My month with Star Wars

December 30, 2015

Now, pretty much anyone who has an interest in popular culture is aware that the first Star Wars movie since 2005, The Force Awakens, was released on December 18th 2015.  Full disclosure: while I consider myself a fan of Star Wars, I have only dabbled in the Extended Universe/Legends supplementary material.  Like many, though, I was anxious to see what J.J. Abrams would make of Lucas’ legacy and booked my ticket to a showing on release day.  In anticipation of the event, I did a fair amount of preparation.  This blog post details my immersion in the world of Star Wars during the month of December.  Out of respect for the three of you out there who have not yet seen The Force Awakens, I will place my thoughts on the movie/audiobook itself below the cut.  

The Rewatch

Naturally, the main part of my pre Force Awakens preparation was a rewatch of the Star Wars movies released prior to Episode 7.  I chose to do this following machete order.  I urge you to check out the full link on why this order works, but in summary, you watch Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and then switch to the prequels Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith before finishing up with Return of the Jedi.  In essence, you treat the prequels as an extended flashback after Vader’s big reveal a the end of Empire explaining how that came about before concluding his character arc in Jedi.  Note that Phantom Menace disappears from the viewing entirely.  The creator of the machete order believed, rightly in my opinion, that losing Jar Jar Binks and midichlorians is only to the good, and anything explained in Menace is recapped in later films.

Machete order is especially good for those who have never seen any of the movies.  When my niece and nephew are old enough for their aunt to introduce them to Star Wars (three years old is still too young, isn’t it?) I will certainly be following this viewing suggestion.  It preserves the drama of the Vader reveal (which is lost if you watch the prequels first – their whole point is to set it up) while adding tension to Luke’s character arc.  You see Luke at the end of Empire, broken and in shock at the Vader reveal.  You then watch Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side.  When you next see Luke in Jedi, he has turned badass, Force choking guards and turning his beloved droids over to the evil Hutts.  Having seen Anakin’s fall really underscores the risk that Luke will turn to the Dark Side and makes his reappearance in Jedi a bit more of an “oh…crap” moment.

The other thing I got from the rewatch is just how much fun the original trilogy was compared to the prequels.  Seeing that Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was back on duty for The Force Awakens gave me a great deal of confidence in the movie. The banter between our heroes and the sparks between Fisher’s Leia and Ford’s Han were a joy to watch. I finished my rewatch the afternoon before heading to The Force Awakens in the evening, which meant certain events in the movie hit so much harder.

The Alternative Prequels

While preparing my Star Wars watch I came across Belated Media’s YouTube channel which has videos entitled What if Star Wars Episode 1 was good? – one for each of the prequels.  In these videos he discusses changes he would make to the prequels to make them stronger.  While I don’t necessarily agree with all of his suggestions, many of them do make very good sense from a storytelling and character development point of view.  I particularly liked his suggestions of making the Obi Wan/Anakin relationship the core of the prequels rather than the Anakin/Padme one.  This would add so much more emotional resonance to their final confrontation at the end of Revenge of the Sith.

Go check these out – they are well worth watching.

Now we come to my thoughts on The Force Awakens.  If you’ve already seen it, join me after the cut

The Force Awakens movie

I really liked it.  The script and characterisation were much stronger than in the prequels, the casting was excellent and visually it was very appealing.  I particularly enjoyed the return to the old-school banter and humour.  Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo were wonderful and BB-8 is adorable.

The final scene with Luke and Rey was for me pitch perfect. Both actors were able to convey so much without words.  I interpreted it as the lightsaber being representative of the responsibility to use the Force and fight the First Order and while Rey is desperate for Luke to take it back from her, he’s thinking I’m done, it’s your responsibility now.  I suspect Episode 8 will have less Rey as she trains with Luke and more Finn.
I liked Kylo Ren as an antagonist, although he’s more of a Joffrey (spoiled brat with too much power) than a Darth Vader.  It works though.  I wonder if he’ll be redeemed to the light side like Vader or if he will have to die.  I’m glad it seems we’ll have him for more films – I don’t think it helped the prequels that there was a different bad guy for each movie.

Rey’s character development mirrors Luke’s too closely to be accidental.  Lucas based Luke on the Monomyth – and it worked.  Clearly Abrams thought to do the same thing.  We have very similar things going  on – they were both from isolated worlds, met a Guide (Ben Kenobi/Han Solo) who invited them on adventure.  Both initially rejected the Call to Adventure (Luke because of his responsibilities to his aunt and uncle, Rey to wait on Jakku for her family) and both were still drawn into adventure.  Both saw their guides cut down in front of them.  Both ended up with a magical talisman – the lightsaber.  

