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Lise watches a star war, and talks about it

(There will be spoilers in this post, but the first part is not spoilery)

So I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this week.

How was it?

Tentatively, I say, wonderful.

Why “tentative?” Well, I’m old enough to remember seeing The Phantom Menace in theaters, and what my reaction was then. The hype was so strong that at first I told myself I enjoyed it. It took a long time to realize just how bad it was.

TFA is not a perfect movie. (What movie is?). I’ll talk about what bugged me later on in this post. But I spent most of the movie rapt, feeling glee and sorrow and nostalgia and awe — that all important element of SFF! — at all the right moments.

That is more than the sterile prequels ever did for me.

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What I liked:

The new protagonists, Finn and Rey. Probably more than I enjoyed the reappearance of old friends from the original trilogy! Matt and I disagreed on which we liked better; he thought Finn was better developed, whereas I felt the opposite way.

I think some of it is how delightfully rare it is — still, alas — to have a female viewpoint character in SFF. I love Princess Leia, and she kicks some serious ass, but the original trilogy wasn’t her story in the same way TFA is Rey’s story.

And the shear amount of time Rey spends rescuing Finn! Or the look on Finn’s face when he realizes, “Hey, this woman I thought I was going to help can clearly take care of herself.” Or how she keeps insisting he not hold her hand. I loved it.

In particular, watching Rey test out the capabilities of the Force is delightful — turning Kylo Ren’s mind probe back on him, using a Jedi mind trick on her Stormtrooper guard (who is apparently played by Daniel Craig?), her final battle with Ren, etc. (There was cheering in the theater when we saw her call the lightsaber back from the snow before Ren could do the same).

The new antagonist, Kylo Ren. I’m seeing a lot of Kylo Ren hate and cries of “he’s not as fearsome as Vader!” but I have to admit, I adored him. (I joked on Facebook that he was my new fantasy boyfriend).

But then, I pretty much am the audience for attractive, tortured villains. Moreso if they have fabulous hair. WHICH HE DOES.

(Last week, Matt and I were in Target shopping for Christmas decorations, when I saw a giant Kylo Ren doll. As we often do when confronted with ridiculous products, I said something like, “Hey hon, do we need a giant plush Kylo Ren?” It was funny at the time, but now I kind of want one — but only if I can take his helmet off and brush his hair. I’m a creeeeeeeper).

And yes, he killed Han, yes, he’s a petulant child who has tantrums, and yes, everything in the Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account is pitch-perfect. But… I also really thought he was painted beautifully as this very young man, too young for the weight of his responsibilities, who is trying desperately to keep it together. He lusts for power, sure, that’s why he’s Dark Side. But so much of the rest of him is just… normal teenage stuff that he seems incapable of coping with. And so he picks the side where he doesn’t have to repress it, where emotional outburts are pretty much required.

(Let me not get into the fact that I’ve never understood, in universe, how the Sith can basically run the Empire — okay, this is First Order, not the Empire, but whatevs. How can you have a class of mentally unhinged cultists running a strict military dictatorship? The joke when I played an Imperial Agent in SWTOR is that the Sith coming in and fucking stuff up was the source of 99% of quests. Matt and I used to say, “Sith ruin everything,” which is also what I leaned over and said to him during the movie when Ren unleashed his fury on his subordinates. Or, you know. Just an instrument panel).

… okay, I guess I got into it).

Django and I were talking about it, and he said the Kylo Ren hatred might actually be an inexpert way of saying “the villains don’t feel menacing.” He argues this is partially because Lieutenant-General Hux — who’s sort of in the Tarkin role — is also baby-faced and petulant, and thus lacks gravitas.

(Sadly, the death of Peter Cushing has left a real lack of actors whose faces look like skulls.

But see, I liked that immaturity in Hux, too. The First Order feels like a bunch of kids playing Imperial dressup — and I think that’s intentional. It’s a feature, not a bug. Hux and Kylo Ren have power, but are too young to know how to wield it, and that makes them even more dangerous.

(It doesn’t help that “Hux” sounds like the nickname one would be given at a prep school).

None of this kept Hux’s fascist speech about decapitating the New Republic from being chilling. Yes, they use imagery and language from Nazism and from North Korea to back them up. I’m okay with that. It feels right.

Also, something I think is really interesting about Ren — did you notice how, in his final fight with Finn and Rey, he punches himself in the side, where Chewie shot him? Why does he do that? (Besides “JJ Abrams liked how blood on snow looked”). The only thing I can come up with is he does it to generate Dark Side feels — because he isn’t enough of a whirl of fear and anger and aggression already? But I read it as, he’s feeling compassion for Rey and/or Finn, and that isn’t gonna power his red lightsaber, ifyaknowwhatImean.

