Saturday, 13 February 2016

Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens (tenth-pass)

World of Blackout Film Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Stormtrooper Poster

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (tenth-pass / 2D / SPOILERS)
Cert: 12A / 135 mins / Dir. J.J.Abrams / Trailer

Previous reviews:
• First-pass (spoiler-free)
• Second-pass (spoiler-free)
• Third-pass (thematic-spoilers)
• Fourth-pass (plot-spoilers)
• Fifth-pass (plot-spoilers)
• Sixth-pass (plot-spoilers)
• 7th-pass (spoiler-free)
• 8th-pass (plot-spoilers)
• 9th-pass (plot-spoilers)

And with that, dear reader, my own personal record was broken. The incumbent champion for most cinema viewings in a single theatrical run was 1999's The Phantom Menace with nine showings (followed closely by 2008's Clone Wars with eight). But my Unlimited Card, excess of free-time*1 and the extended run of The Force Awakens coincided today. I'd originally planned to see my local's 'final showing' of the film, but since it's now being shown only once daily at 11am, I won't be able to make weekday performances (and I suspect that this coming Thursday will be the last one). But it's fantastic to be able to watch this movie in a cinema almost two months after its initial release. It certainly takes the sting out waiting for the DVD, at any rate.

+ + + + + + + + + +

But I didn't call you all here for that self-congratulatory nonsense. No, I wanted to ask you a question. You know in the film's opening shot when the camera pans down after the rolling intro-text? What planet is that we're looking at? Now, your first instinct will be to respond with "…that's Jakku, of course", but after seeing the film more times than is good for anybody, I'm not convinced that it is…

• The opening crawl directly references Jakku, and that's where our first scene-proper takes place. But the planet we're looking at which is gradually eclipsed by the Star Destroyer is white-ish grey, which would suggest a snow/ice planet. We see Jakku from space on two later occasions (Poe and Finn's escape sequence and the later shot of the Star Destroyer hanging in orbit) and it's shown to be a sandy yellow and looks clearly different from this one.

• Additionally, when the four landing-craft emerge from the far-side of the Star Destroyer, they move around the ship and towards the camera which is away from the huge planet we're looking at. That's hardly fuel-efficient if they're meant to be headed towards it.

• Also, the troop-carriers land on the night-side of Jakku, and since the planet we're looking at is illuminated for the audience to see, it'd be daylight on that nearest half. Again, you wouldn't come out of hyperspace on one side of a planet then send your troops the long way round, would you? Especially when the object of their mission is time-sensitive. It seems more likely the craft are travelling to an adjacent planet, unseen behind the audience's position, the landing-zone of which would be under nightfall (although the sky seems to be getting lighter when BB-8 escapes over the dunes, so the party presumably landed shortly before sunrise).

• I'd thought maybe the body we're initially looking at is a moon of Jakku, but the Wookieepedia page tells us that Jakku only has one moon, yet the one we're looking at has a small red moon itself, suggesting it's another planet in the system…

• …but then, why would you park-up next to one planet if you're deploying troops to another? Given the size of the world we're looking at relative to the Star Destroyer, it's inconceivable that Jakku is within commuting distance since the gravitational pull between the two worlds would be catastrophic for both. So maybe the one we're looking at with the small moon is Jakku and the colour-balancing's out for that opening shot? Because of course Disney/Lucasfilm would make a colour-correction error in the first shot of the most eagerly anticipated movie of all time...

Conclusion: of course it is and isn't Jakku: Schrödinger's planet.

