Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Year 7, Day 351 - 12/17/15 - Movie #2,200

BEFORE: It's Sunday night, December 13, as I write this - no, wait, it's really early Monday morning, December 14, and I need to get this intro down to get the thousand or so thoughts about "Star Wars" that are running around in my head OUT of my head, since I've found over the last 7 years that the sooner I can jot thoughts like these down, the sooner I can think about something else.  And the next four days are going to go fast, they may even be a blur of anticipation, but they're also going to feel like they're taking forever.  I feel a bit like a kid at Christmas.

And while I once complained about the fact that Episode VII was going to be released in December, instead of in May like the previous six "Star Wars" films (actually, there were 7 films, don't forget about the animated one, like all the news reporters apparently have) because I hate to break traditions, but now I'm starting to see the reasoning behind it.  Hopefully this film is a big early Christmas gift to the fans, and we get to unwrap it a week early.  Since I've got a ticket for a Thursday night screening, it's like a present I get to open on Christmas Eve, when most people have to wait until the next day.  

Wow, J.J. Abrams, thank you for my Christmas gift - you got me a new "Star Wars" film?  How DID you know?  I hope you didn't spend too much - wait, how much?  With a "B"?  Darn, this is awkward, because I didn't get you anything, I just bought a ticket.  I hope you kept the receipt, because, well, you never know.  It's always a little tricky trying to get the right things for people you don't know that well.  

And now "Star Wars" is here, and Christmas is here, and the two holidays are sort of running together. I hung the lights up early, I got my Christmas cards out, I took a day off to shop at the outlet stores, and that was all good planning, because now I'm all about "Star Wars" 24/7, it seems.  Maybe after I see the new film I can relax and think about Christmas again, but I've got that nervous knotted-up feeling in my stomach, the kind a 9-year old boy would get four days before Christmas.

You see, I was 8 when I saw the first "Star Wars" film, back before we knew it was Episode IV or before we knew there would be any sequels, or prequels, at all.  We had just the one film, and I made as many trips to the theater to see it as I could, and to say it changed my life would be an understatement.  It was also the first film I bought on VHS, back when they priced those tapes so you'd rent them and not buy them, and it was not only my introduction to science-fiction, it was the first time I ever paid attention to how a film was made.  The first time I learned about special effects and models and matte paintings, the first time I wanted to peek behind the curtain and see how the Wizard did his magic tricks.  By 1986 I was in film school at NYU, and I was the only kid in 16mm production class to state openly that I was there because of "Star Wars".  

The saga filled my adolescent years with fantasy, and then gave me a direction for where to go when I became an adult.  Times changed and my situation changed, and ultimately I guess I changed, but the "Star Wars" films were a constant, that universe always welcoming me when I wanted to visit it. Then the prequels rolled around in 1999, I was 30 and working in the film business, and I approached the 2nd trilogy as an adult.  Instead of skipping out of school early to see the films on opening day, I had to take the day off from work.  This turned out to be pretty easy, since one or both of my bosses was always willing to give me the time, as long as I bought them tickets and saved them seats.  

I'd always collected the tie-in comic books and novels, but at some point I started working a booth at San Diego Comic-Con, and I began collecting autographs from Star Wars cast members.  The first year I went, Kenny Baker happened to be there, the year after that I got three more (Ray Park, Jake Lloyd, Peter Mayhew) and once again, the films gave me a direction.  The collection's now up to 94 signed 8x10's - I had a really good 2015, about 10 actors like Ewan MacGregor, Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman, with Frank Oz as the latest addition.  (And just when I had only about a dozen actors left to track down, here comes a whole new cast...)

Now I'm 47, and we're at the start of a third trilogy, and who knows, maybe on Thursday I'll watch Episode VII and I'll feel like a 9-year old kid again - but something tells me that's not possible, in the same way that I can't ever feel like a little kid at Christmas again, can't go back to believing in Santa Claus and flying reindeer.  I've come too far, learned too much - part of me wishes I could wipe the "Star Wars" films from my brain, just to have the joy of experiencing them for the first time all over again.

But maybe there's another way to look at things.  I've been talking in my last few posts about the connections between "A Christmas Carol", "Lost Christmas", even "Eight Crazy Nights", and it all comes down to the karmic lesson of the holidays.  Give people gifts, and get some in return.  Do good things, and good things will come your way.  In my case, watch 299 movies during 2015, keep the actor linking going as long as I can, and there will be a reward for all of my hard work, sleepless nights and constant re-organization of the watchlist.  Well, I must have done something right, because here I am, nearly at the end of the year, and "Star Wars" is the final film of the year, just like I planned it. 

