Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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A few thoughts on The Last Jedi (Star Wars Episode VIII)

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Having written a very negative review of the previous installment, I did something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: I decided to not watch the latest “Star Wars” sequel: The Last Jedi.

Out of curiosity, I did read the Wikipedia page earlier today. A few notes:

  1. The plot does not appear to be an improvement over the previous movie or to add anything original. (I note that one of my criticisms of he Episode VII was too much imitation of the older movies.)
  2. Luke gets more screen time in this movie, but part of this screen time consists of his death…

    Already last time around, I wrote “this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken” with regard to Han’s death—and now they kill off Luke Skywalker!?!?! Watch your back, Santa Claus—you are next!

    Seeing that Carrie Fisher has died in real life, this movie is also likely the end of the line for Leia. With that, the remaining connection to the older movies is only Chewbacca and the droids. (Or do I overlook someone?)

    As to the screen-time issue, it is hard to judge the amount from Wikipedia, but I would speculate that Luke’s is still comparatively short. Leia “is incapacitated” early on and, while she reappears in the text towards the end, her part is likely quite small.

  3. A major plot-point appears to be a mental connection between Rey and Kyle, leading to them briefly becoming allies and Kyle killing Snoke instead of Rey*, extending mutual offers of “join me and …”, and then parting as enemies.

    *Paralleling Vader and his killing of the Emperor instead of Luke. Sigh…

    Not promising. I note that my review of Episode VII said

    For the future, I just hope that there will be no absurd surprises like Rey being Kylo’s long lost sister or the daughter of Luke (hackneyed beyond belief), Rey being the true “chosen one” (invalidating the previous movies entirely), Kylo’s master actually being Luke using some form of projection, or similar. If any of that happens, well, then the film makers should simply be lined up against a wall and shot for criminal incompetence.

    This goes some way towards an “absurd surprise” in its own right, and it actually makes the sibling connection somewhat likely.

  4. Rey again beats Kyle in a fight, to which I re-iterate my criticism that

    The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless.

As for the planet Ahch-To, I can only say “Gesundheit”.


Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2017 at 11:27 pm

Innovation over repetition in the movies (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets)

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Several earlier posts (cf. [1], [2], [3], and possibly others.) have dealt with themes like (over-)continuation of franchises; and I feel that much of the entertainment industry is caught in creative laziness and a greedful attempt to just squeeze as much money out the fame and popularity of existing works as possible.

That it can be done differently is proved by Luc Besson and his “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”*, which I finally got around to watching: Unlike e.g. the latest variations of the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” themes, he actually tries to do something new, bringing in fresh ideas and unusual takes, in a manner similar to what he did in “The Fifth Element” twenty years ago**. To boot, he does so in one of the most visually spectacular manners I have ever encountered. The whole movie appears to be driven by a wish to push the envelope as far as possible, e.g. with the “Big Market” or “Bubble” scenes.

*In all fairness, it is based on an older comic series, which technically makes it an example of another continuation/re-boot/medium change/whatnot. However, Besson’s intentions, going by reporting, are very different: Showing his own vision of a favorite childhood fiction—admiration and genuine interest rather than a wish for more money. (“The Fifth Element” is similar in this regard, except that it was described as originating in his own childhood creation/fantasies, rather than the original work of another.)

**These two movies have a lot in common and most of what I say about the one will apply, m.m., to the other. I mostly choose not to be explicit, to avoid cluttering. There are also some strong parallels with the two first “Star Wars” trilogies, like pushing the envelope, unbelievably impressive visuals (by the standards of the respective day), new weapons, …

Of course, the movie draws on the works and ideas of others (and/or independently comes up with ideas others have already used)—but not doing so in today’s world is nearly impossible. Here the question of execution and combination enters, and Besson sets news standards. Consider e.g. “Big Market”, a bazaar/society hidden from plain sight: Similar ideas are not uncommon in fiction, as e.g. with the “Troll Market” used in the “Trollhunters” and “Hell Boy” franchises—but combined with the concept of over-laying realities that only interact partially, and the execution that allows for great comedy and exciting action, we have something on a different level. Even so, there are a number of more simple ideas that I, personally, have never seen before, like the weigh-your-opponent-down gun used in “Big Market”.

Where others engage in unimaginative mass production, Besson sets new standards and has created what is the best sci-fi movie I have seen from this decade—far superior to e.g. the last “Star Wars” installment. This is how it should be done! I would rather have one movie like this every few years than a few generic continuations in one year.