+ + + + + + + + + +

But I didn't call you here for a geography lesson. No, I wanted to talk about Human Resources: we need to talk about Stormtroopers. FN-2187 in particular, but Stormtroopers in general…

The GFFA's guys in white have long been lambasted and ridiculed of course, most notably due to the "barn door target practice" section apparently being torn out of each and every textbook in the Imperial Academy. But the real-world fact is that in order for Star Wars' heroes to succeed, the ground troops of the Empire/First Order have to be flawed in some way, otherwise personnel numbers alone would ensure the Rebellion/Resistance wouldn't get as far as ordering their headed paper, never mind overthrowing the fascist regime. Because if one Stormtrooper is a bad-ass, then an army of them would be unstoppable. Which, from an in-movie perspective, is supposed to be very much the point.

But y'know, there are flaws and there are flaws.

I'll take this moment to say that this post doesn't include information from the Journey To The Force Awakens media-series from LFL, which provides background and build-up across the 30 years between RotJ and TFA. This is partially because the vast majority of the film's audience won't have read these books (and never will) and will only have the movie's exposition to go from, but it's more because I haven't read them yet either. I'm getting there, but I'm pretty busy. That said, I'll also be making a couple of comparisons to the old Expanded Universe (which is now re-graded as 'Legends'), if only because those parts of the continuity haven't yet been over-written. But generally speaking, the points I raise below are taken from the information stated or implied by the script/screenplay/novel of The Force Awakens.

Contains spoilers from this point onward. Obviously.
Although I'd be more than a little surprised if you were reading my tenth-pass review of a movie which has been out for almost two months, yet hadn't seen it yourself...

"Like all of them, I was taken from a family I'll never know and raised to do one thing." ~ FN-2187 / Finn.

"My men are exceptionally trained, programmed from birth." ~ General Hux.

So, expanding on an observation from my fifth review, what's with the First Order's HR Department? Is child-snatching really the best recruitment method when it comes to building an effective army? Presumably there was a meeting shortly after the Battle of Endor where this whole 'induct 'em while they're young' idea was proposed and accepted. And I can only imagine this meeting either took place on a Friday afternoon, or there was a lot of cake going around resulting in people not really taking in what was being said, because it's ridiculously inefficient, frankly.

Okay, this is a long post, even for me. It's not directionless, I promise you, but it's not a short ride. Before you read any further you might want to go and grab a cuppa or a pint or something. No seriously, do that now.

You back? Fantastic, let's crack on…

A bit of history: Around sixty-five years before the events of The Force Awakens (around thirty seven years before the Battle of Endor), a wise old Sith lord by the name of Darth Plagueis plots to overthrow the Republic. For this he stages a war, so he needs two armies. Since a clandestine approach is needed in the run-up to all of this, the easiest way of assembling the forces is just to build them. One side consists primarily of droids. Easy to assemble, easy to defeat and easy to conveniently switch off in the event of a surprise 'victory'. But since a droid-vs-droid battle won't be engaging enough for the galaxy Plagueis is trying to hoodwink, a more human face is needed for the side who'll have the moral high-ground. Enter the Kaminoans, master cloning technologists who can build you as many as you want of whatever you like - and in this case, in half the time. The Sith have control, via the Kaminoans, over the genetic make-up, behavioural tendencies, education, discipline and training of their army. Even if the clones were fighting against a conventional opponent, they'd still be a more formidable force since their superiors know exactly what they're capable of, so can apply suitable numbers to each campaign as needed, or re-train if necessary. The tight genetic control minimises the unpredictable factors which an army of regular humans is subject to, and at the end of the day they're just property, so there's less paperwork involved at the morgue-end of things. Sounds utterly inhuman? Of course it is, it's the Sith's plan for galactic domination, not a day-trip to the zoo.

Twenty-two years or so later, Plagueis' plan has come to fruition, albeit without Plagueis. His eager apprentice, Darth Sidious, has stepped in to see that everything ran smoothly and found himself promoted in the process. The war was won by the clones, but more importantly the hearts and minds of galactic civilisation were won too, who had over the course of an escalating three-year engagement come to think of the Clone Troopers as A Very Good Thing Indeed. This suits Mr. Sidious down to the ground, of course, as although he's victorious, he still needs his army to police his shiny, new regime. But of course, he's down a significant number of those troops, on account of a three-year war just having been fought. To make matters worse, the original clone-host, Jango Fett, was killed back at the beginning of the war, leading to sampling issues in the labs of Kamino. Numbers have been dwindling, as has the quality-level. Besides, the war was just for show, this is the real challenge now - keeping the galaxy in line.