But it’s the first time, I think, we’ve seen Sith cause pain to themselves in order to fuel their powers, and it’s kind of awesome.

Also, I’m sure that will never, ever be used in fanfic. *shifty eyes*

(I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve only just skimmed the surface of SWTFA fanfic).

The death of Han. Well, I didn’t like it, per se, but it felt earned and dramatically appropriate. I had sort-of been spoiled on that — in the sense of, “hey, here are these production stills that look like Rey crying over Han’s dead body” — but it didn’t matter, because the minute Han stepped out onto that bridge with Kylo, I knew he was a dead man.

When Kylo talks about how he knows how to reform, but he just doesn’t know if he’s strong enough, my mental monologue was all, “nope, they’re not gonna reform him in the first movie; he’s going to buy it the same way Anakin did, with his death, in the third movie.” I knew where that lightsaber was heading, and it wasn’t over the chasm.

So I was willing to say goodbye to Han, in the name of a good narrative.

The humor. There was humor! Decent, adult humor! After the prequels taking themselves So Damn Seriously (when they weren’t being goofy and slapstick), this was very, very welcome. The first laugh was moments into the movie, when Kylo Ren bends down next to our new sassy pilot friend Poe Dameron (in prelude to interrogation), and Poe nervously says something like, “So how does this go? Do I talk first, or do you?” It was so out of place it got a chuckle out of all of us.

There was dirt! I described the prequels as sterile, and that’s a good way to contrast them with this movie. In the prequels, much of the scenery is CG. Many of the characters are, too; a lot of the time it’s just one or two actors and a greenscreen. No one ever sweats, or gets dirty. When there’s violence, it’s bloodless.

TFA rejects that categorically, from some of its earliest shots. Rey, with a sweaty face and wisps of escaped hair, sitting outside her home, a burnt-out AT-AT. That bloody handprint on Finn’s Stormtrooper mask. To name just a couple of examples.

(The obsession with our actors being sweaty is actually kind of hilarious, after a time; in that way it reminds me of Top Gun, which featured similarly sweaty actors AT ALL TIMES).

It’s… nice. It makes us feel like these aren’t characters, they’re people, and that the world they inhabit follows the same rules as ours, and extends beyond the screen.

The diversity. I’m not the best to comment on ethnic diversity, but it felt like a colorful cast to me, with POC characters who got to be Big Damn Heroes.

More personally relevant, there were so many women in this world. Female Stormtroopers! (Captain Phasma! I hope she escapes from that trash compactor…) Female TIE fighter pilots! And, of course, our heroine, Rey, who checks off every hero trope without her gender being relevant, even once. (This article talks a lot about this)

What I Didn’t Like:

This is less “what I didn’t like” and more “what didn’t make sense” or “what could have been better.”

The plot is basically the same plot as episode IV: plucky rebels have to destroy this deadly weapon of a fascist government by using an improbable design flaw against it. In this case the macguffin, instead of the plans for said Deadly Weapon, is the map to Luke Skywalker.

But classic plots are classic for a reason — they work. I’m willing to buy Chuck Wendig’s thoughts on the matter, which is that the plot is old and predictable in a mythic way.

Speaking of mythic…

Slavish devotion to the “Hero’s Journey” formula. I grew up watching those PBS specials where George Lucas and Joseph Campbell talk about all the mythic qualities of Star Wars, so I am very steeped in this formula, and see it everywhere.

Abrams and Kasdan — wisely, I think — very much tried to do the same thing with their script. For the most part, it doesn’t interfere, which is the thing you want from a plot structure.

But other times, it’s SO painfully obvious. Like, here’s Rey, with not really anything to go back to on Jakku… and yet, she resists the call to adventure, because the Hero’s Journey says she must.

A minor quibble, though, really…

So many plot holes…. why does Luke leave a map to where he’s hiding? How the fuck do you drain power from a star in order to fuel a weapon? How come the people on other planets can see Hosnian, the seat of the Republic, being destroyed, if they are literal light-years away? If Starkiller Base is the size of a planet, why is everything conveniently located just where our protagonists need it? Why does nobody ever submit sensitive information electronically, instead of handing it to droids to take care of? How believable is it that Rey knows how to fly the Millenium Falcon? How the hell does the Falcon end up on Jakku? How the hell did Maz end up with Luke’s lightsaber?* WHY IS EVERYONE RELATED??**

* My working theory: well, she was working on Bespin during the Galactic Civil War and one day this arm just fell out of the sky…

** (Okay, the only confirmed one is Kylo Ren being Han and Leia’s kid, and thus Vader’s grandson. But… Rey’s visions are awfully indicting, and I would believe it if she ended up being part of the Skywalker clan, too. The other theory I’ve heard is that she’s Obi-Wan’s grandkid. Although how that would happen, who knows).

