Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

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A film that’s such an event can’t be this unremarkable. The seventh episode of Star Wars was supposed to be either a rejuvination or a complete disaster. It either proves the franchise has another lifetime in it or destroy its Death Star for good. For all the references, new faces, re-hashed concepts it’s just okay.

The most interesting about it is how it updates the series to 21st century worldviews. Aside from Kylo Ren, who’s a more flawed and humane villain the update does mostly damage. In fact, the movie doesn’t stay true to the spirit of the old films at all.

Millenium Falcon, cute droids and Cloak-and-Mask villains are props. They are not the spirit of the series. The original series was a pulp adventure. It was silly, overblown and never meant to be serious. Everything in it was insane, but it was never cruel.

When the Death Star destroyed planets, all we saw was the explosion. The camera didn’t linger on the suffering because it didn’t matter. Darkness was not important. It was only important to establish that the Empire is so evil they’ll destroy planets for the fuck of it because they’re evil.

This cartoonish approach doesn’t mean you can have emotionally effective or shocking moments. It’s because of the contrast that Vader’s cruelty was frightening. He was a heartless leader backed by an Army of Nonsense. That madness imbued characters with humanity and made Luke a generic moral hero with charisma.

It takes about half an hour until something light-hearted comes in. The opening scene has the massacre of a village which is depressing in its cruelty. It’s a scene more at home for a film about the horrors of war. The presentation doesn’t add any depth but just removes joy.

Compare Jakku to Tatooine. Tatooine was an insane planet. Everyone was weird. Jabba was menacing partly because everything around him was so bizarre. We had aliens with oversized heads playing music and walking cloaks who collected droids.

Jakku is a gloomy post-apocalyptic landscape where nothing happens. Everyone struggles to get by. Life is harsh and that’s it. There are no odd moments, moments of madness and absurdity. Rei is a scavenger who has a hard time making ends meet and the guy shells stuff to is just an unpleasant asshole.

There are enough Fallout games to draw inspiration from to make a convincing Post-Apoc landscape. There’s no reason to settle for this boring gloom. Junktown or Megaton are more lively and realistic places than Jakku.

It’s not that the film fails to capture the magic of the previous chapters. It doesn’t even try. Gone is the wide-eyed approach. Instead, it’s replaced with more serious grimdarkness. Perhaps they know their target audience, which are fanboys who take the films as serious mythologies rather than great adventures.

Rey is also more of a joke than a character. She walks around looking tough and screams at Finn to stop holding her hand. This is a not-so-subtle way to tell you it’s feminist and doesn’t put women into traditional gender roles. It just puts them in new roles, but Rey is just as one-dimensional if she were a damsel in distress.

The makers forgot. Furiosa was a boring character whose purpose was to hold a shotgun. It was Max’s shaking and paranoia that made him real and charismatic.

Finn is much better, and alongside Kylo he provides some grey morality that was missing from the original trilogy.

In most stories, the heroes struggle against a powerful villain. No matter what ideas the character holds, it boils down to who’s a better swordfighter. Kylo Ren isn’t a powerful villain. He simply desires power. He’s not just similar to Darth Vader to evoke nostalgia. He wants to be him and Vader is a shadow that looms over him and affects him.

Kylo is dangerous because of his personality. He’s not in control but impulsive. It’s actually that impulsiveness, that desire for power that makes him so weak. As an expansion of the Dark Side, it’s brilliant. He’s also aesthetically fun. His mask and voice are different enough than Vader, but similar enough to make him a worthy successor.

As for BB-8 who is going to be the mascot of the new trilogy, he’s more needed than it looks. The original droids were brilliant, but BB-8 injects a sense of fun that’s missing from the film.

In many scenes, he’s the only relic of Star Wars’ energy and silliness. He’s a great addition to the droid trio. He’s not a copycat of R2D2 even though he’s another attempt at taking an inanimate object and making him cute. He has a childish, jumpy personality that makes him different than C-3PO’s nervousness or R2D2’s heroism. R2D2 is perhaps Star Wars’ weirdest achievement, creating a vivid character out of a machine. BB-8 is a great successor, but hopefully we’ll see the two interact.

The story itself re-hashes A New Hope, sometimes too much. Some ideas are turned on their heads in an amusing way that expands upon them. They failed in replicating the Death Star’s menace. It’s transformed into a huge gun that’s a hole in a planet.

The first Death Star was menacing because it nonsenscial (why’d you go out of your day to wreck a whole planet?) but symbolizing ultimate destruction. The second was frightening because of its wrecked look, which shows how it leaves other planets. The 3rd one is bigger, but that’s it. There’s no unique features to it and we don’t even a cool shoot that makes us admire it.

