Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

I feel conflicted. Part of me wants to loathe Star Wars: The Force Awakens, loathe what it represents. It feels like sheer, gratuitous lip-service to the original Star Wars films, an unneeded palate-cleanser after three prequels that, honestly, I didn’t think were nearly that awful. I want to rip this movie’s spine out with my bare hands, burn it, piss on its ashes and proclaim that it’s not the prophet we hold it to be and that its fans are sheep. But I can’t do that, as, aside from being really insensitive, it’s brilliantly-crafted and highly enjoyable.

Let me begin with a confession: I don’t hate the Star Wars Prequels. They’re not great movies, even the third one I can’t call more than decent, but they’re not the plague the internet has made them to be. Even the second one, which has become the franchise punching bag amongst Star Wars hipsters, is a serviceably bad movie. So when it was announced that J.J. Abrams, director behind the recent Star Trek reboots, would be returning to “franchise roots” following, I wanted to scream. “Good Lord,” I thought, “why do we always keep pretending that older is better?”

Finally, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hit theatres. As expected, the reviews are stellar, despite the initial whining that “Disney was killing the franchise”. But I was skeptical. Excited to see another Star Wars movie, but also skeptical. I knew what this film was doing, and I wasn’t gonna be a sucker to hype. Still, I kept an open mind; after all, if it was getting stellar reviews, then clearly it was worthwhile.

(By the way, minor spoilers)

The movie begins with the traditional opening crawl. Luke Skywalker, the hero from the original films, has gone missing, and in his place a new order has arisen from the ashes of the empire, a Sith Lord has replaced Darth Vader and the rebellion, now the new republic, is at it once more. Amidst the conflict, a lone pilot, Poe Dameron, has retrieved the map to Luke’s location and hidden it with his droid, BB-88, for safe-keeping. He’s kidnapped by the order, but not before escaping with a rogue Stormtrooper and landing on Jakku, where we meet a smuggler named Rey. From here, it’s a race to find Luke and stop the new order, all the while meeting old faces that plan to take down the new Sith, Kylo Ren, once and for all.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens establishes almost immediately that it’s not the prequels: the sets are real, the effects are mostly practical and little to no mentions of Episodes I-III are present. This movie’s a “true” Star Wars movie, one aiming to please long-time fans. Unfortunately, it also means that new ideas are almost non-existent, preferring to ape the formula of the original films from a slightly different angle. The movie hits all the checkpoints, from the plans the big baddie wants for themselves, to the nobody who embarks on the hero’s journey, to the villain and the attempt at redemption.

And it’s obnoxious. I get it, people weren’t happy with the prequels and want to forget they exist. These new movies are doing that. But when your basic plot structure repeats Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope and parts of its sequel beat-for-beat, except with a new coat of paint, I can’t help but call it “lazy”. It doesn’t matter that the story of Star Wars itself isn’t original anyway, that’s no excuse for lack of inventiveness.

This is doubly annoying because the movie is 135-minutes of shameless lip-service. Every scene, right down to the carefully crafted dialogue, is such an homage that I can’t help but groan inside; yes, it’s nice to see characters X, Y and Z again. Yes, that one song from that one scene is a nice callback to that one song from that other scene. And yes, it was cool to see this movie’s update to The Death Star. But I don’t consider that clever. Homage is best when it’s subtle and doesn’t detract from change. That's why the Daniel Craig James Bonds were so appealing to me, why Abrams’s take on Star Trek in 2009 hooked me and why the new Ghostbusters movie looks so enticing.

I’m also mad because there isn’t a single nod to the prequels. Or, rather, there’s a single nod to the prequels. And it’s a throwaway line the movie feels isn’t important. I don’t understand why this movie’s so allergic to those films, especially when they introduced an important concept about the Sith. Considering how this movie’s supposed to “tie Star Wars together”, why isn’t it doing that? There are fans of the prequels watching this movie too, give them some credit!

