Act Four Live: "Star Wars" Spoiler Special Edition (Dec. 21)

Dec 21, 2015

When the credits come up at the movies, the pages in a book run out, or the last commercial rolls over the end of a television episode, the story might be over. But the discussion is just getting started. Here at Act Four, we’ll get together every week to talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. We’ll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world, from "Transparent" to "Star Wars."

Greetings, everyone! Before we begin, a serious warning: THIS CHAT WILL BE SUBSTANTIALLY DEVOTED TO DISCUSSING "STAR WARS, EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS," AND THUS, CHOCK-FULL OF DETAILED CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE PLOT. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISKS. I am seriously no kidding around here. Okay? All set? Let's begin.

My family stumbled on the live showing of The Wiz on Saturday night. The kids really liked it, thought they are admittedly easy to please. I had never seen any version of The Wiz before. My question: was this the least publicized TV show in history, or did I miss the coverage? When "they" did Peter Pan live, you could not get away from the ads and media stories, both before and after. Am I off base that the marketing for The Wiz was awful?

Hmmm, I'm not actually sure; I rarely watch TV live, so it's hard for me to tell whether or not NBC ran fewer promos for "The Wiz" than it has for previous live musical events. It's possible that "The Wiz" was advertised in different places however. My sense is that the awareness for it was pretty high among African-American audiences. NBC may have been trying to reach a different audience than it has with other shows. But this is all speculation, not informed reporting. In any case, I'm glad you found it and enjoyed it!

I thought the movie did an awful job trying to inform the viewer of how the current state of affairs in the galaxy came to be after the final defeat of the Empire. I guess we're supposed to believe that within 30 years after surrendering, these First Order remnants of the Empire were able to build their forces back up to the point where they could once again existentially threaten the Republic? And how convenient that they also managed to construct another planet-killing superweapon (and how lame that the writers saw nothing wrong with using this cliche for the third time in the series) in the interim - I really thought the Republic would've kept an eye out for those. I also have no idea how within one generation, the Jedi could become completely forgotten. Weren't they one of the key belligerents in the galaxy-wide Clone Wars that happened about 50 years before this movie is set?

I agree; the treatment of politics and political organizations in "The Force Awakens" was awful, and I actually have a long post tomorrow about just how many great opportunities Abrams and Disney left on the table here. At minimum, if you're going to deal with the power vacuum left behind after the Emperor's death at Endor, maybe have a different sort of organization spring up in its place? 

On the other hand, I actually think it makes a certain amount of sense that the Jedi would have stayed relatively esoteric. There's no particular indication that Luke Skywalker's abilities are widely known or understood beyond a small group of people, many of whom--Jabba the Hutt, Darth Vader, the Emperor--get killed off during the events of "Return of the Jedi." It also seems pretty logical that Luke's efforts to train new Jedi would have been kept fairly hush-hush to protect them from outside attack and also in case anything went wrong. So I can totally see an environment in which the Jedi are rumored but not confirmed.

I need to see the darn move again because the flashbacks when she touched the lightsaber went by too fast - by the time I figured out what the first one meant I'd missed one or two! Anyone get all of the references or connections?

Yes, it's very fast, and even on a second watching I felt pretty overwhelmed by all the things they tried to tell us. I'd really like to watch that scene on slow-motion, frankly, just so I could make a list of everything she sees! As an artistic choice, I liked this: it gets at how disorienting a vision might be. But as a nerdy parser of clues, it was difficult!

As much as I enjoyed Force Awakens, the movie hews almost *too* closely to the original trilogy. There were so many callbacks in the plot and in the visuals that it was almost a Star Wars pastiche, or a reboot in the style of Sherlock or Abrams' version of Star Trek. Perhaps this was unavoidable for any director taking over the franchise from Lucas, particularly one who grew up on the original movies. (Abrams is only a few months older than I am.) But the approach is appropriate for Star Wars since the first film drew from different cinematic influences. My only real gripe was Luke's abbreviated screen time. His character was the emotional center of the original trilogy.

