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    The Force Awakens

    Friday 18th December 2015

    I’ve been wondering for the last couple weeks whether to bother writing anything resembling a review of The Force Awakens. Now that I’m typing this, I’m still wondering that. Because, really, there’s not a lot of point to it. The film made something like a hundred million bucks in presales alone, and there’s not likely to be an empty seat anywhere in a cinema through the end of the year. And, more generally, what I think of a film—good or bad—is unlikely to impress anyone; if I disliked this thing, I’m not gonna talk you out of seeing it; if I liked it, that won’t change your mind about avoiding it.

    So, instead, I’m thinking more about other reviews. The real ones, to some extent, from people who actually get paid to have some idea what they’re talking about; but also the blathers from junkjournalists and worse which have been flooding the ‘net for a couple days now.

    If for some reason you care what I thought of the film: I liked it; at least, I don’t regret having seen it. But that’s not what I want to focus on here.

    I’d rather focus on something larger.

    One thing I’ve said all along, even while waiting for the prequels to come out back in the nineties, is that I haven’t got a favourite StarWars film. To me, the question is kinda inane; it’s like asking which segment of a television show was the best, and going with the bit after the second commercial break. StarWars is a saga, however awkwardly beginning in 1999, looping through 1977, and currently sitting in 2015; I don’t see the saga as a collection of parts, some of which can be ignored. Or, I very much see it that way, but the ignorable bits are cartoons like Ewoks and Droids and The Star Wars Holiday Abortion. But the seven episodic films are chapters in a single, sagatastic story.

    Also, I’m not that huge a fan. Not really. I could probably be accused of looking like one: to date, I’ve seen all seven films on opening night; I even saw the SpEd rereleases in 1997 and that 3D update of The Phantom Menace at the first showing. And I’ve got toys enviable by actual fans [I’ve got a Snaggletooth figure I got for $1.50 in 1978 sitting on my desk right now] throughout the house. But none of that took any real effort; I’ve also got all the TransFormers toys from 1984, because getting them was as easy as walking into Service Merchandise with some cash.

    So, I’ve got what could be called an objective view of StarWars. I get that it’s a thing; I’m okay with it being a thing; but I’ve got no emotional stake in any of it.

    StarWars is a saga. Likely a trilogy of trilogies. Starting with the one in the middle. And starting in the seventies. And I think that’s more important than people tend to realise.

    For those of you—likely the majority—who missed the seventies: good. The seventies were terrible. And that’s relevant. Because they really weren’t good. Ever seen a sofa from the seventies? People—adults, even—wore suits made out of the same material. With lapels the size of aircraft carriers. People had that stupid hair which was somehow short everywhere but the sides: follicular saddlebags covering their ears like confused skullets. No one knows why. America had run itself irrevocably into debt fighting a sitcom of a war to show the USSR that Uncle Sam would never surrender, and everyone was a cynic. The president had just resigned, having got caught looking too closely at McGovern’s team before landsliding him into history regardless. Everything was horrible.

    Then, from outta nowhere, StarWars suddenly happened.

    StarWars, in 1977, was not a good film. It just wasn’t. It was a mess. It had a damsel in distress who grabbed a gun and started killing people; she couldn’t even work out whether she was English or American. It had stilted dialogue running into invisible walls of silence: people abandoning sentences as if they were being interrupted, though they weren’t. It was a convoluted disaster cramming in dogfights and car chases and ninjas and gunfights and pirates and half of The Wizard of Oz.

    If StarWars were released today, the way it was released in 1977, it would flunk. That is to say that, if StarWars hadn’t happened in 1977, and hadn’t shaped the modern world, and the world had just advanced toward its current state without it, it would flunk today.

    At the time, it worked. It worked because it was optimistic. It was a promise of better things at a time when Annie Hall got Best Picture. Think about that for a minute: StarWars was unleashed upon a world in which Woody Allen’s various neuroses were so close to the public pulse that someone gave him an Oscar.

    StarWars was like nothing that had come before. Which of course is a lie. Because it was like 2001 and DarkStar had produced an offspring. It was like StarTrek had been entertaining. It was escapism, at a time when the world needed it.

