Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Force Awakens: So, What Did I Really Think?

WARNING: more than 2k words about Star Wars follows. You may need coffee or a snack before proceeding further.

So I’ve been pondering The Force Awakens at great length, while reading everyone else’s reviews. Spoilers are popping up everywhere, and I’m about to join them, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and leave a great big chasm of spoilerproofing here at the top, along with a link to a retelling of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope as a medieval Irish epic (which made me laugh).

SPOILERS BELOW



Stormtroopers
Dancers from Busby Berkeley musical

I can’t recall a single line of dialogue from that movie I saw last month. I can’t remember any of the music, other than the fact the cantina band was reggae this time. None of the creatures or spaceship noises spring to mind.

What remains inside this sieve I call a brain? Lots of running and jumping and fighting and shooting. The battle with the stormtrooper known as TR8-R. The marvelous BB8, who is even better than R2-D2, according to a five-year-old of my acquaintance. Kylo Ren: stopping blaster fire, and groveling to his boss, and getting emo and lightsabering the crap out of his workstation, and fighting an epic lightsaber battle after getting shot by Chewie’s bowcaster. The tragic death of Han Solo, in a way Harrison Ford no doubt spelled out in great detail before consenting to the project. The Millenium Falcon, and the stairs at the end.

Word on the street has it that the Vatican’s review is that Kylo Ren wasn’t evil enough. Which is a good point. He’s more scary than evil, dressed up like a rock star and ready to snap any moment and smash everything on the stage. Plus I just read a fan theory about how badass he is to fight a couple noobs after taking a direct hit from Chewie’s bowcaster that made me reevaluate him a little. Dude’s got a lot of hit points.

Rey

Rey is getting some flack for being a Mary Sue. My attitude is that if I can swallow all the BS science in the Star Wars universe as well as Luke’s preternaturally good video gamer skills and the initial lack of women inhabiting this fictional universe, I can forgive Rey for having a superhuman amount of skill points. Especially since she has to break down machines if she wants to eat, which would give her an edge in figuring out how spaceships and similar things work. I mean seriously, if you know Word you can sort of figure out what Excel and Outlook and Power Point do. If you can fix a guitar amplifier, you can probably fix a bass amplifier. If you can drive a Subaru, you can probably drive a Zipcar, or a forklift, or a U-Haul, or a bumper car. If you can bullseye womp-rats, you can drive an X-Wing. Skills are transferrable like that.

In fact, ponder this. If you think Rey’s engineering skills are absurd, you probably haven’t spent time around people with innate engineering talent; they definitely exist. What if the SW universe figured out how to synthesize that? What if the Skywalker line did?  What if a bunch of people did, and now it’s as common as being left-handed or lactose intolerant?  What if you can just go to the drugstore and buy a bottle of engineering talent and chug it down?

I actually think her fighting is more absurd. She’s doing it wrong, with too much physical contact. If she had been using the staff in a martial arts kind of way, with explosive cracks against knees and ankles and the like while using its reach to keep her distance, I might have bought it.  One of my favorite authors, Diana Gabaldon, wrote a particular fight scene involving a man versus a woman in which the woman chants to herself, “Don’t let him touch you.” Which is key advice for anyone grappling with someone bigger/stronger, or who has a numbers advantage. I think better fight blocking could have solved that whole scene.

I don’t think she’s a Mary Sue, because she has big flaws. She’s delusional about her supposedly-returning family, after an age when most people (with piloting skills especially) would have moved along. She’s also delusional about her ability to escape and survive with all her abundant skills, trapped in some kind of chasm of low self esteem. She’s a coward who tries to run away from her lightsabery destiny, and her social skills are pretty bad. Friends? Doesn’t appear to have any at all.

As far as her sudden explosive use of the Force, consider that she has grown up knowing all about the Jedi. Luke Skywalker is a familiar legend. She has some concept of exactly what a Jedi is, and what they can do. Luke and Anakin, on the other hand, learn about Jedi immediately before training commences.  They’re like people who didn’t learn to use computers until they got to school versus people who grew up with computers all over the house – which one is more likely to be experimenting? 

I love this kind of Star Wars speculation. In fact, maybe force-sensitives in Rey’s era are even more force-sensitive due to the lack of Jedis soaking up all that force. Maybe the force itself has finally gotten irritated with all this fighting and has increased in power. Maybe all those dead souls from Alderaan contributed.

When Luke watches Ben mind-trick the stormtroopers, or swing a light-saber around, his eyes were new. Rey, on the other hand, has grown up with these stories, just like we have. She even has a rebel pilot action figure in her hovel. Once she gets enough confirmation that she actually is force sensitive to break through her survival-oriented worldview, it occurs to her that maybe she can do the mind-trick thing herself. Maybe she can even kick a severely wounded Kylo Ren’s ass in her first lightsaber battle.

Poe

Poe is getting a lot of attention. My standards for attractiveness are forever warped by growing up in the late seventies, so I’m not very good at figuring out which younguns are supposed to be physically attractive these days. None of them seem to have enough hair.

I did like the competent way he flies spaceships. Competence is attractive. 

Finn

He’s got the same name as Huckleberry Finn, and like that character, he has a moment of conscience where he decides the society around him is wrong, and this changes his life. 

