Friday, February 05, 2016

Rebel agents discover the First Order's ultimate weapon. You won't believe what happens next!


"A marvellous healthy innocence… Nothing unpleasant. People go bang-bang and other people fall over, but no horrors. No sleazy sex, in fact no sex at all. A wonderful freshness about it. Like fresh air... People are going to read too much into it."
       Alec Guinness on Star Wars.

Star Wars was fun. It never strayed into camp or self-parody; but there was always a sense that Han and Luke were big kids, having a great time. Bad stuff happened: planets got blown up, uncles and aunts got incinerated, princesses got tortured — but no-one really minded. Look at Leia greeting Luke in the detention cell: is this a woman who was subjected to torture a few minutes ago? Look at Luke greeting Han after the battle: is this a man whose best friend has just been blown up? Think of the garbage masher. Were you horrified at the idea that our heroes were almost certainly going to be crushed to death (or consumed by a garbage eating squid) or were you delighted that such a classic movie serial cliffhanger was being acted out on the big screen? And weren't even Han and Luke were enjoying themselves? "One thing's for sure; we're all going to be a lot thinner." I suppose soldiers do engage in gallows humour when they are seconds away from death, but surely not that kind of wise-cracking.

Furry first mates who tear people's arms off over chess games; quick kisses before swinging over chasms — utility belts containing ropes that are only of any use to you if you are planning to swing over a chasm, come to that; nervous little robots that scoot off down corridors when they see wookies. Everyone gives the impression that they are playing at being heroes and villains. This is one of the reasons why the Star Wars role-playing game was such a success.

The Empire Strikes Back is not fun. Goodies lose; death is final, and sad; friends betray you; trusted mentors lie to you; and being tortured really, really stings. Luke has his hand cut off, and Vader kills people to death, instead of just threatening to. Return of the Jedi fudges it: it seems to realize that Empire Strikes Back was altogether too dark, but instead of lightening up, it makes the main plot even heavier but counterbalances it with some comic relief. Ewoks. One of the things to be said in favour of Phantom Menace — I will repeat that: one of the things to be said in favour of Phantom Menace — is that what with Anakin winning the chariot race, and making friends with R2D2 and blundering into the front line of a battle; there is quite a bit of fun to be had even without that charming rascal Jar-Jar Binks. But Episodes II and III take us on a downward spiral of grimness.

"Let's play Star Wars! I'll be your forbidden love, and you can accidentally murder me."

"Ooo, ooo, can I be the little kids who get massacred!"

How could Lucas defend the silliness of Phantom Menace on the grounds that it was a children's movie, and then perpetrate the final half hour of Revenge of the Sith?

One of the very great strengths of the Force Awakens is that it puts that sense the fun back into Star Wars. It's by no means without dark moments — it starts with the massacre of a whole village by stormtroopers; and we distinguish Finn, the stormtrooper with a moral conscience from the others by virtue of the fact that he's got a bloody hand-print on his nice white helmet. Before long, apparent good guy Lor San Tekka has been killed and Poe Dameron is shouting "no, no not the mind probe!" But even these sequences have a great deal of joy about them. What better way for a story to start than with a hero meeting a mysterious contact in a tent and receiving a mysterious map? How right and proper for the mysterious contact to die right after handing over the macguffin!

Once Finn and Poe hook up, the fun really kicks in. They have just the kind of bravado and banter that a pair of player characters ought to have. (Template: Reformed Stormtrooper; Template: Brash Pilot.) And anyway, we're Star Wars fans. We're getting a feel of what it would be like to fly a TIE fighter. In Star Wars, the iconic fighters were little ships, the ones that came in packs and buzzed around like mosquitoes. And we scarcely ever got a look at the pilots. So of course the first set piece action sequence should be about a goody flying one of those little ships — and letting us see the cockpit, and the controls. Giving us all, in fact, a sense that we are inside the ship. Showing us, more than anything in the previous six movies, what it would feel like to be a pilot.

"I always wanted to fly one of these" says Poe. Life and death situation? Trying to save the Resistance? Could be killed at any moment?

Whee...this is fun!

If you wasted endless hours playing X-Wing on your first PC, and if you had a Brash Pilot with 8 dice Starship Piloting then you will understand that "Use the toggle on the left to switch between missiles, cannons and pulses; use the sight on the right to aim; the trigger is to fire" is the best line in any movie, ever.