Now, I am not saying that this movie has reached perfection. For instance, it is weak* in terms of “food for thought” (but that applies to almost all the block-busters in a similar genre; even if some more “artsy” sci-fi movies can be strong here). For instance, much of the overall plot is a typical variation of “world in danger; hero to the rescue; complications ensue” (again, the competition is rarely better; and the “complication” part is quite strong). For instance, the last half hour (or so) is considerably weaker than the preceding majority of the film, being less imaginative and more cartoonish than the rest—and the virtually immediate re-creation of the Pearl’s world, if on a smaller scale, reduces the impact of the previous losses on the viewers in an unfortunate manner.

*Among what is present, I note the ethical dilemma that led to the destruction of Mül, the situation and developments of the Pearls subsequent to that destruction, and several instances of having to weigh “the right thing” against orders (note the military setting) or personal loyalty vs. organizational loyalty. None of these, however, are given much real exposure, and the food-for-thought aspect is to some part neutralized through the fairly one-sided black-and-white takes on the issues. (For instance, even if we strongly disagree with the actions of Filitt, it still pays to try to understand what motivated him, and to contemplate whether we, in a similar situation, might have acted in the same manner.)

On the other hand, I am not certain that I share the common criticism of the cast: I agree that neither of the two leads put in extraordinary acting performances, but they fit the parts very well, have great on-screen chemistry, and contribute strongly to the overall effect. Chances are that a re-cast with more accomplished actors would have led to an inferior result; and I have a hard time even imagining the movie with different lead actors (just like e.g. the original “Star Wars”, but very much unlike “The Force Awakens”). Cara Delevingne is similar to several other Besson castings, notably Natalie Portman in “Leon”* and Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element”, in that the combination** of the character and the actress left me infatuated (which is comparatively rare with me). The rest of the cast is very mixed, but the characters of importance are mostly well played, if possibly a bit exaggerated.

*On the first watching, when I was just several years older than Portman’s character…

**Jovovich as Leeloo had me head over heels—but she has left me neutral or even slightly negative in the other movies I have seen her in. An interesting contrast is Olivia Hussey, the only other actress that has had that large an effect on me: She did it in at least two different works (“Romeo and Juliet” and “Ivanhoe”), and left me anything but cold in several others. (While comparatively unknown, she combined extraordinary beauty with amazing charm, beating even e.g. Audrey Hepburn in this combination.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2017 at 5:59 am

Discovery (Star Trek)

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I recently wrote about franchises, sequels, and when it was time to call it a day. A new “Star Trek” series, “Discovery”, following a long gap, brings this topic to my mind again.

TOS* ran for three seasons in the late 1960s. While possibly not very impressive by today’s standard (especially in terms of special effects…), it was a major advance on what had been done in the past and proved enduringly popular in syndication.

*“The Original Series”, a name established long after the original airings.

Apart from an animated series (that I have never seen and cannot judge), there was a drought of roughly ten years before the arrival of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”—which might have been the end of the franchise. This movie was not just highly disappointing*, it was also a poor effort outright, its value derived mostly from seeing more of the beloved characters.

*“Disappointing” in it self merely means that something does not match expectations. Unfortunately, words like “disappointing” and “overrated” are very often used or understood in a manner that ignores the relative aspect. Similarly, “better” and “best” do not automatically imply “good”.

Still, a second movie was made: “Wrath of Khan”, definitely one of the best sci-fi movies ever made till that date. And the ball kept rolling: The next two decades (or so) saw no less than four TV series and movie after movie. To boot, most* of these efforts were very enjoyable, with TNG** being a strong candidate for best sci-fi series of all times.

*The major exception is “Deep Space 9”, where I have on three separate occasions failed to even finish watching the first season.

**“The Next Generation”, the first of the new series.

At this point, we have a very good example of why continuing a franchise or giving second chances can be a good idea: What if the first, failed, movie attempt had been the end?

However, what has happened since gives an equally good example of why a franchise should sometimes be given a rest: The “reboot” movies by J. J. Abrams were not necessarily bad when viewed as disconnected efforts, but they break continuity severely*, and have a feel of high-quality fan fiction rather than a serious continuation. (See also my discussion of “The Force Awakens”, another J. J. Abrams failure.)

*To the point, and this is inexcusable, that most of what had previously been shown on screen was invalidated, simply no longer would happen. (Time travel caused severe changes to the time line.)

