Star Wars – The Force Awakens Teaser Reaction

So Thursday kicked off the largest gathering of Star Wars fanatics this side of Mos Eisley… Star Wars Celebration.  To open the festivities, director J.J. Abrams, and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy hosted a Force Awakens panel complete with the stars of the films, as well as some behind the scenes people.  They finally concluded the event with what everyone had been waiting for… the new Star Wars The Force Awakens teaser trailer:

The internets went wild as Twitter feeds flooded with reactions to the two minute tease.  The general consensus seems to be overwhelming excitement… My reaction is a little more tempered.  While there are certainly some awesome elements, there are quite a few things that concern me.  Still I really enjoyed the trailer, but something felt… off at the same time.  I decided to give it a few days and watch the trailer a few more dozen times.

There’s Something Familiar About This…

JukuuThe trailer begins with like the original teaser for The Phantom Menace, in a very quiet long establishing shot, as our hero, Rey traverses the desert of Jakku on a speeder bike through a ship graveyard.  It’s a wonderful moment and evokes a very Star Wars otherworldly feel… we fade to black.  Unfortunately the rest of the trailer is hampered by a case of living in the past.

In fact, that’s the whole premise of the trailer… to convince older fans that Star Wars is safe again…

and the last thing Star Wars needs to be is safe…

Vader Helmet Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame©Lucasfilm 2015 Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame©Lucasfilm 2015 X-Wings Trooper Snow PlanetWhile reflecting on the trailer a good couple of days I’ve come to the conclusion that director JJ Abrams is doing his damndest to convince audiences that his new Star Wars film is fresh, while all the time catering to the nostalgia of older fans, and ultimately fails miserably on the first count.  The trailer is little more than a 70s/80s retro fest with nearly shot for shot recreations of the Death Star II exhaust port chase, a recreation of a famous publicity shot, and constant call backs to the Original Trilogy.  Originally I was going to do a point by point breakdown of different shots, and I may at a later date, but to summarize, there’s a lot in the trailer I really like, but there’s a disturbing tendency on JJ’s part to play it safe and simply cater to fans, and that’s not what the Saga needs right now.  What Star Wars needs is a fresh voice with bold ideas who understands what came before and wants to continue telling stories rooted in myth while approaching it from a new angle.

Does JJ “Get” Star Wars?  image

What particularly disturbed me about the Celebration Force Awakens kick off panel were comments uttered by Abrams himself which really made me question whether or not he even understood what Lucas was trying to accomplish with the entire Star Wars Saga, let alone the Original Trilogy. At one point Abrams regurgitated the Prequel basher talking point that Star Wars is really at its heart, a Western, which of course implies that Lucas really doesn’t get Star Wars at all and the appeal of the franchise.  Somehow, Star Wars is a space Western and if Lucas just would have kept Star Wars limited to that box the Prequels wouldn’t have gone off the rails (so the theory goes).  This whole mantra of Star Wars as Western source seems to have begun by a group of Lucas bashers who created, what they call, the “4 Star Wars Rules.”  Apparently on some level Abrams subscribes to this theory.

While talking about his experiences shooting in the desert of Abu Dhabi he said, “Star Wars is as much Western and fairy tale as it is anything else.  One of the things you expect and want to see is these tangible, beautiful John Ford landscapes…”  A nice sentiment JJ, but you are simply talking out of your butt.  Any first year film student will ArtooThreepiotell you the “John Ford look” is all about Monument Valley found at the border of Arizona and Utah.  Monument Valley is an area dominated by sandstone buttes and mesas… not rolling endless sand dunes.   I suppose you could argue he’s talking about the sequences in the valleys of the Jundland Wastes, but that seems a stretch as most people think desert planet when they hear the word Tatooine.  In fact there’s very little in the way of John Ford to be found in A New Hope, but there’s a lot of it found in Attack of the Clones.   Instead what Lucas did in A New Hope is adopt a very David Lean look from Lawrence of Arabia to inform the visuals of the desert planet.  With a big, endless desert framing most of his shots.  However, Lucas clearly channels his inner John Ford in Attack of the Clones:

CCMWVYrUkAAROgi CCMWVY1VIAA0xmL  CCMdzZCUsAAZ9PBCCMdzZBVEAAjKKi

(NOTE: Thanks to Mike Klimo of Star Wars Ring Theory for recently posting these screengrabs on his Twitter feed.  They’ve been very illuminating)

