First of all, I want to thank SA McClure for asking me to be a part of the Rogue Skies Party Room today. My name is R.J. Sullivan. I write ghost stories, fantasy, and, most notably for this blog, I’m promoting my SF spaceship stories. But as you read this, you might want to call me Old Man RJ, as I will prove not only that I likely skew a bit older than many authors and readers participating here, but that my tastes run “older school” still.
I was a teenager in *mumble*-80-*mumble*. I’d seen Star Wars on the big screen as a kid and lived for Star Trek TOS TV reruns. My parents didn’t understand, but neither did they hold back my interests. I think they were just glad I liked to read.
Once a year when we traveled out of state, we’d pay a visit to my dad’s sister and her nerd husband, my beloved “Uncle Mick”, the only relative in the extended family who “got” me. He ran a used bookstore on the weekends, and had a huge collection of SF paperbacks in his basement.
Okay, so if you have seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and want to know my full, unedited spoiler-filled thoughts, this is the blog you want to read. If you don’t want to have anything spoiled, I give the movie a B. It’s good, it’s very good, and well worth seeing in the theater. IMO it is not great, or what I think of as great filmmaking, for reasons I will get into below.
This is your absolute last chance to go see the film and come back to read the rest after you’ve seen it. I’ll wait.
You’re back? Okay, good, let’s skip the prelims and get right to it, bullet point style.
What I loved, as it comes to mind:
Dangerous troopers! This is the first time that storm troopers have come off as trained, intimidating soldiers to be taken seriously since….ever. Their shots counted, they fought well. The mostly incompetent lunkheads of the original trilogy (and the even more pathetic roger-roger bots of the prequels) are gone. These troopers mean business.
No clones! I loved that they established and confirmed that troopers were conscripted citizens of conquered planets, which everyone assumed was the case in the original trilogy until the….you get the idea.
BB8. A new droid for a new generation, it could have been a lame R2 ripoff, but this little guy does his own thing, his own way, and I found his personality as distinct and different as “Chopper” from the SW Rebels series.
Kylo Ren. It took a few scenes for me to get his “vibe” but I really dug the less cool, more emotional not-quite-fully-baked Darth wannabe who still feels the “pull of the light side” calling to him. I liked that his costume is an affectation, a marketing ploy if you will, to scare people rather than part of a necessary life support.
Rey and Finn. And Poe, too. The “new hotness” characters are perfectly cast to move the series forward. I’m intrigued to learn more about the both of them and look forward to long series of adventures. I wished they’d done more with Poe, but I guess we can’t have everything.
Han, Chewie, Leia. And Luke, too. Great to see them back. Most of their scenes worked for me, even “that” scene.
Kylo’s light saber. I didn’t think I’d care much about the lightsaber when I saw it in the previews, but when I saw it in action…remember how I said Kylo was a half-baked wanna-be? Is it me, or did this messed up not-quite-in-focus lightsaber kind of reflect the hot mess of Kylo himself? So the dopiness with the stupid wrist guard thing ended up working for me.
The light saber battles. I loved seeing Fin the untrained guy trying to use the lightsaber and getting whupped, then watching Rey try to use it. And the fights are back to focusing on the emotional gravitas. Thank you to whomever for realizing that the dancy hoppy ballet acrobat nonsense was a big PROBLEM in the prequels and for returning to having the fights reflect the conflicts of the characters.
What didn’t work for me:
Captain Phasma. All the talk of Gwendolyn Christie from Game of Thrones and we get two tiny moments? Really? I mean, neat costume and all, but you had a terrific actress at your disposal and you wasted her. I hope we’ll get more next time.
Han and the bowcaster. Really? A friendship going back about four decades and he never shot Chewie’s weapon before? It’s a little thing, but they did it at least twice and my eyes couldn’t roll back in my head far enough each time.
Han and Chewie’s Chthulhu Monster business. I had no problem with this as a concept; I just thought the obvious CGI looked like….well, obvious CGI. In a movie where the effects seemed geared to look as solid and model-like as possible, I found the rubbery video game monsters a distracting anachronism.
C3PO now with new red arm. Buy yours at a toy store near you. All I want to do with the red arm is rip it off and beat JJ Abrams with it.
And R2-D2. Really, what was the point?
The chess board. Turned on. Even does the same chess move even though no one is playing. If this were written into a manuscript, we’d call it a “darling” as in “kill your darlings.” As my critique group buddy Judith Bastin would say, this darling needed to be taken out behind the barn and shot.
I know we’re keeping some of the same beats, but did it have to be a droid smuggling the maguffin to a desert planet and stumbling upon our orphaned protagonist? Would it have killed ya to bring it to a jungle or something just a little less on the nose?
The giant planet killing thingie with the ridiculous weakness, take three. It’s bigger and boomier-er-er and kablooier, and it still has a glaring obvious weakness that tiny ships can exploit. And gosh, we had the plans all along, we just didn’t get around to it. Too bad about them billions of dead people. Oops. Our bad Also, wedging the destruction of the new giant weapon right after the death of one of SW’s most beloved characters was a tonal misstep for me. I felt nothing when the thing blew up. Certainly not the elation I felt from the first film. It was just a thing happening while other things were going on, and while I commend the moviemakers to some extent for not trying to re-create the same scenario, it makes me wonder why they even bothered to bring in this new threat just to blow it up again in such a perfunctory way.
