There Has Been An Awakening

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens two days ago.  My wife and I took the morning off to see it, having waited until (a) the weekend crowds had died down and (b) our son, who is sadly too young to see or sit through it, was back in preschool.

I should state outright that neither of us have been to the movies since our son was born, more than three years ago.  We didn’t intend for that to happen, things just sort of worked out that way.  (I blame it on the lack of anything worth seeing, myself.)  So it was either the Star Wars butterflies in my stomach or my aged ineptitude, or both, that led me to accidentally purchase tickets online for the 11:00 p.m. show tonight.  We intended to see the 11:00 a.m. show.  The helpful, tattooed miscreant at the ticket counter directed us to guest services, where an extremely patient woman helped us exchange our tickets for the 11:30 a.m. show.

Of course, she had to exchange them again when we realized the movie would let out a half hour past the time we were due to pick up our son from school.  As I said, she was patient.  AMC should be proud.  I’d wanted to see it in normal (2D) projection, but as the only available showing that would let out in time was in (non-IMAX) 3D, we donned our cheap, sadly non-Star Wars themed glasses and headed in.  I tell you these things so you know how discombobulated I was going in to this movie.  Sure, I’m absentminded most of the time, but I think perhaps I was a little more nervous going into this film than I had anticipated being.

My anxiety, however, was misplaced.  J.J. Abrams had us all well in hand.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best time I’ve had the movies in well over a decade, and the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

My thoughts, including all the spoilers, after the jump.

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The Story Is Always About the Characters

I’ve been known to defend certain aspects of the Star Wars prequels.  Not because I think that they’re good films overall, but because there are certain parts of them, mostly involving setting, action, or small character quirks, that struck me as belonging in the Star Wars canon.  That is to say, certain aspects of the films, such as parts of Ewan MacGregor’s performance as Obi Wan, jibe with my own internal vision of the backstory of that character.  They seem to fit.  They seem like glimpses into what the prequels might have been had they been written and directed by someone who actually cared about Star Wars.

io9’s recent look back at Attack of the Clones pretty much sums up my feelings on that movie, in a way I’ve never really been able to express very well myself.  In short, they describe Clones as being, for the most part, just as bad as we all remember, a storytelling failure not redeemed by the one or two good moments of fan service we see on screen.

The message I really take from their review, however, is one I’ve been struggling to elucidate for some time: that the failure of Episode II and, by extension, the Star Wars prequels as a whole, is a failure of character.  The prequels prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that no amount of intriguing world-building, beautiful production design, or stunning action sequences can save a story that fails to bring its characters to life.

So wait, Jim.  Step back a minute.  What you’re saying here, really, is that character is important to storytelling?  Big reveal, dude.  You’re really jumping the shark, here.

Yes, what I’m saying is that character is important–vital–to storytelling.  But you already knew that.  What I think is interesting is finding such a great example of a story that should have worked, that had everything going for it, every reason to work, but completely screwed the pooch when it came time to deliver.

Sure, George Lucas had the burden of decades of fan expectations to deal with.  Yes, that’s a lot of pressure.  But what people often forget is that Lucas made the movies he wanted to make.  He’s never responded well to criticism of the prequels, and generally speaks dismissively of Star Wars fans.  He’s the kind of filmmaker who’s more concerned with how things look than how things feel.  To him, the saga is a soap opera, and he filmed it like one: a story purportedly about passion and heartbreak and betrayal that nonetheless fails almost completely to deliver the pathos of any of those emotions.

What Lucas wanted is what we got: a throwback to the sci-fi adventure serials of his youth, peppered with just enough superficial emotional motivation to propel the plot of the adventure forward.  It’s something that’s appealing to children, but not to adults, who crave real character arcs.

Had he endeavored to see it from the perspective of the people who enjoyed the original movies, he would have (or should have) realized that the films he was making couldn’t possibly have worked.

-Anakin-and-Padme-anakin-and-padme-31435845-813-1500
These are our passion faces.

Take io9’s example of the romantic relationship between Padme and Anakin:

As forced and muddled as the courtship between Anakin and Padme is, it’s obviously an essential piece of the overall puzzle of Star Wars. It’s a nice thing to see, but it’s just handled so terribly. “You are in my very soul tormenting me?” Really? It just sounds like robots talking. And why are you guys eating pears with forks and knives?

It i handled terribly.  The romantic scenes between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman should be used in film school as an example of a lack of chemistry.  The actors are woodenly delivering lines, having been sapped by the bad writing and the directing of any emotional motivation to make the scene work.

