The Force Awakens: the Good, the Bad, and the Amazing

Per my previous post, I thought Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was very, very good but definitely not perfect. Below are my thoughts on the good, the bad, and the truly amazing aspects of this film.


The Good:
  • The original cast actors bring their A game. I was worried that Harrison Ford would mail it in. On the contrary, he, Leia, etc. are in top form.
  • The writing was good too. Han is straight up funny and we get a lot more depth out of Chewbacca than we've ever had before. Even C3PO isn't annoying.
  • This movie was clearly made by fans for fans as there is such care taken to do right by the characters, things, and themes that we all know and love from the original trilogy. The fan service is well done and not nearly as cheesy or over the top as in the prequel trilogy. My favorite example of this is when Leia feels Han die, she clutches her heart and has to sit down - almost exactly like Yoda in Episode III when he feels the other jedi dying. It's a really subtle tie-in but I think it was intentional and it was very well done.
  • As this is something of a "passing the torch" movie, there are many new characters introduced and, by and large, they are compelling, interesting, well written, well acted, and well developed (within the time constraints of a Hollywood blockbuster). I would have liked more from General Hux and Captain Phasma, but hopefully they'll be better in Episode VIII.
  • The movie is visually stunning. I've seen it twice in 3D and once in IMAX 3D (recommended) but I haven't yet seen it in any of the allegedly optimal formats. Still, the focus on practical effects when possible and cinematography result in some breathtaking scenes and riveting action sequences.
  • Kylo Ren is an interesting, complex villain. His conflict between light and dark, his still-to-be-revealed back story, his Solo tie-in, and his inability to contain his passionate emotions (reflected even in his lightsaber, which needs exhaust ports to vent excess heat) are all really interesting. Frankly this is what I was hoping for out of Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy.
  • This movie answers some 30 year old questions about what has happened after the events of Episode VI . . . but at the same time introduces many more questions. The result is something that both satisfies and leaves you hungering for more - well done.
  • The music, my goodness the music. There isn't much new territory covered here, no major new them, but the existing themes we already know and love are masterfully woven into the film. Just thinking of Rey lighting the lightsaber as the theme swells, reflecting her growing confidence and determination gives me chills. Well done!
The Force Awakens is far from perfect, though, so here's
The Bad:
  • The plot is largely recycled from Episode IV and VI. From starting with a droid hiding some secret on a desert planet to ending with a ground strike team taking down shields so that x-wings can make a trench run to blow up a death star and including the defenseless older mentor character being struck down by the Vader-like character . . . it all feels more than a little familiar. I get that they were trying to pay homage to the original trilogy but I would have liked a little more original plot.
  • Even at 2.5 hours, it felt rushed in several places. There were some major events that didn't linger long enough for them to sink in. For example, when the Starkiller base is used to destroy an entire planetary system (and the New Republic fleet), it just moves on immediately to, "OK, how are we going to respond," depriving the scene of the gravitas it might have otherwise had. Similarly Finn just up and decides he's not buying what the New Order is selling and starts shooting storm troopers - the guys he has grown up with his entire life - without a second thought. I would expect some more conflict in him, which would give his character more depth. Finn also develops strong bonds with both Poe and Rey really quickly, with very little relationship development. I suspect that many of these omissions are the hallmarks of cuts that were made to keep the movie under Hollywood's pre-defined blockbuster time limit so I'm hopeful for an extended edition to be released that will fill in some of the gaps.
  • There are also some disbelief-suspending plot holes. R2D2 randomly comes back on and takes a long time to do so because . . . convenience. Poe's sole mission is to recover BB8 and yet he leaves Jakku without him for some reason to head back to the Resistance, hops in an x-wing, and doesn't go immediately back to Jakku because . . . convenience.
Fortunately there really isn't any ugly in The Force Awakens, so here's
The Amazing:
  • I love, love, love how gender is treated in this movie. There are strong female roles; Leia is now a "general," not a "princess" and the stormtrooper Captain Phasma is a woman. The men are conflicted, emotional, and not infallible. It's a much more even playing field than I'm used to seeing in action movies - and especially Star Wars movies.
  • One female protagonist really stands out to me, though: Rey. She is strong, capable, unsure of herself, vulnerable, driven, and - at the end of the day - totally badass. It's the first time I can recall ever being totally inspired by a female hero. Every time I watch the movie I get starry eyed "OMG I wanna be like that!" feelings in ways that have traditionally been reserved for very "masculine" heroes. I wonder what the implications are when an entire generation of boys grows up having had not just male idols but females as well. Workplace equality? Men more capable of doing things that have typically been considered "feminine" in the workplace (things which research shows are incredibly valuable for leadership and teamwork)? Women able to be leaders in organizations without adopting "masculine" traits and being derogatorily labeled for it? I don't know but I have a hunch that, if popular media continue to level the playing field between male and female heroes, it could be tranformative to our collective psychology.
  • Rey's character wouldn't be nearly so compelling without fantastic acting and Daisy Ridley absolutely crushes it (Writing and direction must get credit too.). She's not the only one, though. In the best scene of the movie (Maybe one of the best scenes of all time?), she and Adam Driver deliver absolutely virtuosic performances. During the interrogation scene, let's be clear that he is straight-up raping her. It may be rape of the mind rather than the body but, if anything, that feels even more heinous to me. "You know I can take whatever I want." He is exerting total domination and power over her as she lies helplessly restrained. And then she resists. You can see the determination written all over her face. You can then see her confidence grow - and his shake - as she fights and ultimately overpowers him.There is almost no dialog, special effects, or even blocking - it is an entire journey of psychological epiphany and empowerment told exclusively through the faces of two actors locked in an epic performance. It's glorious and I can't remember the last time I was able to say that about a scene in a movie blockbuster.
So there you have it, my take on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It wasn't perfect but it was very, very good and some of it was straight up amazing. What did you think? Please preface your comments with SPOILER tags if they contain them.


