Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling remarks from my mad, muddled, meandering mind.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A SPOILER-Filled Discussion of The Force Awakens

Scooter and I went to see The Force Awakens a second time, and while it hasn't quite been two weeks since the opening, I wanted to get down some of my thoughts regarding specific story beats in the film. Obviously, there are spoilers involved, so I am going to hide the bulk of this post behind a break.

No fear have ye of evil SPOILERS, sez you. Properly warned ye be, sez I.

The Mary Sue?

Max Landis, the son of director John Landis and budding screenwriter, attracted the ire of the TFA fandom with his insistence that Rey is a Mary Sue. Apologists have leveled the accusation of sexism at Landis. Personally, I believe he's sincere when he says he's a feminist. (At the same time, I am not willing to investigate his oeuvre further.) But his dismissive labeling of Rey as a Mary Sue is problematic for a variety of reasons. Leaving aside for a moment that not only is his definition a bit skewed in my opinion, the very term "Mary Sue" has been so genericized as to become practically meaningless, while at the same time leveled almost exclusively at female characters (Gary/Marty Stus, notwithstanding). Landis doesn't like Rey's character arc, therefore she is a Mary Sue.

I went over to The Mary Sue itself to see what they had to say on the subject, and their argument is essentially that, even if she is a Mary Sue, Rey is far from being the only one in Star Wars. Less than satisfying, to be honest; and it doesn't answer Landis' charge. But it does serve to remind us that Star Wars is a throwback not only to serial movies of the mid-20th century, but also much farther back to ancient epic sagas where characters were archetypes and rarely nuanced or conflicted. Part of his accusation has to do with the way Rey seems to be too good at everything with no explanation as to why. In various places, I have read:
  1. She's a skilled mechanic who knows more about the Millennium Falcon than Han Solo.
  2. She's an ace pilot flying for the first time in a notoriously cantankerous ship.
  3. She's a crack shot with a blaster.
  4. She easily reads the mind of a trained Force user.
  5. She manages a Jedi mind trick on her second attempt.
  6. She overcomes the object summoning of a trained Force user (Accio lightsaber!)
  7. She's adept at hand-to-hand combat, besting a trained swordsman with a weapon she's never held before.
That all depends on one's point of view. I can counter most of these challenges.
  1. She clearly has been involved in the maintenance and "upgrades" to the Falcon, since she discusses how she told Plutt (the blobfish-looking junk dealer) the upgrades were flawed. She also makes her living scavenging valuable parts from the Star Destroyer and other equipment left behind from the Battle of Jakku. It would behoove anyone in that position to know the purpose of such components and how to connect/disconnnect them properly.
  2. Though Rey tells Finn the Falcon hasn't flown in years, that doesn't mean she's never seen it fly or even possibly participated in piloting it (see my last point). Plus, the natural precognition of Force sensitives leading to superior piloting skills is a plot point on more than one occasion in the previous six films. On the other hand, while they manage to defeat the two TIE fighters, Rey's handling of the Falcon is far from perfect. The ship hits the sand several times, and only Star Wars physics keep it aloft, where an Earthling aircraft would have crashed and burned.
  3. It's been pointed out elsewhere that Rey is the first person in the Star Wars films that has to be told how to operate a blaster, and then still forgets to take the safety off the first time she tries to fire it. She also misses her first shot, using Kentucky windage to hit a stormtrooper on her third attempt. During the same battle, in contrast, Han Solo bullseyes a stormtrooper without even looking. (An aside, how is it that in 40+ years of working together, Han has never fired a shot Chewie's bowcaster?)
  4. We don't know how Jedi mind reading works, though we've seen it before when Darth Vader susses out Luke's feelings for his sister. J.J. seems to have taken a page out of Star Trek, using the Vulcan mind meld—a two-way street. If Kylo Ren opens up his mind in the meld (perhaps without realizing it), then Rey—as a Force sensitive—would be able to sense his thoughts even as he attempts to extract her memories of the map. Between Ren's efforts and the call of Anakin's lightsaber, we're also left to speculate what "Awakens" in her, leading to my next point.
  5. The Jedi mind trick is the first thing I would say is really extraordinary that Rey does. Even then, she's not exactly perfect at it initially. Again, between the Force vision and Ren's Force meld with her, Rey's own abilities are kicked up a notch. And the mind trick is the first direct indication of her burgeoning power.
  6. Summoning the lightsaber was another demonstration of Rey's power. Also, if parallels to Harry Potter are consistent, the saber had already "chosen" Rey, and responded to her over Kylo Ren, who had not bested her in direct combat.
  7. The last point, her ability with the lightsaber is, quite frankly, the most easily explained. Rey carries her staff with her just about everywhere on Jakku, using it to both defend herself (when Finn sees her for the first time) and to threaten others (like when she first encounters BB-8, rescuing him from the other scavenger). Once the lightsaber is in her hand, she uses it very much like she would her staff, thrusting and parrying Kylo's blows in a two-handed style. If anything, her style reminded me of Palpatine's lightsaber technique in Revenge of the Sith.
But what if, despite her screen time, Rey is not the protagonist? I have a friend who uses the following criteria to judge which character is the protagonist of a story: the character who changes the most. Based on this, I would say that Finn is, in fact, the protagonist. He goes from being a faceless stormtrooper through fleeing the First Order at any cost to taking on the primary antagonist of the film in order to protect his friend. That he is essentially defeated by Kylo Ren is not relevant to his heroism. Finn will live to fight another day.

