MovieRant: Star Wars – The Farce Awakens

farceawakensMovies such as Star Wars: The Farce Awakens make me angry.
 
It’s endemic of contemporary Hollywood: looks great, slickly directed, wonderful special effects, but thin on story, driven by contrivance and, hey, that’s okay apparently, because that’s the standard nowadays, and you should just accept that.
 
No.
 
That’s no reason to give a movie – or any story – a pass mark.
 
I have a number of issues with The Farce Awakens, and yet this blog is by no means exhaustive. Every time I think I’m done with it, something else pops to mind. So, for now, this is it (and this’ll contain spoilers):

  • Premise: Luke Skywalker has vanished.
     
    This is the best the collective talents of Lawrence Kasdan, Mike Arndt, and JJ Abrams could come up with.
     
    Luke Skywalker has vanished.
     
    I can just picture the trio sitting around a table, and one of them (probably JJ) saying, ‘We need to grab everybody immediately. We need to shock them. How about we begin the story and Luke’s vanished?’
     
    Dramatic, maybe. Intelligent?
     
    Er, no.
     
    Examine this premise in greater detail: so Luke’s trying to establish a new Jedi Order. Kylo Ren (who I shall now christen Darth Tantrum), falls to the Dark Side, and with the help of the First Order kills the Jedi (wow, original). Disconsolate, Luke vanishes.
     
    So, the heroic Luke Skywalker decides that while the First Order is establishing itself as the new dark threat, as Darth Tantrum terrorises the masses, as planets are being destroyed and Luke’s friends are getting killed, Luke’s going to leave Rey (who looks as if she’ll be his daughter) on Jakku with that monster thing that was paying her for scraps (he’s the one Rey’s handed to in the flashback), and go on a search for the first Jedi temple (according to Han), because somehow this is what the galaxy needs right now (but at least it sounds mystical). Moreover, it’s somehow wiser to plant Rey on a planet open to First Order traffic, rather than take her with you, given nobody knows where you are. I know which I think is the better hiding place.
     
    But wait, there’s more.
     
    There’s going to be a map to Luke’s location which the Resistance and the First Order are fighting to get (why they don’t just look up the first Jedi temple is beyond me), and which is in the hands of Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), who Darth Tantrum slays, even though later he abducts Rey because she’s seen the map and he thinks he can draw it from her.
     
    Then, when we get the map (I can’t make this stuff up), it’s like a jigsaw piece which fits in only one spot on a galactic map, and presumably you could just overlay on an existing map to see exactly where it is. (It’s probably not meant to be that simplistic, but that’s how it came across.)
     
    This is what we’ve been waiting for.
     
    Foundations are important to me in building a story, and this is not a strong foundation. Personally, I found the premise grossly insulting, and a contrivance to generate a story that’s not a logical evolution of the timeline from the original movies, but simply a way to try and shock and wow audiences from the get-go.
     
    As an aside: In Return of the Jedi, Luke and Leia have a conversation about the Force, where Luke says, ‘You have that power, too. In time, you will learn to use it as I have.’
     
    No, apparently Leia didn’t. You might argue she has and we just didn’t see it. Well, if she had, then she’d also be a target of the First Order, wouldn’t she? (Which really suggests that Leia should’ve been the target of Darth Tantrum, and not the powerless Han, and the movie might’ve made more sense. Of course, Harrison Ford wanted to be killed in Return of the Jedi, so now belatedly he’s gotten his wish. Watching this, I know how he felt.)
  •  

  • Myth: In an interview, JJ Abrams explained his logic behind The Farce Awakens:
     

      ‘… the thing that struck me the hardest, which was the idea that doing a story that took place nearly 40 years after Jedi meant that there would be a generation for whom Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia would be as good as a myth.

      ‘They’d be as old and as mythic as the tale of King Arthur. They would be characters who they may have heard of, but maybe not. They’d be characters who they might believe existed, or just sounded like a fairy tale.’

    This sits at the core of your story?

    King Arthur (according to medieval histories) fought in the 5th and 6th centuries, so he’s had some time to cede into legend and myth. Luke fought the Empire thirty years ago, and he’s already a myth? In thirty years, he’s ‘as old and as mythic’ as a fifteen-hundred-year-old legend? Not to mention:

      1. For much of that interim, Luke (and his friends) have still been running around.
      2. So Luke helped overthrow the Empire … which transitioned directly into the First Order. How exactly would you become a legend when your victory was redundant?
      3. Rey thinks Luke Skywalker is a myth, but hasn’t heard of Princess Leia or Han Solo, yet has heard of Han Solo the smuggler? Um, sure.

     
    Does anybody else think this premise is just a little bit insane?
     

  • Setting: Set thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the Empire still seems to be very much in control of the galaxy. There’s a reference to the ‘New Republic’, yet Princess Leia still leads a rag-tag resistance, so I’m unsure how that reconciles.
     
    You might suggest that the First Order have just been established under the auspices of the Supreme Leader Smeagol.
     
    But, wait.
     
    The First Order conscript kids from an early age, then brainwashes them into serving the First Order as Stormtroopers. We see there’s tons of Stormtroopers. Tons. And if Finn’s in his twenties, they must be, too (although Finn says this is his first mission, so there’d have to be Stormtroopers who are older). So this practice has been going on a while.
     
    In Rey’s flashback, she’s a little girl when Darth Tantrum attacks, so at least ten years have elapsed since that memory and events that the movie’s text-crawl establishes (so, back to the original point, I can only guess Luke’s been vanished about ten years, and Darth Tantrum’s been in training that long).
     
    And the First Order has, as a whole, had the time to build a Starkiller weapon. We never see the Republic, but we see the First Order is as magnificent and dreadful as the Empire, so this is the only sense of proportion we get.
     
    Which begs the question …
     
    What the hell was the point of the original movies if circumstances are just the same? What the hell was the point of Luke Skywalker confronting Darth Vader and the Emperor, and the assault on various Death Stars, and celebrations on multiple planets at the end of Return of the Jedi, if everyone and everything is largely just still in the same position at the beginning of Farce?
     
    It invalidates everything the first three movies are about, which is grossly insulting. Of course, JJ Abrams is good at that. In his Star Trek reboot, he wiped out ten movies and five series so he could launch Star Drek and insult a fanbase that has been building for fifty years.
     
    We don’t see anything new in Farce. It’s not like the First Order is an evolution of the Empire, or is some perverted schism, or that it’s a completely different threat (as posed).
     
    It’s just the same Empire, repackaged.
     
    Which leads to …
  •  

  • Derivative: Tell me what movie this is: A droid containing secret information falls into the hands of a young farmer who’s strong with the Force. Drawn into an unwitting battle against the enemy, the young farmer must return the droid to Princess Leia, so the information can be used in the fight against the enemy. Meanwhile, the enemy launch a powerful weapon, a station capable of destroying a planet. However, the Resistance discover a vulnerability in the station. They launch a team of x-wing fighters to exploit the vulnerability and destroy the station.
     
    It’s the plot from A New Hope.
     
    And it’s also the plot from Farce, which entirely recycles A New Hope, just with a few different turns.
     
    There are even greater derivatives throughout: the antagonist is related (Darth Vader/Darth Tantrum), we’re setting up a familial battle (Vader-Luke/Tantrum-Rey), the lone Jedi begins the story in self-imposed exile (Obi Wan/Luke), etc.
     
    These aren’t homages. A homage is Finn accidentally triggering the chess game on the Millennium Falcon. Then we all think, Oh, how cute, the chess set from the first movie. That’s a homage. These are narrative choices designed to manipulate you into thinking they’ve tapped into the Star Wars universe the prequels missed. In reality? It’s just glorified recycling, reminiscent of any bad Hollywood sequel which’ll rehash the events of its predecessor.
     
    It left the story feeing flat, stale, and trodden.
     
    As an aside: after losing two Death Stars, the Empire is apparently still building weapons replete with vulnerabilities so they can be destroyed.
     
    I can just imagine the First Order’s hierarchy conversation with their engineers:

      Engineer: ‘We’ve just finished our new weapon, sir!’
      General Hux: ‘What’s it do?’
      Engineer: ‘It harnesses the power of a sun so that we can destroy a planet, or even multiple planets, sir.’
      General Hux: ‘Excellent! Any vulnerabilities?’
      Engineer: ‘No, sir. We learned from the assaults on the two Death Stars.’
      General Hux: ‘That won’t do at all.’
      Engineer: ‘No, sir?’
      General Hux: ‘No, not at all. Go back and implement a vulnerability.’
      Engineer: ‘Sir?’
      General Hux: ‘Our enemies must have a chance, however slim, of destroying our weapon.’
      Engineer: ‘But, sir …!’
      General Hux: ‘Now!’
      Engineer: ‘Yes, sir.’

