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.


BigFella said...

Actually, on the opposite side in regards to Han's replacement ship, I was surprised they didn't show the whole thing off because the Prequels were very much about serving as a Hasbro catalog with "realistic" light and sound. So I kind of took it as an improvement.

If you look at the progress of the first and second trilogy, you can see the growing influence of Kenner/Hasbro based on how "toyetic" the ships became. The original X and Y wings scaled to the pilots about the same as a fighter plane scales to people in the real world. By "The Phantom Menace" most spacecraft in the earlier, golden age of the Republic weren't much bigger than an SUV in relation to a human, which is much friendlier a scale for a 3" action figure and accompanying toy ship.

That being said, I agree with you on the narrative intangibility of the flying action set/garbage scow Han was flying. It certainly wasn't in character. Even down on his luck and feeling old and tired, you'd think our favorite Corellian smuggler would be piloting a sportier freighter.

Unknown said...

In defence of the melee fight, it's worth pointing out that one of First Order's mandates is the elimination of all Jedi, everywhere. Traditional blasters have proven very ineffective at taking out Jedi, so it's not that much of a leap to assume that a Stormtrooper weapon was created to get an upper hand on lightsaber wielding Jedi. That's the weapon we see.

It may not be explained, but it's not totally crazy.

RipperX said...

My childhood was owned by Star Wars, but today I am of the opinion that it is nothing more than pop culture trash. A New Hope provided audiences with a very unique experience, it developed FX which had never been seen before, and it was a breath of fresh air considering the films which were it's peers at the time. That isn't the case anymore. Star Wars may have rekindled the Sci-FY genre, but today it has been bypassed by superior stories which do focus on ideas larger then blowing something up. Force Awakens had two hours and said nothing of any importance.

I particularly do not like Abrams, those Star Trek films are horrid, which sucks because Star Trek is good Sci-FY, I just hope that they keep him away from Doctor Who.

Geoffrey McKinney said...

I think The Force Awakens (TFA) over-corrects for the slow pace of the prequels. TFA is rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. It moves too swiftly. That's one of the reasons it didn't feel like a Star Wars film to me.

The only SW movies I like are the original three from 1977 to 1983. I'm afraid that Darth Disney simply will never feel the same.

Sean Robert Meaney said...

Can't say I have seen it yet. I will say I had a dream before phantom menace came out where Anakin had more in common with Han solo personality-wise and was more freebooter than fanatic jedi. Consequently Leia and Luke had different mothers...something implied by the first films.
And yes it had a giant damn jedi capital ship so big it had a cubic kilometre space dock underneath and I never got to see the whole ship. As a dream it was way better than any movie to date.