Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Jar Jar Abrahams Wants To Kill My Childhood And This Is Odd Because I Never Did Anything To Him As Far As I Know

OK, that's enough of the "virtues of critical thinking" and "oh isn't moderation just wonderful" posts. Nope, I'm going on a merciless ad hominem attack rant that will achieve precisely nothing but I don't care, you can't stop me, and it's Christmas. So there.


J. J. Abrams knows diddly-squat about good storytelling. He has no more grasp of the ethos of a show than Michael "ADD MORE EXPLOSIONS" Bay, and he couldn't tell a morality tale if his sick grandmother's injured cat's life depended on it. Watching an Abrams movie is like watching a train crash, except instead of a train what I'm watching is everything I value in good storytelling being slowly and inexorably crushed and violated and the train is derailed so slowly that until it bursts into flames and people start screaming I'm not quite sure what the hell is going on. The Hindenburg might be a better analogy.

There goes my childhood, betrayed and murdered by a young director known as Darth J. J.
Take the Star Trek movies. No-one would accuse the original ten of being masterpieces of realistic science fiction or high drama. They aren't exactly subtle either. For their time they were big, flashy effects films... but the characters and their actions are firmly rooted in the left-wing liberal ideology of the show. The films are generally well-paced, if anything verging on the slow side. Action sequences only happen at climatic moments - most of the time the characters are doing what you'd expect : exploring. They might get into scrapes and japes but there's usually a good narrative reason for it. Nothing explodes unless it's supposed to.

And no-one gets off with anyone unless they're supposed to. Take note of that, young Spock.
Then along comes J. J. with all the subtle wit and sophistication of Billie Piper's mercifully short-lived singing career, or possibly a glacier except that this glacier is somehow on fire and travelling at 900 mph. Nothing about it makes any sense. All the characters are now aged fifteen and everything explodes at random. Kirk has been replaced with Zapp Brannigan - if you've ever watched the original show you'll know that the man is a worrisome bureaucrat and very far from the gung-ho womanising oaf of legend. And yes, the original series relies heavily on technomancy, but it was not stupid enough to ever have claimed that replacing a supernova with a black hole in any way improves the situation.

Don't even get me started on the sheer vastness of the Trek universe and the total non-necessity of revisiting the Kirk era. It's over. It took three seasons and six and half movies - it's done. Then there were three and a half incredibly successful spin-off T.V. series. To say, "No, let's start over" is about as intelligent as hacking off one's foot with a lawnmower. No. Just no. There are just too many things wrong with that to bother giving a sensible response, so here's a kitty instead.

Please JJ, no more ! Pleeeease !
But there was one saving grace to the Abrams, "let's crap all over Rhys' childhood inspiration" movies : they were somewhat similar to the Star Wars prequels. Trek is very much science fiction, even when it gets the science badly wrong or just makes stuff up; Star Wars is a fairy tale in space. So it doesn't bother me when physics is treated with all the respect I'd normally reserve for Donald Trump's codpiece. I accept the need for random explosions and action sequences in Star Wars. I want Obi-Wan Kenobe to solve his problems with a lightsabre instead of a tricorder. The Enterprise hiding in a lake ? No. The Millenium Falcon ? Possibly.

So, even though I spit upon Abrams Star Trek, burn it, scatter the ashes to the four winds, collect the ashes, eat them, then violently regurgitate them on his face, I did have some hope that he might make a decent director for Star Wars. And it did have a very good trailer.


Abrams doesn't fail with episode VII as heroically as he did with Trek. I'm biased though, because Star Wars didn't play any role in my career choice. So I didn't emerge from the cinema in a tremendous nerd-rage and go and buy the box set of all of the original movies like I (really) did with Trek. I just left feeling empty inside and with the very distinct feeling that even the Star Wars Holiday Special felt more like it belonged in the Star Wars universe than The Force Falls Flat. And that's got twenty minutes of Wookies watching a cookery show without any subtitles.

No really, I wasn't kidding. Don't watch it. I'm just putting this
here for the sake of completeness.

