Why Do We Care About The Force Awakens?

It’s less than two weeks until The Force Awakens hits the theaters. The promotional team has been doing a bang-up job of building advance buzz, with everything from product tie-ins like two flavors of ice cream to getting Pentatonix to do a medley of Star Wars music alongside a 75-piece orchestra at the American Music Awards. To say nothing of coverage ranging from Wired to The Mary Sue. Frankly, there is a huge amount of anticipation and fan squee building up.

I just wonder why fandom is being so gullible about this.

(If you’re enjoying your anticipatory squee and don’t want your buzz harshed, now would be a good time to quit reading this post.)

Lucasfilm’s Track Record is Poor

We’ve been here before, remember? We were all hyped up for The Phantom Menace, and then we got… well, The Phantom Menace. In all its awfulness.

The rest of the prequel trilogy did nothing to redeem Lucas’ reputation, or his studio’s. Sure, Episodes II and III weren’t quite as bad as the first one (until that awful, cheese-tastic “Noooooo!” from Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith). But “not as bad as The Phantom Menace” is a pretty low bar to meet.

Since then, Lucasfilm’s major achievement has been Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is not a very strong argument in its favor.

And really, the suckitude didn’t start with Episode I. You could see the groundwork for Jar-Jar Binks’ annoying cutesiness already being laid in the Ewoks. And you can see more of the same cutesiness in BB-8, the spherical droid who seems designed to appeal to kids and to be made into all kinds of toys. Just look again at those head movements.

J.J. Abrams Does Not Make it All Better

“But it’s not George Lucas this time!” say so many fans. “It’ll be okay, because it’s J.J. Abrams!”

That would be the same J.J. Abrams who made such a mess of the rebooted Star Trek, right? This is the guy who gave us:

  • Red Matter. What is this stuff? It looks like CGI blood and makes things turn into black holes for no discernible reason. And then the black holes sometimes disappear (like Vulcan) and other times they don’t (like Nero’s ship at the end). It’s not science fiction; it’s magic, based on the demands of the plot at the moment.
  • Spock being able to see Vulcan collapsing. From Delta Vega. With the naked eye. No, sorry, space does not work like this. Unless the point is that Delta Vega is a moon of Vulcan, or vice-versa.
  • Khan’s blood. Again, a case of magic — this time, a type that cures any illness or malady, including flat-out death from radiation poisoning. In both humans and tribbles.
  • Kirk as a complete asshole. Particularly in Star Trek[1] Into Darkness, where he views Spock filing an honest report of the Nibiru mission as “stab[bing him] in the back”, then turns around and overrides Scotty’s very sensible, professional recommendation about taking the torpedoes aboard without inspecting them. And effectively fires Scotty when he makes it clear he is not kidding around. Later, when “John Harrison” gives his unconditional surrender, Kirk does his level best to beat the shit out of him. (He fails, of course, because of who “Harrison” really is, but that’s not to Kirk’s credit.) This guy is basically a combination between Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, the stupid clients on Clients From Hell who hire skilled professionals to do things they can’t even understand and then reject those professionals’ advice, and the war criminals of Abu Ghraib.
  • The Into Darkness cold open. The whole thing, from the little detail where Kirk doesn’t even know the basics of their exit strategy (“Dammit, man, that was our ride!”) to the much bigger idiocy of putting the Enterprise underwater when they could easily have kept it in orbit and used the transporter or a shuttlecraft. And then there’s the galloping, massive problem that the entire scene is an amazingly racist, “look at the superstitious savages” cliché that could have come from a ’20s pulp piece.[2]
  • Complete lack of consistency. Either consistency with the external world and common sense, or even consistency with what the movie itself said or did a mere 10 minutes before. Things happen for no discernible reason other than “the screenwriters ran out of tension and needed to provide another jolt of it”.

