26 December 2015

The Force Awakens -We've Seen This Before, Right?

I know many think I’m a curmudgeon and that I can no longer enjoy something without criticizing and pointing out its flaws. And while perhaps there is a nugget of truth to that, when I do take something to task, I have (what I think is) a logical reason. And Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the reason for this post.

Part of my problem with Episode VII revolves around them lifting so many elements from Episode IV (also known as the original film that started it all). I’m sure Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy, director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (with help from original writer Michael Arndt) knew that this latest chapter had to surpass the prequel trilogy in many ways. And to be truthful, I think they succeeded because the film is entertaining. But by returning to the tried and true formula of original film, The Force Awakens becomes the latest Hollywood tent-pole film to suffer the indignity of being a reboot and also a remake. This hybrid style of appeasing to older fans and (more importantly, newer ones) gives this newest film a mishmash feelings of great nostalgia (look, it’s Han Solo, Chewie, Leia, and the Falcon!) for what’s come before, but is also sort of empty of style and elegance needed to be a true continuation. 

Of course, life does have a tendency to repeat itself. Looking at Episodes one through three and then superimposing Episodes four through six, you do notice the same basic structure. Now add The Force Awakens and you see the familiarity of themes exposed again – a lost droid who ends up stranded on a desert planet who carries a secret message, an apparently orphaned girl who lives there and who possess special powers, and who “coincidentally” runs into that droid, we also have a cocky pilot, a conflicted young man who’s allegiance is somewhat questionable, a villain that wears a mask, and somebody whom has a surprising family heritage. I think that in George Lucas’ research on mythology he noticed these themes and applied them to his first six Star Wars films; and by doing them in reverse order, you don’t notice them too much. But out of the first six, only The Empire Strikes Back appears to be the most different from the rest. That film, considered by many to be the best, is creatively unlike than the first one; it also more distinctive than third one, which (for better or worse), appeared designed to end the series on a happy note without much further thought on what would happen the next day. When Return of the Jedi ended no one (and I even think Lucas himself) wanted to figure how the universe would recover from this long, deadly, and destructive conflict. Restoration, while always interesting, appears to be much more difficult to translate to the screen (that’s all the boring stuff?).

Also, if anyone has read the Expanded Universe books (now known as “Legends” due to the new movie franchise), it became clear that the victory over the moon of Endor was a prelude to more conflict, more pain, more death. And as much as Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, C3PO, and R2D2 are heroes, the loss of life and universal destruction haunted them as they became the fulcrum in the New Republic.

I don’t think any aspect of the old EU will make it into these next three films, mostly because Disney wants to own the whole kit and kadoodle, so the old EU was abandoned and a new one created. Using any elements from that previous one would mean fees and residuals would need to be paid to those writers. But a lot of stuff goes unanswered, as the TFA put out a number of new questions. Most, of course, will not be answered in the films. That aspect will fall to the new novels that will be released (and already come out). But I’m unsure if most of the broad-based viewing audience this film is squarely driven to will care to read the novels (and we can argue if all –or any questions- really need to be answered).

The movie does give us a Cliff Notes version of events since ROJ (and for movie makers, this type of "laying the pipe" is one of the most difficult aspects of film making; how much exposition is needed to make sense to the viewing audience without boring them and “taking” them out of the narrative), but I was surprised on how much was glared over. I will concede, though, that unlike the original trilogy, the people behind this new one are aware they’re making a trilogy, so they don’t need to really explain too much in the first one, which just is the first act in a three act play. So while some of the glossing is to be expected (and something that did bother me at times, but that’s my own personal issue), I still felt we needed a bit more.

But let me get back to the main topic here: why does this film rewind and repeat so many aspects of A New Hope and (somewhat) The Empire Strikes Back? Why does the film barely acknowledge that 32 years have flown by since ROJ? Why does it appear that the narrative of those intervening decades –as the New Republic began restoration- scarcely seem advanced since the destruction of the Galactic Empire? And while I’m assuming that in the next two films there will give some explanation of why the New Republic appeared to know nothing about (or aware, and allowed its existence) of the Resistance, or how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire, there is no guarantee they will, because, again, most of this will fall to the ancillary novels; and (most likely) the novelization which comes out (and least on physical book form) three weeks after the release of the film.

And while some may be driven to do this (like me), I do believe some of the above statements are important story points that should’ve been addressed in this film. They are not, as some will argue, superfluous exposition. Thus you should not force your high paying ticket film watchers to go out and buy supplemental materials because you’re making films for the world of ADHD kids. 

Why is The Force Awakens really a remake and not a continuation? My first conclusion comes to the simple fact that there is a culture of fear that runs Hollywood (ever present in its one hundred plus history, but more so now than ever before). Granted, A New Hope was by far not an original film. It was an update, a reboot before the word came into existence, of the old 1930s Flash Gordon serials, with ancient Greek mythology and samurai legends thrown in for good measure. But since nearly 40 plus years had passed since the Hollywood studios were making them, it succeeded and the rebirth of the space opera (once regulated to just science fiction novels and B films of the 1950s, and Star Trek) began. But Hollywood’s fear of trying something new is, well, not new either. 

