Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Fighting the Empire Never Looked So Good

Copyright © 2015 by Lucasfilm
Copyright © 2015 by Lucasfilm

What can I say about Star Wars? Quite a lot, actually. If you want to know and have a lot of free time, I recommend you run a search through all my posts tagged “Star Wars” over the last 5 years. Needless to say, it’s been one of my favorite franchises to follow and a key inspiration to me in becoming a writer and storyteller.

But today, we’re here to discuss the marvel of the seventh official film in the saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Set 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, our story picks up in the middle of a war between the First Order, the successor to the Galactic Empire, and the Resistance. When a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) defects and frees a Rebel pilot (Oscar Isaac) from captivity, they find themselves stranded on the desert world of Jakku. Finn crosses path with the scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who soon becomes the center of a plot to hunt down the last of the Jedi. Much like the heroes of another generation, Finn and Rey are swept across the galaxy in a desperate bid to shut down a planet-destroying superweapon and evade capture by the relentless Force-user Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Copyright © 2015 by Lucasfilm
Copyright © 2015 by Lucasfilm

Is this film the greatest ever made? No. But does it bring Star Wars saga back to life? Yes, it does. Its plot structure is basically the same as Episode IV: A New Hope, from saving a droid with crucial intelligence in its databanks to meeting a young hero on a desert planet with a gift for the Force to a climactic battle between starfighters that ends with a planet-sized explosion. I’d say I’m giving away most of the plot right there, but if you’ll remember, this was essentially the same plot to Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The key difference is that, in Force Awakens, we see everything done much better visually. J.J. Abrams retold Lucas’s first Star Wars film with a budget and special effects that he could’ve only dreamed of back in 1977. From the first shot, you’re immediately sucked into this world, where practical effects and CGI blend together almost seamlessly. You feel like you’re running from stormtroopers across sand dunes or getting into blasterfights in tight, cramped starship corridors—because it’s all actually there. I will admit that some of the CGI was a little odd at times, like with the holographic image of the Supreme Leader or that random chase scene with the tentacle monsters, but for the most part, it helps carry the story forward.

Compared to the prequels, with Lawrence Kasdan writing, we got a strong dose of storytelling back in the saga. There’s a brilliant theme of searching for a family that ties the entire plot together, from Finn trying to make sense of his life after abandoning the First Order to Rey waiting to be reunited with her missing family, to even a tense but meaningful scene between Han and Leia near the third act. It fits in just as well with our new villain, Kylo Ren, whose connection to the Solo family and his struggle to fully embrace the dark side makes his dialogue incredibly poignant as the film goes on.

Speaking of which, this production deserves an A-plus for bringing together an amazing cast. Everyone, new and old, brought something creative and inspiring to this movie, from Harrison Ford’s stellar performance as an aged but still sharp Han Solo to Oscar Isaac’s cocky ace starfighter pilot Poe Dameron. The first winner, however, was Daisy Ridley (my new favorite actress) for her portrayal of Rey. She balances her world-weary, tech-savvy scavenger background with a dose of curiosity and apprehension when faced with the horrors of the First Order and the myths of the Jedi.

When Star Wars first came out in theaters, what captivated audiences was what it brought to science fiction and fantasy genres: a spirit of mythology and a sense of living on the frontier. We got Jedi Knights inspired by Akira Kurosawa stepping out from desert worlds inspired by John Ford Westerns. With the prequel trilogy, we lost some of the myths and the frontiers in favor of fleshing out backstory with dry Jedi Council debates and epic CGI battles set on big, flashy worlds, with little character to distinguish anything.

But thankfully, The Force Awakens is bringing back that sense of mystery and rugged adventure, now with a more modern sensibility, a more diverse cast, and a set of legends ready for the 21st century.

At the time of this writing, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing in theaters everywhere.

Bibliography: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams, and Bryan Burk. Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt. Based on characters created by George Lucas. Perf. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Max von Sydow. Lucasfilm Ltd.; Bad Robot Productions. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 18, 2015.

A Look Back at Blade Runner and the Future in Noir

For years, I’ve heard how amazing Blade Runner is, but I never sat down and watched the darn film until recently. I did make an attempt to read the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired it, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but found the book dry and listless for my tastes. So I’ve been looking forward to this chance to watch and review this movie just to see how that story could be done right.

