Monday, January 22, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*
There have been a number of complaints about the movie's subtitle, which promises the destruction of a villain who, in the end, gets away (perhaps to fight another day), but I'm a little more annoyed by the name "Metalstorm," which doesn't really connote much of anything. Yes, like many other flicks that ape the "Mad Max" look, people fight with metal guns (though the ones in METALSTORM seem to be ray-blasters) and they have various metal vehicles (though really only the hero's armored battle-van stands out in the story). But since the core story is about the titular villain going around stealing souls, something like "SOULSTORM" might have been more appropriate.
Alan Adler, who had previously worked with director Charles Band on PARASITE, spends little time with setup. Though the action supposedly takes place on an alien world with the dubious name of Lemuria, one never knows if it's a world colonized entirely by humans, some of whom have mutated into monsters like the one-eyed "Cyclopeans," or whether some of the beings are native to the world and have been obliged to mix with humans. There's also nearly no backstory for the hero. Dogen (Jeffrey Byron) is simply some sort of intergalactic ranger who's come to Lemuria looking for Jared-Syn (Mike Preston), a criminal who can suck souls from human beings and store said energies in crystals. I suppose Adler might have been trying to emulate the space-opera feel of Lucas's STAR WARS, where such concerns are also immaterial, but Adler also makes the characters flat and bereft of humor.
Given that the location footage is mostly in Bronson Canyon, director Band isn't working with wide open spaces like George Miller and countless "Mad Max" imitators. That said, Band does manage to make the predictable quest-story visually interesting at many turns. Jared-Syn possesses some vague mental-wizard skills and sometimes sends Dogen weird visions, and the main object of Dogen's quest is a magical mask with which he can counter the arch-criminal's powers. During the quest Dogen, who's a sturdy fighter despite being a dull character, makes a few allies, including frequent Band players Tim Thomerson and Richard Moll. In contrast to many of the "Max"-imitators, Band sometimes relies more of a slow build of tension than on kinetic violence, as seen in the approach of Dogen and ally Rhodes (Thomerson) to the forbidden land of the Cyclopeans.
I should note that I've never seen the film in the 3-D format, which marketing tool may have caused Band to give his film a little more visual oomph than some of his other eighties work. And even though the credits raise the expectation that it will bite the style of the SUPERMAN films, Charles Band's brother Richard contributes a lively score with no overt John Williams quotes.
Monday, January 8, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
PURPLE MONSTER-- which is what the Martian villain pictured above (Roy Barcroft) calls himself, sans any explanation-- is credited with being the first postwar serial based in science fiction tropes. He's just as much of a one-dimension "foreign invader" as many of these seen prior to and during WWII, but it's interesting that Republic Studios does a nice job of blending sci-fi "gadget-philia" with the thrills and spills of action-cinema-- something one doesn't see in the last two FLASH GORDON serials from Universal. I can imagine PURPLE MONSTER being very influential on Sam Katzman's Columbia serials, some of which share the heavy emphasis on gadgets but aren't nearly as good devising adventure[-scenarios.
In a twist on the familiar theme of world conquerors trying to latch onto new devices created by peace-loving American scientists, the Purple Monster, a native of Mars, arrives on Earth in a spaceship, and he's come looking for Doctor Layton. Layton has plans for devising a new type of jet-plane for peaceful interstellar exploration, but the Monster wants to create the vehicle so that he can take it back to Mars so that his people can create an invasion fleet.
The Monster then introduces his most prominent gadget: a vial of "Martian gas." He exposes Layton to the gas, which is immediately fatal to the Earthman. However, when the Monster exposes himself to the gas, it has a very different effect, which the script never attempts to explain. The gas causes the Martian to become invisible and insubstantial-- making him akin to a spirit. In this form he possesses and revives Layton's body, now entirely inhabited by the Martian's intelligence. For the remainder of the series, the false Layton-- much like the "false father" seen in 1941's JUNGLE GIRL-- orders various thugs to work his will. Neither of the two heroes-- Layton's niece Shelia and his two-fisted attorney Craig Foster-- realize until the serial's end how they've been manipulated and endangered by the phony scientist.