I completely agree with you about the extent to which the movie is a pure remake. My pal Peter Suderman has a good column about this over at Vox. As he put it: "As much as I enjoyed the acknowledgement, I also found the movie's near-total reliance on elements recycled from the original somewhat disappointing. At times it felt like I was watching the cinematic equivalent of a very polished 'Star Wars' cover band--playing all the favorites, but without adding anything beyond a few clever riffs."

To a certain extent, this feels inevitable. Abrams' biggest task with "The Force Awakens" was to make fans feel like their enthusiasm for a new "Star Wars" movie wasn't going to be turned against them, and to reassure them that he understood what they liked about the original trilogy. If he went too far in that direction, perhaps he's laid the groundwork for more ambitious excursions by the directors that follow them.

I think, though, that the second half of your question also betrays some conflict about this. You want more Luke Skywalker, but that would have made "The Force Awakens" more, not less, like the prequels. In fact, the most innovative, restrained thing "The Force Awakens" does is teaches us that we can have functional "Star Wars" movies that don't have Luke Skywalker at the center of them. That's an important lesson moving forward!

Do you think Finn is Force sensitive???

Possibly! I would enjoy seeing multiple young people exploring the Force and what it means to them at once. It would get us a bit further away from a Chosen One narrative. And as much as I enjoy having a woman be the Chosen One, I'm all for more varied forms of storytelling!

Rey's vision went by too fast for me, but the island in an ocean reference, followed by Rey finding Luke on an island, sure suggests that they have a deep connection. Is it just the Force or is he her father? Maz saying the lightsaber was Luke's (and his father's) sure suggests the latter. What do you think? Father or giant red herring?

With the disclaimer that I generally am not real into fan theories or trying to "solve" movies, my best guess is this: Rey is Luke's daughter, and Kylo Ren killed Luke's wife, who hid Rey before her death. The Kylo Ren story already seems heavily borrowed from the story of Jacen Solo in the Expanded Universe. In that story, one of Leia and Han's twins falls to the Dark Side and kills Luke's wife, Mara Jade. Carrying that story through to its logical conclusion would explain why Han, Leia and Luke aren't speaking to each other, and also might make sense out of what appears to be a gravestone Luke's contemplating in the final scene of the movie. I'm all for grown-up tragedy, and this would certainly be one.

Really noticed the initial dynamic between Finn and Rey on my second viewing. Finn, a character who has been trained from birth to be a stormtrooper, where he served with women as equals and had a women as his direct superior, treats Rey as fragile and helpless during the Jakku escape. After he watches her dispatch two dudes and knock him to the ground with ease, he still feels the need to grab her hand and show her where to run. She loudly protests, "I KNOW HOW TO RUN" and when Finn gets hurt, she rushes to his aid and he asks "Are you ok?", she responds with a look that says "isthisguysrs". Thankfully, after this scene, he wises up. Just loved that scene.

Hah, yes, it's a very nice reversal. One of the things I thought was interesting about Finn's character is the depth of his attachments to basically anyone who treats him like an actual person. His devotion to Rey and Poe, the first two people who approach him as something other the uniform, is really sort of touching and emotionally open in keeping with some of the loveliest movies of the franchise. As I wrote in my initial, spoiler-free piece on the movie, I love how much the "Star Wars" movies let straight (as far as we know) dudes hug each other with genuine enthusiasm and without gay panic.

I really enjoyed The Force Awakens, and as someone who's never been the biggest Star Wars fan, the biggest appeal for me was the cast, particularly the new additions on both the hero and villain sides (special shout out to Domhnall Gleeson since I haven't seen a lot of mentions of him and how perfectly dastardly he was). What impressed me wasn't just how they managed to assemble such a promising, charismatic lineup of young actors, but that those actors were actually allowed to, you know, act. Even though the movie was just as action-packed as any Avengers or X-Men film, it never felt like the characters were just props. This brought back a recurring frustration of mine over how the movie industry (e.g. the Oscars) and, to a lesser extent, critics seem to often see acting in blockbusters like Star Wars as not "real" acting or as purely a matter of star power. What would it take to change this perception that acting in blockbusters (or genre movies in general, for that matter) is lesser than acting in a prestige drama? Also, what are your favorite performances from blockbusters?

