TFA (No Spoilers)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a brilliant film, the latest empty-calorie frenetic 120-miute chase scene from director J J Abrams, who is threatening to become the Michael Bay of franchise remakes as he cheerily goes about strip-mining better films while demonstrating, amid astonishing creative wizardry, that he doesn’t actually understand them.

As with Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, TFA serves up heaping helpings of nostalgia like Grandma’s delicious chicken and dumplings, albeit served with a trowel from a plastic bucket and flung from the window of a speeding minivan. Keep up, open your mouth wide enough, and there are wonderful morsels. Also, as with Abrams’ Trek, the pace and nostalgia efficiently mask the film’s alarming lack of depth. Whereas the quasi-religious overtones of the original Star Wars disturbed the Force of Evangelical Christian Televangelists, triggering fierce debate and even condemnation from religious conservatives, TFA never slows down enough to provoke any level of academic or religious discussion.

In its headlong lunge to un-do one of the greatest pop sagas in human history, TFA makes absolutely no statement about the essential nature of mankind, the existence or role of God, or the role of spirituality. TFA says, essentially, that we can never again believe that evil has been vanquished. All of that Ewok dancing was for nothing because the Bad Guys Always Strike Back.

Which means, if I take this shiny, delicious candy-apple Star Wars into my heart, if I take it seriously, I have to now severely devalue the original trilogy, which I, at my advanced age, honestly can’t do. I similarly accept Abrams’ Star Trek for the fun Saturday Night Live sketch that it was but can’t possibly take that film seriously. TFA is a substantial improvement on the satirical Star Trek and the apocryphal sequel Into Darkness wherein Abrams, already choking on his ideologically bankrupt Trek Lite, virtually rapes the Holy of Star Trek Holies—The Wrath of Khan—while the family is tied up and forced to watch.

There is running and jumping and laser pistol battles, there is Darth Vader Lite (TM) who makes a superficial play for our sympathy but fails, miserably, to earn it (he also doesn’t frighten us either, which is perhaps TFA’s most critical shortcoming). You will enjoy Han Solo the most; my appreciation of Harrison Ford’s acting skill skyrocketed with this film as he effortlessly steps back into a role he hasn’t played in 32 years. Carrie Fisher is wasted; Princess Leia could literally be snipped out of the film at editing and the non-plot would lose absolutely nothing (here’s the literal plot: play Episode IV in fast-forward and chapter-skip all the dull philosophizing, delete any terrifying moments). Fisher has aged wonderfully into a kindly galactic Mom, and the franchise’s erstwhile center, Mark Hamill, has gained an amazing level of gravitas as Abrams positions him for a likely Obi Wan role.

As I said, the film is brilliant in the sense that it introduces the franchise in a much warmer and more entertaining way than did the prequels (which I skipped altogether), while throwing out huge shovels of nostalgic chum for the franchise’s immense audience. Abrams did not embarrass himself, as he did with Trek (a jaw-droppingly awful trailer for Abrams’ Trek runs before the film, which actually helped up my appreciation for TFA).

It’s lack of depth and abiding sense that Abrams, despite being an obvious Star Wars geek, either didn’t understand the underlying Star Wars philosophy or chose to jettison it—compressing Gustav Holst’s The Planets to a Huggies jingle—mars the picture and fills me with far greater dread than whatsisname—the new Vader Guy (so unmemorable I can’t even remember his name; I mean, who left the theatre after seeing Star Wars and did *not* remember Vader’s name?!). As with Trek, here Abrams embraces a form of godliness while denying the power thereof. TFA is the ultimate triumph of form over fashion, or as in the perfectly dreadful Star Trek: Nemesis, which TFA actually borrows from in several sequences, the triumph of the echo over the voice. Like the evats majority of Abrams’ work, TFA is brilliant but soulless.

What’s truly sad about it is, judging from the box office, America (and the world) is just so happy to see the franchise back, we really don’t care how badly Abrams rapes it. And, not only are we watching, we’ve bought popcorn. Which is, perhaps, Abrams’ greatest triumph: making a film so thoroughly entertaining and yet so ideologically bankrupt that we feel guilty watching it.


  1. Dave Van Domelen says:

    Ah, but for those of us who DID watch the Prequels, tFA was a giant leap back up. If not quite on the level of the originals, at least it was within a stone’s throw.