I didn't get on with TFA from the word go. Even the opening text felt somehow forced. The rest of the film suffers heavily from what I call the Babylon 5 syndrome : you're dropped into the story with insufficient explanation of what the hell is going on. None of the other SW films feel anything like that - you always know who everyone is, what they're doing and why. Even with the original episode 4, all the essentials are instantly clear. It's not actually that simple a story : the downfall of a democracy, the rise of a rebellion, the moral ambiguity of the central character (Vader, not Luke), an enormous range of characters and environments, the power of fear and hate to control a population... but it's told in a very simple way.

As far as I can tell, TFA has no moral messages, not really any underlying story (except for something superficial that could have come from the Jeremy Kyle show) to speak of and certainly nothing that logically follows from Return of the Jedi. It is at best a very simple story told in a very complicated way. It is not in the least a fairy tale, it's just a bunch of people doing stuff in a highly derivative way from the originals which doesn't advance the story at all. Things seem to happen because the writers wanted them to happen, not because one thing follows another naturally.

It's not all bad by any means. It's just not anywhere near good enough. Even The Phantom Menace feels like it's in the SW universe. Some of the characters in TFA feel like they've been dropped into a completely different society and had a lobotomy, or at least a nasty blow to the head.

The villains are probably the worst problem. They do villainous things, but again it feels like they're only doing what the writers told them to do - they utterly lack menace even when they're doing menacing things. Kylo Ren wears a mask, but for no particular reason. Underneath he looks for all the world like he's a member of Slytherin House. His boss is some guy named Snook, or Snookie, or Sookie, or something - who is a CGI character only ever seen as a giant hologram (ah, but is he really a giant ?). Somehow that seems to completely sap any sense of threat.

You might think Sookie Stackhouse is from completely the wrong franchise, and you'd be right, but it isn't anywhere near as wrong as choosing JJ to direct.... well, anything.
Perhaps it's the lack of the superlative aspect that makes them feel like such a damp squib. Palpatine was always at the top of the pile in the SW universe and he planned his attack over a very long time. It was clear that this guy was as evil as you could ever get - there's an almost pantomime quality about him and Darth Vader. You imagine that in their spare time they probably torture badgers or something. Ren probably just sits in his room being emo and painting everything black, while his boss most likely broods pitifully about wishing he wasn't made of CGI.

Ren has bursts of rage because his lightsabre clearly isn't working properly. Was anyone else bothered by the fiery edge to the sabre blades ? All the others are clearly energy, so why is this one a flamethrower sword ? Not saying it isn't cool, just odd in context.
Even the villain's organisation - the First Order - just doesn't feel right. The Empire was set up by the cunning machinations of a single individual over a period of around fifty years or so, but by smoothly manipulating the existing systems into something new : a very careful master plan that was brought to completion. The Order just turned up. Opportunists who took advantage of the Empire's downfall are just never going to be as threatening as the original Empire. What's their underlying goal ? Do they even have one ? How are they different from the Sith ?

Like the movie itself, they're trying to be the bad guys but don't really quite get it - even when we see them doing much more evil things than what we saw in the original movies. In fairness, they are much more real than the Sith - but in the fairy tale universe of SW this is not a good thing. It's a bit like what would happen if Gandalf the Grey had turned up in Apollo 13. Adding more realism isn't necessarily a good thing if the established world isn't the slightest bit realistic.


Then there's the new Death Star. It's much bigger and more powerful than the last one, but how the Order managed to construct it given the inevitable chaos and financial crisis resulting from the Empire's defeat is anyone's guess.

The visuals. It must be said that some of these are very nice. The Falcon flying through a wrecked Star Destroyer is well done, as is (in particular) the scene where a tethered TIE fighter escapes from a hangar. Both the Order's and the Alliance's equipment look the way it's supposed to. The spaceships fly the way you expect them to. Nothing happens that's more outlandish than what's already been established is possible in the SW universe... except possibly the Big Star Sucker (aka the Death Star III) which just doesn't look convincing to me. Might have to do a science write-up on that one. Still, I would praise Abrams on the small scale stuff.

