The Force Awakens is finally in theaters, and the spoilery discussions are starting to roll out online. We here at CC2K were so moved by J.J. Abrams’ revitalization of the Star Wars universe that we convened an emergency session of four of the original founders of the site — Tony Lazlo, Rob Van Winkle, Lance Carmichael and the Red Baron. Together we talk about what we liked and didn’t like about the seventh entry in the Star Wars series, as well as what we hope to see in future installments.
BIG, MOVIE-RUINING SPOILERS AHEAD, EVERYONE! DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FORCE AWAKENS!
It was fun!
One thing I noticed watching The Force Awakens was how much it felt like watching The Phantom Menace for the first time. Not that because of any similarities in the films per se, but just the bizarre feeling of “Whoa – I’m watching a new Star Wars trilogy begin.” Uncanny and unreal. I think Tony and I have talked about this before re: The Phantom Menace. I definitely had the feeling watching The Force Awakens that it was slightly unreal, somehow. That original trilogy feels so finished, so set in stone, so much a part of the distant past. It would be like seeing a new chapter in The Godfather in 2015. (I think this is kind of how people felt about Godfather III … only more so). Al Pacino and Robert Duvall are still around. You could definitely make it. But it just feels like too much time has passed. Like it doesn’t “count,” and there’s something slightly shameful in pretending it does (but also shamefully delicious).
But that’s my issue, i guess. I just find it pretty hard to see what this movie really is with all the noise and history surrounding it. Some sort of mass hypnosis has taken over the land and the population is giving themselves over to this movie. Part of it must be how The Force Awakens both has an impossibly high bar to clear (the original trilogy) and a pretty low bar (the prequels). People are just so relieved it’s not DOA. I put myself in that camp, too. J.J. really knows how to make a movie feel propulsive, and he’s gotten pretty damn good as a kinetic but clear action director. He really is the Little Spielberg.
And yeah, this is just a J.J. Abrams joint through and through. I’m sure many people are saying this, but it feels a LOT like his Star Trek. Really well-cast, propulsive, shallow, not too concerned with world-building, paradoxically both worshipful of the original material and recklessly disregarding of it.
Like a cupcake, it delivers a serious sugar high at first consumption. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing – it just is what it is. It’s a really good dessert. J.J.’s good at keeping you engaged moment to moment, but it doesn’t feel (to me) to go much deeper than that. Shit, I even enjoyed the apparently now-reviled Star Trek Into Darkness as I was watching it — it only started breaking down as I thought about it more.
I’m glad The Force was awoken! Really, all we wanted was someone to kickstart a new chapter in the Star Wars world and just not have it suck … and that’s what he did. J.J. was in so many ways the perfect choice — he’s REALLY good at starting things: e.g. the pilot of LOST, the first Star Trek. He casts very appealingly, he keeps things moving fast and energetically, he keeps the camera and the dialogue and action moving in a propulsive, exciting way, he throws in some decent jokes, he teases intriguing things … and he never slows down long enough so you have time to think about what you’re seeing. He’s never been a closer, but he doesn’t need to in this case—it’s Chapter 1 of a new trilogy (though Disney’s choices for directing episodes 8 and 9 don’t inspire confidence in me).
There were definitely things that bummed me out. I feel like a buzzkill delving too much into this as everyone is kind of adopting the “let’s just relax our critical side and have a good time and be kids” slant, which sounds (and is) nice (if you can somehow turn off your 38 year old’s brain). It was a fun movie! It’s basically made for 9 to 14 year olds, and the 9 to 14 year old inside us all, and if it succeeds on that level, I guess it’s a success. So it’s a success.
But between us …
Man, I mean … it was basically a remake of A New Hope (or the whole first trilogy), right? (Essentially) starts on Tattoine. Future Jedi (and probably secret royalty) finds a droid with a MacGuffin the Empire wants. Darth Vader is trying to track the plans down. They flee the planet on the Millennium Falcon. The Jedi finds an old mentor. They go to an alien bar. Future Jedi gets his/her first lightsaber. They go to a Yoda type, where Future Jedi has a visionquest of the perils ahead, particularly Vader. Vader kills the old mentor in front of future Jedi (who he’s pretty obviously related to, though that hasn’t been revealed yet). The Rebels have to turn off the shields and then destroy the Death Star with their fleet. Um…am I taking crazy pills here?
I mean, obviously, they MEANT to do this. It’s not like they didn’t realize they were following the exact same roadmap in startlingly similar ways. It’s just … surprising how baldly they went about it. No effort to cover their tracks. They’re kind of throwing up their hands and saying “Okay, people loved the original trilogy and hated it when the formula got fucked with and what came out was the prequels. Let’s just copy all the cool elements of the old trilogy and use awesome new CGI technology to make it even bigger.” You want another Emperor hologram? Okay…but what if the new Emperor hologram was 100 times bigger than the old one?! You want another Death Star? Okay…but what if the new Death Star was 100 times bigger than the old one?!
