Hey, Disney, Thanks for the Star Wars Tribute Movie, The Force Awakens!

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Thank goodness. The Force Awakens is both a loving tribute to the first Star Wars movie and a nod to how the world has progressed since the ‘70’s. The heroine, Rey, is a tough, young woman whose sidekick is Finn, a black ex-stormtrooper. There are also a conflicted villain, Kylo Ren; a cute droid, BB-8; a dusty desert planet; a hero’s call to action…

(As the Unbound Writers review it, we'll alert you to the worst SPOILERS, but if you don't want to know any plot points before watching the film, stop now.)

 

 

 

 

Sean Cassity Says It Could Have Resonated, Instead it Echoes

So much of the joy that accompanies an audience exiting a showing of The Force Awakens must actually be relief. We were going to see this movie regardless of its merits, but fandom has dashed us against rocks before: the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix sequels, Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. This time though, it would be different. The production team of The Force Awakens gave us a new hope. They included Lawrence Kasdan, Kathleen Kennedy who had Steven Spielberg’s back, and the journeyman director J.J. Abrams who excels at continuing other creators’ visions without missing too many pieces. Add in original cast, and you could call this a dream team.

I went in trusting this time, at least, fandom’s march would be rewarded. But as the Star Wars logo shot back into the star field and the trapezoidal crawl stretched up and away into the galaxy, the motifs that still fill me with anticipation when I watch the old trilogy on DVD, just felt tired in this new movie. Luckily, the story started then, and I stopped watching for the movie's parallels to the originals (of which there really are too many) and enjoyed the tale it was telling today. As the ending credits rolled, I sat exhilarated by a thrilling two-hour ride.

As I drove home, I contemplated the missing five minutes. There are five minutes missing from The Force Awakens. My guess is they were never filmed. My guess is they were discussed at a hundred story meetings but never conquered. And so leaps were made. But these minutes should have been the most important in the movie. Without them, there is a hole where greatness could have been, taped over with a sign that reads: “Pretty Good.”

 Kylo Ren feeling some pain and struggling with the Force.

Kylo Ren feeling some pain and struggling with the Force.

The moments we needed most were on the bridge. Here a major character takes a destiny-altering action, but it is handled without tension, without real struggle or inner conflict. There is simply no surprise. The character’s choice is never explored enough to make it more than just a 50-50 shot. So the scene which should have carried the most weight of the entire experience, the choice that should have broken hearts, instead feels like a shrug. “Oh, so that’s how they decided to go with it.”

Earlier, another character is awakened to the Force. It’s a good scene. But then this character begins to use the Force in a manner convenient to the plot, not relevant to the character. This growth in the Force should have been better set up or handled in a manner true to character. Instead, it is a clumsy call back.

Lastly, there is a sleeping beauty with a story to tell. What events will bring this character back into the hall of heroes and unravel the mystery they harbor? Answer: they will just wake up when the story needs them to and immediately solve the problem.

These are all key turning points in the lives of these characters. Solutions to their problems that could have lived in our imaginations for 30 years like their forbears, were instead resolved with a jump cut. The movie still satisfies, but it satisfies like a king-size Snickers. It could have resonated. Instead it echoes.

 Old friends, part of the "tribute" to the first Star Wars.

Old friends, part of the "tribute" to the first Star Wars.

Lisa Mahoney Writes a Relieved Thank You Note to Disney

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Dear JJ Abrams, Disney, et al;

Thank you for coming through with this homage to the oldest Star Wars trilogy which we fans have been impatiently waiting for. Specifically, thanks for:

  1. reviving the Star Wars series despite all the doubters and spending enough money on special effects.

  2. steering away from ridiculous characters of the prequels like Jar Jar Binks. The depiction of him and his world seemed to mock Caribbean cultures, no matter how much LucasFilm claimed it was “accidental.” Jar Jar was obsequious and uncoordinated, hardly a serious hero though his heart was in the right place. I won’t even go into ewoks because if you can’t say something nice…I’ll just say, Thanks, Disney, for giving us dangerous villains and powerful heroes.

  3. a female heroine, Rey, who is a hero first, and never a buxom, sexualized object. She wears serviceable clothing appropriate for a desert environment. She carries a big stick and rides a fast hovercraft. She jumps into fights with men; it’s not just women vs women. Rey gets to be a pilot, not just a passenger, the hero who takes action to further the droid’s mission. She’s not the Leia-princess asking Luke and Han for help doing something she can’t manage on her own.

  4. taking a risk with Finn’s PTSD-like symptoms. Strong and brave when his friends are threatened, Finn is also deeply scarred by the horror of battle and repelled by Kylo’s evil order to kill innocents. When he makes a decision that could be seen as cowardly, we sympathize because we know his history.