This brings us to the first new TV series past reboot: On the positive side, it is set before the events of the reboot (and TOS) meaning that it could still remain in the proper, original, continuity. Further, the “production value” is very high and the actors cast appear to be unusually strong. On the negative side, more or less everything else—I stopped watching half-way through the third episode.

To look at some specific problems:

  1. The main character, Michael Burnham:

    She* is a Human** raised as Vulcan, by now following a hackneyed pattern of an “unusual” heritage that includes Spock (half-Human, half-Vulcan), Belana (half-Human, half-Klingon), Worf (Klingon raised by Humans), Seven (Human, integrated in the Borg Collective as a small child), and probably a few others that do not occur to me at the moment. (And to which two artificial beings, Data and The Doctor, possibly could be added.)

    Unfortunately, the aspects of a mixed heritage that made these characters, and the Vulcan mindset that made specifically Spock, interesting are missing. Apart from a few minor plot points, there is nothing (in the first two-and-a-half episodes) that could not have happened equally with an unusually roguish regular Human, nor any differences in behavior that necessitates or are made more plausible by her Vulcan background—on the contrary, her actions during the conflict with the Klingons remind me more of Kirk than of Spock… (Except in as far that a mutinous Kirk tended to save the day, not get half of Star Fleet destroyed.)

    To boot, her behavior makes it very hard for me build sympathies, with her disputable judgment, discipline problems, surly demeanor, …

    *Despite the name, yet to be explained, the character definitely passes as a woman. While I have nothing against female leads even in traditionally “male genres” (my favorite TV series of all time is “Buffy”…) the extreme number of such occurring today is disturbing, as is the reason—not because this-or-that part would be good for a woman, but because political correctness calls for more women and denounces any type of stereotyping or traditional roles as evil (even when matching reality). Consider e.g. the entirely pointless “Ghost Busters” reboot. We are at a point where a male lead is becoming the exception. In this specific case, the name, Michael, raises the suspicion that the character was originally intended to be male, with a fairly last minute switch taking place. See also the continuity issues below.

    **For reasons of consistency with “Vulcan” and “Klingon”, both traditionally capitalized, I use a “Human” rather than “human”. This with some hesitation, because the former are likely capitalized for some reason that does not apply to “human” (e.g. as a designator of nationality) or spuriously.

  2. There are a number* of continuity issues, the worst being a complete re-design of the Klingon look**. This is the more pragmatically ill-advised as this type of change is known to cause portions of original fans to have fits of anger.

    Similarly, the ships and technology is redesigned in a manner that simply cannot be made to fit within the line of continuity. (Admittedly, the standards of the 1960s make this a hard task; however, “Enterprise”, another prequel to TOS, made a better job and it is unrealistic when “Discovery” is more advanced looking than e.g. TNG or “Voyager” that both play at a considerably later part of the time line.

    Looking at “Enterprise” and TOS, it could safely be assumed that there would be few women around and fewer yet in important positions***. Yet, the first two episodes center on a ship with a female captain and a female first officer (Michael). Barring the ret-con assumption that this ship was an extreme anomaly, this just does not fit. (That the situation during TOS was ultimately the reflection of the real 1960s is beside the point. Similarly, a piece of historical fiction should not just invent female ship captains where none would realistically have been present.)

    *My listing makes no claim of completeness even of what I spotted—let alone what a fanatical Trekkie, taking it apart while actively comparing with guide books or photage from other series, could find.

    **This look changed considerably after TOS too; however, that change could be easily defended on the grounds of the Klingons looking too Human, and the original look appeared in probably just a handful of episodes. The “post-TOS look” was used actively for two decades, albeit with some minor variations, including several TOS movies, and with at least the TNG and “Voyager” crews having at least one Klingon resp. half-Klingon as series regulars for seven seasons each and a handful of TNG movies.

    ***TOS had one female regular, Uhura, but she was a somewhat secondary character and “just” communications officer. “Enterprise” had two, one a communications officer… The second, T’Pol, had a more important role, probably science officer, but she was a (real) Vulcan appointed or lent by the Vulcans to keep tabs on the Humans. Her standing did not reflect the career chances of other women and is probably best ignored when interpolating. For that matter, even the series playing later in the time line (off the top of my head) only saw Janeway as a regular Human Star-Fleet woman in “traditionally male” position. The others either had jobs like ship physician or ship counselor, or are of disputable relevance for the comparison: Belana and Seven (cf. above) were not regular humans and non of them joined “Voyager” through Star Fleet.

