Sunday, December 17, 2017


Welcome to another installment of SIDE BY SIDE, where we dissect the differences and similarities between two films, be it a remake/reboot with its original, a sequel with its original, or two similar movies. This weekend, as a little number called The Last Jedi takes over, we compare the film that launched a franchise, 1977's STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE with its remake-slash-sequel thrice removed, 2015's STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.

There was a time when I was a stone-cold nut for George Lucas's juggernaut of a baby. These days my passion has cooled considerably, and where once the mere mention of the title would have me spouting off lore and factoids to a degree on par with the kids from Stranger Things, these days I'm more inclined to think of Bill Murray, and Nick the Lounge Singer.

But you never forget your first geeky love, and when the Disney Empire brought the Star Wars galaxy into their ever-expanding fold, I was hopeful that they might do the series justice. Visually, they delivered: The Force Awakens is beautifully staged from beginning to end as director JJ Abrams uses all the technology of modern filmmaking to make Star Wars look better than it ever has before. The story, on the other hand, is little more than A New Hope revisited, and packed with so many easter eggs, references and in-jokes to the films that came before that it takes the better part of an hour to recount them all.

These movies are so popular that I'm going to assume that you're of at least average familiarity with them, Occasional Reader, and not waste time recounting the plots of either. That means there may be spoilers ahead. Instead, we're going to do this one round-by-round, looking at the basic points both films cover, and talk about which did it better. So let's begin at the beginning.

ROUND 1: "It all started when I found this droid..."

Both movies open the same way: the Good Guys are making moves against the Bad Guys, and as our film opens, the Good Guys have laid hands on The Big Secret that Changes Everything (hereafter, the mcguffin). With the Bad Guys closing in, the mcguffin gets hidden away in a droid, who promptly gets lost, only to fall into the company of A Kid from the Desert, who will in turn become the Hero of All Time.

In A New Hope (ANH), the Rebels steal the Death Star plans from the Empire. The plans get hidden in R2-D2, who winds up stranded on Tatooine, and captured by Jawas who sell him to Luke Skywalker. Luke finds a partial message stored in Artoo that mentions an "Obi-Wan Kenobi". "Huh," thinks Luke, "I wonder if he's a relation to that Ben Kenobi guy I know." And really, you know the rest from there.

In The Force Awakens (TFA) the Resistance obtains a map to Luke Skywalker's home before the Last Order can get it. The map is stashed inside a soccer ball BB-8 who wanders off into the sands of Jakku until he meets Rey.


The path followed by ANH to get Luke enlisted in the Rebellion requires less suspension of disbelief than Rey's journey to the Resistance. One of the first things we learn about Luke is that he isn't happy with his life on Uncle Owen's moisture farm. The lure of adventure presented by Artoo's mysterious message, and then finding out Ben Kenobi is Obi-Wan, a hero of the Clone Wars who knew Luke's father and was once a Jedi, is sure to get his interest. But the great thing about it is that Luke might still have turned away from all that if the Empire hadn't caught up with the droids and killed Luke's aunt and uncle. This event pushes Luke's hatred of the Empire just far enough that it colors every decision he makes through the rest of the movie. Without that event, Luke's story likely would have ended before it began.

Rey, on the other hand, just kind of gets herded into the Resistance. She's barely found BB-8 before she has to start running for her life, because the Last Order has spies every-freakin'-where who can spread news through their network faster than anything. Even though she has no reason whatsoever to want to return to Jakku, she doesn't quit wanting to go back until a near-sighted orange toad tells her to knock it off. And then she never thinks of it again. So ... yeah.

ROUND 2: "What is this 'Force' you speak of?"

