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Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Force Awakens: Second Viewing

I saw The Force Awakens for the second time yesterday, and I think it's fair to say that I enjoyed it a lot more on my second viewing. If you can look past the short comings of the plot, and the fuzzy science at play, there is a lot to like about this movie.



Excellent Characters

For starters the new characters are very well done. They all have personalities, depth, well defined and simple goals, and most importantly are relatable. There is more characterisation and complexity to these characters in this one film than there is for Obi Wan, Anakin and Padme in the entire prequel trilogy.

Image: www.starwars.com
Kylo Ren in particular is very well done. There is true depth to this character. You can see and feel the anguish he is in being torn between his desire for power and greatness through the dark side, and the love for his family that keeps him anchored to the light. And while he portrays a strong exterior clad in black, behind a sold heavy mask that distorts and deepens his voice, he is actually very vulnerable and fragile. Like a child he is prone to bursts of emotion, tantrums, and a fear that he will never be good enough. And while strong with the force you can see that he is undisciplined and under trained. Even his lightsaber is unrefined and jagged. While his basic understanding of the force is better than Rey, training wise he is only a step or two above her - a raw unrefined talent.

And the characters play off each other extremely well. Poe's headstrong daredevil nature is countered by Finn's pragmatism. Kylo Ren is the embodiment of the dark side - chaotic, emotional and reliant on brute force, while Rey represents the light - strength through discipline, focus and attention to detail.

And Harrison Ford's performance is great. Han Solo is perhaps the most enjoyable part of this film. Although I would have liked to have spent more time on his relationship to Ben, when is it brought up you can feel the emotion he has for the loss of his son. It's really good work.


Cinematography

While I do feel that the film has pacing problems towards the end, individual scenes are shot extremely well. All the battle scenes are great, fast paced but not too fast and without the CGI clutter. The reactions Finn has to shooting down Tie Fighters, his reunion with Poe, Han's reaction to the Millennium Falcon, Rey's plight finding enough scrap for food - these all feel real, as if actual human beings are involved.

The portrayal of Kylo Ren in Han Solo's death scene is brilliant. The tension of Kylo with his internal conflict, standing eye to eye with the one person who is keeping him attached to the light. You can see just how much he is tearing himself apart. He could almost come back to the light side. And then you see the moment the dark sides wins - Kylo's face changes to be stern. This is paralleled by the extinguishing of the light from the nearby sun by the starkiller. And Kylo Ren removes that relationship that has held him back. Amazing.

And the light sabers! Ok, so while I would argue that the light saber fights in Empire and Jedi actually have more going for them from a character development and feel of tension, the light saber combat in The Force Awakens is easily the best in the series so far. It feels real. It feel less like a  choreographed dance, and more like two people who are actually intent on killing each other.

The last light saber fight is great. Especially with the surround sound giving you the sensation of being inside the snow storm - you feel like you're inside the action. Then we have a wounded Kylo first facing off against Finn - who has overcome his desire to run - and then Rey. During this fight you can see the moment that Rey figures out the force and uses it to her advantage. It's really good stuff with heaps of immersion.

 

Story

As I predicted in my previous post, on my second viewing I was able to pick up on a lot more of the finer details of what is going on. For example, in her flashback we see that Rey was left with the shopkeeper when she is orphaned on Jakku. Presumably it was in his service that she learned her mechanical skills and how to fly - moving the junkers that the shopkeeper had been collecting. She also helped with the modifications made by the shopkeeper to the Millenium Falcon, hence why she was so familiar with the ships systems and how to fly it.

That Leia sent Ben to Luke because he was undisciplined. That the First Order officers were wearing the Imperial officer uniforms. The additional exposition that the resistance is a private army supported by the republic. That Han blames himself for loosing Ben. And that the First Order only became powerful after Luke Skywalker vanished (and that Leia feels at least a little responsible for it).

I feel that this movie will continue to get better with additional viewings.


Stuff I Still Don't Like

I still feel that the film has pacing issues towards the end. The starkillers destruction is abrupt and feels like it doesn't fit. To be honest, I kind of feel that they crammed too much stuff into the end of the movie. In the final act we have the starkiller destroyed, Rey's awakening into the force, the death of Han Solo and the discovery of Luke Skywalker. It comes off as a little bit rushed. Some of these plot threads could have been resolved in the next film.
 