     
    Really?
     

  • Protagonist: Whose story is this? If I asked you, whose story is being told in the originals, you’d answer, ‘Luke Skywalker.’ Sure, there’s a supporting cast, and some of them have their own arcs, but they all exist to serve Luke’s story (except in Return of the Jedi, where they’re largely just given filler duties whilst the important story plays out between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor). If I asked the same question about the prequels, you’d say, ‘Anakin Skywalker.’ It’s not very well done, but it’s true all the same.
     
    But here?
     
    The story begins with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) clearly being established as the hero of the piece, but is then shunted off to Finn (John Boyega), which then interchanges with Rey (Daisy Ridley), although they’re countered by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), until Han Solo (Harrison Ford) arrives, and then it becomes about him. Let me throw in BB8 (BB8) also, who plays an important role in the first two acts, and then disappears for the third. (At least R2D2, who begins A New Hope, is right there until the end, and is referenced during the assault on the Death Star.)
     
    Farce
    lacks focus, flitting between characters, trying to develop them equally, and never letting you know through whose eyes you’re meant to be seeing this galaxy and living these events. Even if the story was meant to be a transitional piece from the original characters to the new characters, we still needed to be following somebody through it all.
     
    You might argue that it’s an ensemble piece, like Avengers. The difference in Avengers (as an example) is that all the primary characters are equally weighted, and have equally important stuff to do, and equally contribute to the victory.
     
    Throughout Farce, we see hints it’s meant to be Rey’s story, yet Farce still tries to ally with this ensemble philosophy, which often leaves the narrative feeling unbalanced.
  •  
    As an aside: The characters felt orchestrated to fill niches (e.g. dashing, hopeful, idealistic), but (and some may disagree) were bland outside of those characteristics. Look at it this way:

    • Poe: fast-talking, defiant, brave
    • Finn: afraid, good-hearted
    • Rey: clever, yearning.

    And they just played to these types throughout, with no real dimension outside of these characteristics.
     
    The antagonists weren’t much better. Supreme Leader Snoke was just big and evil and Voldermorty. General Hux was a waste of Domhnall Gleeson. Adam Driver tried, but never really got out of emo mode. Also, given the age breakdown of two of the antagonists (and the third being a hologram), it just felt like we were at some Youth Empire Rally, with no real credible weight behind this threat. The original movies might’ve used a succession of little-known actors in those command-positions for the Empire, but at least they had presence and gravity.
     
    The best (new) character was BB8, a great addition to Star Wars pantheon of droids (although he was something of a rip-off of Wall-E with the expressive face). However, I’m unsure of the practicality behind a rolling metal ball. Sure, it’d work great on soft surfaces. But what happens when BB8 has to roll on concrete or metal? Besides being noisy, it’d be damaging to his body. Some might consider this a nitpick, but if you’re going to create a universe like this, it has to have some internal consistency as to how it works, and whether it would work. This just wouldn’t work.
     

  • Convenience: So Poe releases a droid, BB8, containing the secret information which just happens to come into the possession of Rey, who just happens ( or will happen) to be related to Luke; Finn just happens to rescue Poe who tells Finn about BB8, and Finn just happens to encounter Rey, and in fleeing a threat they just happen to run into the Millennium Falcon, which just happens to be on this planet (the odds of which seem slimmer given it has been, according to Han Solo, stolen repeatedly), and they take off into space and, IN ALL THE INFINITY OF SPACE, they just happen to run into Han Solo, who takes them to a planet where Luke Skywalker’s lightsabre just happens to be, and the lightsabre just happens to call to Rey.
     
    Then look at the close: Finn, who has practical experience with the First Order, takes Han and Chewbacca down to the Starkiller, claiming he can deactivate the shield. He can’t. It was just a ruse to get down here so he could try rescue Rey. Finn says when he was stationed here it was in sanitation, which is great, because he’s been wallowing in shit for about one hundred minutes up to this point. Problem, though? No. Han, Chewbacca, and Finn just happen to run into the Cylon, Captain Phasma (seriously?) who just happens to have the authority to deactivate the shield (you’d think it would be a little better safeguarded than that), and then they go to look for Rey – who the WHOLE base is looking for – and she just happens to be climbing a wall right behind them (and then, somehow, they end up on the other side of her, although a trench separates them), and even though Darth Tantrum senses Han Solo on the base, Tantrum just happens to walk right past him, so they can just happen to have an excruciatingly, painfully predictable confrontation on the bridge, and then when everybody returns to the Resistance base, R2D2 just happens to wake up, right then, to give them the information they need to continue the trilogy.
     
    Whilst some convenience has always driven the Star Wars universe (and it gets worse as the series goes on and they try to tie everything together), this is just lazy.
     
    There’s simply very little causality in the way JJ Abrams develops his stories (his two Star Trek movies overflowed with coincidences to drive the plot). Tom Clancy said, ‘The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.’
     
    Farce doesn’t even try to make sense.
     
    As an aside: So Han Solo volunteers to deactivate the shield around the Starkiller by jumping through the shield at light speed and getting to the shield controls? Um, excuse me? If you can just jump through the shield at light speed, WHY DO YOU NEED A MISSION TO DEACTIVATE THE SHIELD? Why doesn’t everybody just jump through the shield at light speed? Why don’t they get a big bomb, put it on a big ship, jump it through the shield at light speed and target the oscillator? In fact, since Han and Chewbacca blow up part of the oscillator with their munitions, why not launch a ground assault?
     
    Again, people might suggest this is a nitpick. But you know what the beauty of A New Hope is? The mission is clear. Fly down this trench and fire a missile down this port, and it’ll start a chain reaction. Totally straightforward. Similarly in Return of the Jedi: fly into the Death Star and hit the reactors. Here, though, it’s fire at the oscillator, and hope you can damage it enough to cause a chain reaction – which then only occurs after Han and Chewbacca have used their munitions, and then Poe’s flown inside it and shot the hell out of it. You never get a sense of scale, of what’s required, as occurs in A New Hope. It’s more like The Phantom Menace when Anakin accidentally launches himself into space, joins the fray, does some spinning (because that’s a good trick), and then blows up the Control Ship, which deactivates the drone armies. Er, what does what now?
     
    And furthermore: Luke, Jedi Master, turns around and expresses shock when Rey arrives and offers his lightsabre. I guess a Jedi in hiding wouldn’t sense a big ship holding somebody strong in the Force landing on his planet seemingly only a short distance away?
  •  

  • Dumbness: I don’t want to go through all the mind-bogglingly dumb moments. But I’ll give you two handfuls of examples:
     

    • Finn decides he can’t participate in the slaughter of the villagers (and even though Darth Tantrum sees this, does nothing about it), but later when Finn’s escaping with Poe and manning the guns of the TIE-fighter, he merrily blows up Stormtroopers, officers, and an assortment of other people. Fine, he might be defending himself, he might be fighting for his freedom, but it seems an amazingly easy transition for him.
    •  

    • Rey thinks Luke Skywalker is a myth, hasn’t heard of Han Solo the Rebellion General, but has heard of Han Solo the smuggler, has heard of the Millennium Falcon, yet doesn’t know she’s on the Millennium Falcon. In all the years the ship’s sat on Jakku, its name has never been mentioned. Or she doesn’t know what it looks like, since ‘Han Solo the smuggler’ is such a legend? Okay.
    •  

    • This one is a little offbeat but you set up a world where Rey has to scrounge for rations. She has flour, which she dumps into a tray, and then inflates into bread. I did notice when Rey was making her bread, a fleck of flour missed the tray (and hit the counter instead). In the grand scheme of things it mightn’t mean much, but if you want me to believe the circumstances of the world, characters can’t be so careless with such hard-won rations.
    •  

    • Rathtars (big space monsters) get loose on Han Solo’s freighter. They eat everybody the moment they encounter them. So this is the rule that’s been set up: Rathtars eat somebody the moment they encounter them. Until one picks up Finn and drags him through several corridors, giving Rey time to rescue him. Seriously, how stupid is that? Yet, again, it might seem a nitpick, but in establishing the rules of a fictional world, you’re telling us how that world behaves. You can’t then change it later to suit you. That is just dumb and lazy.
    •  

    • Or how about Rey defeating Darth Tantrum in a lightsabre battle? Sure, we saw Rey swing her pike and incapacitate a couple of thieves trying to steal BB8, but Tantrum has been training in the Force, and has presumably trained with a lightsabre. For that matter, even Finn took it to him. How can he be so weak?
       

