Monday, July 20, 2015

Episode VII: The 2nd Teaser, Celebration Anaheim, and Vanity Fair

In April, Star Wars Celebration Anaheim took place. There we got our first real look at Episode VII, starting with the second teaser trailer.

It's funny. Much like the last teaser, this one doesn't really tell us all that much about what's happening. We just get little glimpses. It is a teaser after all, not a trailer. But those glimpses are so much more powerful and rich with detail than they were in that first teaser. But the biggest thing about the teaser isn't so much any specific detail, but the way that all the aspects of it build into one idea. I'll explain in a bit.

That voiceover. Hearing Luke's lines from Return of the Jedi again gave me all kinds of chills. Normally reused lines aren't my favorite thing in trailers, but this made it really work. Part of it has to do with the fact that it ties The Force Awakens back to the Original Trilogy in a way nothing else has yet, but there's also the fact that it seems to imply a lot about the movie's story. Luke is talking primarily about three things: the Force, family, and the idea of passing on that power to someone new.  The lines sync up with the footage and highlight specific ideas:
"My father has it" - We see Vader's burnt helmet, probably taken from the Endor funeral pyre. Who took it, and what significance does it have?
"I have it" - A cloaked figure with a robotic hand reaches out for R2-D2; almost certainly Luke.
"My sister has it" - A short alien figure passes the famous saber of Anakin Skywalker to a woman who we assume is Leia.
"You have that power, too" - This is the big one. In ROTJ he was, of course, talking to Leia, but the way the line is removed from the rest of the exchange, it's different. The screen is black, as if Luke isn't speaking in regard to anyone specific. It feels like he's speaking to us. That whole idea—"you have that power, too"—is something that was hugely important to the Original Trilogy, with Luke essentially standing in for us, the audience. We were Luke in the OT; Ben Kenobi and Yoda weren't training Luke; they were training all of us. Symbolically, the trailer seems to hand over the reins of Star Wars to the people again. It's no longer going to be us staring into windows watching monks and politicians go about their idiotic business as in the prequels; this is a story made for us, here and now. I may be reading too deep into that, but it feels right.

There's a big theme in the teaser: relationships. Not only is Luke talking about his family, but all through the trailer we see people reaching out to one another in various ways:

And, of course, it ends with the epic nostalgia moment that is seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca reunited on the Millennium Falcon.

"We're home" is that last beat that sent us all into tears of joy. And it's not just a nostalgia trip, either. Han and Chewie's friendship was never the deepest, exactly, but it always felt real. Maybe like two best friends, maybe like a boy and his dog, but it was always one of the more authentic-feeling things in Star Wars. I've written on this blog before about how Star Wars needs to be a personal story in order for it to be great, and this feels like it's going to do that exactly.

Also there's a bunch of rad stormtroopers and spaceships.

One of them is chrome and has a cape. A CAPE. And her name is Captain Phasma. It's like photon mixed with plasma. It's a cool name.

A quick, light highlight reel from the opening panel where the teaser was first shown:

Shortly after Celebration Anaheim, Vanity Fair revealed their epic photos taken on the sets of The Force Awakens.

Pretty cool stuff.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Episode VII: Title and Teaser

One aspect of the Episode VII production that I did comment on in a timely manner was the casting announcement—which you can read here—hence why I'm now skipping it and going straight to the title and teaser announcements.

Before we talk about The Force Awakens' title, let's quickly look back at all the previous movie titles. There are two things that I think are most important in a Star Wars title:
1. It must be accurate to the movie  - This should go without saying, really.
2. It needs to be catchy and/or ear-pleasing. Something that feels nice to read and hear.
3. It needs to be exciting. "Active" titles that use verbs or other words that imply action are good.

1977: Star Wars - A lot of people forget that Episode IV: A New Hope wasn't originally called that. It was Star Wars, plain and simple. Short, catchy, epic, and exciting.

1980: The Empire Strikes Back is epic. Arguably the best Star Wars movie title. It's exciting, active, and perfectly accurate to both the events and tone of the movie.

1981: When Star Wars was re-released in 81, it was subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope. A New Hope makes sense given the movie's story, but it's rather flat and boring. However, since it's only a subtitle and wasn't even used at the film's release, it kind of doesn't matter.

1983: Return of the Jedi isn't as powerful of a title as the originally-proposed Revenge of the Jedi, but it makes more sense. After all, it's not as though Luke or any other Jedi actually takes revenge at any point—unless we're counting Vader offing Palpatine at the end? In any case, Return of the Jedi sounds a little too close to the title of The Lord of the Rings' 3rd-and-final book, The Return of the King, but it's still a pretty good title overall.

