April 5th, 2016
Following Part 1 – in which Joel began discussing Brandon Graham’s Prophet, only to be ambushed by Ewoks – he brings in fellow Kraken Mazin (or to give him his Mindless name, maybemazin), for Part 2 of our guest blog, to discuss all things The Force Awakens, before it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray next week.
But what’s that got to do with Prophet? you ask with increasing exasperation. And who the hell is Mazin? Well, when he’s not splashing around with the rest of his pod(cast), he is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, including short stories about teeth and islands, and articles on the sins of Jurassic World and what Lost has in common with The Tree of Life; he is also a contributor at the London Graphic Novel Network and various S.M.A.S.H. comics panels.
We last left Joel and Mazin in a sealed box about to duke it out over Star Wars. Let’s hope we remembered to punch in some air-holes…
So Mazin: the subversiveness of Ewoks, and the problems with the old films. What do you reckon?
To start with, count me in the pro-Ewok camp too. Hm, that sounded cooler on the inside. I used to think it was a shame that they couldn’t find enough pituitary cases to do the Wookie forest planet in Return of the Jedi as first planned; had they done, it would’ve at least nixed the film’s teddy-bear gooiness problem. But turns out it didn’t really matter.
Because the Ewoks work.
They do. Just. And yeah part of why they do is because they’re unassuming, not unlike the critters that inspired them in Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The World For Word is Forest’, also furry aliens that no one takes seriously, though in that book they have a complex culture and a talent for bloodletting. But then, ROTJ was U-certificate and stormtrooper-helmet bongos were as far as they could take it. It might have been a bit more interesting though if the Ewoks in the film did have a bit more of the book or the Ewok cartoon, i.e. characters with personalities and a culture. Instead, we’re just left wondering what’s the whole deal with George Lucas and small aliens…
Your idea about the theme of technology versus nature in ROTJ, I don’t totally agree it’s a subversion of the films that came before: you could trace it to The Empire Strikes Back, the cutting between hi-tech spaceship chases, then a little green man in a jungle world teaching our hero White Magic. Or, for that matter, to Luke switching off his targeting computer in A New Hope.
As for A New Hope, you’re right, the first 20 minutes are great: just how much mystery there is, the weirdness. But the last 20 minutes are great too! For me, the film’s problem was always the sag in the middle. And after rewatching, I thought of the simple reason why: the trash-compactor sequence should’ve come after when Obi Wan turns off the tractor beam. That way the action would have kept escalating nicely, right up until Yavin IV. But I still think the final Death Star battle is so pacey, just really well edited and scored. Compare it to how paceless and undramatic the final battle is in The Force Awakens, how the baddie planet in that bursts like a Gü pudding, somehow both more complex a special effect and more boring a one than when JJ Abrams popped Vulcan.
But I thought you loved the new film?
Ahaha. I’ll at least try to think of some of the things in SWFA that I thought were good. (‘SWFA’ sure sounds like a right-wing paramilitary group- dammit! See, it’s hard.)
The characters! They were cool, no?
Well, John Boyega, it was nice to see him enjoy himself so much. I was less taken with Daisy Knightley’s performance, it was a bit strained, but then I guess so was Mark Hamill’s the first time round. Worse, then, was the way her character was Abramsly vague and empty. In fact, rather than all the Mary Sue sideshow, she is a better candidate for that other type, the Strong Female Character, what with her patchy memory and lack of flaws. And it’s not that this flawlessness is threatening or improbable – it’s dramatically inert…
Similarly, take Poe, who began well – “Who goes first, me or you?” (Nerds burst in yelling ‘Han’) – but ended up being kinda pointless and hence boring. So apparently, they offered Oscar Isaac the role because they wanted to kill him off (Abrams still after that sweet Psycho kill-off-your-star-in-the-first-act money, but, as with Lost, failing to have the nerve to see it through). But Isaac Oscar was a bit miffed at what was therefore essentially a cameo, so JJ gave him a cosmetically bigger role, crowbarring him back into the plot (“I too survived, but crashed over that dune there.”), which says a lot about JJ’s priorities and I dunno creative integrity.
Kylo Ren’n’Stimpy, or ‘Weak Vader’, was the best of the lot then, petulant and threatening and all torn-up at the same time (like Ren Höek!). Am guessing here that Rey and Kylo are related? (Continuing the fine tradition of Star Wars incest?) Though it has slightly less impact, doesn’t it: “No, I am your cousin.”
As for the rest. Domnhall Gleeson: I love camp British evil as much as the next post-imperial peon, but he was no Peter Cushing. His Hitler speech scene was OK but other than that he just felt like another hot new thing who was put in the film for prestige and trend’s sake only to be wasted. Rumour has it Lupita Nyong’o / Maz (at last, a namesake!) was in the film much more but sdid not get on with motion capture – her part definitely had a Deleted Scenes feel to it. Don’t get me started on Supreme Leader Bloke.
All of which is long way of saying that I disagree that the characters were the best bit. The better bit maybe. And I’d still rather Mon Mothma and Jabba’s little monkey than Glaswegian space pirates. And everyone who is wigging out over the characters: remember, the story’s not over! Did we forget what happened to Boba Fett?