In 2019, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a detective in Los Angeles who’s received his latest assignment from the police: to track down and “retire” four rogue androids posing as humans, known as Nexus 6 replicants. Complicating his job is Rachel, a replicant with artificial memories of life as a human who comes to Deckard for help and a little romance. Meanwhile, the replicants’ ringleader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) orchestrates his own plot from the shadows, killing anyone who stands in the way of extending his 4-year lifespan and achieving true greatness in a bleak world.

Copyright © 1982 by Warner Bros.
Copyright © 1982 by Warner Bros.

I always knew this movie was good, but it wasn’t until I watched the whole thing that I realized just how good it is. Here are some of the cool things I picked up along the way.

A new breed of film noir

Blade runners like Deckard are a blend of film noir detectives and contemporary psychiatrists. While most of the story involves Deckard chasing down leads in the streets and back alleys like your classic hardboiled hero, he’s also trained to run Voight-Kampff tests on his target’s level of empathy. Even when he talks to Rachel about childhood, it’s a fine line between hearing a bitter man of the law and a professional trained in psychology.

Visually, we don’t see the movie in classic black-and-white, but in a new contrast altogether. With glaring lights filtered through deep shadows, the film gives off the same atmosphere of moral ambiguity and mystery, but with lighting that’s better suited to the neon advertising signs of Deckard’s LA than the smoky streets of Sam Spade’s San Francisco.

Cyberpunk style for the silver screen

Since William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer helped lay the foundation for the cyberpunk genre, it was easy for me to spot all the cues that this movie takes from cyberpunk. LA in 2019 is a classic version of “The Sprawl” from Gibson’s books, complete with assimilated Asian culture, heavy signs of urban decay, and a sense of dominance by companies like the Tyrell Corporation. There’s even the common sci-fi theme of advanced AI viewed with suspicion, given the backstory about dangerous replicants and how quickly the police will take them out. It doesn’t matter if that AI is designated Wintermute or Roy Batty.

A solid performance by Harrison Ford and others

Maybe I’m jaded because of the similar roles he took when he was older, but I’d forgotten how good an actor Harrison Ford is. He shows some fine vocal range, much like his work in Indiana Jones. He goes from noir-style detective to playing a geeky health inspector with remarkable ease. Not to mention he shows real fear and passion throughout the tense third act.

I also liked Sean Young’s quiet but meaningful performance as the movie’s femme fatale, with a style that reminds me of Brigid O’Shaughnessy from The Maltese Falcon. And no Blade Runner review would be complete without acknowledging Rutger Hauer and his psychotic villain. Long before I saw the movie, I knew the famous “Tears in the rain” monologue, but it was only here that I got a sense of the actual depth behind those words.

And since we’re talking about actors, I suppose I’ll weigh in on the famous question that has boggled this film’s audience for years: “Is Deckard a replicant himself?” As a critic, I’d say it doesn’t matter because that ambiguity works to the film’s advantage, much like trying to figure out if Rachel’s feelings for Deckard are genuine or not. Personally, I don’t see too much evidence to support the theory that he is a replicant and I don’t think him being a human diminishes his value to the plot any less.

Even while CGI has advanced leaps and bounds today, Blade Runner still packs a punch for its visual storytelling and its tight script. From the dingy corners of Deckard’s apartment to the steamy Mandarin-infused streets of futuristic Los Angeles, the film is a good example of how to do science fiction with a strong story and engaging characters.

Blade Runner is available through Warner Bros. Pictures.

Bibliography: Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott. Produced by Michael Deeley. Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos. The Ladd Company; Shaw Brothers; Blade Runner Partnership. Warner Bros. Original release date: June 25, 1982.

Ex Machina: Creating and Twisting Minds for Fun

Science fiction is easily my favorite genre above all else. It’s a genre built on exploring new ideas, often through new or exotic technology. Of course, most movies, books, video games, and TV shows prefer the trappings of science fiction rather than the substance. It’s easier and more marketable to show a scary red-eyed android blasting a city apart than it is to make a movie about how that artificial intelligence was created and all the work and science that went into testing said intelligence.

Don’t get me wrong. I still like Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I also like the latter category, into which Ex Machina falls.

Set in around the modern day, a young programmer named Caleb gets invited to spend a week at his boss Nathan’s elaborate mansion in the mountains. Nathan reveals his personal project: Ava, the world’s first genuine artificial intelligence. Caleb helps Nathan tests her sense of consciousness through dialogue and questions, only to grow more and more enamored with the AI, who seems to be more than a pretty face on a robotic body. Of course, Nathan himself reveals that he’s testing Caleb as well, and not all of Ava’s motives are entirely innocent either.