The last complaint, ignoring any obvious conveniences, is John William’s score. Williams is my favourite film composer, and when I heard he’d be returning I was pumped; after all, he’d composed the previous films, and his work was excellent! Sadly, he’s criminally under-utilized, such that nothing that isn’t a rehash of previous tunes is inspired. And I’d be fine if it were a lesser composer, but this is John Williams!


Perhaps I’m being too critical. After all, Star Wars is a touchy franchise, and it’s clear its high points have influenced the action and science fiction genres. Add in that the original movies will be held fondly because of what they did, and it’s clear that a movie trying to get back old, disenfranchised fans will play to that. So I shouldn’t be too critical, since what works almost compensates for my frustrations. Almost.

One of the strengths is its collaborative effort. Unlike the prequels, which were almost exclusively driven by one person, Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks and feels like a team-effort. The effects are crafted with care, being a happy medium of practical and CGI, and the acting is the best the franchise has ever had. It also looks and feels like the worlds are lived in and grimy, something the cleaned-up prequels never boasted. And while it’s frustrating to see how much pandering is in this movie, most of it’s brilliantly-done.

Perhaps its biggest credit was making one of the most-predictable moments, which I won’t spoil, feel earned and shocking. Earned because it’s fitting, and shocking because of how well-executed it is. A predictable plot-point is only worthless if not done well, and this is definitely not that. So while you can call it from a mile away, you’re still not prepared for when it happens.

Not to mention, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is funny. Not every joke works, but most that do are effective because of their meta-references to older moments. Combine that with one of the best lightsaber fights in franchise history, and you’re left with an impressive end-result. Not fantastic, or even mind-blowing, but impressive. That alone warrants an admission ticket, personal gripes aside. I only hope the next movie actually does something different.

May the force be with you!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Franchise Fatigue, Do We Have It?

So the newest Star Wars movie is out, and guess what? It’s getting great reviews! Who knew? Certainly not the internet, who claims they did despite dreading the initial announcement. Regardless, this is a fresh start for a franchise on life-support, one we needed. But since it’s the beginning of long-running Star Wars films and TV shows, the former releasing once a year, we’ll have plenty of Star Wars to keep us company for a while.

This also raises a question: considering that Disney, the company who currently owns Star Wars, plans to keep the flow for many years, is it good or bad? After all, this is on-top of 3 Marvel movies a year and soon starting their run of Indiana Jones films. When is enough enough? Could we be at franchise overload? This is tough to discuss without addressing both sides of the debate, but here goes.

First, context: back in the early days of filmmaking, i.e. the early/mid 20th Century, franchises were hard to do and, therefore, infrequent. Filmmaking wasn’t as cheap and quick as now, relatively speaking, so not only were there fewer franchises, there were fewer films period. For the most part, franchised properties were either those serials shown to kids in theatres, or cheap, C-list properties that no one care about. The big budget films, on the other hand, remained largely solo efforts.

The situation started changing in the 80’s, when a new generation of talents, ones who’d grown up with film, took the reigns and made their mark in cinema. People like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Ivan Reitman, to name a few, were discovering new film techniques and making them profitable. Suddenly, the prospect of franchises wasn’t so shunned. No longer was the big name film one movie, it was now an entire series and highly profitable!

It had a catch: rather than shove out sequel after sequel, studios had to plan their franchises based on popularity. Movies weren’t guaranteed successes because they were good, the sales had to warrant it. Even then, it wasn’t immediate either. Filmmaking was still difficult to do, so there were several year gaps between big-name releases. Regardless, franchises were now profitable.

But then something happened: the 21st Century hit, filmmaking became easier thanks to digital processing, and now films weren’t needed to be hits. All that was necessary was efficient directing, editing and marketing and BAM! Instant success! And with the rise of blockbuster appeal, it was no longer as difficult to make a franchise. What used to take years could now be done quickly and efficiently with minimal effort or skill. Not to mention, it could be done frequently.