Even the plot of A New Hope has almost nothing to do the Western genre.  Sure there are elements of the American Western sprinkled throughout; Han is certainly a space cowboy, Mos Eisley, and especially the cantina have a very Western frontier town feel to them, but they are just elements of the whole.  A New Hope, like Star Wars in general is an amalgam, a pastiche of the influences of Lucas’ youth and interests as a filmmaker, borrowing heavily from sources such as Flash Gordon, Tolkien, Greek myth, Japanese cinema, Medieval adventure tales, layering it all with a spiritual element gleaned from the world’s major religions.  A New Hope has far more in common with Flash Gordon serials (which Lucas originally wanted to adapt) than a Western, and the plot borrows liberally from Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai film, The Hidden Fortress.

Abrams failure to grasp this raises a whole lot of concerns on my part.  I’m just not sure he really understands the mythology and legacy behind Star Wars.  He certainly understands his feelings of Star Wars as a child, and how that impacted him as a youth, but there’s so much more to the Saga than one’s childhood memories and fantasies.  That’s a large reason that while on the one hand I enjoy the trailer immensely, on the other I worry that The Force Awakens will be little more than a nostalgia fest; something Abrams is intimately familiar with.

Han & ChewieFor a lot of fans, the final shot of Han & Chewie aboard the Millennium Falcon was the “money shot” and sent them over the moon as fanboy/fangirl chills ran up their spines.  The waves of nostalgia washed over them and they were filled with a sense of awe as their dreams were finally realized… George no longer had his hands in the Saga, all of their wildest Star Wars dreams could be realized.  For a brief moment I was even hit with a feeling of being that child who grew up with Star Wars back in 1977, waiting anxiously for the next installment and contenting myself with reading another issue of Marvel’s Star Wars in the meantime.  It was a wonderful moment, but as soon as the screen faded to black I realized that something about it felt very off to me.  I pondered about that shot for a good chunk of time until I realized I had seen all of this before… because I had a poster of it on my wall.

Han & Chewie

JJ was up to his old tricks… The shot is nothing more than a recreation of that iconic poster, and while it’s a nice nod it really speaks volumes about one of Abrams’ biggest weaknesses, and accentuates a growing concern I’ve had for months.

You see, one of the biggest knocks on Abrams has always been his lack of creativity as a filmmaker.  He’s always been involved in projects that on some level are derivative of other works.  Three of his past four motion pictures have been sequels of franchises, with the one exception, Super 8, being a complete knock off of a 1980’s Steven Spielberg film.  Even the TV series he’s produced have borrowed liberally from other works.  One of my favorite shows he produced, Alias, is nothing more than one part The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., one part X-Files, with a heavy dose of Dan Brown mythology.  When you look at the totality of his work there is really nothing there that screams “visionary,” or even suggests an artist who really has the ability to oversee the relaunch of a massive franchise… just look at his very hit and miss results with Star Trek.

JJ ArtooUltimately, his lack of his own creativity is his downfall as a filmmaker.  While Lucas could take all of these wildly divergent elements from myth, pop culture, and religion and massage it into it’s own self contained universe which felt original yet familiar. Abrams, on the other hand, has shown no such ability as an filmmaker.  His work routinely feels like a homage to another artist’s work, or a series of ideas slapped together in an effort to feel original, but wind up coming across as derivative.  This trailer does nothing but reinforce that point as there is no original substance to be found.  The one thing I can say about Lucas was he had an ability to tease you with new locales, strange aliens, and situations in each of the five teaser trailers that followed A New Hope.  Whether it’s battles in the snow, the forest, a high speed race through the deserts of Tatooine, raging storms over a water planet, or a deadly lightsaber duel on an erupting volcano, Lucas was always able to tantalize with new ideas.  JJ’s tease is little more than a complete rehash of the Original Trilogy with a new young trio surrounded by visuals and designs that are all comfortable and familiar.

And that leads to my biggest gripe and concern… I’m not convinced this film will be terribly original, and will in fact be little more than a soft reboot of the Saga, allowing Disney to distance itself from George’s Saga, and move forward, and frankly Disney has found the perfect guy for THAT job. While Abrams talks a lot about “moving the Saga forward” I’m not so certain with this trailer that Lucasfilm is really going to attract interest from young audiences.  The trailer really caters to older Star Wars fans, and if you are a young person who is not already invested in Star Wars there’s little in this trailer to suggest something new or fresh about the Saga.

