Tuesday, January 05, 2016

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…


Jesse Baruffi said...

While I completely agree with your sentiments here on an emotional level, I suspect that practical matters played a part in this decision as well. Starting a generation later would have worked well except that the fans by and large would certainly want to see what became of the original heroes, and most of the actors haven't had any major paying gigs other than Star Wars, so they would gladly jump on this money-printing film to buy themselves a nice retirement. The obvious exception, Harrison Ford, who hasn't exactly been warm and fuzzy towards Star Wars, and who clearly needs it the least, probably chose to get out as quickly as possible. I don't know if that mitigates the inherent cynicism of the events in question, but I do think it's worth consideration.

J. Thunder said...

I was somewhat shell shocked after my first screening of TFA despite having a strong suspicion Han was going to die. Ford has mentioned this was what he wanted in ROTJ for decades and with Lucas out of the picture, I suspected this was going to happen. The scene between Ford and Driver is well acted and photographed, but I feel it belongs in another movie. Maybe this should have been saved for Episode 8 when we could get a better sense of Han and Leia's relationship with Kylo. I think they wanted to cram so much in this first movie (likely because they knew Ford wouldn't come back) that it felt like a checklist at times.It didn't help the movie wanted to shuttle past Han's death with another retread of the Death Star trench run. I bet it was exciting for kids unfamiliar with ANH, but I couldn't enjoy it momentarily. It's like you get the phone call a relative or friend passed away and you want/need to process it, but everyone around you wants to keep playing Call of Duty or laugh at YouTube cat prank videos.

I'm not saying you can't kill Han off, but give him a heroic death. Maybe Han stays behind to make sure the charges go off and to buy the others time. This could lead to Kylo diving further into madness because his dad's sacrifice thwarts him from fulfilling Snoke's wishes and in his own misguided viewpoint leaves him feeling like a failure. They didn't have to mimic the ObiWan/Vader scene from ANH beat by beat.

Also the movie not wanting to give us and the characters a proper time to mourn bugged me. I'm sorry, but Chewie just walking past Leia like he's another background player is so freaking misguided and wrong. Sure, they show Chewie by himself looking sad, but it's so brief because they want to jump right away to R2's contrived "awakening." Sorry, if you're going to kill off one of the most iconic characters in modern blockbuster cinema, you have to acknowledge the weight of that. A good example is Wrath of Khan and how they handled Spock's death.

I like TFA overall and have positive hope for the trilogy, but you have deftly explained my problems with this movie. I feel some bloggers have gone overboard with their praise just because it's better than the prequels. I've heard some start the online chants that it's better than even Empire and people unfamiliar with the series can just bypass the OT and treat TFA as the new appropriate beginning. (BARF!) I think once the hype quiets down, more people may come around to what's expressed here.

Sam Zucca said...

Harrison Ford already asked to be killed off in Return of the Jedi, so aren't they giving him what he wanted anyway?

J.A. said...

I had the same moment when I heard that the old cast would be involved. I went from hoping it would be amazing, to hoping it wouldn't be too terrible. What was so frustrating was that it could have been a real movie, instead of a weird fanboy homage. It still would have been massively successful. The visual style was fantastic, the world of the thing was everything I love about Star Wars, and I really did think Daisy Ridley was a revelation. And then it just sort of became a parody of itself. The callbacks were fun and extremely well done at first, then they became tedious. By the time the new Death Star showed up I was working hard to keep up my enthusiasm. Where George Lucas totally disrespected the original trilogy, this movie went in the opposite direction, and offered us exactly what we've already seen, but leaving me at least with a pretty empty feeling.

There were so many problems, the strange way the plot moved forward (The scene where the new Death Star attack is planned? What was that about?), the bizarre "remake, but not a remake" conception, the way even the new bits (Han's death) were totally telegraphed and not at all a surprise by the time they happened... but the first thing that made me sit back in my seat and say "oh no" was when Poe went into the "who talks first?" shtick. The jokes sometimes landed in the movie, and very often didn't, but why was it so damn jokey in the first place? The original trilogy had some humor, mostly from C3PO, but also from Han, but it all came from character. It wasn't DIE HARD. There weren't quips, especially when the joke was made at the expense of dramatic tension. In THE FORCE AWAKENS we are introduced to what is supposed to be the villain of the movie, who, by the end of the movie, we will not take seriously due to his delayed teenage identity angst... but even in that first scene, the dialog tells us he is not to be respected, or feared.