The tone shift at the end. Am I the only one who felt like the tone of the movie jumped from the middle of A New Hope to the end of Empire Strikes Back in the last ten minutes? I’m not usually one to suggest playing it safe, but since it’s been 30 years since the last good SW movie, I would have preferred a euphoric finish to what had been a mostly euphoric movie. The shoehorned shift to a darker tone left me feeling like I was finishing this awesome meal and then someone yanked dessert away from me before I could finish.
As you can see, most of my problems are quibbles. I have been hard on JJ Abrams through the years but suspected that he was the man for the job when it comes to Star Wars even though I openly and unapologetically despise what he did to Star Trek. That’s because Trek is thinking person’s SF, while I enjoy Star Wars for the emotional payoffs. I like how Star Wars makes me feel and how Star Trek engages my mind. I am not one of those prudes that loves one and hates the other; there’s always been room in my geeky heart for both. But they are not the same. JJ succeeds here for the exact same reason he fails at Trek. There are those who will grok me on this point and those who will not.
I give SW:TFA a B. It is good, it is not great. Story-wise, it is better than the prequels (which is not saying much) and over time I may even prefer it to Return. Then again, I only enjoyed one of the three plot elements of Return (I am old enough to remember when Return was considered the crappy SW film of the three). The film pushed the series forward in terms of character and set the stage for future movies. It will not and could not eclipse the greatness of the original or of Empire.
As I said before, I remember when the first two movies came out. They both, in their own way, pushed movie making forward to a new standard (and even Episode I was a technical achievement if nothing else). I may sound like a grumpy old man, but this fact, I think, is lost on later generations. Star Wars changed movies forever, and Empire took what they’d started and made the ILM resources accessible to other filmmakers. SW:TFA did not achieve anything new in visual FX, or in pushing the storytelling bar forward. Heck, I can name two films released earlier this year that I would consider more groundbreaking SF: Mad Max and The Martian (and no, having a black and a woman in major roles is not groundbreaking, it’s a long overdue internal adjustment to catch SW up with the rest of SF; that doesn’t make it groundbreaking).
It didn’t push the genre forward because it didn’t have to. George Lucas did that for us 40 years ago, and whatever we may think of him, nothing will take that achievement away from him. I don’t imagine we’ll see a SW break any new ground again.
Introduction to R.J. Sullivan Blog interview: Kathy Tyers
I’m breaking format from my “Team R.J.” series to present an exclusive interview with author Kathy Tyers. Kathy is arguably best known as the bestselling author of several mid-1990s Star Wars-related projects, including her novels The Truce at Bakura and Balance Point. Fans of her original fiction are quick to express much love for her Firebird books. The first two titles were released in the late 1980s as Firebird and Fusion Fireby Bantam Books. She released several other original novels in that same time frame, including my personal favorite, Shivering World, in 1991 (more on that).
Tyers partnered with Christian Fiction publisher Bethany House in the early 2000s to produce a rewrite of the first two Firebird books and the new volume Crown of Fire, creating the Firebird Trilogy. (plus a rewrite of Shivering World.) Crown of Fire, for those who followed Kathy’s work closely, read like a thinly veiled confessional as the heroine struggles between embracing fame and glory or answering the call to use her “powers” to serve a greater good.
Now, following a multi-year sabbatical, Kathy is poised to reintroduce herself to both her anxious fan base and to new generation of readers in an industry that’s changed greatly since her previous career “peak”.
I see I haven’t talked about myself in three paragraphs, so to remedy that, here’s my personal story about Kathy. *grin* I discovered Kathy Tyers’ work through a bittersweet circumstance. Her Bantam novel Shivering World was included in my “swag bag” of free goodies at a science fiction convention—typically the efforts of a publisher burning off inventory of an underperforming title and an act that generally does not set a reader’s expectations high. That said, Shivering World completely blew me away with its engaging main character, hard science conundrum and masterful, suspenseful plotting.
Though a lifelong science fiction book reader, I did something after reading Shivering World I’d never done before or since—I composed a gushing fan letter to the author (back then, that meant taking pen to paper and using the snail mail method of delivery). What followed after was a friendly on-and-off correspondence for next several years. Fast-forward to the late 1990s, when the internet and Yahoo-Fan-Groups were developing, and I stumbled upon the Lady Firebird Newsgroup. I plugged in and interacted with Kathy and many of her most enthusiastic fans as she prepared to re-release the Firebird novels. Interaction within the fan group led to many *ahem* passionate discussions, fun friendships, and of course, the “inside scoop” on all things Kathy.
On this forum, I also “met” my mentor, friend, and peer editor Dr. Debra Holland (read our blog interview here), a friendship that has as lasted over a decade.
Then, Kathy suddenly took an extended sabbatical from writing, and for the last few years, and the Lady Firebird group has run on autopilot. But now it appears our patience has paid off as Kathy has plans to launch several exciting new project in 2011 and return in a big way! But I’ll let her tell you.
(The Kathy Tyers Interview parts one and two post Wednesday and Friday)