  3. The previous series always drew their strength from a great ensemble, with many diverse and charming/interesting/whatnot characters. This does not appear to be the case with “Discovery” (with some obvious reservations for the short run that also apply to much of the rest of this item). Notably, the character I considered the most promising during the first two episodes, Michelle Yeoh’s captain, did not survive into the third… (And neither did the main antagonist.) Going by my surmise, the current main characters, Michael aside, comprise an expressionless alien with some potential, a wet-noddle roommate, and two stern stereotyped officers (the new captain resp. Michael’s superior officer), at least one of which will likely be a caricature douche bag and constant enemy of Michael (most likely the superior officer).
  4. The show does not seem to have made up its mind what to be and jumps in a manner that gives the viewer wrong expectations: The first two episodes starts with a star ship in conflict with the Klingons, is very martial, and pointing to a new and prolonged cold and/or hot war to dominate the series (or at least the season). This would be somewhat in line with older works. However, at the end of the second the mutinous Michael is sent away on prison transport, leaving an expectation of something completely different, possibly a sci-fi version of “Prison Break”. But, no, barely has the third episode started and the transport suffers catastrophic damage, leaving the prisoners to die. Surely, now Michael will step up, use her Star-Fleet skills and save the day? No… Almost immediately they are rescued by a research vessel (the eponymous “Discovery”), where Michael is drafted into the crew as a lowly technician or whatnot. (The adventures of a research vessel puts us on back solidly, almost boringly, on standard “Star Trek” ground.)

    With all due respect: Who writes such utter crap?!?

In a direct comparison with TNG (not necessarily the rest of the franchise), it is notably that almost every episode of TNG had some aspect of making the viewers think, e.g. relating to differences between people or philosophical issues—starting right at the first episode. This was one of the greatest strengths of the series and something that “Discovery” has so far not copied.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 8, 2017 at 12:51 pm

A few thoughts on franchises and sequels

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Being home with a cold, I just killed some time finally watching “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, the fifth and latest installment in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series.

I am left pondering the dilemma of when a franchise should call it quits (from a non-monetary view point–we all know Disney):

On the one hand, this is by no means a bad movie—without the comparison with some of its predecessors, I might have given a very favorable review within its genre. On the other, it is still a pale imitation of what the first three* movies (especially the first) was. It attempts the same type of banter and humor, but does so with less skill. It has a very similar set of characters, some shared, some molded after old characters, but both the character development and the casting is considerably weaker**. The plot is just another variation of the predecessors’, without any real invention. The music is driven by the same main theme, but otherwise the score and overall music is not in anyway noteworthy. (And the main theme is almost annoyingly repetitive when used for so many movies—a key feature of good music is variation.) Etc.

*I have only seen the fourth on one occasion, and my recollection is too vague for a comparison. However, while the first three were basically a trilogy with more-or-less the same cast and characters and a semi-continuous overall story, the fourth and fifth movies were stand-alone efforts with only a partial sharing of characters and (likely) considerably less resources.

**The first movie was absolutely amazing in this regard: Most movies would consider themselves lucky to have even one of Jack Sparrow (sorry, CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow), Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, Captain Barbossa, or even Commander Norrington; and the quality continued into the smaller parts. The second and third followed suit. In the fifth, Will and Elizabeth have cameo appearances and the vacuum is filled by imitation characters that compare to the originals as glass does to diamond. Sparrow has gone from dashing, cunning, and comedic to just comedic; while the old comedic-relief characters are pushed to the margin. Norrington is long gone and while there is a British commander of some form, he is entirely unremarkable and has very little screen time. The new villain is just a lesser re-hash of (the undead version of) Barbossa and Davy Jones. Barbossa himself remains strong and has an unexpected character twist, but he worked better as the original villain than he ever did as a non-villain.

In the end, I consider the two-or-so hours well spent, but chances are that I will watch the first movie again* before I watch the fifth (or fourth) a second time. To boot, the follow-up movies to some degree detract from the earlier movies, and from an artistic point of view, the series would have been better off just ending after the third movie. (Some argue “after the first”, and the second and third do not reach the level of the first; however, there is much less of a distance, more innovation, and less repetitiveness compared to the later movies.)

