Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Force Awakens Review: Part 1

Okay, spoilers for Episode 7 from this point forward, and probably any future posts on this blog. So go see the movie if you haven’t yet. It’s pretty good. Onward!

There are some movies that resist critical analysis, and the average moviegoer will see as just a collection of plot or characters, where understanding “what the artist was trying to do” does not appear immediately helpful. Where the idea that this movie is a commentary on itself/the franchise/movie-making itself becomes an argument. Jurassic Park is an excellent example of where this is controversial - is the movie just a thriller about dinosaurs, or is it commentary on the radical invention of CGI in blockbusters?

The Force Awakens is not one of those cases. The creators of TFA are very consciously aware of how this movie fits into the artistic history of the franchise, and most of the creative decisions are blatantly made around that. It’s simply impossible to talk about TFA without talking about its commentary on Star Wars, and any attempt to do so is… going to be extremely in denial.

So let’s get this out of the way. TFA is a beat-by-beat remix of Episode 4: A New Hope. The droid with battle plans, the prole wanting to escape their desert planet, the intimidating totalitarian in a black mask, the planet destroying weapon with a weak spot that requires a daring raid by X-wings, the sacrificial death of our guide. This isn’t an insight that’s new to anyone who has seen the movie. For insights, let’s start with "why".

Here are a couple of things written by cultural critics before anyone saw TFA:

“Brenna and I attempted to catalyze a lifelong fascination with Stellar Conflict last Friday, with a preparatory viewing of what young people parsed as Episode Eye Vee, and halfway through it my son was begging me to let him go upstairs and read.  Obviously, I can’t be mad at him for that.  But what might have seemed languorous or exotic about the pacing of the first movie just seems slow to people growing up now; even their ringtones are invigorating.
Gabriel the Elder suggested that for kids today, their Star Wars is actually Guardians of the Galaxy, which I thought depicted an interesting phenomenon.  Maybe each Generation has a “Star Wars” that isn’t necessarily “Star Wars,” though I’m sure Disney would prefer a certain level of standardization.”

And on film criticism boards:

As the toy advertisements emphasize, this is the same story retold for 'a new generation'. They've just really done a great job of sugarcoating the fact with canonical plot continuity.”

“The fact that Force Awakens 'canonically' takes place 30 years later is basically an excuse to update A New Hope for today's kids without alienating the fans who would be furious at an undisguised remake. Note that Episode 7 is not being marketed as an episode. That's not accidental.”

“The narrative being pushed is that this film will be your child's first Star Wars, as in that terrifying Toys-R-Us ad. Rey and Finn are the new generation, and Han shows up to teach them that OT Star Wars was really good, kids, seriously. The line "Chewie, we're home" was obviously carefully selected, to send a message that these characters were missing. Now they're back, and they need your help.”

These were written before seeing the movie, and now sound like hilarious understatement.

Now, one way to look at these would simply be cowardly “risk aversion”, where they are going with something tried and true, as compared to the Prequels which were “interesting failures”. I can respect that opinion… but TFA hardly seems the safe path. The replication of ANH seems so blatant that I actually expect a lot of blowback, and so I respect it as an artistic decision. Remakes can be interesting after all, especially because they are aware of their relation to past works and how they are changing them, and what those changes mean.

And these changes get to the fundamental question of franchises: What does it mean to want more Star Wars? On the most basic level, you could just watch the Original three movies on a loop forever, after all.

Is what you wanted Officially Branded Content? Well, then the Prequels supply that in spades. They provide a ton of background information, and there are Light Sabers(™), so why aren’t you satisfied?

What many fans concluded they wanted then was the right aesthetics. The Original Trilogy had a “used future” look, so let’s get that back. (There was also some analysis at the level of “Star Wars was a basic Campbellian myth, so let’s have that again.” Which only leaves open the question of “If you want a Campbellian myth, why not watch any of a thousand movies that still focus on that? Why Star Wars?")

These are hard questions, and rather than providing an answer to them, TFA is in a continuous dialogue with them.

A thoughtless director would try to replicate Darth Vader by making a villain as cool and edgy as him. Instead, Kylo Ren is… obsessed with being Darth Vader. He worries he’s not as cool powerful as the original. Kylo’s character both contains a lot of elements from the Originals, but also contains an insecurity in relation to them. (And underneath all that, Ren feels that Darth Vader failed in the end, and he hopes to surpass that. He represents that in some way, the Originals failed, and the desire to fix this.) And of course, if he thinks “Darth Vader failed” he misunderstands his grandfather doesn’t he? Kylo also represents a misunderstanding of “truth” for mere facts. Which is epitomized by Kylo talking to the burnt out faceplate of Vader, a commentary on fan-style object-worship if I ever saw one.

Watching that scene, you wonder how much the mask of Vader went for on Space eBay?

All this presentation is admittedly, ham-handed to the extreme, but the message itself is a fairly self-aware dialogue. We get a strong desire to replicate the magic of the Original, an insecurity in relation to them, a misunderstanding of what made them great, and a small subtle hope of fixing where they went wrong. And well, you can see all of these themes in the other callback elements.

As one of the reviews I posted said, TFA is the Metal Gear Solid 2 of the series. And I love Metal Gear Solid 2.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about their relation to the Prequels.

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