Many chapters are fairly repetitive "chase-down-the-next-part-we-need" schticks, though the fight-scenes are top of the line for Republic Studios. Late in the serial the one-man invasion force appeals to get an aide, a Martian female with the un-ironic name "Marcia." Marcia kills off an Earthwoman to assume her identity and has a tussle with Shelia (Linda Stirling) in one chapter, but this time heroine Stirling doesn't even get as much action as she did in the same year's earlier MANHUNT ON MYSTERY ISLAND. Craig (Dennis Moore) gets to have all the fun, including dealing the death-blow to the evil invader.
Saturday, January 6, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*
This stylishly photographed (in Hungary) vampire thriller was produced as a TV-movie, so it's not surprising that it was pretty low on gore and grue.
Schoolteacher Katherine (Mia Sara) mourns the passing of her father, but sees an odd spectre at the gravesite. The viewer never precisely learns what the vision was, though almost immediately Katherine decides to fly to Romania and do some research into the background of her father, whom she never knew growing up.
Wandering around Romania, Katherine encounters a helpful diplomatic aide, a baleful police officer, and a cab-driver who claims to be a slayer of vampires. Eventually Katherine finds her father Anton (Anthony Perkins), but she also finds out that he had a good reason for remaining apart from her: he's a real vampire, albeit of some strange variety that feeds on mortal blood with a sort of ALIEN-style tongue. Katherine is one of the few children to be born from the union of vampire and human, and for that reason, the local clutch of vampires, over whom Anton has some authority, is very curious about the newcomer.
It's a good thing the camera likes Sara so much, since she's in most of the scenes. I felt as if the script missed a beat in that Katherine never wants to guilt Anton for not being there for her, but the brisk plot-turns probably mitigated against that. Perkins is no better than adequate, a far cry from his stellar re-creation of Norman Bates four years previous in PSYCHO III. Katherine and Anton alone get a degree of character development, marking DARKNESS as something of a "daughter-rescues-father" fantasy, but the psychological possibilities are neglected in favor of quickly moving incidents and a bravura finish. A good time-waster, nothing more.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
I've seen a few online defenses of this quickie FRIDAY THE 13TH clone, but I'm on the side of those who think it's among the worst slashers out there. I don't expect slasher-flicks to be all that original, or even coherent, but above all they ought to be viscerally gruesome.
Somewhere or other I remember actor David Hess-- best remembered for his nasty role in 1972's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT-- grousing about his career being hurt by typecasting from that movie. That's probably true, but TO ALL A GOODNIGHT-- Hess's only directorial credit for a feature film-- seems like Hess getting a delayed revenge on horror-fans, by giving them a poorly lit and poorly staged clone of the popular FRIDAY film. On the other hand, writer Alex Rebar-- best known for playing THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN-- probably just wanted to grind something out as quickly as possible. Oddly, though, he's credited, in the same year no less, for scripting a far superior work. Arthur Jeffrey's DEMENTED. Though DEMENTED was essentially a take on 1978's controversial I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, its script was competent and occasionally affecting, the exact opposite of GOODNIGHT.
As in FRIDAY, we're presented with a bunch of horny teenagers who want to do nothing but screw their brains out. The site is an elite girls' finishing school, where only a small handful of ladies had remained in residence during Xmas break. Two older women, a cook and a den mother, are stil hanging around, but the girls are confident that they can lull their suspicions long enough for a bunch of guys to infiltrate the school and then go to town. All of the teens are even more one-note than those of the worst FRIDAY, though top-billed Jennifer Runyon plays a "good girl" who, in approved "Final Girl" tradition, survives the general carnage.