On occasions, however, they do something right. While the original Star Wars was a huge battle for Lucas, its success (despite it being a mishmash of old ideas) proved that if done right, a film series can be born. But while The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith were financially successful, it’s tepid response by the fans made the idea of doing a third trilogy a bit off-putting, which is why Lucas probably decided it was time to sell off his creation to Disney in 2012 for a cool $4 billion dollars. Now they would have to deal with the ever fickle fans when the Mouse House announced their purchase -plus telling the world a new trilogy would launch in 2015, a decade after the last film.

But here lies the problem, so to speak. How does the Star Wars Cinematic Universe move on ten years after the last picture (though set decades before the original trilogy) and three decades after the last film featuring the original cast? It was obvious that Episodes VII (at least) would need to spend some time exploring what had happened to Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han Solo, and the rest in the thirty years since Endor; this, mainly, because fans would want them to be in it. Plus The Force Awakens would need to introduce new characters and new situations to its CU to fill out the trilogy. 

But Hollywood being Hollywood becomes conflicted with how to do this. While there have been many men who’ve played James Bond over its long 52 history, when  George Lazenby succeed Sean Connery , who then returned for one more outing, before Roger Moore assumed the role, the makers did not feel a need to start all over again. And while this continued with Timothy Dalton taking over for Moore, and then Pierce Bronson for him, again the makers felt no need to reboot the franchise. They essentially believed the audience was smart enough to understand that a new actor just assumed the role and moved on. When Eon finally decided to reboot the franchise, when Daniel Craig assumed the role in 2006, it was already forty years old. I believe it was a smart move that proved financially successful. It did indeed open the franchise to a newer, broader audience it probably needed.

But then on the opposite end, we have Sony and their Spider-Man franchise and their belief that fans would get confused seeing a new actor play Spider-Man. After three films starring Tobey McGuire, Sony decided it needed a new actor to play the web slinger. But instead of just replacing the actor and moving on like with James Bond, the studio felt compelled to reboot the series again, and so in less than eight years, gave us not only a new actor playing Spider-Man but a new (though still the same) origin story. The fact that both The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 are essentially remakes of the first two films was not lost on reviewers and fans alike. Stuck with a brand they did not want to give back to Marvel, Sony said they were going to reboot the franchise again. But then they did agree to work with Marvel this time and give the fans a Spider-Man that will closely resemble the original comic book. And while they claim this new film, due in 2017, is not an origin story, I none the less believe somehow, someway, they’ll shoehorn it in again. 

Star Trek was up next. After some ten films, six featuring the original series cast and four featuring The Next Generation cast, the Gene Roddenberry franchise was rebooted in 2009 with new take on the original series. While one can criticize the use of action over the Star Trek’s usual philosophical ideals, by setting it in an alternate timeline seemed like a good idea; it got around a lot of the franchises continuity issues. As a matter of fact, I complemented them on being this creative. It may not be “my” Star Trek, and the Into Darkness may have sucked, but the reboot film itself worked for me. 

When Universal decided to revive their Jurassic Park franchise after critical drubbings that The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III (which was released in 2001) got, they decided that they would go the remake/reboot way. For all of its financial success, Jurassic World is Jurassic Park. Yes it pays homage to the original film (and somewhat ignoring the second film and not mentioning the third), but ends up following the same premise as the first, featuring nearly the same characters with the same character beats. It fails to capture the same deft of wonderment of the original, though and there is no inventiveness, no real wit or suspense; but I will admit it is entertaining, mostly because leads Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt seem to be enjoying themselves.

And that returns me back to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film is a virtual remake of A New Hope and borrows heavy elements from The Empire Strikes Back. Clearly, though, Harrison Ford is in his element here, playing to the long –time fans who’ve always enjoyed his role as Han Solo (let us also not discount that out of the three main actors, Ford has been the most successful and appeals to a wide, varying audience). But Carrie Fisher is woefully underused here –though she’ll undoubtedly be part of Episode VIII and IX. I just hope we see more of her in these later films.  The new cast, led by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, are wonderful. Even Adam Driver’s emo take on Kylo Ren is great. And yes, the film is just as entertaining as Jurassic World.

But I do feel it was unnecessary to assume the audience could not get into a new trilogy without going back and retelling A New Hope’s story all over again. They could’ve easily accomplished re-introducing the entire cast, along with all the new ones -with the same basic plot of the rise of the First Order from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, the mystery surrounding the often silly looking Supreme Leader Snoke- without coming up with a third Death Star like weapon, without having said new characters be replacements/amalgamations of the beloved originals, and without resorting to the smoke and mirrors aspect that surrounds this film. After all, doing a new Star Wars trilogy has lesser risk of failure than most other film franchises, despite the issues that plagued the prequel series. Disney really had a chance here to make something original, but succumbed to bureaucratic convenience that the best way to reintroduce the Star Wars franchise was remake it. 

So, in a way, history does repeat itself.

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