Copyright © 2015 by DNA Films and Film4 Productions
Copyright © 2015 by DNA Films and Film4 Productions

So what does Ex Machina have to offer?

A small but effective cast.

Everyone’s performance in this film is remarkable, from Domhnall Gleeson’s befuddled but sweet-natured programmer to Alicia Vikander’s childlike and surreal performance as Ava. Oscar Isaac does a fine job as Nathan, always managing to be funny and engaging, but with that undercurrent of malice that’s never fully explored until the third act. A lot manages to get said between these three characters, especially in scenes without dialogue and a lot of facial expressions.

Smart writing about science and engineering.

When Caleb and Nathan are talking about stochastic thinking processes or the limitations of the Turing Test, it’s never exactly dull. Like any good science fiction story, they touch on the science behind AI creation and Ava’s behavior to advance the story itself. With each discussion, we probe a little deeper into the nature of the plot. Is Ava as human as she seems? How much of her reactions are based on Nathan’s programming? And just what is Caleb’s role in testing the depth of her personality and her reactions?

A creative use of empty spaces.

This film is very much like a beautiful void (to borrow Douglas Adams’s review of Myst). Inside Nathan’s elaborate mansion are several long empty corridors and stark white rooms with minimal decor, giving a strong alien vibe to Caleb and the audience. We’re also treated to brief shots of the magnificent empty landscape of mountains and woodlands outside Nathan’s home, further adding to the sense of isolation—and imprisonment.

But you also have to consider the empty spaces in the script, too. As much as the film uses dialogue to build rapport between Nathan, Caleb, and Ava, some of the most impactful moments have no dialogue. All you need is one look into a mirror or a meaningful glance to deliver as much raw emotion as a shout or a punch would. Of course, there’s plenty of shouting and punches thrown at the very end if you’re into that sort of thing.

I really liked this movie. It’s not action-heavy or particularly fast at times, but it gets its premise across and really puts the audience in a constant state of curiosity about a female AI and her place in the human world—especially given the nature of those humans.

Ex Machina is available through Universal Pictures in the US and currently showing in theaters.

Bibliography: Ex Machina (film). Directed by Alex Garland. Produced by Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich. Written by Alex Garland. Perf. Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, and Oscar Isaac. DNA Films, Film4 Productions, Scott Rudin Productions. A24 (distributor). US release date: April 10, 2015.

One Last Round: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema
Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema

I loved the book, enjoyed the first movie, and grit my teeth through the second installment. It’s time to finish off the 3-part film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit with The Battle of the Five Armies.

Judging by the title, this is exactly what you get. A giant portion of the film is devoted to the battles at the slopes of Erebor between the men of Lake-Town, the elves of Mirkwood, the dwarves of Erebor and the Iron Hills, and the Orcs of Moria. We see the downfall of Smaug, the struggles of Thorin Oakenshield as he attempts to reclaim his father’s throne as King under the Mountain, and Bilbo’s haggard attempts to survive the calamity and make it home in one piece.

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema
Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema

So what did the third film of the Hobbit trilogy bring to the silver screen?

  • Brilliant acting. I didn’t have the best expectations for this film going in, save only for the epic battles at Erebor and Dol Guldur, as well as the performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo. And just as expected, this is a great story for Bilbo. He’s the brave but out-of-place hobbit that this epic tale needs, just as The Return of the King needed Merry, Pippin, and Sam. I also have to give Richard Armitage credit for his performance as Thorin, showing the full range of emotions and trauma that the dwarf king has to endure before the film’s end. And I’d be doing the film a disservice if I didn’t mention the brilliance of Billy Connolly as the dwarf Dain Ironfoot.
  • Massive, extended battles. In the book, the epically-named Battle of the Five Armies is entirely offscreen. Bilbo gets knocked out once the eagles show up, and we get very little detail about the Orcs being routed from Erebor. Here, we get well over an hour or so of constant back-and-forth battles between Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs, using everything from acrobatic swordfights to charging war pigs to a very short cameo of Beorn the skin-changer. Of course big battles are what New Line Cinema do very well in these Tolkien adaptations, but I felt like these battles went on just half an hour too long to keep me engaged.
  • Continuing the love triangle. One of the subplots that stretches out so much of the film is the whole romance between Kili, Tauriel, and Legolas. I’m sure it’s a good way to demonstrate the tensions between Dwarves and Elves, but I never once felt that invested in seeing Kili and Tauriel become an item. Which is too bad because Tauriel could have been a great elf character if not for only existing as a love interest.
  • A lot of Laketown. Callous as it might seem, I really kept rolling my eyes at every cutaway to Bard and the people of Laketown. Like in the book, they play an important role, but I felt like they only existed here to build up pathos in an already amped-up war tale. Not to mention that the character of Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the Master’s cowardly deputy, is an utter waste of space who only served to get shat upon every time he appeared. Some might call him comic relief; I call him pointless.
  • Ending fatigue and mood whiplash. Like I said before, the Battle of Five Armies feels a lot longer despite being shorter than the usual 3-hour length of these movies. Especially near the end, there were so many “twists” and surprise maneuvers that I was conscious of myself sitting in the theater, glancing around, and going “Get on with it already” for every prolonged duel with Azog or Bolg.
  • A touch of hobbit ways through and through. One of the few redeeming graces of the film was every mention of hobbit culture and the Shire, which meant just about every time Bilbo was onscreen. I savored the quiet moment he had with Thorin where he discussed planting an acorn in his garden back home and I was happy to see Bilbo’s return to the Shire as an unreconizable hero played true to the spirit of the book.