*I have not kept count of my watchings, but over the years it is definitely more than half a dozen of the first, with number two and three clocking in at two or three less.

Consider the “Matrix” and assume that the sequels would never have been made: There might or might not have been disappointment over the lack of sequels and/or wonderment what the sequels would have been like—but we would not have had the general disappointment over said sequels. (While actually reasonably entertaining, they were nowhere near the first movie and they do introduce knowledge that actually lessens the first movie.) Would it not be better to have the feeling of having missed out on something than not having missed out and being disappointed? Sequels should be made when they can really bring something to the table*—not just because people want more**. The whole “Rocky” franchise contains one noteworthy movie—the first. The rest might have entertained portions of the masses*** and made some people a lot of money, but where was the actual value compared to just making similar movies starting from scratch? “Highlander”**** was utterly ruined by the sequels, which turned the original from an original fantasy movie with something major at stake to a part of a ridiculous “aliens are among us” C-movie franchise.

*Of course, this is not always something that can be known in advance, especially when matters of taste come into it. Often, however, the case is crystal clear.

**The actual decision will unfortunately be made based on the studio (or some similar entity) wanting more.

***Including a younger version of me: At least the whole Rocky/Ivan Drago thing was a thrill the first time around. A later watching as an adult left me unmoved.

****It is quite conceivable that my interest would have dropped through my own development, as with Ivan Drago; however, even that aside, the sequels utterly ruined the original.

When I was a teenager, one of my absolute favorite TV series was “Twin Peaks”. This series was artificially cut short on a cliff-hanger at the end of the second season—and for several years I (and many others—“Twin Peaks” was a big deal at the time) hoped that someone in charge would change his mind and that we would see a third season after all. Time went by, and the possibility became unrealistic in light of actors aging or even dying. Now, not years but decades later, there is a third season … of sorts. Based on the first three episodes*, it is a disappointment. Firstly, and almost necessarily, it does not pick up where season two ended, but roughly as far in the future as time has passed in real life, and most of the story-lines, events, what-ifs, …, have already played out during the gap. Secondly, many of the things that made the original great (at least in my teenage mind) are missing, including (apart from cameos) most of the old characters—and the old characters that remain are, well, old. Possibly, it will turn out to be great in the end, but I doubt it. Even if it does turn out great, it will not be what I once wished for. Does the sequel make sense? Probably not.

*The season is progressed farther, but I have only watched three episodes so far. I will pick it up again later, and reserve my final judgment until I am either through or have given up.

In contrast, the “Evil Dead” movie franchise, of which I had just a mildly positive impression, has come up with a TV series continuation, again playing several decades after the previous installment. It is hilariously entertaining: Funny, good violence, good music, likable characters. OK, the “deeper” and “artistic” values are virtually absent (just as they were in the movies), but for just kicking-back for half-an-hour it is a gem—and it is far ahead of the movies. Sometimes, an unexpected continuation is a good thing… Similarly, it is not unheard of for a weak sequel to be followed by a stronger sequel (e.g. the inexcusable “Psycho III” and the reasonably good “Psycho IV”; but, true, no sequel at all would have been the best for “Psycho”) or even, on rare occasions, for the sequels to better the original (“Tremors”; although the starting point was not that impressive).

Going into a full discussion of all sequels and franchises that could be relevant would take forever (“Star Trek”, “James Bond”, “Doctor Who”, various horror franchises, various super-hero franchises, …). I point, however, to my review of “Star Wars VII” for some discussion of “Star Wars” and the topic of sequels. I further note, concerning one of the very few “serious” examples, that the “The Godfather III” was another case of an actually reasonably good movie that was simply not up to par with the predecessors (and, yes, Sofia Coppola was one of the worst casting choice in history).

As an aside, reboots and remakes are almost always a bad idea, while the move from one medium to another often fails badly and, even when not, only rarely manages to reach the quality, popularity, whatnot, found in the original medium.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 7, 2017 at 4:02 pm

Review of The Force Awakens (Star Wars Episode VII)

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Disclaimer: The majority of the text was written around New Year’s as unconnected draft-level pieces, shortly after I watched the movie. The later combination into a whole and polishing up, together with some minor extensions, took place in the last few days, when my memory of the details had often faded. There quite likely are things that I wanted to write, but have since forgotten. Equally, there might be parts of the later changes that do not exactly reflect what I would have written back then.