    • And on this, how strong is Rey? I can understand the Force flows through her. Fine. But it not only flows through her, but she exhibits very specific talents, e.g. the Jedi mind trick she uses to persuade the Stormtrooper (James Bond‘s Daniel Craig) to let her go. What’s the best Luke did without instruction? Levitate his lightsabre from the snow? Rey does that (overwhelming Darth Tantrum in the process), focuses so she’s infused with the Force and can overcome Tantrum, and the aforementioned Jedi mind trick – all without any sort of instruction.
    •  

    • Or how about the embarrassing silliness of Han Solo enjoying shooting Chewbacca’s bowcaster – haha, that must be funny, right? Right? Just like so many other one-liners and witticisms they tried.
    •  

    • How do friendships work in this story? On the Resistance base, Finn and Poe encounter one another and hug like they’re the fondest of friends – the way Luke and Han do in A New Hope after they’ve blown up the Death Star. Poe and Finn aren’t fond friends to the extent that they should be having an exchange of this depth (even if the movie is trying to tell us otherwise). Then, later, after Han dies, the Millennium Falcon returns to the Resistance base and Han’s oldest friend, Chewbacca, walks past Han’s wife, Leia, leaving Leia to mourn Han’s passing with … Rey? What the hell …? Nobody thought maybe Leia and Chewbacca should express a moment of mourning?
       

    • And what’s with this magnificent Starkiller weapon? The beauty of the Death Stars is that they were just space stations – effectively, they’re the equivalent of big spaceships. The Starkiller is built into a planet and can fire through hyperspace to gather energy from a sun. It can’t fire until it’s gathered all the energy. Why? Depending which sun it targeted (its size, its age, etc.) wouldn’t each sun have a different yield? Does it really matter if you fired the weapon half-loaded? Wouldn’t that do sufficient damage? Also, if you could gather the energy from a sun, that’s a weapon in itself. Target a Republic system, shoot the sun until it goes nova, and that destroys the system. But the Starkiller then fires the energy back through hyperspace to destroy planets. And whilst the New Order were building this weapon ON A STATIONERY PLANET, nobody got wind of it, despite the Republic being aware of the New Order threat. And, for the hell of it, let’s again mention that the New Order build a fatal vulnerability into the Starkiller. This whole Starkiller debacle smacked to me of somebody who decided they had a great visual for a weapon, and they reverse-engineered it into the story, whether it was going to be work or not because, hey, the visual is so damn great!

     
    I need to stop there because, as I said, I could just go on and on, and there’s not enough space on the internet.
     

  • Questions: The Farce Awakens poses lots of questions, which is fine because they’re trying to use them as hooks to keep audience engaged for future instalments. Unfortunately, I left the cinema with the impression that they weren’t aware of all the questions they’d posed, and events that (try to) power the story are orchestrated because that’s simply the position things need to be, rather than there being a logical, motivated cause, or a justifiable narrative evolution. Again, this is just lazy.

If your defence of Farce is …

  • It’s better than the prequels …
  • A movie’s quality isn’t measured on a scale. It’s either good, or it isn’t. Being better than something else doesn’t make it good in its own right. People said this about Jurassic World: ‘It’s the best of the sequels.’ Yeah, but it’s still terrible, dumbly plotted, with shallow characters, and bereft of logic.
  •  

  • They’re setting up the universe …
  • A New Hope set up the universe and told a rollicking good story in the progress. Farce has six movies that’ve set up the universe. This movie didn’t need to be feeling its way. Even though the prequels hurt the franchise, the filmmakers could afford to show some daring.
  •  

  • They played it safe.
  • This is what a lot of people have said to me:They played it safe. By mimicking the arc from the original movies? That’s not safe. That’s hackneyed. Moreover, it seems their premise will be that Rey trains in the Force, Tantrum (who’ll return with bits of body armour) will officially get anointed a Sith Lord, they’ll fight, and Rey will redeem Tantrum. This isn’t original. The Star Wars expanded universe books (the books written to follow events after the original movies) involved a plot where Han and Leia had twins, they trained in the Force, one turned to the Dark Side, yada yada. In setting up this new trilogy, the filmmakers said they were abandoning the canon from the books. Yeah. Right. Rey and Tantrum mightn’t be twins, but they will be some sort of family (allegedly cousins, as one of the new Star Wars games had dialogue where Tantrum called Rey ‘cousin’). Now maybe they’ll shock us. Maybe Tantrum will be possessed by the Force spirit of Emperor Palpatine. Or maybe Tantrum and Rey will flip sides throughout the next movie. Or maybe we’ll learn that Luke planned much of the contrived events we witnessed (e.g. the Millennium Falcon being there on Jakku, his lightsabre waiting for Rey, etc.). But right now, the events of Farce are playing out the arc of the original movies.
  • As an aside: You know what else the filmmakers could’ve done? They could’ve forgotten ‘safe’ and simply written a strong story. That would’ve hooked people. Write and film something that people want to see because the story engages them, rather than playing on the marquee to draw them in. This is why I respect Marvel. They’re arguably the only studio putting real thought behind their blockbusters and infusing them with strong plotting and valid motivation. And how well have Marvel done? It’s shocking that Hollywood isn’t following their lead.
  • And furthermore: ‘Safe’ doesn’t mean good. If you check the dictionary, ‘safe’ isn’t a synonym for ‘good’.
     

  • We needed a soft reboot after the debacle of the prequels.
  • No, we didn’t. The prequels made a ton of movie. Arguably, Star Wars would be the strongest brand in (film) existence. Film a rock for two hours, brand it Star Wars, and it’ll be a blockbuster. Also, let’s not forget the chronology of the stories: the prequels come before the original movies. The original movies are much beloved. You’re following the events of the original movies. Hence, it’s unnecessary to soft reboot. You would only really need to do that if the events of Farce followed the prequels. This argument is a cop-out, a way to justify Farce‘s many issues.
  •  

  • This is the best Harrison Ford’s been in decades!
  • Good for Harrison Ford. It doesn’t mean the movie is good.
  •  

  • What do you know? It rates 88% on Rotten Tomatoes!
    In discussing various movies with people, they’ve countered my arguments by pointing at internet ratings. This, as far as I’m concerned, is the biggest admission of defeat you could make. If you can’t articulate specifically why a story is good, then there’s a great chance you’ve fallen into the slipstream of fanaticism (or fanboyaticism), which is to love things unquestioningly, and defend them through a mindless hive mind.
  •  

  • You still don’t know anything. It’s making heaps of money!
  • Again, how strong is this brand? In today’s movie-going, you don’t necessarily have to be good, just popular.
  •  

  • It’s setting up events for the next two movies – it’ll do its own thing then.
  • Yet again, how? They’ve set up a familial conflict between two people strong in the Force. Does that sound familiar? Where do you think they’ll take that? Remember: foundations. We know what these foundations build. I hope they surprise me.
  •  

  • It’s just a movie. Why’re you so critical?
  • Everybody has a bullshit meter, a point they switch off and can no longer accept the events in a story. People have become a lot more tolerant because of the way movies have evolved. That doesn’t mean you need to forgive things that look good but are bad.
  •  

  • You’re a bastard and I hope you get eaten by a rathtar!
  • It would probably try to carry me away first.

The Farce Awakens just isn’t very good. Arguably, it feels less like a Star Wars movie (and the Star Wars universe) than the prequels. But (some say) people were wounded by the prequels, their faith in there ever being a good Star Wars movie left on life support. And here comes Farce, using the original characters, seeming to hit the right beats, and instead of questioning it critically, analytically, their relief has mislead them into thinking it’s good.
 
It really isn’t.
 
Look around the net. Look on YouTube. Now that the enthusiasm and hype surrounding Farce‘s arrival is gone, people are starting to deride the film as thinly-plotted, driven by convenience, with shallow characters, and a derivative storyline.
 
JJ Abrams makes beautiful films. When I watched Star Trek in an advanced screening, I marvelled at how he’d reimagined The Original Series. He’d even made those silly colourful tunics they originally wore look classy. But as that movie went on, convenience drove the plot. It felt like an assemblage of scenes with no logical evolution, contrived to connect through sheer coincidence and absolute chance. The Farce Awakens is no different (if not worse). Things happen because JJ needs them to happen, rather than through any causality and/or logical evolution. And it gets offensive, it really does.
 