It's not exactly original, but in addition to the Santa-suited killer who commits most of the murders, Saint Prick has an accomplice on the inside. There's never any halfway plausible reason for the killer to assume the Santa disguise, and his murders don't follow any ironic Christmassy patterns, like 1984's far superior SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT. I did raise my eyebrow once when the Santa-slayer slammed an axe into a guy's head, but that was about it. The psychology of the killers is an outright steal from the first FRIDAY flick, without even lively performances to redeem it.
I can only think of one good use for GOODNIGHT. Any time some elitist critic disses the original FRIDAY, he should be obliged to watch this film, to see what real cinematic badness is like.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*
Though I naturally enjoyed this 1994 Roger Corman salute to D-cups on the visceral level, my main reason for re-watching it was to see whether or not it qualified as a combative adventure. The short answer is "not."
In 1994 co-directors Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski had already established themselves as practiced makers of softcore tit-flicks, and DINOSAUR ISLAND fills that niche adequately if unexceptionally. The 1976 KILMA, QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS has a similar plot-- modern-day men find their way onto an island inhabited by sexy amazons-- but the Spanish flick gives the amazons a little more agency than one sees in this B-flick. Four army guys-- a captain escorting three goofball deserters to their "just desserts"-- crash-land on the island and find a bevy of amazons. The girls have seen outsiders before, and somehow this resulted in a prophecy of great warriors who would save the spear-wielding ladies from "the Great One," a really big (and really badly animated) tyrannosaurus.
The girls don't get to do much, aside from a catfight between Michelle Bauer and Toni Naples over whether or not to kill the intruders. The guys live to challenge the Great One and manage to kill the dino with their advanced weaponry. It's such a straightforward destruction that I didn't think the violence qualified for combative status.
Bad dinos, good boobs. Nothing more to say.
Tuesday, January 2, 2018
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*
Whenever I've viewed CONAN THE BARBARIAN, I've noted that the film was for the most part well-written for a barbarian adventure, though one of its standout dialogue-passages—the famed “Conan, what is best in life” passage—has come in for endless mockery. CONAN THE DESTROYER is far more deserving of mockery. However, because the film has no standout lines of dialogue, good or bad, it doesn’t generally get the “bad movies we love” treatment given to cinematic oddballs like TROLL 2 and the whole Ed Wood oeuvre.
Given that the same producers approved both BARBARIAN and DESTROYER, it’s tempting to suppose that they fundamentally had no understanding of the Conan franchise, not unlike the relationship of the Salkinds to the Superman franchise. In the third Superman film the Salkinds seemingly did everything they could to reject all the elements that director Richard Donner brought to the table. Similarly, in CONAN THE DESTROYER, producers Pressman and de Laurentis seem to willfully reject John Milius’s Nietzchean warrior in favor of the blandest possible excuse for sword-and-sorcery thrills.
The film’s utter failure even to deliver decent thrills is even more amazing when one knows that the core ideas for this lumbering bore came from two comics-writers, both at least familiar with the property. One of them, Gerry Conway, didn't set his hand to the sword-and-sorcery genre often—though he did pen a few issues of Marvel's KULL THE CONQUEROR title—but the other story-contributor was Roy Thomas, who was primarily responsible for bringing the whole Robert E. Howard corpus of works into the Marvel Comics domain. Thomas wrote the CONAN comic book for almost ten straight years, so one would think that he and Conway—with whom Thomas occasionally partnered on comics-scripts—would have cobbled together a really good story, whether a direct Howard adaptation or a reshuffling of Howardian motifs, like Milius’s BARBARIAN script. True, the final screenplay is credited to one Stanley Mann, but if he improved in any way on the original story, it was probably in the nature of polishing a turd.
