Quick Thoughts about Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Yesterday, Christmas Eve, I saw Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens for the second time, and it has really reignited my love for Star Wars. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here. This is not a review of the film, but a very quick note to say how it brought me back into Star Wars fandom.

ba27a391c84c421f5930995c0c5c9cc5I used to be a massive Star Wars fan, with the original trilogy, when I was younger. I lost interest during the second trilogy. I just watched Episode III for the first time. That’s correct, I’ve never seen it before today. I watched it partly because I wanted to fill in the story gaps that I’d missed. But I also wanted to revisit those middle films and give them a fair shot, watch them with new eyes, so to speak. I don’t want to dog on Eps I – III, but what I learned today is that my initial reaction and a lot of the criticism of them is accurate. There are a lot of reasons why I never connected with those films, but I think the biggest one is character. I never cared at all about the characters in those films. Anakin, Amadala, Obi-Wan, etc., none of them seemed to matter. None seemed real or identifiable. Not even Yoda. The story is engaging, the political drama really interesting, but the characters are flat, wooden, emotionless archetypes that have no substance. I know that people always blame the writing and/or the directing and/or the acting, with a lot of validity. The characters are awful. The whole thing lacks HEART. It’s like Lucas assumed we were all invested in the world he built, not the characters he created, so any ol’ characters would suffice to say the necessary dialogue and sell the storyline.

star_wars_1977_poster_001With the very first movie, Episode IV, you immediately clicked with the characters – you cared about what happened to Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, etc. And those characters carried you through the following films because you cared about them and you wanted to know what happens to them, and secondarily because of the amazingly detailed world that was built around them. And that’s what’s so brilliant about The Force Awakens: you not only have all the original characters that you already love and care about, so in a way it’s like a homecoming or a family reunion, but you immediately love the new characters too and connect with them. I left the first screening wanting to not leave at all, wanting to know more about Rey, Poe and Finn, wanting to stay in their world. Caring about what happens to them. Wanting to know what happens next in the saga.

star_wars_trailer3-620x412Seeing Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie again reminded me how much I used to love Star Wars. Meeting Finn, Rey, Poe and BB-8 – and even Kylo, Hux, Maz and the others – made me love it again in a completely new way. And because of that, “The Force Awakens” is easily my (close) second favorite movie behind “A New Hope”. And I absolutely cannot wait for the next one!

History of Sci-Fi Cinema 14: “It Came From Outer Space”

itcame1It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Written by Harry Essex, from a story by Ray Bradbury
Directed by Jack Arnold
Produced by William Alland
Starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Russell Johnson

An amateur astronomer and his dishy girlfriend are stargazing one night when what appears to be a meteor lands in the desert. But of course, that’s no meteor! It’s actually an alien spacecraft. But the only person to see it up close is the amateur astronomer and he has no proof to back up his claim. Not until townspeople start going missing, that is. It’s your typical 1950s Commie Scare paranoia piece . . . except that it actually isn’t. It’s a straightforward bodysnatcher yarn . . . except, no it’s really not. What it is is a thoroughly entertaining story with solid acting (Barbara Rush won a Golden Globe for her work in this film), good characterization, and a pretty spiffy alien that you never see too clearly on screen.

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History of Sci-Fi Cinema 13: “Invaders From Mars”

invaders_from_mars_poster_01Invaders From Mars (1953)
Written by Richard Blake, from a story by John Tucker Battle
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Produced by Edward L. Alperson Jr., Edward L. Alperson
20th Century Fox
Starring Jimmy Hunt, Helena Carter, Arthur Franz

Wikipedia describes the Second Red Scare as having inspired movies and literature to produce “stories and themes of the infiltration, subversion, invasion, and destruction of American society by un–American thought and inhuman beings.” There is perhaps no clearer or less subtle example of that than Invaders From Mars, with body snatches, mind control, personality change, threat of invasion, etc. Not that these themes are rare in science fiction of this period, but here they are so “on the nose.” The performances are far from nuanced, the Americanism proudly flag-waving, and the music dramatic and obvious. And yet … it turned out to be a highly enjoyable viewing.

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History of Sci-Fi Cinema 12: “When Worlds Collide” & “War of the Worlds”

12-WWCWhen Worlds Collide (1951)
Written by Sydney Boehm, based on the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Produced by George Pal
Paramount Pictures
Starring Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen

12-WotWWar of the Worlds (1953)
Written by Barré Lyndon, based on the novel by H. G. Wells
Directed by Byron Haskin
Produced by George Pal
Paramount Pictures
Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson

As I’m running a bit behind in my blog, I decided to combine my next two entries into one, as the next two make a fitting pairing: two towering accomplishments of cinema sci-fi, a double-feature of destruction by producer George Pal, these two films couldn’t be more similar — and at the same time, more different. Both inspired by influential works of fiction, both depicting the end of the world, both depicting strong Christian beliefs and themes, and both with a ray of hope at the end.