The original trilogy was the vision of one man. Sure, he had people around him who challenged him, or who later helped him articulate his vision, but it was George Lucas’s story. (I’ve always asserted this is why the prequels struggled: nobody challenged Lucas, nobody forced him to go away and rethink and hone his ideas, the way they did when he was a nobody making A New Hope.)
 
Farce felt like a movie made by committee, a mishmash of ideas perfumed with nostalgia and which’ll try to carry you away into thinking it’s a good movie, or its weaknesses should be forgiven because it’s well-intentioned, it’s not as offensive as the prequels, and it promises so much for the future.
 
I wanted to like this going in. I wanted to love it.
 
But my reality is it’s not a very good story, and that story isn’t very well told.

 
Postscript: I have to apologise for the length of this blog. It would be longer if I gave myself more time. Every time I thought I was finished, something else would pop into my head. But I think you get the idea!

MovieRant: Evolution.

A counter that’s often thrown my way when I question movies is, Why criticize it? As if by the virtue of paying to see a movie – thus investing in being entertained – means I should check my brain at the door before taking a seat in the cinema and just unquestioningly accept everything I see and hear from that point.

This is becoming a popular mindset in regards to watching movies nowadays, although if this is the attitude, then how can there ever be a bad movie? Roll out a shocker, no problem – don’t question it. Of course, we don’t do that. At some point, critique emerges. But what line needs to be crossed before a movie becomes acceptable to criticism?

Many forgive mainstream movies of stupidities if they look pretty. That’s how simple it is. Let’s not question the immense dumbness of Star Trek into Darkness because it’s so nice to look at and listen to, it’s well cast, it’s slickly made, it’s decently acted, it ticks so many criteria, why be troubled by the stupidity and convenience of the plotting?

Similarly with Man of Steel. It ticked all those boxes. Why should we care if the character portrayed in Man of Steel is virtually the antithesis of Superman? This is Superman for a new era. Just because the character has survived in comics, five previous movies, and three television series as a boy scout, why should we feel betrayed by the representation of a grittier, angst-ridden Superman? Let’s not question it.

Let’s just sit back and watch.

How has this become the prevalent attitude?

At some point through the 1990s, Hollywood grew dumb. I blame the modern action blockbuster, championed by the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then succeeded by Bruce Willis, amongst others.

Think about it.

Stallone’s first Hollywood hit was Rocky (1976), a story about a million-to-one-shot bum of a boxer who gets a chance at the heavyweight title and pushes the champion the distance. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture (Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff), Best Director (John G. Avildsen), and Best Film Editing (Richard Halsey, Scott Conrad), and was nominated for Best Actor (Sylvester Stallone), Best Actress (Talia Shire), Best Supporting Actor (Burgess Meredith), and Best Supporting Actor (Burt Young).

That’s an impressive CV.

But as the Rocky movies went on, each became more outlandish than its predecessor. The fights played like computer games, with the characters slugging the crap out of one another. We questioned it, comparing it to the reality of boxing. Boxers don’t really hit each other that much! But we also loved it. It ticked all those other criteria. Each movie also had stories, too, (even if Rocky IV was unimaginably silly).

Stallone’s Rambo movies are another evolution in outrageousness. Watch First Blood, and nothing happens that couldn’t really happen if a Green Beret decided to go nuts in the woods and hunt down local constabulary. Rambo: First Blood Part II had the titular character heading to Vietnam to rescue POWs. Forget stealth here. None of the enemies could shoot straight. The issue was exacerbated in Rambo III, and culminated with Rambo ramming a helicopter with a tank.

This loss of reality and increase in explosive absurdity with the action has been a natural progression for action movies. Look at the Die Hard series, or the Lethal Weapon series. Each began with a tight story that contained some action. They ended with action into which a story had been interwoven to hold it all together. Similarly, Schwarzenegger’s roles got more and more unbelievable until they even had us trying to believe he could play the Governor of California. Oh wait.

The point is proportion was lost. Story steadily became secondary. What improved throughout was the art of moviemaking. Each movie looked better than the last. Action had to be bigger than its predecessor (or its competitors). Effects took a quantum leap with the introduction of CGI, (although in sci-fi movies, I still think models look better).

Naturally, then, when new movies were introduced this was the way to do it. Nobody wanted throwback action flicks. This was the new template – and it’s a template that’s been pounded, seemingly irreversibly, into contemporary moviemaking by the saturation of franchises that are nothing but action (e.g. Star Trek, Transformers, Man of Steel, Spiderman, etc.), even if their predecessors and/or source material were not.

Every now and again, somebody will surprise, as Christopher Nolan did with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, two action movies that are (for the most part) tightly plotted. Sadly – and perhaps as proof of how superficial moviemaking has become – this isn’t the aspect of them which is emulated. Instead, what’s copied is the way they ‘look’, because this is what’s deemed important – getting the aesthetic quality right.

Generations of cinema-goers have been programmed into accepting this as the standard. They don’t want to be challenged. They want the pretty effects, the breathtaking visuals, and the stirring score. Their ability to be analytical and objective has atrophied. If a good movie comes along, they don’t recognise it. Instead, we get them championing overrated flicks or total turds because it meets the criteria they can now best empathise with: Wow! It’s pretty!

Well, not me.

I saw Rush the other week, which is an enjoyable retelling of the 1976 Formula 1 Champion Season, and the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. I have no interest in F1 but it was a great story (although reality had all the elements required) well told.

Pity instead of more movies like this we’ll just get another Transformers reboot.

MovieRant: Anti-Gravity.

Warning: the following is full of spoilers. Do not read if you haven’t seen the movie. I’ll be giving everything away! You have been warned.

gravity

I am going to go against the tide (or against the gravity, maybe).

I saw Gravity the other night, and I thought it was just okay. Not horrible (like Man of Steel), not a masterpiece (as is being espoused), but just okay with the occasional really good bits.

Five things I liked about it ~

  1. It’s visually magnificent. It’s an overwhelming visual spectacle, particularly in 3D, communicating the vastness and solitude of space. There won’t be a moment you’re not immersed in the film.
  2. The score is brilliant. It’s atmospheric, it’s uplifting, and befitting an epic.
  3. The acting is excellent. Sandra Bullock’s had her critics in the past. For mine, she’s effectively always playing herself, (except in The Blind Side, where she played herself with a Southern accent). She’s great here. Ditto for George Clooney, although he doesn’t have much to do . (Disturbingly, he’s back to his head-wobbling best in one scene. Come on, you’ve seen him wobble his head whenever he’s playing debonair).
  4. There’s a story. Yes, an actual story. That’s unusual in today’s Hollywood, where story is secondary (if that high). Gravity tries to be about something, and the effects are vehicles to tell that story as best as possible, rather than the stars, with a story interwoven throughout to tie it all together.
  5. It’s original. It’s not a superhero movie, it’s not a reboot, it’s not a mindless action flick (although it disguises the fact it is an action flick), it’s not an adaptation. That list comprises most of what Hollywood makes today.

 

Five Things I Didn’t Like ~

  1. This is a story about survival. When your film is predominantly made up of one character, guess what? It’s a safe bet that until the climax of the story, that character’s safe. I understand that in most movies, there’s an unspoken pact between movie and audience that the protagonist won’t die, or at least won’t die before the climax, but here, because there is just the one character, that means all the threats she faces are just threats, or the movie will end prematurely (and that’s obviously not going to happen).
  2. The character’s stupid arc. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) lost her daughter in a schoolyard accident and now feels a sense of hopelessness. Stone’s thrown into peril, at which point she fights for her survival. At one point, with everything going wrong, and nothing to go back to (on Earth), she gives up. But she comes to realisation that life’s worth living and that she has to take care of herself. So she battles on. This might have a point if we hadn’t already seen her fight for her life repeatedly previous to this epiphany. They’ve created a resolution that already existed.
  3. The story goes all in too early. Stone is servicing the Hubble Telescope during a spacewalk. Debris from a Russian satellite hits and destroys their shuttle. Stone is cast adrift. Kowalski rescues her. They must grapple to anchor themselves to the International Space Station. This is the opening of the story (and kills the other three crew-members). Then it’s basically just this happening again and again and again: Stone needs to get to a location, is almost cast adrift, debris hits, she moves onto the next location. Cue repeat. (I know this is the point of the movie, but it becomes self-defeating.)
  4. The best and most meaningful scene happens too early. Kowalski and Stone thruster-pack to the International Space Station, hoping to use a module to get back to Earth. There’s one remaining module, but its parachute has already been deployed, making the module useless for re-entry. Kowalski and Stone overshoot the station. Stone latches onto several of the parachute’s suspension lines with her foot, and grabs Kowalski’s tether with her hand. Kowalski’s inertia is pulling Stone clear from the parachute. Stone tries to hold on. Kowalski asks her to let go (or they’ll both be sacrificed), and when she doesn’t, he untethers himself and floats off, leaving Stone to reel herself back in by the parachute’s suspension lines. Cool scene. But wouldn’t something like this have worked better as the story’s climax (although I understand that fundamentally changes the story)?
  5. Murphy’s Law runs rampant. What can go wrong will go wrong … and it just keeps going wrong. It creates tension until you’re programmed into expecting every foul-up that’s going to occur. Then it’s like, Okay, fire away.

