18 December 2015

First Impressions and Initial Thoughts from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (spoiler warning!)

Warning: This post contains SPOILERS. DO NOT READ further if you don't want to see them!

Seriously, I mean it. Don't read any further if you don't want to see spoilers.
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I saw "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" last night. It was an awesome experience to see Episode VII the night before it opened! It will take some time (and perhaps another viewing or two) to form a fuller opinion of this new episode, but I wanted to provide some of my initial impressions and post some questions raised by the movie. To be very clear, Some of these questions may be answered in The Visual Guide, which was released today and which I haven't seen yet. Some answers may also be found in other parts of the canon. This post deals exclusively with the characters and plot as revealed in the movie itself. Lastly, these comments represent my first impressions, raw and unvarnished thoughts without having read any additional spoilers or without having talked extensively without anyone else about the movie. This blog post is intentionally critical and shouldn't be seen as a negative view of the movie. I reserve the right to change my opinion based upon further information and discussions.

Finn is a First Order Stormtrooper (FN-2187) who participates in the attack on a village on the planet Jakku. After seeing a fellow trooper (and presumably a friend) killed, he hesitates to continue the attack and refuses to participate in the assassination of the villagers. This is all that it takes for Finn to defect. We learn very little about his background other than that, like other troopers, he was taken away from his parents at birth. Is there a larger motivation for what Finn does?

Finn is also surprisingly good with Luke's lightsaber. There has been some suggestion that this means Finn is a Jedi. I don't think this is the case. The lightsaber aside, Finn appears to show no Force awareness. And besides, non-Jedi have used light sabers before--Han used Luke's in Episode V (The Empire Strikes Back) to cut open the tauntaun. But if Finn night be a Jedi, his lineage might be important. However, we haven't seen any of that yet.

Captain Phasma is Finn's stormtrooper captain. She shows up in a few scenes, and ends up turning off the shields under duress. Why not die for what you believe in?! She is otherwise a non-factor and seems like an add-on (perhaps to add another female to the cast...which seems irrelevant given she's a stormtrooper with a helmet on). What's the point of her character? Assuming she didn't die in the trash compactor, I'd hope that Phasma has a more meaningful role in Episode XIII.

Kylo Ren is the movie's black mask-wearing, light saber-wielding primary villain. He's also, to me, the movie's oddest character. Soon enough, we learn that Ren is actually Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo. Why he wears a mask is not clear. In one scene, he is shown speaking to his "grandfather," which is revealed to be the burnt-out mask of Darth Vader. Is Ren trying to emulate Vader? It seems this is the case, right down to the modified voice. When I first heard Ren speak, I actually thought there might be something wrong with the sound. It just seemed odd, and sometimes difficult to make out certain words. It's almost as if Ren's voice modification was trying to emulate Vader's, but poorly (and intentionally poor?). When Ren takes his mask off, there is nothing surprising about his face (other than that he is very young, and that we know it's not Luke). Why does he need a mask in the first place? Was Ren just a Vader-fanboy?

Ren obviously has some powers--he has mind control, he can throw people and objects, and he stops the laser from a blaster in mid-air. But he's also surprisingly weak: Rey (before she even knows who she is) is able to resist his mind control (maybe this is another sign of his emotional weakness), Finn does an admirable job fighting him with a lightsaber, and he is later wounded. But perhaps oddest of all, no one really seems scared of Ren. In an early scene, Ren confronts the captured resistance pilot Poe Dameron. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Poe makes a joke about who is going to speak first. Poe is obviously a cocky pilot (a parallel to a young Han Solo, perhaps). And perhaps his humor is a false bravado to hide his fear. But he just doesn't fear Ren. Really, no one does. Lastly, Ren has a few incidents of what I can only think of as ragequit-style temper tantrums with his lightsaber. By the second time he does this, the audience is laughing at him. Maybe I'm missing something here (and I assume Episode VIII will add some clarification). And Maybe Ren's apparent weakness is intentional. I do think his character was intentionally made to be emotionally vulnerable. But this plays against his villainous streak. So far, without further character development, Kylo Ren appears to be the least formidable villain in the entire Star Wars universe.

Snoke originally appears a dark, shadowy figure who appears to be gigantic in size. We later see that Snoke is just a hologram. So why does the hologram need to be so large? I wonder if Snoke is, in reality, a small character and the large hologram is made to compensate. Remember the Wizard of Oz? Like Ren, I didn't get the sense that Snoke was really that evil. But only time will tell how he turns out. 