  2. ireactions says:

    All fair points — especially with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS — except one thing. JJ Abrams didn’t script the STAR TREK movies and only scripted THE FORCE AWAKENS in part. Which is not to claim that he isn’t responsible for the creative decisions, but INTO DARKNESS is, to me, a magnificently directed film using a terrible, terrible screenplay. When it comes to TV and a personal work like SUPER 8, JJ’s hands-on writing is quite strong and character oriented. When it comes to tentpole studio movies, Abrams seems to take a step back and focus more on the experience of the content than the content itself — but it’s not just his hand at the wheel.

    Ultimately, it’s Paramount and Disney who determine what they want and Abrams is simply the facilitator. Big studio films are not a writer-driven format or a story-driven format. I don’t think this should alter your opinion of the product, but I’d be hesitant to lay it entirely on Abrams’ shoulders. It’s more collaborative than that, for better or worse.

    • Priest Priest says:

      Points well taken.

      • Oscar Jimenez says:

        I just walked in to say, Super 8 is a great film. Give it a chance sometime. Pure eighties nostalgia, but it’s very well constructed and fairly unapologetic in its tribute-to-a-bygone-era nature.

        • ireactions says:

          SUPER 8 is a great movie — but it’s not a great script. All the pieces are there. It’s heartfelt and sincere. However, it’s missing a few steps.

          The film tries to parallel Joe’s loss of his mother with the alien’s rage and anger — but there isn’t any parallel; Joe is perfectly well adjusted and he’s never as upset as the alien.

          Second, there’s tension Jack, Joe’s dad, blaming Louis for the death of his wife and Joe’s mother. There’s no payoff. They get together to search for their kids — but all they end up doing is sitting in the same car together and setting aside their differences — they never *do* anything that affects the story as a result of their reconciling.

          There are no strong arcs; Joe doesn’t work through his emotions and Jack seems to have his pain lifted by authorial dictate.

          But it’s beautifully directed and the visuals and performances and blocking and scoring and composition raise the script above its flaws. The flaws, however, seem like incredibly obvious first-draft stuff. Nevertheless, it was most definitely written with emotion and heart and commitment and passion — it just wasn’t *re*written and refined.

        • Priest Priest says:

          I loved Super 8. There was a beating heart at the core of that film that is missing from much of Abrams’ other work.

  3. Jason says:

    That new Star Trek trailer? That flick is direct by Justin Lin, who directed the past few Fast and Furious movies.

    If the ST trailer felt like Fast and Furious trailer, well there you go.

    • JD DeMotte says:

      To be fair, Simon Pegg, who not only plays Scotty but is co-writing the film, responded to the trailer and diplomatically said it was kind of awful. Apparently there’s a lot more “Trek” in this script, but they’re not showing it in that trailer. Which to a degree, I get. Paramount isn’t just marketing to Star Trek fans, whose money they’re mostly assured to get, but to mass audiences.

      On the other hand, based on things like Force Awakens and several of the Marvel films, getting the core fanbase excited first, and then making a “Joe Sixpack” trailer later seems like the smarter choice. I suspect we’ll get a second or third trailer that has more of the classic Trek moments, but I wonder if they maybe shot themselves in the foot as the people who should be championing this film now are playing wait-and-see.

      • Priest Priest says:

        Agree. While I also agree Into Darkness was wonderfully directed and edited, the script was an abomination to me. They killed off the best actor in the troupe for absolutely no gain, and the actor still hasn’t brought Kirk home; he misses Kirk (not Shatner, but the character) by a mile. It’s just painful to sit through, Trek as quasi-comedy. I believe this trailer was a real misstep coming on the heels of …Darkness. I need to be assured these folks are taking me (and my ticket money) seriously. Blowing up the E (again)? Yawn. Idris in a *really* bad-looking mask? Yawn. And why does there even need to *be* a villain? They keep trying, again and again, to make Wrath of Khan and they keep failing. I have _no_interested in seeing this film.