But, naw. On film, Star Wars is always a Hero's Journey, and Rey is clearly that hero. She's a different hero than Luke, starting from a different place. Luke was a sheltered farm boy raised by his family, who sought adventure anywhere but home. "Not unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest or teleport me off this rock." Rey is basically on her own, waiting for a family that is more a fantasy than reality. "I have to get home. I've been gone too long already." Her independence (and competence) are a reflection of that. Landis also overstates Luke's "suckiness." Anakin's son makes a lot of mistakes, to be sure. But by Return of the Jedi, Luke has come into his own as a hero and all-around badass.
I think Landis' reaction may have been because he missed details in the movie his first time around, and spouted off before he saw it a second time. Then he doubled down when hit with an internet backlash. He formed an opinion without a careful examination of the facts, and then—like we all do—refused to let those facts get in the way of his opinion. On the other hand, I am often annoyed by things that run afoul of my professional expertise, even in films where fantastical things are going on. I call this phenomenon "Cellphone Syndrome" after one such detail in Iron Man took me out of the moment. In Landis' case, he apparently studied film (screenwriting, in particular) at the University of Miami, so he is sensitive to what he considers proper characterization.

One other aspect of this education is that he is less willing than the average Star Wars fan to accept that explanations may be forthcoming in future episodes because, in his view, every movie should be able to stand on its own, independent of any prior or future movies. The problem I see with this attitude is that the franchise has always been intended to be a throwback to the matinee serials of George Lucas' youth. Those movies clearly were not independent stories, but rather episodes of a larger story. The only Star Wars movie that can fully stand its own is the original, now dubbed Episode IV. Star Wars is simply a glimpse into a larger world. We never saw the Battle of Jakku or the development of the current political starscape, nor are we meant to. The audience is always playing bit of catch up with the serial, hence the opening crawl of text. Landis' presumption that we should have all the information about Rey (or any other character) stems from a failure to understand a type of film that was history long before his own birth.


Retreading the plots of prior Star Wars: I'm OK with this to a point. As a Myth (see below), the franchise is a bit circular. Unfortunately, like J.J. Trek, it's getting a little too self-referential. Lucas drew heavily from a variety of sources to develop the plot and feel of Star Wars, some of which I will return to below. Quentin Tarantino manages a similar pastiche/homage to the films of his youth. But now we're in an era where the filmmakers are influenced by . . . Star Wars. This is all right when you're talking about other stories—like Guardians of the Galaxy, for example. J.J. struck a decent balance of old and new in this film, but I'm hoping Rian Johnson will take it in a different direction (and without major plot holes, a la Looper).

Captain Phasma: So much disappoint. Much like Boba Fett, Phasma is all sorts of badass—in theory, with nothing demonstrated on screen. The funny thing is that she could easily have been put in situations where she was more than just a stern superior officer. For instance, it could have been Phasma, instead of a random stormtrooper, that bested Finn with the "taser-tonfa." Here's hoping that she not only survived the destruction of Starkiller Base, but that we see her badassery in future movies rather than just having to assume it.

The Physics of the Starkiller weapon: Eh, it's all impossible anyway. From what I gather, it was better explained in the novelization, but that explanation would not have been exciting on film. J.J. is known for his inability to grasp interstellar distances (see the Star Trek reboot). The fact that the various characters could see not only the beams but the destruction of the (temporary) Republic capital is a symptom of that. On the other hand, we are talking about a Myth. Distance and geography are often fudged in myths. When was the last time a doorway to Hades opened up in the ground here on Earth? Did Joshua really make the sun stand still?

The Mythic Journey

Ultimately, I think everyone forgets that Star Wars is a Mythology, intended by George Lucas (whatever his faults) to be understood as such. As I commented on a Tor.com article about the Force as a religion:
As Star Wars is “modern myth,” we should not construe the events we see in the movies as historical (fictitious or otherwise). It does not occur to average moviegoers to question what they see on the screen, due to willing suspension of disbelief. But just as we know there are no Jedi in our world, we need not accept their factual existence in that Galaxy Far, Far Away any more than we do the gods of ancient Greece or Mesopotamia. After all, we are explicitly told it all happened a long time ago, just like the events of the Iliad, the Poetic Edda, the Pentateuch or the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Star Wars is never going to be a character study like Gosford Park or Lincoln. (Though how cool would it be if Daniel Day Lewis were to play a juicy Star Wars villain?) It's an epic fantasy, set in space, with pretensions of mythology. In the past, many of the characters have been little more than tropes, especially in that first fateful film. I found the new characters refreshing, as have a great many others. I look forward to spending time with them in Episode VIII.

