around the twenty-minute mark so who cares.

Let's keep moving on with how TFA echoes the original trilogy. They soon move on to an intergalactic bar of sorts, which is totally just the Mos Eisley Cantina. Finn even tries to barter for passage off-world, which was Luke and Obi-Wan's original goal. It feels like it's striving for a classic moment full of weird goofy monsters that Jabba's Palace already ripped off from Mos Eisley, and then the prequels just did non-stop. The lush forest world was rad, though, and seemed like an actually unique planet, which was amazing, even if going to see a weird little ancient master on a swamp world is totally Empire Strikes Back (1980).

After this we totally have another Death Star. Again. To align with our theme, though, this is a SUPER DEATH STAR. That idea in itself is pretty cool, actually, and the Empire's obsession with super-weapons is well-documented. What helped Star Wars, though, was the discussion earlier in the movie proving their rationale in the form of the Tarkin Doctrine. This tended to give some political weight to their insane actions. The First Order is largely just a bag of dicks. More on that later.

Harrison Ford, by way of Han Solo seems to sum it up well, as if he's speaking for an audience, when he says, regarding the Stakiller "Why don't we just blow it up?" and then yes, there is indeed a way to just blow up the planet. I really liked the idea of having that planet-embedded superweapon and the sun-drawing power / hyperspace power as all really cool, even if it's just totally SUPER DEATH STAR. I mean, there's even a trench run! I wish they had found some other way to take it down besides just blowing it up like they way they blow up every Death Star. That's like three times the Rebels / Resistance just blow shit up! Why does the Empire / First Order keeping building this shit! And there's no way the First Order has the financial resources to do this anymore, right? These are the inane nerdy questions that shouldn't bog the movie down, but you have to ask, but this is STAR WARS. Discussions like this have so permeated culture, they're in other movies.

This is all to say that the plot beats and locales are fairly derivative. The final planet, which I'm not sure is ever named, but Internet tells me is just called "Starkiller Base," is pretty Hoth-like, but I actually appreciated the wintery forests, which offered a new and cool Star Wars locale. Of course, the inside was straight-up Death Star, with all the classic elements - those doors that open in a square, trash compactors, and a total lack of guards that allow anyone to walk around as much as they want.

The Empire was always like that, actually. Like when the gang is escaping the Death Star after disabling the tractor beam, they send like two TIE Fighters out to catch them. Don't they have a huge, disposable fleet? TFA brings this idea back - completely incompetent Stormtroopers and a total reluctance crush the Resistance with numbers like this instead of just one superweapon that's totes ineffective against small fighters.

The idea of the depletion of sunlight working as a timer for charging the superweapon was a great visual guide for both the characters and the audience, and actually provided a logical reason for why the planet was an ice world - because they keep killing whatever hear they should get from their sun. Of course, being in the middle of space would be a little bit colder than just a few snow flurries, and that's not even counting the gravitational destabilization that would occur with draining a sun, but Star Wars has always been pretty soft science, so who cares.

Once we get past the derivative plot, though, we find that we have a pretty good film on our hands. Finn offers us an unparalleled look at what it means to be a Stormtrooper, and it's surprising that more don't have serious problems with killing random civilians all the time, but then again, real armies do that all the time, and these guys were specifically trained to lack individuality. There is some awkwardness with Finn's hitting on Rey, but I'm more impressed that he isn't completely developmentally challenged since he was only a number until a few days ago.
See? Even his lightsabre is like, built shittily. Also this
shot is not in the movie.

Kylo Ren, though, is instantly the most interesting character in the film. He appears first as a total badass, but as his layers are unpeeled we find instead that he's actually mostly just an overcompensating poser pussy. It's an important scene when he unmasks himself and we see the neatly coiffed Adam Driver and not some monster or burn victim. It's as if everything he's trying to do is to prove that he has some angsty personal reason for his internal conflict, but he's really just a brat who can't handle the balance of the force inside him. You've got to believe that when he tells his father, Han Solo, that he faces a tremendous amount of pain that he really doesn't know how to deal with it at all. Just like this film is trying to live up to its predecessor, Ren tries to live up to Vader and is constantly insecure about the fact that he's failing. To deal with this he lashes out abruptly and arrogantly. When Vader was pissed he's just choke an Admiral and move on with his life. Gone is the propriety and formality of even young pussy Anakin from Attack of the Clones (2002). Ren is trying to hard to live up to something he can't obtain. By the end of the film after he's dealt a blow to Star Wars lovers everywhere and finally had some actually good ol' face mutilation courtesy of Rey he actually has hatred to claim.

This is a generational indictment. The whole First Order are just dicks for no reason. They're not trying to put down a rebellion or maintain order, they're just evil for the sake of being evil. They're attempting to emulate an ideology without anything substantial to back it up. At one point General Hux says something or other about "order" but he's not coming from a place of cool and collected strategy like Tarkin. He's instead coming from a place of irrationality, anger, and mistaken purpose. I don't think it's a coincidence casting Domhnall Gleeson instead of someone older who would have been alive during the Galactic Civil War. He and Ren battle for who the biggest pussy is in the First Order but they're ultimately both just kids trying to prove themselves. And did they escape Starkiller Base, btw? Who knows. At least Star Wars showed Vader's TIE Advanced stabilizing after hurtling through space.

Do we have to talk about Supreme Leader Snoke? I'm putting this out there - he's the worst part of this film. A total Emperor Rip-off that was startlingly weak CGI who looked like a weird giant at first (later revealed to be a hologram), who seems like the laziest a-hole ever. I actually thought there was a disconnect between the CGI characters and the real environments, which was weird. It's insane to believe that there were practically no sets in the Prequel Trilogy, and things like every single Clonetrooper were made in a computer. That gives it all a nice plastic feel looking back on it now, and the scope and sets of TFA are refreshing and awesome. The problem with that is actually populating them with lame CGI peeps who are suddenly juxtaposed and take you out of the story. That's so terrible to complain about. I really do love the weight and naturalism of the practical sets.