We’re Going Back… To The Past!!!

Back-to-the-Future-Doc-BrownThere was an alarming exchange midway through the panel in which Katleen Kennedy seemed to suggest that fans reaction is a very important part of the storytelling process.  Of course she added the caveat that Lucasfilm will still tell the stories it wants, but there certainly was a not so subtle subtext running throughout her comments that said, “We’ve heard your cries.”  Well sorry, but fanboys should have pretty much no say so in the future of Star Wars.  Many of these “fans” are the same Lucas bashers who wanted boderline evil Anakin betraying the Jedi and exterminating them in a three arc story, forgetting the wise words of George, “…a monster becoming a monster isn’t a story.”   Storytelling by committee, and more importantly, by consensus is not art, it’s just catering to the mob.  It seems pretty safe to say that JJ’s mandate is to push every fanboy button, and weave a very safe Star Wars film which takes little to no risk, all in the hopes of avoiding controversy.  He will cater to their every whim; in fact JJ appears to be all in…

During his Force Awakens panel Abrams once again began to engage in Star Wars historical revisionism found among Prequel/Lucas bashers suggesting that his films were going to be more “tangible” and “real” because they built sets for the actors to interact with. Of course this is meant to imply that George moved away from this tradition and simply shot all of his films on digital stages in front of green screens.  Of course this completely ignores the dozens of sets and locations used for the filming of the Prequel Trilogy.  Lucas too desired a tangible look for his films, however he had to go another course.  Instead of dealing with a galaxy in the middle of a war he was examining a Republic in a state of decline, that is ultimately pushed over the ledge by Palpatine.  So on the one hand the universe had to be shiny, a little less used looking, while on the other hand still staying true to the rules he established in the universe.  I think he did a pretty darn good job:

imageimageimageimageimageimage

As you can clearly see these are real sets, designed and constructed by a group of talented artists who took weeks, and months to develop designs which could tell the story Lucas was trying to tell.  Each one of the Prequel films is filled with beautiful sets and locations, certainly enhanced with special effects, but if you don’t believe Jjj-abramsJ will be incorporating the same techniques, I’ve got some lovely beach front property in Yuma I can sell you. However, what really grinds my gears is that JJ is so willing to cavalierly dismiss the work on those films, all for the benefit of throwing around a few buzzwords that get fanboy hearts aflutter.

I used to work as an intelligence analyst back in the day with a focus on international politics… so words are really, really important to me, and what’s left unsaid, or implied by the words you are using is as important as what you actually say, or what you meant to say.  During one portion of the interview section of the show JJ states that the mandate he had was to “set a standard” and that everything had to feel real.  That’s a good enough sentiment, but then he takes it a step further; unnecessarily so: “You knew people were in those places.  The way the light interacts with the set.  You want it to be legitimate, and authentic.”  Abrams is clearly separating himself from Lucas here, and is making it clear, although unstated, that he’s going to make a movie for older Star Wars fans who felt burned by the Prequels.  To make matters worse he’s actually implying through his words that what George did in Episodes I-III was “inauthentic” and “illegitimate.” As if Lucas totally dismissed the use of practical sets and locations. I think as I’ve shown in the pictures above that was certainly not the case with the Prequels.

Lucas & DanielsAlso understated in the Force Awakens panel was any mention of Lucas, or even a hint of his involvement in the production. I think George’s name came up a whopping two times in the entire panel, despite the fact Lucas created this large sandbox that all of these people are playing in now. I’m really beginning to suspect that George’s statements from January that Disney had jettisoned his treatments for the Sequel Trilogy and were doing their own thing is true. Early on we were told Lucas and Abrams were meeting regularly, and Lucas’ son even suggested that George and JJ were texting daily. Then Star Wars scribe Michael Arndt, who was writing scripts based on George’s treatments was let go, and then Disney Studios honcho Alan Horn implied in a Q&A that he wasn’t aware of Lucas’ involvement in the project any more. That would certainly explain why Lucas is even barely given a mention at Celebration; even Lucas’ good friend Kathleen Kennedy only mentioned his name in passing while recounting how she became head of Lucasfilm.

imageFrankly, this troubles me a great deal. Much has been made of Abrams ability to weave a mythology in his television shows like Alias and Lost, but in the case of both shows, that mythology became a muddled mess as the shows wore on. Both shows did not find their footing again until AFTER Abrams had left the productions. Add to that his inability to understand the roots of the mythology behind the Star Wars Saga, and there is cause for concern. So excuse me if I have a lot more faith in the guy who actually created the universe, than a sometimes very talented filmmaker (Super 8) who is often prone to make materials that are devoid of real depth and miss the point of the source material (Star Trek Into Darkness).