Remark: I will refer to the Star-Wars movies by designations such as “Episode VII” (for “The Force Awakens”). For those with a superficial knowledge of the franchise, note that the episode numbers correspond to the in-universe chronology, but that the order is IV–VI, I–III, VII in terms of release history. Specifically, “the” Star-Wars movie is Episode IV (AKA “New Hope”). “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels” (that are briefly mentioned in the text) are animated TV series.

By and large, I found Episode VII to be disappointing and more a case of interesting fan fiction than a serious continuation of the franchise. (It shares many problems with the new Star-Trek movies, by the same director, J.J. Abrams, but these were more entertaining and struck me as better made.) The result is not even close to Episodes I–III*; Episodes IV–VI would have been indisputably better, except for the enormous difference in special effects; and I would even favor parts of “The Clone Wars”. In addition, the in-universe fit is comparatively poor and there are some decisions made that make me personally consider it (and the new Star-Trek movies…) non-canonical—if not, the events of the earlier movies, especially the happy endings to various sub-plots in Episode VI, become tainted and my enjoyment of the older movies diminished. Needless to say, when a sequel negatively affects the earlier installments, something has gone wrong—cf. “Highlander” for an absolutely disastrous example.

*Episodes I–III were very negatively received by many fans of Episodes IV–VI. I would, on the contrary, rate them as better, and strongly suspect that the problem was more one of expectations than quality: The two trilogies are very different in style and contents. (Since I have repeatedly seen the same phenomenon with myself, e.g. when a presumed action movie turns out to be a comedy or vice versa, I took very great care to watch Episode VII with an open mind.) Continuity issues were also criticized, but were not unacceptably common—and Episodes I–III resolved more problems than they caused, cf. below. In addition, many objected to mystic elements around the Jedi suddenly being given a more scientific/rational explanation; however, this is compatible to the respective settings in my eyes: In one case, we move on the edge of civilization and mostly on the lower levels of society, while the Jedi are virtually extinct. In the other, significant parts of the movies play in the capital of the Republic (and other “civilized” areas), the main characters are highly trained Jedi, senators, royalty, whatnot—and the Jedi abound. Some problems are present, e.g. the unfortunate Jar-Jar character and the third instant-victory-by-blowing-up-a-spherical-enemy-ship in Episode I (after similar events in Episodes IV and VI).

Even if we drop the comparison with the older Star-Wars movies and instead compare with other recent movies* of a sufficiently similar genre and target group**, I am not that impressed. “Ant-Man” (also in the extended sci-fi genre) is an example of a very recent better movie; the heavily criticized “Jupiter Rising” (more closely related sci-fi) is roughly equal. Episodes IV–VI (1977–1983) where exclamation marks with just a handful of (even) candidates for a comparison over the history of film up to their respective releases. Episodes I–III (1999–2005) had heavier competition (including the “The Mummy”, “Matrix”, and “Star Trek” franchises), but still managed to reach the highest levels and set new standards for special effects. However, with “Pirates of the Caribbean”; the film versions of “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, and number of other book series; various super-hero movies; …; we may actually have seen several movies better than Episode VII and another several roughly on the same level per year since then. In addition, there are even rare TV-based franchises that produced/s at least some episodes more enjoyable, despite a fraction of the budget, notably “Doctor Who”.

*An obvious comparison would be the latest “Jurassic Park” installment: A similarly successful franchise and the number two in last year’s box office, trailing only Episode VII, and actually breaking a similar number of box-office records. However, I only visit the cinema in exceptional cases nowadays and I have not yet had the opportunity to see it through other channels.

**Dropping the genre and target group criteria, Episode VII would be in big trouble.

Among the problems I see:

  1. As I feared, too little space is given to the old characters, excepting Solo/Chewbacca. Their involvement is also too much of a coincidence* to be plausible. Luke’s appearance is even just a cameo, without a single line, at the very end of the movie. (But, to be fair, it is arguably the best scene of the movie, through the fondness of reunion and the satisfaction of closure.)

    *In fairness, it is possible that this will be explained reasonably later on. Episode IV had a similar problem, with the droids just happening to find Leia’s twin brother, as well as the twins being the children of Vader; however, this is somewhat reasonably ret-conned through the events of Episode III, especially if we assume that Yoda was pulling strings in the background.

