Wherein the author tries to come to grips with a new generation of Star Wars.
This is a review, and it contains spoilers. Because a spoiler-free review is pointless. I highly recommend that you do not read this if you haven’t seen The Force Awakens. I’m not sure I recommend it even if you watched the film.
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Since the credits started rolling I knew I would struggle to capture my thoughts. Knowing my affection for the saga, people have prodded me continually, yet sure enough it’s been hard to say anything particularly thoughtful about it. On the whole, it’s good. It feels like Star Wars — mostly because it plays it very safe — and it probably lives up to most viewers hopes and expectations simply by being ‘a pretty good Star Wars film’. I’ll have to watch it again to let it settle.
There were great performances, nice character moments, at times perfect cinematography, some beautiful musical cues (although the complexity and grandiosity of the prequel scores have subsided, I miss the jumbled wackiness of the original) and on the whole I feel comfortable recommending this film not just as a Star Wars film, but as a great starting point for newcomers, perhaps in particular to parents who want to introduce their children to the saga.
In short, there are many great things about the film, but it also falls short in some very significant ways, and a few ways that matter more to me than they seem to matter to most:
It felt as if I’d already seen most of it. I’ve heard it called a ‘soft reboot’, which I don’t think was what anyone explicitly wanted, even if it more or less satisfies. I often bring up just how wacky the original film was, and it says a lot that this one was actually remarkably less wacky than the original, which shouldn’t really be the case with the franchise at this point. Not only is the story incredibly similar, but the means with which it is told are exactly the same! Storm troopers, X-wings, TIE fighters, star destroyers, a new cantina, a new Deathstar (a new trench, a new shield), a new Darth Vader, a new Emperor, Luke, Leia, Solo, Chewie, R2, 3PO, stolen plans, secret rebel base, the Falcon, etc. The new characters aside, I saw this film already!
It almost didn’t even feel like a movie, as much as it felt like an overture to future movies; a beginning farewell to old characters and an introduction to the new characters Disney is planning on revolving movies around for the next ten to twenty years. That’s the Marvel approach and it often feels as if I’m not so much watching a story, able to fulfill on its own, but instead a TV show like X-Files, wherein the characters hardly ever change and the truth is just out of reach, every Tuesday at 9PM. Except this particular Tuesday was thirty years in the making.
What I really wanted from Episode VII was what The Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars. Not in the specifics, but in how it was genuinely surprising and evolutionary to what came before, while still being obviously Star Wars. The battle climax was front-loaded, and it was a ground battle, Cloud City was wholly new, Lando offset the group dynamic, our heroes split up, there was a swamp, the stakes were much more personal than before, etc. It felt fresh. Disappointingly The Force Awakens does not. It plays as A New New Hope, and say what you will about the prequels, but at least Lucas expanded his galaxy and more importantly his ambition for the stories he wanted to tell, instead of just doing the same thing again.
It seems as if I dislike it, which is in fact not how I feel about it (yet). I did enjoy it a lot, and I look forward to spending more time with the characters, most of whom were great. But as a rejuvenation it is only partially successful. Which isn’t odd given how many things it had to do for Disney, although that’s not an excuse.
As I feared it unfortunately also contains a few JJ Abrams hallmarks that I personally don’t care too much for. A little too much slapstick, some scenes were too frantic and it has several very on-the-nose fan-service callbacks that could have been left out. From time to time you can see the gears of the story machine being expressed a little too clearly, which makes them play out somewhat phony (Finn and Poe caught by a cable so they have time to chat before being separated was one such moment for me anyway). And on a more problematic level he often glosses over details to keep the pace up, which causes problems after the credits roll.
For instance, in light of how clear the power relationship was from the opening frames of the first Star Wars, the muddled geopolitical situation in The Force Awakens is baffling. The rebels killed the Emperor and won, but now they’re ‘the resistance’? Why? They’re backed by the republic, so why aren’t they just the armed forces of the republic? The First Order strikes against the republic (looked like Coruscant, but apparently wasn’t). How big is the First Order? Big enough to build Starkiller Base, but what does that mean? Do they control systems? Do they have support inside the republic? Is this like a separatists thing? How long have they been around? How are they funded?