It does look cool, I have to concede that.
The characters. These too (villains aside) are not without merit. BB8 is obviously the star of the show, because he's cute and... umm... he can roll ? Yes. Rey is also cute and provides a much-needed strong female character without the need for a love interest. Fin may or may not be cute, you'll have to ask someone who's not me for that, but he seems solid enough (his continuous heavy breathing is presumably to continue SW long tradition of helping asthmatics feel important). But like the First Order, he's missing a serious amount of backstory. You don't really need this for archetypes like Luke and Leia, but it's not something you can just skip for characters like Fin and Ren.

I want one as a pet.
As for the regulars, C3PO also feels like he's been forced into the role - though I couldn't for the life of me say why. Chewie is always Chewie, so that's good. Leia seems to have been smoking about twenty a day for the last few decades, although since the actress did have serious problems I can't hold that against her. Han has flashes of the old Solo magic, but a lot of the time he feels more like Harrison Ford. Again I can't really explain why.

The music, unfortunately, is a firm no. Every previous SW film has included at least one wonderful new hummable theme, but not this one. With the exception of the original SW music (which is not really used to its full potential), all the new stuff is minimalist and boring. I like minimalist, but it doesn't work here at all. You don't want tinkly piano music with a sweeping desert vista, it's just wrong. It further saps the fairy tale vibe and just makes me think, "oh look, more emos in space again, damn those pesky angsty goths always trying to be miserable hipsters". Like Casino Royale, it feels like sucking the fun out of what should fundamentally be a fun movie.

I really wanted to like this film. I thought, surely this time Abrams must be due for a film I actually enjoy. Nope, not a bit of it. It's not the worst film ever made by any stretch, but it doesn't feel like a Star Wars movie to me. There's no magic in it, no joy. What good moments it does have are destroyed by the overarching crappy storytelling - a bunch of miserable people in space with a dull soundtrack trying to stop some boring villains from being sort-of threatening, in a way that feels every bit as forced as I always though a sequel would. There's no rhyme or reason to anything that happens. Like Star Trek, the soul of the original films has died.

You have failed me for the last time, Abrams. Next time someone tries to get me to watch one of your stupid movies I'm going to cut myself with a spoon instead.

7 comments:

  1. "...I'm going to cut myself with a spoon instead."

    Ooo, you don't want to do that, spoon wounds are very hard to close. I know, my wife is a nurse.

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    1. Alan Rickman agrees with you.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhfuuKiTcYQ

      Delete
  2. There's a scene with Chewie doing a face palm, and I immediately thought "Oh, Rhys is going to use this image a lot on his blog." That's how engaged I was in this film. :(

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  3. Seriously, for the love of god, don't watch lost. If you want crappy story telling with no real conclusion then watch away! Also I think "snookie" would make a great addition to the SW universe, I mean, she's from new jersey, which is crawling with odd looking creatures, like those that you'd find in a bar in tatooine. Also the next film they should hire trent reznor for the score. You want minimalist and emo? He's your guy. But great review. Abrams is an assclown.

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  4. Seriously, for the love of god, don't watch lost. If you want crappy story telling with no real conclusion then watch away! Also I think "snookie" would make a great addition to the SW universe, I mean, she's from new jersey, which is crawling with odd looking creatures, like those that you'd find in a bar in tatooine. Also the next film they should hire trent reznor for the score. You want minimalist and emo? He's your guy. But great review. Abrams is an assclown.

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    Replies
    1. Though it IS possible to do a minimalist Eno soundtrack that also happens to be emo that works really, really well for deserts :
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zm4E4umP9Qc
      Skip to 1min 50. You may hate the movie, but I will permit no arguments about the soundtrack.

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  5. I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. While I liked the prequels (I was too young to hold the Original Trilogy near and dear) I felt that they "slotted" into George Lucas's universe better than Episode VII - and that's before we start considering the socioeconomic (il-)logic of the situation in the style of StarDestroyer.net.
    I hope Rogue One is better. The trailer certainly looks (to me) more promising than that for Episode VII.
    Still a little peeved about them ripping away thirty years of Expanded Universe canon, though.

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