Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Wars 7

Now that a few months have passed and I've rewatched the new Star Wars movie, it's time for a critique! I know this will have a widespread, profound effect on its sales and box office performance, so I had to think about it for a while.

My hatred of JJ Abrams is pretty well-known, and in the end that's going to be a huge shadow across this review. I have no respect for him as anything other than a very limited action director, even when backed up by seriously skilled heavy hitters. But let's talk about the movie.

First off, the movie is pretty decent. Better than the prequels by a long shot. Probably my third favorite Star Wars movie, and that's not bad at all.

It has very charming characters, most of whom are excellent actors. I love the newfound diversity, it makes the universe feel even bigger. I love the artful blend of CG and practical effects. Several of the sets are extremely nice, the props are all top-notch. The music and sound effects, of course, couldn't be much better. And the comedy bits are often in service of the characters, which is rare and very welcome.

Now, let's talk about the crappy parts!

I went with a group of 9 people to see it in theaters, ages 7 - 65. Several of them had seen it before. And we all came out of it confused and dissatisfied by the same elements. Some of us liked it, some of us hated it, but we all went "what the heck was up with that?" about the same things.

A big example was the tie fighter crash - you know, with Poe's coat. All of us were annoyed by that whole sequence.

But upon watching it again on DVD, I found the explanation was clearly written into the script, probably even shot correctly. It was just slapped up for a mere half-second and attention drawn away from it. Upon watching it knowing what to look for, it's clear that Poe takes off his coat, hangs it on his seat. It's clear Finn is ejected, so Poe obviously could have been, too. It's clear Finn finds the coat on the front canopy, not near the rear of the ship where Poe was seated, so it must have shaken free from the seat before it ejected.

The explosion still makes no sense, but let's just let that action schlock slide.

All of those elements are just fine on the written page. You can see the writers saying "THIS is how we'll give Finn that coat". Unfortunately, those elements weren't given to the audience on the screen. Even the parts that were on the screen, such as Poe taking off his coat, were not lingered on or highlighted. Instead, they were background elements in clips where the focus was clearly elsewhere, and even those clips were really tightly clipped.

This is how a magician does things - distract the audience with one hand while doing something with another. Unfortunately, if you do that in a movie, you end up with an audience that never knows you did the second thing and presumes you just have a basket full of continuity errors.

There are several elegantly written arcs in the movie, that one included. But half of the things on the screen are choppy and slapdash, badly paced and unpolished, like someone was in a hurry to slap more action on the screen.

For example, the double-defection of Finn and Rey, where they both have the exact same "I'm scared and gonna run away" arcs separately, within the same minute. This is a very badly paced element, and I can only presume that's not how it was originally written. Perhaps there was more time between them, or perhaps it was written so that Rey felt lost and betrayed by Finn and that was given time to grow on the screen to seed her own fear. Perhaps there were two scripts written, each with one of the characters panicking, and then for some reason both arcs were filmed and smashed together.

Another example: the murder of Han Solo. This is an amazing scene to most RPG players, because that's how a really good dark side arc in a game would go. It's completely legit, very powerful, especially the "thank you". It makes sense narratively and within the rules of the universe, as well as fitting in with every character.

Unfortunately, what we actually got on the screen wasn't so good.

"They're on your father's ship. You know, Han Solo, your dad?" "Yes, my father, Han Solo." "He's your dad." "Oh gosh, Evil McEvil noticed I still have good in me, gramps!" "Our son is up there, Leia!" "Our son, Kylo?" "Our son Kylo, Leia." "Grandpappy, help me, you're my grandpap." "He has good in him!" "Who, our son, Kylo?" "Kylo, yes, our son." "My dad landed on the planet." "Your dad Han?" "Han, my dad." "Oh, that dad." "Gramps, give me strength!" "Hello, Kylo my son. You still have good in you!"

I have a feeling that the writers knew half their scenes wouldn't get to the screen, so they just wrote twice as many and crossed their fingers.

I get that feeling a lot, actually. Because this movie has two plots, and they are both pretty sad.

In one plot, a bigger, badder Death Star sits on its butt in the middle of nowhere waiting to be found. In the other plot, a bigger, badder Luke sits on his butt in the middle of nowhere waiting to be found. Both are full of plot holes and neither is even vaguely compelling or personal.

It's clear the "bigger Death Star" plot exists because Disney wanted to prove they were oldschool Star Wars fans who were going to make oldschool Star Wars movies. But it's also clear that they thought that plot was pretty threadbare, so they stole a plot from a different draft and shoved it alongside.

I think either of these plots could have been made hundreds of times better without much trouble by simply choosing one. If either had more screentime, the glaring holes could have been explained away. Instead, they're pushed past with action sequences in a desperate attempt to gloss over everything.

The third plot - big baddie that runs everything - is established as a next-movie thing, but it also looks extremely uninteresting. I've already covered all the ways they could have made that interesting in an earlier essay. For example, it could be a holocron. That'd be amazing: all the Sith are gone, it's just one dumb kid with delusions and a holocron, but the dark side still manages to be a threat.

Any way you cut it, the movie could have been a lot tighter with different priorities. The inclusion of clips like "whoo, damn that pilot is good!" and the exclusion of clips like explaining why they had the last 2/3 of the map on a galaxy view but still needed the first 1/3 means that the whole thing feels very schlocky, as if the only thing that really matters are the action setpieces and a few pieces of comedy for pacing.

I have to wonder. The editing seems pretty tight, so why are there so many clips and sequences that don't seem like they fit right? Why is there such a laser focus on stuff that would have been great either way, while letting stuff that could have been great lay as unpolished stumbling blocks? Is this because of the director? It sounds like it might be the fault of the editors.

The editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon, JJ Abrams' primary editors for almost all his films.

I hate JJ Abrams.

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