Padme Amidala is supposed to be the entire reason Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side.  At the very least, she is the proximate cause: his desire to save her from the death he envisions is the turning point for his character.  In order for that to make sense, for it to play for the audience, we have to believe it.  We have to buy that he loves her so much that he can’t imagine a world without her in it.  That unlike the average person dealing with the idea of loss, Skywalker sees the power to prevent it, and falls into the trap.  He falls to the dark side with the best intentions, but in this case, those intentions never really make any sense, because from the standpoint of the character as he’s portrayed on screen, the audience has absolutely no reason to believe that he actually believes any of it.  The viewer can’t buy what you can’t sell.

Plot and character may be unavoidably intertwined with most stories, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have the plot serve the characters rather than the other way around.

Writing character is a question of empathy: can you, as the writer, put yourself in the shoes of the character you’re writing, so that the character’s emotional responses to the stimuli around them come off as fully realized.  There’s no substitute for running a character through the filter of real human emotion.

There may be some writers out there who can create authentic seeming characters completely dispassionately, but if there are I don’t know of them.  If you can’t see the world through your character’s eyes, at least imaginatively, and feel at least a small flicker of what they must be feeling in the situation you’ve placed them in, then you’re not doing your job as a writer.

And that’s where Lucas failed as a writer with the prequels: he couldn’t sell the defining relationship.  As io9 puts it:

Then it happens. The biggest leap in the history of Star Wars. On the brink of death, Padme confesses her love for Anakin. It’s so out of left field, even in the movie the character of Anakin is surprised to hear it. “I truly, deeply, love you,” she says. Too bad we barely get that sense before that. I couldn’t help but laugh that Lucas made the decision to have Anakin act so shocked. It almost feels like an admission he wasn’t sure how to get the characters to this point, but had to, and here it is.

You might be able to get away with the equivalent of “And then something happens” when it comes to plot, but you’ll never get away with it with character.  The beauty of fiction is that you can get the reader, or the viewer, to believe and accept almost anything if you can sell the characters’ responses to those stories.  If the characters clearly believe it, if they act and think and feel in a way that reflects humanity and emotional logic, then your reader won’t have any trouble suspending their disbelief when it comes to interstellar spaceships or unlikely plot developments.  The reverse is not true.

The story is always about the characters.

Thoughts on ‘The Force Awakens’ Trailer

When September passed by and we hadn’t gotten a proper trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I knew that Lucasfilm had chosen to treat this movie differently.  The teasers we had seen up to that point were extremely minimal, providing no real glimpse into the actual story of the film.  The latest and, purportedly, the last trailer before the premiere, which aired this week during Monday Night Football, was an internet sensation (as we all knew it would be), but it followed in the footsteps of the teasers by keeping its cards very close to its vest.

The “trailer” isn’t really a trailer: it gives us no real insight into what the actual plot of the movie will be.  Which makes a certain amount of sense.  This is Star Wars, after all; they could have never released a trailer and gotten away with it.  J.J. Abrams & Co. clearly want audiences to go into the film with as few preconceived notions as possible.

Here are some of my thoughts, in bullet point form:

  • The big news is: still no Luke.  Or so we think.  It’s obvious that they’re saving Mark Hamill for the premiere.  Two things are important to note, however.  First, we may indeed have seen more of Luke than we think.  The same shot of a hooded figure placing a robotic hand affectionately on R2-D2’s dome was used in the teasers and used again here: it seems clear to me that this is Luke Skywalker, thirty years later, his artificial hand having been replaced or upgraded, touching his old companion in friendship.  R2 was Luke’s droid, after all; he rarely left his side during the original trilogy.  It would make perfect sense that he would accompany Luke into the exile that production rumors have hinted was his destination after Return of the Jedi.

