The Force Awakens. Then Promptly Turns Around and Goes Back to Sleep.

I normally don’t spend much time or thought on anticipating movies, but this was the most anticipated movie of the decade, and it managed to get me excited enough to go and see it in a cinema, another thing I normally don’t spend much time doing. I didn’t go to the 2359 screening on Wednesday, I didn’t buy my ticket three months in advance, but I consider going to see a film on the third day after the premiere a great show of enthusiasm.

It took some effort, but I made a point of avoiding the information, both speculative and real, about the seventh cinematic instalment of the biggest fantasy franchise in the universe. I didn’t want to create expectations. I wasn’t entirely successful – I watched the trailers and read a couple of articles (I even watched this, which ended up being more prophetic than I thought possible), so I ended up expecting the movie to not suck, and having some ideas about what would happen in it. As it turned out, my expectations were wrong. For the purposes of this post, I’ll leave the expectations about the plot (the ex-stormtrooper isn’t the one in whom the force awakens, for example) aside, and concentrate on, well, that other one.

It would be unfair to say that the Episode VII is an entirely bad film. It isn’t. Not when compared to the three prequels (not a very high bar to clear), anyway. But it still fails to reach the level of the first trilogy, which I find baffling, since, leaving aside their legendary status, those films aren’t exactly masterpieces of deep storytelling (but they do have solid stories). So what went wrong?

Let me quickly cover the things I liked first.

Finn. Considering the amount of space the ex-stormtrooper’s journey from an evil henchman to a good guy was (and could be) given, I think it was very well executed. Rey is a solid character, too, despite the sometimes odious hints about the mystery that’s been layered upon her. The actors are good (even the ones with not so good parts), the dialogue flows nicely, and the CGI isn’t overwhelming like in the prequels.

And now, the bad parts.

First, the First Order. What in the carrot’s name are they? Are they an heir-to-the-Empire government which controls space and is in the opposition to the New Republic? Judging by the fact that they’ve built a planet-sized weapon, and that there seems to be a population from which they recruit their soldiers, that could be the case. But if they are, why do they invariably behave like marauding foreign raiders wherever in the supposedly their own territory they go? When the Empire’s troops went somewhere, be it Tatooine or Bespin, they behaved like a government force – a brutal one, but still recognisably government. And if they are just something more akin to a terrorist organisation (after all, they seem to have only one capital ship, and, as I said, behave like raiders in their interactions with others), how did they manage to build their weapon planet?

Which brings me to the second thing. The Republic was apparently restored in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor. We’re told it has a strong military, one which the First Order is unable to take on by conventional means. Now, I could understand, providing that the First Order are some sort of state-like entity, that the New Republic, after years of fighting various wanna-be emperors who must’ve sprung up after Palpatine’s death, just isn’t ready for yet another open war with yet another imperial faction, preferring instead to give covert-ish support to “the Resistance”. But why would it allow the First Order to build such a potent superweapon, obviously aimed at the Republic’s head, without at least trying to destroy it? Did they not know about it? If intelligence services built on the legacy of the Rebellion couldn’t find out that a known enemy is building a planet-sized weapon, then one would think that getting shot at with it would be a dead giveaway, and would warrant a reaction. But no. Is the Republic even there?

Follows the superweapon itself. Alright, I get it. It’s fantasy (or maybe I could call this part sci-fi), it’s not real, it doesn’t have to be completely in line with the real physics. But really? A weapon which can instantaneously destroy planets in other solar systems? And you thought Han Solo doing the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs was fast… A weapon which is powered by completely sucking dry a sun, per shot? Leaving aside the problems arising from the relative sizes/masses of the below average planet and an average star, how do you move such a weapon around in order to reload it? Strains my credulity a bit too much.

Then we have the villains. The original Star Wars films gave us one of the strongest, most memorable movie villains ever in the form of Darth Vader. Even the prequels’ Palpatine is a proper villain. And what does The Force Awakens have? A holographic orc (or, should I say, Gollum?) who is never in any way explained, and a whiney, angsty kid who is explained, all right, though I wish he wasn’t. And does that general person whose main evil act is a ‘we were going for Hitler at Nuremberg but couldn’t quite make it’ speech even count? Probably not.

Then there’s the ending. Again, I get it, you have two more films lined up, it has to be a non-ending. But couldn’t you have at least awakened Finn?

And finally, why is everyone looking for Luke Skywaker? It’s not like he’s doing anything or serving any purpose… Or really did anything or served any purpose in the 30 years since the fall of the Empire. No, growing a beard doesn’t count.

Oh, and I almost forgot. An extraordinary feat, which deserves at least a short of its own, was done in the 30 years that’d passed between The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens: someone went down into Bespin and retrieved Anakin’s/Luke’s light sabre that had miraculously survived being dropped into a gas giant. I wonder if they found Luke’s hand, too…

The Desolation of Jackson

Once a year or so, I go to the cinema to see a film just to remind myself why I don’t go to cinemas to see films. On this occasion, the pick was the two and a half hour CGI spectacle The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Even before I saw the first part, it was obvious that, in order to make three very long films out of Tolkien’s thin children’s book, certain… liberties would have to be taken with the story. Then I saw the first part, and while I cringed at some of those liberties taken with it, such as the three trolls scene and the spectacular fight in Goblintown (which looked like a Monty Python sketch of the Fellowship’s stay in Moria from the LOTRO film, only stupid). But after seeing that film, I didn’t feel like I had wasted two and a half hours.

