Like most children at the time, I loved the original Star Wars movies, and like most sensitive human beings, I was crushed by the prequels and subsequently fled from the rising tide of Star Wars paraphernalia that threatened to crush and drown popular culture. Like Luke I fled far, far away, and did not look back.
The rumor of new Star Wars movies, shot on film and without the involvement of the dreaded Lucas, seemed like good news, but I refused to get my hopes up. I spent so many months meditating on the inevitable future badness of episode VII that when I emerged from my cave, my hopes for the new film were as bedraggled and sad as the long gray beard I had grown in the interim.
Having avoided every possible spoiler and trailer as best as any sane man can do (and giving up Imgur for the last two months), I finally bought my ticket and settled into my theatre seat while the rest of the country was watching the Superbowl, and I emerged from the theater with, dare I say, a new hope.
It’s important to address at the outset the group of people who talk about the terribleness of Episode VII in superlative terms, and to dispel all radical, unfounded claims. The brute fact we must address initially is that Episode VII is, without any doubt, better than all the prequel movies. I should hope this goes without saying. A great scholar of our age, a Mr. Harry Plinkett, has produced several sophisticated lectures in which he demonstrates, with painstaking clarity, the badness of Episodes I, II, and III with a truly profound thoroughness. Not only are the plots of those films, he shows, totally incoherent, but the directing is awful, the special effects are destructively implemented, the characters and situations are absurd and unbelievable, and the films render such great actors as Samuel Jackson and Liam Neeson ineffectual and flat. In short, it is easy to say without exaggeration that there is no single axis on which the prequels can be measured that yields any degree of excellence or even coherence.
The Force Awakens, on the other hand, far surpasses any of those in that it a) has clear protagonists; b) has a strong opening shot that tells us everything we need to know about the situation without any boring political dialogue; c) has a clear villain with a clear agenda and a reason to hate him; d) has coherent and logical plotting where one situation follows from another; c) has a good blend of old and new elements instead of leaning on the original trilogy for 100% of its meaning, and so forth. The Force Awakens is a functional story, which has so far been true for only 50% of Star Wars films.
Being better than the Star Wars prequels is, of course, not that hard to do, and simply clearing this checkpoint doesn’t get you into the Star Wars hall of fame. The Force Awakens, unfortunately, has a number of very weak elements.
- Carrie Fisher is awful. My suspicion is that Fisher doesn’t want to be there at all, and it shows. Her scenes, especially those she shares with Harrison Ford, are as dead and lifeless as anything I’ve ever seen, in contrast to the fire and chemistry that originally defined the Leia-Solo relationship. For some reason the writing also makes a profound drop in quality when we get to their discussion of Ben Solo and their past, and it seems to me to be the lowest, most painfully unwatchable part of the whole movie.
- Rey is poorly written. She effectively combines two extremely boring, flat, one-dimensional character tropes: the Mary Sue, and the “strong, independent woman.” The former is always bad and has always been bad, from the original Mary Sue stories to Wesley Crusher, and the latter has become so commonplace and shallow in modern writing as to effectively stereotype itself. One could argue that Rey starts off interesting, and if she only had one expertise, she wouldn’t qualify as a Mary Sue. But combine this with the fact that she also picks up the Force with no teacher and no training pushes it into the realm of the unbelievable. This is the Mary Sue problem: if she was simply not amazing at everything she did, she could be interesting: a tech genius who’s used to being smart but then has great difficulty with the Force, or a character who is bad at everything and thinks she’s awful but then is a natural at the Force are both interesting angles for her character, but apparently the writers wanted everything.
- Finn’s role as anti-hero is somewhat forced and flat. The scene where he makes the decision to leave and asks for passage to the outer rim is probably the clearest example.
- The politics of the post-Empire universe are unexplained and superficial. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the political state of the galaxy that are never really answered, and the Nazi imagery is so heavy-handed as to be embarrassing.
- Yet another Death Star. As much as we all liked the original Trilogy, even I felt like the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi was a little repetitive at that point, and by the time we get to our third Death Star I was unable to take it seriously. Making it bigger and badder only serves to emphasize its unoriginality. Of the four coherent Star Wars films to date, only one of them has a finale not connected to blowing up the Death Star. How is this still unique and scary?
