I love Star Wars and have for a very long time. Bear with me as I examine this newest film and the ways in which I really didn’t like it – even if I stumble a bit over the way because there is so much I would like to say.
Allow me to share an image from my second viewing of the newly released Star Wars: The Force Awakens, earlier yesterday:
It is odd, to have a Darth Vader promotional item at a Star Wars film which solely featured the burnt remnants of his mask… but he is a very powerful force (doh hohohoho) in the memories of old fans and the general public, who could get you excited before going to see the movie he isn’t in. This photo, in many ways, sums up the review you shall review below. Disney, through their chosen agent JJ Abrams, made a film that was approximately 1/3 fan service; 1/3 actually fun Star Wars’ish space adventure including some new things (like the “First Order” storm trooper above); and 1/3 appallingly bad plot recycling dressed up as a damnable “soft reboot.”
So at the outset of this, allow me to be clear: this will be a far more in-depth consideration of this film than most of the reviews you’ve read or skimmed, because Star Wars has been such a big part of my life (the VW that had “Millennium Falcon” vanity license plates, for instance….). I will give background worth bearing in mind, and then explore the film which I 1) have seen twice; 2) read zero (0) hype about; and 3) which I haven’t read any reviews about before or after seeing it, to facilitate writing my own point of view.
Episode 7: “A Lack of Vision“
So, with the prolegomena aside, I can now speak about The Force Awakens (hereafter, TFA). There are two major moments I feel called to mention right off the bat – the moment I felt goosebumps of excitement, and the moment I shook my head and felt my heart sink as I realized that this movie wasn’t actually good. I could barely contain myself at the opening title, with John Williams’ distinctive fanfare opening up the film to the potentially-redeeming new Star Wars installment (because let us be honest: even if the very compelling Ring Theory about the masterclass visual storytelling between Episodes 1-6 is true… the prequels are horrible movies to suffer through watching, or more accurately listening to). I recalled that the other movies all had relatively choppy textual introductions on their campy title crawl screens so I wasn’t too worried about what I saw… yet. The movie dove right into a suitably Star Wars’ish sort of action. I was initially annoyed that I didn’t know who the characters were (old guy with a random map to Luke Skywalker?) but quickly changed my mind because I am sick of the Star Wars tendency for everything to be either related by blood to one another or a remix of something we saw from the 1970s or 1980s. Regardless, the action (in JJ’s style as we saw in Star Trek; frenetic and sometimes hard to follow, with a LOT of deaths) quickly gave way to a fun adventure. It isn’t entirely clear why Kylo Ren who can stop a blaster shot doesn’t catch on to the change of heart in his stormtrooper who he stares at, but I can let that go for the purposes of an interesting start to a character’s presentation. And that is where the interesting level grows huge – we see two very interesting ideas and settings presented at once. First, we are introduced to Rey, who seems to be very scrappy but more importantly is a scavenger amidst the ruins of the Rebellion/Empire war that we got glimpses of in the original trilogy. The implications that she has to REALLY look for useful gear in a Star Destroyer which is huge, and therefore that people are fighting hard over scraps, is an interesting piece of background information to take in. There are interesting aliens and then we see the escape of Po and Finn from the First Order, which is the second interesting idea, that of defection from evil. The best scene in the movie is so short, but it is in their escape from the docking bay in the new style TIE fighter.
Nostalgia DOESN’T MEAN THE SAME THING OVER AGAIN
My heart sank, however, the moment after the very fun and indeed exciting escape by Po and Finn from the First Order… because we suddenly see the “Starkiller Base.” Yes, as those of you who have seen the movie know, these Disney types decided it was OK to have a THIRD Death Star (a slap in the face, because if you recall – Return of the Jedi isn’t actually fun to watch because nothing happens the whole time… and because it is a redux of the plot of New Hope)… but they also shoehorned the damned thing in as a VERY brief B plot. I was actually offended, both the first and second times I saw this on the big screen, at the way that many of the characters on the Yavin base-clone all had this sort of “yeah we’ve done this shit twice before, let’s just go get it done again” swagger about them. The plot could have gone two ways with this new repeated element – either focus the entire plot on it and destroying it (which would have been bad because it is the third time the Star Wars movies do that) or set it up as such a big and powerful weapon that it survives until the next film because it is a planet and too powerful to destroy so easily. Instead, the old characters and new hop into ships and infiltrate the planet and we get the same damned thing we have seen twice before. As a minor plot point within the whole movie, in a way, because the ground assault on the thermal-whatever-whatever tower than needed cracked open REALLY just served as a backdrop for this movie’s remix of the Luke/Vader scene from Empire on Cloud City. We have a gigantic facility with an infinite drop from some catwalks; we have a confluence of good and evil, father and son, a person falling; we have characters seeing Han Solo fall or fly away from them and then firing their weapons in rage and despondency. In short, and perhaps this is a good time to say this in general, JJ Abrams appears to have wanted to do a Star Trek-style “soft reboot” of the Star Wars movies by throwing in a HUGE amount of either nods to the originals; directly stealing content; fan service (things we recognize from before to make our brains say “OH WOW I RECOGNIZE THAT” because apparently we’re too dumb for higher level analysis); and then a smattering of genuinely funny moments, not all of which fit into the tone of the movie at the moment they occur.