It wouldn't be Star Wars without the Force, we all know that. The mystical energy that surrounds and penetrates all living things, binding the universe together, is what gives the Star Wars series its epic quality, and seeing it in action makes the fight scenes memorable. For years we've been shown repeatedly, in movies, novels, comics, and video games that a person can't just use the Force without time, effort and training. So I find it hard to accept that Rey can hear about the Force once, and then almost immediately become good enough with it to resist Kylo Ren's mind-probing, dominate the will of another, and call a lightsaber to her from many feet away. By the end of ANH, Luke had barely learned how to wield a lightsaber at all, and his Force powers were strictly limited to the "don't think, feel" level. When the credits roll on TFA, Rey has passed almost beyond the level of a Padawan, all on her own, and I don't buy it.


ROUND 3: The Bad Guys' Big Gun

This is one of the places where The Force Awakens trumps the original with me. Sure, the Death Star is an iconic evil super-weapon and all, but the Last Order has a freakin' Death Planet! Yeah, I know, it's called "Starkiller Base", but just look at it.

That ain't nothin' but the Death Star XXL. Generally I think TFA cribbed from the original movie way too much, but in this instance they did it right. The Death Star was powerful enough to destroy a planet. "Starkiller Base" can wipe out a whole system, giving poor Freema Agyeman just enough time to make her "Oh No" face before she's wiped from existence.

And it's an actual planet, with dirt and trees and, we can safely assume, an ecosystem of some kind. Which makes firing that giganta-saurus cannon a unique environmental threat in more ways than one. The Death Star just can't match that level of awesome.


ROUND 4: Gaze into the face of evil!

There are two main places where The Force Awakens disappoints me, and one of them is its villain, Kylo Ren (and not just because his name evokes memories of a certain '90s cartoon). It's made abundantly clear to us that Kylo Ren wants to be Darth Vader, so much so that he keeps Vader's half-melted helmet as a kind of sacred relic. And the thing is, for about the first hour he basically is Vader. From his menacing presence, to his laconic way of speaking, to the fact that he's so strong with the Force that he can stop blaster fire -- which is on a whole other level of badass -- in his early appearances, Ren fills the bill nicely. By the end of that first hour, I'm just about ready to start asking "Darth who?"

And then that miserable nerf-herder takes his mask off.

Really? Frick'n Really?
The tricky thing about masked-man characters is that they are defined by their mystery, and the mask they wear is the symbol of that mystery. Take the mask off, and that mystery is obliterated, so you've got to build the character back up again, almost from scratch. There are cases where this has happened - the masked man's face has been revealed, and the character wasn't completely undone by the event - but the only non-anime example I can think of is Watchmen, the comic if not the movie.

This does not happen in the case of Kylo Ren. It doesn't happen right away, but after Ren takes off his mask he soon turns into an insignificant pretty-boy with Mommy and Daddy issues, and what disappoints me is that if his mask had stayed on and the mystery stayed intact, all the problems I have with him in the last hour or so of the movie would have been avoided. Even his scream of "Traitoooor!" when he challenges Finn, if filtered through that voice-enhancer, would have sounded more "I am a force of nature, and I'm coming to kill you", and not so much "But I wanted a pony!"

With all the things Ren learned from Vader's legacy, he missed a fundamental point. Vader would never have become the legendary villain he is if we learned early that he had a head like a melted gumdrop under there.


FINAL ROUND: "And so, once again, the day is saved!"

ANH and TFA both end with a climactic space battle as the Good Guys try to take away the Bad Guys' favorite toy. And both these battles end with a group of X-Wings racing down a trench under heavy fire, looking to destroy a very small target. There are things to recommend The Force Awakens over A New Hope here as well, and the visual effects aren't really one of them. Yeah, TFA has more detail, but it's still mostly grey. Instead, I prefer the more recent entry based on who emerges the hero, and how he does it.

In A New Hope, plucky farm boy Luke Skywalker, who by the end of the first film hasn't proven to be skilled at much of anything, and is green as grass with using the Force besides, nevertheless reveals previously unknown depths of piloting skill such that he can not only survive his very first combat experience ever but succeed where every other, more seasoned rebel pilot has failed, and land a shot on a two-meter target, while flying through a narrow obstacle course in a craft he's likely never even seen before, and being shot at. Yes, Luke had previously protested to Han Solo that he could so pilot a ship, and he later tells another pilot "I used to bulls-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home" (whatever that even means) but this feat is miraculous to the point of absurdity.

