Category Archives: J. J. Abrams

A review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”– a taste of crow

Okay, so…crow.

Not a full meal. More like a side of crow, with crow sprinkles on my salad. Because, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good, it is not great. Put down the pitchforks and torches and I will try to explain.

I saw the movie on Christmas Day in a packed theater here in Seattle. We arrived at the theater an hour early and there were still two hundred or so people ahead of us in line. It was a good thing that there was about thirty minutes of coming attractions in front of the film, since we needed that extra time to get everyone sorted out and settled.

I previously, and at length, ranted about my suspicions of Episode VII, chiefly around my dislike of J J Abrams as a director. But with each successive new trailer my resistance steadily crumbled. I still promised myself I would wait for a review– and then the reviews came in and were mostly positive. We bought tickets for last Friday and I tried to go in with an open mind.

First, however–

SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS

On the whole, I enjoyed the movie. It was great to revisit the Star Wars universe, this time via a movie that did not make me want to rip my own eyes out. The Force Awakens is energetic and fast-paced, not overrun with gratuitous CGI that is mere eye-candy, and obviously made with a profound love of the mythos. I do not regret the ten bucks I spent for the matinee ticket.

The performances, particularly Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, are a major factor in making the film work. There aren’t very many false notes with the characters, with one possible exception (discussed below). Everyone was earning their pay on this picture, and the acting is one of the things that helps lift the film over the hump. Ridley’s Rey is a tough but hurt young woman who you have to root for. Driver’s Kylo Ren is a conflicted bad guy who is trying to deal with personal issues even as he threatens worlds. Harrison Ford’s aged Han Solo is a logical development of the character in the original three films, and is at different times funny and heart-breaking– you believe Ford is an old space-bum who has seen it all. Han’s attempt to reach out to his son Ben/Kylo is full of pathos. The acting is light-years– nay, parsecs– ahead of that in the prequels.

The action is fast-paced and keeps you interested. There aren’t many places in the film that go on too long or seriously threaten your suspension of disbelief. You’re dropped straight into the action at the very beginning and generally kept engaged through the whole movie.

As I said, there’s a good deal of love of the mythos in this picture, and it sets up a good deal of mystery that begs to be solved in subsequent movies. Chief among these, just who the hell are Rey’s parents? Why did they leave her on Jakku? Rey displays incredible abilities with the Force, even though she has had no training, which has led to online speculation that she is Luke’s daughter or Obi-Wan’s granddaughter or the descendant some powerful Jedi or another. For Pete’s sake, this woman actually shoves Kylo right out of her head when he tries to mind-probe her. She handles a light-saber as if born to it, which means she probably was. The mystery is deepened by her visions and her apparent affinity with Luke’s original light-saber. Clearly, the ‘awakening’ in the Force is related to her, and I want to see more. This is all excellent grist for the movies to follow, and I am actually looking forward to seeing the mystery resolved. Yes, I just wrote that– because of this film I am re-engaged with Star Wars and I am looking forward to the next movie. That’s pretty monumental in and of itself.

At the same time, it doesn’t hurt that I’m seriously crushing on Daisy Ridley. Nothing skeevy, just saying….

So with all this going for the film, why do I call it good, and not great? Why would I give it an 8 rather a 9-plus?

Well, at the risk of sounding like a stubborn old curmudgeon– J J Abrams.

Just because the film basically works doesn’t mean that you can’t see Abrams’ fingerprints all over it. As good as it is, there are systemic weaknesses in the movie that keep me from rating it higher. And those weaknesses seem typical of Abrams as a filmmaker.

To put it bluntly, Abrams has always impressed me as a director who is far more interested in the flow of the action and the scale of the spectacle than logical consistency in the plot and characters. This is perhaps not surprising in a director who started his screenwriting career assisting Michael Bay in the commission of the crime known as Armageddon (1998). Alias, which captivated me initially, went through three reboots during its run and still ended in a welter of confusion. Star Trek seemed to be riddled with logical inconsistencies (Kirk gets command of the Enterprise when he wouldn’t come within a light-year of it in a real military organization, and just what the hell is ‘red matter’, anyway?). And Lost— let’s just leave that one alone…. To sum up, in my opinion, Abrams is a sloppy story-teller.

