Further thoughts on The Force Awakens

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I’ve now seen the movie several times and I like it a little more each time. One thing I particularly admire is the depth of the production design. It’s like ESB, everywhere you look there are details in the environment that make it seem real. I have no idea how much that costs, but it’s a big failing in a lot of sci-fi movies.

I’ve refined my thinking about Supreme Leader Snoke. I’m fine with having him so much in the movie. In fact, it’s kinda cool to see that General Hux and Kylo Ren report to Snoke separately, and that they don’t really get along with each other. I’ll be interested to see how that plays out in the next movie. BUT I think it was a mistake to reveal that Snoke was a giant hologram in the very first scene where he appears. It would have been much better to let the audience think that he might actually be a 30-foot tall dude for most of the movie, and only reveal that he’s a hologram at the end, when Hux comes to report that the planet is about to blow. Keeping people guessing like that has been a traditional strength of Star Wars – it’s a minor thing but it feels like a missed opportunity here.

(Also, I really hope that Snoke is a life-sized hologram of a 30-foot dude, and not a giant hologram of a normal-sized dude. And if he turns out to be like Yoda small, I’m going to be disappointed. How awesome would it be if the final battle of the sequel trilogy was Rey going up against a giant?)

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I think the lightsaber fight at the end of this movie is my favorite out of all of the Star Wars movies. In large part because they’re so clumsy and desperate. Kylo Ren is passionate and undisciplined at the best of times, and he’s still reeling from having killed Han and from having been shot by Chewie. And Finn and Rey are clearly trying their hardest but kind of fumbling around. That the fight happens right after Han’s death gives it an emotional weight that a lot of other lightsaber fights can’t match. The big fight with Darth Maul at the end of TPM is still thrilling but it’s almost the exact opposite – everyone is technically super-proficient, and the fight starts with essentially zero emotional freight. Here are two Jedi, here’s a Sith, time to fight, because that’s what you do in these situations.

Also, getting back to the immersive environments, I was astounded to learn that the lightsaber fight at the end happened on a soundstage. I never suspected for a moment that it wasn’t a real forest. And I’ve spent a lot of time stomping around in the woods. Impressive.

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It’s kind of funny that Kylo Ren offers to teach Rey to use the Force at the turning point of their battle, because he already has been. A lot of critics have asked why Rey is able to affect the stormtrooper’s mind, without ever having been trained. Because – duh – Kylo Ren had already shown her how, in their immediately previous scene together. Rey’s proficiency in the Force is in part a problem of his own devising.

Rey’s strength in the Force is not – and one of the best things in the movie is that Rey’s abilities come as a surprise not just to Kylo Ren, but to Rey herself. Daisy Ridley gives the best performance of the movie, with her visible uncertainty, exhilaration, and wonder as Rey discovers her powers (and somehow not deploying her million-watt smile). But my absolute favorite thing is that she is only successful at using the Force when she is at peace. In both the stormtrooper mind-control scene and the final fight with Kylo Ren, Rey visibly struggles at first, and makes no headway. But then she calms down, her brow smooths, and the Force flows through her. Dynamite, and a perfect example of “show, don’t tell”. Yoda tells Luke that his access to the Force will be best when he is “calm, at peace, passive”. Oddly enough, I think Qui-Gon kneeling for a quick meditation during the final TPM lightsaber fight, and now Rey acting that out when she uses the Force, are the only times we’ve really been shown that on screen. (Maaaybe Luke when he chops off Vader’s hand in ROTJ and then looks down at his own.)

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Perhaps the best thing I can say about The Force Awakens is that it has sufficient depth to reward multiple viewings and subsequent noodling. I am looking forward to the next two episodes, but if for some reason they never get made, TFA would still be a great, rewarding movie.

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2 Responses to Further thoughts on The Force Awakens

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Do we know for sure that we were seeing a Snoke hologram, and that that wasn’t the real Snoke teleporting out? I know the former is a stronger hypothesis, but I don’t see anything that lets us rule out the latter.