While movie-Conan need not be in any every way a fairhful adaptation of the character from either the prose stories or the comic books, DESTROYER starts off with a pointless mischaracterization, wherein the dour Cimmerian, usually skittish about sorcery in any form, is persuaded to make a Faustian bargain with a sorceress. The film apparently takes place not long after the events of BARBARIAN, for the stoic hero is still mourning for his great love Valeria, killed by Thulsa Doom. Conan has also, for reasons undisclosed, teamed up with a shrimpy guy, one Malak, whose only talent is to provide unfunny comedy relief. The sorceress Taramis (Sarah Douglas) has a bunch of soldiers try to capture Conan and Malak, and Conan fights them off. Taramis then appears, not even bothering with the usual “I had to test your mettle” excuse, and offers her bargain: in exchange for Conan’s services, she’ll bring back Valeria from the dead. This thin motivation doesn’t even really match up to the characterization of the Milius film, and seems designed to do no more than set the hero on his path as quickly as possible.
Hardly any background is devoted to Taramis or her plans, but she wants Conan to escort her niece, the princess Jehana (Olivia d;Abo), on a quest to steal a fabled magical jewel from a sorcerer. In what seems a loose borrowing from medieval myths of virgins and unicorns, Jehana is the only one who can handle the jewel without ill effects and bring it back to her native city for a special ritual. Little does Jehana know that the ritual calls for the sacrifice of the virgin princess. The jewel will also bring to life the evil dragon-god Dagoth, who presumably will enrich the mortals who revived him with some other Faustian deal. Conan, his dopey buddy, and Jehana are accompanied in their mission by Taramis’s soldier Bombatta (a sullen Wilt Chamberlain), but on the way Conan manages to pick up two more helpers. One is Akiro, a shaman seen in the first movie, and again played by Mako, while the other, female warrior Zula, is represented via the dubious thesping of Grace Jones Even for a sword-and-sorcery film, it’s a pretty motley crew, and the script doesn’t make any effort toward forging any “esprit de corps.”
The real reason Jehana has to go along, of course, is that she has to fall for the allegedly “handsome” warrior, and he, to some small extent, with her. The raffish group finds its way to the sanctum of the wizard who holds the sacred jewel. The wizard proves to be a minor threat even for a secondary villain, for even when the heroes choose to camp out for the night, the wizard doesn’t choose to attack them in their sleep. He makes things easy for them by simply spiriting away Jehana, for some wizardly purpose of his own—after which the heroes penetrate his sanctum with ridiculous ease. The sorcerer’s only defense is a super-strong demon who manifests out of a hall of mirrors. The demon gives Conan a rough time until the barbarian lucks onto the creature’s weakness: smash his mirrors, and he dies. After that, Conan takes out the sorcerer himself. About the only good about this tedious sequence is the fact that when Thomas and Conway gave their catchpenny conjurer the name “Toth-Amon,” I think they were admitting that he couldn’t be compared with “Thoth-Amon,” the genuinely compelling villain of various Conan stories.
Even after the jewel has been obtained, the script then takes a page from various ‘sword-and-sandal” films by having the heroes get sidetracked several times. In the process Conan finds out that Jehana’s supposed to be sacrificed, so Bombatta betrays his princess by abducting her and taking her back to the city for the ritual. Conan and his loyal followers give chase, infiltrate the city, and invade the throne-room just as the dragon-god is brought to life. Their advent prevents Jehana from being sacrificed. However, evil Taramis—probably not a virgin—is suffers the somewhat phallic fate she intended for her niece, that of being gored on the horn of the dragon-god—for, just like the aforementioned unicorn, Dagoth has a single horn in his skull. Conan, though he hasn’t attempted to steal Jehana’s virginity during the whole film, earns his “destroyer” status by ripping off the god’s symbol of virility, thus vanquishing it. After the god has been banished and the villains defeated, Jehana tries to keep the barbarian with her, but he’s off to his next adventure—which never took place, at least as an actual Conan movie.