I'll say it again, I do not think The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film. But it's easily in my top three. Unlike the prequels, I didn't go into TFA with any preconceived notions of what I was going to see. I think that helped a lot.
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  1. I don't know if you've seen it, but Screen Junkies had a sort of round table about the film which included Max Landis and can be found here. I have to admit that I had never heard of the guy before but found it a bit difficult to take most of his arguments seriously as his criticism seemed to be all over the place and a lot of it sounded like he simply wanted an entirely different movie: Finn's introduction should have been more like something from a classic soldier film, Kylo Ren should have been an entirely different character instead of what he is etc. He may be a professional but from what I heard in that video, I know I definitely preferred what J.J. came up with over Max's vision! :) Anyway, this was a nice and thoughtful post that highlighted why many of the "Rey is too powerful" arguments are exaggerated.

    1. Thanks for sticking it out to the end. :) I don't often write things this long.

      That video you is linked is actually the one that sparked my idea for this post. I happened to see it last week an hour or so after they posted it, and it was the first time I had even heard of Max Landis. He's a little more reasonable in that group setting than he was in his own videos. He's very dismissive overall, and that really grates on my nerves. One thing I did not like about him is that he stereotypes for comparison. "The characters were thin, like video game characters." Which video games, Max? Because I've played a bunch with some really awesome, nuanced characters.

      I have learned from looking into some of the tie-in material that there are motivations for the characters that might have been fleshed out a little more in the movie But I don't think they were essential. As I've said, it's not a perfect movie, but it's a fun movie, and I enjoyed it.

  2. The other theory I have heard is that Rey was an attendee of the Jedi Academy and saved from the slaughter. Perhaps hidden away because of her parentage. But having some training, even at a young age and that she had forgotten, would explain a little how she could do some of what she did. Either that or the Force is super strong in her.

    I rate the movie as "okay". I liked it but didn't love it. Would still rate all of the original trilogy above it. I found the Han Solo bit completely obvious as soon as the heritage was revealed. I just knew where that was going and that bridge was the "yep, here it is" scene for me. I'm still at odds on how I feel about that.

    I didn't care much for Finn's part. The actor was fine. I mean more his story. It felt shallow to me given the great potential of the actual story. Children stolen and indentured to become storm troopers. He seemed too weak? Or something I can't put my finger on. He is literally a trained killing machine who breaks through brainwashing to realize what is asked of him is wrong. I expect more anger or something.

    Rey, I liked. I like the actress. I like this start of her story. I'm interested to see where she is from and where she is going. If they do not make her a serious badass, I will be disappointed.

    As I said elsewhere, I'm okay with this movie in that I'm aware it is like an epilogue for the next episodes. The next episode better deliver.

    1. This one was good, I think on a par with the OT, story-wise, granted that much of it is, in fact, a retread of the OT. I thought it was enough different to make it interesting, though. I agree with you that the next episode better deliver something new and exciting.

      The Star Wars movies have only ever been popcorn flicks, really, and while there are aspirations to make them more than that, they never have quite succeeded. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy them.

      I've heard the theories about Rey's parentage and/or training at Luke's Jedi academy, but wanted to highlight action or dialogue from the movie itself that supports her abilities, since the need for external explanations was one of Landis' criticisms.

      Finn wasn't weak in terms of skills or physicality. He was weak in spirit. He cared too much, and his compassion eventually broke his conditioning. He found something and someone to care about, though, in Rey. It will be interesting to see how he fits into the Resistance without her there as a motivating factor. I think Po's friendship will have a lot to do with that.

  3. I actually loved the movie, perhaps only a little short of the Empire strikes back as my fav.

    For me it referenced the past well and pushed it into what has happened before, took some nessessary steps to move the story free of the old guard while still maintianing their importance in the overall story.

    I do think that it will need to continue strongly in the next movie or any groundwork and momentum will become lost.

    One other thing about the light saber dual is that we are given clear (well IMHO) indications that Kylo Ren had not finished his training and that Luke stopped his training when he felt he was turning to the dark side - we are not seeing a completed dark master here just a neophyte on a journey.

    1. I'm pretty sure I saw this but was unable to reply immediately because my blog is blocked at the office again. I agree, Ren is not fully trained, as stated explicitly by Snoke near the end of the movie. Plus, as has been pointed out by a few people, during the final lightsaber battle, Ren is nursing a wound from Chewie's bowcaster, which has been shown to blow up stone walls and send lesser beings flying back from the impact.