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History of Sci-Fi Cinema 11: “The Thing From Another World”

The Thing From Another World (1951)
Written by Charles Lederer, Howard Hawks & Ben Hecht, based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W Campbell, Jr.
Directed by Christian Nyby (or possibly Howard Hawks)
Starring Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Spencer, Dewey Martin, James Arness

One of the most influential films of all time, this is the quintessential “base under siege” story. A group of military personnel along with a “newspaper man” (as he’s repeatedly referred to) are sent to the north pole to investigate reports, by a team of scientists stationed there, of a crashed suspected UFO. The destroy the flying saucer but learn that it had an occupant, which has survived. It was, according to Wikipedia, the 46th most successful movie of 1951, but the most successful sci-fi movie, outselling both The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide (which we’ll take a look at next). Critics at the time weren’t too kind to it, but over the decades it has become regarded as one of the milestones in sci-fi cinema.

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History of Sci-Fi Cinema 10: “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

10-DayTitleThe Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Written by Edmund H North, based on a novel by Harry Bates
Directed by Robert Wise
Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Billy Gray, Sam Stephens

A sharp, intelligent sci-fi thriller with a message of warning to the people of Earth to stop being dicks. Or rather, you can be dicks all you want, but if you spread it out beyond your own borders, you’re going to get smacked hard. This is, quite literally, one of the greatest films ever made. It has been acknowledged by the American Film Institute as the fifth best sci-fi film ever; it repeatedly gets included in Top 100 lists (sci-fi or otherwise); it holds a 94% rating from Rotten Tomatoes; it received a special Golden Glove Award for “promoting international understanding.” And it was cited by Arthur C Clarke as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time — higher than his own film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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History of Sci-Fi Cinema 9: “Rocketship X-M”

09-RXM-titleRocketship X-M (1950)
Written by Orville H. Hampton, Kurt Neumann, Dalton Trumbo
Directed by Kurt Neumann
Starring Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery
Lippert Pictures

A fanciful film, direct competition to Destination Moon, about a rocket crew who attempt to reach the moon but are thrown off course and instead land on Mars. For the most part it’s similar in structure and tone to DM, but with some significant differences. The most noticeable thing about it is, unfortunately, is that it’s shockingly sexist to modern ears and eyes. It also walks a line between an attempt at hard science and being awkwardly romantic. It gained a dubious honor by being featured in 1990 in the opening episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 ‘s second season.

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History of Sci-Fi Cinema 8: “Destination Moon”

08-DM-titlesDestination Moon (1950)
Written by James O’Hanlon, Robert Heinlein, Rip Van Ronkel (based on short story by Robert Heinlein)
Directed by Irving Pichel
Starring John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson
George Pal Productions

A lightweight film about a group of private industry leaders building a rocket to the moon. And then getting off the moon. And, in terms of plot, that’s pretty much all it’s about. But what’s at the center of this narrative is the dangers of such undertakings. Apollo 13 it ain’t, but for its day it caused quite a stir, winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and nominated for Best Art Direction. In 2001 is was awarded a Retro Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation 1951. It was involved in its very own space race to get to the box office first. And Woody Woodpecker shows up along the way, because who better to persuade millionaires to give you money than Woody?

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History of Sci-Fi Cinema 7: “Dr. Cyclops”

07-Cyclops-titleDr. Cyclops (1940)
Written by Tom Kilpatrick
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, plus Tipo the dog and Pinto the Horse
Paramount Pictures

In the heart of the Peruvian jungle, a very polite and mostly civilized mad scientist is conducting experiments using a rich deposit of uranium and radium ore. He has discovered the means of shrinking living matter to the size of a doll. When visiting scientists become rebellious and disobedient, he turns the process onto them. Dr. Cyclops was nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects at the 13th Academy Awards.

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History of Sci-Fi Cinema 6: “Flash Gordon”

06-FlashGordon-titleFlash Gordon (1936)
Written by Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill, George H Plympton, Frederick Stephani (based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond)
Directed by Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor
Starring Larry “Buster” Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles B Middleton, Priscilla Lawson
Universal Pictures

To save the Earth from collision with an approaching planet, Dr. Zarkov recruits Flash Gordon and Dale Arden to travel with him via rocket to find a way to avert the catastrophe. Upon landing on the planet Mongo, the trio encounter Ming the Merciless and his daughter, Princess Aura. For the following 12 weeks, Flash fights a lot, Dale faints a lot, Aura fauns a lot and Ming frowns a lot. Continue reading