The other thing that really startled me … the State of the Galaxy post-Return of the Jedi. I mean … essentially, as far as this movie shows us, the struggles and eventual triumph of the original trilogy meant NOTHING. The Final Battle that the Rebels seemed to win at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI was … just a small, meaningless victory? The “good guys” seem to be in the exact same situation we found them in in A New Hope. The Empire is just SLIGHTLY less powerful. The Rebels have become “The Resistance,” and are in danger of being eradicated. There are NO JEDIS, except two evil badasses and a master good Jedi who is in hiding.
Star Wars fans—people—guys—everybody, realize this: the ENTIRE ending / meaning of Return of the Jedi that people have taken as gospel for over 30 years was just wiped away in the blink of an eye. Faster than the planet Vulcan was destroyed! People kind of never forgave the Alien Trilogy for killing off Newt and Michael Biehn off-screen between chapters 2 and 3 … and yet NO ONE seems to be bothered by THIS?
Again: the entire struggle and triumph of the original trilogy turn out to have been meaningless, shrinking the meaning of that “Star War” to a “Star Battle.”
That’s … weird.
Am I taking crazy pills?
Also — again, sorry to nitpick — but can we talk about Han and Leia for a second? Fellas, it’s us here. I don’t want to rain on everybody’s buzz this weekend, so I’m not going to like take out a full page ad in the New York Times and bring this up. But we really need to talk about Han and Leia for a second.
Last we left Han and Leia, after years of teasing, they were finally about to fuck a bunch of times. They kissed and the cinematic language depicting that kiss told us: they lived happily ever after.
NOPE! Actually, it turns out their rest of their lives were TERRIBLE. They raised a SERIAL KILLER who massacred his uncle’s students (many of whom we can assume were children, based on the Jedi teaching methods we were shown in the prequels). Han and Leia were so devastated they split apart and can’t stand each other. They haven’t spoken in years! Han moved back in with his blue collar, animalistic best friend from his days when he was essentially a criminal in the galactic equivalent of a studio apartment and has seemingly given up on ever finding love again. Leia threw herself into her work and looks and sounds like shit.
Sounds like a REALLY shitty life to me. Sorry, Han and Leia! Those are your rewards for all your hard labor in the original trilogy! You’re welcome!
Okay, back to the good stuff.
The visuals, the color palette, a story of constant danger rather than trade route negotiations … that seems to be enough to satisfy. I mean, keep in mind, this is the first Star Wars we’ve gotten in ten years, which means the CGI is 10 YEARS BETTER. And it looked great!
It was fun!
Things I liked:
• The gigantic bad guy! Don’t feel like I’ve seen that before. Though I bet they’ll reveal that it’s only his hologram that is big. Maybe he’s actually three inches tall. Hey, and didn’t he have a scar across his face, and doesn’t Adam Driver get a slash across his face at the end of this? Hmm…
• Adam Driver. Couldn’t get enough of him. Him being Han and Leia’s son was super duper on the nose (I mean, what are the ODDS that one family could have so many bad seeds???), they just essentially made him Vader Part 2…but Adam Driver is great and he’s the most exciting part going forward. And Darth Vader is super cool! Why bother trying to replace Darth Vader? Just make his grandson Vader Part 2. (I think JJ should have made Vader 2 ten feet tall, though).
• Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were pretty good.
• Ended in an exciting way. Always helps!
• Everything involving a lightsaber touching a non-lightsaber surface (with one exception—stay tuned!).
• The textures and flavors of the world. A lightsaber melting snow!
• The shot of Luke Skywalker at the end.
Other small things I didn’t like:
• Oscar Isaac felt a bit wasted and inessential. I thought they were going to use the natural cantankerous superiority complex he radiates as an actor to build a new Han Solo-style cynic. Guess not. He’s just a good pilot with a bad haircut. Also…him disappearing and then just reappearing? I don’t know. I guess I didn’t really care because who really cares about his character, but…that was pretty lazy storytelling, right?
• Harrison Ford running. To be fair, apparently it was on a broken leg.
• Carrie Fisher’s barely concealed disdain for the whole enterprise.
• Hi, Max Von Sydow! Bye, Max Von Sydow!
• The Stormtrooper riot stick that could fight a Lightsaber. One of the things that made lightsabers cool is that they seem like they can slice through ANYTHING, except another lightsaber. NOPE. Apparently, a plastic riot stick with batteries is also just as strong as a lightsaber. Sorry!
• Exploring what Stormtrooper mind-conditioning is like through the vehicle of John Boyega’s character. A really interesting idea … NEVER followed up on, not even for a SECOND.
Okay, that’s it! Sorry so long!
