Stupidity of the First Order

Fiona dragged me to see… no, I’ve got to stop saying that. I was curious to see the new Rian Johnson film too — big fan of BRICK, LOOPER, and THE BROTHERS BLOOM may be a misfire but it’s the kind of misfire I’d welcome more of. I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted to see the film RIGHT AWAY, but what the heck, it is a big screen spectacular…

There are spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to be discreet.

And some of the reviews were very good — though Peter Bradshaw bemoaned a major section of the plot being essentially a pointless side-trip. But that side-trip may be the most Johnsonian section of the narrative, a decadent art deco gambling world milieu. It inspires him to replay a shot from Wellman’s WINGS, soaring over the tables and between the customers. And it looks very much like it’s setting stuff up for the next film: the entrancing child actors from this sequence are coming back, it seems. But yeah, there’s too much of this film, and whole planets exist just to get the heroes captured so they can escape so they can get captured again. This is what happens when you don’t have enough real story.

Actors! Daisy Ridley seemed fine in the J.J. Abrams opener, but she has some very poor moments here, notably her first big speech. She’s cursed with a flat voice and an inexpressive face. That tiny cute scar on her cheek is her claim to interest. Though she’s not as bad as early Keira Knightley so maybe she’ll get there. John Boyega is fine in the non-eggy moments, Oscar Isaac is good but we know he can be better. Laura Dern continues her bold hair colouring from Twin Peaks. Hamill is good and Carrie Fisher’s valedictory turn is touching. Benicio Del Toro is the one bringing the real entertainment though I think giving him a stammer was over-egging it. He’s a natural eccentric already. Kelly Marie Tran is an unusual and charming presence and I was really interested in Veronica Ngo who has all too brief a role but gets to do the most affecting heroic stuff in the movie.

Andy Serkis is a CGI creation AGAIN, and I really don’t know why. The icky subtractive scar effect modelled by Frank Langella in the otherwise stultifying THE BOX is much more disturbing on a real actor than it is on a thing of pure pixels. Look at Voldemort in the HARRY POTTERs (there’s some quite Potterish stuff in this one) — a real actor rendered digitally noseless. As a voice performance, Serkis’ is a very generic baddie, and as a physical performance, he sits in a chair. And Adam Driver still feels too peevish and adolescent to be our boss villain, especially in a plot that basically has him outsmarted a lot.

Yoda and Maz Katana’s fleeting bits are just fan service. Chewbacca and the droids are barely more.

But there are some nifty set pieces — maybe the best light-saber battle ever, staged on a red set like something out of an MGM musical by way of Kurosawa. The opening dogfight has one very good thing going for it: it’s coherent. I wasn’t bored as I was with ROGUE ONE but I was ready for the movie to be over long before the makers apparently were. Then it would manage to muster my interest again. There’s a bit where the heroes escape on space buses. I was waiting for Princess Leia to say, “What am I, Carrie Fisher, doing playing piano on a bus to the moon?” I’ll be surprised if more than a couple of you get that reference.

If THE FORCE AWAKENS was a slavish remake of STAR WARS (you know, the first one, the film called STAR WARS), which it sure as shit was, Johnson’s opus is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in its broad strokes: the Rebels/Resistance have to flee their base, a young Jedi gets training from a Master while other characters go to a gambling planet but are betrayed; the heroes regroup at the end but face an uncertain future. Concurrent with these familiar beats are callbacks to memorable bits from the first film (Obi-Wan faces his pupil; garbage hatch escape; parental revelations; a hero disconnects his comms link while gunning for the weak spot of a huge weapon…), some deliberate, some maybe more desperate or resulting from the filmmakers running out of new situations.

But there’s stuff we haven’t seen before: super-fast dissolves as characters in different scenes exchange telepathic glances. A visual rebuttal of Lucas’s midichlorians bullshit, showing the force connecting all things with a nature montage suggesting the welcome influence of King Hu and A TOUCH OF ZEN. And I have to be cheered by so much of the film being set in Ireland, even if it’s meant to be Space Ireland.