  5. improving the depth of the villains. Kylo Ren is hot-tempered, not icy cold like Vader. When Kylo realizes his errors, he has temper-tantrums. He takes it out on machinery not on nearby stormtroopers. Kylo, who has not yet finished his training on the Dark Side, is deeply torn, threatened by the pull of the light side of the Force, and is even, I would argue, merciful at times. (SPOILERS in the rest of #9)--When the stormtrooper FN-2187 fails to “conform” in the initial battle scene, Kylo notices that he is not firing upon civilians, stares at Finn’s blood-stained helmet, and lets him live. When Rey is briefly in his grasp, he might have treated her much worse than he does. Much later, when Kylo looks into the face of his father...well, I can say that I hope some wild Internet speculation is true, that Kylo is a double-agent assigned by the Resistance to penetrate the First Order. It would explain lots of mysteries that this movie opens and does not close.

  6. two (or three) heroes who share the burdens and support each other in weak moments, instead of one hero who does it all. (SPOILERS in the rest of #7) Finn knows crucial information about the new Death Star-like weapon, and Rey’s Force-filled touch on the controls of the Millennium Falcon allow her to fly it. They both use the lightsaber, shoot guns, rescue each other and clobber opponents.

  7. the blatant tributes to the first and most successful film in the series, Star Wars, including a cute little droid on a mission carrying crucial information across a hostile desert environment under threat by metal-scavenging aliens, (which is too close a parallel) and another goofy bar scene with goofy music and bizarre patrons.

  8. recognition that relationships between societally mismatched couples (you’ll know who) don’t always pass the test of time. Nice dose of reality.

 Ren, Finn and BB-8 running for their lives.

Ren, Finn and BB-8 running for their lives.

My gripe? The heroes seem to be all orphans. (Wild speculation throughout the Internet is that Rey is Leia’s daughter, or Luke’s daughter, but whether she is or isn’t, and you can bet we’ll find out), she suffered a difficult, abandoned childhood which made her self-sufficient and tough. Finn was taken from his parents by the First Order and turned into a stormtrooper. To me, Kylo Ren’s backstory seems far more interesting. Wouldn’t it be awesome if he turns out to be The Chosen One? How did a boy who benefited from parents, privileges and training turn bad? Kylo’s split loyalties and torn-apart nature prove gratifyingly complex, and I’m optimistic that we’ll learn much more about him in the upcoming installments.

Thank you, Disney, for hurrying up the next two releases.

Theodore McCombs Says The Force Awakens Is Just What It Should Be: Same Star Wars, But Different

I loved The Force Awakens. End of sentence. And I love Episodes IV-VI: I am of the generation that saw Return of the Jedi before reaching an age when the Ewoks would be weird and silly; I’m that guy who brings an Empire Strikes Back lunch pail to work. There was a time, before the Internet, when I could recite Greedo’s confrontation with Han verbatim (though now, I lose the thread after “Oota-goota, Solo?”). I was one of the people who stood in line all day for the midnight showing of Episode I, then pointedly did not for Episodes II and III. My point is, I came into Episode VII wanting it to be a new hope, pun intended, and I walked out feeling like it was.

Ever since, that’s the main criticism of The Force Awakens I’ve encountered: that its homages are stacked too high, until it becomes a recycling plant. If you’ve seen J.J. Abrams’s young Star Trek rebootquelswhich I will never be able to stop thinking of as Star Trek: Muppet Babiesit’s possible you’ll see in Snoke, Kylo Ren, and General Hux the same marketable and more youthful reboot strategy applied to the Emperor, Darth Vader, and Grand Moff Tarkin from A New Hope. TFA's first act is really just that movie’s first act, gender-swapped, with a young, preraphaelite, Force-strong desert beauty coming across an astromech droid carrying key intel hidden in it by a swashbuckling rebel just before said rebel is captured and tortured for information by a dark Jedi. I mean, come on, they even lampshaded the Starkiller Base being the Death Star, but bigger. At least in Episode I, they made the boss-level spaceship toroid.

 Kylo Ren causing havoc but possibly feeling bad about it.

Kylo Ren causing havoc but possibly feeling bad about it.

This criticism makes me feel slightly grimy for enjoying The Force Awakens so much, but doesn’t make me enjoy TFA any less. The prequel trilogy was original, complexly plotted, and politically sophisticated, and just awful. TFA leaned heavily on our love of the original trilogy, even counts  on us recognizing recycled elements—at times it was pretty darn dumb, too!—and man, I loved it.

Maybe the true spirit of Star Wars has a lot to do with recycled elements? In an excellent piece on Slate, Forrest Wickman catalogues the way Lucas borrowed from Westerns, samurai movies, Flash Gordon serials, and other influences—always brazenly, never with any attempt to hide it. Call it pastiche, or collage; Lucas’s stroke of genius was to show us elements that were proven successes, down to the monomyth itself, but different. The Dam Busters, but SPACE.

