Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars: the Limits of Efficiency

More than any previous Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is a sharply efficient movie. That's not entirely a good thing. Maybe it's just me, and I'm more aware of this stuff now, but it seems like there's nothing in this movie that doesn't exist to set up a scene, and some things clearly only exist to set up a scene.

In the Force Awakens, what's interesting about the planets isn't so much the environments as what the movie can do with them. Jakku is pretty much Tatooine with the serial numbers filed off, except for the graveyard of military hardware that gives Rey a craptacular job and provides some neat scenery for a starship chase. The Starkiller Base planet doesn't even seem to have a name; all that matters about it is the giant weapon inside.

The most egregious example is Solo's new ship. It possesses only two distinguishing features:

  1. a maw-like hangar to ominously swallow the Falcon in.
  2. a maze of corridors whose only clear purpose is to set an action scene in which heroes, gangsters, and hungry monsters run about chaotically.

Beyond that, no only do we not know anything about it, nothing is even hinted. The ship has no name, no type, and (in what may be a first for a Star Wars ship) we don't even get to see the entire exterior. And thus it feels fake. It feels like a movie set.

Compare that to Mos Eisley in New Hope. Even before Mr. Lucas went in and riddled the thing with extra CGI, it felt like things were going on around the corner that you couldn't see. If the camera had turned left when Luke and Ben had gone right, you'd have seen a used speeder lot (“Since the XP-38 came out, they're just not in demand.”) or a drunk getting mugged by some thugs or a dude getting his kneecaps broken over gambling debts he owes Jabba.

At no point do I feel there's more to Han's new ship than its maw-like hangar and the bizarre maze of tunnels inside.

This is a big deal for Star Wars. The toys, the games, the books are all predicated on the idea that the stories of the Skywalker clan take place in a bigger universe. The first movie made that obvious.

Another example: stormtroopers. Each movie gave us a new flavor of stormtrooper. In the first one, we had the dudes in white armor and the fighter pilots in black (a nice contrast to the rebels' safety-orange suits that said so much about how much both sides valued life and their own people). We got the snow troopers at the Battle of Hoth, and then the scouts in Return of the Jedi. In all four cases, it was obvious what you were looking at. The hows might not have been obvious (what, exactly, is special about the snow trooper's kit, for instance) but the why and the who was obvious.

In Awakens, we have a trooper call Finn a traitor and attack him with a pair of shock batons strapped to his arm. Why does a trooper have a big, clunky double-shock-baton weapon? The obvious answer is they wanted Finn in a hand-to-hand fight with a trooper who was an actual threat. But the in-world answer is never even hinted at. At no other point in the movie do we see someone with such a weapon strapped to their arm. At no other point in the movie do we see someone use such a weapon in a fight. It feels like the weapon only ever existed to be used in this fight, and it feels like we'll probably never see one again (unless, again, we need someone to hack at with a lightsaber).

The lack of verisimilitude in another sci-fi movie would be annoying. In a Star Wars movie, it's downright shocking and perplexing. So much of this franchise lives and breaths to invite people to come play in it. The toys, the games, the spin-offs all thrive on the notion that the Star Wars galaxy is big enough for a million stories. There are so many things hinted at, elegantly, that imply this: the XP-38, nerf herders, bulls-eyeing womp rats in a T-16.

I am not, by any stretch, suggesting that Force Awakens does anything to rehabilitate the prequels. Far from it; I think Abrams movie shows just how much Lucas stumbled in making his new films. However, Abrams' own shortcomings as a filmmaker do highlight Lucas' strengths. Chief among those strengths was creating what feels like a living, breathing larger universe.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens Review

Spoiler-free version: go see it. It's fun!

But you'll have “refrigerator door” questions hitting you before you've left your seat.

Below, there be spoilers. And you want to see this spoiler-free. The tension through this film is part of the fun. You know people isa gonna die, but who?!?

The biggest thing I learned from Episode VII is this: I want to play cards with Daisy Ridley. That woman's face is amazing. You can see everything that's going on in her head and her heart on her face. Rey's emotional landscape is vital to this film, and she makes emoting through facial expression look easy. In the final scene, she conveys so damn much with her face dialogue would ruin it.

Boyega and Isaac, on the other hand, know they're in a freakin' Star Wars film and they're loving every minute of it. It's so much fun when they're on the screen together, and I hope we get to see a lot more of that.

The biggest thing I love about this film is the emotional heft it has. Part of that is born of fear; you know just about everyone on screen is vulnerable and very few enjoy dramatic immunity to death. And, since this is Star Wars, nobody is immune to fates-worse-than-death. The story really focuses in on those relationships we already have with the old characters. While it has echoes of the original trilogy, it has no carbon-copy characters; Rey is nothing like Luke or any of the frustrated farm boys and suburban kids he was clearly modeled on. When Rey does the “strong woman” thing we buy it, because strength and resilience are baked into her character. And that allows her to be vulnerable which allows us to invest in Rey.

Boyega's character is a bit all over the place, but that really works. You can see Finn attempting to construct himself for the first time outside the whole stormtrooper thing. Some of the warmest moments in the film are comic-relief bits between Finn and Han, and they really work in an old-man-mentoring-a-young-hot-shot way.

Anyone else get a weird vibe between Han and Rey? What was that about? There's respect there, but Han's also clearly trying to hold her at arm's length the whole time. That have something to do with her past? There were more than a few hints that he knows who she is.

Maz Kanata is awesome! She used to be a pirate? Please, give us more like that!