    Then, things got stranger.

    First, the film just didn’t go away. It came out in May, got bigger in June, and bigger still in July; it was still hanging on in October after it was too cold to watch it at the drive in. It just kept happening.

    Second, the merch began to leak out. Even before it existed. Kids got cardboard backdrops for the actionfigures they’d be able to get their hands on in 1978. Plastic landspeeders. Bedsheets. Princess Leia’s head as the cap on a bottle of shampoo. It went viral.

    Third, the format wars occurred. JVC’s substandard but opensource VHS went up against Sony’s sonytastic BetaMax. And StarWars was one of the few films available for $14.99 at Target. If you were one of the one percent in possession of a VideoCassetteRecorder, you could watch StarWars eleven times a day. Ten if your machine rewound things slowly. And less if you stopped to sleep.

    Fourth, there was a sequel. In 1980, the saga continued. And, this time, it wasn’t a film made with dumpsterdived battleship models and sticks wrapped in reflective tape. Empire was made for eighteen million dollars, back when that was a lot of money; at the time, a Corvette was twenty thousand bucks. Lucas handed the writing off to Larry Kasdan and the directing to Irvin Kershner; Gary Kurtz was still producing the whole thing. Few people would deny that Empire was better than StarWars.

    But, again, I don’t personally look at it that way. I look at it as chapters in a saga. And, to the extent that Empire was better, it had the advantage of building off of an established origin story. StarWars was lesser a film in part due to its smaller budget and lesser technology; but, also, it burned a lot of time introducing characters who were worldfamous by the time Empire was released. That’s something to keep in mind for later….

    In 1983, Return of the Jedi came out—but not before Han Solo had moonlit off to play Indiana Jones and Rick Deckard. At the time, half the appeal of Jedi was the promise that Harrison Ford was returning after all, despite rumours that Solo’s story had ended in carbonite.

    The rest—the immediate rest, anyway—is history: Jedi ended the trilogy, despite implications that Episodes I through III and probably VII through XI should exist. The three films showed up on HBO in gloriously fuzzy 4:3 Pan&Suck for all to record to BASF. And it all stalled out for a while.

    It never exactly went away, of course. There were still the toys. In 1995, a huge campaign advertised VHS copies in 2.35:1 coming soon to a Blockbuster near you. In 1997, the SpEds occurred, fixing a lot of problems and inexplicably letting Greedo shoot at the wall. But that was almost okay, because there was the implication that Lucas was working toward continuing the saga.

    Remember—or at least understand—that, from 1983 through 1997, people had been clamouring for the first three episodes. People had fanficked about them. Rumours had slithered about: Han Solo had once worked with Boba Fett, but a job went wrong and blah, blah, blah. The jedi had maintained order for a thousand generations in a more civilised age. Somewhere, Lucas had the entire Journal of the Whills, and he was under some sort of legal obligation to film it all. The fanbase ordered him to make the prequels. I know: you want him to have made these things and forced you to watch them; but I was there, and you’re lying.

    In 1999, The Phantom Menace was released. And it…had its flaws. The name, for example, was stupid. But then, A New Hope was a little stupid too.

    You wanna know why The Menacing Phantom wasn’t good? It’s a simple reason, and it’s not one anyone ever really seems to notice. It’s not that JarJar Binks was in it; not really: he was no derpier than the ewoks, or the jawas, or Yoda. It’s not that Vader was retconned into Adam Rich and allowed to screech yippie. It’s not even that DarthMaul was a total breach of promise who said three things and then died.

    It’s that it started from zero.

    There’s no backstory to that film. There’s nothing in history to reference. StarWars was interesting, in 1977, partly because there were stories of the olden times, before the empire, when the galaxy had been a different place. There was the optimism that, if the rebels ultimately won, the galaxy might return to more civilised an era. So, when Menace starts out with Darkman and Renton quibbling over whether to live in the moment or be mindful of the future, because Yoda said something about it a few days ago, that’s not a backstory. That’s not a reference to a sprawling history of whoknowswhat leading across millennia up to this point. The flaw in Menace was that it had nothing to point to in its past, and it tainted the mythic past of StarWars by attempting to film it.

