The Fourth Awakens

This is a belated blog post about the seventh Star Wars movie that I’ve wanted to write for a while, but I wanted to watch it again for the second time first. As I was quite a bit disappointed after the first viewing in the cinema, I didn’t want to buy it – but luckily, the European Netflix added it recently and I could finally watch it again while taking down notes. I wanted to get my facts straight before berating the movie, write about how it was way too similar to A New Hope, and all the other things it got so very wrong.

But then a strange thing happened – I actually liked it a lot better this second time around!

I could still see a few bummers along the way, but this time I accepted a lot of the stuff I found wanting in the first viewing. Most of it actually turned out okay, and there’s so much to like as well. I think one of the problems of watching it the first time was not only the steep hype that no movie could possibly hope to meet, but also that most of us have had our own ideas about what happened in the many years between episode 6 and 7. And I’m not talking about the extended universe here as I’ve barely read anything there. I was never comfortable with fans coming up with their own stuff and tried to keep my distance.

Nevertheless I couldn’t help but get exposed to some of it through Star Wars video games. I did like the idea that Luke went on to become a master, teaching a new school of young jedis. But I also had my own ideas about what could have happened all those years. That Luke found some other love interest. What children they all had. Leia learning the force. The many adventures they continued to have. And I think that’s precisely one of the reasons why some of us were inevitably displeased with episode 7.

Luke failed something and went into hiding? That’s not a tragedy I had envisioned for him! Han and Leia are no longer together? Why? I imagined they lived happily together all those years! They had a son that turned to the dark side of the force? But that’s not…

You could argue for starting episode 7 in a peaceful situation where everyone is happy together and things start getting bad from there. However, now that I have watched the movie the second time around, I can’t blame J.J. Abrams & Co. for creating the situation that they did. Many years have passed and it sets up a much more interesting backstory that things didn’t plan out perfectly in those years. There have been problems along the way, just as we all have in real life. Then you can certainly debate whether the choices the writers made were the right ones for Han, Leia and Luke, but I decided to find peace with this. They needed to set up the backstory right in order to write an interesting new episode, and starting from an utopian moment would probably have sounded too good to be true.

But even so, there are still questionable things in this movie. Too many things mimics episode 4, but that’s not the only problem. I’ll try to get into all of those I found while watching it again for the second time.

And yes, there will be spoilers.

The things I liked

It’s funny how I liked things that I had my doubts about the first time. For example, why tweak the design of the white storm trooper armor just because you can? Then again, so many years have passed – and new technology. Oh, all right then. I guess the prop designers of the film also needed to do something.

I liked most of the new characters. Especially the good ones. Poe, BB-8, Finn, Rey. No duds there. Kylo Ren and his childish temper tantrums make sense, although I did find it silly that he wears that helmet when he doesn’t have to. But then again, Darth Vader is his hero, so I guess that’s the reason. If only they made it clear that he’s got some advantage by wearing it (other than communication).

Freezing the laser bolt in the air was an awesome idea.

“I talk first?” – good for making it clear this is no longer George Lucas writing. And I have a feeling that was exactly what the writers had in mind. A bit of humor, and a sentence he would not have written.

Finn feeling down about all the killing was good. It immediately made it clear what side he was on, and it was well acted. I also liked the idea of Rey being a scavenger. And the old star ship ruins made me want to explore them. The expanding bread. And the way Rey discovers how important BB-8 is because of being offered a ton of portions for it.

Finn and Poe fleeing together was one of the things I felt was too improvised and stressful in the first viewing, then liked the sequence considerably better in the second. I still think they spent too little time together to actually become hugging pals, but more about that later.

Same with Finn and Rey fleeing in the Millennium Falcon through the star ship ruins, but that refers back to my original point about what I had imagined about the backstory myself. I never imagined that the Falcon would have been stranded on Jakku as… garbage. But it actually made for a fun introduction.

The way Han Solo and Chewbacca entered worked well because we all thought the Falcon had been caught by The First Order at first. I only noticed in the second viewing that old Chewie now had dark gray bands of hair. The section with the freed Rathtars on his bigger ship was fun and suspenseful, even though the monsters reminded me of Beholders from Dungeons & Dragons.

Together they arrive at the planet Takodana – the one with the temple by a lake – to meet Maz Kanata. At first I disliked that the interior reminded me so much of the Mos Eisley Cantina from episode 4, but at least they did what they could to create all new aliens in there. No contrived fan service cameos.

The temple is later attacked as storm troopers arrive. Lots of good action here, both on the ground and in fighters in the air. Poe shows that he knows his stuff as a pilot. I especially liked Han trying out Chewie’s bowcaster and being impressed by it, although I was wondering why he asked only now?

Although the Starkiller Base is too much of a rip-off of the Death Star in episode 4, at least I liked the idea of having to charge it up by sucking a sun dry.

“That’s not how the force works!” – Harrison Ford was great as Han Solo. “Escape now, hug later?”

I didn’t mind Han Solo dying by the hands (?) of his son, Kylo Ren, and the attempt at winning him over was well written and acted. There were other problems with that scene, however, but I’ll get back to that.

It was a nice touch that C-3PO had a red arm. It hinted at an interesting backstory.