Meanwhile, down on Jakku…

Rey is having a hard time; eating the Star Wars equivalent of pot-noodles; scavenging for metal; getting short changed by definitely not Jewish scrap dealer Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg, not that you would know.) But after a brief and obligatory misunderstanding, Rey and Finn are having the time of their lives, running away from explosions, stealing broken down space ships and leading First Order TIE fighter into shipwrecks. 

Abrams is obviously very pleased that modern compositing technology allows us to see X-Wings and TIE fighters flying low over deserts and forests and seas and ice-flows where the old movies could really only show them against jet-black starscapes. It does look rather cool: but much of the Star Wars aesthetic involved ships whizzing across stars spangled backdrops. And it's less fun for X-Wings to be all-terrain vehicles. There should be X-Wings for fighting in space, snow-speeders for fighting in the snow, a new kind of half submarine half spaceship boat for fighting near the water — a cool new toy for each environment. (We don't even see any A-Wings and B-Wings and Y-Wings.) The Empire used to use totally impractical AT-ATs when attacking targets on land — the First Order just throws even more TIE fighters at them.

It would be untrue to say "so when Han Solo himself turns up, it is a surprise." But it would be fair to say that most of us weren't expect him to pop up at quite that moment. We are sufficiently engaged with Finn and Rey that he have temporarily forgotten that a class reunion of graduates from the original trilogy was precisely the thing we bought out ticket to see.  We knew Han was in it, but we weren't waiting for him.

But once Rey Solo has stolen the Millennium Falcon, the next thing which has to happen in the story is for Han and Chewie to come looking for it. This is the real explanation for the plot holes and coincidence that killjoys complain about. There could have been a caption which said "Rey and Finn traveled around the universe for some weeks, trying to find word of the location of the Resistance base…" and a map of the Star Wars galaxy with a wibbly line being drawn across it to show their route; and a cutaway to Han and Chewie hearing the rumour that the Millennium Falcon has been seen near Jakku and deciding to check it out… but that would have been boring. Han and Chewie showing up is the next thing that needs to happen in the Plot. So it's the next thing which happens, and damn common sense and logic.

So: Han and Chewie suddenly turn up; and are suddenly boarded by two different gangs of jabbas who Han owes money to. The ridiculous Mars Attacks B-movie creatures that Han is smuggling suddenly get loose and start eating people. Everyone continues to treat the whole thing as a brilliant game, even when Finn is about to be suddenly eaten alive by a carnivorous space octopus. No one is worried. We know that heroes don't get eaten by carnivorous space octopuses in the first reel. He knows it too. Whatever may be in store for old Mr Gandalf, I'll wager it isn't a wolf's belly. May the Plot be with you.

I grant that it would have been exhausting and vulgar if the film had tried to maintain this pitch for the whole two and half hours. We would have started to experience action-sequence fatigue, like we felt in the seventeenth or eighteenth hour of the battle of the five sodding armies. The tone changes noticeably when we arrive on…er…checks guide book…Takodana.

The Force Awakens is perhaps not overburdened with originality. I am happy, for the present purposes, to accept the theory that there is Only One Story. But Abrams seems committed to the idea that there is Only One Place, or at any rate, only about six places: the Desert Place, the Woody Place, the Snowy Place and the Wet Place — Tatooine, Endor, Hoth and Naboo (which also happen to be the most memorable locations on the planet Mongo.)

One of the good things about the prequel trilogy — I will say that again: one of the good things about the prequel trilogy — was the sheer range of silly and inventive settings that Lucas threw at us. Abrams seems only interested in revisiting settings we recognize from the old movies. If Rey's story was going to sort-of kind-of recapitulate Luke Skywalker's than maybe she should have been found living with her uncle and her aunt at the bottom of the ocean; or on the top of a mountain; or on a planet made entirely of cheese. But Abrams evidently feels that unless we start out with a long desert sequence we won't know it's Star Wars. 

So it is no particular surprise that Abrams should want to recapitulate the iconic saloon scene from Star Wars. And, it is no surprise, given 30 years of technology and thinking time, that the aliens in this cantina are far more imaginative and realistic than anything Lucas offered — doubtless each with a well-thought out back story that we'll have to buy the action figures and read the Visual Dictionary to find out about. It is no particular surprise that, somewhere in Abrams' iteration of the Star Wars universe there should be a wise-old-person who knows the Ways of the Force and can dispense cryptic plot-information in a strange dialect. And definitely no surprise that she is a diminutive CGI alien.