Jebus. Weren’t there any other parts that you enjoyed at all?
The frozen laser blast at the start was cool and original, and, to be honest, the film was actually charming and perky at first, and I was in fact with it till they started doing what I think Limmy referred to as ‘fucking around’. You know, back to that planet. Then this planet. Then that one. No real reason. The last lightsaber fight was cool though, the trees and the snow, reminding us the best duels are not the most acrobatic ones; and then Rey’s big hero moment: the only moment when the score actually started to do something. Like you said, John Williams is important!
But take the film’s other big moment, Kylo Ren killing Dad Solo. It was supposed to be the film’s peak. It was just bad storytelling. It reminded me of the rubbish Skyfall death of Judi Dench, whose dying was sad only for everyone in the real world who loves our Dame, but within the context of the story, who gives a shit about Ms. Basil Exposition? Similarly, who gives a shit that Han Solo was murdered by his, oh it’s his son? We saw nothing of their relationship, good or bad, anything we learnt about it we were told about or had to infer.
As with Leia. Look, Carrie Fisher was just completely wasted. And stoned? Like what the hell was her performance? Films like Indy 4 and Force Awakens have this weird urge to reunite characters with one another at the same time that we the audience are being reunited with them (Indy/Marion, Han/Leia). This is a sop to the easy ‘aaw bless’ reaction that the filmmakers want to get out of us, the cost of which is denying the characters any interesting development with each other in the meantime.
This was the key problem with SWFA: too many characters and too little drama. We need characters not only to be likeable, but for them to be imperfect with one another, for plausible reasons, and then betray or reconcile. I do get your ROTJ/Superman analogy, Joel (though am disturbed by the Tinder pic of his that you found); to this day, the original films give such attention to the highs-and-lows of comradeship that when Han hugs Lando at the end of Jedi (or Luke at the end of A New Hope for that matter), you really feel it! Now, if only they had kept Yub Nub for the ending as well, a song way more feelgood than the New Age cod-Alan-Silvestri theme they did for the Special Editions. (Do your bit to rescue Yub Nub by throwing it into your iTunes library for some house party Shuffle thrills.)
The Force Awakens should have focused down: on the Han/Kylo relationship, and the Daisy/Luke story. Leave out all the StarFiller. Or, as you said, make the whole story about the Hunt for Luke Skywalker (although in either case it comes across as improbably prissy for him to have gone AWOL after one measly dark-sided massacre…)
Speaking of. What exactly are we to make of Luke Zizek, last seen pissing off the side of a cliff, kicking and stamping on puffins? Madness in his eyes…
Yeah!- I’m actually really looking forward to the next Star Wars film being Rey’s creeping realisation that Luke Skywalker has actually totally lost it. Like: the first shot is a slow pan down from space, and then down his Jedi robes, till you see that he’s not actually wearing any pants.
And he now only talks in his Joker voice.
Or his Zizek voice? The Forsh – pure iddyology, my god!
I mean we joke – but wouldn’t something a little bit crazy have been good? Come on Disney. You’ve got the goose with the golden eggs. And the best you can do is egg on toast? Stretch yourselves! Make an omelette or something!
Exactly! Like the gender-role stuff: it started cool, with Finn trying to save Rey when she keeps saving herself, slay queen etc. But by the end it felt cosmetic, because she was given so little to do in terms of drama (not action). It wouldn’t have been that hard to make her a bit more original and interesting, make her saving of BB8 a bit more interesting, make her story on Jakku a bit sadder and cooler, not just something telegraphed to us with yet more amnesiac flashbacks. Hence making her an actually iconic character rather than just a mildly refreshing one. (Guess we’ve sequels for that…)
Non-white-men of the world, we need better films to be in and to rally around! The culture war framing of SWFA, with the right-minded in the For camp, and the Against camp being made up of racists and sexists – is frustrating because it handily moves the argument away from the film being bad and hence bad for the audiences that it’s trying to un-marginalise. (Besides, if your right-on opinions just so happen to align with the interests of the Big Mouse, remember that: “whenever you see the word Disney you should instead see “100% in the service of the existing social structure.”)
So what bugs me isn’t how lazy the film is, but how unnecessarily so. A less safe film would still have been a hit. The Prequels were bonkers and made money. Disney / JJ Abrams placed the assurance of $1bn box-office over the possibility of just $750m.What a weird combination of cowardice and short-sightedness.
A while back Milan Kundera wrote an essay where he defended coincidence: in the old Errant Knight type picaresque novels, the whole point was that all the characters had miraculously met in the same tavern at the same time: it was the unreality that made it magical – what he called a ‘sudden density of life’. But the outrageous coincidences in The Force Awakens have the opposite effect on a Star Wars story. The First Order track down the Luke map on the same planet the Millennium Falcon is on just before Han recaptures his old ship and flies the new kids to the Red Yoda who has Luke’s lightsaber on a planet that’s in line of sight of whichever dumb system that gets blown up. Every character could see everything and get to anywhere and bump into everyone (yes, apart from into Luke). This makes a supposedly fantastical galaxy feel poky and small. So my beef with, for example, the coincidences in SWFA doesn’t come from a plot nitpicky place. It’s just that less lazy filmmakers would’ve looked out for them, would’ve found creative ways to tell the story while preserving what makes a Star Wars film feel like Star Wars beyond lightsabers and opening crawls.