I still find the use of deus ex machina distracting.

I still really wish that there was a little bit more exposition as to what is going on with the New Republic and the resistance. Where are the other star fighters from Return of the Jedi? Let alone the Mon Calamari cruisers and Nebulon B frigates...

And yea, The Force Awakens is derivative as it can get. It even takes from The Phantom Menace. Rey / Anakin grew up working for a scrap merchant who treated them as little more than slaves, and is a natural pilot and mechanic whose abilities are amplified by an innate sensitivity to the force. And we now have four Star Wars films that end with a star fighter attack on a space station.


Han Solo's Death

The death of Han Solo is perhaps the thing I'm least happy with. While the scene itself was very well done from Kylo Ren's perspective, I feel the same couldn't be said from Han Solo's perspective.

I still feel the decision to kill off Han was predictable and lacked overall tension. Kylo wasn't going to be redeemed, and it is obvious that Han is going to die.

I watched an interview with Abrams the other night where he states that he killed off Han because he needed to do something bold to make Kylo Ren a threat equal to Darth Vader. But, really, your bold move was to kill off a character that Harrison Ford and Lawrence Kasdan were begging to kill off back in Return of the Jedi?

And again, this scene would have had more tension and emotion from Han Solo's point of view had the relationship between the two been further explored. Really, this story could have been the major plot line of a movie itself - and in fact was in Return of the Jedi. Because the first half of the The Force Awakens concentrates on Rey and Finn (as it should) the story of Han and Ben is pushed right back to a second and third act secondary story.

The death scene depicts Kylo's final transition to the dark side extremely well. But the emotional impact of Han Solo's death is just lacking. If there was a history between these characters, if it appeared that Kylo's interaction with Han could actually be enough to turn him back, then the scene would have had far more tension, and Han's failure would have had far more impact. Perhaps if there had been interactions between the two characters earlier in the film. If Han had made previous attempts to rescue Ben, or if Kylo had in the past had let Han go, or saved him from a peril. If a relationship had actually been built up in the story.

Because as it stands Han has essentially been an uncommitted parent to Ben right up until this point.

  • For starters, once Ben became difficult as a child his parents sent him away to train under Luke rather than parent him themselves. Leia even says that she regrets this. And we know that Kylo has self esteem issues, that his greatest fear is underachieving. Being sent off to Luke for being difficult would likely have been seen by Ben as an abandonment by his parents because of his shortcomings. 

  • Secondly, when Ben turned to the dark side Han abandoned any effort to try and rescue him - instead, as he states, in grief he left Leia to go back to being a smuggler. So the movie states that there has been no real interaction between these two characters since Ben's perceived abandonment by his parents as a child.

So then we come to Han's death scene and we are presented with Kylo Ren having to choose between his father, a man who wasn't there for him as a child and who he hasn't even seen since his conversion to the dark side, and Snoke, a man who promises power, relief from his insecurities through training in the dark side, and a strong father figure. Of course Kylo sides with Snoke - it's an obvious and forgone conclusion.

Instead Han Solo's death relies on the fact that the audience already has a connection to this character through the original trilogy, and requires this connection to generate an emotional response. It's weak.

I think this plot line would have been better to resolve in the next film. Laying the foundations of Han and Kylo's relationship in this film, then exploring that relationship in the next so that Han's death has a real impact on the viewer.

Or just not have included it at all.


And Some Nitpicks

I have some minor nitpicks. These don't kill the movie for me, but are a distraction.

Starkiller base. Star Wars is all about being fuzzy with science - but I find the starkiller really immersion breaking. This space station is just so totally impractical that my brain collapses just thinking about it.

  • For starters, this thing sucks in stars, and prior to firing has the mass of an entire yellow star inside of itself. This would mean that it also has the gravity of that star. The energy required to create a dampening field necessary to stop the crew being crushed to a wet pulp on the floor must be beyond impractical.

