Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Airing of Grievances

Forget Life Day--in a galaxy far, far away, it's Festivus.

WARNING: The following column contains not just SPOILERS, but also COMPLAINTS about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Proceed at your own risk.

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The long, long awaited Star Wars: Episode VII finally arrived in theaters last week, well over a generation after Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and friends took their last bows on the big screen. And it’s pretty good.

The new movie unleashed a slew of new characters to take the baton—er, lightsaber—from the sixty- and seventy-something original cast, and almost all of them are well-written, and blessedly, well-acted. The movie has all the full-throttle momentum of the original films, and none of the deadly-dull-when-not-remarkably-silly aura of the failed prequels.

Again: The Force Awakens is a pretty good movie, and a far better Star Wars movie than anything we’ve seen since 1983. But it’s not great.

A great many Star Wars fans felt a disturbance in the Force when Hollywood journeyman J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of Episode VII. The most commonly-seen reaction online was, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Abrams’ history with the frustrating TV series “Lost” and disappointing movies like “Super 8” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” gave good reason for the fan cautiousness.

But with The Force Awakens soaring to record-shattering box office in its first few days of release, we ought to give Abrams his due: his chops as a visual artist are first-rate, and while the same could be said about his predecessor George Lucas, Abrams by contrast knows a good line of dialogue from a bad one. Episode VII sparkles with (at least by Star Wars standards) clever repartee between heroes and villains old and new.

All of which is a long way of saying that what Abrams does well is characterization and action. What he does badly, here and elsewhere, is coherent plotting.

Like a lot of modern directors, Abrams is a sucker for, “Oh, that will look cool, let’s do it!” without regard for whether “that” makes any sense or not.

The most glaring example in The Force Awakens is the Starkiller Base. You can almost hear the story meeting: “So we kind of need a Death Star. But bigger. Hmm… what’s bigger than a machine that can blow up a planet? Hey—how about a planet that can blow up stars! Star Wars! Cool!”

The base is goofy on so many levels. Even stipulating that the laws of physics in the Star Wars galaxy are considerably more flexible than our own, the Sunsucker Base (c’mon, that’s what it is) makes no sense at all.

Start here: unless it can move around the galaxy--something the movie doesn’t hint at one way or the other--you’re only going to get one shot out of it. After it sucks in the nearest star (which, by the way, is depicted as being so close to the base that at a minimum, all that snow on the planet’s surface would have been vaporized), it’s useless. Not only will the weapon not have any fuel for another shot and be a sitting duck for enemy ships, the planet’s atmosphere is going to freeze solid around all those First Order troops because, whoops—no sun.

So the Sunsucker is epically dumb, even in a universe with near-instantaneous faster-than-light drives and solid laser swords and people with mumbo-jumbo mystical powers. It’s every bit as dumb as the doubletalk “red matter” and “nova that threatens the galaxy” in Abrams’ pretty but vapid first “Star Trek” movie.

Also in the “looks cool, makes no sense” category: the Adamantium Falcon. Han Solo’s marvelous old spaceship is continually crashing into buildings, trees, and the surfaces of various planets in this movie, but bounces off all of them without so much as dented fender. Meanwhile the First Order’s TIE Fighters, like their Imperial predecessors (or any self-respecting flying craft), crumble into fiery junk on contact with any solid surface.

While Solo himself is well-written with a nice final arc in The Force Awakens (anyone surprised at Solo’s death ought to have noticed Harrison Ford’s open, decades-long contempt for the movies that made him a superstar), the same can’t be said for the old smuggler’s estranged wife.

The now-General Leia Organa gets the closest to any character of reciting Prequel-level wooden dialogue. What’s worse, Leia gives such short shrift to the bereft Chewbacca at the movie’s end, one suspects that she never let the big guy sit on the couch when he was visiting Han.

I could go on, if I really wanted to: the Lost-worthy “I know but I’m not telling” bit regarding how Luke’s old lightsaber was retrieved from Cloud City (here’s a not-very wild guess: Abrams and Co. have no idea, and just threw it in there).

Then there’s the way characters are continually running into each other by absurd coincidence, or how people in different star systems can all look up and see the Sunsucker Base’s attack with the naked eye--again, a reminder of the bad writing in Abrams’ Star Trek movies.

This kind of script nonsense is why I recommended that Disney hand the keys for its new Empire to writer/director Brad Bird instead of Abrams (which they actually tried to do; Bird declined so he could finish “Tomorrowland”), and why I’m very happy to know that Episode VIII will be scripted and helmed by the much more grounded Rian Johnson.

There’s no denying (and I’m happy to not have to try) that The Force Awakens is a terrific ride. Given the compressed production time and ridiculous expectations, both positive (“Look at that trailer—this’ll be awesome!”) and negative (“Ugh, haven’t we suffered enough?”), it’s probably about as good a movie as we have any business getting.

But enough already with the flat-out nonsense, and with the retreading of old stories. That old galaxy has a whole lot of other interesting worlds and people and creatures to go play with for any more Episodes to be calling back to the original movies.

Disney, Rian: next time, go exploring, and please, don’t leave elementary logic in the airlock. We’ll all thank you for it.