Like The Force Awakens, I also talked until I was blue in the face about this movie. One of my recordings earned the online scorn from someone for being “too negative.” I mean, that’s where we are. Any critical opinion gets the “negative” label slapped on you. It’s a refuge for people who can’t handle differing viewpoints.
The irony is that my final rating isn’t bad. I was just offering pointed criticisms that overloaded this bloke, I guess.
It tries new things (good!) but doesn’t pull them off particularly well (bad!). It has at least one theme that is challenging (good!) but undercuts it with messy editing and a meandering, pointless subplot (bad!). It blunts its own character arcs (bad!) but Adam Driver delivers a great perfomance (good!). The effects are good for Snoke and Crait (good!) but mediocre to weak for a lot of the other parts (bad!). It portrays the Resistance as dependent on blindly following without question (bad!) and ends up basically with the characters at the same point at the finale (bad!) while giving a nice moment to Luke (good!).
I complain it lacked cohesion and focus. My friend had a great observation as well – it plays more like a collection of short stories than a movie.
So of course people will come at you hard if you dislike it openly. Even the official Star Wars social media accounts – and its acolytes – will imply you have nefarious reasons for lodging complaint. Accept it gracefully and remember, it’s just a movie.
Supplementary Review from Second Viewing (Dec. 30, 2019)
My opinion didn’t change from the original viewing so much as solidify. Kylo Ren’s arc/ Adam Driver’s performance is the best reason to see the film; the Rey/Luke arc is good but lacking a real emotional hook. In short, I don’t know that Rey/Luke connect like they should. The Resistance subplot is boring, to be honest, and the end robs itself of any true significance with hodge-podge decisions and a lingering obsession with Marvel-style comedy.
I didn’t love it, and I didn’t hate it. There were positive things about it, There were messy elements that could have been handled better. Sometimes they were frustrating. In almost every case, I think that the core issues exist at a script construction level.
The important qualifier to all of this is that I have never revisited Star Wars: The Last Jedi on home video. I watched it twice in the theater. I haven’t gone back since.
I don’t know if that’s because I suspect a harsher review is laying somewhere in my heart, which of course I would share with the world at large. I don’t know if it’s because the conversations were so supercharged with supposition on both sides that I didn’t even want to think of it.
Recently for Aggressive Negotiations, my fellow Jedi Master Matt Rushing and I had it out (yet again) about a Star Wars movie I like but don’t love. He does love it, and so our negotiations were, indeed, aggressive.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has a lot of elements that work well. Delightful scene-stealing characters, solid art direction, bold effects work, and slick plot contrivances make you forgiving of a very uneven start. The third act is indisputably a well-constructed battle scene, full of the type of visual dynamism that keeps you invested.
It also has a lot of things to like, and I think that’s part of the issue. The things to like wind up making you wonder if they were inserted at the cost of things that work. There are obvious inserts that feel far less organic than they should, and work to pull you out of the film. There are a couple of “for the fans” moments that end up being head scratchers because they’re so inorganic as to interrupt the narrative.
The first thirty minutes or so are far choppier than they need to be. After a terrific opening, the movie basically has a fluttering series of introductions and re-introductions that make me wonder how much of the reported restructuring had to do with the producers worried about treating the audiences as intelligent enough to keep up with things. While far from as egregious as the first reels of some of the recent franchise fare in this regard (here’s looking at you, Suicide Squad), it takes the film a bit to find its rhythm and really start progressing.
I’m certainly aware that there are Star Wars fans who really, really like this movie. And I like it, too! This is likely my second-favorite Disney-era Star Wars film.
I think it’s got enough red meat to satisfy the fans, I just wish it could’ve been cooked better.
So There You Go
I wound up giving it 3 1/2 stars this time around, but I struggle a bit with that. That last 1/2 star is very much on the merit of its final space battle.
I remembered seeing it in the theater with my dad. I remember he really enjoyed it; he spoke to me about the art and skill necessary to animate figures. He was a true fan of film, its art and its science, and it had a great deal to do with why I love it, too.
But it is definitely worth seeing. I’ve seen other movies from different franchises I’ve liked a lot less. There is a real art, a baseline beauty, to everything in this film that I can’t help but enjoy it.
Rediscovering what an influence this was on my young mind was at points disorienting. I’ve always been open about the strong artistic influences of which I’m aware. The Doors remain the North Star on my musical voyages. George Lucas shaped the way I think of film, and unquestionably story structure itself, in inimitable ways.
Make no mistake, The Black Cauldron is imperfect. It’s powered largely by its unabashed vision and terrific art direction. In short, while the execution misses in some respects, there’s a lot to enjoy.