  2. The lack of progress of the galaxy and its situation is depressing and diminishes the happiness of the Episode VI ending. Ditto the failure of Luke and his training academy, the unromantic state of Han’s and Leia’s marriage, and the development of their son (i.e. Kylo). (But oddly the new incarnation of the Death Star was absurdly more powerful than the old ones, despite their construction being a central part of the emperor’s plans.)
  3. Like so many sequels, it commits the error of just escalating what its predecessors did, instead of trying to improve the quality or adding something new, and often while forgetting what actually made the predecessor(s) great. If a successful horror film had four victims and used two buckets of blood, the sequel has eight victims and four buckets. If the action film had big explosions, the sequel has bigger explosions. Etc. (While this is not necessarily bad, the things that formed the success of the originals might have been the soundtrack, good casting, interesting character dynamics, an original story line, … If these factors are forgotten while more buckets of blood and bigger explosions are added, the result will be inferior.) In contrast, Episodes I–III added tons of new things and improved the quality of many aspects considerably, compared to Episodes IV–VI; indeed, even the individual episodes of both trilogies fared well in these regards. (Many parallels and the
    aforementioned threefold instant-victory-by-blowing-up-a-spherical-enemy-ship notwithstanding.)
  4. Dialog (often attributed to Lucas, himself) and acting* were possible never the greatest point of the franchise, but Episode VII is no improvement. The dialog without Lucas was on the same level as with him. Acting-wise there might have been fewer duds, but there were also no Alec Guinness.

    *While there were a number of strong performances in the earlier movies, there were also a surprising number of weak ones. It can also be argued that neither Mark Hamill nor Hayden Christiansen brought much to the table acting-wise, but that their characters worked merely because they managed to hit the exact right tone for the almost allegorical character and story framework chosen by Lucas. Natalie Portman was a surprising disappointment, considering what she has done since, as well as her promising work in “Leon” at an even earlier a

    Disclaimer: This item was added when polishing up before publication. Here I go by the memory of my impressions from months earlier and could be off.

  5. Most (possibly all) of the other Episodes had at least some new piece of music or theme, often several, that impressed me out of the ordinary. This was not the case with Episode VII. (At least not on the first watching and possibly there is something to be found on further watchings; however, film music tends to hit me on the first watching or not at all.) It is noteworthy that most of John Williams’ scores outside of Star Wars, in my opinion, have been bland and generic, albeit technically skilled. For the other Episodes he pulled out every stop, making him as important to the franchise as Bernard Hermann was to “Vertigo”; here he appears to have made one of those generic efforts, at least with regard to the new parts of the music.
  6. The female hero (Rey) was relatively disappointing, a thin patch on Ahsoka Tano (Anakin’s female side-kick in “The Clone Wars” and possibly my favorite character of the entire franchise), and too close to the hero in “Star Wars Rebels” both with regard to character and introduction (and both follow the hero-unexpectedly-leaves-home-for-adventure pattern already used for both Luke and Anakin). I also strongly suspect that the “female” part is an artificial attempt to either broaden the (previously mostly male) audience or to pacify the feminists*. If not, it would actually have made more sense to just pick the (male) hero from “Rebels”.**

    *I have repeatedly seen the complaint that the older episodes would have too weak and helpless heroines—which makes me wonder if the complainers have actually seen these movies…

    **Correction: Fact checking, I find that he would be closer to Luke’s age than Rey’s at the time of the events of Episode VII. I found “Rebels”, too, disappointing, paid too little attention, and forgot where it fit in the timeline.

  7. Her growth in and use of the Force is not realistic*: Others needed considerable training to achieve the same. (The assumption that she simply was naturally stronger does not hold, seeing that several of the earlier Jedi rated extremely highly, Anakin arguably topping off the scale of the theoretically achievable in terms of natural ability, being conceived to a virgin mother through manipulation of the Force.)

    The scene were she escapes through Force Conviction was a gross error of judgment. Keeping it at the initial failed attempt would have been better, remaining realistic and adding a dash of humor.

    She should have died very quickly when fighting Kylo Ren (the main antagonist) the first time. (As should Luke the first time he fought Vader—except that Vader had secret reasons to keep him alive. There are several other instances of events in the earlier movies that seem unrealistic, but have a reasonable explanation, whereas corresponding instances in Episode VII do not. A slight alleviation can be found by assuming, consistent with the pre-story, that Kylo Ren too was at a comparatively early stage of his training—but he would still be far more advanced.)

