“I started to cry.”
That’s what my wife said as we walked out of the theater after watching The Force Awakens. When that John Williams’ Star Wars theme kicked in and those yellow words started scrolling through deep space, I have to admit, I started feeling pretty warm and fuzzy myself, and I’m not the most sentimental of people.
It was a huge plus that The Force Awakens is an OK flick. Back when Episode I came out, my boss and I split five hours sitting in line in the south Texas heat to score tickets for opening night. Then we were treated to a raging shitfest of a “film” that would be best forgotten. Poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed and with a focus more on scenery and settings than character development or story – thanks, George Lucas – The Phantom Menace made a mockery of the Star Wars franchise.
I think that accounts for some of the insanity surrounding The Force Awakens. Episodes I-III were so poorly done, so uneven, so tedious that the bar was set incredibly low for Episode VII. The Force Awakens introduces two great new characters – Rey and Finn – as well as setting up a number of potentially interesting strings that will be unraveled in the next couple of movies. Real scenery was favored over computer-generated worlds, there was character development, the dialogue was easily better than anything from the first three episodes and more.
But there’s plenty going on that’s just not that good. For example, Rey and Finn’s introduction to Han and Chewbacca. “Hey, there’s billions of people in the universe, billions upon billions of stars and planets, and billions upon billions upon billions of mileage in the galaxy, but pretty much the second Rey and Finn enter space, they run into the one person and one wookie they most need to run into.” The odds of that happening are pretty much like winning the Powerball and the Mega Millions jackpots, receiving a Pulitzer, getting elected president of the United States and being struck by lightning six times … all on the same day. And don’t try blaming The Force for defying the odds. It’s poorly done.
And then it gets worse. Abrams brings in Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 for cameos in the scene right after the previously mentioned fortuitous meeting, when Han’s man-eating cargo escapes and starts slinging blood and body parts around his ship. Why cast two of the biggest martial arts badasses on the planet only to have them run around and scream like little girls playing “Bloody Mary” at a sleepover? Beyond me.
There are other things, as well. The dialogue and acting in the scene where Han and Leia reunite was hard to watch it was so poorly done. I’m not sure why everyone was so excited about Oscar Isaac. Loved him in Ex Machina, but in The Force Awakens, he’s an under-cooked, third-rate Han. Kylo Ren is a sullen, uninteresting douche like his Grandpa Anakin and not worthy of his Grandpa Vader’s helmet. The scenes at Leia’s base are poorly framed and look cheaply done. And so on.
This is when the insanity surrounding The Force Awakens kicks in. People are willing to forgive a lot because Han is back acting cocky, the shadow of Luke hangs over all of the proceedings, Leia is still running things and Chewy provides some laughs. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of that. But the nostalgia is not enough to hide The Force Awakens weaknesses, and it’s surely not enough to make it the highest-grossing ever … at least, in my opinion.
I had similar feelings about Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Luckily, it’s a better film than The Force Awakens. Jennifer Jason Lee put herself back on the map with her performance as Daisy Domergue. The snowy shots of Wyoming, a terrific cast and the claustrophobic setting of Minnie’s Harberdashery were all solid.
But the story mostly benefits from its similarities to Reservoir Dogs, which I think is the superior film. Quentin Tarantino fans love seeing QT faves like Kurt Russell, Samuel Jackson, Michael Madsen and others getting all macho and manly and staring each other down. It’s like Tarantino made a three-hour film out of the Mexican standoff at the end of Dogs. At lot of classic Tarantino.
Which is the problem. I think Tarantino did a better job of building the tension in the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds than he did in Eight. I think the showdown in Reservoir Dogs benefits from a better build-up than Eight. I think the Bride’s story of revenge is superior to that of Major Warren. I think Madsen and Tim Roth were better in Reservoir Dogs and Russell is better in Death Proof. And this is the most Jules-like Jackson has been since Pulp Fiction. I was waiting for him to start screaming, “What does Abraham Lincoln look like? Does he look like a bitch?”
Again, though, that doesn’t mean Hateful Eight is bad. It’s probably a better film than Death Proof, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Django Unchained and 95% of what landed in theaters in 2015. And fully admit that I look forward to the day I go to see a stage production of Hateful Eight, because it’s just waiting to be adapted.
For me, though, both in the case of The Hateful Eight and The Force Awakens, the nostalgia doesn’t make up for the flaws. But judging from reviews and box office numbers, I may be alone in that.
So it goes.