The best thing I can say about the film is that in 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger was still in his prime, so he looks great, particularly in his heroic battle against the dragon-god. Everything else, though, is largely a misfire, and, given the production budget involved, it seems a more egregious failure than even direct-to-video fodder like THESCORPION KING 3. Even the most intriguing psychological angle of the original script is botched. It’s a given that, whenever you have an older queen seeking to get rid of a young princess-type, it’s an “age vs. youth” conflict. But this aspect might have been enhanced if the standard release had included an early scene in which Taramis seduced Conan before sending him on his way. Of course, the rest of the film would not have devoted any attention to a competition between aunt and niece over Conan’s prodigious pectorals, but even the sight of the barbarian being tempted by both comely age and burgeoning youth would have added a little spice to the overall tedium.
Reportedly a script for a third Conan film was prepared, but was reworked for the 1997 KULL THE CONQUEROR, produced by Raffaela de Laurentis, daughter of Dino, who produced the first two Conans. This switch-over seems more than appropriate, since the first Conan film used as its villain a character given the name “Thulsa Doom.” In Howard’s prose stories, Doom was the foremost foe of King Kull, who lived ages before Conan and who may have been Conan’s distant ancestor, depending on who you ask. Further, the repurposed script is somewhat improved by shifting its attention from a roving barbarian who may someday become a king, to a somewhat settled-down barbarian who has already become a king and has to deal with all the resultant hassles.
KULL’s script also uses some elements from Howard’s only Conan novel, THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON. In this narrative, Conan has already become a king, and is forced to oppose a conspiracy that will unleash a long-dead sorcerer, and his long-vanished city Acheron, upon the barbarian’s contemporary world. KULL revises this scenario with some metaphysical tweaks: now Acheron, a city of sin, has been banished into limbo by the good god Valka, who allows an eternal flame to burn and to remind mortals of “godless times.” Movie-Kull (Kevin Sorbo), like prose-Kull, battles Borna, the current king of Valursia—the modern realm built upon the ashes of Acheron—and, after killing Borna, assumes Borna’s kingship. As in the novel, conspirators attempt to revive Acheron to its old evil glory, but instead of bringing an evil sorcerer to life first, the villains revive a sorceress, Akivasha (Tia Carrere), whose name is taken from a minor vampire-character in HOUR OF THE DRAGON.
In the Howard stories, Kull is a grim, brooding barbarian, and various conspirators in Valusia maneuver him into fighting King Borna, hoping that they will reap the reward after Kull does their dirty work. Instead, Kull seizes the throne, though his barbarian nature never sits well with the heavy responsibilities of kingship. However, the movie changes this scenario, not so much to be in line with HOUR OF THE DRAGON, but to make the hero more likable, in line with Sorbo’s heroic persona on the then-current HERCULES THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS teleseries.
These compromises in the film’s first third show the most interesting psychological motifs. Kull is first seen being inducted into the Valusian army by General Taligaro, who duels Kull while lecturing him on the superiority of nobility to the barbarian ethos. Then all of the soldiers are drawn to the Valusian palace by the news that King Borna has gone mad, killing all or most of his heirs. Kull fights Borna not for personal gain, but to preserve life. The dying Borna, who apparently has a quasi-paternal feeling toward Kull, bequeathes the crown to the barbarian. A lot of Valusians aren’t happy about having an outsider for a king, though this Kull, being a Hercules-type “good guy,” gains some traction by advocating religious freedom and the end of slavery.
Though Borna apparently had heirs before he killed them, nothing is said about Kull inheriting a queen or a consort of any kind. However, Kull’s court adviser introduces the hero to a harem full of slave-girls, informing Kull that they’re all his now. Being too nice a guy to take advantage of women, Kull only has eyes for one slave-girl, the prophetess Zareta. A vague backstory is cited, in which Kull apparently made advances on Zareta. It’s never clear if the late King Borna took advantage of Zareta’s charms—though she does mention, much later and in another context, that she’s not a virgin. However, it’s briefly mentioned that Borna “had a fit” when Kull tampered with Zareta, which almost sounds much like an irate father getting mad at his daughter’s ill-mannered suitor. By ceding the kingship to Kull, though, Borna also ceded the sexual right to Zareta or any other slave-girl. Again, Sorbo-Kull is too good-hearted a guy to take advantage of a woman, though he does try to follow up on his earlier advances. Zareta, though she reciprocates Kull’s feelings, shuts him out by affecting to be no more than an unenthusiastic slave.
