Movies & TV / Columns

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Six Months Later (Part I)

June 24, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Normally this column is 411 Comics Showcase, but the column will be taking a sabbatical this week for something else very geeky. I’m going to be diving into an in-depth analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This column isn’t really meant to persuade anyone, as there are many different ways to look at any given movie and none of them are invalid. It’s more just my attempt to look at what was almost certainly the most anticipated movie of the decade (so far), now that we are all far enough removed from J.J. Abrams “Mystery Box” hype machine to calm down about a new Star Wars movie.

But before I get into that, I feel like I need to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Anton Yelchin, a promising young actor best known for playing Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek films. The circumstances of Yelchin’s death are tragic and could have happened to anyone; 27 is no age to be dying at. He will be missed, and though many of us will see him in Star Trek Beyond this summer, I strongly recommend picking up Green Room, a recent horror-thriller that showcased Anton’s talents as a lead actor.

Star Wars: A Brief History
Star Wars (later Episode IV: A New Hope) is a 1977 science fantasy adventure film directed by George Lucas, generally regarded as one of the greatest films of all time for its impact on pop culture and innovation in sound design and visual effects. Using classic fantasy archetypes like the Wise Old Wizard and the Princess in a Castle, George Lucas gave us his version of the Hero’s Journey, but set in space and with “The Force” replacing fantasy conventions like religion and magic. The story was hardly innovative, but the presentation was new and the characters were so strong that for many people, Star Wars is the go-to reference for these archetypal characters and story structure.

Star Wars was a critical success, but an enormous commercial success, and spawned two sequels in 1980 and 1983. The Empire Strikes Back was initially met with mixed reviews due to the darker tone, cliffhanger ending, and lack of “newness” that the original film brought. Over time, it’s come to be almost as revered as Star Wars and is the favorite of many fans (including this writer). Return of the Jedi was a strong conclusion to the story, but ultimately took fewer risks, repeated plot points, and doesn’t hold up as well as the first two films.

While George Lucas worked as producer and formed the basic story elements for the Star Wars sequels, they were directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand respectively. However, George would return to the director’s chair in 1999 for The Phantom Menace, the first in a new trilogy of films that would serve as prequels to the original trilogy. While The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005) did well commercially and pushed the boundaries of special effects, they are generally considered to be disappointing by fans. While a detailed analysis of what went wrong with the prequel trilogy would be pointless these days, the main reason the Prequel Trilogy is considered such a disappoint is simple. For most people, there is a lack of interesting, likable characters and it is difficult to form an emotional connection with the story because of it.

While there are many who would prefer not to acknowledge the existence of the prequel films when it comes to “canon” of the Star Wars story (including myself), they are an important part of the story that led to The Force Awakens. If George Lucas had been able to recapture the magic (perhaps an impossible task), I don’t know if there would be any real desire to see a new Star Wars film. If nothing else, I do think that several aspects of Episode VII would be vastly different if those films were more beloved by audiences. Whether it should be or not, The Force Awakens did have to serve as an apology for the prequels and restore faith in the franchise. And make no mistake; that was the primary goal of The Force Awakens, with the secondary goal being to set things in motion for future Star Wars movies. After all, if it didn’t feel like Star Wars, would any of us want to go back?

The New Caretakers: Disney and J.J. Abrams
To make a long story short, Disney buys the rights to Lucasfilms and immediately announces a new Star Wars movie for 2015. While this certainly raised a lot of questions, I think it also did something that the Star Wars franchise was in desperate need of; interest. For me, and I think for many fans, I was willing to take a “wait and see” approach here. Disney had done pretty well with Marvel Studios since purchasing them (comics are a different story), and they couldn’t ruin Star Wars for me because that had already happened with the atrocious Blu-Ray edits of the original trilogy. What was the worst that could happen?

J.J. Abrams eventually found his way to the director’s chair, which I think was ultimately the right decision, if a safe one. Abrams certainly has a love and appreciation for Star Wars as well as great deal of skill as a visual director. I also felt that he had the right sensibilities for how to present a new Star Wars film. 2009’s Star Trek was much closer in tone to a Star Wars movie than a Star Trek movie, and while that film is good on its own merit, I do sympathize with those Star Trek fans who lamented that it was just a fun, sci-fi action film. Here, that wouldn’t really be a concern, and J.J.’s energetic and dynamic film style and sense of scope felt perfect from where I was sitting.