1999: The Phantom Menace. Honestly, it took me a long while to figure out just what the "phantom menace" was referring to. I suppose Darth Sidious's hologram does kind of look like a ghost, but only kinda. It's also not an active title. Rather than the "phantom" attacking or revenging or actually doing anything, he's... menacing? To be fair, that's a pretty accurate picture of what goes on in the movie, but in that case I think I'd rather have a title like "Attack of the Droid Army" or something that actually describes what action there actually is in the movie.

2002: Attack of the Clones is probably the silliest title, but it's definitely active. It was said by many that the single best part of the entire film was the Battle of Geonosis at the end, so maybe it's fitting that the movie takes its title from that.

2005: Revenge of the Sith is easily the best-fitting title. Not only does it perfectly describe what happens, but it also parallels Return of the Jedi and its original Revenge title. Any Star Wars fan worth their spice knew about the Return/Revenge dichotomy, and the Revenge of the Sith title was instantly embraced.

2015: The Force Awakens.
It feels like it's halfway there. On one hand, it does have a verb—"awakens"—but as verbs go, "awakens" is about as soft as you can get. It's a bit gentle for what is supposed to be an epic action movie. TFA also uses "the Force," which is something that, oddly, no previous Star Wars film has done. It makes sense to reference the Force, so it's nice to have that in a title. On the other hand, we have zero point of reference at this point for what "the Force awakens" actually means. Was the Force asleep? Is it getting more powerful? Is it actually the Force that's waking, or are people in the Galaxy waking up to the Force? I'm left here with questions, but not in a good way. "Awakens" is just too soft a word to denote the primary action or arc of the story. Now, perhaps when the movie is out it'll all make sense. But for now, The Force Awakens is, for me, a title that works just fine, but doesn't exactly soar.

Now then, onto the first teaser trailer:

Well, "teaser" is certainly accurate. We barely see more than glimpses of anything. And here's the worst part: they're teases of things we've already seen, either through official press photos, video messages from JJ on the set, or leaks. Seriously, just about everything in the trailer short of the little ball droid and the crossguard saber were things we'd seen before. In fact, a lot of the teaser felt like a summary of the leaks so far: the stormtrooper helmets, the new X-Wing, the Millennium Falcon, the concept art of Daisy Ridley's character on her speeder, etc. However, since I haven't actually covered any of those leaks, I suppose I'll actually go ahead and give my thoughts on everything in the teaser.

John Boyega in a desert! And that's all we see. He's clearly in distress, but why? No idea.

A ball droid! Also in a desert! Also with no context. He looks good, at least.

Daisy Ridley riding a fudgesicle! I have no thoughts, really.

These new stormtrooper helmets are RAD. Seriously, they might be my favorite trooper helmets ever. Not even joking. The two shots of the troopers we see implies a heavy assault situation of some kind. I liked the intensity of it.

Oh yes. Here we go. X-Wings in flight. We have never seen X-Wings look this good before. It's a new design, but it's actually very close to the old Ralph McQuarrie concept art for the original X-Wing. And having them against the water like that shows just how fast they're going. It's really intense.

And here's a pilot guy. The Rebel pilots were my favorite part of the OT, so this makes me happy for no good reason.

And here we have the thing everybody was talking about: the crossguard/broadsword lightsaber. I like the crossguard. Star Wars has always been more fantasy than science fiction, so a medieval-style laser sword makes sense. Also, the blade looks "rough," almost like it's either a very old saber or one cobbled together without the usual expertise of a Jedi, which implies some interesting things about its origins and its wielder.

And here we have the Falcon. I'd say it's nice to see her, but for some reason this shot doesn't do a thing for me.

Last thing to mention: the voiceover. It's a dark, possibly non-human voice, referring to "an awakening," both of "the dark side and the light." So at least we know now that "The Force Awakens" is an appropriate title, probably. But we still don't know what the awakening means. Are there new Force-users popping up in the galaxy? What exactly is happening with the Force?

So, overall, what did I think of the teaser? Meh. Saber aside, it didn't reveal anything new to the hardcore fans who'd been following Episode VII news, and it "teased" mostly in ways that didn't create interest. The shots were so short and out of context that it really didn't do anything other than say "this is a movie that exists." Which we already knew. After watching the teaser, I think my interest for the movie actually went down, not up.

Bonus Round: Trading Cards!

After the reveal of the teaser, Lucasfilm released photos of fictional trading cards for The Force Awakens meant to mimic the old trading cards for the OT films. This is where most of the new characters' names were revealed.

There's not really much to say about the names, other than the fact that BB-8 is about as perfect a name as anyone could have for that little guy.