The result was multiple films back-to-back on the same property, leading to the complaint that there’s “franchise fatigue”. To an extent, I get it: turning film into a conveyer belt of cheap product is annoying and disturbing. Something like that shouldn’t turn into a dark underbelly of capitalism, it ruins what makes the medium special. On some level, this is a big problem.

But here’s where I put my foot down. For one, long-running franchise aren’t new. Before the mega-Blockbusters of the 80’s and 90’s, movie franchises still existed. They were merely cheap, schlocky, B-grade horror films and thrillers that no one cared about. Even before that, there were the action serials in the 20’s and 30’s before major releases. If film’ survived both, it’ll survive the franchise age.

Two, there’ll always be original, passionate work to balance everything out. In 2012, for example, we had Looper, which was brilliant. In 2010, there was Inception, which was also brilliant. Even this past year, we had Deus Ex. Will they dethrone franchising? No, but they're alternatives.

Three, the franchise age will eventually end. Maybe not now, but people will want different. Similar to how the crap-tastic Summer blockbusters of the late-90’s were phased out because we demanded change, so the the same will happen with franchises. It’s as Doug Walker, aka The Nostalgia Critic, once said, “People get bored fast”.

And four, I think we ignore the effort being put into these franchises. So The MCU is formulaic? At least it’s trying more than most Marvel movies from the early/mid 2000’s. So Star Wars is gonna milk itself silly? Would you rather a repeat of the prequels? Even Indiana Jones has a chance of new life!

I find we forget that franchising isn’t always bad; after all, Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer were roped into the studio franchise system at one point, and their output under it is regarded as some of their best work respectively. Even George Lucas, whose most-notable work was Star Wars, had originally intended his brainchild to be a long-running franchise. Franchising can produce excellent results if done well, and the portfolio of The MCU and the new Star Wars films is indication. Does that mean this influx is fantastic? No, I prefer spaced out adventures. But it doesn’t automatically signal doom.

Additionally, I find people are more forgiving of franchised properties as long as there are good stories to tell. In the case of Marvel, you not only have over 50 years of material to draw from, but the characters are based on episodic comic adventures. They’re designed from the get-go to be constant, so it isn’t such a stretch. And Star Wars has such a rich lore that movie ideas can be pulled out left-right-and-centre, a fact made easier with the elimination of the Expanded Universe. These two examples not only thrive on franchising, they actually require it.

Essentially, this isn’t so much fatigue as annoyance. Annoyance with once-obscure properties now becoming mainstream, and the, what I feel, elated arrogance that accompanies it. Let’s face it, a lot of the complainers are merely whiners. Some of it’s legit, and I sympathize, but when two movies in a row can tell unique, compelling stories, well…isn’t that what counts? Isn’t the story what matters, not where it’s coming from? Or am I missing the mark, and have “drunk the kool-aid” of the franchise system? You be the judge.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Star Wars-The "Despecialized" Edition: A Frankenstein Project Like Never Before

In honour of the newest Star Wars movie, I’d like to make a shameful confession: I never got into the original Star Wars films. I tried, I watched the VHS tapes in high school, but I found them boring. Even ignoring the whole “special editions” issue, I’d found that, being born in 1990, the shock and awe of the films had taken its course once I’d sat down and watched them. Add in that the fandom is obnoxious, and they aren’t for me. Which is weird, since anyone who knows me knows that I was a dedicated Star Wars fan for a few years.

I bring this up because there’s one element that I do agree with fans on: the rereleases, and how they’ve ruined the franchise through their frequent edits and changes. It’s completely disrespectful to what made the movies special in the first place, as Star Wars may have been George Lucas’s brainchild, but it wasn’t only him that made the franchise. So many talented thespians, writers, directors, sound editors, special effects directors, lighting editors and other individuals lent their talents, and by changing these movies their voices are silenced. It doesn’t help that George Lucas claims the original negatives are “destroyed”, or that Disney, who now own the franchise, refuse to release the uncut originals on Blu-Ray.