Predictably, The Force Awakens has many of the same traits as those Star Trek films, as well as J.J.’s other work like Mission Impossible III. There’s an urgency in how characters move and talk, emphasized with long, expanding shots (see: Rey and Finn running to escape the TIE Fighters on Jakku) and zoom-in close ups so we can feel the emotions and weight of any given character. Abrams also uses lighting to tell his story, whether it’s the obvious lighting effects in the film’s climax or more subtle things like red lighting during the rathtar scene to create urgency. Of course, we also get lens flares, which I’m not a fan of and won’t miss in later episodes.

Beyond some of those Abrams signatures, the director and crew have a clear desire to make the world feel as real as possible. Greenscreen is kept to a minimum, with the team usually filming on location for Jakku or the massive indoor sets like the Starkiller Base forest. Practical effects on clear display with the various creatures on Jakku and Maz Kanata’s cantina, but they also take a more practical approach with lightsabers. The new props actually glow, creating natural lighting effects on the actors, which is one of the reasons it looks so much more real.

This sort of craftsmanship is the sort of thing I bring up whenever somebody tries to argue that The Force Awakens is actually worse than the prequel trilogy. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I’m not sure how somebody can make a statement like this unless they are oblivious to all of the work that goes into making a movie. The prequels have lazy and predictable camera work and very little in the way of lighting or , which only serves to make the wooden acting and terrible script feel even more boring. Those films have decent ideas behind them, but the execution of those ideas drag it down.

Now, one can argue that you shouldn’t have to a film student to like a film or not, and there is some truth to that. Things that are spelled out and easy to digest, like story and characters, should be strong enough to carry it anyway. That’s a fair argument, so let’s take a look at the plot of The Force Awakens.

Story and Plot
I’m going to take it for granted that most of my readers have seen The Force Awakens and know the general plotline. The film has received a great deal of criticism for similarities to the plot of the original Star Wars, something that I feel is both justified and somewhat exaggerated. Speaking only for myself, I’m fine with BB-8 and the map to Luke Skywalker, as well as Maz’s cantina scene. What I don’t like are the little nods; Finn finding the remote that Luke trained with is funny, but the joke loses its luster when we get the chess monsters a few seconds later. Seeing the actual board was cool, but that moment was distracting and took me out of the experience. I am fine with fan-service and Easter eggs, but the film struggles to use them properly at times and that’s frustrating.

The one thing I absolutely dislike about this movie is Starkiller Base. I didn’t even like the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, and I wasn’t a fan of the visual callback in The Phantom Menace either. It’s a bigger, badder, lamer Death Star. I didn’t care when it blew up the Republic planets, and I didn’t care when it blew up at the end. Every time this thing showed up it frustrated me, and I don’t understand why they felt the need to go this route, especially when it’s background noise to the real story that’s going on.

While acknowledging that the skeleton of the film is similar to Star Wars (especially that ugly, ostentatious skull that is Starkiller Base), I do think it’s unfair to call it a remake of that film. For starters, the movie also has noticeable callbacks to The Empire Strikes Back as well. Maz Kanata is a small, ancient, wise and weird looking alien who teaches our heroes about the Force. In case you’ve forgotten, Yoda wasn’t in the first Star Wars. Similarly, we also get Rey having a prophetic dream sequence in Maz’s bar (ala Luke’s trial in the cave), and the father-son dynamic of Han, Leia and Kylo Ren is also something that comes from Empire, as well as the cliffhanger ending.

But more importantly, a story is not simply a series of events that happens to characters. Star Wars was as archetypal as it gets; a young knight and a wizard save a princess from a castle. Empire barely has any plot at all; the bad guys hunt down the good guys, the hero trains with an old wizard, there’s a trap. Return was even more bare bones; a rescue mission to tie up loose ends, and then one big mission to defeat the Empire. The reason audiences cared wasn’t because of the story, it was because we cared about the characters. We care about Luke learning to use the Force and confronting his father, we care about Darth Vader’s internal struggle between good and evil, we care about Han and Leia falling in love.

Those things are what makes the characters human, and the human characters are why we are able to connect to this strange, alien universe. Having an emotional connection is what allows a scene like this…

…to resonate with the audience. A lot can be forgiven with good characters, and ultimately it’s those characters and their personal journeys that are the story of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t learned to trust Obi-Wan and the Force. Defeating Darth Vader wouldn’t have mattered if Luke hadn’t realized that his anger was making him more like father, and his subsequent choice to embrace pacifism instead of aggression. It’s not so much what they do, but why and how they do it that matters.

And, for the most part, The Force Awakens follows in those footsteps. Next week, I’ll be diving into the individual characters and dissecting the good and the bad.

From Under A Rock
Last week, Michael Ornelas introduced me to Jaws, which I absolutely loved and kind of hate myself for taking so long to see. Tomorrow, Michael and I will be taking a look at Clint Eastwood’s final western, Unforgiven.