THE JOE-DOWN: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

This is something new for this blog. For the first time, I have a co-author on a piece, which I hope will become a regular feature here. It is called The Joe-Down, which features Joe Brown, the Sports Editor for the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle, and myself. It consists of our opinions on a topic related to pop culture, whether we agree with each other or not. And I hope you enjoy it.

Here is Joe Brown.
Here is Joe Brown.

Some background: We went to college together at St. Cloud State University, worked at the school paper together and have been friends ever since. One of the things we would do at the college paper was a point/counterpoint feature that had us tackle various topics in pop culture. Joe brought up an idea recently about us doing something similar to that on this blog, which I immediately wanted to do. Since we both work for Forum Communications Co., that made joining forces on this a little easier (FCC owns both the Republican Eagle and the Bemidji Pioneer, as well as Areavoices).

For our inaugural post, we tackled “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Since it is perhaps the biggest event in pop culture in some time, it only made sense that we would take on this beast of a film for our first piece.

Joe Brown’s Take On ‘The Force Awakens’

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is by no means a perfect movie. But, it’s the movie we needed.

It was the movie fans of the series needed to block out the faults of the last three movies. And it was the movie the series needed to show that its storytelling can justify the box office appeal instead of resting on its laurels.

The plot draws heavily from “A New Hope” but the new wrinkles they add to that template really help “The Force Awakens” forge its own identity.

Rey, as the new Luke Skywalker (an orphan who is only beginning to discover her potential) is a supremely likable character. She’s not as naïve as Luke was in “A New Hope” and as the movie goes on, you sympathize with her as her world begins to dissolve and she finds out what she’s truly capable of.

rey

Finn offers a fascinating scenario: what if the Stormtroopers don’t go along with the plan? Like Rey, he’s the unlikely hero thrust into action, but he is all guts instead of untapped potential.

If Rey is Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars,” Finn is Roger Wilco from the “Space Quest” video game series, right down to working with the sanitation department. Plus, Finn’s a Stormtrooper that can actually hit a target.

While I’m on the topic, the First Order (the fill-in for the Empire) adds suspense in a way that the older films can’t do with modern audiences. The First Order is ruthless in its actions and doesn’t feel like an incompetent troop like in “Return of the Jedi.” After the fall of the Galactic Empire, a cold-blooded, overtly-oppressive regime like the First Order feels like a natural progression.

The First Order feels more like walkers in “The Walking Dead,” where danger feels present throughout most of the movie. In the older films, the Galactic Empire felt like the Foot Clan in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which was a major villain surrounded by waves of incompetent pawns.

troopers

And while George Lucas’ contributions to “Star Wars” cannot be overstated, it was time for someone else to take over, and the direction of JJ Abrams mixed the action and story very well.

Abrams incorporated a basic movie motif that Lucas forgot a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away): show, don’t tell. While Lucas flooded audience with expository dialogue, Abrams’ first crack at “Star Wars” focused on the characters conveying their feelings and motives through actions.

Early on, I thought “The Force Awakens” needed more exposition to know the new characters better. You want to know more, and that’s perfect for a projected trilogy of movies.

As the series went on, especially in the prequels, it became clear that Lucas struggled with basic human interaction for his characters. Natalie Portman is good actress (watch “Black Swan” to confirm that), but Lucas turned her, and the rest of the prequel cast, into wooden, unlikable and disinterested characters.

Abrams made everything feel natural, even if it was a CGI character talking to an actor. That seems so basic, but it’s something the “Star Wars” films needed.

Now, onto the bad.

I get that “Star Wars” is more a cultural phenomenon than film series at this point. But man, they really went overboard with the audience pandering.