Sleuth (Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Alec Cawthorne) is one of the best movies I’ve seen containing limited locations and actors. You can never guess what’s going to happen next. But as difficult as this story must be to tell (whilst attempting to keep it engrossing), Gravity – by virtue of what are meant to be its strengths – becomes predictable, with the only real (sustained) wonder coming from the visuals and music.

I would’ve actually preferred had the bulk of the crew survived the initial impact, and then the events of the story lopped them off one at a time, so we had no idea who might survive. Then you could’ve slotted in a scene like the one that occurs when Kowalski untethers himself to save Stone, which would’ve had meaning had they spent eighty minutes of film-time together and bonded. I understand that changes the story but, for mine, that would’ve been far more compelling.

Still, Gravity is better than most movies out there at the moment.

MovieRant: Exploring Star Trek into Darkness.

Star-Trek-Into-DarknessI’m sorry. I just have to go back and give Star Trek into Darkness another punch in the head.

The reason? Because people like it, they actually like it, and whilst I understand entertainment is subjective, whilst usually I will respect others’ opinions, as far as this movie goes (with Man of Steel close behind), I can’t.

To this end, I’m going to provide a breakdown of Star Trek into Darkness’s teaser to illustrate how moronic it is.

The Set-Up
Here’s a brief synopsis of the opening: the crew of the Enterprise are trying to stop a volcano from blowing up and wiping out a primitive race on an alien planet. Spock has entered the volcano to plant a Cold Fusion bomb (don’t ask), which’ll literally freeze the eruption (yes, Cold Fusion doesn’t actually mean it fuses stuff coldly, but what the hell), whilst Kirk and Bones are trying to get the aliens out of the kill-zone.

  • Just me but I’m always curious as to what occurs before we see a scene unfold, e.g. how did the characters get in the positions and circumstances they are in? What happened here? The Enterprise was just flying by, somehow detected an erupting volcano, and decided to save the planet? How unabashedly convenient.
  • In the universe of Star Trek, it’s not the job of Starfleet (Kirk’s employer) to save primitive worlds from natural (or any other) disaster. If that occurs, that’s simply bad luck. So, already, the movie’s managed one strike in not actually understanding its source material. But for the sake of reimagining Star Trek let’s accept that Starfleet crews zip around the cosmos playing good Samaritan.

1.10 ~ Kirk, dressed in blue robes and carrying some sort of parchment in his hands, runs from a temple. Angry alien natives stream after him.

  • Nothing wrong yet – that will be the last time I say that.

1.28 ~ Kirk runs into an alien bear
Kirk uses his phaser to stun the bear. The bear collapses revealing another blue-robed figure standing behind it – McCoy. McCoy exclaims that Kirk just stunned their ride.

  • Okay, how does this work? Kirk and McCoy go to the planet, they split up, Kirk goes to steal the parchment and McCoy tames a wild alien bear? The alien bear roars at Kirk, proving it’s not malleable. Also, whilst it’s big, it’s not elephant-big or elephant-shaped, which suggests they could ride it. This is here as a cheap scare and attempt at humour.
  • I’m unsure what McCoy’s purpose was coming on this mission. Going on available evidence, he does nothing but flee when it’s time to run. Maybe he should’ve just stayed behind.

1.50 ~ Plot reveal
The aliens are revealed to be humanoid but all white (perhaps body paint?) with black eyes. Kirk says he took something the aliens were bowing to. He gets on his communicator and says he’s got the aliens out of the ‘kill-zone’ and that Spock is all clear.

  • Spock’s action isn’t reliant on the aliens being clear of their temple. Theoretically, Spock could’ve taken his action at any point and the aliens would’ve never been the wiser.

2.10 ~ Sulu flies Spock down to the volcano through a thick black ash cloud. Uhura is also in the shuttle.
Spock asks Kirk whether the aliens saw him. Kirk claims they did not, Spock iterates that, ‘The Prime Directive clearly states that there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilisations.’

  • Here’s the stupid thing: the aliens are either white or covered in white body-paint. The bulk of them wear yellow cowls and yellow loin-clothes. They have decorative markings on their bodies. Kirk went in masked in a blue robe. Even if they can’t see his face, he’s clearly not one of them. They clearly saw him, but let’s accept Kirk’s being glib.
  • Why are the others flying down in a shuttle? Why not just beam down to the planet? If they can’t beam into the volcano, why not beam to the top of the volcano? If for whatever reason they can’t beam at all, why do they have to fly the shuttle directly down into the volcano? Kirk says he’s luring the aliens out of the kill-zone, which means these are the only aliens who live around the mountain. Couldn’t the shuttle come from the other side?
  • Why is Uhura in the shuttle? Why would you bring the Communications’ Officer on this mission?
  • Spock states the Prime Directive, and yet this action they’re taking (to save the planet) clearly violates the internal development of the planet. Can you say, ‘Huh?’

3.10 ~ Spock plummets from the shuttle into the volcano

  • This is such a big part of the premise, that Spock had to go into the volcano. I can accept they might’ve said they couldn’t beam him in for whatever reason. But couldn’t they have beamed the bomb above the volcano and just dropped it in? When they bomb is set off, it didn’t need any specific placement or preparation so it could’ve just been lobbed into the volcano mouth.

3.30 ~ The conditions are too treacherous and Sulu wants to pull Spock out. Spock’s response: ‘Negative. This is our only chance to save this species. If this volcano erupts the planet dies.’

  • Really? One erupting volcano will destroy the entire planet?
  • Okay, working on the premise that one erupting volcano will destroy the ENTIRE PLANET, what was the point of Kirk’s mission to lure the aliens from the kill-zone? Apparently, the entire planet is a kill-zone.

4.05 ~ Sulu pulls the shuttle out.
The black cloud is too thick, the heat too severe, so Sulu makes a decision to ditch the shuttle. They suit up to jump into the water.

  • They’re worried about cultural interference and are ditching shuttles on the planet? At no point is any mention given to cleaning up whatever debris the shuttle has left behind.

5.15 ~ It’s revealed that USS Enterprise is parked under water..

  • Okay, just in case JJ Abrams didn’t get this: it’s called the ‘starship Enterprise.’ Without even going into the science of why it should be impossible to take a ship underwater, the entire premise of this movie so far has been to take discreet action to save the planet. Remember, Spock asked Kirk if Kirk was seen. Now tell me, how the hell did they park an entire starship underwater without anybody seeing it happen? Even if we can rationalise that they did it at night (accepting that everybody on the planet must be deaf and didn’t hear it occurring), surely something that big going underwater is going to cause massive water displacement – you know, floods, that sort of thing. And what about the damage to marine life? Starfleet is meant to be altruistic. In fact, they had a movie (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) with a strong environmental message (saving whales, preservation). But, don’t worry, let’s just park the ship underwater, kill all the marine life, and cause floods.
  • How long did it take to park the Enterprise under water? Why waste time with this pointless action when they’re concentrated on saving the planet and time seems to be of the essence?
  • Star Trek invented transporters, so they could beam crew to planets, instead of worrying about ship landings. At worst, they can take a shuttle down. So why take the whole ship down?
  • There are just too many stupidities involved in trying to rationalise why they would take the entire ship down instead of using any of the other facilities available to them, particularly when their actions are meant to be covert.

5.26 ~ Scotty: ‘Do you have any idea how ridiculous it is to hide a starship on the bottom of the ocean? We’ve been down here since last night. The saltwater’s going to ruin …’

  • You know what’s annoying here? This is the writers’ little tip to the audience that it’s all a bit of a joke, that they know they’re taking a bizarre course of action, and by having one of the characters acknowledging it, they’re aware of the audiences’ reservations and let’s all have a bit of a laugh about it. It’s an attempted distraction, subterfuge as if to fool the audience into believing we’re all in on the joke, when the truth is they should be questioning its idiocy.