On a very big picture level, this movie takes place on 1) a desert planet with a poor and mechanically-inclined young person who has missing parents ; 2) an ice planet with a sizable pitched battle over the safety of a large power system of some sort; 3) a pitched battle over a planet-sized weapon capable of destroying planets and moons; 4) the aspiring Jedi-type from the desert planet mentioned in #1 above needs to find a hidden planet whereupon an enigmatic Jedi Master resides and can offer guidance; and 5) a forest setting with a cantina and interesting alien characters in which one character really needs to find a pilot who can give them safe passage to another planet… until suddenly the bad guys show up! There are certainly other ways in which TFA is either a direct copy or a sly remix of a previous bit of content from the original trilogy – but that is the problem. IF this is a soft reboot, of handing off the story from old characters to the new by having them meet and interact (which I think was the intention), why couldn’t we have had a new plot, with new settings? If the intention is to wash away the bitter aftertaste of the horrible prequel films (which is a noble cause and important to regain the trust of fans everywhere), that mission is easily accomplished alongside a fun space adventure, which this movie did VERY well at times with new and cool ideas. Han Solo going back to smuggling because becoming respectable was the wrong fit for him is OK; it becomes a LOT of fun very easily when he is on a weird ship, transporting scary aliens for some client’s exotic hunt, and on the run from new and non-Empire or -Rebellion elements. Having Princess Leia be a leader of a rebellion of some sort (which doesn’t actually make sense in the story given, because there is the legitimate government called the Republic; there is a paramilitary or perhaps even insurgency in the form of the First Order; and then there is the inexplicable “Resistance” that Leia heads up… why is there a need for freedom fighters instead of just, say, the legitimate military of the legitimate Republic government?!?) is tired, almost as tired as she looks and sounds (and frankly, her chain smoking voice really took me out of the movie). Iconic ships and weapons showing up in slightly redone forms are completely acceptable and indeed may be necessary for the purposes of clear continuity. Characters following nearly exactly the same paths we have seen them follow before; or the same characters following the path of one of their peers from the past… is just lazy or cowardly.
We got some new and interesting characters in Rey and Finn, with some pretty solid acting; why couldn’t the film have focused on them more effectively? That is not to say that they were perfect or even ideal. I cannot overstate how angry I was at the space Jesus we got from Rey who started the movie off as a skilled and scared kid on a rough planet… and then at several moments was able to use the Force in an incredibly skilled way. The worst was the unprompted and indeed overdone humor of her using the Force to persuade her stormtrooper guard to free her from her restraints and then leave her his weapon. Obi-wan Kenobi using the force to persuade a stormtrooper was really a cool trick and added depth to the mystical nature of the movie very early on (more on this mystical facet in a moment). Luke couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and only two movies later did he have the talent necessary to use the Force in that way himself… and he was the son of the extremely power Darth Vader (and if Disney is keeping the prequels as canon, that means that Anakin Skywalker WAS Space Jesus and his son should be extraordinarily powerful himself). Rey, out of no where and with no clear prompting within the film of any sort (neither spoken, nor implied Force whispering like Luke heard from Kenobi), suddenly decides to just try out persuading her captor to let her go. She had JUST finished an interrogation session with Kylo Ren, during which his attempts to use the Force to probe her memory seems to have awakened in her the latent Force power she was born with and allowed her to read his emotional disposition. That makes sense, a sort of sleeper talent awoken by interaction with a trained (dark) Jedi – but the ability to all of a sudden use the Force persuasion trick from a character who said aloud earlier in the film that she thought Jedi to be a legend or myth… is inexcusable. It was some kind of weird mix of a bad attempt at cramming humor into the film with fan service, showing us that “the Force can still influence the weak-minded!” Rey is clearly depicted as some sort of “chosen one” in the context of this film, but that was sufficiently unbelievable to take me out of my suspension of disbelief to enjoy the story (“sure the Force exists and can influence matter with ease”) and just render me mad that JJ was too focused on the old movies and couldn’t come up with anything new. Finn almost does a more egregious version of this, as a newly-minted stormtrooper with some kind of PTSD from the assault on the village… he is able to pick up a lightsaber and successfully hold off a Sith Lord (or Sith Lord analogue). Suspension of disbelief (“laser swords exist and are reasonable”) gone because a trained fighter with a supernatural disposition is admittedly wounded slightly but is held off by the lowest skill level of rank and file grunt who had never ever been out in the real world before the past 2 days.