The story after the original trilogy of Han Solo and Princess Leia is a story that needs to be told. Having the Millennium Falcon in the junkyard in Jakku (the stand-in for Tatooine)… OK, sure. I can buy that. But it’s distracting how many callbacks to the previous movies “The Force Awakens” throws at you. And these callbacks are as subtle as a sledgehammer. Quit using nostalgia as a crutch that your movie doesn’t need.

kylo-ren

Then, there is our main antagonist, Kylo Ren. Midway through the movie, one of the main characters tells Kylo Ren “You’re afraid… that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader.” That character may as well have spoken for everyone in the theater.

Without revealing too much, Kylo Ren is neutered in short order and it is jarring. With Darth Vader, they had three movies to build that character’s mystique. And halfway through “The Force Awakens,” the mystique of Kylo Ren is crippled because… reasons?

“The Force Awakens” built up the protagonists exceedingly well. It’s shameful the same care wasn’t taken for the main antagonist.

Like “A New Hope,” “The Force Awakens” has some frayed edges. But, it’s a quality film that gets better when you think of the potential the new series will have if it stays the course.

Now, how does ‘The Force Awakens’ match up with the rest of the series?

  1. “The Empire Strikes Back.” The Hoth battle sets up the drama right away and very rarely does it let up. And most of the moments and one-liners that have stood the test of time were in this movie. Even people who never got into “Star Wars” know how Yoda talks. They know lines like “I am your father” and “I love you… I know.”
  2. “A New Hope.” This movie sets the tone for the rest of the cultural phenomenon that “Star Wars” became. It’s a little rough around the edges, which is why “Empire” gets the slight nod over “A New Hope.”
  3. “The Force Awakens.” If my reasons above didn’t sell you, I’ll give you the elevator pitch: This movie restored my faith in the franchise. It’s not close to perfect, but it certainly helped heal the wounds of the prequels. And like “A New Hope,” this movie gets you excited for what’s to come.
  4. “Revenge of the Sith.” Maybe this one gets a bump because it was the light at the end of the tunnel of the prequels, but this movie helps raise the sympathy for the characters that were in the original trilogy. I actually felt bad for Anakin Skywalker as he watched his best of intentions combust like his body on the banks of the molten lava river.
  5. “Return of the Jedi.” The Empire, which produced two planet-destroying Death Stars, was led by two Sith lords and had thwarted a band of rebels for years, was undone by teddy bears. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief in movies like this, but “Jedi” is the point where “Star Wars” was almost becoming a parody of itself.
  6. “Attack of the Clones.” I’m having to Google the plot of this movie, which should tell you right away how forgettable this entry in the series is. All I can recall off the top of my head is a lot of talking and a CGI Yoda. Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee couldn’t save this film.
  7. “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” Really, this is here to emphasize how truly terrible “The Phantom Menace” is. From what I’ve heard about this special, it approaches “The Room” in the “so bad it’s good” category. If you want a proper breakdown, listen to the latest episode of How Did This Get Made?
  8. “The Phantom Menace.” In the same way the best of “Star Wars” is remembered in “Empire,” the absolute worst of the series comes from this movie. It killed the mystique of the Force. Anakin Skywalker is more insufferable than precocious. And, Jar Jar. A personal aside: when this movie came out, I had friends who would jokingly call me Joe Joe Binks. I’m not friends with those people anymore.

Joe Froemming’s Take On ‘The Force Awakens’

I think this is one of the few times Brown and I have agreed on anything that we decided to join forces and write about. The last time was when we wrote a brutal point/counterpoint on Guns N Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” for our college paper. The point/counterpoints for that were between “bad” (that Brown wrote) and “awful” (which I tackled).

But I do disagree with some of the things Brown brings up in his review. But I will get to those in a moment and give my two cents on this film first.

“The Force Awakens” truly held up to its title for me, because it seemed that most of what I loved about “Star Wars” was asleep during the prequels, which I have argued are not that bad. This latest installment brought back the sense of fun that was painfully missing in those films (unless seeing Jar Jar stepping in poop is fun, as apparently Lucas thought while making “Phantom Menace”).

poe and finn

Let me get right down to it: I liked this film a lot. I really liked the new cast, and found that they had an amazing rapport among them, along with the older cast members.