I was, however, quite surprised that Abrams chose to mash-up those two elements: to make this season's Yoda analogue the barkeeper in this season's saloon.

The Star Wars cantina (doo de dooby dooby doo, do, dooby do) is ordinary; just another rough place in a rough part of town. Luke lives in a world where meeting flatworms and walruses in a pub is only like bumping into a Chinese guy and a native American by the docks. Maybe doesn't happen every day, but nothing weird about it. But this tavern; this a place of power. There are holy relics in the basement. If anything, it's standing in for the Swampy Place. Rey's vision when she touches the lightsaber is the equivalent to Luke's vision at the Tree. It's a test.

One wonders, in fact, if Han knew exactly what he was doing when he brought Rey here. He says that Maz Kanata will help them get their droid home, something she shows absolutely no interest in doing. 

Abrams now lays his cards on the table. While the fun stuff with the octopus was going on the baddies have been engaged with the Dark Side of the Plot. Kylo Renn has done his big reveal: Han Solo is my father. We've met this movie's Emperor analogue, and discovered that he's constructing this movie's Death Star analogue.

The Starkiller base is the one really weak idea in the movie. Star Wars was about the Death Star. It was the centerpiece of the film. To all intents and purposes, the Death Star was the Empire. It may not have made total logical sense to imprison the Princess inside the Ultimate Weapon that she's stolen the plans for; or for the planet-buster to come complete with a detention block and conference suite; but it makes terrific dramatic sense for all the baddie scenes to happen in one place. It's the thing which holds the film together. 

Starkiller, on the other hand, seems tagged on as an afterthought, basically to give Dameron Poe something to do in the second half; and to give us an excuse to cut back and forth between Jedi Stuff and X-Wing Stuff. The scene in which the rebels sit round a conference table with a white board and brainstorm how to destroy the Ultimate Weapon is the one genuinely silly moment in the entire movie. It lampshades the problem that Star Wars baddies always seem to design their weapons with easily accessible self-destruct buttons too blatantly. It makes the audience say "I know this is fantasy, but puh-leaze..."

From Takodana onwards, we know where we are. Han and Leia did not live happily ever after: they had a son; he turned evil; they broke up. There is an Ultimate Weapon coming to kill everyone. It is Rey, not Finn, who Luke's lightsaber calls out to: she's the Jedi, the Force-person, the Hero of this trilogy. From then on, we're into the grim, dark, serious, mythical round of lightsaber confrontations on bridges and in forests, Son against Father, maybe Sister against possibly Brother, no final resolution, and the whole thing ending on a dying fall.

I don't know quite what it means for the Starkiller base to suck in a sun in order to power its hyperspace capable planet-buster rays. I don't know if it travels, Galactus-style, from solar system to solar system; eating stars and chucking their energy at planets that have annoyed it; or if somehow a side effect of a fantastically efficient solar energy converter is that it causes an artificial but temporary eclipse. I suspect Abrams doesn't know either. But it does make for a fantastically cool moment when Kylo Ren comes on stage in the final act and everything literally goes dark. (The very first scene in the movie is a stardestroyer eclipsing Jakku's sun.)

It's like we've squashed the happy go lucky victory of Star Wars and the grim sordid defeat of the Empire Strikes Back into one movie.

I like space knights and space dragons and duels and confrontations and no-Luke-I-am-your-father. I said that I thought the dominant genre of Star Wars itself was the Arthurian legend. Of course the new chapter should include desperate confrontations on bridges and terrible duels in dark forests, and awful tragedies. And of course, one of the veterans from the last trilogy needs to die on Starkiller, just like Obi-Wan died on the Death Star.

But oh, I do wish The Force Awakens could have stayed funner for longer.

If you want me to carry on writing, either buy my book...

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

"How could Lucas defend the silliness of Phantom Menace on the grounds that it was a children's movie, and then perpetrate the final half hour of Revenge of the Sith?"

Perhaps because the children were six years older by then.


I don't know whether Lucas was actually playing such a long game -- planning a trilogy to be watched by the same children at ages (say) 8, 11 and 14. Given how much of the rightness of Star Wars (episode 4) seems to be glorious happenstance, I'd not have said that long-range planning was his forté. But I guess I wouldn't rule it out.