There is some uncertainty of tone: is the movie duty-bound to feel like the old STAR WARS? Giving women and people of colour stuff to do is a welcome departure from Lucas’ films, but otherwise? One of the (innumerable) things that seemed wrong about Lucas’ own prequels was the stuff that just didn’t belong in the universe he’d created: fart jokes, the comedy sports announcer, that kind of stuff. There’s more of that here — a gag with what’s set up as a spacecraft but turns out to be a robotic iron pressing First Order uniforms seems more like a Richard Lester joke, and isn’t really connected to anything else the film attempts. There’s a relentless barrage of quips and many of them are not good. Though at least they don’t tend to paint the heroes as sadistic Man With No Name/James Bond thugs, as the quips in ROGUE ONE do: Poe Dameron doesn’t make mocking remarks to random stormtroopers as he’s killing them.

So it’s a mixed bag of Jedi mind tricks. Entertaining enough — if I had kids I would feel I was poisoning them if I let them watch the prequels, but this would get a pass. Not an exact clone,  for all its harking back, so that counts for something. But then, not as emotional as FORCE AWAKENS was. Watch this space, but I think I’m done with seeing this series on the big screen. But I’d like to see Johnson build a universe of his own.

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9 Responses to “Stupidity of the First Order”

  1. Jack Lechner Says:

    I hear everything you say … and yet none of it bothered me, including the delightful shout-out to “Hardware Wars.” (Which is almost as obscure as “Nothing Lasts Forever.”) I had a good time, which is more than I’ve had at most of the holiday films this year.

  2. I thought of you when watching this, David. I was holding up hope that the tone might point to a Star Wars film as directed by Richard Lester, but it equivocated far too much in the end, everyone died, and everything was designed looked like Spaceballs. And bussing pensioners to the moon to shop makes more sense than Death Star moguls heading to Space Monaco to play the slotties.

  3. Loved this post though. (SPOILERS: not everyone died)

  4. bensondonald Says:

    I just had a vision of Star Wars going into a Roger Moore phase, then eventually an okay Pierce Brosnan phase and finally a Daniel Craig phase. And maybe there’ll be a “Casino Royale” anomaly full of sitcom and reality stars.

  5. 11 minutes in, they start dropping space bombs on the bad guys. In SPACE. Where there’s no GRAVITY. Nice action and production design, though, and even slicker than usual visual effects. And, as Lina Lamont would say, good and loud.

  6. The space bombs were dumb, but are they really dumber than sound effects in space, and flying your ship into a opening in the Death Star and parking and getting out? I mean, I guess there’s a force field of something to hold the air in or something, but it’s not too clear. (In this one, the bomber pilot also survives for quite a while in the bomb bay with the doors open.)

    The Casino Royale anomaly is probably the Star Wars Holiday Special.

  7. The official explanation for the space bombs is that they are magnetic.

    The thing’s a mixed bag, but I do keep thinking of the big lightsaber fight and the climactic visual of Laura Dern’s story, and that goes a long way. And I did like Hamill quite a bit.

  8. Charlie Cockey Says:

    “…staged on a red set like something out of an MGM musical by way of Kurosawa.” — Nice line, David.

    I enjoyed the film, even as i noticed faults en passant. I simply chose to ignore them as much as possible, because I *WANTED* to like the film – I *WANTED* to be 8-years old again. And, to a certain extent, I was. And that’s very satisfying.

    And thanks Jack Lechner for pointing out the Hardware Wars nod – I’d not made the connection – doubly embarrassing since Michael Wiese is a friend all the way back to the early 60’s.

  9. Magnetic bombs are fine, if you can persuade them to leave the big metal spaceship they’re in, but maybe some visual indication of how they work would be a good idea? Just give them rockets and avoid the whole problem.

    Yeah, Dern gets a great sound effects editing moment, reminiscent of Akira’s opening.

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