I also liked the story, which while it did have some similarities to “A New Hope,” I did not find them as derivative as others have felt.

First off, I liked seeing what life was like for a Stormtrooper (something I really didn’t know about), and Finn as an ex-First Order trooper gave the plot an interesting twist. I liked that they showed some sort of PTSD at the start of the film with Finn as the First Order is burning down the village on Jakku like something out of “Apocalypse Now.” These are not the Stormtroopers I grew up with; the ones who were embarrassingly beaten by Ewoks armed with spears and rocks on Endor. These are troopers who can actually hit things with their blasters from time to time. But Finn is different, he has a conscience. This is not the life for him, and his goal is to get as far away from it as possible.

first order

I loved Rey. A strong, independent woman lead was a welcome breath of fresh air in a mostly male-dominated world of “Star Wars” (at least the films). She was funny, too. She grabbed my attention right away, and for once we have a orphan lead in a “Star Wars” film that doesn’t whine all the damn time (I’m looking at you Anakin and Luke). At the end, I wanted to know more about her story.

Poe Dameron brought that cocky swagger that everyone loved about Han Solo in the original trilogy (and was non-existent in the prequels) to this film. His back-and-forths with Finn made these characters believable and likable.

Let’s face it, BB-8 was adorable. I know its main purpose is to sell toys, but I loved the droid.

Where I disagree with Brown is mainly when it comes to Kylo Ren. I think it would have been too easy to already have him as a Darth Vader-level bad guy. We have never seen — on film — a Jedi and a Sith both in training, as we are seeing with Rey and Ren in this film and the next ones. And frankly, I would find it boring to have another all powerful black-clad villain to watch. We’ve seen that already.

rey2

And there is no one really training either of them in this film. We find out Rey is strong with the Force later in the movie, and Ren was once an apprentice of a now-missing Luke Skywalker. But his training isn’t complete, and he cannot contain his emotions (thus taking his lightsaber and destroying computers whenever he gets pissed). What we do know is he turned to the Dark Side and started something called the Knights of Ren (which we haven’t really seen yet; they briefly popped up in Rey’s vision sequence). So I like that element. Ren is the reason Luke Skywalker vanished, Ren is obsessed with Darth Vader and Ren proves his devotion when he takes the next step in his journey and makes the ultimate betrayal as proof of his allegiance to the Dark Side and Supreme Leader Snoke (who has been guiding Ren and those building the First Order).

Sure, Ren is not as bad ass or domineering as Vader was in the original trilogy, but that is exactly why I liked him. We are seeing him progress without having to sit through three prequels with speeches about sand.

And now for what I didn’t care for.

I, too, wanted a little more of a back story of the events between “Return of the Jedi” and “Force Awakens.” There are many hints, and there are a ton of books and comic books that fill the gap. But it would have been nice if the film gave us a little more background.

Without giving away too much, I felt the climactic scene (yes, that one) would have had more of an impact if we — again — had more background on the characters and their relationships. The scene is jarring on many levels, but for me lacked the context of why I should be invested with their situation.

There were some cringe-worthy nods and winks to the original trilogy (“this place got a garbage compactor?”). At times, like the quote I just used, these moments felt more forced than necessary.

phasma

Another gripe of mine is how they dealt with Capt. Phasma. This bad ass leader of the Stormtroopers totally got Boba Fett-ed (really cool character that essentially does nothing). I have heard she will have a bigger part in the next film, so I hope she gets to show what she is made of and not get embarrassingly knocked into a pit with a Sarlacc.

The film, as a whole, was just a damn fun “Star Wars” movie. The use of practical effects and CGI felt more organic than in the prequels and Lucas’ defiling tinkering of the original trilogy. It also stands alone as a film, much like the original trilogy (like Brown, I had to look up the plot to “Clones” to remember what it was about).