If only the love of the originals could have been channelled into something new, and built upon. I had the exact same thought as you about what I actually would have liked to see. Give us an everyman or two rising to the call in the remnants of a destroyed Star Wars universe, a generation after JEDI. Let us see the Force awakening in new people, in a new way, without some silly family drama trying to recall the Luke/Vader/Leia storyline. Give us the world we love, give us what drew us to the idea of the Force, give us the swashbuckling style, but I'm sorry, none of the characters really needed to show up at 70 years old, and especially three of them. What fans think they want to see, and what they will actually love are usually two different things.

It's not a good movie on its own merits. I'd have a very hard time taking anyone seriously who argued that it is. But that being said, I had a good time, in the way you have a good time when you masturbate. It isn't fulfilling in any meaningful or lasting sense, and when it's all said and done you sort of wonder what the point of the whole exercise was, but while it's happening it tricks you into feelings remembered from when you were doing the real thing.

My hope is that all this nostalgia (and jokes) will be gotten out of the way in this film, that this movie is basically going to be used as a re-introduction, and the next few will stand on their own. But they are going to have to do better with character development, motivation, relationships...

Brian Malbon said...

I'm off two very different minds about Han in this one. The death never bothered me. I knew it was coming just from the elegiac feel of all his scenes with Leia. And Ford's performance was better than in any other movie save Empire. I thought it was a fine send-off and a chance to erase the sting of his last appearance in Jedi, where he was just such an incompetent oaf.

On the other hand, everything they had him DO in that role was utter nonsense. The scene where he tracks the Falcon and captures it made no sense. The extended banter wroth the two rival gangs was confusing and kind of depressing - it strongly implied that the great pirate's not just fallen from grace but collapsed entirely - and besides the fact that everybody thinks "Kanjiklub" is really fun to say, it's hard to follow just what's happening. And then the side trip to Maz Kanata's - you know where you're going and how to get there, but instead you make a much more dangerous side trip that ends in disaster, because plot. It all adds up to the best and worst Han Solo at once.

Garrett said...

J. Thunder, you're absolutely right.. The reaction to Han's death is so far off the mark. Leia ends up hugging Rey, a girl she has never met, rather than Chewie... And up till that point they were already giving Chewie short shrift, like when when Han asks if he can use the bowcaster, giving him nothing to do, or when he is replaced in the Co-pilot's chair... It's like JJ actually doesn't like Chewbaca or couldn't figure out how to use him in earnest.

I didn't much care for either Han or Lea's screen time in general, partly because of the dialogue they were given, but also partly due to their performances. The one scene they share together is painfully cut together and I can only assume it's because Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher wouldn't submit to a lengthy shoot or they just couldn't get solid takes from both actors. Contrast this with some lengthier shots of Rey and Kylo Ren where the younger actors actually show some range of emotion over a sustained shot... Made me wish none of the old actors returned at all... something I definitely agree with Matt on!

I think Mark Hamill might be good though... He seems to be the one most committed to these silly movies and has been working more than Fisher. But it might have been best to have him appear as a force ghost or an old recording or something.

I'm looking forward to your next post Matt- your insights so far have been great!

Matt Bird said...

A lot of issues you guys raise will be covered in today's post.

I actually kind of liked "who talks first". Yes, it meant that this movie's jokiness would have a slightly different tone vs. the OT's jokiness, but at least it assured me that this wouldn't be a grim slog.

And yeah, visiting a cantina for no good reason and getting hundreds of people killed as a result was kind of an insult to Han's intelligence (Or was it far more people? Were all those planets blown up because they were in the system? I was unclear).

Brian Malbon said...

No, they launch the weapon because they lost the Droid. The logic is that of they can eliminate the Resostance's backers then it won't matter if they find Luke. But that raises a while other can of worms like why didn't they destroy the government before if they had the capability. Blowing up a billion plus people so because you can't get your hands on one guy makes very little sense if destroying them was your goal all along anyway.