Next up: the second teaser.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Episode VII: JJ Abrams

So it occurs to me that I haven't really been writing much at all about Episode VII, despite it coming out last this year. So, starting now, I'm going to hyperspace backward in time and cover all of the big moments in Episode VII news.

I already wrote about the Disney purchase and the announcement of the sequel films themselves, so you can read that here.

First up: J.J. Abrams' announcement as director.

JJ is an interesting filmmaker. On one hand, he's a genius that makes great stories. He's had a hand in creating lots of TV shows—Lost, Alias, Fringe, etc: fantastic stuff. He's also made some great movies: Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, Super 8, etc. On the flipside, he's got a bad reputation among some fans for essentially turning Star Trek, a highly cerebral science fiction franchise, into a dumb roller coaster ride. While I do definitely agree that the two Abrams Trek films are disappointments and only hurt Star Trek (particularly the second one, I don't particularly share the concerns about his involvement with Star Wars. Here's why:

It's been said more than once that Abrams only made Star Trek in order to help his friends, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, get their Star Trek movie made. He lent his storytelling ability to the project, yes, but he was largely there to pass forward Orci and Kurtzman's vision for Star Trek. Almost every single major fan complaint about the new Trek films is due to decisions made by Orci and Kurtzman, not Abrams. While Abrams is to blame for the "style" of the new Trek films, the real problems with those films were on a script level.

Also, JJ has said repeatedly that he didn't really understand Star Trek, and did the best with what he could. And that's not a crime; countless Trek directors didn't know what they were doing when they stepped into the captain's chair. If one thing is largely true about the Abrams Trek films, it's that they're never lazy. There are countless bad story decisions for sure, but the guiding hand behind the camera is never not trying. In any case, while JJ apparently didn't "get" Trek, he certainly seems to get Star Wars.

With Super 8, JJ showed that while he may not understand Star Trek's cerebral nature, he absolutely understands the Lucas/Spielberg filmmaking style of the 80s—which, of course, includes Star Wars.  There's a throughline in all of Abrams' films: feeling. In Abrams films, what's happening in the story, no matter how trivial or how epic, always matters to the characters. Mission Impossible III was the first time in the M:I series that the characters actually cared about anything or were ever in emotional jeopardy rather than only physical. More than that, the cast actually had chemistry. They weren't just Hollywood characters running around in a generic spy plot; they were people that the audience cared about. Star Trek, for all its faults, carries that torch. Kirk and Spock have personal stakes in what happens. Perhaps that's part of the problem: Trek can't be objective and cerebral when its characters are dealing too much with emotion. But just because that style is a bad fit for Trek doesn't mean it's a bad fit for Wars. Quite the opposite, honestly.

George Lucas has said many, many things about Star Wars, but one thing seems relevant here: Star Wars is an emotional story, not a cerebral one. That isn't to say, of course, that Star Wars can't be intelligent or stimulate the audience on an intellectual level, merely that Star Wars is primarily meant to pull at the audience's heart and soul. It's the relationships between people that make the Star Wars original trilogy work so perfectly, and why the prequels often fell flat. Everything that matters in Star Wars matters because it matters to the characters. Luke joins the Rebellion not out of blind principle, but because the Empire made it personal by slaughtering his family. Han saves Luke in the Battle of Yavin because he's come to care for Luke as a friend. Luke throws aside his anger towards Vader out of unconditional love for his father. It's those personal connections that made Star Wars great, and what can make it great again.

Now, of course, you may be wondering: if JJ Abrams wasn't able to make Star Trek great despite making the story personal and emotional, how is Star Wars going to be any different?

"It's not what you say, it's how you say it."
A writer tells a story; a director determines how that story is delivered. A script sets up the drama; a director makes you feel that story. If Episode VII's story is solid, JJ can knock it out of the park. Which leads me to my next point...

JJ is not the only one making the movie. Kathleen Kennedy, a producer who's worked with Lucas and Spielberg for decades, is the current president of Lucasfilm. From a creative standpoint, she effectively has George Lucas's old job: to oversee the story and guide it, even if not directly hands-on. Furthermore, Episode VII's script is largely written by Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It's not JJ Abrams alone making Episode VII: it's a dream team of incredibly talented people who are in the perfect position to make a great Star Wars movie.

So, yes, given everything I've seen of Abrams' work (all his movies and a good chunk of his TV career), I think he's a great choice to direct the next Star Wars movie. Last thought: in Super 8, we met a cast of children who were completely unimportant, aside from the fact that they were people, and at the end of the day, that's good enough. For all the talk about destiny and the Force, if there's one thing that made Luke Skywalker a great character, it was that he was essentially just a person. If Abrams can make us care about a group of annoying kids in the 80s, I can't wait to see what he does with the Skywalker legacy.

Next up: the movie's title and the first teaser trailer.