The same is true for The Force Awakens. The difference is that TFA moves along at a brisk enough pace, and is buoyed by such great performances, that you hardly have time to notice the problems until you’ve had a chance to think about it later. Nevertheless, they are there.

Characters appear, disappear, and reappear without explanation. Poe Dameron, in particular, who appears to be an important character at the beginning of the movie, vanishes for the middle third. The Millennium Falcon just happens to lie within convenient reach of Rey and Finn just when they need it, and within minutes of their escape from Jakku in it Han Solo appears to reclaim it. There is a wholly unneeded sequence involving rival space gangs and toothy monsters whose sole purpose to get Han, Chewie, Rey, Finn and BB-8 all back on the Falcon and on the road back to the Resistance. And why is there a ‘Resistance’ when there is a new Republic (which is only seen long enough for us to witness its destruction by the First Order)? Wouldn’t it have just been simpler to say the First Order was at war with the New Republic? It’s like Abrams slapped labels on components of the story without thinking out– or particularly caring– how they made sense in that story.

One problem stood out to me even as I watched the movie– Finn’s motivation. Supposedly storm troopers are conditioned from an early age to fight loyally without question– but from the first moment Finn (‘FN-2187’) appears conflicted and unable to carry out his orders to kill. According to the premises of the story, doubtless something powerful broke his conditioning before the first firefight at the village on Jakku. However, we are never shown what that trauma might have been, nor, as best I can recall, is it alluded to in the rest of the movie. I understand the need to not bog down the narrative with exposition, but Finn drops down on us without any antecedents at all. I kept expecting at least a flashback to explain why he behaves in a manner that is, at least for a storm trooper, wholly aberrant. But it never came. And it bothered me.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem with the film, which goes beyond mere sloppy story-telling. TFA, to put it simply, recycles much of the basic plot outline of the original Star Wars— a sinister Empire/First Order is building a Death Star/Starkiller and a small band of misfits and space riff-raff must get vital information to the Rebellion/Resistance. The one variation is that the vital information is a map to the location of Luke Skywalker, which is of great interest to the First Order and provokes much the same chasing about as R2D2’s plans for the Death Star in A New Hope. As enjoyable as TFA is, it is disappointing that Abrams could not come up with a more original, or at least different, basic plot with which to restart the franchise. I was left with a sense that, to some degree or another, I had seen this movie already.

In short, this is why I can’t rate TFA as highly as most other reviewers, and why I’m only going in for a taste of crow. The film is good, I am now eager to see the next movies (under a different director, Rian Johnson, who did Looper), but I cannot call it great. With a firmer hand on the director’s bullhorn, it could have been a good deal more awesome. In the end, that’s very disappointing.

Okay, I admit it– I’ve got the shivers….

I’m going to wait for a review…really, I mean it…I’m not going to join the horde of people lining up to see this without advance warning…I just wish my fingernails weren’t shredding so badly hanging on to my resolution….

On the other hand, my daughter says, “Forget it, I’m going.” She points out she has never seen a Star Wars movie premiere in a theater– she was a one-year-old when The Phantom Menace came out, so she’s never had that experience. I can totally understand that. I just hope this film doesn’t disappoint her.

Whoever is putting these trailers together should get a medal. They are highly effective at highlighting images and themes from the movie designed to push buttons and excite interest. At least, they’re working for me. They remind me of the original movies, despite the new faces, and that’s what’s breaking down my resistance.

I just don’t want to be disappointed again. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anything better than watching my daughter watching a new Star Wars movie for the first time. That just might sweep away the last of my reluctance. We shall see.

My resistance is crumbling….

I have to admit– the ad campaign is working. Damn, this looks good.

My previous reservations about the new Star Wars movie still hold, but just barely at this point. The trailer, like the teasers before it, hits all the right notes. More than that, I’m now curious about the characters and story-lines. And I really want to see Gwendoline Christie in something other than Game of Thrones. She’s just so good.

I still want to see a review, but resistance may be futile….

Star Wars! They’re sucking me back in! Nooooo……!

Some months ago I expressed extreme doubt about the new Star Wars film, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, in large measure because of the involvement of J. J. Abrams, against whom I harbor several filmic grudges. I am ready to admit, of course, that some of my antipathy may be defensive in nature, in that I don’t want to be hurt again by a lousy Star Wars sequel. My previous rant cannot be characterized as an objective assessment– oh, no, no, no….