The Force Awakens . . . and It Is Strong

After much waiting and anticipation, I saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (three times!) this weekend. TL;DR: it is very good.

Spoiler-free zone:

It's no secret that I love Star Wars. I was too young to have seen the original trilogy in the theaters but I grew up with it on home video and I loved it. The consummate contemporary mythology of the epic struggle of good vs. evil, it called to me long before I could even understand much of what was happening on screen.

When I was in high school, the original trilogy was re-released in the theater, which was an amazing opportunity to see the movies in a way that I never had before. Funny story: my girlfriend at the time had never seen Star Wars so I took her to see it in the theater. She didn't like it. We broke up. (Not because of the Star Wars directly, but it was a clear litmus test that we weren't a fit!)

The prequel trilogy came out while I was in college. I wanted to love it and for some time I convinced myself that I did, but eventually I came to realize that I did not - much as I did not love the additions in the "Special Edition" of the original trilogy. No matter, I still loved the greater Star Wars universe - so much so that I even gave a TEDx talk about it!

With all that in mind, you can imagine the mixed emotions I had leading up to Episode VII. I really, really, really wanted it to be good, but I had been burned by that before with the prequels. Accordingly, I tried to set my expectations low but, as much hype as there was leading up to the movie's release, that proved impossible.

Opening day I took the day off from work and attended a Star Wars marathon at the theater: 24 hours of episodes I-VI. I actually skipped episodes I-III and got some sleep instead! :-) It was fantastic to see episodes IV-VI in the theater, though - for only the second time in my life. They were the Special Editions but I just turned away during the objectionable parts. :-)

Finally Thursday evening the big moment arrived. My primary hope was that Episode VII simply wouldn't suck. If I dared to dream, though, I hoped it would be amazing. Long story short: it most definitely did not suck! It was very good, maybe even amazing - but I'm not sure about that yet, still processing.

The new characters were well developed, the acting and direction was excellent, the old characters provided good fan service, and the cinematography/action/special effects were all breathtaking. I have some beefs with the plot but overall I was very satisfied. I'll post a separate spoilery review but the take away is that I thought it was so good that I saw it again Friday night . . . and then again Saturday night. It became better each time.

The Force is strong with this sequel.


November Whirlwind

November was a whirlwind! We were barely back from Dubai when we hopped on a plan to Austin, Texas for a dear friend's wedding. It was a grand affair and, although we were only in town briefly, it was long enough for us to get our fix of Tex-mex, BBQ, etc.

Shortly thereafter I was in Houston on business, a trip that happened to coincide with Rice Homecoming. While the outcome of the game was, ahem, less than desirable, the experience of reconnecting with friends, classmates, students, faculty, and the institution I love so much was hard to beat. The weather was perfect and the trip was nourishment for my soul.

The second half of the month kept me in NC and my focus turned (even more so than usual) to . . . food! I attended a wine dinner at Watts Grocery and a beer release at Beer Study that included flights of fantastic stout beers paired with Rise donuts . . . so healthy!

Of course there was Thanksgiving as well. Mom came into town and, in addition to an early Thanksgiving with extended family here in the area, we did a second Thanksgiving at our house with a fried turkey from Time Out . . . I'm still recovering!

Fortunately mixed in with the gluttony were some opportunities to work off the turkey as well. The Saturday before Thanksgiving I ran my third annual Chestnut Ridge 4-mile trail race. It's not super competitive so I finished 6th overall and 1st in my age group. It was a glorious fall day so I celebrated with apple cider and ginger bread - optimal recovery food!

Thanksgiving morning I ran my third annual Gallop and Gorge 8k road race. It's much more competitive so I didn't even come close to placing - but I did improve my 8k PR by 45 seconds, so good deal.

We also did lots of hiking over Thanksgiving weekend and we continue love living in a place where so many hiking opportunities are available.

Through all of my running in November I have been wearing a new toy: a Stryd powermeter. I'm still collecting data and formulating thoughts on it so I'll save additional commentary for a future post.

It's easy to get caught up in all the different things going on this time of year but we have still taken some time to pause, reflect, and be grateful. Each year it seems that we have more and more to be thankful for and this year is no exception. As we head into the holiday season, we are truly grateful for our blessings, family and friends - and we wish you all the same!