Failing to properly frame the stories makes it hard as an audience to know what we’re supposed to expect. Is the First Order hiding, or are they a well known presence in the galaxy? Do they have planets other than this one? How big is the resistance, is it just Leia and her pals? Which side has the advantage, if any? What the hell is going on!?
I don’t think The Force Awakens should do everything A New Hope did (although it seems to try), but I miss the reality-anchoring little background details doled out in the original. Take for instance the dissolution of the imperial senate, which was unnecessary to play out the story of the film, but which gives you a sense that there is a reality to this world not found in Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. It binds the reality of the galaxy far, far away to us and our world in a way that doesn’t change the film for children, but which let’s it remain relevant across all age groups.
Again, say what you will about Lucas’s handling of the saga over the years, but his original story, fantastic though it was, pertained specifically to the contemporary world of the 1970s. Vietnam had formed a big part of the impetus for the story, and Nixon who was president until 1974 when Lucas started writing, was for all intents and purposes the Emperor. Look no further than THX 1138 for affirmation of Lucas’s socio-political bent. And while the prequels suffer from many issues, I don’t personally think that the idea of infusing them with political reality was one of them. How that was ultimately expressed is another matter.
The Force Awakens strangely does retain an eery sense that the First Order is a veiled U.S. turned sour, although it’s unclear if it is intentional or not. It doesn’t seem to lean in to the comparison, falling back instead on generalized Nazi tropes when Hux delivers his oratory later in the film. But the opening scene alone sets up a familiar technologically superior, well-organized military force which choppers in for a night raid on a desert village (the addition of pouches strapped across the torso makes the stormtroopers look even more like GI’s).
Here’s hoping that the following films will pertain to our world and not just a galaxy far, far away.
This ‘reality’ thread by the way plays into another one of my more personal gripes, which mostly elicit blank stares when I try to explain it.
The original trilogy built a real sense of tension through the portrayal of pseudo-realistic military operations against this politically charged background. Abrams (much like prequel-era Lucas) unfortunately hand-waves over most of those moments, opting for cartoon-like heroics instead. Where we could have seen Poe’s piloting excellence through some intense maneuvering and high-octane dogfighting, we’re instead left with a hollow CG wideshot of an X-Wing dexterously finishing off a handful of TIE Fighters in five seconds flat while providing ground support strafing runs. It’s cheap and plays falsely against what we know of dogfighting and warfare in Star Wars.
The same goes for a few moments in the otherwise stellar first Falcon flight sequence, eg. when Rey does an impossible 90 degree angle turn out of the Star Destroyer engine tunnel. It’s unearned and unbelievable. We know how the Falcon flies, and that’s wrong. I half-expected a “whoopee” from Rey. TIEs should be a big deal, they were cause enough for Han to run and hide with the Falcon in the asteroid belt. Yet here they almost play more as nuisance than danger.
Again, the anchoring of our heroes’s antics in a realistic world was always one of the most important things Star Wars did, and treating the two sides in the conflict as real military forces with command centers, orders barked over bad radio connections, scrambled bombing runs coordinated by squadron leaders over the Deathstar and likewise from the Empire side of things, is integral to the tone and feel of Star Wars. On the first pass it felt very much as if that was missing from The Force Awakens as indeed it was from most of the prequels (where given the galaxy-wide war, it actually belonged even more so).
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Was another Deathstar really the best option in the room? That does not bode well for future films. Maybe they thought it would play as mythological, but I felt it played unimaginative instead. Moreover, did we have to blow it up in the first film again? The Deathstar is a hard doomsday weapon to beat, but come on. It could have been a genuine contender if it had been built up more thoroughly, perhaps through a series of films where we follow the resistance fighters as they discover intel and slowly discovers that a new weapon is being built before they have to unite a force big enough to take it on and so forth (only, twist: it’s active and wipes out the republic; holy shit!).
Instead Starkiller Base doesn’t even warrant a “Look at the size of that thing” line. The characters themselves are blasé about it! We see a whole heap of planets we don’t know being blown up without even a Leia substitute to cry on-screen so we can feel empathy for the billions of people who just died. Without it impacting our protagonists it feels like what it is: a plot device. Which isn’t very satisfying.
At times the film is so busy handing over the reins to the next generation that some emotional moments are straight up missed, such as when Chewie and Leia first meet after Han’s death, and Chewie just wanders off, while Leia goes to hug Rey. This is the medal ceremony on Yavin all over again! Leia doesn’t like wookiees. There I said it.