6.06 ~ The volcano starts erupting and destroys the aliens’ temple.

  • Well, there’s the kill-zone – the filmmakers pointing out how by luring the aliens away, Kirk saved them … even though Spock has told us the whole planet will be destroyed.

6.11 ~ Shot of aliens reacting.
The aliens stare in horror at the destruction of their temple. Amongst the aliens are alien children and an adult cradling a tiny baby (perhaps only months old).

  • Let’s not forget that the aliens are out here because they pursued Kirk. So, seriously, did the kids come out on the chase, too? And did that one adult decide to take his baby on the chase?

6.15 ~ Kirk and co arrive back on the bridge of the Enterprise.
They establish Spock’s stuck in the volcano and they won’t be able to beam him out without a direct line of sight. Spock says the ash cloud could conceal the shuttle, but the Enterprise is too large, and would be revealed to the aliens.

  • Understandably, this isn’t going to matter to Kirk, because the aliens have already seen him. However, if the writers weren’t idiots, they would’ve realised it’d be a much more dramatic moment if we hadn’t already seen Kirk break the rules, and thus know he’d have no problem about breaking them again.

7.06 ~ Spock: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.’

  • This parallels what Spock says in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s the writers’ attempt to engage an audience with their supposed intimacy of the source material. Of course, in the original timeline, this quote wouldn’t happen for at least another ten years, so this Spock is remarkably prescient.

8.00 ~ The Enterprise rises up out of the water in front of all the aliens.
The aliens are agape as the Enterprise flies out of the water and heads for the volcano. Spock is beamed from the volcano. The Enterprise heads for space. Spock’s Cold Fusion bomb detonates and freezes the volcano’s eruption. Kirk and Spock run to the transporter room to greet Spock. Spock laments Kirk let the aliens see their ship and that they violated the Prime Directive. Kirk isn’t perturbed. He says, ‘Oh come on, Spock, they saw us. Big deal.’

  • Throughout, this teaser, they push Spock’s concern about violating the Prime Directive, but every action they’ve taken to this point has flagrantly risked exposure.

9.36: The aliens dance and sway with religious fervour around one alien as he sketches an image of the Enterprise into the ground.

  • This is meant to illustrate the influence seeing the Enterprise has had on the aliens but, really, Kirk’s right: ‘Big deal.’ These aliens are virtually prehistoric. It’d be like flying a 747-Boeing over a group of cavemen. How would that impact on them? Sure, they’d marvel, but it’s not like that have either the intelligence to understand what they’ve seen, or the technology to attempt to emulate it. They’d draw it on a few cave walls, tell a story about it, and that’d be it.

That’s the teaser of the movie. And it’s dumb. Mindlessly, amazingly, overwhelmingly dumb.

I might go to a movie to switch off for a couple of hours and be entertained (well, hopefully) but when lobotomised plotting confronts you, what do you do? There really is no rationale for the writing (which just gets worse), other than to hope that dazzling the audience with effects will also switch off their brains.

Not me.

It’s just not good storytelling.

MovieRant: The Contemporary Blockbuster.

I had a couple of hours to kill the other week so I saw Monster’s University and was entertained from beginning to end. Here’s a film that tells a story, where the characters have arcs and the climax is justified for containing action – although here it is understated and clever, rather than over-the-top and in-your-face.

You have to commend Pixar, who regularly knock out great movies – movies you can enjoy whether you’re a kid or an adult.

Amazingly, using CGI, Pixar have the facility to be as outrageous and explosive as they want – there’s no limits with CGI, after all – and yet instead, the CGI is just a means to an end, rather than their entire existence.

Several months ago, I mowed through the Die Hard franchise. The original still stands up as an awesome action flick. Sure, it’s bubblegum fare, but it’s entertaining. There’s a story, the characters develop and evolve, you become invested in them and their world, and you root for them to emerge triumphant. Really, that’s all you can ask for, isn’t it?

As the Die Hards go on, the action grows progressively more extraordinary. In fact, you’d consider it breathtaking, if you actually still cared about anybody involved. Sadly, the protagonist (John McLane) is unrecognisable from the original. He’s just a stock action figure now, an homage to who he was in name only.

This has become the template for contemporary Hollywood. Forget the fact that you can stack up five Die Hard movies and point to the original still as – by far and away – being the best, even though it has less action, and those scenes it does contain seem tame by today’s standards. We know which is the superior movie, and yet instead of trying to reproduce it, go in completely the opposite direction.

There was a time that blockbusters were about story. You trusted the audience to become immersed and sit through the developing plot, usually to be wowed by occasional action sequences and to be overwhelmed by some extravaganza at the end. Like Monsters University, the conclusion wasn’t about the protagonist blowing up as many things (and people) as possible. It was another story in itself, the tale of what the protagonist has to achieve for the completion of his goal.

Take Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance. Great story, great action, fantastic conclusion – a conclusion in which the hero, Indiana Jones, surrenders and is tied up whilst the Germans attempt to raise the power of the Ark, only with dire consequences. Given Indy’s wreaked a trail of destruction throughout the movie, you’d expect him to take on a Big Bad here – the ultimate antagonist – and then rescue the girl. Nope. Indy’s powerless throughout the finale.

Superman II has a similarly outstanding ending. Superman fights the villains in Metropolis. They’re evenly matched. In fact, Superman’s outmatched, since it’s three-to-one. Continuing to fight them will lead to his defeat, as well as the deaths of countless innocents. So Superman retreats, lures the villains to the Fortress of Solitude, and outsmarts them into giving up their powers. The filmmakers take a course here that avoids combat and explosiveness and the result is magnificent. It’s another finale that’s about more than a proverbial fistfight.

Of course, the story can deliver that, if it’s delivered well – the (logical) culmination of events which lead to an unavoidable confrontation. Take the granddaddy of blockbusters: Jaws. We spend the whole movie living in fear of what the shark might do. When it does kill or attack, it’s sudden, leaving us to deal with the repercussions of the assault – until the end. Then it’s Chief Brody versus the shark. The whole movie, Brody’s lived in growing terror of the shark threat. Now, his shark expert, Quint, has been eaten; his ally Matt Hooper is also thought dead; and Brody – who has a phobia of the water – must combat the shark while perched upon a sinking ship.

Compare that to now. I’ve seen all three Transformer movies, and I could not recall what their stories were about – something about good Transformers and bad Transformers, and (following a series of little fights) there’s a big fight at the end. The reboot of Spider-Man toyed with the origin of Spider-Man, stuck in a villain because that’s what you need in a superhero movie, and then unleashed with action, finishing with Spidey taking on the Big Bad. Star Trek into Darkness and Man of Steel followed an identical template: set up a loose plot, and then nothing but action – much of it contravening whatever rules these respective universes have established.

Worst of all, these movies make money because they do look amazing, they do sound amazing, and contemporary movie-going audiences just don’t seem to care that they’re shallow, don’t make much sense, and are ultimately forgettable. You have people defending them as great flicks. Take a look at the forums on IMDb.com and read the rationale behind why something like Man of Steel is such a great reimagining of the Superman character, or why Star Trek into Darkness is brilliant.

People just don’t get it. They’ve forgotten how to get it. Why should they even try when the filmmakers have stopped trying themselves?

I like to switch off when watching a movie, but not to the point where I have to switch off my intelligence, ignore the (numerous) plot-holes and the contrived plotting, accept the poor characterisations, and swallow it all as genius because the explosions are pretty and the soundtrack overwhelming and the franchise is deemed cool.

We’ve been reprogrammed into what we’re meant to accept as cinematic entertainment. TV’s getting the great drama with tight plotting, complex characterisations and layered arcs. Movies are now about franchises, about merchandising, about branding. It’s about lots of style, but little substance. And the masses keep lapping it up, enjoying it because superficiality is the standard, and filmmakers have become scared to attempt anything more meaningful for fear of losing their audiences, or just lazy because the formula seemingly guarantees box offices.

I just wish they realised they could have it all in a blockbuster – franchises, merchandises, branding, cutting edge special effects.

And stories, too.

MovieRant: Bond, James … Bond?

jb007If the Bond franchise were released today, the first one would be great, the next would be okay, and by the third it’d probably be puttering. That’s the route of a lot of modern-day franchises: e.g. Transformers, the Bourne series, Lethal Weapon. By the third movie, most franchises are starting to look worn, and whenever there’s a fourth instalment, it’s usually positively comatose.