Myth and the Force
So the topic of myth and suspension of disbelief is worth going into briefly. The Star Wars universe in its original and purest form, the first three movies, is drenched in myth and the importance of larger questions than understanding exactly how something works or how cool it looks. This worked because we were willing to suspend our disbelief along with Luke and Han as they encountered increasingly uncanny coincidences and indeed outright miracles of (in)human ability to manipulate matter and indeed the minds of other people using this mystical Force. We discovered this magical Force right alongside Luke and the non-believing Han Solo, seeing the whole picture as only the audience can but willing to go with it as some kind of rare and indeed magical power in the universe we are seeing. It is OK for Luke to blow up the Death Star by using the Force to aim, because the movie kept inching him towards actually having some faith in this mystical power he has some kind of access to; and as all leaps of faith involve, he finally gave in and tried it and almost couldn’t believe it happened. Han Solo actually DIDN’T believe it as he called it “one shot in a million, kid” and attributed what he saw to chance. But we the audience had seen that Luke was inspired by Kenobi to use the Force and by doing it rather than second-guessing himself, he succeeded. Please recall the delightful speech by Yoda which laid out all we really needed to know about the Force to enjoy the concept and learn from the wisdom of the characters – a speech he only shares with Luke after being tossed aside for not being a great warrior AND after Luke fails to properly believe in the power his Force training represented. Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp and completely reinvigorates an exhausted and dejected Luke into giving his training another try, even if full competency using the Force was still beyond him. He tells Yoda that he doesn’t believe the power he is seeing; he is told “THAT is why [he] fails.”
TFA didn’t try to offer any overly-detailed and (necessarily) insufficient explanations of how the Force works or so forth, like the disastrous attempts of the prequels to do so. Instead, and in a way that I found extremely irritating, The Force Awakens did two things with this mystical backdrop. First, in an overdone manner, the film eliminated any of the moral uncertainty set up in the original trilogy by having Kylo Ren (the Darth Vader clone/remix) be committed to evil and trying to resist the temptation to be good by killing his own father to cut ties. We didn’t get enough of his back story to find this believable, but as this movie was pretty much a remix of A New Hope, consider for a moment: Darth Vader appeared for a total of 12 minutes of screen time in the film and we were VERY clear on the fact that he was evil and embodied the dark side, because George Lucas really is a masterclass visual story teller. With Kylo Ren we get bits and pieces of some kind of story about him betraying Luke Skywalker and now wanting to finish the job, but he also kowtows to some kind of Orc-looking “Supreme Leader Stoke” who is an angry hologram. This half-assed introduction makes him less of a villain and more of a whiny teenager (and that worked out super well with Anakin in the prequels, right?). There is no “certain point of view” to the Force as Yoda and Kenobi dance around, we merely have an angry kid who kills people and blows up things when he is mad and specifically said he is trying to reduce the pull of being good that he feels. That doesn’t make sense, and just makes the lackluster “villain” even worse when compared to the original trilogy Darth Vader. Secondly, though, TFA explained that Luke tried to train the new generation of Jedi and failed because Kylo Ren/Ben Solo turned to the dark side and killed most/all of the other students. Recall that Return of the Jedi was exciting both because of the implied fall of the Empire, but also because of the redemption of Darth Vader (and the titular implication that the Jedi could now again rise as a force (ha!) in the galaxy. The horrible prequels were an extended look at the backstory of Darth Vader as Anakin Skywalker, but they basically told us that Anakin experienced a fall from grace precipitated by an evil tempter (Palpatine) and brought down an ossified and hyper-conservative “good” Jedi order with him. Anakin’s dialogue was written so poorly that I actually liked the Return of the Jedi ending less for knowing how he was supposed to have been originally – but we got the extended version of the fall from grace which we saw redeemed at the very end of Episode 6. How incredibly frustrating it is, then, to be dropped into Episode 7 and expected to just accept that somehow, the defeat of PURE EVIL and its sidekick MOSTLY EVIL WITH A CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION at the end of the last film failed so thoroughly that good has AGAIN atrophied to the point that it cannot contest evil and indeed must be abandoned for a new set of structures and organizations… in only 30 years. I don’t like the overarching mystical implications for the storyline that reduces the power of the Force to an intermittently-useful power to winning the battles while the wars are lost time and again. That is, frankly, too similar to the real world and the tendencies of its human occupants, for me to find compelling as a magical space adventure. <— I may come back to rewrite these last few sentences to better say what I am feeling but what 1:15am has rendered less eloquent.