Again, to be clear, I did enjoy the trailer, with certain reservations. My biggest concerns are not necessarily with the content of the trailer itself, but with Abrams’ apparent inability to grasp the magnitude of the depth of story telling that Lucas presented in his six part Saga. For all of Abrams’ talk of wanting to move the Saga “forward” for “a new generation,” this trailer seemed needlessly mired in the past, and shows little in the way of anything new or fresh. The trailer seems to be catered to a certain subset of fans who are still bitter at George Lucas for not giving them a Prequel Trilogy that had been brewing in their minds for nearly 20 years. Ultimately it feels like a trailer by put together by a marketing group:

Stormtroopers… check
Star Destroyer… check
Millennium Falcon in a fight… check
Vader… check

I really want The Force Awakens to be a film that launches fandom for a whole new generation of fans, but from what I’ve seen it looks like I’m stuck in a 1980’s time warp.

Force Awakens

Advertisements

The Force Awakens – Trailer Observations

Well the first Official Teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has dropped, and I’ve watched it a dozen times or so.  So here are some quick observations:

1.  LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the shot of the X-Wings skimming over the water, looked fantastic, and suitably epic!

2.  Nice to see the Falcon again, not necessarily sure I’m a big fan of that particular shot.  A little too much shaky cam for my taste.

3.  Speaking of shaky cam, just looking at the Stormtrooper landing sequence it is VERY evident this is a J.J. Abrams film, and will look very modern compared to the other six films.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as fans need to remember these films are being made for a younger audience and there are certain expectations they have.  Abrams like to use shaky cam to give the audience a “you are there” feel.  I’m sure he will dial it back compared to Mission Impossible III, but he’s not going to change the way he makes films.

4.  Bad guy’s lighsaber… jury is still out for me.  I’m not sure if I’m a big fan of cross guards on the hilt of the lightsaber blades as they seem unwieldy, but it is growing on me.

5.  Rollerball R2 unit.  I suspect older fans who hate “cute” elements in their Star Wars are going to hate this character.

6.  John Boyega OWNS the screen in the few seconds he appears.  I definitely wanted to know more about him.

Overall it’s a solid teaser, but I was left a little underwhelmed.  Compared to the Episode I & III teasers it was lacking.  The Episode II “Breathing” teaser was outstanding, and Empire’s teaser had me going back to the theater again, and again.

One of my biggest takeaways from this teaser is that J.J. is desperately trying to surround this film with an air of mystery, but this trailer comes across as less of a mystery and more like a series of random shots strung together that tell us little. The great thing about the teasers for the Prequels is that they hinted at just enough of a story to give the audience a tease of the upcoming adventure, but still managed to shroud it in mystery. J.J.’s Mystery Box can be frustrating at times.

On the other hand, I do appreciate the fact that J.J. avoided turning the teaser into a nostalgia fest, and instead of dwelling on the past chose to introduced the new characters that will propel the Saga going forward.

 

Stay On Target – Observations About The Force Awakens Trailer Roll-Out

Anticipation… Is keepin’ me waitin’

Keep CalmFor weeks rumors had circulated in the fan community that a teaser trailer for Star Wars The Force Awakens was coming soon. John Williams was allegedly in Hollywood secretly recording original music for the trailer, and soon chatter began that suggested the teaser was going to debut in front of the final installment of the Hobbit franchise. Fan fervor grew as details of the trailer began to leak and it appeared a release was imminent.

