Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Movie Review)

Title: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
Studio: Lucasfilm/Disney
Starring: , ,
Excellence: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A fun, epic, Star Wars-ey Star Wars sequel, a very worth addition to the franchise and well-executed reboot.

It was with a great sense of relief that I write this review which is, fittingly, the first post for Swords and Space (the blog) for 2016. It just "feels right" to be starting the year talking about the latest installment to one of my favourite science fiction/fantasy universes of all time. Why the sense of relief? Because, as I mentioned on the Facebook page, I had a great sense of foreboding going in that J.J. Abrams was going to make a visually and artistically stunning Star Wars that lacked the feel of Star Wars. A non-Star Wars film dressed up like Star Wars.

Fortunately, I was wrong, and J.J. Abrams deserves great praise for delivering a film that really captured the excitement and much of the innocence and clear good-versus-evil of the original trilogy. He also captured the look perfectly, delivering a very lived-in "maculate reality" universe that was entirely in keeping with the original trilogy. This apparently made George Lucas unhappy, to which I say, thank goodness this franchise is out of his hands for good now.


To say much more than that, however, and to explain why I "only" gave it 3.5/5 stars after such high praise to open will require spoilers, however, so reader beware.


In brief there were two main things that contributed to the rating I gave the film, which might otherwise have been a 4+ on my rating scale:

1. Soundtrack -- John Williams whiffed on this one. The only good music was when he used music from previous episodes. The new stuff just was not good or Star War-ish to me. He knocked it out of the park on the first six episodes, so I will cut him some slack, but the music was one of the things that really made Star Wars great and holds this one back.

2. Rey -- and this is the main knock I have against this film. Rey is way too much of a Mary Sue character for my tastes. She needed to be toned-down a lot. People accuse Luke of being a Mary Sue sometimes, but really, all he was good at in Episode IV was flying and there was at least some explanation for it (he was an experienced bush pilot who qualified for the academy and powerful force sensitive). He wasn't some great gunslinger/fighter, he only fired wildly a few times in the cell block and the hangar bay. He did not perform well in his first light sabre duel with Darth Vader despite the fact he'd had some training with Yoda at that point and Darth was clearly holding back because he wanted to capture not kill Luke. Whereas on the other hand Rey is an amazing pilot, deadly gun-slinger (despite having never used a blaster before), and the first time she uses a light sabre she completely schools Kylo Ren who apparently wiped-out all his fellow Jedi that trained with Luke. J.J. Abrams needs to throw a real curve ball at her in Episode VIII for Rey to have any meaningful character development/advancement. I mean, what's left for her to accomplish? To single-handedly own the entire Knights of Ren brotherhood in a single battle? Add to this my general distaste for "D&D Warrior Babes", and this character really brought the film down a notch for me.

There were a few other quibbles, like the First Order officer uniforms with no rank insignia; Princess Leia being called "General" (because, it's the 21st century and for a woman to be worth anything must be a warrior -- see my linked D&D Warrior Babes rant above); and a little bit too much in the way of re-hashed ideas (I was disappointed that the First Order built yet another massive space-station with planet killing weapon).

Back on the positive side of the ledger, I thought the humour was well done and appropriate, the pacing was good, and although the storyline was in many ways a mash-up of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, it had enough that was new to make it enjoyable and these similarities were more in the nature of the larger/background story line and it was the stories of the characters (who were on the whole well done) that made it worth the price of admission. And contrary to the whole "Kyle Ren is emo" meme floating around out there, I really liked the dark side user as a young, confused, and conflicted character. The opposite of Rey, Kylo Ren was almost like the real protagonist. I also thought Han's death was appropriate and I applaud J.J.Abrams for having the guts to do it (because having Ren return to the good side so easily would have been lame).


My Episode VII Speculation: Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side?

I've been trying to avoid anything Star Wars themed because I don't want to read any spoilers, so someone else may have come up with this, but ... the other day I was just thinking, "I wonder what kind of curve balls J.J. Abrams might throw at us to make Episode VII unique and put his stamp on it?"

He took some liberties in Star Trek to do just that, like the Uhura/Spock romance, Kirk dying in a mirror of Spock's death, etc. And it hit me -- "what if Abrams has Luke Skywalker as the mysterious not-Sith overlord of the Knights of Ren?" Now that would be a twist-and-a-half, but it would also be somewhat fitting since Luke did unleash a fair bit of Dark-side like rage in Return of the Jedi between force-choking a Gamorrian Guard and laying a beat-down on his father.

I also noticed that in the previews, Luke is the only one of the old heroes who we haven't really seen yet. There is a fair bit of Han and Chewie, and a brief shot of Leia. You do see Look putting his hand on R2-D2, but you don't see his face, and he's covered in a black cloak.

I'm pretty sure I'm dead wrong on this, but it is a fun exercise to think about how shocking and unexpected it would be to have Luke's fall to the Dark Side be a key piece of what has kept the not-Empire (First Order) going so strong. That's probably what I would have considered doing if they'd asked me to write Episode VII.


State Zero - post apocalyptic short by Andrée Wallin

I stumbled upon this by accident today, I suppose because the spy software in Youtube saw that I had viewed a Predator fan-film recently (which was actually pretty decent). Thought I'd share this as I was very impressed with the production quality, script, and general ambience of this film. At a time when sci fi seems to be dying the death in Hollywood it's refreshing to see stuff like this.