In the end, I’m glad I saw this film so that I could see this adaptation of The Hobbit played out in full, but if given the choice, I’d rather go with the book for another reread. I also have to give the movie experience some credit for showing me the trailer for another film that I need to go see—Kingsman: The Secret Service, which looks hilarious and a hundred times better.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is available through Warner Bros. and playing in theaters now.

Bibliography: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Directed by Peter Jackson. Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. Based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Perf. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, and Orlando Bloom. New Line Cinema; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; WingNut Films. Warner Bros. Pictures. US release date: December 17, 2014.

My Top 10 Favorite Films

Originally, I didn’t think I could ever make this list. I mean, I love so many movies and how could I ever rank them against each other? But to be honest, movies that we hold dear to our hearts are dear for a reason. They resonate with us every time we watch them, no matter how many lines your video tape gets from overuse or how many lines you can quote word for word, thereby annoying everyone else in the room.

So finally, after some deep consideration, here are the movies I consider to my all-time favorites to date.

10. Wings of Desire

Copyright © 1987 by Road Movies Filmproduktion.
Copyright © 1987 by Road Movies Filmproduktion.

Why? Because it has beautiful German poetry, Peter Falk, and a heartwarming use of color in Act III.

9. Hot Fuzz

Copyright 2007 by Rogue Pictures
Copyright © 2007 by Rogue Pictures

Why? Because Simon Pegg is brilliant, the back-and-forth banter is impeccable, and the action scenes really are that awesome.

8. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Copyright © 1998 by Universal Pictures
Copyright © 1998 by Universal Pictures

Why? It’s a trip through the madness of the American Dream, fueled by drugs, alcohol, a disregard for the rules, and the strange language of Hunter S. Thompson.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Pictures

Why? This is what space opera and big-budget science fiction is supposed to look like. Giant sets, colorful alien lifeforms, huge battles, and brilliant acting.

6. Batman Begins

Copyright © 2005 by Warner Bros. Pictures
Copyright © 2005 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Why? It’s a fresh take on the origins of Batman and a real look at the corruption of Gotham City.

5. The Dark Knight

Copyright © 2008 by Warner Bros. Pictures
Copyright © 2008 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Why? The late, great Heath Ledger is one of the most memorable Jokers in history and this was the “escalation” we were promised at the end of Batman Begins.

4. The Godfather

Copyright © 1972 by Paramount Pictures
Copyright © 1972 by Paramount Pictures

Why? This is half the reason we watch shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards: to watch people go down dark roads for the sake of protecting their families and securing their power.

3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy

A simple shot, but with a powerful impact.  Copyright © 2001 by New Line Cinema.
A simple shot, but with a powerful impact. Copyright © 2001 by New Line Cinema.

Why? Nothing’s more timeless than watching a small group of hobbits become heroes in a big-budget and beautiful fantasy setting.

2. Star Wars trilogy

Copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Why? Lightsaber battles, heroes saving princesses, blowing up planets, epic showdowns between father and son. Take your pick!

1. The Bourne Identity

Copyright © 2002 by Universal Pictures
Copyright © 2002 by Universal Pictures

Why? This movie is already an excellent thriller and action film, but it gets better as a drama of a man in search of his identity, carried out by the talent of Matt Damon.

If you want to list your own favorite films and explain why you love them so, please do so in the comments section below!