    In the first movie, the distress call from Vulcan comes in, and we have to send a crew of cadets into action because somehow, the entire fleet is “engaged in the Laurentian system” — a throwaway line that explains nothing[3]. When Kirk and Sulu are free-falling toward Vulcan and need an emergency beam-out, Chekov doesn’t (I’m sure the screenwriters would say “can’t”) operate the transporter from the bridge — even though it sure looked like the other woman on the bridge was about to, and even though remotely operating things is technology we’ve had since at least the 1970s. No, he has to go running pell-mell through the corridors, apparently because it will get everyone’s hearts racing or something. And I’ve already mentioned that the effects of Red Matter depend on the screenwriters’ whims.

    In the second movie, when Carol Marcus’ presence on the Enterprise is stopping her father from destroying the ship, he can beam her out — even though the Enterprise has its shields up. Ten minutes later, when Khan wants the torpedoes Spock’s holding, he needs to convince Spock to drop the shields before he can beam them away. Why? The only reason is because it’s more dramatic that way. (Both times — first, it’s dramatic to have Admiral Marcus steal a crewmember and put the Enterprise in greater jeopardy; then it’s more dramatic to have a tense showdown.)

    And when the warp core needs to be fixed, Scotty says “we’d be dead before we made the climb [up to the core itself]”. This means that it’s impossible for a human being to get that far in that level of radiation — assuming Scotty knows what he’s talking about, which of course he does. But then Kirk just… goes and does it anyway, because whatevs.

Really, I wanted to like the rebooted Trek franchise. After the first one had some serious flaws (but also a bunch of good parts), I gave it another chance with Into Darkness. But that one just blew any last vestiges of goodwill I had left. Kind of the way The Phantom Menace blew away my Star Wars joy, though not to nearly as great a degree or with as much shock.

So, the guy who screwed up one franchise is coming to make a movie in another franchise that I’ve already given up on? This is not good news.

“But the Trailers Look Good!”

The Phantom Menace trailers looked good to us too, at the time. There was pod racing, and Jedi knights with lightsabers fighting against funky, curvy battle droids. There were spaceships zooming, and blasters firing, and glimpses of the Sith Lord who would become the Emperor. There was the familiar Tatooine desert, and there were Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in an epic, three-person lightsaber duel against Darth Maul.

We didn’t see, back in early 1999, how awful The Phantom Menace was going to be. We went to the theaters with high hopes, our hearts pounding with excitement. And we can be forgiven that innocence, because really, how could we have known the kind of letdown that was waiting for us?

(Okay, the remastered original trilogy was a clue. But again, that was only obvious in hindsight.)

What I’m saying here is, don’t get your hopes up. I can’t see any sensible reason to believe that The Force Awakens will be any better than Revenge of the Sith or Star Trek Into Darkness.

You’ve probably already guessed that I won’t be lining up to see Episode VII on opening weekend. But what I’m saying here is, I don’t plan to see it at all, unless I hear from a whole bunch of people that it’s actually good. And they’re saying that unreservedly, a couple of weeks later — not the kind of “trying to convince ourselves it didn’t suck” stuff that Star Wars fans did for the first couple of weeks after The Phantom Menace.

Try me around the middle of January. If we’re all very lucky — luckier than I expect — it’ll turn out I was wrong.

[1] Maybe there should be a colon here. Maybe not. I really don’t give a damn. ↑↑

[2] No, the fact that their skin is paper-white does not magically erase the racism of it. ↑↑

[3] Seriously, if something’s going that’s so humongous that it occupies the entire main force of Starfleet, then maybe we should hear about it somewhere besides this one line? Maybe it’s the kind of fucking huge deal that would have everyone talking about it? Imagine if there were something going on in the present day that occupied the US Navy’s entire Atlantic and Pacific fleets, leaving nothing but training vessels crewed by cadets to handle anything else. Man, just within my lifetime, we’ve had multiple wars that didn’t take up those kinds of resources. ↑↑

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