Maybe I'm the exception here, but I thought Gleeson was the worst victim of prequel-like dialogue. That said, I did think he had some fine little moments of anxiety and disbelief when things were going wrong. All of which is a long way of saying that I agree with you. One of the reasons the final season of "The Force Awakens" is so darn fantastic is that it's just pure acting. No dialogue, nothing splashy, no effects. Just two people using their faces to communicate with each other.

As for my favorite blockbuster acting, just recently, I thought both Daniel Craig and Judi Dench were spectacular in "Skyfall." Wry, funny, exasperated, and ultimately loving. Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans in "The Avengers" movies. If "Mad Max" counts as a franchise, than Charlize Theron. Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in "Creed." Come to think of it, a great 2015 trend piece would be an exploration of the way franchises opened themselves up to great actors and acting. 

I guess this isn't really a specific question so much as a comment. First, I want to mention that even though it was flawed, I enjoyed the movie a lot and have actually grown warmer toward it over time (which seems to be the opposite of a lot of other people's reactions?). Anyway, one of the things that stood out to be in The Force Awakens is how much the First Order seemed to be essentially a large-scale religious cult, with Darth Vader as an idol, at least for Kylo Ren. Since you wrote that article about religion in Star Wars, I was wondering what your thoughts are on that or the general ideological underpinnings of the First Order.

Underdeveloped, though I imagine we'll get more in Episode VIII? I did think that was a really smart part of Kylo Ren's development, making him a religious acolyte who is trying to stave off a crisis of faith. On the other hand, it's not remotely clear to me that this is the way the First Order as a whole works. That sort of apes the structure of the Empire in the original trilogy, where the general authoritarianism of the Empire serves as a cover for the Emperor's larger purpose and practices. Strategically, that makes sense. If there can only ever be two Sith, a Master and an apprentice, that means there's not much room in the hierarchy for anyone else, which creates a lot of potential for instability if not everyone is a true believer.

I'm sure we all thought Force Awakens would be full of inside jokes and references to the OT, but after seeing TFA twice, I think you can accurately describe the opening sequence like this: a Star Destroyer covers most of the screen while a smaller rebel ship flees pursuit; after a rebel hides sensitive data in a droid and sends it away, a masked figure cloaked in black who speaks with a modulated voice appears and demands the data be turned over to him; the droid does escape, but the rebel who hid the data is captured by the figure in black; we cut to a desert planet where a solitary teenager goes about their daily business, and after some time passes, recovers the droid who has the sensitive data from a local scavenger and eventually watches the sun set while a mournful score rises in the background. It isn't an exact copy of A New Hope, but it has to be the closest thing to it. Isn't there some duty on the part of the writers and director to actually create a new film while at the same time honoring the traditions of the old? This isn't the only scene where you can make this comparison, either.

I hope I've sufficiently answered this for you above, but I think Abrams really felt like his duty was to show that he got why people liked the original "Star Wars" movie and to set up other directors to diverge more from the original. This is  reason the movie has soured in my estimation since I originally saw it. But it doesn't necessarily make me think everything that comes after is going to be a problem.

Do you think there's a limit on feminist writing in the sphere of TV criticism? To me, 2015 was the year of criticizing any and all shows that had white protagonists. I keep reading lines like these in reviews: "The first episode is the unfortunate showcase of most of these missteps—including the most irritating one, a bizarre reliance on a narrator who is trying so hard to impress upon the audience his white, American maleness that he comes off as a caricature, not a character." "There was too much imitation and a blind pursuit of uninspired dramas about tortured white guys." "SNL is, of course, a sketch-comedy show, but it keeps hiring mostly white stand-ups who have a markedly different skill set, with limited results. As critics and viewers keep calling out for greater diversity on the show, it’s hard to imagine the series’s reasoning in sticking to old habits." On the third example, the author is referring to SNL's only white male Christian hire in 2 years. Are we getting to a point of judging by a book by its cover again with whites?

If it's okay with you, I'm going to answer this for you in Wednesday's newsletter!