Kull won't have sex with an unwilling woman, but he’s apparently still rather horny, for the next day he’s looking for his next queen among the available noblewomen. However, certain conspirators have revived the 3,000-year old corpse of the evil sorceress Akivasha, who then passes herself as one of the noblewoman. She ensorceres Kull into choosing and marrying her, and, on their wedding night, gives Kull a kiss that makes him seem to be dead. Later, after Akivasha has been acknowledged as Valusia’s new queen, she wakes Kull up and tells him she’s decided to honor him with her attentions after all. But Kull manages to get free and, allying himself with Zareta and her priest-brother, seeks to procure “the breath of Valka,” a magical power able to banish the ageless sorceress.
After this promising setup, the rest of KULL is just the usual sword-and-sorcery, adequately handled but never surprising, except for two elements. One is the highly unusual casting of comedian Harvey Feinstein as one of Kull’s old rogue-friends. The other is the climax, where, in order to utilize the “breath of Valka,” Sorbo-Kull has to kiss Akivasha in her form of a big ugly demon. Neither of these elements is anything brilliant, but they were at least eyebrow-raising. There’s also a subplot in that General Taligaro, Kull's former commander, is one of the conspirators, with whom Kull has a couple of lively fights, but as a character Taligaro is pretty routine.
In short, KULL THE CONQUEROR doesn’t set the barbarian bar any higher. But its medium-level thrills are a good deal better than most films in this genre.
Thursday, December 28, 2017
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*
Given all the ballyhoo surrounding the Disney Croporation’s purchase of George Locas’s most famous creation, this film might have been credibly subtitled THE FRANCHISE AWAKENS.
While the purchase put a lot of shekels in Lucas’s pockets, it could have resulted in a poor exchange for all audiences looking for a new STAR WARS adventures. Corporations that take over properties have been known to re-assert their “brand” over said properties by attempting ill-considered remakes or reboots of said properties. Of course, remakes and reboots come about even when corporate properties don’t change hands—the most relevant one being the 2009 reboot of the STAR TREK franchise. Producer-director J.J. Abrams orchestrated that re-branding, which, as I’ve noted here, was something less than a total aesthetic success.
When I first viewed Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS last year, I was much more impressed with the results of this work. I’m sure that some of my satisfaction eventuated from the fact that FORCE was not a remake or reboot, but a continuation of the ongoing saga. That said, the continuation follows some patterns of the re-brainding process. The story, though technically new, follows a pattern that some fans found repetitious way back when Lucas repeated his ‘destroy the Death Star” schtick in 1983’s RETURN OF THE JEDI. The script makes no bones about originality, either: BB-8, a new “cute droid,” is introduced early on, but late in the film the story had BB-8 come in contact with both C3P-O and R2D2. Thus the new kid on the block seems to picking up a passed torch rather than usurping a beloved role.
In the case of actors who aren’t playing non-aging droids, the necessity of replacement is far more crucial. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess (now General) Leia, and Chewbacca all make appearances, with Harrison Ford’s Solo getting the lion’s share of screen-time, for reasons relating to the film’s denouement. But all four are on the second tier next to two more new kids, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). In future chapters the two of them will almost certainly accrue further allies of consequence, but FORCE is constructed to sell Rey and Finn as the new core of Disney’s STAR WARS universe.