    On the rivalry between Ren and Hux: it didn’t occur to me until my second time that when the TIE fighters turn up on Jakku and start blowing up the trading outpost, that represents a direct aggression by Hux in contravention of what he’d agreed with Ren — to let the Stormtroopers on the ground try to capture, rather than destroy, the droid. I like how they are gently warming that rivalry up.

    “I think the lightsaber fight at the end of this movie is my favorite out of all of the Star Wars movies. In large part because they’re so clumsy and desperate.” <– Word. It feels like an actual thing happening, rather than a ballet being performed.

    "The big fight with Darth Maul at the end of TPM is still thrilling" <– Yes; but about 90% of that is down to the awesome music (Duel of the Fates, IIRC).

    “It’s kind of funny that Kylo Ren offers to teach Rey to use the Force at the turning point of their battle, because he already has been.” <– Ha, I'd missed that! Good catch. (I mean, I got that that was how Rey knew that Force Persuade was even a thing, but didn't spot the irony in the offer to teach.)

    "… and somehow not deploying her million-watt smile)" <– That struck me, too, and it's another way the new film echoes the original. Leia very rarely smiles in the original trilogy; and for that very reason, on the few occasions when she does, it lights up the screen. I wonder if we'll see that smile again in VII or IX? She doesn't have a lot to smile about.

    Finally: is it just me, or are you also referring to Rey and Finn jointly as the actinopts?

  2. Matt Wedel says:

    Do we know for sure that we were seeing a Snoke hologram, and that that wasn’t the real Snoke teleporting out?

    Yes – in the final scene with Snoke, as the giant audience chamber is starting to crumble, we see bits of rock fall from the ceiling and pass through the hologram, during which time the image briefly pixelates and then recovers. It’s actually kind of a neat effect, and that’s why they should have waited until then to reveal that he’s a hologram. It would have been great to see the place visibly crumbling and wonder why this giant 30-foot dude was just sitting there chilling, and only reveal at the end that he was a mere projection.

    Also, it’s an article of faith that teleportation technology doesn’t exist in the Star Wars universe, and I hope it stays that way. Transporters are one of those things that are so wide-reaching in their implications that they really constrain the storytelling options. You can (a) leave them out, (b) think through their ramifications in every aspect of life (beaming warheads onto the enemy bridge, using transporters instead of cars or turbolifts, beaming tumors and arterial plaque out of bodies, etc.) – at which point it’s hard for the story not to be driven by the existence of beaming, or (c) use them for one thing, ignore all of their other uses, and let the versimilitude of the story suffer as a result (every iteration of Star Trek).

    Similarly, I hope there’s never a time travel story in Star Wars.

    On the rivalry between Ren and Hux: it didn’t occur to me until my second time […] that represents a direct aggression by Hux in contravention of what he’d agreed with Ren

    Yeah, great, isn’t it? In a way, both the good guys and the bad guys in TFA seem more damaged, less omni-competent. I read an interesting article arguing that because everyone in the First Order (other than Snoke) is young, the implication is that the destruction of the two Death Stars, and most of the Imperial fleet at Jakku, wiped out pretty much the entire Imperial officer corps, and Snoke had to rebuild with basically kids – and many of them abducted, like Finn.

    “… and somehow not deploying her million-watt smile)” <– That struck me, too, and it's another way the new film echoes the original. Leia very rarely smiles in the original trilogy; and for that very reason, on the few occasions when she does, it lights up the screen.

    Yeah. It only struck me after watching a couple of interviews with Daisy Ridley, where her smile seems to be one of her major defining traits. I think the only times she unleashes it in the movie are when she meets Finn in the Falcon’s corridor after their narrow escape from Jakku, and in the cockpit of the Falcon after she bypasses the compressor. It actually functions on multiple levels: (1) Rey doesn’t have a ton of stuff in her life to smile about; (2) every time in the movie that she does smile (widely, as opposed to just grinning), she’s just achieved something – the smiles are basically breadcrumbs on her path of discovering what she’s good at; and (3) on the meta level, not having Rey smile all the time keeps the focus on her character – her decisions and their outcomes – instead of on how cute Daisy Ridley is. Which is really admirable – not only did the filmmakers not tart her up, if anything they tarted her down (is that a thing?). That shouldn’t be a brave choice, but it is.

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