I did struggle to get a handle on the character of Finn, though.  He’s not Force-sensitive like Rey, a brilliant pilot like Poe or even a street smart fighter like Han.  I do wonder where his storyline is going.  I’m hoping he’s much more than a Samwise Gamgee character (no offence to Sam; he’s awesome) there to service the main protagonist and to act as his/her moral compass and anchor to all that’s good in the world.  Finn deserves a character arc of his own.

I think that would be my one criticism of the movie – it’s too much a repeat of New Hope.  Protagonist stumbles upon cute droid which contains information vital to the survival of the Rebellion/Resistance.  He/she struggles to get this information into the hands of the Rebellion/Resistance and is pursued by the bad guys, one of whom has a personal connection to the hero.  (Kylo Ren would appear to be Rey’s cousin!).  Rey’s flashback would imply that Kylo and Rey were both at Luke’s Jedi school.  Finally we have a race against the clock to utilise this information and prevent the destruction of the Rebellion/Resistance.  

Despite that, it’s a wonderful movie and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Audiobooks

Wherever possible I tend to experience the Star Wars novels in audiobook format.  They usually incorporate John Williams’ incredible score along with the iconic sound effects of the movies – R2D2’s beeps, the hum of the lightsabers, the unique sound of blaster fire, sliding doors, Chewie’s growls – and this grounds me in the world of Star Wars far more effectively than just reading could.  In December I listened to the novelisation of The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster and Kenobi by John Jackson Miller.  Let me tell you about them.

[book-info] Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster is the novelisation of the film.  I didn’t find that it added a great deal to what we know from the movie, but it was a fun way to enjoy the story.  Marc Thompson is a very experienced Star Wars narrator, having narrated over 40 Star Wars books.  He really gets the familiar characters – his Han Solo was pitch perfect, which is handy given the major role the character plays.  I could easily imagine Harrison Ford delivering the lines in exactly that way.  I could also easily get behind his rendition of Finn, Snoke and Kylo Ren.  

His interpretation of the character of Rey, however, wasn’t quite there yet for me.  He didn’t quite capture Daisy Ridley’s spirit.  Her interactions with other characters didn’t quite have the spark that comes across in the movie.  I believe though that by the time the novel for Episode 8 comes around Thompson will have her down pat like the other characters.  I look forward to it.

As ever the Star Wars audiobook experience was enhanced by John Williams’ score and the movie sound effects.  I gave Star Wars: The Force Awakens four stars out of five.

[book-info number=1] Kenobi by John Jackson Miller doesn’t have a direct connection with my preparation for The Force Awakens except that it attempts to answer a question that was raised by my rewatch of the prequels; how does a Jedi Knight like Obi Wan Kenobi, used to being in the centre of things, adjust to life in exile as lowly Ben Kenobi on Tatooine, a planet that is a far from the bright centre of the universe as it is possible to go? 

This is the question that is at the heart of Miller’s book and its attempt to answer it leads to a wonderful character study of a fascinating character.  I really enjoyed how, despite Obi Wan’s best intentions, he kept becoming involved in the lives of his neighbours, even putting his mission to protect the infant Luke at risk.  I also really enjoyed the supporting characters Obi Wan meets – Anileen especially was wonderful and the insight into the lives of the sand people was fascinating.  Obi Wan’s monologues to Qui Gonn added a great deal to the story and understanding of his character such as his attempts to justify his connections with the townspeople despite the risks it posed to his mission.

Jonathan Davis narration was perfect.  He captured Ewan McGregor’s voice and mannerisms from the movies wonderfully.  I really felt as if I were following the same character.  His vocal characterisions of the other people and creatures in the story were also spot on.

What I didn’t enjoy so much was the overemphasis on sound effects.  For example, if in the story a couple is enjoying a meal in a restaurant I don’t need to hear background sounds of other diners throughout their conversation.  Similarly, if the townspeople of Dannar’s Claim are cheering a victory, let the cheers sound like those of a small township of maybe a few hundred souls rather than those of the huge crowds at a pod race. I appreciate that this is a very personal judgement call and you might not feel the same way.

Despite these minor grievances, Kenobi was a very enjoyable listen and I gave it four stars out of five.

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