So I put credit where it's due that the hero of the day at the end of The Force Awakens is Resistance pilot and known unkillable hotshot Poe Dameron, and not Rey (a plot twist that shows last-minute restraint on the part of the writers, but we'll get to that in a minute). In two previous instances, we've seen that Poe has a talent for things that fly through the air, so his victory in the battle at Starkiller Base is more believable, as are the moves we see him pull off to shoot all those weak points once he's breached the base's defenses. It's also good to see that something the size of Starkiller Base can't be completely undone with one lucky shot, unlike its comparatively diminutive spiritual predecessor.




There are two final points I want to bring up, assuming I still have your attention. First is the amount of secondary world building in these stories. By that I mean the little details and asides that hint to the audience that there's a bigger world out there beyond the details of this one story. A New Hope is absolutely crammed with these, like the first mention of the Clone Wars, the suggestions at the start of the movie that the Rebellion might have sympathizers in the Imperial Senate, and Han's boasting about how the Millennium Falcon "made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs." Though I am aware that, while parsecs really are a thing, they're a measurement of distance, not time.

Comparatively, the world of The Force Awakens is a very small place. Apart from the necessary mystery character (Snoke) and the stuff that the movie just doesn't bother to explain, like those "portions" Rey trades salvage for, we never get the sense that there's really much of anything going on beyond what we can see, and that drains a lot of the color out of the experience for me.

Finally, let's talk about those heroes, Luke and Rey. No matter how many times I watch A New Hope, I'm never quite prepared for what a useless whiner Luke Skywalker is at the beginning of the movie. It's hard to believe that turned into a hero of the Rebellion, first, and the founder of a new Jedi Order after that (at least before Disney disavowed all Star Wars lore produced before Mickey got his gloves on the franchise). But he does grow, both as a character and a person over the course of the film. He'll experience things he's never seen before, and do things he's never done before. Most importantly, he starts small. By the time the Death Star explodes, we've still only had the barest hint of what he'll one day become.

How has Rey changed by the end of The Force Awakens, apart from learning that her bedtime stories were true? No matter the situation she finds herself in, whether it's a lightsaber duel, or sneaking through a fortified enemy base, or piloting an antique Corellian freighter, Rey always seems to know exactly what she needs to know in that moment. I can kind of forgive her innate ability with a lightsaber; it's just a sword, after all. While a trained Jedi can use the Force to wield a saber with preternatural skill, using the Force isn't a requirement, and we've seen she's got some chops in hand-to-hand fighting in how she handles that staff at the beginning. But how can she magically turn into a walking Haynes manual for the Millennium Falcon just by stepping through the hatch?

So when it comes to the debate over whether Rey is a Mary Sue character, I have to agree that she is, if only for all the little girls in the audience. It's one thing to have your story feature a character of a certain type so that a section of your audience can vicariously insert themselves into the action; it's quite another to make that character impossibly talented and infallible. This is the second point that bugs me about this movie.

And so A New Hope wins our little match (q'uelle surprise) by a score of 5 to 2. The bottom line is that A New Hope tells a new story, while The Force Awakens covers old ground with a few details changed. After literally decades of new Star Wars stories being told in all kinds of media, a pretty retread coming from a company whose ability at storytelling is legendary is disappointing. Maybe one day Disney will find the courage to try to break new ground with this franchise, introduce new characters and spin new tales instead of building on the work of others. For now, they're reaping what they didn't sow. I've got no beef with other people liking these new movies as such, they do have their moments and what moments they are, but on the whole, I want no part of it.

Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope is rated PG for sci-fi violence and brief mild language.
Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

Robert's Scores:

Star Wars: A New Hope: 7/10
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 5/10

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