Finally, our friends at MakingStarWars.net broke the news that the trailer would debut sometime this week to some movie 100 theaters, but the details were a little hazy. The anticipation for the release was reaching a fevered pitch on social media as fans (like myself) refreshed their Twitter feeds, or visited the Official Site for just one morsel of official news. Of course the announcement was bound to disappoint…

Force AwakensThe morning of November 24th, Regal Cinemas jumped the gun and announced they would be featuring the trailer at a number of their theaters; then AMC jumped on board. Finally, around midday, the Official Site broke the news that the trailer would debut at 30 theaters across the US and Canada… the internets blew up.

Here we go again…

The backlash was immediate. Fans across the country complained that many states were excluded from the release, and overseas fans (especially Brits where the film was made) were livid that they were left out as well. Fans could not understand how Disney, a company that had appeared so savvy with the buildup of each Marvel film by using the internet, television and theaters in concert to promote trailers for new Marvel films could now be so tone deaf using “old-school” means for the release of the teaser.

“You got what you wanted tiger. How does it taste?”

planet-of-the-apesThere’s a great moment in the original Planet of the Apes following the crash landing of the astronauts. Taylor (Chuck Heston), the cynical captain of the crew, is goading on the more idealistic Landon who still is trying to maintain traditional customs on their new home, and still views himself as an explorer on a mission. Taylor is having none of it as he is simply views their survival as paramount, and has little interest in scientific research. He sarcastically lays into Landon suggesting that he really got his wish to be a true explorer, but unfortunately there will nobody around to learn about his discoveries. He finishes his verbal tongue lashing of Landon with the classic line, “You got what you wanted tiger. How does it taste?”

I look at this teaser release in the same way. For months we’ve been told over and over again by older fans, and cast and crew that this Star Wars is going to be done using “old school” techniques, like practical effects, miniatures, puppets, and even stop motion animation. The days of the “evil” and “misguided” George Lucas and his obsession with CGI are finally over now that we got some “real” filmmakers in there who know how to tell a story with “real” characters (NOTE: I’m being sarcastic). Now with George gone we can finally wipe the post 1980 Star Wars slate clean (after all, Star Wars really died after Empire don’t ya know?), and begin a new phase of classic, retro Star Wars. Well, this teaser release is certainly retro as it’s only available in a handful of cinemas, and an online release has not been announced yet… how’s that taste?

Back to reality…

sw77The fact of the matter is that Disney is intentionally going a little retro with this release in hopes of building anticipation. Unlike the original limited release of Star Wars in 1977 which was a result of cinemas not wanting to carry the movie and Lucas’ demand for specific theaters equipped with state of the art sound equipment, this release is limited in an effort to generate buzz and compel fans to make the roadtrip to seek out the trailer. It’s actually a pretty smart strategy; yes it’s an annoyance for fans overseas, and for fans outside of states carrying the teaser, but it really is no different than 1977 when moviegoers often had to go out of their way to get to the single cinema in their state that was carrying Star Wars.  It’s still a little odd because even back in 1979 the teaser trailer for The Empire Strikes Back could be found in theaters across the country running in front of diverse films from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and the Gene Wilder/Harrison Ford comedy, The Frisco Kid.  As an aside, I must have sat through each of those movies a dozen times just to watch the trailer over and over again.

I’ll be honest, the teaser release doesn’t affect me in the least since Tempe Marketplace here in the metro Phoenix area will be showing the teaser and is only 6 miles from my home.But for those fans who are upset about the trailer roll out, they have very valid complaints. It’s not 1977 anymore, and there’s no real reason I can see for delaying access to the trailer to fans… especially the legion of loyal fans who live overseas. You can still build anticipation, and still be fair to those loyal Star Warriors who have longed for just a peek at the latest entry in the Star Wars Saga, or for those older fans who thought that Episodes VII-IX would never happen.

HarkinsTheatresLogo

I understand Disney/Lucasfilm’s desire to be separate and unique from the Marvel brand. You don’t want to simply copy and rehash promotional ideas from that franchise, but there has to be a happy medium that can be found, can’t there? Maybe an exclusive release for this weekend, with a worldwide roll out next week, as well as an online trailer on Monday would be more appropriate. Perhaps an official online release is in the cards after this weekend, otherwise I can see no real benefit to staggering the release like this, as it only builds up animosity in the community (like we need more of that), and resentment towards the new powers that be that run Star Wars.

Anyway, I will be at Tempe Marketplace Friday night to check out the teaser, and I will report back. But in the mean time: Keep Calm and Watch Star Wars!

Harkins1

May the Force Be With You