Movie Review: The Force Awakens

The following is a spoiler-free take on THE FORCE AWAKENS:
In a nutshell, in typical JJ Abrams fashion, Disney’s first outing in the STAR WARS ‘verse is heavy on explosions and visual effects but light on character and plot. Characters are flat, and come and go so quickly from the scene that it’s difficult to find anyone to identify with. Poe Dameron made a promising first impression and would have made a wonderful heroic character, but he never got the chance. Where in the original trilogy, the three main characters spent the entire second act working together towards a common goal as a unified team, in THE FORCE AWAKENS, Poe, Rey, and Finn never quite seemed to find their rhythm and spent more time wandering off doing their own thing than building a heroic team.

I felt adrift and disengaged from the film until Han Solo showed up. At last! Here was someone I had an emotional attachment to. Unfortunately, the old, familiar characters we know and love likewise seemed to wander aimlessly, as though even they were unsure what they were doing in the movie. Solo was in an entirely different story that seemed more interesting than the one the young heroes were pursuing. Yes, there was a unifying goal, but by the second act even the bad guy got bored with it and moved on to something else.

mcquarrie_earlystarwars_520It took a while for me to realize why elements of the movie felt so familiar. Abrams made the movie Lucas had originally intended Star Wars to be. I guess because I avoided all blogs, articles and potential spoilers, I didn’t realize that the inspiration for the story line was Lucas’s first draft of Star Wars in which the Luke/Leia character was a warrior “princess” (Rey) and Han Solo/Obi Wan Kenobi was an older mentor guiding her on her quest. Not only that, the look of THE FORCE AWAKENS was drawn from Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept art from before the first actor was cast or the first set built.
Kudos to Disney for going back to the very beginning. I give that nod to early STAR WARS lore an “A” for effort.
Lucasfilm veteran, Lawrence Kasdan worked on the script and co-produced. Lucas/Spielberg protegee Kathleen Kennedy was one of the producers attached to the project.
In the back of my mind, I knew all that.
Was it good? Did I enjoy it? Did it live up to its hype?
Much of it was predictable, but I enjoyed it. Nothing could quite live up to this level of hype. I cheered when old familiar faces popped up. The story was too fragmented and at times seemed to ramble, while subplot and backstory were much more interesting and should have had more screen time. Some old friends were under utilized (R2D2, Luke Skywalker.) So were some new friends for that matter (Poe Dameron, Captain Phasma.) Some plot points defied logic.
It is the kind of movie you want to see more than once to go back and catch the subtle nuances, now that you know what’s going on and who the players are. I’m hoping to find it tighter and better crafted on second viewing.
Star Wars fans will not be disappointed. Action/adventure fans will not be disappointed. Personally, I didn’t feel the ending satisfied. It felt more like the second book/movie in a trilogy than the first. It was almost like Abrams said, “Hey, we’ve got two hours of material now. Time to wrap. Where can we stop for now?”
In short, Abrams was marginally more respectful of the Star Wars franchise than he was the Star Trek franchise. Dialogue was snappy and sassier than the traditionally stilted Star Wars speech patterns. Character development was minimal and it was hard to get emotionally invested in the new characters. There are too many questions unanswered, leaving fans scratching their heads and trying to play catch up before the end of the first act.
As a die-hard Jed-head, I have a love-hate relationship with THE FORCE AWAKENS. As a writer, I am by turns glad I didn’t have to write it and critical of sections that seemed like the writers had no idea where to go from there and fired off special effects hoping the audience wouldn’t notice the man behind the curtain.
I would still like to see a Joss Whedon interpretation of the Star Wars legend, though I feel JJ Abrams actually considered the fans expectations of the newest Star Wars movie. I can’t help but think Whedon could have done a better job and told a more satisfying story, given his penchant for effectively balancing character development, intrigue, and heart-pounding action, a balancing act Abrams has yet to perfect.

THE FORCE AWAKENS is an action-packed romp, but it lacks the elusive spark found in the other films in the franchise.

Fangirling About Captain Kirk

tos_002One of my earliest memories is of piling up on the banquette with my brothers and sister  in the galley of the family Chris Craft, watching Star Trek The Original Series (TOS) on a four-inch black-and-white screen. I even remember the episode. It was The Apple from Season 2. I made up my mind at that very moment that I wanted to be Captain Kirk.  As a child, I had the tricorder, both types of phasers, the action figures (I had all of them and they tormented Barbie something fierce.) I even signed a petition calling for the renaming of the first space shuttle as The Enterprise. 

I would never make it into the space program, and my television career never quite made it out of live sports. Like most writers, I started out writing fan fiction. Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train in space” had lit a spark in me for the world of science fiction that burns to this day. No one was happier than I when the franchise got a restart with the films and later with TNG. But sadly, something seemed lacking from those early days, and while I maintained my enjoyment of the Star Trek universe offerings, Star Wars took over my spacer’s heart. 