That Bond survives is because it’s an institution. It’s fifty-years-old. We just accept that instalments will be released. What’s more, the Bonds have an existent fan-base who’ll sustain them. New fans are made (or at least new fans might trial the franchise) because it’s iconic and they want to see what all the hoopla’s about.

Unfortunately, whilst the misguided reboot has helped reinvent the serial, there’s little to distinguish it from other action films. Think about it: when Bond was forging its cinematic legacy, there really wasn’t very much competition for the same genre in the same grandiose style. Now, you have Mission Impossible; you have the Bourne series; next month it’ll be something else. What recommends Bond over its peers?

Ian Fleming’s James Bond was a hard-drinking, hard-living misogynist, a patriotic cold-blooded killer who was only ever a step from throwing in the Secret Service.

This character was interesting.

Modern-day Bond is not.

I enjoyed Timothy Dalton as Bond. He could portray the ruthlessness that his predecessor, Roger Moore, couldn’t. It was a throwback to Connery’s days. Dalton’s Bond was also depicted as burnt out and does throw it in his second adventure, License to Kill. He was the closest to Fleming’s embodiment of Bond, as depicted throughout the books. But they gutted the character, eradicating all the other Bond staples. This is when Bond began metamorphosing.

Things got worse with Pierce Brosnan. The filmmakers never seemed quite sure how to handle him – cold, ruthless, and aloof, like Connery, or suave, easy-going, and progressively tongue-in-cheek like Moore. Brosnan’s a much better actor than anything he offered in Bond. His performance in Tailor of Panama is the perfect template for Bond. Sadly, we got Brosnan’s Remington Steele – a fop masquerading as a spy. The writers, similarly, seemed apprehensive about pushing Brosnan out of this comfort-zone – much to the franchise’s detriment. Or perhaps they just weren’t comfortable in pushing the audience out of their comfort-zone in how they perceived Brosnan.

Daniel Craig has followed the same route, although he – and the filmmakers – were lauded for reintroducing a grittiness to Bond with Casino Royale. In truth, they’d already done that with Dalton and The Living Daylights, only audiences had seem unreceptive to it (or perhaps unreceptive to Dalton, but more likely to the two mediocre stories) at the time. Now they were open to change as the world (and world events) had become progressively grimmer, compounded by a reinvention of the action genre, necessitating a seriousness the series had long forgotten.

Now an aside: why a reboot? You can revamp the series. They did it with Craig’s predecessors. They tailored Bond for Moore, as they did for Dalton, then Brosnan. Why the need for a reboot, which effectively wipes all the canon and starts over? The franchise had deteriorated but was by no means unsalvageable, the way you might consider the original Batman series was (shudder). The reboot’s insulting to the fans who’ve followed Bond all those years to suddenly be told those adventures don’t exist anymore.

A reboot has also caused continuity issues in Skyfall, although people tell me I’m silly to complain. Yes, sure, the actors have changed, as have the times, but they’ve always been faithful to the canon: e.g. George Lazenby’s Bond was married and widowed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Connery was hell-bent on vengeance for her murder in the beginning of Diamonds are Forever; Roger Moore’s Bond lay flowers at her grave in the teaser of For Her Eyes Only; Timothy Dalton’s Bond saddened at the mentioning of marrying in Licence to Kill, prompting Felix Leiter to explain to his new wife that Bond was married once.

Casino Royale erases that. And more. It erases everything.

Then Skyfall falls into some bizarre re-rendering. Those pre-Craig adventures should no longer exist, and yet Bond has the car from Goldfinger in storage. I can accept the character exists in an ageless vacuum, but how does he own a car from a story which never happened? However, then we have Moneypenny debuting. What? And M’s office at the end is a duplication of M’s office during Connery’s time. Does this reboot coexist in some parallel dimension like JJ Abrams’ horrendous Star Trek reboot?

It seems to me that the filmmakers don’t really know how to handle Bond anymore. They’re throwing out ideas hoping something will stick and galvanise the franchise. The truth is he was a product of the Cold War, living in a time drinking, smoking, womanizing and political incorrectness were not only acceptable, but also a sign of how cool you were.

What’s more, he once had a nemesis: SPECTRE. They (and Blofeld) were to Bond what the Joker is to Batman, Lex Luthor to Superman. The first two Craig Bonds teased a new nemesis in the Quantum Organisation, and perhaps that’s a thread which they’ll pick back up at some point, but right now Bond is nemesis-less – as he has been since Moore’s Bond ditched Blofeld into a factory shute, (the eradication of SPECTRE a result of rights issues). It leaves the Bond universe populated by rent-a-villain. How many of them can you recall since Blofeld bit the dust? A handful … if that?

I love the Bond franchise and Skyfall was probably the best Bond in twenty-five years. It had a grandeur reminiscent of the earlier movies, although the bar for today’s Bond isn’t set very high. Bond’s become a bland, generic action hero, interchangeable with any number of franchise action heroes, e.g. Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt, and yet without the distinctiveness that makes those characters unique to their respective franchises.

In moving forward with Bond, the filmmakers seriously need to look at reinfusing Bond with character, with traits that distinguish him from the pack and make him appeal to us. He doesn’t need to be a role model. He just needs to be somebody. Right now, he’s a homage to the character we loved lobotomised of all the stuff that made him compelling.

They also need to consider the universe he’s navigating and why he’s regularly required to save it. Bond villains have been lacking, and it shows in his adventures. Once upon a time, only Bond could save the day. Now he’s either represented as a novice, just another agent, or washed-up. Is this really the best they’ve got? Hell, send John McClane.

They really need to make Bond Bond again.

MovieRant: The New Universe of Star Trek.

JJ Abrams’ Star Trek movies aren’t just bad. They’re stupid.

startrekintodarknessSure, they’re gorgeous to look at. The reimagining of the ship and bridge (but not so much the God-awful Engineering) is majestic. Casting ranges from excellent to okay – at least nothing objectionable. The score is brilliant. As a package, it’s atmospheric, and creates the aura of The Original Series – well, if The Original Series had the budget JJ had.

Cosmetically, the movies will seduce you, if you let them.

But, for the moment, let’s take the Star Trek element out of this discussion. I don’t want people to think I’m criticizing these movies just because they didn’t do Star Trek right, or that they offended my Trek purist sensibilities. That would actually be indemnifying the movies from why they’re bad. Yes, they do stuff Trek. They stuff it into the stratosphere. But at their core, all Trek aside, they’re just bad, if not lazy storytelling.

Let’s consider that for a moment: storytelling. What makes a good story? In modern Hollywood, hellbent on delivering franchises, it’s action, explosions, and bubblegum fare that really doesn’t challenge the intellect. This is fast-food, spoon-fed moviemaking – if you’re easy enough, it’ll entertain you for the couple of hours it unfolds, but you usually won’t take much out of it, and come a year or two, it’ll be indistinguishable from the plethora of other indistinguishable action flicks.

For mine, a good story doesn’t have to be weighty. It doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane. It doesn’t have to be meaningful, or innovative, or moving, or substantial in those ways. It can just be a romp. I have no problems with that. There have been some great action romps. But what it needs to contain is tight plotting, believable scenarios (within the laws of that universe), and a logical motivation driving characters from Point A to Point B to Point C, etc.

That, for me, is story.

JJ’s Star Treks are not – ironically – logical movies. If you stop to consider the motivations of characters, you’ll be left wondering why they take the courses they do. In fact, they’re implausible. Underpinning this is a string of contrivances, a lack of any justifiable fluency in the narrative, substituted instead with coincidences. Characters stumble from one scene to the next, driven almost entirely by happenstance.

Watching these movies, it feels as if JJ and his writing (ha!) team sat around a table, brainstorming ideas of what they’d like to see in their movies – what would look spectacular visually, what would make a great action scene, what would be a fantastic surprise. In isolation, none of these events have to make sense in the universe they’re creating. They can (when they bother trying) rationalise it later with some flippant justification, hoping you’ll be too stunned by the sensory bludgeoning, you won’t question the lobotomized convenience of it all.

Search the Net. There are any number of sites which dissect the stupidity behind both movies. No, these aren’t just angry, indignant geeks – or at least not exclusively. They’re people who want a good story, who want tight plotting, who want to believe the evolution of actions and events is both believable and justifiable. That’s what these people question, but they’re dismissed as Trekkies who consider JJ’s movies sacrilegious simply because he’s had the temerity to reboot the franchise.