In Episode IV, Han Solo was a skeptic of the rebellion who didn't believe in "hokey religions and ancient weapons." He was the human element. In this movie, he's come full circle: "It's all true." The role of his character has been taken over in parts by Poe and Finn. I didn't like to see him go, but his screen time was his swan song.

Luke Skywalker. Luke's absence from the movie poster and the trailers (except for a voice-over in the second trailer which didn't even appear in the movie) led to some speculation that Luke might be Kylo Ren (or some similar villian). We know now he was not. There was also speculation that Luke might play a minor role. Indeed, we know now this is true. While the plot centered on finding Luke, Mark Hamill only appears briefly in the final scene and does not say a word. Will Luke return to the resistance? Or will he turn his back on them? Could it still be possible that Luke is a villain (perhaps even Snoke)? Plausible, but only future episodes will tell. Luke's story is for another movie.

Humor and Prior Movie References. The plot is littered with humor, often in reference to the previous movies and sometimes using the same or similar quotes from those movies. In some places, these references are clearly appropriate. In other scenes, they seem out of place. Ren's confrontational silence with Poe is broken by a Poe joke; humor just seems odd here. The wookie Chewbacca has more than a few funny "lines" which seem out of place. And the scene where the resistance plans the attack on Starkiller Base seems like one long joke recalling the original Death Star attack plans. As if it wasn't even a serious attempt. I get the humor and the references to the original movies. In many scenes they are well-placed and totally appropriate. In other places, they seem like too much. C-3PO shows up in only a couple of scenes, but his typically fatalistic humor ("We're doomed!") gets lost among all of the other "funny" lines.

Plot Parallels. There are obvious plot parallels which link us back to the original movies. Just a few off the top of my head:
  • An idealistic young person left without their parents on a desert planet turns out to be a Jedi.
  • An unlikely droid serves as both the comedic element and holds the key to the entire plot.
  • The plot centers around a father-son struggle.
  • A thousand-year old wise elder provides guidance.
  • The bad guys build a planet-size space station as their primary weapon.
  • Cocky pilot helps save the day.
I'm sure there are more. But are these too much? Is this just the same story told again with different characters? I wonder if there was a struggle to satisfy the original fans while still bringing some freshness to a younger generation. I just don't know.

Chain of Command. What exactly is the chain of command in the First Order? Both Kylo Ren and General Hux speak to Snoke on various occasions, and appear to be more-or-less equals (minus the Force, of course). After Ren's plan to capture BB-8 fails, Snoke seems to rely on Hux's plan and abandons Ren's advice. After Snoke, who was really in charge?

Starkiller Base. What happens after Starkiller Base drains all of the energy from the nearby sun? If the base is truly a planet, it can't exactly move like the Death Star did. So what does it do then? Also: Starkiller, of course, was Luke's last name in George Lucas's early drafts.

Republic, Resistance, and the First Order. The Republic controls the galaxy, but the Resistance fights the First Order. Why isn't the Republic defending themselves? Perhaps because it makes the Resistance look like underdogs, and people root for underdogs.

Best of the Movie. A few things that stood above the rest:
  •  I thought Daisy Ridley was fantastic as Rey. She is the new Luke and she has a bright future in the rest of the franchise and beyond. Is she Luke's daughter? I think that's the general consensus belief so far.
  • The new cast. There's a lot of potential chemistry between Finn and Rey; and the scenes with Finn and Poe reminded me of Luke and Han.
  • For an older fan like me, the best scenes were those with Han and Leia. Totally took me back 30 years. I felt as if I could see their relationship in their eyes.
Summary. Episode VII was the first of a new trilogy. It left a lot of threads untangled, as any good movie would do, wanting to bring us back for the next edition.The movie was obviously not going to answer every question it raised. But it also had some odd elements that don't necessarily lend themselves to later answers. As I said above, it will take some time for me to form a fuller opinion of The Force Awakens. For now: It was not the best movie I've ever seen. But it was a very good movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suspect my overall opinion of the movie will change as the subsequent episodes are released. I will surely go back again to see the many things I likely missed in this episode. I'm looking forward to see how the story progresses in Episode VIII.
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