  • Next, they are cramming a star roughly the size of our sun into a starkiller about the size of Mars. When the starkiller is destroyed we see the star is left behind - so they aren't breaking it up as they suck it in or anything, they are literally cramming a star into the starkiller. Would cramming the star into such a small space not make it incredibly unstable? Would it not accelerate the nuclear fusion making it a gigantic hydrogen bomb? Maybe this is what powers the weapon - but this thing could go boom at any moment, any malfunction in the priming or firing of the weapon, no matter how minor, would be catastrophic.

  • Likewise, containing the star inside the starkiller would require energy shields of some description. But the power requirement necessary to power shields capable of not only holding a star, but also compressing it into a space the size of a small planet would be ridiculous. It would take as much power to operate these shields as it does to power the weapon! Not to mention that if these shields were to fail in any part of the starkiller then the star wold expand out of that failed section of shielding destroying the base!

  • The starkiller is effectively a Dyson sphere and relies on its spherical shape to provide structural integrity. So don't even worry about finding the thermal oscillator, any damage to the superstructure of the base would be catastrophic. Pick any part of the starkiller that is exposed (i.e. not covered by the planets crust) and launch everything you have at it. Even if you didn't damage the superstructure to the point of collapse, any power failure in this area would also destroy the base. Honestly, this is where Y-Wings and B-Wings would have been invaluable.

  • Operating the starkiller requires destroying your own systems! For every New Republic system you destroy, you have to destroy one of your own systems to power the weapon... The ratio of destruction is close to 1 to 1. Ok, you could use stars in uninhabited systems to power the weapon - but any class M (to borrow from Trek) planets that are in the system are now completely uninhabitable. Any star bases or mining facilities in orbit are now flying off into space, as too are any asteroids or plants that could have been used for resources - including gas giants similar to Bespin. These planets are now flung off into space, their positions are not on your star charts, and are just cruising through space waiting to collide with your own ships traveling through hyperspace. Using the weapon weakens your own future strategic and economic positions.

  • You could move the starkiller into enemy space, using their stars to power the weapon - a double hit. But now you are putting a very vulnerable weapon directly into spitting distance of the enemy, defeating the purpose of building a weapon capable of attacking from behind your own lines in the first place! They may as well just built conventional death stars.

So the starkiller requires an enormous amount of energy just to prime the weapon, is so fragile that any minor malfunction to a major system will destroy the base, and when is does work it destroys your own systems... Good job First Order engineers.


Ok, moving on though - the Luke Skywalker star map is kind of a weak plot device. I can accept that the New Republic doesn't have access to the Jedi star map seen in Attack of the Clones - perhaps the Empire moved all that information to a secure location once the Rebellion kicked up and now the First Order only has access. 

But Kylo Ren tells Rey that they were able to put together the rest of the map from the Imperial archives. The missing part is only about 5  - 10 % of the total map, and contains a handful of star systems. You know from the Imperial archive the general location in the galaxy where Luke Skywalker is - why not send out a bunch of probe droids to search the hand full of planets in that unknown area?

And R2D2 put himself into low power mode after Luke left. But he has a nearly complete map to Luke minus that small missing piece. So how did the map get out? Was it put together from word of mouth - people that had spotted Luke on his travels? Then how did R2D2 get it? Did Luke make the map sans that small piece and left it with R2D2? Then how did the First Order get it? Why did R2D2 not pass on the map to the resistance? Perhaps Luke told him not to. But then why would Luke make a map in the first place? Why would R2 change his mind at the end of the film? So many questions....

Instead recovering the map form the First Order should have been one of the goals of the resistance.


Second Viewing Thoughts

So, yea, I like this movie. Even given its short comings. 

I would say story wise it's not as good as a New Hope or Empire Strikes Back. It is better than the prequels mostly because the prequels have a habit of not explaining key characters, contradict the original trilogy, have very poorly written characters and script. But I would put it slightly behind Return of the Jedi simply because of the derivative nature of the work.

Action wise it is really good. That last lightsaber duel was at least as good as the fights between Luke and Vader in Empire and Jedi. The X-wing battles are also really good. But I do feel that the space battle to defeat the second death star was superior to that to destroy the star killer. And the battle at the end of A New Hope had more tension.

If I was to rank the films I would put them: Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, Return of the Jedi / The Force Awakens (maybe equal), Revenge of the Sith, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones.

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