    *There is an unrealistic gap between the first and second trilogies too, which is not sufficiently explained by the often used ret-con that Episode IV–VI characters were untrained, old, or half-machine. For instance, Count Dooku was considerably older than the Episode IV version of Obi-Wan—yet far, far more impressive. However, these increases in ability were consistent over all characters, unlike the Rey-specific increase in Episode VII.

  8. The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless. It is true that the Episode I–III Jedi were superior to almost anything they encountered, but the keyword is “almost”—and they had plenty of tough fights even against inferior opponents. Look at the main fights of these movies: In Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan together barely manage to defeat one Sith, at the cost of Quigong’s life and with a bit of trickery and luck on the part of the out-gunned Obi-Wan. In Episode II, Anakin and Obi-Wan are both soundly defeated by Dooku and only with the intervention of Yoda victory (if he allows the word) is achieved. In Episode III, Yoda is defeated by the Emperor, while Obi-Wan only defeats (the now evil) Anakin when the latter’s arrogance makes him commit a crucial and easily avoidable mistake. In Episodes IV–VI the heroes were underdogs almost everywhere.
  9. Generally, there is too much duplication in terms of characters and events with the originals (especially Episode IV), which already had a dangerous amount of duplication between them. (That duplication, however, could mostly be defended on grounds of parallelism and symbolism, in that Luke and Anakin went through similar stations and situations. With Abrams, looking at the Star-Trek movies, it appears to be a systematic problem of imitation and “fan fictioning”.) An additional similarity in parts with “Rebels” has already been mentioned. A few examples:

    Yet another variation on the Death Star theme is hackneyed, nay ridiculous: Too many variations was one of the weaknesses of the earlier movies and repeating it once again is idiotic.

    Han is killed off in a scene far too closely paralleling the death of Obi-Wan. (Even to the point that Obi-Wan was the closest thing to a father that the pre-Sith Anakin had.) As with several other of these parallels, it was also too predictable: As soon as Han initiated their meeting, the conclusion seemed pre-determined—Kylo’s speech in no way misleading the viewer, but merely re-inforcing the impression. In addition, this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken.

    Kylo Ren is too derivative of Darth Vader*. Making him the grand son of Darth Vader is just unimaginative, bordering on the silly, considering the many existing implausible family ties.

    *With the in-story continuity that he deliberate tries to emulate Vader.

  10. The parts of the story that are not just imitating the other Episodes are thin and lack innovation. (In all fairness, it is harder to do something new today than in the past.)
  11. The story line is not compatible with the (traditionally lower-in-canon) books that pre-date it. This is not necessarily a big deal to me (having never read any of the books) and certainly not to most viewers. However, there will be many hard-core fans who see their established view of the events post Episode VI turned upside down and could understandably be very upset about this. If in doubt, I would tend to view the books as having a greater degree of canonicity, seeing that Episode VII is not from Lucas’ feather, that I see Episode VII mostly as fan fiction, and that the books were published earlier.

On the positive side there is not that much that spring too mind, outside of special effects; however, the rebellious storm trooper was a nice touch. A positive surprise was that the “Disney-fication” was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated, although the Disney/Pixar look of e.g. the new droid annoyed me.

For the future, I just hope that there will be no absurd surprises like Rey being Kylo’s long lost sister or the daughter of Luke (hackneyed beyond belief), Rey being the true “chosen one” (invalidating the previous movies entirely), Kylo’s master actually being Luke using some form of projection, or similar. If any of that happens, well, then the film makers should simply be lined up against a wall and shot for criminal incompetence.

As an aside, while Episode VII has been extraordinarily successful at the box office, this is to a large part due to the extreme-by-historical-standards numbers posted by today’s movies, which distort comparisons immensely. (And to a large part due to the cult around of the franchise; as opposed to e.g. “Avatar”, “E.T.”, and Episode IV, which all started from scratch.) According to Boxoffice Mojo, it is (at the time of writing) the 11th most successful movie in the U.S. after correcting for inflation, as opposed to a clear number one by unadjusted numbers. (Episode IV is the second best on the adjusted list.) It would almost certainly rate lower using global adjusted numbers, seeing that it followed the Star-Wars tradition of doing considerably better per capita in the U.S. than in the rest of the world (number three globally, unadjusted). I suspect that further adjustment for factors other than ordinary inflation would bring it even lower, considering how ridiculously dominated the all-time lists are by movies from the last few years. See also the unadjusted global numbers and U.S. numbers from the same website.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 14, 2016 at 11:13 am