    Menace flunked because it was something of a command performance, ordered by the geekery, while being not what the geekery wanted, though the geekery can’t articulate what they wanted instead.

    Seriously. What in hell did you think the prequels could possibly have been? Did you even think the concept through? Did you really imagine that the Skywalker Saga would devote a lot of time to Solo in his teens? Did you really want to see Boba Fett learning to ride a bike? I really can’t imagine how you thought that the prequels could be anything other than what they were: the disinteresting setup to the state of affairs current in the original film.

    Menace is followed by Clones, which gets us into a big lightsabre battle without managing to become terribly exciting; Clones leads to Sith, which probably has more interesting bits than any other StarWars episode to date, but which also has some profoundly stupid stuff in it. That opening battle in Low Coruscant Orbit? Epic. That inept arrest of Palpatine leading to a handful of dead jedi masters? Little weak.

    And, so ends the saga again. For a while. Six films, technically watchable in whatever order. A bit clunky, since we know about Vader’s kids a couple films before his kids do. A bit awkward to watch Yoda go from an ugly muppet to a polygonal muppet to a less ugly muppet, and from wise to cackly to wise again. A bit spoilery to know all about Boba Fett a couple films before he’s shockingly the guy who divines how to track Solo to Bespin. There really is no Good Viewing Order; too many things make too many other things redundant or worse.

    So, that’s StarWars to date: six films which got a little heavy into retconning and redundancing and coming up with ways to sell shampoo.

    Then, Disney got involved.

    Actually, that’s not really a problem. At least, it’s not really the problem.

    That Disney had final cut on Force is fairly obvious. It just really felt like a Disney thing. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing; I’m just pretty sure it’s a Disney thing.

    I’m just gonna say a couple things real quick.

    One: Force is the seventh film in the saga. Whether it’s better or worse than any of all the others is ultimately irrelevant.

    Two: Overall, I liked it.

    Three.

    Three may need some subsections.

    From the first minute of the film—and here, you might guess, we get into some spoilers—everything just seemed…rushed. Not like To Hell with Preproduction; Let’s Make This Happen rushed. Like…it just all happened. Look: stuff; now it’s dead; here’s more stuff; nevermind because there’s new stuff; just kidding—there’s other stuff to move on to.

    Max von Sydow was kinda in this film. You know Max: Ming the Merciless? From Flash Gordon? The priest in The Exorcist? Brewmeister Smith in Strange Brew? Yeah. So, he’s got the first line in the film. And roughly two more after that. Then: we’re walking. No more Max; Max is done now.

    I’ve got no massive opinion about Max. He’s a good actor; he’s not above fluff like Strange Brew and DreamScape [and, let’s be real: The Exorcist]. But, when I heard that he was gonna be in this thing, where this thing began as a shameless spoof of Flash Gordon, where he was Ming a couple years later when the spoof ironically triggered interest in the original: I kinda got the sense that he might, you know, be in this thing. And, while I don’t doubt that there’ll be seventeen spinoff novels and a breakfast cereal devoted to Lor San Tekka, Max remains for the moment the Snaggletooth Actionfigure of 2016: you get it because you’ll try to figure out where he was in the film as you’re rewatching it fifteen million times next year.

    But, Force isn’t Lor San Tekka’s story. Probably. Because it’s all about Poe Dameron. Who is not Poe, Cameron, from ConAir. Probably.

    But it’s not about Dameron, because it’s about Beach2Ball2 who…yeah: it’s a ‘droid carrying the secret data file thing that…it’s Artoo. Again. From 1977. The ‘droid everyone’s looking for.

    And that’s okay. We’ve established that this is a galaxy with lightsabres and superluminous travel and levitation and precisely zero WiFi; you can’t just EMail stuff to people—you can only stash it in a robot and hope the thing doesn’t get too lost.