Jumping back a bit, how’s about them coincidences? I know we’ve got the force to fall back on as an excuse, but the amount of happy accidents that have to occur for the film to come together the way it does is on par with Anakin building 3PO. I can buy everything up until Rey and Finn stumble across the Falcon (it seems we’re missing a few bits to make these coincidences a little easier to swallow, but that hopefully will taken care of in the sequels). But then they just come across the Falcon? Which leads them instantly to Han? That part makes exactly no sense, and would have played out much better if Han and Chewie would have been a part of the resistance, or somehow looking after Rey. Anything else really.
Aside from at times looking like something out of Firefly, the whole sequence on Han and Chewie’s new ship fell flat for me (despite the shoggoths). It also felt unnecessary, if not straight up fan-service, to knock Han back down to smuggler. He could have been a gambler, or a recluse running boring above-board cargo missions around the outer rim. A retired general even. We’ve already seen him as a smuggler, time for something new!
I know Abrams loves beating up spaceships (to a fault) but after Rey’s first (awesome) flight, the subsequent crash landing on Starkiller Base just seemed like more of the same. Almost as if the film was so enamored with being able to finally show atmospheric starship acrobatics in Star Wars that it had to squeeze the lemon for all it was worth.
Rey’s a wonderfully quirky character, but she’s just too talented at everything necessary for her to be a Hero. If the next film is about her training to use the force, would it have hurt for her to merely show great potential here and have Han teach her a trick or two about how to handle the Falcon instead of having her be The Best at everything? Has she ever even flown a starship before? Or how about having Chewie show her how to override the bi-linear motivator while growling furiously for her to hurry?
There’s something slightly obnoxious about overly competent characters. As an audience we like to have weaknesses to latch on to as well; weakness is humanity. Hell, Luke spent most of the original trilogy being knocked around and was a complete failure throughout The Empire Strikes Back!
The new characters are a lot more complex from the word go than the originals ever were. Gone are the archetypes, and in their place are characters who are a lot more complicated to describe. That hurts my original trilogy-itis a bit, but does it interfere with the Star Wars formula, if there is such a thing? Hard to say. It does remind me of Red Letter Media review of Episode I in which people are asked to describe characters from both trilogies and stumble when describing the ones from the prequels. There’s a certain storytelling power in the archetype which isn’t quite present in The Force Awakens. How that affects the larger story, I think is too early to tell.
There is much I could say about the rest of the film, but on the whole, as I said, I liked it. Kylo Ren was a great character and I look forward to seeing more of him (I knew Adam Driver would be great from the first time I saw him on Girls, so happy to see him get this opportunity). I loved the forest showdown; it was very reminiscent of old samurai films. Ren hitting his wound to stay upright was fantastic, and the two-handed stance is back, baby!
Han Solo dying. Well, saw that coming. I was less struck by it in situ than I was in thinking about how it might offset the group dynamics going forward, which I’m very excited about. Something new!
Beyond that, we’re in the nitty-gritty, most of which worked fine; good enough that I’ll spare you my dissection for now. Ren’s ship was fantastic, although the sliding wings didn’t do it for me. Captain Phasma sure was paraded around for a lot of nothing. I’ve learned to like the new saber. Rebels fire blue blaster bolts now? That irks me; part of the personality of Star Wars was the strange messiness that everyone fired the same color, mostly, but then sometimes not, and the X-wings fire red, but red is the dark side lightsaber etc. Let’s not get too pedagogic about these things; keep it messy! Nice 70s haircuts in the rebel base. Snoke is a stupid name, but cool character, even if it was very CG (as was Maz Kanata) and reminded me of something out of a Marvel film.
I fear that the Saga will fall into the Marvel formula, where each film is often individually fun while you’re stuffing your face with popcorn, but ultimately leaves you with little soul food.
We love these films because they resonate with us and feel personal. They feel personal because despite everything they were personal to Lucas. Does that transfer to the Marvel formula? We’ll have to wait and see. Maybe I’m just too old to see it in the Marvel films and children of this generation are growing up with them as their Star Wars?
Slightly underwhelming primarily because it failed to provide new pastures for my imagination. Despite these issues The Force Awakens was a fine start, which sets a good stage for future adventures.