I can also say that my kids enjoyed seeing it with their dad – yes, that’s me – so maybe I’ve just repeated the cycle from my dad, and imbued in them a love for the stronger elements in the film.
It’s a Long Journey
There were countless other influences on me over the years, of course. All of us pick them up along the way. (Social media influencers are still soulless hacks, but that’s another discussion entirely.)
What great fun to rediscover them then. To rediscover one which so richly impacted my tastes, that I had only vague memories of, was a wonderful moment. That it put me in touch again with a memory of my dad is so much the better.
From the previous blog in this series: The ironic thing is that everything Lucas had pointed out, from the Tone Poem structure to the old movie serials influences, helped shine a bright new light on The Force Awakens which allowed me for find my way to enjoying it. Which brings me, finally, to my new review.
Opinions can change.
Sadly, past statements usually are treated as an unchanging piece of our firmament, the words of long ago regarded as eternally fresh. People like to leverage your past statements as a way to vet what you have to say now. If they like how you’ve revised yourself, it’s referred to as nuance. If they don’t like what you have to say, it’s held as dishonesty.
This seems a weighty way to start a movie review. There’s a reason for it, though.
I wasn’t particularly kind to The Force Awakens when it first came out. As the title of this blog series suggests, that has changed.
“A Good, Wholesome Adventure”
At a glance, The Force Awakens‘ mission statement is “to have fun.” This was surprisingly anachronistic for Star Wars by December 2015.
The prequels are tonally serious; they’re dealing with the collapse of civilization and loss of freedom. Even though The Clone Wars started with a lighter touch, the sense of dread increased as it marched inexorably toward its inevitable resolution. (Lucas also used the series to back-fill story and character development given only a glance at times in the prequel trilogy, but that’s a topic for another time.)
I enjoyed it all. I really, really loved a lot of it.
My initial reaction to The Force Awakens was wrapped up in a whole lot of factors, covered earlier in this series. Worth repeating is that during the lead-up I was steeped in too much Star Wars for my own good. It colored my expectations and my reaction to the material. Also worth repeating is that the amount of implicit and explicit disrespect heaped on Lucas as a filmmaker during the run-up to The Force Awakens grated on me.
As a self-appointed Star Wars Expert (still true) and ardent Lucas Apologist (still true), refreshed in the great miasma of esoterica released through the years, I was prepared to dissect the new film from every possible angle.
What I didn’t realize is that I was making the same mistake that the prequel bashers before me had made. I was setting myself up to dictate what made something “worthy” of being Star Wars.
So that’s where I started. Here we are now at the end of my personal journey. This is what I think of Star Wars: The Force Awakens now.
The Force Awakens is a charming film, filled with fun and excitement. It’s imbued with the emotional resonance I remember Star Wars having when I was a kid. It’s nearly impossible now to remember those halcyon days when it wasn’t about mythology and intricacy, but just “a good, wholesome adventure” as Lucas cited in the original The Making of Star Wars special.
From a technical standpoint, The Force Awakens is an achievement. The cinematography is wonderful. The shot compositions, camera movement and color palette feel at home in Star Wars. The editing is amazing; the pace is swift without being relentless. The script is clear, straightforward and accessible. The characters are charismatic, distinct, and memorable.
To be sure, this is a JJ Abrams film, not a George Lucas one. Part of this journey has been accepting that this is actually a pretty wonderful thing. Though I was enjoying Lucas creating a masterwork over decades across many media, the only way Star Wars grows is if new blood gets injected.
The Empire Strikes Back is what it is, because Irvin Kershner put his stamp on it. Return of the Jedi is what is it is, because Richard Marquand contributed.
I’ve come to love the storytelling flourishes Abrams pulls off. Rey’s introduction is several minutes without a word from her, yet we know all about her and the life she leads. There are small, subtle moments, such as Poe’s look of surprise/amazement at the magnitude of the military preparations as he’s off-loaded into the Star Destroyer at the beginning.
Rey is a vibrant lead character. Kylo Ren’s villainy is a more human one than we usually get in Star Wars; his anger management issues are a refreshing touch in a narrative series where the villains are typically so controlled and deliberate.
I rejected Finn’s silliness at points. But he was a compelling character maturing through his actions, and he serves a solid story purpose. I caught flack for pointing this out long ago, but he’s actually what Lucas was trying to achieve with Jar Jar. Though I’m more fond of Jar Jar than most, Finn is certainly a more successful expression of that character type.
Naturally, there were plenty of things I picked on when the film first came out, otherwise my journey isn’t very interesting. Warming up to them had a lot to do with my growing acceptance of the film.
To give you an idea, I picked on the horns for the opening fanfare. (I still do, honestly). I was picking on the instruments and conducting of a sliver of a piece of a film score. I actually had to “get over” the LA Philharmonic’s treatment of 10 seconds of music to admit that the rest of the new score is actually quite wonderful.