- The “supreme leader” is a weird ad-hoc villain with very little explanation. What’s his deal? Where did he come from? How does he know anything about the force? I know all this is going to be answered in Episode VIII, but it seems like we’re given too much information if they’re saving it for a secret reveal later and too little information if he’s going to be in (relatively) so many scene (i.e., more than one).
- There are a few problems with general pacing (a bit too fast and rushed in places) and some stale dialogue where characters feel forced and artificial.
However, it’s not all bad. Far from it! There’s a lot to like here.
- Where the film is strong overall: a good mix of old and new. In partial defense of the Death Star 3.0, the story arc was clearly trying to bridge that gap with the old material by erring on the side of being too familiar. All the archetypical roles are there, but the characters are switched up: Poe is Leia, Rey is Luke, Finn is Solo, Kylo is Vader, Solo is Obi-Wan, Luke is Yoda. In so far as the characters play their part well, they bring a really cool balance of new takes on old archetypes.
- Kylo really works on a number of levels. First, the sound effects and the directing in the first third of the film really make Kylo’s use of the Force scary. It’s dark, it’s mean, it’s great. It’s a new take on an old foe. But Kylo also works on a much more practical level. This is Star Wars, you say, and what you want is more iconic bad guys with dark clothes, red lightsabers, and ominous black masks with voice changers. Now, you can’t just put that into your film if it doesn’t actually make any sense. For Vader, we knew he needed the suit to survive. Are we just going to duplicate that same exact character again? The answer gets at one of the complaints about Kylo, which is that he’s cool until he takes his mask off, then he’s just kind of a dorky kid who’s a Darth Vader fanboy. But that’s the whole point. He doesn’t need a voice-changer mask, he’s just doing it to emulate his role-model, and making the character want to emulate the villain that the film itself wants to emulate is a brilliant way to give us the Star Wars feel in a way that makes sense within the premises of the story.
- Speaking of archetypes, Kylo also brings the Vader vs.Obi-Wan conflict from episode IV directly into the movie in the form of his own internal conflict. We learn, briefly, that his given name is Ben, but his idol is Vader. He struggles between these two icons: Vader, and Ben Kenobi, and instead of being “seduced by the dark side,” Kylo specifically mentions his “call to the light” as a temptation. This reversal preserves the old story and themes but brings them a new, refreshing angle.
- In the same way, the Han and Kylo scene is a reversal of the Vader and Luke scene in Cloud City. In Empire Strikes Back, the father seeks out his son and offers him a place in his world, in that case, the dark side. In response, the son refuses and would rather kill himself than be taken in. In Force Awakens, the father indeed seeks out his son to offer him a place in his world, but in this case, it’s the light. By contrast, the son kills the father. This, and all the other Kylo and archetype stuff in general, really makes this film “rhyme” with episodes IV and V in all the ways Lucas said he wanted for the prequels but which never even got off the ground.
- Han Solo in general carries this film. I would argue that he is way better in the Force Awakens than he is in return of the Jedi. He adds an almost Clint-Eastwood take on the Old Sage archetype right along-side his lovable rogue persona. But it’s matured and polished and solid - except when he’s sharing the screen with Fisher.
- Film! Animatronics! Real sand and water and trees! No cluttered frames full of bullshit CGI! Admiral Ackbar is a puppet! Huzzah!
Overall, I think this film has a lot going for it but has a few systemic issues that keep it from being the best it could be. The most glaring issue being how bland and underdeveloped Rey and, to a lesser extent, Finn are.
If one thing could be changed about the film, it seems to me that the Mary Sue problem could be addressed satisfactorily either by having Rey lose her duel with Kylo (but is rescued by the Falcon, which forces Kylo to retreat), or else by having Rey be a natural at the Force at the expense of her being bad at all the other stuff (and there is a lot of room for nice self-esteem problems to give the character an arc).
But going forward, there’s actually still a lot of time to recover these issues, especially if episode VIII is devoted to humbling Rey (the natural next step for a character who starts out strong, and the right topic for the second act in a three-act story), and giving Finn some more dimensionality. Everything about the Kylo story is very interesting, and there’s a lot of room for a very strong character arc there as well.