Speaking of visuals, the old style isn’t back. The effects are technically better, but they visual ideas aren’t as interesting. I kept looking for some background detail that will catch my eye, a random alien or a ship. The best shots are those that show old Empire vehicles wrecked.

All the details don’t necessarily make for great visual details. Now we can film in darkness, but darkness still obscures the view. That’s the problem with working without limits. With nothing to limit you, you have no obstacles to overcome. You can throw everything in and you don’t think of ways to make it catch the eye.

It’s a good film. It’s not the disaster it should’ve been and it often points that there’s still life to this. It can move the franchise towards a more psychological and morally grey area, but it also points to a worse angle. Grimdarkness and Hollywood Feminism also have a strong presence, suffocating creativity for the sake of looking cool. It’s just a stepping stone. The sequels will tell us more whether this was a good idea.

3 Death Stars out of 5

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Isaac Asimov – Foundation’s Edge

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Asimov was a great mind who somehow wrote books that were nothing more than good. They were very enjoyable, and anyone who wants to write a straightforward adventure or mystery has a lot to learn from him. Yet none of them alone justifies Asimov’s place at the throne – they are no Grapes of Wrath or Catch-22. Foundation’s Edge isn’t that book either, but it’s the one that comes closest so far.

It is a product of a person who didn’t let old age stop him. We often treasure youth so much, as if by old age everything is over. The distance between this and the previous Foundation novels is felt. It’s not an old author returning to his well-known series to boil the pot a little. Rather, he returns to the series with the new things he learned over the year.

The story’s format and style is not very different, but it obviously tries to address previous flaws. For once, we get actual characters. Asimov’s characters are no longer chess pieces. This is just as dialogue-heavy as before, only now we can distinguish who the characters are by how they speak. It may a small difference, like Pelorat’s ramblings (and calling people dear chaps) or Golan’s toughness, but it is something.

Asimov doesn’t work against his structure – his stories are driven by plot and ideas, not characters. He just breathes a little more life into them to make them more fun. Pelorat’s character also feels like an author exploring himself. Asimov is our image of a ‘cold academic’, but in Pelorat he comes to the conclusion that a life that’s only the Life of the Mind is pretty empty and dull. It’s an alternative point of view that in previous stories he wouldn’t even consider.

The position of the Smart People is a new theme here, too. That must be something that comes from hanging too much around intellectuals. Asimov once said of Mensa Internatinal that they’re ‘aggressive about their IQ’s’, and this criticism of elitism is in this book. Asimov doesn’t hold an ideal view of a world where everyone is intelligent. Some people’s minds are just not good enough. But these don’t mean they’re automatically useless.

The Hamish people represent the ‘simple men’ who do manual work. Asimov doesn’t condescend above them, though. Asimov is mostly interested in how to prevent the intelligent people from getting drunk with power. That’s what the whole conflict of Second vs. First Foundation is about, and why the Second Foundation has such strict rules about tempering with minds.

Gaia is also Asimov’s attempt at acknowleding there is more to life than being an academic. It does come off as an asspull – a mystical thing that pops out of nowhere and becomes the center of the conflict. Like always, Asimov is good at controlling his asspulls and limiting them. They may have changed the conflict, but they don’t conveniently solve it. Gaia exists more to express the idea of actually living instead of just being an intellectual. It’s not a very deep exploration of that idea. Asimov sinks a bit into the One With Nature cliche. Still, it’s good to see him stretch beyond his comfort zone.

This is also the book where Asimov connects Foundation to his Robot, Eternity and Empire novels. This isn’t a Marvel Cinematic Universe syndrome, though, where the purpose is to point out references and think of how cool it is. Asimov references the ideas of these stories, not their actual plots. The value of the reference to the Robot universe doesn’t change if you read the novels or not. He even admits in the afterword that The End of Eternity isn’t exactly as it was described here.

Asimov’s prose remains as brisk as before. It’s a little less minimalistic, but it doesn’t read like an author who is beyond the power of editors. The occasional techno-babble is amusing. It’s so distinctly Asimov. He describes it in such cold intellectual langauge that is also very simple that these little details become amusing. The books would have been better off without explaining how hyperspatial travel works or how we can see the skies of various planets, but he always stops himself before it gets too far. If anything, it makes me curious to see how Asimov is like when he isn’t writing fiction.

Asimov remains a master at simple adventures. So far, this is the best in the series. On the previous entries, Asimov brushed his flaws aside because he was skilled enough at telling a cool mystery. This time he’s better at expressing ideas and creating actual characters. It still reads like Asimov’s more interesting ideas are in his essays. The story remains a simple adventure, but it’s better at every aspect than before.