And I'm living the "Star Wars" lifestyle in overdrive now, hoping that it will help make the movie extra good, or enhance my enjoyment of it, at least.  I've read five "Star Wars" novels in the last five weeks, I'm wearing a different "Star Wars" t-shirt every day (I own quite a few) and on Wednesday I went to the Discovery Museum near Times Square to see an exhibit of costumes from the saga, then dropped some money in the gift shop.  Not just for me - I'm buying tie-in merchandise for my niece and nephew, too.  All of this to increase my Force karma.  I'm worse than a football fan whose favorite team is playing in the Super Bowl, who refuses to wear anything but team jerseys.  

This makes me really nervous now, I don't want to jinx anything - I mean, I feel like I deserve a new "Star Wars", but I don't want to get cocky or complacent.  That's when bad things can happen.  I sometimes say I'd like to fly somewhere first class, just once, but then I figure, that will be the time my plane crashes or something.  I try to be a happy person, and I try to allow myself some indulgences, but if I get too lazy or enjoy myself too much, I think karma's going to get me somehow.  It's some weird form of superstition, but it feels like as soon as I stop worrying, as soon as I let my guard down, I'm in for trouble.  This would be a terrible week to get hit by a bus, not that there would ever be a good week for that, but any illness or injury that would keep me from going to the movies on Thursday would be just devastating.  So I just can't relax. 

There's also another problem with the way I based my lifestyle around a science-fiction saga.  Though it's not really the films' fault, because it's the world that changed, if I'm not mistaken.  The documentary "The People vs. George Lucas", released a few years ago, showed how some people who loved the first trilogy as kids hated the prequels, especially the comic relief bits with Jar-Jar Binks.  But they forgot that there were Jawas and Ewoks and other kid-friendly things in Episodes 4-6, and they also forgot to factor in the change in themselves - they grew up, but the films stayed the same.  

In another way the world changed, we've now got terrorism in the news, and that makes it a little more difficult to go out and see a film about war, even one set in a far-off galaxy.  It's too close to the Paris bombings to enjoy a film with a bunch of explosions in it, right?  Too close to the last mass shooting to enjoy a film where everyone has blasters?  And what is a "rebel", anyway - isn't that just another word for "terrorist"?  Who decides when one becomes the other?  Isn't ISIS an alliance of rebels, trying to overthrow what they perceive to be the Evil Empire?  How do I draw a distinction between someone who blows up a building with an airplane and someone who blows up the Death Star with an X-Wing fighter?  Did Kevin Smith get it right when "Clerks" called Luke Skywalker a mass-murderer, because of all the contractors and plumbers that were possibly on the Death Star at the time?

Maybe I'm overthinking things - and maybe all my misgivings are unjustified.  Maybe on Thursday I'll leap out of bed like a kid on Christmas, work a half-day, watch a great film and then be able to relax.  But I still have one quibble with "The Force Awakens", before I even see it.  It has to do with the death of the Expanded Universe - these are the novels that were written during the last two decades, with full authorization from Lucasfilm, that are set after "Return of the Jedi".  The timeline of these novels stretches to around 40-45 years after the destruction of the 2nd Death Star, and some of these books are very good.  Not just that, people like me spent a lot of money on them, and now they've been removed from the official canon.  

A press release from a year or two ago stated that all future book tie-ins would be part of the official canon - meaning that any events in previous books set after Episode VI didn't really happen.  So Luke's Jedi Academy, Han and Leia's three children, the freakin' Yuuzhan Vong War - they didn't happen.  Timothy Zahn's "Heir to the Empire" trilogy, Dark Horse Comics' "Dark Empire" series, "Darksaber", the "Black Fleet Crisis" trilogy, the entire "New Jedi Order" series - just gone.  OK, so I never got around to reading that last series, I still bought the freaking books, can I get a refund or something?  

Sure, Marvel and DC Comics reboot their timelines again and again - but that's comic books, where it's more expected.  Why did someone authorize the publication of these stories, if they weren't meant to last?  If I were an author of one of those books, I'd be pretty upset.  Maybe I'd even look into some legal action, if somebody told me that my hard work now wasn't part of the story.  I'm just saying.  