My biggest peeve with this movie is how small and jumbled the universe is. It's like one of those French novels where, no matter how far any of the characters travel, they keep bumping into the same people. I was half expecting to learn that Finn was Lando's son or something equally unnecessary like that.

Even worse, I know nothing about how this universe works. There doesn't appear to be an Empire anymore, but the First Order is clearly well-supplied. And yet it recruits by yanking people out of their families and raising them from infancy? That seems more than a little odd. And what exactly is the place of the First Order in this universe? They apparently have some legitimacy because the Galactic Senate can't openly defy them and must secretly support the Resistance. Is this a territorial thing? It's made to look like Takodana is in the same system as the home of the Senate and the Republic's fleet. The Republic keeps its entire fleet in a single system, in orbit around a single world? Sure, the background is probably described in the novels and whatnot, but the movie itself does very little to explain the universe, and in the end makes it feel extremely tiny. The First Order appears to have a single Star Destroyer that does next to nothing besides act as a giant taxi service for the bad guys. Both the Resistance and the First Order have only a single class of fighter these days (that will annoy the game and toy companies no end). Part of what made the original Star Wars work so well is how big and real the universe felt. The universe of episode VII feels tiny, almost cramped. It feels like it was made for TV, rather than a movie.

John Williams has also dialed it back. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the music, and when it invokes old, familiar themes, it works. When it's not doing that, it's perfectly evoking the right emotional flavor for the moment. But there's no Imperial March or Duel of Fates that you'll be humming to yourself as you leave the theater. If Finn or Rey has a theme, it didn't stick in my head.

All-in-all: fun and emotional, but cramped. Like a really good anime, it's the characters who draw you in and keep you invested. There's no thrill of exploration in this movie except for a brief breath of fresh air at Maz Kanata's place, where, ever so briefly, the galaxy feels large and sprawling and full of possibility again. The rest of the time, it's set-dressing for intimate character drama, derring-do, and thrilling action beats.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Review: The Expanse on Syfy

Watching the opening credits and seeing the ads online,but most especially after watching the opening credits sequence, you'd be excused for mistaking The Expanse for a sci-fi knock-off of Game of Thrones. Heck, it's pretty clear SyFy wants you to mistake it for a Game of Thrones knock-off. The first episode doesn't really live up to that bill, though.

First, there are way too few characters. It becomes fairly obvious that we've got three main characters. Miller is a “cop” who actually works for a private security firm that does the cop-like work on the colonized asteroid Ceres. He's all noir, with his hat and clothes, his tough-guy demeanor and his dialogue that feels like a washed-out imitation of Dashiell Hammett. He's a “dirty cop,” though the implication is that, being a private corporation rather than a public service, the entire organization is on-the-take. We're also supposed to get that he has a heart of gold because he feels guilty about things and then gets ugly-violent about it later.

Jim Holden is one of those characters who's supposed to be mysterious. He's clearly running from something, clearly inhabiting a social and professional level below his actual birth and abilities, and clearly wallowing in (rather tame and mild) hedonistic delights to distract himself from the previous two aspects of his character. He also holds a vague position of authority on an ice-mining ship, doesn't want to advance in rank, and is banging the navigator who is the only other person on the ship who grooms and talks like lawyer instead of a factory worker. He's so generically mysterious he's boring, because you know you can't invest in his character. Luckily, he's surrounded by far more interesting people, and being “mysterious” means he can engage in broad swings in style and tone, allowing him to take plot-necessary actions nobody else in his position would sanely entertain.

Finally, we have Chrisjen Avasarala, an Indian grandmother who wears elegant saris, tickles her grandson, and, as Undersecretary of the United Nations, tortures political dissidents, possibly to death. Like Jim, she's such a different person from one moment to the next that it's impossible to invest in her, but unlike Jim, she's not surrounded by more interesting people. What you'll be paying attention to when she's on the screen is the spectacle of wealth and power and future Earth around her, and the vaguely Tarantino-esque threat of sudden, explosive violence that seems to linger in the background of every scene she's in.

The show owes a lot more to Babylon 5 than it does to Game of Thrones, from its grungy blue-collar focus to its Cold War themes and hidden motivations. You'll also see a lot of Babylon 5 in the space scenes, where ships move like physical bodies in a Newtonian universe but we still hear the rumble of engines as they pass by the camera. The sex is fairly tame (there's a single scene of gratuitous zero-g sex between a man and a woman), the violence isn't very graphic (though it does aim for a certain emotional impact that it doesn't always reach), and the spectacle is a bit too industrial grunge to really pull off the whole GoT-in-space vibe the marketing team would like you to assume.

It's also very much a modern serial show. You can tell they've got stuff plotted out pretty concretely (the story is based on a novel series) and look forward to a slow, leisurely reveal. Also like modern serial shows (and again, very much in the vein of Babylon 5) they love to set up your expectations and then pull the rug out from under you. They do a fairly masterful job of that right up near the end of the first episode.

Unfortunately, our three main leads do such a bang-up job of being mysterious and unpinnable that its really hard to invest in them as a viewer. (There's actually a fourth key character, but you see so little of her that you'd be forgiven for having entirely forgotten about her as the closing credits roll.) If the show is easy to watch (I don't have cable, so that means episodes posted online) and I have time, I'll probably catch the next few episodes to see if it grows on me; I'm at least that intrigued. But I've not seen anything yet worth rearranging my schedule for. On a scale of one-to-five stars, I give it a tentative three stars.