I also generally didn't understand the relationship between the Republic, the First Order, and the Resistance. The Republic is in charge now, but is the First Order still ruling over a few planets or something? And is the Resistance resting them on those planets? If the Rebel Alliance is totally just the New Republic, then why is it like, a secret, shady deal? Does the Republic not want to outwardly look like they are resisting the First Order? They blew up like five planets on a whim! This doesn't make any sense.

Despite the film's 2 hr 16 min runtime it feels oddly rushed, but that may just be because certain characters like Captain Phasma are totally thrown away after sweet introductions. I can't for the life of me figure out why I feel this way. Boba Fett is on screen for like six minutes in Empire and didn't really do much, but you felt like he had such an impact. Same with all the other random idiots in the universe. Like, I got more of a feel for Bossk than I did for Captain Phasma. Even someone like Finn who goes down like a bitch in the final fight, AND NEVER WAKES UP feels like he got the short end of the stick. I honestly don't know what took up so much time, because the scenes felt like they were paced really well, especially towards the beginning, but somehow some beats were skipped that would have fleshed out the world a bit more.

Some of this is probably due to the fact that this is more like being the first in a trilogy than working as a standalone movie, which each film in the first trilogy, and even in the prequel trilogy did really well. What's critical is that even though in the OT, Star Wars is definitely the call to action, Empire is rising action, and Return of the Jedi (1983) is climax and denouement, within each film lies similar beats. The prequels function the same way structurally, but we just hate the world, characters, and tone they built. TFA, especially with its ending scenes, feels far more like it was cut off rather than allowed to have a proper, cathartic ending.

On that note, we ought to talk about how Luke Skywalker is totally not in this movie, but I was pretty okay with that. It actually mythologizes him more. It was great to see Harrison Ford acting like he did in the 80s and less grumpy, though. Carrie Fisher didn't seem to have her Leia spark, but she's been through some shit. It's all good. I also enjoyed the direction of Chewie, having a lot more humour, along with the Stormtroopers even getting some good bits. Of course, C-3PO is still unbearable, tho R2-D2 had almost no time to shine. That's alright. BB-8 as Finn's wingman is just as good, if not cuter and therefore better.

The whole film actually felt very small despite the SUPER-ness of all the elements, likely due to its concentration on what's happening on the ground to a handful of characters in a handful of locations, which is again, much more similar to the OT than the Prequels, which is good. This is also a fine set-up for bigger, crazier movies to come.

We should talk predictions. Rey has got to be someone's daughter, right? Someone who was maybe left behind on Jakku because she was going to be a sweet force user? My guess is she's Chewie's. Has to be. I am curious, though, how this series is suddenly beholden to its bloodline twists instead of it being a sweet bonus. Star Wars and Empire both work without Vader being Luke's father, but that revelation pushes the stakes so much higher. Rey being related to someone at this point is an expectation rather than a surprise, as was the fact that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia's daughter, which didn't really come as a shock, tho I'm not sure it was meant to. It's like the franchise's bread and butter is suddenly big family reveals, but they've already blown their wad on that in the biggest cultural way possible.
We should talk about how her core conflict,
returning home, is actually the opposite of Luke's.

There's also the vague possibility that Ren and Rey are brother and sister, which would be sweet because she totally pwns him with superior force power in both their combative scenes together. I haven't even talked about how sweet and revelatory it is to see both a black Jedi and a woman Jedi and how casual it all feels, although of course we had Mace Windu and uh...shit...can you name one human female Jedi that's appeared in person in a Star Wars movie? My mind goes to Asajj Ventress, Mara Jade, Adi Gallia, or Aayla Secura. Looking it up now. Ah yes, totally - the Librarian from Attack of the Clones. Let's try again. Okay, found one - Bultar Swan. You know, I don't know what women complain about, they got Bultar Swan!

There's a shot of Rey out-forcing Anakin Skywalker's lightsabre from Kylo Ren and then lighting it up and my entire theater cheered. It's a spectacular shot that unbelievably took until 2015 to achieve.

And the cast from The Raid movies shows up! It'd be cool if they fought some of those monsters using their Indonesian pencak silat on some very Abrams-esque monsters in that weird First Order freighter that Han and Chewie were apparently running. There's a lot to go off on in that last sentence. I'll let you figure it out.

Where does TFA land in terms of greatest Star Wars ever? Well, it's at least the third or fourth greatest one, which is good enough for me. Time for pizza, which like Star Wars, is still good either hot or cold.


  1. Quality review. I hope that they never, ever, get into Rey's family history... just leave it as she lost her entire family. Or something like Luke saved her from a Sith cult and her parents are dead by his hand - one of the reasons he left everything behind: he couldn't stay Light with so much death on his hands.

    Also, I found it funny that the one original cast member who has made their living, nearly exclusively, as a voice actor had no spoken lines!

  2. The Soviet Union and United States were antagonistic towards each other but their respective destructive might precluded all out war. They actively tried to destroy each other via rebels and resistances in satellite states.

    Similarly, the First Order and Republic are similar to the USSR & USA at the beginning of the war. The Resistance is a Republic backed regional rebel group that fights the First Order. The FO wants to conquer the Republic but, as I recall a line of dialog, the Republic's fleet is massive.

    The reason the Republic didn't strike back after the First Order used that super weapon is because their fleet and capital was destroyed in the Starkiller attack. The extent to which the Republic can still defend itself against the FO is now questionable - although surely the FO lost a lot of forces when Starkiller Base was destroyed (so there may still be parity).


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