But, to be fair, a lot of these were issues with the original trilogy. And, to paraphrase Yoda, continuity not make a story great.

The lack of explanation of the political situation. What planets does the Starkiller Base destroy? (I only know because I looked it up!) Is the Resistance the same as the New Republic? What are they resisting? Why does Jakku have all this derelict military equipment? What’s up with the First Order?

There are some great articles out there that explain the political situation (mostly referring to the novelization of the movie), but none of that is on-screen. God forbid we get the political diatribe that was the prequels, but I could have used a LITTLE bit more.

Nostalgia porn. TFA is also getting picked on a little for being too over-the-top with the nostalgia. To me, this wasn’t a huge issue. Some moments are clearly meant to be fan fodder (i.e. “Chewie, we’re home”), but the other stuff is just subtle. Calling the Ultimate Weapon ™ “Starkiller,” for example, or Finn finding the remote Luke was training against while going through stuff on the Falcon.

Is that all I have to say? Probably not! But that’s enough for now.

What did you think of the movie? Good, bad, or decidedly meh?

11 Comments

  1. Some of the plot holes are addressed in the novelization, so I’m told, and I’m sure Rey’s parentage is left intentionally vague so it can be explored later…. at least, that’s what I’m hoping!

    I agree about the dirt!

    I love the cinematography and how it FEELS like Star Wars!

    I felt like the recycling of the plot felt…. thematic and intentional to me. Like, part of the Star Wars universe has always felt like it’s about things being cyclical to me, about history coming back. The prequels’ sort of *tried* to convey that and failed because they failed at basically everything, including internal continuity consistency. But that recycling felt like one of the themes of Star Wars in general to me.

    I also agree about all the diversity!!!!!! I am so excited about it! Just casual women and POC characters all over the place and YAAAAY! I have a fervent, fervent, insane desire for the eventual loveplot to be FinnPoe to round out the “hey let’s make sure people see themselves in this movie” experience. And because it would make fanboys mad. I mean ok I would REALLY like an amazing poly triad but I’m willing to settle for lots of gayness. I am going to be DESPERATELY disappointed when this does not happen.

    I thought the whole thing was very well done.

  2. I felt similarly to you — overall, I quite liked it, though I have some minor quibbles.

    Protagonists — I liked Rey and Finn, I felt like I was cheering them on. I wish Poe had more screen time, but I’m sure he’ll have plenty in the next two (or more than two. Oh how Hollywood loves to stretch cash cows as far as they’ll go.) I thought Finn had far more personality, but the implications of Rey’s story (who abandoned/left her on Jakku and why?) was more interesting than his, though I suspect his backstory will also get more time in upcoming movies. I thought their relationship was fun to watch (as were the brief interactions between Poe and Finn.)

    One thing I disliked about Rey though — despite the Feminist memes insisting it’s hypocritical to call her a Mary Sue, she did feel too Mary Sue-ish to me. Maybe it’s my own internalized misogyny (which I admit is a thing for me that I struggle with)… or maybe people who want her to be a feminist icon are unwilling to hear criticism of a strong female hero in a series that has had disappointedly few female roles. (Or a combination of both.)

    But she was better at dealing with the Falcon than Han after being on it for two minutes, and she seemed better at multiple forms of combat than Finn, who… really, his one thing should be combat or something that feels more Storm Trooper-y than sanitation. (Though I did think the call back to the garbage shoot was funny.)

    She also picked up Force powers way too fast without any training, like two minutes after finding out she was Force sensitive. I mean, maybe she knew what the Force was capable of from stories, but still. I’m hoping this will be retroactively justified in that she had some training and had her memories wiped or something, because otherwise… it’s Mary Sue-ish. (Though I’m willing to accept she and Finn only beat Kylo because Kylo was injured as sufficient explanation for that fight.)

    I also found myself quite liking BB-8, even though I felt like I shouldn’t. He feels a lot like Scrappy-doo, in that someone took a cutesy character and then made an even cutesier version. But between him, R2, and Baymax, I think maybe I just have a huge soft spot for adorable robots.

