January 27, 2016

Post XVII: the blog awakens

It just had to be said.

I've not done anything with this blog for ages and ages. Not that I had nothing at all to say over the past five or so years, but blogging lost its attraction for me for a while. But unexpectedly, I felt inspired to return to it after having seen Star Wars Episode VII a week or two ago. I think the main reason for this was the title of this post--once that came to me, I felt I absolutely had to use it.

So the occasion of the revival of this blog from slumber becomes a commentary on the latest Big Thing. I didn't get particularly caught up in the pre-opening publicity, though I thought the trailers had their neat moments and all. But I did a pretty good job of avoiding any other spoilers, electing to go to a late show a few weeks after opening night. There were perhaps ten other souls in the theater on the occasion, so I could stretch out and relax. (Afterward, part of me regretted not having gone to opening night somewhere.)

As with most movies that I see at the theater (a rare thing for me to do), I like to devote all my attention to absorbing the experience in as much detail as possible. There were several moments in this one that exhilarated me, a few that shocked me--one or two of which will be obvious candidates to those of you that have seen it--and several moments that made me think or even left me just puzzled.

Even though I know probably everyone has already seen the movie who's going to, I guess I should pause and put up the obligatory SPOILERS! gate here. I don't know what I'm going to say yet, but there will definitely be some discussion of details.

There. Now, right from the get-go, I was intrigued by the opening crawl, which is not something I can say of the crawls of any of the other episodes. That was something new right there. "Luke Skywalker has vanished." With a start, I said to myself, "Vanished?!?" And come to think of it, even before seeing that, the title of the episode, "The Force Awakens", is suggestive in itself; more on that later.

I liked the opening scene--the slow drawing of the shadow of that battlecruiser over the face of the moon was a neat gesture toward the famous introductions of the past episodes, without being brash or obvious.

Overall, while entertaining, the movie seemed too busy and frenetically paced to really match the brilliance of the original trilogy. There is also the problem of the rather derivative nature of the plot--others have pointed out the many correspondences between Episode VII's plot points and those of IV - VI, so I needn't repeat their work. Overall, though, I thought it wasn't a terrible thing to see a certain amount of, as Abrams would probably think of it, recapitulation. I think he made a fair point in one interview to the effect that he saw a need to start the introduction of the new characters by revisiting some familiar ground, though I think he may have taken that attitude a little too far. After all, if this is supposedly going to be a trilogy of Episodes VII - IX, to spend so much of the first third of that sequence on rehashing known territory in some sense is a big investment and risks leaving insufficient time down the road for the story to grow into new space.

Be that as it may, what we do get that is new interested me quite a bit. The character of Rey I find to be not fully new--the tough loner girl who starts to grow into a superheroine has become a bit of a stereotype by now, especially when set next to Finn, who tends to come across as more jumpy than I'd like to see in a male lead (yes, yes, all part of the development of the character, I know)--but this actress seems to bring a sufficiently unaffected approach to her portrayal--I would almost say an artlessness--that makes up for this. As a couple of other people have pointed out elsewhere on the Web, the hints that we get of how she handles herself early in the film tell us something about her character as a survivor.

Following on with the idea of the parallels between the story that we see here and that of Episode IV, it's clear there are many aspects of Rey that mirror Luke's character when we first saw him on Tatooine. The way Rey sits in the shade with that old helmet on her head, dreaming as she watches that spaceship heading for orbit in the distance... how can we not be reminded of young Luke gazing into the twin sunset? But there are differences as well. And on this point, I find John Williams' new score exceptionally well suited to this film. "Rey's Theme" somehow, wordlessly, says a great deal about Rey, and I think Williams achieved a fine musical expression of her nature.

On the subject of the soundtrack in general, it seems to me that Williams set out to do something rather different this time around. Hearing it, it's quite clear that we hear a Star Wars movie score, but I think Williams wanted to take a more subtle approach. For my money, he succeeded admirably. The new score has a lot of memorable material. "Rey's Theme" is one example, but as I listen to the playlist while writing this, I find pieces like "March of the Resistance" and "Scherzo for X-Wings" to be impressive enough for the occasion as well.