However, what if I were to tell you that someone is trying to do that? Enter Petr Harmy, brainchild behind the ironically-titled “Despecialized Edition” of the original Star Wars films.

Hmm… (Courtesy of Petr Harmy himself.)

One of the biggest complaints I have with the Star Wars fanbase is its collective hive-mindedness. Even outside their frequent condescension towards the prequels and its fans, something I’ve already addressed, they frequently claim that the originals are some godsend from heaven and anyone who disagrees is wrong. It’s annoying because not only do I not agree, but it doesn’t compel me to care. Even when they claim “film integrity”, which I agree with, there’s never indication that it’s anything other than Gen X elitism (since, y’know, the original trilogy caught on with the Gen X crowd first.) As a Gen Y’er, this reeks of dickery.

Which is one of the reasons Petr Harmy’s project speaks to me. A Czech-born 90’s kid, Harmy didn’t grow up with the original films either. He was late to the game, perhaps even later than I was, and doesn’t have long-seeped ties to the franchise. He remembers watching the movies as a kid, but they weren’t the original releases. They were the Czech-subtitled, VHS remasters, making him, like me, someone who “lacks the authentic experience”. I instantly sympathize.

Outside of that, though, Harmy’s taken on a task that I feel is ambitious: remastering the original Star Wars movies in HD, except without edits. That’s right, he’s trying to make the authentic experience accessible to the public. That means no added scenes, no unnecessary redesigns, no added lines, no ugly CGI and, of course, the reinstitution of “Han shot first”. And while, admittedly, this idea isn’t new, Harmy’s taking a different approach. Unlike other fan-edits, Harmy’s using collaboration.

The collaboration is, like I said in the title, a literal Frankenstein’s monster of fan-edits and home releases since the 80’s. In addition, Harmy’s been forced to get creative and reconstruct certain details, like the shadows of sand-speeders, from scratch. The attention to detail is beyond impressive, and gives me hope in an end-result that’ll satisfy fans. I can only imagine how long this must’ve taken.

What’s also impressive is, like I said, the collaborative effort. Harmy’s mainly using official re-releases and his own artistic talents, but whenever he has to rely on someone else, it’s always been through requests and donations. I’ll forever gaff at how nerdy the Star Wars fandom is, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire their commitment. Because it isn’t easy, and it’s not being done for self-gratification. Harmy states that he wants his younger brother to experience Star Wars as it was “originally intended”, and he’s doing this for him. I admire that, since so many past fan-edits were done, I find, out of arrogance or frustration with George Lucas.

Do I support this? Isn’t the answer obvious? As much as I never cared for the original films, it saddens me that George Lucas was unable to let go after Star Wars became loved by the public. You look at his IMDb page past the first Star Wars film, and you won’t see much that isn’t more Star Wars. He’s had producing credits on the Indiana Jones movies and the infamously-awful Howard the Duck, but between 1977 and 1999 Lucas only ever cared about Star Wars; in fact, his first directing job post Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope was Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace, a measly 22 years after the film that made him famous. You think about that.

Which makes me somewhat concerned for this film too. Unlike when Star Wars was under Lucas’s control, Disney isn’t as receptive to fan-projects and rights distribution. They’re incredibly protective of their IPs (they kept renewing the rights to Steamboat Willie so that they wouldn’t lose Mickey Mouse,) and now that they have Star Wars…well, this could be the same. Harmy might end up facing legal battles over this fan-edit should it go public, and while I dread the possibility of this happening, and I hope it doesn’t, it could end up being forcibly scrapped.

Still, I’ll remain optimistic. Like I said, I never experienced the original films in their original format, and, while not the biggest fan, there’s a chance that part of my disdain was teenage angst. If Harmy’s work thus far is indication, this could end up being awesome. I only hope it is.

May the force be with you!