3.5 Earths out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

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For a person who wrote so many books, it starts to look like maybe fiction isn’t Asimov’s thing. It doesn’t even read like he’s a got lot passion for it. He’s far more interested in grand ideas. That’s why there are no characters, and he cares little about pretending that they’re more than game pieces. Then again, he also knows the dangers of being pretentious, and Foundation and Empire remains a brisk, pulpy novel. It’s a weird thing. It’s a fun, shallow adventure written by an intelligent man who was probably too busy thinking to actually experience life.

Asimov occasionally inserts his grand ideas into the story. The conclusion to the first novella contained in this volume is a big deus ex machina. It renders all this running around irrelevant. The characters we followed had nothing to do with solution. Yet, it makes perfect sense in Asimov’s world. The only reason it was unexpected is because we’re still used to characters, even though they’re not driving the story. A solution that the characters came up with would’ve been easier to swallow, but will also see Asimov breaking the rules he created.

Doesn’t it sounded like the rules of psychohistory? Individuals are mostly meaningless. It’s the great masses that should be researched. Maybe Asimov got confused with masses of people and mass, the physical term. A hole is starting to appear, and it’s hard to ignore it when rappers are riding through it with the booming system.

If you can’t predict the behavior of one individual, how can you predict the behavior of masses of individuals? There is a composition/division fallacy here, but I can’t see how it connects. If the masses think in a certain way, doesn’t it stand to reason that an individual will most likely think in that some way? Psychohistory then does predict the behavior of individuals. It predicts the most common behavior ammong masses of individuals.

The science is messy, but if it were real and practical then Asimov would’ve written papers, not novels. At least he doesn’t use this as a crutch. ‘Prophecy’ is often used to make characters move the plot. It’s a great way to eliminate active personalities from your story and make it convenient. Since Asimov’s psychohistory deals with masses and not with individuals, it predicts that the whole Foundation enterpise will win – or at least, that its purpose will be achieved.

Time and again we see that it’s far more complex than it seems. The actual purpose of all these foundations remains in the shadows. Asimov also still has to create solutions for his conflicts that fit his rules. That’s why the first novella was successful, but it’s in the second one that Asimov goes to the edge. What’s beyond it is pretty foggy.

He introduces a character that messes up the whole equation. The predictions had a chance to be wrong, and by introducing a villain whose skill has power to completely change the equation – it’s more than a brand new variable – he raises up the question of whether or not this foundation thing will succeed.

He even tries to add some charactes. Bayta and Mis are the first real personalities here. They have dialogues that is recoginizably theirs, and behavior that is unique to them that doesn’t just move the plot. He even tries to create a unique villain with the Mule. The second novella shows a braver Asimov, one who tries to write more than a pulpy story.

He completely fails when he tries to be profound. When the Mule reveals itself in a pretty obvious twist, we get the obligatory villain’s monolgue. You’d think this was a tool of writers with zero creativity, but Asimov put some hard work into the Mule’s monolgue. He thinks that if the Mule will pour his heart out to us, it’ll make him more complex. He is more intriguing than a guy who just wants world domination, but it’s not enough.

Asimov spelling it all out clearly for us just emphasizes how shallow these novels are, in the end. He didn’t even try the obvious thing, to examine how an individual lives when he’s well aware of a ‘prophecy’ that has scientific basis. This is an interesting psychology to explore, because science’s role is, in the end, to predict. It’s one of the things that makes for a legitimate scientific theory. Asimov could have explored the individualĀ and the collective, religion and science and I’m sure he has a lot of interesting things to say about this subject.

Alas, what Asimov really thinks is not here. Like its predecessor, the novel uses big ideas as a beautifying prop. It’s incorrect to say Asimov uses it to cover the lack of depth. Asimov remains as unpretentious as they come, with bullshit-free writing. Any time he does bother to describe characters or the scenary, he never rambles. He just wants to give you a general idea of who these people are and where they’re at, and then he moves onward with the plot. It removes any subtlety from the novel, but no rambling makes it easy and fun.

The series is often criticized for being episodic and lacking a main protagonist. That’s its strength, and what prevents it from spinning out of control. Imagine if George Martin took Asimov’s approach, and wrote episodic novels in Westeros instead of a sprawling melodrama. By giving out these little bits, Asimov’s world feels much more alive. It’s odd to say it about such a novel disconnected from human life, but it’s a series that points to a world that’s too big to capture in a single book, or a few. So, it will just give you a few bits here and a few stories here, and let you fill up the holes. It’s also useful not to beat the reader with your coolest symbols. If Trantor was over-described like anything in Martin’s novels, it would lose its mystique.

The series remains a fun adventure dressed up in big ideas, but not much beyond that. I hope there’s an exciting enough story in this series somewhere, because then it might finally be a classic worthy of its name. I have faith in Asimov. So far, he’s very in control of his ideas and knows what he’s doing best. The second novella’s pushing forward and then regressing is a bit sad, but maybe it’s not the right time yet.

3 mules out of 5