Things I was a little shocked by: As far as Han's death went, I was... maybe not shocked as such, because once he stepped out and called his son's name, there was a good chance that he wouldn't be walking away from that encounter. But the parricide was the shocking part, and it was good to be shocked by that. Arguably, one could see it coming, and yet--when it comes, the horror of it is still bracing. It made me wonder a little later whether Solo might have wanted to die then. I think Kylo Ren must have wanted to kill him for some time, based on what he said to his father in the final moments. Of the entire movie, this moment made the strongest immediate impression on me; after the credits, I was walking out to the car still shaking my head at Han Solo's fate. To be killed by his own son! Incredible.

I would say I was also a little bit shocked by the final scene. I had really had no expectation of whether or in what manner Mark Hamill would turn up in this installment, but I was surprised at how thrilling it was to see him at last--I was almost scared seeing him alone on the hill as Ren first set eyes on him. It seemed beautifully brought off, especially with the contributing effect of the music. As quite a few Internet chatterers have mentioned, Luke and Ren had a whole conversation with their eyes alone. I'd say that, after having been stunned in the short term by Han's demise, the scene with Luke and Ren is the one I find most compelling in the whole movie.

In fact, I spent a couple of days pondering it, revisiting the bootleg recordings of that encounter on YouTube over and over, going back to the "Jedi Steps" piece from the soundtrack, trying to figure out why I was so drawn to that particular 90-second piece of the movie above all others. There are several aspects, of course: the setting, the musical overlay, the dialogue-without-words, the mysteries and questions thrown up by that brief glimpse of our old hero.

Speaking of the setting, Skellig Michael seems like a fascinating place. I dug into its history a little, and it strikes me that it would be a good place to go on a little pilgrimage for a Catholic or Orthodox Christian. Would be great to go there with a small group and chant an akathist to St. Michael the Archangel in whatever may be left there of the ancient oratory or what have you. A little unfortunately for that idea, the island receives no ferry traffic in November, when his feast day is. But what does it matter? We could go in summer just as well. A more substantial impediment might be if the entity that takes care of the island doesn't allow religious ceremonies of any kind there. That would be very unfortunate, but not unexpected, even for a nominally Catholic country these days. I don't know that this is the case, but it's possible. Hopefully someone can tell me about this more.

One concern I have now, with the popularity of this movie, is that some fanatical Star Wars devotees (think of the origin of the word 'fan', after all) might try to set up on Skellig Michael as a little installation of the "Jedi religion" and end up desecrating the old cemetery or something, or just trampling the place to bits--the island is awfully tiny, after all. I hope the local authorities won't be too indulgent toward any such fantasies.

Ultimately, in spite of its flaws, this movie did what no Star Wars movie to this point had done so well: it made me think, which was a surprise in itself. Why did Luke disappear for so long? Why does this map leading to his location exist at all? Who was that "old ally" in that village on Jakku? Why did the Force 'sleep' for some time? (After all, an 'awakening' implies a prior state of slumber.) What were those visions that Rey saw when she picked up Luke's old lightsaber? How did that even end up where it did? Someone had to have gone to the trouble of fishing it out of the bowels of Cloud City. Similar for Vader's charred mask--why is it so important to someone out there, Kylo Ren or someone else, to collect such relics? And then there is this Snoke personage, of course. That's one of my more vehement objections to Episode VII to date: who picked such a snicker-inducing name for someone that's obviously supposed to be a sinister puppet master type? But anyway, giggles aside, what's his whole story? All these questions... I could, if I chose, delve into all the fan theorizing out there, but I have no desire to. I choose to let myself be surprised by whatever unfolds in Episode VIII to shed light on these points.

One last point, since I'm writing this a while after having seen Episode VII: Oscar Isaac I'd never seen before. He impressed me a good deal in this film. And then, last night, I pulled out the DVD of Ex Machina that I'd gotten as a Christmas present to myself,  and was amazed to find that he was doing fine acting in that as well! I'd never have thought it was the same person. He seems to have a lot of versatility. If I had to pick a Latino or Hispanophone actor to prefer at this moment, I'd definitely say Isaac over Bardem, for example. But that's not saying much, since I hardly know any others, really.

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