The First Order and the… SUPER EVIL BAD GUYS WHO ARE SUPER EVIL
This required its own bolded section for me, because it made me the most mad of anything in the film. The Empire was an effective allegory for fascism and the perils of totalitarian militaristic governments because it used some names from Nazi Germany (stormtroopers) but mostly because George Lucas did a FANTASTIC job of visual storytelling time and again over the course of the original trilogy, to make clear to us that they were evil because they wanted to impose their will on the entire galaxy and had the government and military to do it if they weren’t contested. In TFA, however, we get some kind of actually brain-washed rank and file troopers who fight for some kind of cream of the crop evil leaders, who are honestly offensively stupid in their portrayal. Do you remember how you saw and heard Emperor Palpatine, particularly during the ending scenes of Return of the Jedi, and thinking to yourself that this guy is openly delighting in evil because he wants to corrupt the light over to his side; because of his overconfidence based upon scrying the future using the Force; because of how excited he was to finally wipe away the Rebellion which dared rise up against his Imperial might. With these forgettable First Order types, you get the core of their outlook from the horribly overdone Fuhrer-speech scene prior to firing the Starkiller Base. There are grey armored stormtroopers in a Nuremburg Nazi rally grounds-esque setting hold their red Nazi-style rectangular banners or standards aloft in front of each squad of mind-washed troopers. There is an overblown, military leader who is yelling about some sort of genocide-ish outlook on the foes of this First Order whose speech was some sort of weapons-grade cliche bomb (and please, compare him to the rather effective cold and dispassionate, realpolitik-focused Grand Moff Tarkin from New Hope, who was actually compelling as a militaristic warlord). Stoke, whatever the hell it is, is called “Supreme Leader” because they apparently couldn’t license “fuhrer.” Seriously, the extent to which the beautifully visually-accomplished commentary on militarized governments and fascism in the original trilogy… got the JJ Abrams treatment. Just like in the new Star Trek movies, he took something we saw or heard in the original and then did a CRAZY AMOUNT of intensifying those things with clumsy and bad dialogue. Stormtroopers in the original trilogy all look and sound the same and don’t have any clear free will or really any sort of value – we didn’t need overdone lines of dialogue laying out the need to brainwash them to fight as cogs in the fascist machine. It is OK that JJ isn’t at George Lucas’ level of visual story telling… but the First Order was just overblown, cliche-ridden garbage because of how poorly the dialogue was at laying out their modus operendi. Their Starkiller Base was also an overblown, Star Wars cliche-ridden garbage heap, though… so at least the movie stayed internally consistent! 😦
The Star Wars universe, then, is supposed to be science fantasy, or a space opera: either way, purveying serious space adventuring with a mystical bent that bears further consideration. This movie does a pretty good job of doing exactly that… but the problem is, TFA tries to be the original trilogy remixed into one movie with a smattering of new things and faces, almost as a sort of extended trailer for the two+ movies to come. The movies in the future may well be awesome, and I also tend to believe that Disney will do a pretty good job of making passable films (look at their acquisition of Marvel and the movies since), but the problem for me at the core is: I remember nothing special or magical about this new film after having seen it twice. The moments of the original trilogy and particularly Empire Strikes Back still stick with me in a deep and abiding way, because the storyline tech as presented worked without needing explanation, and the story as told was compelling and visually masterful. The Force Awakens was so disappointing to me because it was visually stunning, had amazing use of props and cinematography… and a completely lackluster and abridged, recycled or remixed Death Star B-plot with an overly simplistic and non-advanced A-plot: “find Luke Skywalker who made himself missing a while ago.” As the Emperor foresaw, JJ Abrams and Disney alike shall pay the price for their lack of vision (namely, make a GIGANTIC pile of money from people’s nostalgia and pissing off the hardcore fans by rendering the Expanded Universe of books as “non-canon”). Disney might just lead the movie industry on this decade-long charge into the realm of “remake old movies to make money because new ideas don’t exist or people are too dumb to understand them.” This is the true dark side in real life. This is why I cannot like this movie for its genuinely fun handful of moments and new characters. They are lifeboats destroyed against the jagged rocks of my anger at this “soft reboot,” as they floated precariously on the roiling ocean of this movie’s recycling of prior plot and set pieces.
I do not really delve into the movie prediction business, but I have a strong feeling about how the Episodes 8 and 9 to come shall compare to Episode 7. The Phantom Menace may well be an analogue in this regard, because the story we saw in it was really bad… and could be skipped when you went to screen Episodes 2 and 3 which followed. TFA also has some things happen which were meant to set up the stories which followed, but it will really just pale in comparison to the following films because they will have a full plot each (even if those plots are crap, as per Episodes 2 and 3).
Depending on how people feel about the above, and how I feel about the time involved to do it, I may end up penning a significantly expanded consideration of the Star Wars opus (including original movies; the prequels and some of the interesting notions of how close they were to great; Ring Theory; and most importantly to me from my adolescence… the Expanded Universe of books and short stories which Disney has decreed to be noncanonical).
All comments or questions are welcomed. Merry Christmas!