Jan. 3rd, 2016

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I'll start with the negative so as to end on a somewhat positive note. First off, let's dispense with the obvious targets: if you don't enjoy Star Wars physics, this film won't make you any more of a fan. Not so much with the hard science fiction. More like hard fantasy (i.e., fantasy with lots of tech thrown in). Which is fine so far as it goes... I loved the first Star Wars film.

But several big problems largely ruined the film for me. First and most obvious, there was no situation in which the writers were inspired by the original three films to boldly go beyond what had previously been established and thereby create something new. In fact, you could have made about 90% of the current film using clips from the first three films and a little bit of CGI. This isn't the "fan service" or "working with established tropes" that some have proposed; it rarely went beyond slavish and uninspired imitation.

Plot logic? Feh. Such plot as there is could be tidily presented in a single commercial break between segments of the film when it's eventually shown on TV. And I predict it won't be long before one of the Internet's many freelance comedy groups creates a 5-minute version of "The Force Awakens" that sacrifices nothing of significance from the original.

Pacing was an interesting problem, and one I'm not sure how to describe. The film that started the franchise whizzed along at a snappy pace, with appropriate pauses in the action and a tempo that carried me along so that the film felt like it was over before I noticed any passing time. In contrast, the current film seemed like a bunch of badly paced set pieces that stopped long enough for everyone to admire the technical wizardry before lurching into motion again. Granted, all films are composed of set pieces; these ones just didn't flow somehow. I didn't find myself tapping a foot waiting to leave, but neither did I feel swept away.

Won't someone tell Hollywood that you can't use a sword like a baseball bat? It takes training and practice to develop even basic proficiency. (I say this as someone's who has significant, though not expert-level, training in kendo and a single training session with a German longsword.) Ditto for staff weapons. You can handwave this for jedi, given that they have mystical combat powers; you can't handwave it for someone like Finn who's probably never seen a sword in his life; if he had, he'd have been carrying one as a sidearm. Also, Finn is clearly a mutant: he's the one storm trooper in history who can actually hit a live target.

On a side note, I have no problem with Kylo Ren's much mocked cross-hilted lightsaber. It actually makes far more sense than a non-hilted weapon. With a physical blade, a glancing blow that skips past a katana's hilt is likely to be survivable. Not so much with an energy sword.

Finally, diversity or its lack: It's great to have a white female and black male lead, and perhaps given the moral thrust of these films, it's appropriate that the universe seems entirely black and white. I recall no Asian, Indian, or other characters who were not white or black, but possibly they were there somewhere in the background or wearing masks. At least Abrams avoided the overt racism of the three prequel films. [Looking back: A colleague pointed out that there was one Asian character in the council scene. Too little, but perhaps not as whitebread as I'd originally believed.]

Speaking of Abrams, "Awakens" showed no signs of the seeming contempt for the franchise and its fans that characterized his Star Trek reboot. Neither did he seem to get what people loved about the original trilogy. He was going through the motions without recapturing any of the magic. I'm not saying this as an offended fan boy; I don't take Star Wars that seriously. I'm just saying that the film felt flat.

On the plus side, the film is largely saved by the actors, despite mostly uninspiring dialogue. Our old favorites from the original trilogy did credible jobs reprising their starring roles, yet without stepping between us and the new characters. (And may I just say, when did Mark Hamill turn into Oliver Reed? Love it and can't wait to see what he does with his role in the next film!) The new actors did credible jobs, and Daisy Ridley in particular. Though she starts out as a "being rescued princess", she quickly grew into her role and I suspect she'll take over in the rescuer role in coming films. [A look back: a colleague noted that apart from the first scenes of the swordfight with Kylo Ren, Finn starts out trying to rescue Rey, but Rey ends up doing most of the rescuing. Possibly a running gag?] John Boyega's Finn is lots of fun; he has charisma and humor and hidden reserves of courage. Kylo Ren does not strike me as a convincing character, and Adam Driver looks nothing like any of his parents or grandparents (over whom I'll draw the spoiler curtain), but he did a decent job with a limited and weakly written role.

Apart from pacing problems, the film's execution was decent. The backgrounds were spectacular, particularly the crashed warships in the desert. The CGI was excellent, and I imagine much fun will be had scanning the backgrounds (particularly in the bar scene) for easter eggs once the DVD version of the film is out.

Overall rating? Meh. The new characters carried me through the film without too much griping, but on the whole, it was a disappointing outing.


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