    So, now the story is about FU78ALL the rolling—nevermind: it’s about FN2187 the stormtrooper with a conscience and the the uncharacteristic ability to to hit what he’s shooting at. Oh, and also Dameron again. So that’s all coming togeth—

    Cut to this chick scavenging bits out of a felled stardestroyer to trade for McFly’s Own Rehydrated Muffins, who—

    FU78ALL’s back. And it meets MuffinChick. And she speaks Android. So they rap a little about how they’ve got secret histories and stuff.

    And Finn2187 crashes with Poe on Nottattooine and Muffin doesn’t sell FU78ALL for muffins and she meets Finn and the Notempire chase them and they steal a YT1300 because Muffin knows how to fly the thing and they escape for a couple of seconds until they’re captured by the YT1300’s occasional owner.

    And, if you know what a YT1300 is: A) seek help; B) you’ll know that we’ve now encountered Han Solo. Who…somehow? Lost the Falcon? To Notlandocalrissian? I’m sure it was explained; I’m sure the words were in English; I still have no idea what that was all about. Just that, somehow, the Millennium Falcon had been stolen by MuffinSource Notwatto. For a while.

    But, it all works out: Solo’s got his ship back, on his new ship, full of cthulhumonsters, which he was smuggling, because the rebellion stopped being fascinating after it won in 1983, and because family issues, because his kid was something of a jedi who went bad because Luke tried to train him, and you heard this story from Kenobi in the twentieth century.

    And…let’s back away from the specifics for a moment. Where Menace tried to start from nowhere, and be a standalone story leading toward StarWars: Force tries to mirror every damned thing we’ve ever seen in the saga. And that, I think, is the flaw in this film. StarWars was an origin story, and it was okay; Empire was a sequel to an origin story, and it was better; Menace was an origin story without a point, which didn’t really address a lot of origins in any useful way; Force is a sequel to a long history of origin stories which is itself so lacking in origin stories that it wants to borrow from the ones preceding it.

    And that’s what really bugs me. Because Max went away. Remember Max? Guy with the first line in the film? Who said a couple more things? And then nothing more? As rushed as the first few minutes felt, I’d rather go back and give that whole thing more time than watch established characters expositioning out how they made all the same mistakes again over the last three decades. It just seems unfocussed. It just seems like there was a runtime prescribed, and it wasn’t used all that wisely. It’s not that hearing about another powerful young potential jedi being mistrained and falling to the darkside is a waste of time; it’s that it’s just odd that this is the point in the film where we decided to slow down and throw any detail at all into an anecdote.

    It just seems like everything leading up to getting into the Falcon was a hassle to film. Like the mood onset was: Once we’re in the Falcon, this is gonna be cool; so let’s get the setup allowing it to happen over with as quickly as possible.

    And I might mind the structure less if the film didn’t dive headfirst into the Terminator Syndrome. You may have seen me rant about this before. It’s that stupid thing where, in every Terminator Sequel, every stupid oneliner from the original [and only good] film has got to be recycled. That happens here. Finn leans on the 3D checkerboard videogame Probably Called Something Like QZXZZXQY [and mercifully actually polygonal instead of that horrid stopmotion from last time] and the little guys holograph themselves on and lawl. This is after Solo finds Muffin and Finn hiding in this sorta false floor that Solo probably, like, uses for smuggling or something. And it’s before Solo suggests throwing Phasma into a trash compactor. We get it: you saw the older films; now stop it.

    To be fair, the film never really drags. It never really has a buncha people sitting around and talking about boring things. It gets close a couple of times, but always shifts over to something more kinetic. Maybe too kinetic. Rey [Muffin] finding the lightsabre in the basement of the notcreaturecantina teleported the film into a series of UltronThorHallucinationPools I might like to rewind a few times to figure out what the hell I just saw. I’m not sure whether that’s better than Clones doing its StarTrek impersonation by having the various separatists pledge to join the…separatists…by separatisting…separately.

    Meanwhile, there are the badguys. Lots of them. Kylo Ren is the new Darth Stimpy. And he gets threaty at Grand Moff Hux, who may be equally subordinate to Emperor Voldemort the giant holograph [who I hope to hell will be revealed in later films to be the size of the fear daemon in Buffy]. And there’s Phasma Fett the shiny chicktrooper who’s only the giant from Game of Thrones because she’s tall and sounds the same; she never takes off her helmet, and may have less screentime than Max von Tekka had. I’d think that the Resistance née Rebellion could win this whole new war by stepping back and letting the bureaucracy of baddies collapse under its own emptycaloric weight.