    Kylo Ren — I quite liked him. I think he’s one of the more blatant examples of JJ trying to bring back classic favorites while instilling new twists to prevent it from being a carbon copy, and at least Kylo has diagetic reasons for some of the ways in which he’s like Vader. I predicted the face reveal — of course, someone in a solid mask has to take it off, and if it was disfigured, that might be too much like Vader, so I thought to myself, he’s going to be shockingly good looking under that mask, and I was right. Such pretty hair, too.

    I found the First Order slightly off, too — I think the next movies need to explain the how and why they came to be as they are otherwise they will continue to feel really arbitrary, but history has real examples of crazy evils running dictatorships, so that doesn’t bug me so much.

    Death of Han — sadly, this was spoiled for me, which is bothering me more than it should, but someone stated it on Facebook in an unscreened public post. Now, one thing that saved me from Harry Potter spoilers was fake spoilers mixed in with real ones, so I tried to convince myself this could be fake or just a guess stated overly confidently, but as soon as I started spotting potential cues in the movie, I felt like it was guaranteed and that…. made me unhappy.
    However, I did read an interesting theory online that Kylo Ren killed Han in order to be trusted enough to reach the new Palpatine (and also generally does the whole Dark Side thing) which has some potentially very interesting implications for his personal version of the Jedi Purge (could some of it have been faked? Could some of it been partially consensual? Did Luke leave not because he couldn’t take it but to hide the truth? Or maybe out of guilt for helping Kylo onto this path? Or was he also somehow also tricked? etc. etc.) I hope it pans out because while I’m enjoying the callbacks to the original trilogy, I think I need Kylo’s path to differ more from Vader’s.

    Kylo hitting his side — I assumed he was wearing some kind of equipment or armor that had been damaged in the shot, and he was bopping it the way some people thump on electronics to get them working again? Or at least make it stop digging into him in some way? The sound effect when he hit it made me think he wasn’t striking only flesh, but I like your interpretation better — that he was channeling pain to connect to the Dark Side of the Force. (Also consider this your invitation to write some of that fan fic. 😛 )

    I quite liked the relics of the previous war, the hulls of imperial equipment, made the world feel more continuous, like the story had more ontological inertia.

    Diversity — I definitely noticed. I hope we get to see Phasma without her helmet at some point.

    Devotion to original formula/Hero’s journey — there was a lot to like as a fan of the original (and — blasphemy! the prequels) — this clearly was a movie for the fans, not nearly as much for new people. I agree Rey’s rejection of the call felt arbitrary. And destroying the starkiller felt too much like the deathstars. Well, JJ has convinced the old fans that his movies get them, now he can move on to new material, right?

    Plot holes — here I differ from you a bit — handwaving science-y stuff doesn’t bug me as much (like… I don’t know how to drain a star, but I don’t know how lightsabers work, either) though the parts that can’t be explained as “future tech did it” bugged me more. (Would draining a sun actually just look like early sunset or would there be more devastating consequences on a different timeline than what we saw, hm?) I guess maybe handing off physical items may have a lower chance at being intercepted or something? Also I’m assuming there will be an explanation as to why Luke handled the map the way he did (and I hope it is better than “prophecy/visions indicated he should.) Same for the Falcon and Maz, though I suspect that may end up in books, not in the movies. But I do love your working on Bespin theory, and I’m accepting that as headcannon until proven otherwise. 😛 Also Star Wars books are never canon to me, regardless of what Word of God says. 😛

    Definitely with you on the wanting more political explanation. I had mixed feelings about nostalgia porn — in the long run, maybe I will look back and say it wasn’t really creative or new, but I admit that in the theater, I squeed a lot over the callbacks, so… I’ll take it, I guess.

    Now I really really want to play another Star Wars LARP.

    • I guess I’ve come to peace with the term Mary Sue, as a female wish fulfillment character. I think they are important characters to have; it’s SFF’s stock in trade, after all!

      And let’s be honest, Luke was pretty much a male wish fulfillment character, so this isn’t anything new.

      I too have read the “Kylo as Jedi in deep cover” theory. I’d love it to be true, and it would explain some neat things, but I’m not sure the movies are going to be as clever as that. (Actual plots rarely live up to fan conspiracies).

      Jadasc, who I think you know, had an interesting interpretation of the side-punching thing; he saw it as some not-factory parts malfunctioning, kind of like you did, but suggested they were more intended as vanity, like piercings but for cybernetics 😉 (Like the affectation of wearing the helmet).

      I did notice he walks kind of funny and shuffling throughout the film; did you see that? I wonder what the significance of that is, if anything other than “this costume is awkward.”