I have no problem with that as a concept. Reboot away. But make sense of it. And be faithful to the source material. Just because it’s an action movie doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. Action movies weren’t always this way. And it’s fine to reimagine Trek so that it can appeal to the masses. But remain dedicated to the core of what made Trek unique.

Now that’s come up, let’s look at what JJ’s done to Star Trek: if you watch any of the shows, they’re actually about hope, about this impossible dream that one day, humanity grows up, evolves, becomes adult, and explores the stars, learning, growing, maturing. They’re about complex relationships between diverse crews, about contemporary events expressed and explored through science fiction allegory. Even when there is war, it’s about the horrors of war and the repercussions for humanity. This is not a people who enter battle lightly or willingly.

They’re basically about every single thing JJ Abrams has missed in both his movies.

It’s not that these are bad movies, or just exclusively that they’re bad movies. They’re bad storytelling. Worst, they’re the vision of filmmakers who can hit all the right chords of Star Trek and yet not once really understand tonally what it was all about.

Obviously, these movies weren’t pitched at Star Trek fans. If they come along for the ride, great – and some will, simply out of desperation for the franchise to persevere, or out of longing for Trek, or because they’ll accept anything in the absence of good Trek. Watch Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. Many Star Trek fans have learned to swallow just about anything.

This a franchise pitched to the mass market, to people who flock to Transformer movies and can accept a Spider-Man reboot just years after its superior predecessor(s) screened, to audiences that simply like movies that really contain nothing at all, as long as they’re stylish doing it.

In an age where something like 50 Shades of Grey can be a best-seller, JJ Abrams’ Star Treks appeal to the lowest common denominator. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if it was an intended marketing strategy, but it’s not.

The reality is if they weren’t operating off the Star Trek currency, most people would recognise them for the bland, stupid, convenient stories they are.

JJ can thank his stars that he has the Star Trek to hide behind.

God knows what he’ll mess up next.

Oh wait …

MovieRant: Man of Steel.

Warning: This piece contains oblique spoilers to Man of Steel.

manofsteelI’ve anticipated the release of Man of Steel ever since they announced they were going to make it. Another Superman movie? With the technology (e.g. CGI) at their disposal to completely realise the magnificence of this character? I loved the first two movies (Superman: The Movie and Superman II, particularly the Richard Donner re-cut), which remain amongst the best superhero movies ever made. But now, in a Hollywood where superhero movies were taken seriously and you could make minor heroes like Iron Man and Thor entertaining and credible, surely this could be Superman’s crowning moment, especially with the talent (Zack Snyder of Watchmen fame, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer from The Dark Knight trilogy) behind the camera.

Well, I watched Man of Steel last week, expecting to be wowed. And I was, but for the wrong reasons.More than that, though, I was disappointed.

Here are my major issues with Man of Steel.

  1. There is no investment of Superman in this universe. This movie could’ve been some generic sci-fi action film which involved bad guys hunting the protagonist who’s meant to be the good guy because we’ve been told, hey, this is the good guy, i.e. I am Number Four, or any other generic, competently made action flick. Name, suit, and powers aside, there’s nothing super about Superman.Henry Cavill is excellent, and you’ll shudder to imagine what he might’ve done with this character in a good story, but Superman might as well have been called John Smith.Compare this with Superman: The Movie, where they take time to build the character, then devote him to the good of the universe they’ve created.Maybe modern moviemaking prohibits the pacing of the former (although, retrospectively, Superman: The Movie established Superman well before Man of Steel ever attempts to get out of neutral), but you can still accomplish the latter, which brings me to my second point.

  2. Superman is indifferent to humanity. They go to some (read: perfunctory) pains to establish that Clark Kent saves a few people before becoming Superman.But then when he is Superman, people die in the battles that ensue, sometimes (presumably) as a result of the actions he takes.By the time Superman shows concerns for potential casualties, the movie’s over, which is a bit late to retrofit the character with the compassion and empathy required to be, well, super.Compare this to Superman: The Movie.Lex Luthor crows about his plan, and Superman openly expresses his horror at the countless innocents who’ll die.When Luthor’s girlfriend, Eve Teschmacher, saves Superman from kryptonite, she does so on the condition that the first of the two missiles which Superman stops be the one heading for her mother’s hometown, and he honours that commitment because that’s who he is (super!), despite the other missile leading to greater harm.He reverses the world, for chrissakes, because he can’t accept the death of Lois.In Superman II, even as Superman battles with Zod, he is constantly ducking away to save civilians.He openly exclaims about the possible casualties during the battle. Invariably, he flees because he knows continuing the fight in Metropolis will result in the deaths of innocents.Man of Steel, conversely, is staggering.It’s open slather, and bad luck who gets in your way.With the amount of damage done, hundreds of thousands would’ve had to die (if not millions).The real Superman – and by real, I mean if the writers actually understood the character and weren’t trying so hard to make him brooding and grim – would’ve led the antagonists away from civilisation.Not here.How are we expected to believe that Earth would adopt him given the numerous deaths to which he has contributed?How do you connect to this indifferent prick? Unfortunately, they (the moviemakers) rely on your connection to the legacy, rather than the incarnation they’ve created.

  3. Is This The Dark Knight Lite? They’ve gone for a grim feel to the Superman reboot, but Superman isn’t about grimness.You can get away with that in Batman movies because Batman is a dark, foreboding character.That is where he – and his stories – thrive.Superman is a bright character.He’s symbolic of what we want to be – infallible, invulnerable, and perfect.If you decide to paint him darkly, you run the risk of two things: firstly, destroying the essence of what makes the character special; and, secondly, transforming him into a prick with powers, a la Hancock in Hancock (starring Will Smith).That’s not the point of Superman.He doesn’t have to be a campy boy scout.But neither does he have to be – and remain throughout – intense and manic.

  4. Pacing. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer – who were responsible for rebooting Batman – use the same structure in Man of Steel that they did in Batman Begins: back-story told in flashback before the action unravels and (in this case) becomes so overdone and overlong that you can’t help but disconnect, battered into submission – or even indifference – by it all. How can you care when there seems no cost to what’s going on, and nobody (least of all Superman) shows any genuine concern to the collapse of their world around them? It’s a visual eyesore, a magician’s trick, an attempt to keep your mind occupied whilst distracting you from the vacuum of the story. Worse – and just like Nolan’s and Goyer’s last superhero movie, The Dark Knight Rises – the exposition is insane, with characters excreting mammoth information dumps for the sake of the audience. The overall feel is a string of set pieces sewn together to establish the identity of Superman, before unleashing the interminable action. Some of the contrivances to put characters in place so they can deliver their speeches are also truly bewildering.

  5. There’s simply a lack of magic, of joy, of wonder. Oh, visually it’s amazing.But there’s none of those breathtaking moments, none of those moments which’ll make you beam, which’ll make you feel like when you were a kid and you could believe in superheroes.Even Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have these – dramatic entrances (e.g. the first time Batman appears to the Joker), Batman accomplishing feats in a way that distinguishes his persona (e.g. strapping criminal kingpin Carmine Falcone to the spotlight in Batman Begins), and even a synchronicity of visuals with score.Superman: The Movie had them with Superman catching Lois, and then the helicopter, and then the various feats he accomplishes during his first night.Superman II has several, with Superman showing up to take on General Zod, and then – in one of the best superhero movie scenes ever – when he dupes Zod in the climax.Let’s also not forget when Clark returns to the diner to give that bully his comeuppance.You root for the characters here.You grin.You invest.You remember these moments for years.Man of Steel has half a wondrous moment (when Superman first reveals himself to the military).The rest is just action without character or tone.

Nobody’s expecting a reinvention of Superman: The Movie. That (and its sequel) aren’t flawless, but they get things right more often than they don’t. Importantly, they tell a story where you care about the characters and their world, where there are repercussions to actions. That’s not the case here. It’s almost like they’ve made every wrong choice, sometimes only by a fraction but enough to eschew the result. The revamp prejudices everything in the wrong direction. The issue is if you’re going to make a movie of something which has a ton of source material – and Superman has five movies, three live-action series, cartoons, and eighty years of comics – then you have to be faithful to reinterpreting the spirit of what the character and his universe is about.

You can re-contextualise the way it’s portrayed and the way it looks, but there are still beats you have to hit. The TV series Smallville did it brilliantly, whilst taking their own route.Man of Steel doesn’t.In fact, Man of Steel fails miserably.It rewrites backstory into a confusing, unwieldy plot, lacks structure in the development of the character and the story, and misses – or perhaps is uninterested in – the beats that make Superman who he is, and which have made him such a lasting success.