    Secondly, those same production rumors have strongly suggested that Mark Hamill’s participation in Episode VII is minimal–that, in fact, the central thrust of the plot features the new characters (Rey and Finn) seeking out the now-legendary Luke Skywalker in (apparently) self-imposed exile.  Several reports have stated that Luke Skywalker only appears near the end of the movie, and not for very long.  If this is true, and Luke’s character features into The Force Awakens only at its conclusion, then it follows that they wouldn’t include him prominently in the initial marketing (the poster and the trailers), particularly if they also wanted to keep his character’s involvement a surprise.
  • The shots of Rey hunting amidst the ruined Star Destroyer on Jakku were gorgeous.  The entire film looks gorgeous.  I can’t wait to see it for this reason alone.
  • Rey and Han Solo’s interchange in the trailer (“There were stories…” “It’s true.  The Dark Side, the Jedi.  They’re real.”) indicates that the events of the original trilogy have faded into legend, which is both more interesting from a storytelling perspective than the alternative, as well as consistent with the original films.  Despite the fact that they’d been wiped out only twenty years before, Luke Skywalker barely knew what a Jedi Knight was when he met Ben Kenobi.  It appears that has once again become the status quo, meaning that Luke apparently did not bring the Jedi back to the prominence they had before the rise of the Empire.
  • As much as we all want to see what happened to the original cast, I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the new story that’s obviously being told here: this is a new generation of heroes, guided by an older one.  There are a lot of parallels to be made here to the generational change in the real world, I think.  George Lucas has compared the recent history of the Star Wars universe as being similar to ours in some respects: the Clone Wars were like World War II, while the Rebellion was like Vietnam, at least in the consciousness of the people living through these eras.  In that since, you could call Luke, Han, and Leia’s generation the Baby Boomers, just as you could call their children (literally and figuratively) the Millennials.  It’s been said that Baby Boomers had the chance to change the world but failed to do so: wouldn’t be fascinating to find that, like in the our world, Luke Skywalker’s generation similarly failed?  The new canon that has been established since the Disney takeover has begun to make clear (primarily through the novel Aftermath) that the Rebels’ victory on Endor was only the beginning of a larger war.  Whether or not the Rebellion was able to successfully establish a New Republic in the long term, the idea that there is no true end to war and suffering (except, arguably, through the Force) would certainly make for a powerful new chapter in the larger story.
  • The emergence of a new superweapon of some kind, as evident from the poster and the trailer, indicates that the First Order truly is picking up where the Empire left off.  Whether the First Order is already a major power in the galaxy or merely a re-emergent threat (which is distinct possibility, given hints seeded into Aftermath), clearly they’ve come to conquer.
  • We really have gone back to the settings and feel of the original three films, here: every shot takes place either aboard a spaceship or on some backwater planet.  Not a city-planet to be found.  Which begs the question: what happened to Coruscant?  Is it simply not relevant to this story?
  • Since I started writing this (a couple of days ago), the Internet has blown up with rumors that Luke is, in fact, Kylo Ren, the black-cloaked, helmeted villain from the trailers.  The problems with this theory are legion and obvious, the biggest being that Ren is played by Adam Driver, who has been shown as the character in photos and the teasers.  The idea that Luke Skywalker might have turned to the Dark Side, however, is not a new one, and the most compelling argument I’ve heard for why Abrams might try this can be found right here.  Of course, any theory saying Luke goes evil has to take into account the leaked photo that’s been floating around the Internet, with Mark Hamill dressed in what is clearly Jedi (i.e., good guy) attire.
  • The music is fantastic.  You can here a new take on one of the classic themes in the trailer, when the Millennium Falcon is flying through the Star Destroyer wreckage, and it’s very moving.
  • Overall I’m impressed by what I’ve seen so far, and even more impressed by the restraint they’ve shown with the trailers and marketing.  They clearly want us to be surprised and impressed by whatever they’ve cooked up, and let the film speak for itself.
  • The footage we’ve seen has undeniably felt like Star Wars, to me, in a way the prequels never did.

It Doesn’t Really Matter If the Movie Is Faithful to the Original

io9 reported today on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con called “Studio Production Chiefs Speak,” highlighting a quote from Drew Crevello, senior vice president at Warner Bros.:

“You need at least one, if not two, people in the process to be true passionate fans—not because that ensures reverence, [but because] those are the ones who are best positioned to know, ‘Okay, this is a different medium and you have to diverge [from the source material], and have the courage to do that. [When I worked on] X-Men: First Class and Deadpoool [at Fox], and now with Akira and Stephen King’s The Stand, you have to have reverence for the material—but also, the courage to make the bold creative choices that you just know the fans will come along with you for.”

It makes sense that studios think this way.  Before Crevello said this, his fellow panelist Jim Miller of Lionsgate had just commented that “Loyalty to the source material is the most important thing. There’s a reason these things are popular, and to diverge from what made them popular [in the first place] would be a huge mistake.”  Agreed.  But I think that we can all agree that movie studios are not in the business of being faithful to beloved source material.  They’re in the business of making money, and if they see an opportunity to do so, or to adapt the source material better for the medium of film, then they’re going to take it.  The best possible approach we can expect them to have is what Crevello’s saying: they hire diehard fans to assist with the process so that they don’t stray too far.