I'm still pissed that I had a way to link here directly, through a particular actor, who then mysteriously vanished from the IMDB credits for a while, but now is back.  I tore my whole chain apart and rebuilt it, moved things around, because I convinced myself that actor wasn't in this "Star Wars" film after all.  But you know what, it worked out OK because I figured I could link indirectly from Frank Oz, the voice of both Miss Piggy and Yoda - but now it seems that TWO puppeteers from "The Muppet Christmas Carol" also have roles in "The Force Awakens" - Tim Rose and Mike Quinn.  So we're cool.  See, if I just stick to the plan, everything works out in the end.

THE PLOT:   Three decades after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, a new threat arises. The First Order attempts to rule the galaxy and only a rag-tag group of heroes can stop them, along with the help of the Resistance.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Movie #1)
AFTER: Just came back from the screening at the AMC Empire (seemed appropriate).  When tickets first went on sale, an associate scooped up 5 of them for December 17, and we couldn't believe our luck, with the film scheduled to open on December 18.  It's best not to question such things, sometimes you just have to take the opportunities that come your way.  There was a VIP screening there in 70mm IMAX 3-D, but we saw Episode VII in regular - OK, "Prime" format, which meant that our seats got all rumbly every time there was a major explosion.  Which happened often, it's a very explode-y film.  

But in the past few days, leading up to the screening, a couple of new anxieties surfaced.  After dealing with the possibility that I might now be too old to enjoy a new "Star Wars" film, or perhaps there was no place for "Star Wars" in the post-terrorism world we now live in, I started to worry - what if I'm ready for "Star Wars", but it's not ready for me?  What if the film is, like, not so good?  But that's crazy talk, because it just HAS to be good, right?  I mean, it's got Han and Leia in it, and the trailers look really awesome, with the Millennium Falcon flying around, and there's a new guy with a red lightsaber, so that mean's he's evil, so the pieces just have to come together, right?  

A little over four years ago, I made contact with someone at Lucasfilm - my boss was doing a book tour of sorts, and had stopped at Skywalker Ranch to show his films and talk a bit.  I didn't ask to go along, but I told him he HAD to mention that his office manager was, like, the biggest Star Wars fan of all.  They'd had no luck getting copies of his book to sell at the appearance, but I pulled some strings, made the best of a bad situation (the publisher had sent two boxes of the wrong book to us at SDCC) and I got the publisher to make up for it by shipping some books directly there.  This got my foot in the door, and I wrangled an invitation to visit there myself.  So I made plans to come up there in 2012, right after my usual trip to San Diego Comic-Con.  Got all the way up to Marin County, checked into the hotel and called my contact, only to find out that the whole company was on lockdown, and I wouldn't be able to visit.  It seems they were preparing the place for some big event, which turned out to be the announcement of George Lucas's retirement.  

Hey, no big deal, just a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the studio that makes my favorite films.  I made the best of things, had a killer day in San Francisco, even popped in to the lobby of ILM (it wasn't the Ranch, but it was at least something), got my photo taken in front of the Yoda fountain, thanks to a crazy cab-driver who claimed to have ferried Lucas' daughters home after nights out on the town.  He offered to show me Lucas's home, but I declined.  And the rest of my day in S.F. was killer, but it showed me that sometimes I can be ready for "Star Wars", but it wasn't ready for me.  

Throw in the additional anxietes of the danger of going out to the movies these days (Hey, it happened in Denver, it can happen in Times Square) and this terrible head-cold I was trying to get over, and then the concern over whether a new film could possibly live up to my expectations, and let's just say I've been a walking ball of nerves for the last 48 hours.  BUT I made it to the screening without knowing one bit about the plot that wasn't shown in the trailers, and that's an accomplishment.  I let the new film wash over me, even though it's a little confusing at first, and I think I'm still processing it all.  I'll get a better sense of how "good" the movie is after I see it a second time.  Hey, it's "Star Wars", which is always a great place to start.  

I won't reveal any plot points here - if you really want to, you can read the whole plot on Wikipedia, or even Wookieepedia, but I'd recommend not doing that.  I hate spoilers, and I tried so hard to avoid them, so I'm certainly not going to spoil it for anyone else.  BUT, if you're a "Star Wars" expert like I am, you may have had some nagging questions from watching the trailers, such as "When did stormtroopers go from being identical clones to being non-identical (one presumes) draftees?" "Who's the guy with the red lightsaber?" and "Where the hell is Luke, and why isn't he on the poster?"  Congratulations, those are some really, really good questions.  But please bear in mind that the film is under no obligation to answer them.  