Even the production design itself felt lazy, felt like cosplay, and was seemingly done with the brief, ‘make it like the Original Trilogy, but with more shiny’. The only creature effects I really liked were the D&D tentacle balls, but other than them?… Supreme Leader Khamenei – I mean Snoke, had his ‘Wow he’s a giant! No he’s a hologram!’ thing. But in close-up he was very Weta / Lord of the Rings, and not just because we’re back at the Andy Circus: the design was just more standard disfigured zombie stuff, the voice was obvious, and Dammit We Have Seen This All Before. And even the music was uninspired and uninspiring! (Apart from the one moment mentioned above). Come on, let John Williams retire. Dude thought he was still working for George Lucas.
Worse, the film pulled its punches with anything new that it was trying. OK, so there’s The First Order, the Republic, and the Resistance. But what is the Resistance resisting? Is this a civil war? Shouldn’t they have led with that? Wouldn’t that have been cool if the Original Trilogy war had just stagnated into some terrible long-winded civil war? But OK so the Republic are neutral? Did the Empire’s defeat merely mean a regime change at the top, with the Rebel Alliance continuing as the New Republic’s armed moderate rebels? Again lots of potential here – but it’s JJ, and so the real goal is to have another Empire and another Rebel Alliance, with all the familiar trappings and power dynamics – but you can’t make out that the Empire did a counter-revolution and – bummer- actually won after Jedi, so instead there’s this cockamamy solution, urrrrrrrrr there’s two sides in a war still? Maybe? Who knows! Anyway, remember the Death Star, that was cool huh? What if it was 17x cooler (i.e.: bigger)? (In this you’re right Joel: we did not need and no one was asking for the StarKicker, another “big gun” to blow up again, and in fact it’s pretty amazing that one of the groaners of the worse of the Star Wars Expanded Universe stories – the perennial super weapon – ended up rearing its spherical head in the new $4bn films.)
And all this doesn’t come from a nerd desire for perfect world-building: yes I know all the answers to all these questions are in the spin-off comics or whatever I’m not going to read. The point is, there were germs of cool ideas that were left by the wayside in order to safely cash in on a retread.
Ultimately, the film was a massive and wrong-headed over-reaction to the Prequels. Yes, you have better acting and dialogue and use special effect more judiciously so gold star there. (Though the much-vaunted use of practical effects in The Force Awakens is spoiled by all the very usual looking CGI). But the Prequels’ problems were huger than bad speeches about sand: they were to do with basic emotional investment and directing choices. Hence you can’t just throw in a few rubber models and Han Solo, and otherwise remake the 2009 Star Trek, and on that basis pat yourself on the back for being better than the Biggest Missed Opportunity trilogy of all time. The Force Awakens is mass therapy for that part of pop culture that has come to be defined by its Prequel trauma. The Force Awakens is JJ & co rushing in, bundle of old Star Wars toys in arm, saying ‘there there’. Each reference, each rhyme is designed to prick another molecule of nostalgia out your brain and into your bloodstream. Hush now. The weird stuff. It’s not gonna happen to you again.
Say (wrongly) what you will about how the Original Trilogy was also recycled (but but but making something never seen before out of a 1000 sources is > than rehashing one popular film, no? Or have we all gone dense) but at least those films were uplifting in a way that did not fundamentally depend on that nostalgia.
All hail Jurassic World then for consolidating this trend of cynically and unimaginatively remixing your precursor’s ideas, so that now with a straight face, Disney is serving up to us a Death Star trench run following a rebel raid to disable shields on a Hoth-like planet. And fine the Prequels had lots of tedious ‘rhyming’, but they were also very weirdly bad films.
The Force Awakens was boringly bad, and in the end pretty badly boring.
…Thanks for that Mazin. Maybe have a cold glass of water and go sit in a dark room for a bit yeah?
I mean – I reckon I agree completely with everything you said – I’m trying really really hard to not just revert to type and blame everything on Capitalism. But well – sadly – capitalism (and selling, always selling) is pretty much the reason for most things: in this case – why does The Force Awakens kinda suck? (In fact – why does nearly every big franchise film kinda suck – because stories are all about change and change and change: and when you’re making something that’s a franchise and needs to be viable for many other successive films-to-come: you need to make sure that nothing ever really changes all that much. It’s like TV and films are going in opposite directions: I mean – how long will it be before franchise films adopt the old fashioned sitcom model and just have the end of every new Star Wars or Batman or Fast and Furious or whatever film just have them all go back to step one with the status quo happily restored for whatever exciting adventures next time?)
Which yeah – I guess finally – finally! – brings us around to Prophet…
IN THE NEXT EPISODE!
- Go Complex finally gets around to talking about Prophet
- No seriously!
- Okay, so maybe there’s a bit about Multiversity in there as well…
- But it’s mostly all Prophet
- & maybe Star Wars, sorry, I can’t remember!