Rob Van Winkle
Tony Lazlo here, reporting in after seeing TFA Thursday night. Lance, thanks for kicking off this discussion. You keyed in on pretty much everything I liked and disliked about this movie. I know that the director isn’t the sole author of a movie – Lawrence Kasdan obviously deserves some of the praise/blame for what worked (and what didn’t) in TFA – but when I think of all the elements that made me shake my head and mutter, “Really? That was your final choice for the biggest movie of all time?” — I feel like J.J. Abrams is the one most responsible for those choices.
Anyway — let’s get to it. The first and most forceful reaction I had was that TFA simply felt like a Star Wars movie. This has been a pretty common reaction from across the critical spectrum, and I think it’s worth pausing to unpack what exactly that means, to “feel” like a SW movie. Lance, you praised a lot of this movie’s textures, and that’s a big part of it. When I was a little kid, one of the first thoughts I had about Star Wars was, “This feels like a documentary.” Now, that was a pretty primordial, unfinished, juvenile way to put it, and as I got older, I built out that initial impression to mean that in a general sense, the world depicted in the SW movies — when all pistons are firing — feels like a real place, a lived-in place, that’s populated with characters with psychologies that are (at the very least) plausible to a certain extent. I’m not saying that the SW movies need to be like a Chekhov play or Taxi Driver — meaning, exhaustively naturalistic experiences — but simply that they pass a very basic test for verisimilitude.
The Empire Strikes Back remains the gold-standard for SW movies, and rightfully so. Think back to those opening reels, to how real and lived-in the base on Hoth feels. It simultaneously feels like an airplane hangar and a greasy old garage, where everyone’s workin’ on their Camaro. Those opening scenes in Empire are so striking and real and memorable, because we the audience get a sense that time has passed for these characters, that their lives have gone on, that their relationships have deepened. The base is workable, but it can’t have been their first choice, and indeed, the whole place feels like a venue they had to establish and make livable in a hurry. Pivoting over to the basic sense of psychological realism, let me heap praise on Harrison Ford’s performance in Empire — probably still the single best performance in any of the movies. Think about how subtly and effectively he plays those moments of burgeoning dread when he hears Luke hasn’t reported back to base, how long the movie takes with those opening beats to let us simply be in that new space and to get used to this new configuration of power for the major players — the rebels and the Empire.
Okay, my intention isn’t to blather on about Empire but to establish what I think a “good” SW movie needs to do — it needs to feel real and lived-in, and the characters need to feel psychologically real and plausible to a very certain and limited extent. Again, not Chekhov, but they need to pass a very basic “sniff test” for realism.
The Force Awakens passes muster for these tests — and it’s funny, now that I see that, it makes Lucas’s failure with the prequels even more vexing. The SW universe is already so overwhelmingly appealing, you honestly don’t need to do much to make an effective movie in it. One critic said in praise of TFA that this is “what it looks like when the grown-ups take over the SW franchise,” and indeed, that critic is right. All you had to do was round up some talented people and execute a story in this universe in a reasonably competent way, and — voila! You’ve got a good SW movie!
TFA is most certainly a “good” SW movie that “feels” like a SW movie. It hums along with great energy and spirit. It’s got some memorable set-pieces and characters. It’s well cast. (Lance, you praised the casting, and I emphatically agree. Abrams has his flaws, but he would never, ever botch a major casting decision like Lucas did with ol’ Hayden C.) And it also feels real and lived-in. There’s a pleasing sense that time has passed in this universe since we last visited it.
But … then there’s the story. And its J.J. Abrams-ness. And the fact that it’s almost a point-for-point remake of A New Hope. I agree that its “remakiness” is a problem, but I also want to submit some other problems, with the understanding that I don’t mean to be a wet blanket or a killjoy. I enjoyed the hell out of it … but let’s talk about it!
So when I first walked out of the movie, I was delighted, but at the same time, a couple of Abrams-y glitches jumped out at me:
2. Weird, baffling laziness in the storytelling. Again, I don’t mean to sound like a killjoy or that I think every plot point in a SW movie needs to be tight as a drum, but it was awfully convenient that:
• Moments after taking off from Jakku, that the first ship the two leads encountered was Han Solo’s. They tried to explain it away by having Han say something about his “scanners” picking them up, but — huh? I thought to myself, “Okay. Cool. You picked ’em up on your scanners, eh? Was that the first time in thirty years you’d turned your scanners on?”
• Maz Kanata was an important contact for Han Solo and the caretaker for Luke’s lightsaber. Now, again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with assigning both duties to that character, but the way they executed it felt unearned and forced.
I mention those two moments because they felt the most “Abrams-y” to me. He took similar shortcuts in both of his Trek movies, and to see the same lazy choices pop up again — especially with a pro like Kasdan in the mix — felt a little wearisome.