The second one, however… I’m not quite sure where to start. The Orcs chasing Thorin? Legolas (whose eyes will apparently change colour some time between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) chasing the Orcs? The socio-economic analysis of Laketown? The joining of the elf and the dwarf being added to the two ‘canon’ joinings of the races of elves and men? By the time Bilbo found the keyhole for the secret door into Erebor, I was already bored. But one more thing was to come. After a faithful reproduction of the kids’ story dialogue between Bilbo and Smaug, we were treated to the action sequence of the dwarves running around trying to… Drown in gold? Burn with molten gold? Do something to the dragon with liquid gold, anyway, I don’t think even the writers were sure what.

Has Peter Jackson managed to create the world’s most spectacular and extravagant piece of fan fiction? Yup. And it’s, like most fan fiction, bad. Another thing is also bad: I’ll have to go see the last film when it comes out. At least, the Battle of Five Armies might fill enough space so that no more love triangles need to be added, and that might make the film, well, not worth actively avoiding.

A note on technology here. I saw the film in 4DX. Which means I spent two and a half hours being shaken like a sack of potatoes in a very uncomfortable chair (it would’ve made sense if I was watching something from the first person perspective, but why did I have to feel every branch a dead spider hit on its way down from the top of the tree?) and having water and smells that only vaguely resembled something reminiscent of what the scene I was watching would smell like being sprayed at me through nozzles whose hiss was audible even over the loudest sound effects. The gentle waving of the seats with the movement of the camera and the blowing of the air conditioning in the sweeping open air scenes were nice, but for the next year’s visit to the cinema, 3D is as far as I’ll, technologically, be going.

The Wheel of Time Stops Turning

There are neither beginnings nor endings in the turning of the Wheel of Time, but Robert Jordan’s epic series had a beginning, hard as it is to believe, almost 24 years ago, and, as far as I’m concerned, it ended yesterday. I got into it around 2001, and quickly devoured the first four books. How could I not? The world Jordan created was incredible in its scope and detail, the storytelling was compelling, and the characters just right. Jordan did show something of a tendency to take it slow through most of the books, only to end them in a short whirlwind of action, but that was a minor annoyance.

A minor annoyance, until the end of the book four. Then it became clear that the entire series, then projected at 12 fairly large volumes, will be taking the same structure. Subplots, with no ends in sight, started spawning. Author’s fetish for female clothing took a prominent enough place on the stage to be considered a major character in its own, while the real characters kept running hither and dither aimlessly. By the time I finished the sixth book (not realising I hadn’t seen the worst at that point), I was reading just because I had started reading.

And then Jordan, having started his last three never-to-be-wrapped-up subplots and for the last time describing in exquisite detail the embroidery on a female character’s fancy silk dress, died. As ghoulish and insensitive I’ll be in saying this, that was the best thing that could’ve happened to his magnum opus (and in my less charitable moments, I keep looking in G.R.R. Martin’s direction when I think this). Brandon Sanderson came in, fashion analysis went into the background where it belonged, subplots got resolved in mostly satisfactory ways (I say mostly, because some resolutions did feel rushed, but I suppose there was no helping that), and the story ended in a book-long whirlwind of action, true to the original author’s style, with the good guys winning and the bad guys utterly defeated. I even got surprised a few times, as not everyone I expected to got to live happily ever after. One of the surprises? The ending is open to sequels. Seems like not everyone is ready to let the Wheel stop turning.

In conclusion, four of five stars to the series, which would’ve benefited from being about five or six books shorter. And a lesson (take note, Myke Cole): if one wants to properly make a protagonist who’s brooding on a truly epic scale, one needs to give him at least seven 1000-page books worth of space to do it in.

After Earth

So. Let’s begin with something trivial.

Yes, it’s a mediocre film. Yes, Jaden Smith can’t act too well, and is only there because papa made it so. Yes, as the father-son-bonding stories go, it’s a bit thin. The technology that sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t work just because a plot device is needed is such a common thing nowadays that it doesn’t even deserve to be noticed. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan isn’t getting better with practice. As I said, a mediocre film. At least it’s not two and a half hours long.

But you know what? So is Independence Day (to pick another Will Smith flic). And going by the IMDb ratings, ID4 is light years ahead of After Earth. Probably because of its insistent and consistent tugging of the America-fuck-yeah heartstrings… But I digress.

Is it because of the reference(s) to the world’s least favourite religion? From all I read, I expected at least three pictures of L’Ron hanging from every vertical surface in sight (or, as the case may be, winking at us from every corner of every touch hologram that Minority Report launched as the sci-fi user interface). But no. The line “fear is a choice” (as stupid as it is) makes an appearance only once, and I wouldn’t have recognised it as something out of the Scientological ‘wisdom’ if it hadn’t been repeatedly pointed out to me.

There’s just one thing that stretched my ability to suspend disbelief too far. ‘The bear‘. Let’s say you’re an alien race that wants to exterminate humans. Why in the carrot’s name would you create a weapon-creature that, while it doesn’t seem to have any problems detecting and interacting with the rest of its environment, can sense live humans (it doesn’t seem to have any problems sensing the dead ones, for its shrike act) by the smell of their fear? And were everyone’s imaginations really running so dry that they had to call it ‘the bear’? But hey, if disabling an alien computer with a virus written on a Mac laptop, in the age when you had – and still have – problems convincing two human-made computers running the same software, directly connected by a cable, to acknowledge each other’s existence, is supposed to be believable, then ‘the bear’ isn’t really so bad.

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