Monday, December 21, 2015

Awakening to Disappointment: Reviewing Episode VII

Warning: this is a spoiler-rich review. Proceed at your own risk.

Viewed as a stand-alone movie, The Force Awakens is perfectly watchable and interesting, with decent dialogue, high production values, and a story that, if not compelling, is at least intriguing. And, hey, it’s co-written by Lawrence Kasdan. But TFA is not a stand-alone movie: it’s Episode VII of the Star Wars saga and, as such, it’s a disappointment.

The biggest insult to fan loyalty is, of course, the death of Han Solo. Many people’s favorite character in Episodes IV-VI, Solo doesn’t get enough screen time in EpVII, and his relationships with the other characters seem developed in rather perfunctory fashion. Still, for anyone who’s cared about the characters for decades and valued the series since its inception, Solo matters, and killing him off is a brutal slap in the face. (Hardly surprising behavior, unfortunately, on the part of the director who annihilated Vulcan and canceled an entire time-line so he could turn Star Trek into an action-adventure franchise featuring photogenic young people.) This wasn't narratively necessary. I suspect that Harrison Ford could have been persuaded to do two more films with enough cash—cash that would have been more than justified by the appeal to fans of his continued presence. And if this really did prove impossible, scenes involving him could have been shot for use in Episode IX (perhaps Han should have been missing throughout Episodes VII and VIII).

There’s also the jettisoning of much of the narrative carefully crafted to fill out the decades following the battle of Yavin. While some material not in the theatre-released films is still being treated as canonical, most is not. As I understand it, writers of the various continuation novels (and other media products) were told to work within carefully defined parameters precisely because LucasFilm wanted to stay focused on particular historical periods. The implication was that Episodes VII-IX, if they were ever made, would take place in a period significantly later than the one on which TFA focuses. So fans were free to grow interested and invested in the narratives crafted, under LucasFilm’s supervision, for the immediate post-Yavin period.

Abandoning all of this material is an attack on fans, it seems to me, just because fans should be free to embrace the unfolding narrative wholeheartedly, not expecting it to be canceled. But it’s also a bad idea because more thought seems to have gone into crafting this material than is evident in what replaces it in TFA. To take one obvious example: it makes far more sense for Leia Organa to serve as President of the Republic than for her to be a general. Everything we know about Leia suggests that she’s a politician, not a soldier; turning her into one seems a pointless plot device. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are random nods to the decades of fan-endorsed narrative here; while “Ben” is, appropriately enough, the name of Luke’s son in the novels—Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi was Luke’s all-too-brief mentor, not Han’s or Leia’s, after all—“Ben” [rather than “Jacen”] is now the name of Han and Leia’s dark-side-loving son. And while the novels characterized Emperor Palpatine as bringing into being the “New Order,” the Nazi-like successor to the Empire calls itself the “First Order.”)

Speaking of the Republic: the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance as characterized in TFA is both unclear and puzzling. If the Republic is an established entity with jurisdiction, etc., there’s something odd about the attempt to depict its support for the Resistance as subterranean. Surely, everyone would treat it as quite predictably and reasonably opposing the incursions of the First Order. There would be no need for a Resistance separate from the Republic. But, in TFA, the First Order treats the Republic’s support for the Resistance as sneaky and traitorous—without much in the way of explanation or justification.

And, on a political note: we’re back to the uninteresting politics of EpsIV-VI. In EpsI-III, we get a genuinely interesting political narrative, one in which lots of well meaning people (along with some not-so-well-meaning ones) are cleverly manipulated into fighting each other to bring about the fall of the Republic (after some thugs are manipulated into fighting a losing battle to create sympathy for Senator Palpatine’s candidacy for Chancellor). There’s lots of uncertainty and ambiguity; there are lots of illustration of the ways in which good people can become caught up inadvertently in promoting what turn out to be evil causes. There’s lots of suspicion of people in power, even (!) in putatively democratic institutions. None of that sort of cleverness is in evidence here: now, we’re just fighting the Nazis. Sigh . . . .