In fact, there's a story or two in this future's past that are left untold, and I have a nagging suspicion that they would be slightly more interesting than the story we're shown in "Episode VII".  Where did the First Order come from?  Why is the Rebellion now the Resistance?  By skipping ahead 30 years, I'm now wondering what got missed.  I mean, some books and comics can now try and tell those stories, and I guess the main reason why they're not getting turned into movies is the simple fact that the main actors are too old.  I mean, Carrie Fisher is almost 60 and Harrison Ford is 73.  

And it turns out I was spot-on in my complaints about the death of the Expanded Universe.  I now understand WHY they had to discredit those books, but I still don't have to like it.  In the novels that were released over the years - and were treated as real stories about real events at the time, as real as any fictional stories can be, that is - there was a New Jedi Order, Luke had a thriving Jedi Academy, and do I even need to point out that a major character "died" at the start of the Yuuzhan Vong war?  All that is now gone gone GONE and it looks like I'll be putting a few boxes of books into storage.  God DAMN it. 

I can bring up one NITPICK POINT without spoiling anything, because a lot of science-fiction movies do this, and I never understand it - they show "star charts" like they're fixed maps.  Many of the "Star Wars" novels feature maps of the galaxy before the story begins, so we can all get a sense of how far Tatooine is from Geonosis (Episode II famously did this) or where Coruscant is in relation to the Outer Rim or the Hydian Way.  But, aren't all these stars constantly moving around?  The galaxy spins, right?  Even that galaxy far, far away?  So any star chart would need to move as well, to show the way that the different star systems move, relative to each other.  So how does anyone plot, say, hyperspace coordinates to jump to a planet or star that certainly does NOT stay in one fixed place?  Oh, sure, it's science-fiction, who cares?  But this could be important if we humans ever travel to another solar system - you can leave the Earth and head in the right direction, but when you get there (depending on how long it takes, I suppose) that THERE is going to be somewhere else.  If you don't factor this in, you're never going to get where you're going, because it will have moved.  

I guess at the end of the day, time marches on, and the "Star Wars" franchise and cast is like one of those rock bands from the 1970's or 80's that's still touring, like Toto or Styx or REO Speedwagon.  They're still selling tickets, but they're doing it on the state fair and small arena circuit, and they probably each still have two or three guys from the original line-up playing in the band.  With the right session guys filling in, the band could probably keep touring forever, or take long breaks and then get back into it whenever they need cash.  But you shouldn't go to one of their shows expecting the type of concert they would have performed in the 1970's or 80's, or else you're bound to be disappointed.  At what point should the band stop calling themselves by their original name, or at least cop to the fact that they're now really just a cover band?

And with enough elements from previous "Star Wars" films carrying over or being repeated, I think that's exactly what this feels like to me - a cover version of other "Star Wars" films, for the most part.  Now, if you really like a song you might like a cover version of it, but then again, you might not.  I see how the backlash against this film has already started in the IMDB forums, and I'm not really that surprised.  After all, how many times have you gotten exactly what you wanted for Christmas?  Sometimes you get what you need, though, even if you didn't know you needed exactly that.  This one may not be the perfect fit, but there's just no WAY I'd consider returning it.

Starring Harrison Ford (last seen in "42"), Carrie Fisher (last seen in "Fanboys"), Mark Hamill (last heard in "Queer Duck"), Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac (last seen in "Inside Llewyn Davis"), Adam Driver (ditto), John Boyega, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie (last seen in "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus"), Lupita Nyong'o (last seen in "12 Years a Slave"), Domhnall Gleeson (last seen in "Dredd"), Simon Pegg (last seen in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"), Anthony Daniels (last heard in "The Lego Movie"), Andy Serkis (last seen in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"), Warwick Davis (last seen in "Jack the Giant Slayer"), Max von Sydow (last seen in "The Exorcist"), Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Greg Grunberg (last seen in "The Ladykillers"), with cameos from Ken Leung, Judah Friedlander (last heard in "Epic").

RATING: a tentative 8 out of 10 TIE fighters, with an option to revise after a 2nd viewing