Before going into greater detail regarding the film’s heroes, I'll touch on the greater weakness of "New Star Wars": its villains. The original Empire has fallen within a time-span roughly covalent with that of the older actors’ life-spans. Now a new threat to the Republic arises: the First Order, said to have been built from the remnants of the old Empire, and once more empowered behind the scenes by two Sith Lords. The elder Sith, Snoke, is no better or worse than Lucas’s Emperor, but Kylo Ren, “the new Darth Vader,” reminds me less of the original’s samurai-like formidability and more of “whiny Anakin” from the prequel trilogy. His entire arc is predicated on the tremendous irony that he is the seed of the love between Han and Leia, but this alone is not enough to make him a memorable opponent.
Similarly, the fact that Kylo trained under Luke Skywalker doesn’t give him any gravitas, either. However, it’s an interesting psychological touch that the script, by having Luke be Kylo’s teacher, makes him the symbolic offspring of the Luke-Leia-Han triangle. Skywalker fled the inhabited galaxies prior to the rise of the First Order, specifically because he, as much as Kylo’s literal parents, failed in the parental duty of keeping the kid from Turning to the Darth Side.
Skywalker himself is the prize sought by Rey, Finn and assorted Republic allies, and the script does an admirable job of hewing to the simple charm of the original STAR WARS: two opposed sides seeking the same McGuffin. It’s certainly preferable to Lucas’s elephantine attempts at governmental conspiracy in the prequel trilogy, though here the Republic takes a back seat to the Resistance commanded by General Leia.
As for the First Order, its name alone gave me some hope that it might not be just another space-opera version of the Roman Empire; that it might more of a theocratic rebellion along the lines of al-Qaeda. No such luck, though: it’s the same old Stormtrooper methods.
That said, the Stormtroopers themselves get a “soft reboot.” I’m not enough of a WARS expert to know how serious George Lucas was when he suggested, in ATTACK OF THE CLONES, that all of the Empire’s soldiers were clones descended from one individual, Jango Fett. I’m not even sure what advantage Lucas thought this would give troops: to be dependent on one skill-set.
Here alone the Disney franchise significantly rewrites Lucas: now most if not all Stormtroopers are abducted from their homeworlds and trained to be obedient soldiers. In this essay, I noted how the misprision between Lucas’s ideas and those conceived under the Disney regime resulted in WARS fans evincing a negative reaction to the reaction that Finn would be a black stormtrooper. This was not, as some leftist pundits claimed, racism, but a perception regarding continuity. The Disney rewrite takes the emphasis off Lucas’s attempt to justify a tossed-off reference to “clone wars,” and implicates the Empire/First Order in a space-faring version of organized slavery, including, but not limited to, the Africa Diaspora.
That said, the character of Finn, though an improvement on the one-dimensional Lando Calrissian, remains underdeveloped in FORCE. He’s sometimes given the aura of a “Han Solo in training,” but this aspect of his function gets sidetracked when Rey, not Finn, forms a quasi-paternal bond with the original. In fact Rey displays aspects of all of her parental influences,combining Han’s talents for piloting and scrounging, Leia’s feminine hauteur, and Luke’s instinctive connection with the Force. The film ends with her making contact with Luke, who, I assume, will become her mentor. Whether or not Finn receives comparable character development remains to be seen in the sequel.
Surprisingly, director Abrams is as good a fit in the Lucas Universe as he was bad in the Roddenberry one. In my first viewing of FORCE, I was impressed by a simple scene in which Rey, having scavenged a wrecked ship, uses an improvised “sled’ to descend a high sand-dune. That one scene, more than any number of animated ray-blasts or whizzing tie-fighters, captures the essence of the original STAR WARS: full of Lucas’s love for the cinema’s transformation of sheer motion into visual poetry.
To be sure, Abrams doesn’t possess the talent evinced by the Lucas of 1977 for synthesizing great action-scenes from Classic Hollywood: the western’s saloon-confrontation, the pirate film’s yardarm-flights, the war film’s airborne strafing-runs. But then, given that even later Lucas lost his mojo in this department, it’s hard to expect Abrams to do him one better. FORCE AWAKENS is at least a good start to a new franchise, and a much better reworking than others that I could have—or already have—mentioned.