Oh, and what about the McGuffin—the map to Luke? (I can only hope that EpVIII and EpIX will offer some explanation of how this map came into being, how Luke’s light-saber came to be hidden, etc.) The notion that the chunk of star-map carried by BB8 couldn’t have been contextualized, so that Luke couldn’t have been found without the other bit conveniently carried by R2D2, seems wildly implausible. Good pattern-matching software should have dealt successfully with this problem, and the fact that it didn’t makes the technology available to our heroes seem clunky.

The destruction of the Republic’s central planet (it looks like Coruscant, but apparently it’s not, since another system is named as its location) is perfunctory in the extreme. We don’t know anything about the Republic in its current guise; we don’t know anything about any of the people involved. Indeed, there’s a lot more emotional engagement when, in EpIV, Leia protests the destruction of Alderaan by the Grand Moff Tarkin.

Which brings me to my final complaint: EpVII apes EpIV (and, to a lesser extent, EpV). Repeatedly. Unoriginally. Boringly. Inexplicably. (Some generally complementary concerns noted here and here).

Let’s see: we start out on a desert planet. The central character is an orphan. Who finds a droid. That contains a hidden message. Crucial to the war against the Dark Side. The orphan and friend flee the desert planet in the Millennium Falcon. (It’s unclear to me how, in TFA, the ship happens to have enough fuel to get off-planet.)  They’re mentored—briefly—by an old man with memories of glory from a generation ago. Their primary opponent is a dark Force user who wears a black helmet and who wields a red light saber (albeit this time with those weirdly inexplicable cross pieces). He tussles for supremacy with a military leader; both report to a holographically present evil overlord (in TFA, one with the absurd name “Snoke”—what’s with that? “Palpatine” is a cool name, but “Snoke” . . . ?) who wonders whether family ties will compromise the dark Force user’s loyalty. The forces of evil employ storm troopers (curiously wearing, in TFA, the same uniforms as their imperial predecessors from decades ago) and deploy a planet-killing . . . planet (hey, it’s not a planetoid this time—a helpful graphic assures us that it’s much larger than the original Death Star). The forces of evil also use the planet-killer to wipe out an entire planet, just to show us that the planet-killer is very dangerous and that the forces of evil really are Evil. Courtesy of the helmeted, evil Force-user, a woman is trapped in a room in which she’ll be subjected to robotic torture—more evidence of Evil. Fortunately, a weakness in the planet-killing planet’s defenses has been discovered, and a team of X-Wing fighters, with a squadron leader we like and trust, can take it out if they hit the right spot (repeatedly, this time)—but of course someone needs to lower the shields that protect the planet-killer from attack. Our heroes manage to sneak in, easily enough. They succeed in lowering the shield. And then the wise old mentor goes out alone to meet the dark-helmet-wearing villain and is killed without putting up a fuss. Oh, and did I mention that there was (at least one) (not-too-)surprising hidden family relationship in play? And that a triangle seems to be in the making?

Now, to be clear, I have no objection at all to ironic winks and nudges. The occasional reference to details of earlier films would have been entirely apropos. But cinematic reference isn’t the same thing as lifting warmed-over plot points unironically. And that’s what happens here. One of the things that really distinguished Episode IV when it first appeared was the set of elements often described as evidence of a “used future” (or, better, a used distant past). Among the obvious merits of this feature is the sense of reality it engenders, the sense that we've entered a real world with an ongoing history. In a real world with an ongoing history, the likelihood that all of these narrative elements would repeat themselves seems infinitesimal. Episodes I-III featured a variety of interesting and distinctive plot points; there's no reason Episodes VII-IX couldn't as well.

Will The Force Awakens kill the franchise? Nope: lots of people seem to love it. Could it have been better? Much better? Absolutely. Shame on J. J. Abrams and his collaborators for kicking fans in the teeth and for making unnecessary, dumb narrative choices. And shame on George Lucas for going along with it all.

Perhaps Episode VIII could begin with Leia waking up next to Han, looking puzzled, and murmuring, “I've just had the strangest dream.”