While it's straightforward enough to land a garrison or two at the largest population-centre of a planet and have them announce that they're in charge now so everyone had better buck up their ideas, it's only as smooth as the people you're trying to beat into submission. Brute-force is fine where it's absolutely necessary, but a planet of regular folks aren't going to just turn the page and start paying all their taxes to you because you say so. What's far more effective is to show the natives that you're on their side, protect them from some fabricated bogeyman (and/or terrorist organisation like, say, The Rebellion) and let them decide - all in their own good time of course - that they'd be better off with you, fighting for you. That way they're defending their own home against a perceived threat, which also happens to be the threat which The Establishment doesn't like, either. Sounds utterly manipulative and insincere? Of course it is, it's the Sith's plan for galactic domination, not sharing out a bag of sweets.

Of course, while you've got a galaxy-wide army of willing enforcers, you have little actual control over their standards. Even sticking to humans-only recruitment (Palpatine was a massive specist, by all accounts), they bring with them a whole range of baggage which you just didn't get when you used the clones. Motivational issues, sick-days, differing planetary, social and emotional foibles, and the fact that you haven't trained them all to exacting standards from birth. So you set up an Imperial Academy and a set of entrance and training exams to weed out the worst-performers, but there's still going to be a last-place in every race. Your best operatives are outstanding, but it only takes two dullards in a scanning-crew to have their uniforms stolen on a routine stop-and-search, then everyone's in the shit.

While it's far from perfect, the whole thing goes okay and is fairly effective until the high-command gets taken out at the battle of Endor. With the second Death Star still uncompleted, it's not like you lost all your Stormtroopers that day, but the Empire is an organisational shambles afterwards. You need to retreat, regroup and retrain. You need more Stormtroopers. You set up a new headquarters out in the Unknown Regions and someone in HR suggests that since you're now operating out of the public eye (and because Terry from engineering forgot to bring the cloning cylinders along), the abduction and indoctrination of infants on your way out of the known galaxy is a workable solution. And because it's Friday afternoon and you want to finish early and get down the pub, you agree.

Fast-forward thirty or so years later and the New Stormtrooper Program™ is in full swing, and successfully so! Elite killing machines, ready to despatch at a moment's notice and unquestioningly follow orders for the greater glory of The First Order. Gone are the clones who can be taken out with a single biologically-weaponised disease, gone are the saggy, middle-aged recruits who wanted to be part of something but stretched the medical department to breaking-point with their requests for ventolin and eyesight-tests. This is the way forward, and your new troops are unstoppable.

Until that one of them locks up on his first mission and ends up being responsible for the destruction of that entire planet you'd converted into a super-weapon. Yeah, him.

What kind of inherently flawed system could allow a soldier like FN-2187 to be produced?

Now IRL, I work in Quality Assurance, where the prevention of non-conformity is the first priority. Things go wrong, of course*2, but the way you deal with them and prevent their re-occurence is part of your management system, and the containment of an unpredicted outcome is as important as your preventive action. Of the millions (and it'd have to be, logically) of soldiers in the First Order's ranks, didn't it occur to anyone that inadequate training could lead to this situation? Genetic predisposition to stress-reactions and wayward personality-traits would be the wild-card even if you were just using humans from the same area of the same planet; how was this not ironed out sooner with a candidate-base as broad as the one the First Order are using? The Jakku village raid can't have been the only time that troops had been commanded to fire on unarmed civilians that they've been told are the enemy, surely? That was modus operandi for the Empire, why would the First Order be any different?