Thanks to technology, this sort of thing might be the way of the future. Youtube gave me a whole stack of other independently created short films in the sidebar to view.


Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Official Trailer

Another Star Wars: Episode VII trailer released today.

I continue to be mildly impressed, and given reason for cautious optimism. The look still looks basically in keeping with the "good" Star Wars of the 70s and 80s, but with a tolerable dash of modern update and very J.J. Abrams action sequences. I like that the trailer shows enough to tantilize without giving anything away. After watching this I'm left wondering what in the 'verse is this going to be about?

Some speculation here, it seems like this future is not going to be a continuation of the fairy-tale ending of Episode VI or the expanded universe novels that followed where a New Republic starts up and brings peace to the galaxy. The whole bit where Han is saying that the stuff about Jedi and the Dark Side being "real" leads me to believe that possibly after the collapse of the Empire galaxy-wide anarchy ensued. Which would be an excellent and unexpected trajectory and one I fully endorse!

One thing I really do not like is the whole Storm Trooper-turned-good guy thing that is clearly a part of this film. Ugh. A Storm Trooper would never betray the empire, they're the crème de la crème of the Imperial military, and politically they are true believers. It's a stupid, unnecessary plot device. But if the rest of the movie is good it might be tolerated.


I'm Back, Aliens, and Getting Back into Writing

2015 has been a weird year so far, with some serious ups-and-downs, and very little writing. Unfortunately very little interest in writing, even, but after a good recharge of the batteries back in my homeland (Manitoba) and I'm starting to get back into it. I was encouraged to see 4 new likes to the Facebook page despite my absence, too!

First, some complaining: man, I really wish Ridley Scott would stop making science fiction films. I will never be able to say enough about how awful Prometheus was and he's going back to the trough for Prometheus 2 (A.K.A. "Alien: Paradise Lost"). And then he's preparing to poop all over the all-time classic Blade Runner with a sequel also.

Blomkamp's contribution to the Alien franchise which, oddly, is anticipated to come out the same year (2017) as Prometheus 2, has some potential. I liked District 9 and I think the visual style from that will work well with Alien. Apparently it is to be the sequel "that should have been" to Aliens. I respectfully disagree with those who think Aliens is the best of the franchise (can't beat the original IMO), nor do I think Alien 3 was that bad (although 4/Resurrection was embarassingly bad). So I'm going to hold-fire on that for now.

For my own writing, "space vampires" have been on my mind, and I've been reading more of Fr. Montague Summers' works. My plan is to get writing soon, and I want to write two short stories in two different styles and I'm hoping readers will help me out by voting on which they prefer. Then I'm going to run with the preferred concept/theme.


Home for a Visit

It's been an insane year so far, with my life consumed for January, February, and March by a murder trial I was defending. But it seems fitting that my first post for 2015 feature my triumphant return to Winnipeg for my first Winnipeg Jets game since 1996. At the airport in Toronto and again in Winnipeg I met Don Cherry and Ron MacLean and got my picture taken with them and my dad.


More Races of Twilight Imperium

We're gearing up for our second game of Twilight Imperium at the Château Wansbutter, which means another round of pre-game race selection. We're going to have seven players this time around, with many familiar faces from last time. Mr. Heiner is already plotting his revenge for my denial of his well-planned attack of last game. He's told our group "remember that shafting Nicholas, not necessarily winning, is the point of TI."

But I digress. Since we have more players, and I purchased the Shattered Empire expansion, I decided to add a few more races to the mix:

In a word: Fire people
Background: Former slaves of the Universities of Jol'Nar; a race of living flames who must travel inside special suits when off-world, they seek to revenge on their former masters and a new regime of justice in the galaxy.
Pros/Cons: The start the game with a War Sun, can move through supernovas, their War Suns can spawn fighters without a space dock, good trade agreements, mediocre home system, start the game with a War Sun although the rest of their fleet is weak.
Style: For the cautious player who wants to be left alone in the early game (having a War Sun will have that effect on neighbours), yet able to play with some finesse as the Embers are not considered one of the strongest races.


In a word: Warrior Zealots
Background: Genetically-modified fanatic adherents of a bizarre cult centred around long-dead scientist named Darien who illegally cloned hundreds of his children in an effort to save his wife from a deadly disease who now seek to bind all to their religion.
Pros/Cons: Beasts in ground combat, can do kamikaze runs to destroy enemy ships, poor trade agreements, poor home system, very strong starting fleet.
Style: Another race for a very aggressive style of play -- really, these guys would have been well-suited to Greg's aggressive militarism of our first game.

In a word: Warrior Space gypsies 
Background: Genetically-modified fanatic adherents of a bizarre cult centred around long-dead scientist named Darien who illegally cloned hundreds of his children in an effort to save his wife from a deadly disease who now seek to bind all to their religion.
Pros/Cons: Have mobile star bases, can still collect victory points if their home system is occupied, gain bonus trade goods for capturing planets, good trade agreements, rubbish home system, good starting fleet.
Style: For a player looking to play a subtle and crafty game, utilising mobility and trade goods to gain influence in the galaxy.
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