One of the conversations my friends and I have been having has been about Rey and all of the other strong women characters in the movie. But what I loved about that takes it one step beyond having great, well rounded female characters. While yes, we've been talking about it and impressed, it was utterly beside the point in the world JJ created. There was no shock that a young woman was capable, there was no hint of Rey having to prove herself - she was simply accepted as a strong, intelligent person, with a lot of skills and talents. Oh and who happened to be a woman. Yes, Finn had his moments of wanting to be the protective guy, but he quickly learned that while it was nice that he wanted to help, she totally had it together. And beyond her, there were women (and various races) in every type of position both in the Resistance and in the First Order. The total sense that this was something unremarkable in their world while we find it so remarkable really stuck with me. Otherwise, I enjoyed the film so much. I actually appreciated the parallels to episode 4 - it gave me a sense that they couldn't escape history repeating itself and maybe, just maybe, things will be set right for good this time around. I think it kicked off this last trilogy brilliantly. Enough nostalgia to suck us right back in while setting things up quite nicely for where the story is going.

Yeah, as I wrote earlier today, I was just so incredibly grateful to have a science fiction or fantasy movie that actually acknowledged that it's set in a universe different from our own and took advantage of that to shuck off restrictions on what women and people of color can or can't do. If anything, I was almost more impressed by how much Abrams integrated this insight into minor characters and background scenes. It should set a high standard for other movies in this, and other franchises to come (it should be noted that Joss Whedon, perhaps not surprisingly, has done this very well in the Avengers movies).

Back at Reason's Star Wars discussion I had asked about the panel's thoughts on the future of the new EU and if it could compare favorably against what Disney had set aside. After last Thursday I was pleasantly surprised to see The Force Awakens seem to incorporate some ideas and concepts out of the books. Do these inclusions have you feeling any more hopeful for the future EU living up to the legacy of the old?

Me, tooooo. Look, right now, the verdict is very much out. I'd enjoy seeing my Mara Jade theory turn out to be true. But the much more important thing to me isn't just that Disney learn from the Expanded Universe storylines about the original main characters. It's that they recognize the potential of letting folks play around in this huge and fascinating universe George Lucas created. The power of the Expanded Universe isn't really that we get more Han, Luke, and Leia. It's that we get other characters, and that the political story of the original trilogy continues and takes us in new and insightful directions. That's a much more ambitious thing to hope for. And I'm not ready to say that I think Disney will do this, or that it won't.

What was the most obscure inside joke you caught? I nearly got poked in the rib for laughing too hard at the "Kessel Run in twelve parsecs" bit.

Ditto, I loved that. 

I hate it when this happens, but I think the Internet jerks who have commandeered the debate over Rey's character sort of have a (small) point. I could buy Poe's flight training with one type of ship transferring to another ship without much trouble. I could also buy Rey having skill using the lightsaber, because she's been shown to be a capable fighter. But Rey finds out that she's Force-sensitive and within about a half an hour (and with no training) she's holding her own against someone who is meant to be one of the most powerful Jedi left. Maybe she's the biggest Jedi savant ever? Either way, felt like very lazy storytelling to me.

The Jedi Mind Trick thing bugs me: I have no idea how Rey would know how to do that. The fight with Kylo Ren bugs me a bit less: we see very early that she's an extremely accomplished staff fighter, which could translate decently to lightsaber combat, I think. And I think we're meant to think that Kylo Ren isn't fully trained, which makes it a somewhat more equal matchup to me.

The skeptical part of me thinks that the scene was designed to get us to by the dvd/digital copy so we can do the slow mo analysis! :)

I'm not sure they need to trick folks into buying those copies. :)

Ren tries to force pull the Skywalker Light Saber, but instead it goes past him to.....Luke who felt a great disturbance in the force (like Obi Wan felt at Alderan's destruction) and came out of hiding. Ren says he is as strong as Vader. Luke says "I beat Vader. You an entitled snot" and gives him a beat down so bad that Ren hightails it out of there. Luke then saves Fin & Rey and takes off on the Falcon with Chewey. He then tells Rey that the force is strong in his family including...his daughter. He arrives back on the Rebel Base and R2D2 goes out of sleep mode. Luke says "Yes, I'm back", looks up at twin moons with his daughter and swipe to credits.

Totally disagree. The restraint and genuine sense of mournfulness and hope restored in that final scene are the greatest thing about "The Force Awakens." If Luke's been hiding out because he just doesn't want to get involved, then he's just a selfish jerk. If he's a genuinely broken person, then the full power of what happened to him, Han and Leia remains intact. "The Force Awakens" doesn't need another badass moment. It needs that emotional force.