We tend to think of diehard fans as being the ones most likely to demand strict adherence to the source material, but the reality is this: diehard fans are the ones for whom no adaption will ever replace the source material.  For these purists, there will never be any danger of any adaptation surpassing the original, because the original is already perfect.

True diehard fans of The Lord of the Rings, for instance, realize that the novels J.R.R. Tolkien wrote are inherently unfilmable.  There’s no way to adapt them perfectly, nor should anyone try.  You may love the Peter Jackson movies and believe they were as faithful to the books as possible, or as any film adaptation was likely to be, and you’d be right.  But being a fan of the movies doesn’t make you a fan of the books, and vice versa.  They’re not the same thing at all.

It makes sense, then, that movie studios want diehard fans on their team for the reason Crevello stated.  Diehard fans are more able to step back and say, “Starting with the presumption that all of this is basically just bullshit, that nothing will ever replace the original, what can we do to make this work in this new medium?”  They’re able to identify the tenets of the source material, the defining bones of it, and in so doing they’re able to identify what can be sacrificed or changed.

The underlying question when critiquing any adaptation should be “Did they capture the essence of the original?” not “Is it exactly the same as the original?” (or, even worse, “Is it exactly as I imagined it?”).  There are certainly arguments to be made that poor adaptations reduce the overall value of the original, since they potentially limit the original’s growth, but that’s another issue entirely, and I can think of an equal number of counterarguments for it.

For the true fan, the adaptation is only ever a diversion from the real thing.

1980s Fantasy Movies That Influenced A Young Me

342613Gather around children, and let Old Nuncle Jim tell you a tale.  Selfie sticks down.  Turn your phones on vibrate.  Pass me my beer and turn that Queen album back up.  Ahem.  That’s better.

There was a time, long before iPhones, long before the Internet, prior even to the advent of the DVD and stadium seating in movie theaters, when fantasy movies were not the big budget blockbusters they are today.  Before Peter Jackson was ordained from on high to grace us with a (relatively) faithful, three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy as a genre in Hollywood was pretty dead.  The 1990s in particular was a drought of fantasy so extreme that people did crazy things, like listen to Limp Bizkit and dance the Macarena (Wikipedia those if you have questions).  There weren’t even any good B movies; the fantasy movie-going public were left with pitiful dregs the likes of Dragonheart, Kull the Conqueror, and Encino Man.  (Just kidding about that last one.  Encino Man is a documentary about Pauly Shore.)

But let’s go back a decade, to a more magical time: the 1980s.  Yes, that one, the one you know from theme parties and Taylor Swift’s new album.  The one with music made by people older than your parents.  This was Nuncle Jim’s early childhood, a time of Transformers and Capri Sun and Ronald Reagan.  People still smoked cigarettes indoors, back then, and there were payphones.  There were actually quite a few fantasy movies made during the ’80s.  It was a good time for fantasy, in the sense that at least it was getting made.  This was probably due both to legitimate popularity (a lot of modern classic fantasy novels were written or begun in the 1980s), and the fact that Hollywood still made movies that weren’t expected to make $1 billion internationally.  Like I said, it was a different time.

And in addition to all the wonderful books Nuncle Jim read, there were lots of wonderful (and not so wonderful) movies that he watched that influenced the geeky course of his life going forward.  And if he’s being honest, he probably owes just as much to these pulpy, low-budget films as he does to the books he’s read.  So here’s a list of the ones that stand out in Nuncle Jim’s memory.

I will now end this belabored narrative device and switch to the first person, so as to list the influential movies in question, which are listed with a short explanation in no particular order.

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Why ‘The Hobbit’ Movies Suck

I couldn’t agree more with this comparative analysis by DBS Film Society of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies.  It’s not just that Peter Jackson artificially broke up a children’s book into three bloated films, it’s that in doing so he emphasized the superficial over the substantial.

This is what Hollywood has always done in response to a popular, critically-acclaimed film: ape its most superficial qualities in the assumption that that was the key to its popularity.  It’s a classic case of style over substance.  But they’re mistaken.  Samwise himself said it best: “…those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something–even if you were too small to understand why.”

Brilliant and well worth the watch for any Tolkien fan.