I sat through all the Trek offspring, the animated series, TNG, DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise, as well as the films, the good, the bad, and the eye-rolling disasters. With great excitement, I went to the movies to see the JJ Abrams reboot only to suffer crushing disappointment. Yes, I stood up in the theater and yelled at the screen, “That’s not the way it happened!!!” I even did the unthinkable by taking a bathroom break in the middle of the thing to keep from getting kicked out. I have yet to see the second one, or even the first one again. Knowing that Abrams is helming the future of my equally beloved Star Wars, I have nothing but stark terror in my heart, especially after hearing the rumblings that he’s throwing out the Lucas-approved novelizations and canon. Abrams is the antichrist… but that’s a blog post for another day.

I’d heard rumblings about a new Star Trek fan series, but let’s face it, most of what’s out there is parody, and what isn’t parody is…well…, not Roddenberry. It wasn’t until after I saw ringing endorsements by fellow geeks, Patrick Stutzman and Cary Caffrey, (and couldn’t stomach another episode of Sophia The First while home with a sick five year-old,) that I decided there couldn’t be any harm in a little peek. After all, after JJ Abrams, it couldn’t be worse!

Let me say that I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by Star Trek Continues. For those of us who cut our teeth on Star Trek TOS, it’s like finding the Holy Grail. It’s all there. It feels like finding the lost episodes of the last two seasons as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry himself. The sets are flawless, the scripts are brilliant, the acting is straight out of Desilu Studios 1968.

Vic Mignona is in the famous naugahyde E-ZBoy Barcalounger with all the cool buttons and switches on the bridge of NCC-1701. He does a credible Captain Kirk that is far more palatable in this fan made series than Chris Pine’s portrayal in the JJ Abrams debacles. Mignogna appears to be the driving force behind the concept, credited as executive producer, director, and story creator, as well as the cowboy captain himself. Mignogna’s portrayal of the iconic Kirk is neither a Shatner impression, nor a departure from Shatner’s portrayal. Rather Mignogna builds on William Shatner’s interpretation of James T. Kirk and despite the subtle differences in the actors and their styles, I forgot I wasn’t watching an original 1968 production, and when I did remember, I really didn’t care anymore.

While the bouffant hair is sadly missing, the short skirts remain. Easter Eggs and nods to the original canon are so deftly integrated that the whole thing feels like it was channeled from a parallel universe in which NBC did NOT cancel TOS after the third season. If not for the cameos of the likes of Star Trek TNG alum Marina Sirtis as the voice of the computer, Erin Gray (Wilma Derring – Buck Rogers) and Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk,) and regular Grant Imahara (Myth Busters) as Sulu, it would be easy to lose oneself in the illusion of a parallel universe. Chris Doohan, son of the late James Doohan, reprises his father’s role as Montgomery Scott. If you ask me, he does a fine job, laddie.

The scripts of the first two episodes have been stellar. Both are well-written and well-executed. As a fan who cut her teeth on TOS, I cannot be complimentary enough. Like the original scripts, they are morality plays set on the decks of the Federation Starship Enterprise. However, they are so well-written and produced that the drama unfolds organically in the best literary tradition and the viewer is entertained and coaxed to examine his own view of right, wrong, and humanity.

I have always said that I grew up with Star Trek values. My view of right and wrong was heavily influenced by Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek TOS universe. Right is right. Wrong is wrong, even if it’s legal, and some things are worth laying it all on the line to fight for. In this tradition, Star Trek Continues does not disappoint.

The most recent episode — Lolani — was released February 8, 2014, and in the vein of TOS, addresses the timely social issue of human(oid) trafficking. With all the senstivity and moral outrage of any Roddenberry era scripts, Lolani  shines the light on an uncomfortable practice that most of us give little thought to, as it feels so very far removed from our daily lives. When it is uncomfortably thrust into Kirk’s lap, he has to deal with his own moral dilemmas, politics of the day, and even orders, weighing the law against morality. As Captain Kirk, Mignogna’s portrayal is spot on, taking the audience through the gamut of emotions, subtly executed as he explores the weight of command and the toll it takes on a man of honor. Likewise, actress Fiona Vroom absolutely played the Orion slave girl Lolani with dignity and pathos and all the slinky seductiveness for which the green-skinned femme fatales are known.

My only complaint is that, like TOS, there are too few episodes and I’ve seen them already. If you are a fan of TOS, or you have no idea what we oldsters expect of revisiting TOS, have a look at Star Trek Continues. I will be eagerly awaiting future installments. I expect great things from Mignogna and his USS Enterprise crew.