Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"The Force Awakens" Was that a good idea?

Having seen “The Force Awakens” today, in a theater with maybe 25-30 people in attendance, and having just spent three days re-watching the first 3 (in order of production) Star Wars movies, I thought I should report my reactions.

First, the trailers, all for action/adventure movies coming in the first half of 2016, were cringe-worthy.  Several were second or third helpings of “franchise” movies, but none gave me any reason even to consider seeing one of them.  I remember none of the titles, and am glad thereof.

But for the main event. I was more impressed with the movie than I had expected to be.  Much of the initial commentary suggested that if hewed very closely to the story line of “A New Hope,” and it did.  I’m not sure that was a good thing however.  What was impressive is how seamlessly the new characters fit into the existing world—and. How impressive the acting of the newcomers is.

I want to start with three of the supporting cast.  John Boyega, as Finn was brilliant, moving from frightened and confused to a growing confidence in his worth and abilities.  I hope we will see him again as the series develops.  And Lupita Nyong’o, as Maz Kanata, the (apparent) owner of the bar (in the scene that, I regret to say, mimicked the cantina scene in “A New Hope” way too closely), exuded a huge amount of charm and charisma.  And her character’s ability to see into people’s souls through their eyes was well-played, if somewhat less than convincing to me.  I’d love to see her again, and with a larger part in the action.  Oscar Isaac, as Poe Dameron (whose droid, BB-8, is at the center of much of the story), did a very convincing job as a pilot in the opening scenes (and later as well).

Adam Driver, on the other hand, as Kylo Ren, did (in my opinion, only an adequate job in, admittedly, a difficult role as the replacement-menace for Darth Vader.  And the part of Supreme Leader Snoke (a bad name, to begin with) was mostly menace done unconvincingly, and probably wasted Andy Serkis.

And Max von Sydow was, I’m afraid, both wasted and prematurely killed in his role as Lor San Tekka.  I saw him and immediately hoped he would be with us for the long haul.

Of the returning characters, Leia (Carrie Fischer) had too little to do, and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) did his thing as well as can be expected.  Han Solo (Harrison Ford), frankly looked tired and sometimes uninterested (the scenes between Han and Leia did not exactly sing), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was more of an off-screen maguffin than an on-screen force.

The most important new character, Rey, a scavenger on the planet Jakku, is brilliant, actually, and brilliantly played by Daisy Ridley.  She doesn’t have much of a resume, yet.  But she imbues Rey with strength, resourcefulness, tenacity, and charm.  And her growing awareness that she has something else is handled beautifully. 

The plot is fairly straightforward.  Luke has withdrawn (following what he sees as a failure on his part) to an unknown location.  The New Order (which seems to be simply the remnants of the Empire—down to the body armor and ineffective firepower of the stormtroopers) (led by Snoke) want to capture Luke.  The Resistance (led by Leia) (apparently the new Republic had a malfunction) also wants to find Luke.  Poe Dameron received a map showing Luke’s location from Lor San Tekka, plants the map on BB-8, and is captured by the New Order and tortured by Kylo Ren.  The New Order then sets out to find the droid, find the map, capture Skywalker, and kill him, thus ending the power of the Jedi.

The droid is rescued by Rey, a scavenger on the planet Jakku, from another scavenger.  She is then drawn into the search for Skywalker, first through a chance encounter with Finn, which results in her stealing a space ship…the Millennium Falcon.

What ensues is a series of chases, captures and escapes, and a final battle in which the Resistance (this is not, really, a spoiler) gains the upper hand on the New Order.

It actually plays better than it reads.  There’s enough suspense to keep us involved, and enough emotional resonance to move us occasionally to tears.  If you loved “A Hew Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “The Return of the Jedi,” I think you will love this as well.  I was quite impressed.

I have (of course) a couple of issues, and some of this may give away things that are best left anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie to discover for themselves.

The New Order is as tactically (and strategically) as inept as the Empire ever was.  Once again, the stormtroopers have no idea how to fight a battle.  As the Empire did, the New Order places its strategic emphasis on a doomsday machine (despite the first two having proved to be abject failures).  Once again (apparently Machiavelli’s writings never made it to his part of the galaxy, or he had no indigenous counterpart) the New Order seems bent on ruling through terror and destruction, rather than through co-opting local leaders and creating a stable world.  The Resistance leadership provides us with no strategic concept at all, except to oppose the new Order (the new Republic having apparently works out so well).  The movie works well as an adventure story, with heroes and villains and beautiful princesses and magic weapons, but fails the geopolitical part badly.

And I have to say a word about the new world-destroying doomsday weapon.  The first two were spaceships.  This one is a planet-based weapon capable pf projecting its power apparently anywhere in the galaxy.  It works by sucking all the energy out of the star at the center of a solar system and projecting all that energy onto the target.  The problem is, unless someone has managed to alter this one of the laws of physics, that you could get only one shot per solar system.  Once you suck all the energy out of the star, you have a dead star left (and, probably, insufficient mass to keep the planets from escaping their orbits).  Obviously, however, the New Order seems to have circumvented that problem, thus also managing not to have to move and rebuild after every use.  Oh, well.  Only people like me will care, I suppose.

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