    Or they could do the other thing, where they know all about the Starkiller née Suncrusher née DeathStar née Other DeathStar née Deathticle despite that being not actually the secret data Beach2Ball2 is carrying around [that’s more a snippet of a Captain Jack Disney Map which would lead to Luke Skywalker née Starkiller if only some other robot had the rest of the secret data], and launch an XWingy trenchrun assault manoeuvre and…you’ve seen StarWars.

    I’m okay with Force mirroring events we’ve already seen. In a lot of cases—and this might well be one of them—half the point of a story is how similar it might be to another story. I’m even okay with Solo acknowledging that the Starkiller is really just a bigger, badder Deathticle. It’s oddly selfaware for a StarWars film; but this is a saga that’s never strived to stick to its own rules [*cough*midichlorians*cough*] and there’s no good reason to hope it’ll start now.

    What becomes awkward here is entirely editorial. Remember when Marquand danced between the Deathticle attack in Jedi, and Skywalker fighting Vader, and Ewoks fighting Teddy Ruxpin, and it all just kinda flowed? Or when Kershner slid back and forth between Vader and Skywalker fighting in Empire and Calrissian and Chewie shooting at Fett? Or even when Lucas cut back and forth between the Deathticle in space and the base on the ground in StarWars. None of it ever quite seemed like a hard cut. There was always something of a rhythm to it. But, here, as we cut from the XWings out in space to Darth Snape in the forest to…however much was going on at once, it all just kinda seemed like each setting had a prespecified timelimit and we just cut away to the other thing at the strike of now.

    Of course, there’s also the other bit. The thing everyone’s angry about. The thing where Solo confronted the kid. But I’m okay with that for a large number of reasons.

    One: When Biggs died in StarWars, no one cared. No one cared after he got dropped back into the hangar before the battle to reminisce with Skywalker; no one cared when the unused footage of people calling Skywalker ‘Wormie’ surfaced. Biggs wasn’t ever important enough a character to elicit the sort of reaction Lucas was going for. Solo was.

    Two: It was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Pretty sure none of them is still alive.

    Three: It’s fiction. Learn the difference. Save ten percent of your income on religion.

    Four: There’s gonna be an Episode VIII, and I’ll just bet that some of the stuff we saw in VII is gonna kinda shape it. Wait and see what the results really are.

    So, four reasons. That’s a large number. Probably.

    Well, and Five: The guy’s seventy-three years old. I recently learned that, when McSame was that old, he was guaranteed to die a year into his term and inflict President Palin upon the world. That McSame isn’t dead wrecks my point [and theirs, to far larger a degree], but Ford is what we call old. Even if Solo lived for ever and ever, there aren’t a lot of places for his story to go. Except for where it went. Which is likely to lead to other stuff. See Four, above.

    So, that’s all outta the way. We can blow up Planet Deathticle now. Muffin and Finn can escape. Ren can…probably escape. Phasma…who knows. But: boom. And there was much rejoice. And we figure out that this Artoo Unit that’s been sleeping for thirty years might have parts of a map in it; so the parts go together, and Chewie takes Muffin off to meet…this:


    If you want irksome deaths, this guy died simply because he didn’t need to be him anymore

    So, yeah: there may be a sequel on its way….

    But, specifics aside, and whatever nitpicks, and eyerolling at the Terminator Syndrome, and hasty jumpcuts, and pacing issues, and underexplored characters who looked more interesting than the people we got stuck with for two and half hours: it was a StarWars film, and part of the saga, and the beginning of a third trilogy.

    So, I liked it. At least, I don’t regret having seen it. I just never expected it to be more than it was. I never expected that of the prequels. I never even expected it of the sequels, back in the eighties. StarWars was a thing that happened, and it led to a couple sequels, a few prequels, and shampoo bottles, and now this. It’s just a story, and it’s still being told.

    Have a related webcomic:

    More later….


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