Okay — let’s get to the big stuff: The movie’s “remakiness.” (Don’t worry — I’ll talk about what I liked in a moment.) To be sure, it was eyeroll-inducing to see a desert-planet opening act and a finale that involved a “super” Death Star. Lots of critics have complained about this movie’s lack of invention, but I think it’s also worth noting what both you guys said about how the state of the Rebellion hasn’t really changed since the events of Return of the Jedi.
Let me take that complaint a step further to say: I couldn’t grok what the state of the galaxy was. Lemme explain:
Okay, at the risk of committing high geek heresy, I’m going to praise one element of the prequels: They showed us a different overall configuration of power in the galaxy. Hamhanded, leaden and boring they might’ve been, the prequels managed to depict a different state of affairs. Roughly, the good guys were in charge, and the bad guys were lurking about. Then in episodes IV through VI, the bad guys were in charge and the good guys were lurking about.
But in this new trilogy … it still felt like the bad guys were in charge and the good guys were lurking about. even though the filmmakers made some clumsy efforts to mention the “Republic” — presumably the government installed by our heroes after the fall of the second Death Star. But what exactly WAS the First Order? Were they once again the reigning government? Or were they more like Cobra Command or SPECTRE — a well-financed group of terrorists? It’s a bummer that the filmmakers didn’t take the time to show us a new configuration of power. I dunno — maybe have Leia be the new head of state who has to deal with a crumbling empire and a lingering threat from the remnants of the empire. (To be sure, there may not even BE a good third configuration of power to invent. The prospect of watching the good guys hunt down the last imperial fighters might’ve been too unpleasant a prospect.)
Also, one final jab — So … Finn never had any real working knowledge of the Starkiller base. He took Han and Chewie down there with literally zero information about the base. So that means that in the space of fifteen minutes, armed with only a few charges, those three managed to blow up an entire planet.
Okie-dokie — on to what I liked!
Again, the movie just felt right, and despite its many flaws, it managed to carry me away with the power and strength of its storytelling. Adam Driver was exceedingly well cast, and I think the filmmakers used the old guard juuuuuust the right amount. Lance, you lamented the sorry state of Han and Leia’s lives. You of course make a good point, but I for one admired how their lives didn’t turn out how they hoped, how they grew into people they never wanted to become. I liked getting a glimpse into how sad and frantic Han’s life as a smuggler was. I also really liked how Ford and Fisher played the scenes where they spoke about their son. My girlfriend said it felt like they were talking about a child in the thrall of an addiction, and I agree.
Driver’s performance backed this up. Kylo/Ben felt unwell, mentally ill. And man — we’ve all heard that Ford wanted Han to die in Empire. Well, his character got a fitting send-off. He died in a powerful, well-acted scene that bubbled up from strong character choices. It was also a very striking scene visually — the dying shaft of light from the nearby star illuminating that long gantry — wow. You coulda heard a pin drop in our theater, and for perspective, this was a massive multiplex in Burbank, packed to the gills with loudmouth chuckleheads. But that scene shut everyone up. Bravo.
I also want to praise the movie’s grit and visual invention. Yes, the Starkiller Base was a goofy riff on the Death Star, but man! What a great image — a weapon the size of a planet. I loved how the planet’s horizon lit up in flame when they fired the weapon. I even liked the unrepentantly Riefenstahl-ish imagery with the big First Order rally. When Kylo doffed his mask, he set it on a plate of ashes — Darth Vader’s cremains, I’d wager. Rey ticking off her days on the wall of her home. All of the carcasses of the fallen battleships and transports reminded me of Melville. The giant hologram of Snoke recalled the whole franchise’s roots in L. Frank Baum; he felt very much like the Wizard, and Lance, I’m with you — I’m sure he’ll be tiny when we see him in the flesh.
And man — that last shot of Luke was so good. He looked so old and tired and heartbroken. Great stuff.
Rob Van Winkle (follow-up)
The Red Baron
• Maz explains that “it’s a long story” how she got hold of Luke’s lightsaber. The one he lost on Bespin after Vader cut off his hand, right? Would we prefer to see a flashback of how it was recovered from the clouds? Or it best to keep that one a mystery?
• I think it was Kathleen Kennedy that said Rian Johnson’s Episode 8 was going to be unlike any SW movie we’ve seen before. A unique approach. Of course she’s going to say that for PR purposes…but I’m hoping that Johnson might employ some cinematic devices that haven’t been employed in previous SW movies…like flashbacks. I’d love to see Episode 8 open on a scene where we see Kylo confirming his decision to join the dark side & slaughtering Luke’s Jedi academy…..something akin to LOTR when we see Smeagol’s transformation into Gollum before the main story begins.
• No one brought up the fact that Captain Phasma – for all the hoopla around casting a woman to play a feared Storm Trooper commander – didn’t have anything to do in TFA. Hopefully, it’s a Boba Fett-style setup for Episode 8.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.