Science, Fiction, Life

Month: December 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and How Film Making Workshops can Help Shape the Stars for Future Filmmakers

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers! Proceed with caution!


I finally saw the new Star Wars movie the day after Christmas. Prior to that, I had to almost entirely cut down on reading the internet to avoid spoilers, and I’m happy to report that I was successful. All I really knew about The Force Awakens going in was that it was supposed to be much better than the prequels.

So, did it live up to the hype?

Maybe? I have some complicated feelings about The Force Awakens. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like the new main characters, and being back in the Star Wars universe was pure joy. On the other hand, the movie was basically two hours of nothing but fan service, mashing up iconic characters, moments, and plot devices from the original trilogy into something precision engineered to hit older readers right in the nostalgia.

Here are some things that are awfully familiar:

  • A hero who lives in poverty on a desert planet who happens to be a great pilot.
  • The hero encounters a scrappy droid who speaks in a series of cute noises, and that droid is carrying information vital to the rebellion, who are battling against the forces of evil.
  • The hero meets an ally and escapes from the desert planet in the Millennium Falcon, after taking down some TIE fighters using the Falcon’s Anti-Aircraft-style blasters.
  • Han Solo and Chewbacca have to talk/fight their way out of a confrontation with some shady characters.
  • The good guys go to a cantina filled with an assortment of exotic aliens with a catchy tune playing in the background.
  • A cute, diminutive, thousand-year-old alien dispenses wisdom to our protagonist.
  • The enemy has a super-weapon capable of destroying entire planets. However it has a single weak point that can be taken out by sending a strike force down to the surface to disable the shields, allowing a squadron of fighters to fly in and destroy it.
  • The bad guy wears an expressionless black mask that modulates his voice.
  • He is related to a main character and the two have a confrontation where he is called to turn away from the dark side.
  • He is controlled by a shadowy figure of pure evil who often appears in the form of a holographic projection.
  • He has a red light saber.
  • Han Solo and our young male hero go on a mission inside the enemy base to rescue the female hero who is being interrogated.
  • Storm troopers are highly susceptible to Jedi mind tricks.

And there are many other tiny nods to the original series.

And really, there basically had to be. What we all really wanted was to feel the same way we did when we watched the first trilogy, so I can’t complain too much about the new movie delivering that in spades. I worry, though, that it was so very very similar. Sure, some nods and fan service here and there are fun, but major sections of the plot were basically copy-pasted from the original movies. I guess it’s fitting because Star Wars itself was a mashup that borrowed scenes practically verbatim from previous movies, but it does make me worry about where the series will go from here.

But I’m also very optimistic about where it will go from here, and what that will mean. As I said, I think the new main characters are excellent. Fin’s origin as a stormtrooper deserter is fascinating, and Rey is just about everything you could ask for in a strong female protagonist. Poe Dameron, the hot shot fighter pilot, is also a fun character: imagine that, a great pilot who is not strong with the force!

Also, The Force Awakens, despite (or perhaps because of?) basically being a mash-up of the original trilogy, indicates to me that the folks in charge of the Star Wars franchise now know what it is that fans like about Star Wars and what we don’t. I was really relieved that they brought back comic relief in the form of witty banter rather relying entirely on sight gags and slapstick. Of all the things in the prequels that I didn’t like, I think it was the awful attempts at humor that bothered me the most.

Some of my favorite parts of the movie were the early establishing shots of Rey scavenging in the wreckage of a massive battle (and the later dogfight among the wreckage). What battle led to a field of Star Destroyer and AT-AT walker wreckage in the desert of Jakku? It is not explained and it never should be. J.J. Abrams and his team know that the greatest part of Star Wars is not the tip of the iceberg shown on screen, but the hints of a bigger universe full of stories waiting to be told.

All in all, I enjoyed the Force Awakens and I think it achieved what it set out to do: it brought back the feel of the original trilogy (although I wish it hadn’t copied quite so blatantly), and it laid the groundwork for new stories. I just hope going forward that the next movies can move ahead into new territory instead of endlessly rehashing the old movies. A lot of aspiring filmmakers nowadays seek knowledge from to create amazing films. I’m cautiously optimistic on that front. If that happens, then I think we have a lot of great adventures to look forward to.

Some final assorted observations:

  • I’m glad Han Solo got killed off (and totally saw it coming). From the small number of interviews I’ve seen with Harrison Ford, he seemed completely bored and borderline annoyed with how excited everyone was about Star Wars being rebooted (I got much the same vibe as I get from Peter Dinklage’s interviews about Game of Thrones, like the actor is annoyed that this of all things is what they’re going to be remembered for). Also, killing Solo was a nice mirror image of Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi.
  • Boy those bad guys sure are Nazi-like. Star Wars is not known for its subtlety.
  • What exactly is the rebellion rebelling against now? The Republic is the main government now, right? And they’re the good guys, right? So shouldn’t the “rebellion” actually just be called the Republic’s military?
  • Star Wars bad guys need to hire better engineers who have heard of redundancy to avoid single points of failure.
  • I thought it was a nice touch that when Starkiller Base was destroyed, it just turned back into a star (though the size was all wrong)
  • The x-wings flying low over the water gave me all sorts of nostalgic feels about playing Star Wars video games.
  • I was amused that Kylo Ren’s light saber was all raggedy, as if his evilness just couln’t be contained.
  • I also enjoyed how many of the familiar ships from the original Star Wars were slightly tweaked, as if technology had changed, but only slightly, since the events of the earlier series.
  • I really hope that Rey is not a long lost relative of the characters we know and love, and that she’s just an awesome, capable woman who is strong with the Force. There were thousands of Jedi back in the day, and they’re not all related, so Rey doesn’t need to be a secret Skywalker or Kenobi, or whatever.