The fact that this new series rests on the shoulders of a stormtrooper’s moral event horizon staggers me. It makes me want to collapse backwards onto a soft chair. It’s a full circle moment. 

In an earlier Star Wars piece I discussed the Star Wars approach to childrearing as seen through the window of the times.  In the seventies, there was a popular meme about how children were born perfect and then their spirits were crushed by parental/societal conditioning.  Trendy people went to great lengths to avoid this by giving birth underwater to minimize birth trauma, and by giving their children non-sexist toys, and limiting their engagement with media.  The jedi, as good guys, raising children them in an environment free from harmful conditioning to unlock their force sensitivity made sense to people wrapped in this worldview. There’s a sense that the Force is open to anyone with a pure heart and an overwhelming need to blow up a Death Star, and that anyone can do it given the right training.

In Empire we get the concept of people being too old, too corrupted by society, to learn the ways of the Force.  Luke has to go through bootcamp to make up for this lost time. But he succeeds through strength of will, and family love does the rest.

When we get to Phantom Menace, times have changed, jedihood is innate and measurable. and you either have midichlorians or you don’t. Training doesn’t grant force powers, it only refines talent. Anakin’s unrefined force powers are strong, but his emotional turmoil due to his … seemingly idyllic childhood despite being enslaved, with perfect health and access to all the hot rods an eight year old might want … seals his doom, because he cannot escape his programming and be more blasé about his mother’s death.  In the background we see hordes of stormtroopers, similarly programmed.

In Force Awakens all that programming doesn’t mean squat. A stormtrooper can have a moral event horizon. A cherished son can turn evil (see Kylo Ren). Jedi powers can spring from nowhere, without any formal training at all.  Rey, who is overflowing with neuroses and has had the most miserable childhood depicted in the Star Wars galaxy so far (abandonment, constant malnourishment, hardcore poverty) turns out to be an astoundingly powerful force user.

From “you can condition yourself to be a hero” to “you can’t escape your conditioning” to “you can break right through that conditioning.”

Finn is surfing on the tide of my deep-seated philosophical approval. I was amazed at how concerned I felt for him while watching the movie. When he was wounded, I winced and could barely stand the tension while he was out of the frame, even though my brain full well knows that Disney wouldn’t dare let them take Finn action figures out of the franchise at this early stage.  I rejoiced when he got the chance to lord it over his dumb former boss. I fist pumped (mentally, I wouldn’t disturb the other audience members like that) when he became The Stormtrooper Who Can Aim. 
In the real trilogy, emotions are bad things Jedi seek to avoid. In the prequel trilogy, emotions are horrible things that lead straight to the dark side. In Force Awakens, emotions inspire people to goodness and heroism.

Well, and bad things too.

Kylo Ren

Even the beloved offspring of mythic heroes (especially them) can turn out bad. The idea of parental conditioning puts parents in a double whammy; (a) when their kids turn out bad; and (b) when their friends and neighbors blame them for apparently committing heinous parenting errors that caused their kids to turn out bad.

Ben “Kylo” Ren grew up to be a tall gothy kid with a serious case of grandfather worship, to the extent of recovering gramp’s skull from Endor and carrying it around with him, and talking to it, in old school druid fashion. Apparently Han was too busy being an absent dad, and Leia never read any listicles about how skull-fetishing could be a sign your kid is heading for serious trouble. Or maybe she’s a sadistic beast who deliberately named him “Ben Ren” so the other kids would mock him and make him feel inferior. 

“Ben Ren! You come in the house and drink your blue milk RIGHT NOW!!”

There does appear to be a parental conditioning tale in store for us in future movies, when Ben Ren’s story is developed. Or possibly, given all the emphasis on free will and inspiring passion we’ve seen in Force Awakens, perhaps it all has to do with his personal relationship with the force, and with all those ancestral ghosts following him around.  Because there are plenty of kids with absent dads that don’t turn out to be skull-fetishing siths; you can’t really blame the upbringing.

Ren is a doubly scary villain. On the one hand, there’s a stern-voiced masked thing striding around ordering peoples’ murders and looking like a pint-sized Vader. This critter can paralyze blaster fire in midair, seemingly indefinitely. Yikes.

Once he takes off his mask, we have a young privileged guy overwhelmed with angst and psychosis and possessed of a hair-trigger temper, which is even more terrifying. Lightsabering the crap out of his own workstation when receiving unpleasant news, torturing and killing at the drop of a hat, raising Vader’s bodycount exponentially as he does so. Double yikes.

The Olds

I shed tears over how Mark Hamill changed from a wide-eyed noob to a grizzled old jedi master over the course of my lifetime. I hope I end up looking that ancient when I get that old, assuming I live that long.

Han turned out sort of as I expected, unable to give up his exciting career at the expense of family, which bites him in the end. I knew it was coming the moment I saw that bridge.

And here’s an interesting thing to think about: Anakin killed Obi Wan, who was the closest thing to a father figure he ever had. Luke was contributorily negligent with regard to Anakin’s death. Ben lightsabered his old man. Ben comes from a line with three generations of father killers.

I wonder if he’ll be having any children?

Even more importantly, I wonder how long it’s going to take before Disneyland finishes constructing the Star Wars section.  (Yours truly will be there to check it out, grinning like a fool and wearing an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit t-shirt.)


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