  4. Priest, did you ever get to deal with “Star Wars” during your tenure at Marvel?

    Generally speaking, I enjoyed “The Force Awakens.” My guess is that the director was given a mandate to be pop-entertaining but not overly edgy or dark.
    I wanted there to be more actual space combat. Basically all the flying-vehicle combat of note took place planetside. I just thought that was a little odd. I also wanted to see more diverse fighting vehicles.
    I’m liking John Boyega’s Finn so far, though I’m wondering what type of arc he’s being set up for. Clearly, his alleged Jedi-in-training status ended up being misdirection, as that role ended up with Rey. I’m also disappointed that there’s an ongoing backlash against Finn. On one hand, you had racists reacting to his ‘reveal’ as a Stormtrooper in the early trailers. But now, you have black culture think-pieces in the blogosphere going in on him being emasculated and unheroic.
    The Kylo Ren character doesn’t come across as threatening as he could or should—he stops a laser bolt in mid-air at one point, but he nearly gets bested by Finn in saber combat, and clearly gets outdone by Rey in the climax. Then again, his character is presumably in his late 20s or whatever, so maybe he’s still allegedly on his learning curve.
    Max Von Sydow is kind of wasted—he appears, then he is gotten rid of. Oh well. Flashbacks next time?
    I’m disappointed that the comely Lupita Nyong’o ended up playing a Yoda role. With due deference to the craft of motion-capture acting, I felt “anyone” could have done it. Regarding the “Snoke” character, I’m in the dark on what he is supposed to represent. Another evil Jedi lord? A space gangster?
    The Captain Phasma character so far, appears to be mostly for marketing purposes, like Boba Fett was originally. She really doesn’t get to do much, here.
    I’m disappointed that Han Solo had to die, but I guess Harrison Ford wasn’t interested in another full blown trilogy at his age. I’m also disappointed that Leia gets reduced to being an administrator. She was embedded in the action of the first films.
    No Lando? Ah well. I guess we’ll have to settle for watching YouTube clips of his stint on “Dancing with the Stars”.
    I’m not sure that I like Chewbacca being reduced to Rey’s sidekick by movie’s end.
    I’m not a kid anymore, so I’m agnostic when it comes to the cuteness/coolness of the BB-8 robot. But I guess he (she? It?) will continue to stick around.
    Also, this time around, there was very little, if any, philosophical talk about the force: using it for good, bad, helping vs. hurting, etc.

    Beyond the movie, I’m astounded by the obscene glut of merchandise that I keep discovering, in seemingly the most random of contexts. Recognizing that women are officially a prized demographic for the film, nonetheless I’m curious as to how many actually go out of their way to pick up “Star Wars” themed Cover Girl makeup. There are also men’s casual shoes sold at Kohl’s; but upon examining them, the cooler graphics are inside the shoe where your feet go. What’s the point?

    Oh, and I’ve noticed that apparently the “Rogue One” spinoff film is due in theaters this December. Hmm.

    • Priest Priest says:

      Nope–never dealt with SW at all at Marvel. I was in charge of the Spider-Man franchise. I edited The Transformers briefly, but traded that to Mike Carlin for The Dazzler.

  5. Isaac Lawrence says:

    Just to chime in… Yeah, I’m one of those siding with the Finn backlash crowd. Maybe not to the extent that some have gone, but still firmly in that group. And I guess the sad part is, is that I knew it was coming. I read the spoilers back in the spring but I just hoped that they weren’t true. Of course they were, all of it.

    And the thing with Finn, the role felt like the typical role that black actors get in these kind of films. And the irony in that is that it was reported back in 2014 (before John Boyega was cast) that the other two finalist were white actors. So it was John Boyega and two other white guys. Now of course after seeing the movie and what the role was I so wished that they had gone with one of the two white actors instead… Because then I wouldn’t have cared on the level of wanting a “black Luke Skywalker”-type character (and instead got what amounted to was a glorified sidekick to Mary Sue; I mean, Rey), and could have simply written the character off as one that I didn’t care for. But going with the black actor took it to “that” level, and then to be disappointed in what he was is just so, so crushing.

    Naturally, there is still hope. After he comes out of his coma (yeesh) in the next movie, Rian Johnson can make him a Jedi then. Of course I don’t for a second believe they’re going to do that, because then they would have to have him share the spotlight with Rey and there’s simply not enough time in a movie to do that when it’s clear that she’s positioned as the main lead.

    In all, the most frustrating thing about Finn for me is the wait. Because when it comes to Star Wars all I care about are the Jedi. I care about the Luke’s, not the Han’s. So now I’m going to have wait until the NEXT trilogy (whenever they get around to that; in 2020-whatever) to possibly get a black Jedi. And no, Samuel L. Jackson does not count. If Laurence Fishburne were Mace Windu, then the wait for a black Jedi who was a lead character and not a side role wouldn’t be quite as hard. But as it stands right now, in one movie they did what I thought was impossible: they made me not care about Star Wars.

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