Despite Hux's assertion that FN-2187 showed "no prior signs of non-conformity", did Finn really ace every practical and theoretical exam beforehand only to freeze the moment he saw some scruffy alien get slotted by his colleague (or indeed to watch his colleague get disembowelled by some scruffy alien who is suddenly and very definitely An Enemy)? Signs of uncertainty or psychological weakness should have been identified long ago in Finn's training (he's known no other life, remember). Even if the system did produce anomalies like Finn, they should never get as far as being deployed with actual rifles in their hands. The thought occurs that maybe Finn was a late-starter, but when Hux and Phasma are discussing his behaviour, a holo-display shows an image of a child which is presumably FN-2187 as a toddler. He really has been with them that long. And the non-clone soldiers are growing in 1:1 time, so it's not like there's any reason or excuse for shortcuts in their training.

And on Finn's part, which semester in his eighteen years of brutal, fascistic brainwashing made him think he wouldn't end up opening fire on unarmed opponents as and when he's damned-well told to? Even leaving aside the moral issues this raises, he's a terrible foot-soldier. This level of professional ineptitude wouldn't happen in a regular democratic army, never mind in the First Order (and the offender certainly wouldn't be casually asked to swing by Phasma's office later, when he gets a moment. If 'reconditioning' is as ominous as we're meant to think it is, she'd have taken him out in the shuttle when he had his helmet off).

Finn was only one trooper, but in an organisation the size of the First Order there must have been others. It's an unsustainable model to base an army on, and if anything it's probably for the best that it failed as early as it did. Surely if any institution should be aware of the pitfalls of child abduction, it's a one overseen by Snoke who has (one would imagine) been around to see the fall of the Jedi. The intake of that monastic order were recruited via this same method for 'a thousand generations' and what happened? Most of them were sheep who were easily herded into fighting a manufactured war which led to their downfall due to being unable to see the situation objectively. Worse still, this was made possible by one member of that group having an unpredictable, uncontrollable personality who couldn't conform to the system and ended up helping destroy it.

Rather than the First Order utilising the best of the clone/recruit scenarios, they seem to have constructed a system which achieves the exact opposite: soldiers you have to raise for their entire lifetime that still can't be relied upon to act effectively due to unforeseen elements.

So well done Snoke, well done.

Kylo Ren's flippant comment about a clone army seems more prescient than anyone would like to admit, I think...

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Star Wars and that.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
You'll be lucky if you still can, but yes.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Well other than me performing an impromptu audit on the First Order Quality Management System, yes.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Some yes, some no.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Oh, of course I will.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Of course there is.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: It's Star Wars.

Oh okay, one more then: Star Wars: The Force Awakens's BB-8 features the vocals of Bill Hader, who also contributed voice-work to 2006's Doogal, as did Kevin Smith, who appeared that same year in Southland Tales alongside Bai Ling, who performed voice-work (in that same year again) for the video-game Scarface: The World Is Yours, which also featured Michael York, who lent his vocals to the animated Justice League series of 2004, which also starred Phil LaMarr, whose dulcet tones could be heard in an episode of Robot Chicken, a show which also employed Matthew Wood, who provided 'additional voices' for Star Trek: Into Darkness, as did Bill Hader, who was voice-consultant for BB-8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

You're right, there is a lot of voice-work in that list.
This is the ninth one of these I've done, they're getting more difficult, okay?

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Although my viewing-to-posting schedule would often indicate that I have no free-time whatsoever, admittedly. That's solely down to my own management of that time, not the time itself, I assure you.

*2 Except when things go wrong at my workplace, the technician responsible isn't allowed to abscond, come back with his new mates and then destroy the factory. That said, I admit that Starkiller Base is a couple of steps up from the engineering firm I work at in terms of Risk Management. Although you'd think their Quality Policy would be tighter as a result, really.

Still, they're going to make a great ISO9001 case-study.
And ISO18001, come to think of it…

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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