The pace was right on, I was kept interested and most important, I had fun watching it. Perfect? No. But I don’t go to a “Star Wars” film expecting the depth of “The Godfather II.” But it is a really fun movie.

Now, how does ‘The Force Awakens’ match up with the rest of the series?

  1. “A New Hope.” While most tend to favor “Empire,” the first (fourth?) one will remain my favorite. It started it all, and is the reason I have been obsessed with this franchise since I was a little kid.
  2. “Empire Strikes Back.” Great one-liners, epic story and upped the ante for the franchise — perhaps too well, since almost everything that came after has fallen short of its glory. Vader reveals he is Luke’s father, the comic relief of Yoda and the fact it actually ends with everything  gloomy and in disarray keeps this close to my dorky heart.
  3. “Revenge of the Sith.” The best of the prequels, this film finally gave us the payoff that we had sat through the two other prequels to get to: How Anakin became Darth Vader. We also got to see the smugness of Anakin get wiped out as Obi-Wan basically leaves him to die with no limbs on a planet made of lava. Because after the sand speech in “Clones,” I think we all would have done the same.
  4. “The Force Awakens.” Fresh eyes, new and old blood and Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote the scripts for “Empire” and “Jedi”) brought this franchise back to life after Lucas left it to die on a planet made of lava with no limbs and little sympathy.
  5. “Return of the Jedi.” Perhaps this film got a little too cute after the darkness of “Empire” and that was probably its undoing. I, for one, love the Ewoks, but Han Solo smiling all the time felt creepy and unnatural. But we do get Vader’s redemption.
  6. “Attack of the Clones.” Eh.
  7. “Phantom Menace.” This film was just a hot mess that lacked just about all the elements that made “Star Wars” great. It is like Lucas wanted people to hate him with this film. It is just a really bad movie.
  8.  “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” I’ve seen clips and pieces of this abomination, but never had the patience to sit through it. Probably because a lot of it is spoken in Wookiee (without subtitles) and seemed like a drug-induced fever dream that came out of a rough night at Studio 54 for everyone involved. It’s no wonder that Lucas refused to ever release it after it aired. But it does have one highlight in that it introduced Boba Fett during an animated sequence.

Well, that was our take on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Drop us a comment below if you would like to let us know what you thought.

  • Steve

    *SPOLIERS IN POST*
    I agree with Froemming on Kylo. Kylo is exactly what Anakin was supposed to be through those awful 3 movies. A confused, angsty teenager with too much power and not enough direction. What we were really robbed of by the prequels was a story that got us from Anakin to Darth Vader, which was the whole point of them to begin with. I love that Kylo is conflicted, confused, and more wannabe than badass. It sets up for an awesome transformation in the films to come.

    Another strong point is Abram’s use of subtle cues and foreshadowing. When Kylo asks his father if he would do anything to help him and holds out his lightsaber, we don’t know if he is asking his father to kill him or if he is asking his father if he can kill him to help him become stronger in the dark side. Kylo offers the lightsaber until the light in the door way is gone, then he makes the decision himself. In the scene before that, Poe instructs his fellow pilots that they had until the light runs out before they were doomed. Turns out they were explaining the next scene.

    There is also Han asking Kylo to remove his mask because he didn’t need it, making it obvious that Rey’s final blow would be one to disfigure his face, which it was. Plus Kylo’s lightsaber itself is wild and unstable, a touch that perfectly fits the character. It’s attention to small details like that that really help Abrams tell a story with symbolism and subtle cues.

    Sure, they didn’t have to make the Empire full-on space Nazis, or blow up another death star (there is no way they could afford to build a 3rd, bigger one), but otherwise the movie was fantastic.

    • I’m really excited with what they will do with Episode VIII, because I’m really invested in these characters now. Especially Kylo, he has a lot of potential to grow as a more complex character.