Starkiller Base is a huge sticking point for a lot of people. It was for me at first. Then, as I thought about it, it works because of the very nature of what The First Order is: a cadre of villains not trying to build a future but restore a past they’ve idealized and fetishized. It works thematically.
I’ve already commented on the meta nature of Han’s character earlier in the series, and it was realizing that which ameliorated my original complaint about his scene with the Rathtars. I originally hated that scene. “Han doesn’t need a motivation to look for Luke,” I decried. That missed the point. The point was that Han was out of tricks, and the galaxy was done with him.
Besides, if I can look the other way on an overlong sea-monster sequence in The Phantom Menace because it was full of Qui-Gon character building moments, I can roll with this. I can roll with it even if only because this scene plays with considerably more excitement, and a “monster moment” is part of the DNA of Star Wars.
Once I “got there,” I saw the nuance of his portrayal in The Force Awakens, as opposed to the chip I had on my shoulder about his regression to immaturity. He is very much what every Father fears: the reason their kid chooses poorly. Then the moment where he tenderly forgives his son, accepting responsibility at the final moment for what he did to help push him down a dark path, is a dramatic moment worthy of this epic series.
I harped on ship design – a fetish of mine – for a while. Then I realized it, too, speaks to the nature of the galaxy. The heroes we knew failed in their mission to refresh and restore the galaxy, and the ships reflect that. Yes, it also serve a marketing purpose of making the film accessible and friendly to fans. I’m fine with that.
(Except for the Resistance troop carrier. Seriously, screw that ship design, it’s awful.)
But I really, really focused on every little thing I didn’t love. I ground that axe until it was a sharp blade and swung it at anyone who defended the film. And I dug in my heels as I spent countless hours discussing it.
Looking back, I think that there was a part of me that didn’t want to like The Force Awakens, no matter how much I claimed that I did. I was a Lucas Loyalist, and to love something that didn’t have his express involvement and blessing undoubtedly weighted my criticisms.
In short, I became the sort of fanboy I hate being. I feel like I owe an apology to my buddy Shawn, who took a great deal of abuse in the first week on behalf of the film.
Once I stepped back, I saw that Lucas built something so enduring that The Force Awakens works as a part of the saga regardless any shortcomings I may find in it still. I (and other fans) looked the other way with a lot of choices Lucas made because it resolved well. I enjoy his filmmaking style, and understand his art. I like to think I understand him as a person through it. (For the record, Revenge of the Sith remains his greatest work, and the best of the series.)
I’ve learned my lesson. I learned to live with certain shortcomings with the previouse six, even as new issues cropped in as they’ve been continually revised through time. Looking for Abrams to achieve perfection in a way that Lucas doesn’t think even he attained becomes reductive and tiresome.
I think that this journey I took with The Force Awakens will help with my reception of the further episodes, and anthology stories, and help me keep things in perspective. Lucas walked away, and I’ve got to get over that. He made the decision to let someone else make Star Wars, and they made a pretty great start of it.
Even if it did include a helicopter shot at the end.
OK, that headline is a little bit of an attention-getter on purpose. Maybe I really just want the wounding of the Expanded Universe since there is some stuff worth retaining, like the Thrawn books and a lot of the Prequel Era stuff I’ve read.
I won’t spoil anything, but the recently-unveiled Season Six of Star Wars: The Clone Wars had a final story arc that completely blew up an accepted fact from other sources of “Expanded Universe.” People not very steeped in non-film Star Wars lore likely won’t even catch onto it, but I literally giggled when the simple twist of a name erased a footnote to the “history” of the EU.
Like I said, I won’t spoil anything. But it was a gleeful moment for me that signaled again the willingness on the part of Lucasfilm (and now Disney/Marvel, buying back the comic license) to destroy even a tiny piece of the complex arcana that has been constructed over the last couple of decades.
How much they’ll destroy remains a question. Some sources indicate that it will steer clear of what has happened to allow fans who like the EU to reconcile the new films with the extra materials. This is something I still contend is an issue some fans had with the Prequels; they contradicted EU materials blatantly and willingly. If a fan held those materials dear, there’s undoubtedly a sense of “betrayal” that is felt.
But at least I can believe that the new films won’t feel restricted to follow only the stories that have been put in novels and games up to this point. This gives it all a real chance to feel as fresh and original as the first six, and that’s sure to please me as much as an all-you-can-eat buffet would please Jabba.
And in the end, isn’t the new trilogy just about making me happy?
I think we can agree that it is.
Also, every time I write “EU” I imagine that Vladimir Putin is nodding, saying, “I hate it too!” And then getting really disappointed when I tell him we’re not talking about the same thing.