      • Maybe it’s because the first Mary Sue fanfic I saw was written by a guy, but I never thought of it as especially gendered. The way I understand it, it’s a term of mockery for not just wish fulfillment, but a self-insert who takes many personality aspects from the author, has no flaws (or too few flaws), and is usually inexplicably attractive and inexplicably successful. Usually it’s a single character, but I’ve argued before that Downton Abbey is a collective Mary Sue fantasy.

        For example, if it’s the trope of the straight talker who tells it like it is and pisses people off, the character will not suffer many negative consequences for it, e.g. Hawkeye on the MASH TV show, Starbuck on the new BSG, Lisbeth Salander (starting from the coda of the first book), and House. (The reason I keep telling everyone to watch Zero Motivation is that it beautifully deconstructs this trope.)

        The more standard examples are more sexual. The original Mary Sue parody was of a woman, but it’s more common of men, just possibly not in fanfic. James Bond is Ian Fleming’s Mary Sue (book-Bond more so than movie-Bond, who doesn’t have enough of a personality to be a self-insert), and Mikael Blomkvist is Stieg Larsson’s.

        • My impression of it is that it’s an extremely gendered term. (I have often heard male Mary Sues called “male Mary Sues” or “Gary Stus”.)

          • In that first encounter with the male writer who wrote Mary Sue fanfics, none of us knew the term. We just knew that he wrote characters with his over-the-top fundamentalist Christian views and general personality, no flaws or mistakes whatsoever, and a much bigger role in the story than a fanfic character in our tradition should.

            I should clarify that our tradition was to take a canon and rotate the camera 90 degrees. For example, imagine a Harry Potter fanfic written about Hogwarts students in other years, who do not appear in the books, as opposed to canon rewrites like Methods of Rationality, or transpositions of canon characters to another setting like Twilight -> 50 Shades of Rape.

            That said, I’ve also seen male self-inserts called Mary Sues, probably more so than the term Gary Stus.

            On a different note: in Ep 1, Anakin is a 9-year-old who wins a space battle all by himself. It’s like a parody of the Mary Sue ur-example rather than the reverse. How the hell can any character, written by anyone, ever, be more Mary Sue-ish than that? Sigh.

          • Ok, I did forget about the space battle he helped win by accident. That’s fair. Although I don’t think anyone is doing Rey any favors by saying, “she’s not worse than Anakin circa TPM.” Like I said, “Mary Sues are not inherently a bad thing” is a far more compelling response to complaints that she’s a Mary Sue. Hey, some of my favorite characters are Mary Sues — and I do like Rey — and LARP characters are very often Mary Sues (very interesting to me to think about the implications of Mary Sue-ism in literature vs. LARP) but if someone did not like Mary Sues and found Rey less likable than Luke, Han and even Anakin, I would not consider that hypocritical. Mary Sueism comes in degrees, and I found her to be more Mary Sue-ish than the three of them. (Maybe Anakin is close.)

          • The problem with Mary Sues in LARPs is that nobody wants to be the other characters. Nobody wants to be the one watching powerlessly as the Mary Sue shows off their awesomeness and wins curb stomp battles.

            Now, LARPs have a trick to prevent this: some characters are written to sound like Mary Sues in their backgrounds, but do not actually have too much power. Tellingly, in games, we do not usually use the expression Mary Sue; we say “broken,” signifying the primacy of mechanics. For example, in The Dance and the Dawn, or any of its sequels, if we call a character broken, usually what we mean is that it’s too easy for them to find their True Love, and not that they come off like someone’s wish fulfillment exercise.

            In boffer LARPs, event runners have to set a character advancement system that prevents huge mismatches in power. Accelerant does it well; many other systems, with their traditions of long-running campaigns, aren’t so good, and leave the newcomer with the “I got to watch other people be awesome” feeling.

      • I find “Mary Sues aren’t inherently all bad” to be a far more compelling response than “well there are Gary Stus in the previous Star Wars films” especially in this case, because I think her Mary Sue-ism is more blatant than Han, Luke, or Anakin’s.

        I’m confused, why would Kylo side-punch something for vanity? (Though wearing it just to be more like Vader makes sense to me.) I didn’t notice the walking funny, I thought he was just trying to stalk menacingly? I will look more closely when I inevitably see it again. 🙂

        • Well, I also agree Mary Sues aren’t all bad — wish fulfillment characters play a very important role in storytelling, and narrative is how we shape meaning into our lives. I honestly wish there were more of them for women — done well, not just in bad fanfic. Which is part of why I think Rey getting to be the Big Damn Hero is so cool.

          I think the idea Jadasc was trying to express was that some of Kylo’s cybernetic adornments were malfunctioning, and he was trying to perform percussive maintenance on them? I dunno. It’s all theory at this point.

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