The first teaser for Star Wars Episode VII has hit the internet. (I’m dragging my feet about calling the movie by it’s humiliatingly stupid name.) I know a lot of people are excited by it, but I’m not. I had pretty low expectations going into it, too. Nevertheless, it disappointed me. With people saying that it hit all the right Star Wars “notes” though, I thought I’d try to explain my position. I don’t suspect I’m going to change anyone’s opinion and of course I’m not going to convince J. J. Abrams to fix anything–he will likely never even hear of me–but here are reasons why I’m more convinced then ever that the new Star Wars movie will be terrible.
There Has Been an Abstraction
The teaser begins with what appears to be an establishing shot of a desert. For those first four seconds I was entirely on board. Then the voice-over started. I usually don’t mind those–and I’m ok with the particular voice in question–but there were two problems. First, the speaker seemed to be having trouble with the dialogue; his rhythm and enunciation were awkward, like a person trying to read a poem dramatically even though he doesn’t understand it, or a person saying things in a foreign language that he doesn’t know. The words may be right, but there’s a disconnect. It feels off.
In this case however, the problem isn’t really the speaker. The dialogue in question is terrible, especially for Star Wars dialogue. We’re going to come back to this later too: there’s a certain flavor to Star Wars, and that flavor is important. For lack of a better word, we’re going to say that things in the Star Wars universe are functional, or perhaps “lived-in.”
Think of it like clothes. Some people have two sorts: fancy clothes and everyday clothes. The fine clothes are for special occasions only, because they can’t really endure anything but careful treatment. If people wore their fancy clothes all of the time, they would wear out or get ruined. Imagine newlyweds who wore a white dress and a tuxedo at their wedding, and then also while cleaning their house, lounging around watching television, and hurriedly eating spaghetti before a meeting. This is why people have everyday clothes; the everyday clothes are for their actual lives. They’re plainer but sturdier and more reliable. The Star Wars movies introduced us to a universe that was ancient and lived in, and everything in it was of the plainer but sturdier and more reliable variety.
Even the language was that sort. In the original trilogy, we get introduced to some vague concepts and some complex relationships, but nobody uses any vague or complex language. The dialogue instead approaches vague and complex things along the most functional path. As a common example, we don’t know what it’s like to be connected to the Force and then to feel something significant through it, we can still understand the idea of a disturbance because that’s a purely practical word. It doesn’t make anything more complicated than it needs to be. It points something out and lets the characters get back to doing things in response to it, and characters doing things is the point of the story.
Compare this to the first sentence in the teaser: “There has been an awakening.” Aside from justifying the title of the movie, it doesn’t communicate anything. Seriously, do you have any idea what the speaker is talking about? Do you have any idea what characters should do in response to it? It’s just a fancy word for the sake of being fancy, and it doesn’t do the basic thing that words are supposed to do. Now imagine he had said, “There has been a disturbance,” instead. You might need to see the movie to know what specifically he was talking about, but at least you would know what he was saying.
What we have in the trailer, especially as the voice-over continues, is an awkwardly delivered fancy-clothes soliloquy, What we should want is a well delivered everyday-clothes soliloquy. That would be more like Star Wars.
So, just a few seconds into the teaser, we have two signs of trouble: J. J. Abrams either doesn’t recognize or doesn’t care that the actor is having trouble; and J. J. Abrams either doesn’t recognize or doesn’t care about the atmosphere of the trilogy who’s legacy he’s attempting to continue. This may seem minor, and maybe it would be, but then the teaser continues.
A Very Urgent Desert
After a full ten seconds of seeing empty desert, we find out that it isn’t an establishing shot at all. There’s actually been a storm trooper below the frame, presumably for the whole time. What’s he been doing there? Why did we need to looking at nothing for so long before he stood up? Why did he stand up so quickly? If he was in such a hurry, why not just stand sooner?
All of these are questions ultimately about directorial decisions, and all of them have the same basic answer: J. J. Abrams likes cheap surprises and frenetic action. He is of course entitled to like those things, but his eagerness to employ them tends to get in his own way (assuming that his goal is to make good movies). Consider his recent Star Trek movies; they’re frequently muddles of hurried jumping, as though the plot were trying to imitate a rave. None of the rush and bother really services the story though; it neither advances nor depends upon the story at all. It’s just a series of throwaway moments.
It’s an effective method of preventing boredom, I suppose, or at least suppressing awareness of it, but I tend to think that plot and characters are a better method. One way to get an audience through a two hour movie is to fill it with exciting moments, whether they’re important to the movie or not. (In Mr. Abram’s films they’re usually not.) Another way to get an audience through a two hour movie is to make the movie itself interesting.
Is it important to the movie that we not know the storm trooper is there, that he’s there by surprise? Is it important to his character that he’s desperate never be found lying in the desert, so that if he found himself there (presumably against his will) he would stand up really quickly as though the whole thing had never happened? Or is it more likely that this is just a throwaway moment to inject excitement, something to startle the audience a little bit for no particular reason?
Movies full of throwaway moments become throwaway movies (like the recent Star Trek movies). Either J. J. Abrams doesn’t expect any more than that, which is sad, or he has no confidence in the movie’s ability to be interesting on it’s own, which is disappointing. Neither is a good sign for the next Star Wars movie.
All of the R2 Units had Scheduling Trouble
Then we get to the rolling droid. At this point in the teaser I finally uttered my first sigh of resignation.
First, this is a terrible design for a droid. If you want your droid to be mobile, which of these seems better, giving it wheels or having it’s entire body roll on the dirt and rocks? I know that most of my inventions involve the sort of inherently self-destructive behavior exemplified by the latter. And this ignores the obvious question of how the little thing’s head is associated to the rest of it.
Even more, this is a terrible Star Wars design for the reason I explained above: it’s not functional. This is not the sort of droid that the people of the universe could use in their everyday lives–it would break in one of a thousand ways–so it’s probably not the sort of droid that they would want. Attach it’s head and give the things wheels; problem solved. Instead, it’s a jarring change from the rest of the technology we see; it doesn’t fit in the Star Wars universe.
Instead it’s just novelty for novelty’s sake. It would fit into Abram’s Star Trek Universe, but only because that universe’s technology is marked by a chaotic mess of poorly vetted ideas. The technology is just a physical expression of the “throwaway moment” phenomenon I mentioned above. Someone had an idea and they put it in the movie, because ultimately nothing about the movie mattered and so it didn’t matter if the idea was good.
Clearly someone wanted a cute and plucky droid, so they made one without too much thought. Maybe they thought the rolling body would be an entertaining visual. They were right. It certainly fits with the “frenetic action” theme I mentioned above too. It’s a perfectly charming throwaway moment. It’s terrible Star Wars though, and it’s hard to imagine that the rest of the movie will be good if no one cared enough about it to rule out such a stupid and distinctively unfitting idea.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on “Storm Trooping: The Movie,” “He Won’t Seem Evil Enough If We Don’t Invent a New Sort of Lightsaber,” and “Just Hold The Camera Still, Man!”