But now here’s the new trailer for Episode VII–

Now, you really, really can’t judge a movie by its trailer. A minute and a half to two minutes of what’s often a film’s best bits, pasted together to sell the movie, rather than tell the story, can be a powerful and emotional experience. Plenty of movie trailers are actually better than the movies (Interstellar comes to mind).

Having said that, this trailer leaves me short of breath.

Storm Troopers and light-sabers, X-Wings and desert worlds, crashed Star Destroyers and, oh, man, the Millenium Falcon and Chewbacca and Han Solo. Somebody knows how to push my buttons.

Oh, and did I mention John Williams? Do I need to?

Grrr…I can feel myself getting sucked in. The old dream stirs, the old hope revives. Which means, at the very least, the trailer is doing its job.

I need to be strong, and not give in to the gibbering fan-boy within. I resolve to approach this film with caution, gather reviews, evaluate the situation. There will be no camping in line for opening night.

But…if it so happens, crow just might taste pretty good in this case….

We shall see.

WARNING!!– Incoming Grumpy Old Man Rant!! — STAR WARS!!

So, there is a rumor that a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode 7 will be attached to The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies when it premieres on December 17th. Considering that I will be ardently boycotting THBOTFA, I am unlikely to see the trailer for Episode 7 until it hits the internet– and I may avoid it, even then.

It is safe to say that I am not anticipating Episode 7 with any sense of joy. True enough, the franchise has been taken from George Lucas’ dead hands and given fresh impetus– but as a part of the Disney (ugh) corporate machine, which seems to have an instinct to trivialize everything it touches, and then, placed in the hands of J.J. Abrams for execution (no pun intended. Well, maybe….).

Let me be clear about my feelings re: Mr. Abrams– he is a quite competent film director and producer. His two Star Trek reboot films have been technically more than competent. They do not have the embarrassment/silliness factor that afflicts the Star Wars prequels (Episodes 1, 2, and 3). He at least takes his material seriously.

But…I don’t think much of his story-telling chops. The two ST films were, in my opinion, unnecessary in the first instance, and untidy story junk-piles in the second, especially Star Trek Into Darkness, with its head-scratching revision of Khan Noonien Singh. Both left me dissatisfied and wanting more, or, better yet, a time-machine, in which I would go back in time and fix the whole business from the start.

I will admit that part of the problem is my distaste for Abrams as the creator of both Alias and Lost, shows which started out incredibly strong, and then withered under the weight of reboots (Alias) and muddled, unresolved plot-lines (Lost) (to be fair, I am aware that Abrams’ involvement with Lost was intermittent, and the collective sins of the production were committed by a number of people). To put it succinctly, I don’t trust Abrams to create a story-line for Episode 7 that I will find enjoyable or even comprehensible.

An online cartoon from some years back around the debut of Revenge of the Sith still pretty much sums up my feelings–

http://pvponline.com/comic/2005/05/10/tue-may-10/

Admittedly, this is all probably more than a little unfair, since Episode 7 is more than a year away. Abrams may yet pull a Wookie out of the storm-trooper helmet. I don’t expect him to, though, based on his past track record. More likely it will be an Ewok….

I will also admit that this rant is more-or-less just an old fart grieving the apparent inability of Hollywood in general, and probably Disney in particular, to deliver the kind of wonder and excitement I knew when I saw the first Star Wars. I will probably never again feel the kind of joyous punch-to-the-gut I felt the first time I saw that Star Destroyer pass over my head, chasing Princess Leia’s ship. That scene is so iconic now that those who didn’t see the film in first release in 1977 can probably never grasp just how stunning it was– how much, in short, this was something that had never been seen before, and how much it was a watershed in film history (both for good and bad). Perhaps it is unfair to hold up any subsequent film to comparison with that kind of culture-changing event.

But, then, I am not noted for being a very fair person. For me, the Star Wars franchise is dead, and neither Disney marketing pixie dust nor Abrams’ problematic story-telling skills are going to revive it. Requiescat in pace….

Meanwhile, if there are no earth-shaking movies on the horizon, there is at least the prospect of something good. And, by golly, guess whose fingerprints are on it….