Isn’t this something that all fiction, including speculative fiction, has to deal with—the anxiety of influence? Every author of high fantasy must grapple with the shadow of The Lord of the Rings, right? Patrick Rothfuss wrote a few pretty decent books about a kid going to magic school and being super good at it except for that one professor who just hates him. The Magicians trilogy is an overt metafictional interrogation (pastiche?) of Narnia and Hogwarts. There are even those heretics in literary fiction who say the novel is dead, and only postmodern collage of recycled or otherwise eccentric texts has any chance of capturing our fractured reality. (Good luck with that one, bro!)

 The Millennium Falcon rises from the dustbin of the galaxy.

The Millennium Falcon rises from the dustbin of the galaxy.

The genius of TFAAbrams, Larry Kasdan, Kathleen Kennedy et al.—is to recognize Star Wars is now its own mythic framework, and the pleasure we had in following Luke Skywalker as he slipped into familiar beats and tropes of classic mythology is now the pleasure of following Rey, Kylo, Finn and Poe as they revisit, rework and recombine the familiar beats and tropes of Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan, Vader. The freshness of Finn in particular—the black runaway stormtrooper wielding a lightsaber—opens up exciting viewpoints on Luke and Han as he gathers up elements previously associated with them and makes those elements his own. In the most uncynical of ways, then, Disney is giving us exactly what we want: Star Wars, but different.

CS Peterson Says Rey is the Hero We Girls Were Waiting For

For years engineering programs, science and mathematics departments have been racking their brains about how to attract and retain women. Programs in K-12 proliferated, trying to get girls interested in STEM topics (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) with limited success. They've tried making everything as pink, lacy and covered in flowers as they could.

News flash: Pink and flowers weren't what the girls were looking for.

Rey is what girls were looking for, at least she is what this girl was looking for. As a kid I wanted so badly to be invited into the boy’s adventure club as a fully participating member. Possibly this explains why I wrote my seventh grade research paper on female pirates of the 1700s. But even the feisty Princess Leia, touted as she was for her ground-breaking garbage-chute moment of agency in her own rescue, never got to sit in the pilot’s chair. Rey is the character I so wanted to find, somewhere, anywhere, when I was a young teen.

For me, I sat and watched the movie awash in nostalgic wish fulfillment. Finally, the girls have been allowed to play with the boys and do all the cool things: repelling down into the cavernous void of a wrecked starship, fixing the Millennium Falcon and flying her, and fighting with a lightsaber. Yes! (fist pump)

I watched the movie with my children. We cheered together when the X-Wing fighters appeared. We wept together when Chewbacca cried. The kids will come see the next Star Wars movies, if only to humor their mom. But their connection with Star Wars is different - they have Firefly’s Zoe, River, Kaylee and Inara. They grew up on Disney’s Kim Possible, Doctor Who’s Amy Pond and Rory, Donna and Martha. I am happy to add Rey to that growing list.

I thought the big holiday moment for our family would be The Force Awakens, but it turned out to be watching Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet, as fierce and angry a prince as ever you have seen. The adrenaline courses through the action and the audience to the very last minute. I was as surprised as anyone to find Shakespeare winning out over Star Wars at our house.

The result of all these light sabers and foils: my daughter and I start sword fighting lessons together next week.

 Rey, our orphaned heroine, not wearing pink and riding a hover thingy through the desert, much like Luke Skywalker once did.

Rey, our orphaned heroine, not wearing pink and riding a hover thingy through the desert, much like Luke Skywalker once did.

Gemma Webster Thinks that Sometimes Perfect Goodness...is Not so Good. Or Interesting.

The Force Awakens is a movie that is trying really hard to get it right. I would say that it succeeds, particularly in its rebuilding of the Star Wars universe. The technology evolutions make sense and the world is familiar; it is obvious that everyone who worked on this movie had fan interest (the more cynical have said dollars) at heart. Either way the foundation has been re-laid in a satisfying manner.

A female hero is another way that The Force Awakens is trying really hard to get it right. I love the idea of a woman who has looked after herself and can rescue others. My problem with her story actually lies in the perfection of her goodness. She is an old school hero, good to the core, good beyond belief. She is not a modern heroine (by modern I mean our time, not Star Wars time). What kind of person is this good after her family abandoned her to raise herself on a desert planet? Not only that, she wants to continue waiting in exile for her family who have betrayed her in this way. At least when Luke was sent away he was raised by relatives who loved him. For all her surface autonomy, Rey is a slave to the epic story arc, her wants do not drive the story.  We get a little bit of emotional turmoil from her during the scene where she finds the lightsaber. The same is not true of Finn nor Kylo Ren. Both men show more emotional intensity, and Kylo Ren has much more character complexity and gets more emotional backstory. I’d argue that we leave this first story knowing more about Finn and Kylo Ren than Rey (I know the mystery of her past is part of the tension for the long arc, but she is flat in her goodness). I’m with Catie in hoping that Kylo Ren might come back around to the side of the hero; his flaws are fabulous. Now that the Star Wars world has been repaired, maybe we will get a more daring story next time. What if Rey found the darkness within her and became a villain worse than Vader? Here’s hoping.