Perhaps R2-D2 was dormant to avoid him stealing too much attention away from BB-8, which I guess is all right. And I really liked how R2-D2 showed a hologram of a star map after which BB-8 added the missing piece with another hologram of his own.

The things I didn’t like

Let’s get the obvious 800 pound gorilla out of the way first, if I can mash it out of that door. I absolutely agree with the general consensus that episode 7 borrows too much from episode 4. At times it’s almost borderline embarrassing. And it’s not just the big plot devices and set pieces such as the Death Star clone Starkiller Base demonstrating its power by shattering innocent planets.

It’s all over the place.

I was cringing ever so slightly whenever I heard sentences such as Snokes saying “Bring her to me!”, Leia saying that there’s still some light left in Kylo, the Starkiller Base being “charged in 10 minutes” and C-3PO uttering, “It takes a miracle to save us now!” And then there’s the fight on the Starkiller Base planet teeming with comments such as “I’m hit!” and “I’m going in!”

In the Kylo versus Rey fight, Kylo even offers Rey to be her teacher and finish her training. Groan!

Then there’s R2-D2 BB-8 receiving a small thing to keep away from The Empire The First Order on a desert planet, Maz Kanata inevitably giving me Yoda vibes as she explains to Rey how the force works, the temple interior, Snokes kind of taking over the sitting role of Darth Sidious in the original trilogy, the discussion about how to destroy the Starkiller Base, how the Starkiller Base is eventually destroyed before time is up, and the way Han Solo, Chewbacca and Finn stealth walks around while setting up explosives.

It’s all so strikingly familiar and it’s just too much of a good thing.

I didn’t like the prequel trilogy any better than most everyone else, but I still respect that George Lucas at least tried to do something new with it.

I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new.George Lucas

But it wasn’t just the exaggerated episode 4 fan service.

There were also the way certain scenes were filmed that rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, J.J. Abrams absolutely had to make use of George Lucas’ old mantra “faster, more intense!” – it gave episode 4 a certain mood that was part of the original charm. The scene where it’s most obvious is when Finn and Rey escapes from Jakku in the Millennium Falcon, but there’s also a hint of it earlier as Finn and Poe escapes together in the Tie Fighter. Abrams went too far with it for my liking.

Another scene that felt off was when Rey started shooting a laser gun. She had never handled such a beast before, yet she was a master at it within seconds.

“That’s not how the force works!”

And then there was the way she learned tricks of the force while strapped to a bench. Again I agree with the consensus; there was just way too much Mary Sue about those scenes (she is even mentioned in that Wikipedia article I just linked to there). She learns way too fast how to affect minds and later how to move things as well. It made the old Skywalkers look bad in comparison.

Think how hard it was for Luke to force grab that lightsaber in the ice cave back in episode 5.

I wasn’t quite satisfied with the scene where Han and Finn drops Captain Phasma into the trash compactor. She looked amazing in her silver storm trooper outfit, almost like a mini boss in a video game. I wanted to see her fight first. Bet she would have been awesome. Maybe they had it planned too but the deadline meant they had to cut it out. Now they barely find her, make her press a button, and away you go.

Guess that’s what you call a wasted opportunity.

I praised the scene where Kylo kills Han Solo on the bridge earlier, but it actually wasn’t all bliss there. Chewie stopped with an excellent overview from above, then Finn and Rey arrived at another balcony even further above to also have an excellent overview. That just felt way too contrived to me. It was clear that something epic was going to happen there. I guessed at Han Solo being killed, and I didn’t even know it. Sometimes telegraphing these things by the way the scene is set up is not such an awesome idea.

They had something similar in episode 4 where Han, Leia, Chewie and Luke watches Obi-Wan getting killed by Darth Vader in a lightsaber fight, but it still felt less contrived here because they were actually making use of a chance to sprint for the parked Millennium Falcon. Only when Luke was about to run inside did he spot the fight between Obi-Wan and Darth, and hesitated. It worked much better.

And what kind of name is Snokes!? Sounds like it came out of The Muppet Show. Or maybe it’s something I’d call a dog while petting it. My cutesly, little Snokes. Here, have a portion.

That Chewie shot Kylo in his left side after Han died was a nice touch. Kind of a nerf, to make the later lightsaber fights against Finn and Rey more plausible. Still, I didn’t really buy that Finn should have been able to hold his own for so long against Kylo, and again Mary Sue Rey learned to fight better than Kylo way faster than she was supposed to. She almost killed him!

And then there was all the hugging. Finn and Poe escaped in a tie fighter for a few minutes and then got separated. When they met again later, they hugged each other like old friends. I wrote about this in an American forum some time back, and a guy claimed this actually happens a lot in the military.

That may very well be, but I still don’t buy it.

And what’s up with Leia hugging Rey, whom is pretty much a complete stranger to her, while bypassing Chewbacca? Did Chewie and Leia have an issue we didn’t know anything about?

Originally I wanted to finish this blog post with the wish that J.J. Abrams is not given the keys to another old and treasured franchise, especially after what he did to Star Trek. However, after the second viewing I actually think he did a reasonable job after all. It could have been a lot worse.

I just wish it had been more original.

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