Just how offensive is this line from WaPo-fired plagiarist Ben Domenech in the Federalist: "John Boyega as Fresh Prince From First Order was also entertaining."? Combine this with The Weekly Standard's defense of blowing up Alderaan and one begins to think that conservatives sympathize with the authoritarians in these movies.

I mean, I published a puckish defense of the destruction of Alderaan from Sonny Bunch, so I'm not one to talk. But that line is just stupid, both from a matter of racial politics, and given the actual plot of the movie.

So how amazing of an opportunity is this for Rian Johnson? Abrams' job was to set the tone of the trilogy, making it clear that this was going to take after the original films and not the prequels. Mission accomplished. Colin Trevorrow is going to have to take whatever happens and bring it all together in a comprehensive fashion that sticks the landing. Johnson, however, was set up perfectly by Abrams to where he has a great foundation and the ability to take the next film in any number of directions, and he's the one who gets to firmly establish the new trilogy as its own story. IMO, he's the perfect choice for the next film, and I can't wait to see where he takes it.

Concur in all respects. I have less confidence in Trevorrow to pull off the ending than I do in Johnson to make a tense, exciting moving in the "Empire" position.

Why do I get the feeling that the big reveal is going to be in the crawl for Episode VIII? One thing I think we always forget about the missing timelapse between screen events. From the way Luke and Rey looked at each other, I think either she's remembered, or been told by Leia about the relationship.

Someone else had asked how this reveal could possibly handled with grace, and I think you've caught on a nifty solution. Plus, it would mean that the crawl starts with a bang yet again, and the movie can get on with the business of storytelling instead of spending a lot of time setting it up.

What do you think of the critique that Rey was a little too perfect? Pretty much everything she attempted to do she succeeded at (some things a little too well, like beating trained force user Kylo Ren mentally and physically, by pulling the lightsaber away from him)?

I tend to think that Mary Sue criticisms are fairly inherently sexist. After decades of perfect male protagonists, why is it suddenly so completely horrible if a woman turns out to have a ton of natural talent and competence. Find me a bunch of people complaining about how Luke Skywalker is just too good with a lightsaber on his first go-round and bullseyeing womp rats is not the same thing as surviving a major dogfight and accomplishing the impossible with one spaceship worth of training and I'll take the overall criticism seriously, though I certainly share some of these specific quibbles.

Curious to get your opinion on the casting choices for the First Order, specifically Adam Drive as Kylo Ren and Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux. It was very hard for me to find either of these characters intimidating or "evil". I kept picturing them in a litany of other films that starred in where they were more goofy and lighthearted.

I will not lie: I adore Adam Driver, but I associate him so strongly with "Girls" that I found him fairly distracting on a first watch. I didn't have that problem with Gleeson, though maybe I was just too distracted by how bad the dialogue he got was? In a way, Adam Driver ended up working for me because of the parallels with his "Girls" character. Kylo Ren is an interestingly adolescent character, unformed, angry, and impulsive.

Even with its flaws, the movie still worked for me because of Daisy Ridley. She carried the movie. She has a wonderfully emotive face. It can show grit and determination, fear, sadness, joy, the whole gamut. Her sneer gave a gravitas to many of the action scenes that would have been otherwise lacking. Much in the same way that Harrison Ford's unique sneer and grunt have colored his performances as Indiana Jones. I can't imagine how they found her in the sea of unknowns who tried out for the part. She has almost nothing on her resume. Whoever did the casting in this movie should get a raise.

There are another five comments that express this exact sentiment in the chat queue, and I agree with all of them. She's terrific. Did she remind any of you of Keira Knightley in her early movies? Same smile, same expressions of enthusiasm. It makes me wonder what Knightley's career might have been had she really taken off a few years later. I basically just want a buddy action movie with her and Emily Blunt.

Folks, I have to go finish writing all my year-end things before I leave for vacation. There are so many great questions and thoughts here that we'll pick the discussion on January 4 when the chat comes back. For those of you celebrating Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time with your friends and family. And to everyone else, Happy New Year! This chat has been one of the huge pleasures of my year, and I can't wait to reconvene in 2016.

In This Chat
Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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