Review: Moto X (2nd Gen) and Republic Wireless

I got my first smartphone several years ago. It was a HTC DNA and it was awesome: fast processor, beautiful screen, looked cool, and oh yeah also it worked as a phone. But all good things come to an end, and recently its battery life had gotten pretty dismal, and it was operating really slowly (it would sometimes take several seconds to respond to typing). In short, it was time to look for a new phone. As it so happened, my Verizon contract was also over, and we had been noticing that our cell phone bills for Verizon were awfully high given the small amount of data that we usually used. So, we started doing some research into alternatives to Verizon, and came across a service called Republic Wireless that sounded almost too good to be true. They claim their average user has a monthly bill of about $14.

The idea behind Republic is deceptively simple: whenever possible, it makes use of wi-fi rather than cell networks for calls and data. The philosophy is that, the vast majority of time, there’s wi-fi available to use, so you might as well use that. When there isn’t wi-fi, Republic Phones tap into the Sprint cell network for calls and data, and in the exceedingly rare cases where there is no wi-fi or Sprint coverage, they use the Verizon network. Since Republic only rarely uses the cell networks, it can afford to charge much less for its service. And the really cool thing is: if you don’t use all of the data that you’re paying for, you are refunded for the unused portion!

Here’s how my bill broke down for the first month:

  • Monthly fee: $10 for unlimited talk + text, plus $7.50 for 0.5 GB of cell data
  • I only used a fraction of the 0.5 GB of cell data on my plan, so I got a refund of $5.01
  • Total charge (including tax): $14.58

So that’s pretty cool.

The downside with Republic is that your choice of phones is quite limited because I guess they have to install a special radio or firmware or something so that the phone can place calls via wi-fi. The available phones are the Moto e (2nd Gen.), Moto g (3rd Gen.), and Moto X (2nd Gen.). And you have to pay full price up front for the phone. The good thing is that these phones are on the affordable side compared to some phones. I went with the Moto X because it was the most comparable to the HTC DNA that I was used to, and it cost $250. Considering how much I am saving on my monthly bill compared to Verizon, the phone will pay for itself pretty quickly.

Image originally from this site.

Image originally from this site.

So how is the phone? It’s pretty good! The screen is not quite as nice as the one on my HTC DNA was, but it’s perfectly fine, especially if you turn up the brightness. With the brightness low, it looks ever so slightly grainy. One neat feature of the screen is that it can selectively turn on just some pixels, and the phone has IR sensors around the screen so when you move your hand near the screen, it can light up and show you the time, and any notifications you have, while saving power compared to turning on the whole screen.

Speaking of power, battery life has been the weakest point so far for me. On the weekend when I’m using my phone more than I do during the week, it has been getting perilously low by dinner time. I’m worried that after a couple years of use the battery life is going to be too short to do much. On the other hand, again, even if I have to replace my phone sooner than I would have with a Verizon phone, I’ll still be saving money.

The phone looks pretty nice too. You can customize the appearance through Motorola, but it costs quite a bit more than getting the stock black or white phone through Republic. Erin also jumped on the Republic bandwagon and got the same phone. She finds it to be wider than she would prefer but I don’t mind it: it’s quite similar in size to the HTC DNA that I had before.

I’ve only used the phone’s camera a little bit but it seems to be fine. There are also some voice activation functions that I don’t bother using. One nice trick is that you can turn on the phones flash to use as a flashlight by just shaking the phone twice, and likewise you can turn it off the same way. Another nice thing is that since the phone is not on a Verizon contract, it comes with a relatively “clean” install of the Android OS, without much in the way of bloatware. I was able to transfer all of my contacts and apps over from my previous phone as if by magic by using near-field communication i.e., just put the phones next to each other and they communicate. It walked me through this when I was getting it set up, and it was very convenient.

Ok, but how’s the call quality? So far it has seemed fine. I put it to the test by having Erin switch off the wi-fi mid-call, and it didn’t handle that very well, so there’s the potential for dropped calls if your wi-fi is not reliable. But calling works just fine if it starts on the cell network and stays on it. I did have one other weird occurrence where a call I was on appeared to drop, and then seconds later I received an incoming call and it was the same person I had been talking to: they had not hung up or anything, they just heard me disappear for a few seconds. I’m not sure what happened there but it might have been that the phone was switching between wireless networks (our router transmits at two frequencies, which show up as two different networks).

One nice feature of the Republic App is that it remembers wi-fi login info for you. So for example at the gym, there is free wi-fi but you have to load a webpage and agree to terms and conditions before accessing the internet. The Republic App remembers this for you, so next time you connect to the same network, you’re just automatically connected. There are a few weird quirks with this: it doesn’t always work, and in some cases it inexplicably changes my phone wallpaper to be a screenshot of the YMCA login page. But for the most part it seems to work. I also occasionally will run into cases where my wifi claims to be connected but it really isn’t and webpages won’t load. This either resolves itself, or sometimes I have to switch wi-fi off and back on in the Republic App.

So there are a few little annoyances, but for me they are outweighed by the considerably cheaper monthly bill and not having to deal with Verizon!

Although I probably would have written a blog post about it in any case, in the interest of full disclosure I should let you know that I signed up for the Republic Wireless “Influencer Program” which gives me $30 if people sign up for Republic Wireless by using links like this one.  So, if you think you might want to give Republic a try, then please use this link and I get some money! Thanks!


I should also mention that Republic is not the only game in town for this new wi-fi based phone idea. Google has also gotten involved, with something called “ProjectFi“. It’s a very similar deal, but with different phones to choose from (the Project Fi phones seemed to be larger phablet style devices which I was less interested in). Project Fi is currently in the early stages so it is invite only, but it only took about a week for my invite to come through. By then I had already bought a phone through Republic, but the option is out there if you’re interested.

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