Directed by J.J. Abrams
The end of the academic semester always reminds me of Lando’s escape from the second Death Star; the overtaking flames, the growing heat, the awareness in the back of the mind that this time, you might not make it. My semester ended last Tuesday night, followed in rapid succession by my last work day of 2015 and, of course, my late night viewing of Star Wars. Without further ado, let’s talk about that last one. Spoilizzles below.
The story starts off following a single, unnamed stormtrooper serving the First Order, the heir to the Empire’s legacy, decades after the Battle of Endor. This stormtrooper, seeing his comrade die and becoming disillusioned with his job (perhaps after a few “Are we the baddies?” conversations), frees a captured Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron, and helps Poe hijack a TIE fighter. Before their escape abruptly ends with a crash landing on Jakku, Poe asks the stormtroooper his name. After getting only a serial number beginning with FN in reply, Poe says, “Fuck that, I’m gonna call you Finn.”* The stormtrooper now known as Finn seems pleased with this, but he becomes separated from Poe during the crash, and he’s forced to search for water by walking to the nearest town, where he promptly finds our other new hero, Rey.
Rey is a scavenger barely scraping out a living on Jakku while waiting for her life to turn around. By the looks of things, she’s been waiting a long time, and will be waiting a while longer. Finn, aware that Poe had been searching for a small orange droid, spots just such a droid (BB-8) with Rey, and convinces the two of them that he’s a member of the Resistance. In reality, he needs help escaping from the First Order, which apparently didn’t take kindly to his Bowe Bergdahl-ing. The three of them just manage to escape in the most famous, most improbable hunk of junk in the galaxy: the Millennium Falcon. From there, they meet up with Han Solo and Chewbacca, visit a dive bar in a scene meant to be reminiscent of Mos Eisley, discover that there’s a new Death Star, and confront the First Order’s wannabe heir to Darth Vader, Kylo Ren.
Along the way, Rey discovers that she has exceptional piloting and combat abilities, but she can’t let go of her desire to run back to Jakku and await the return of her long-lost parents. She rejects an ancient artifact, a lightsaber, that calls to her, but eventually embraces her Force-sensitivity: she begins to explore her powers, first experimenting with Jedi mind tricks, and finally taking up her weapon to defend herself and Finn against Kylo Ren.
Finn and Rey. These are the new protagonists that The Force Awakens introduces. Whether it was the way the characters were written or the actors’ portrayals, I’m not sure, but I was much more impressed with Finn than Rey. Finn probably has the most charisma of any Star Wars character, ever, including Han Solo. Speaking of whom, while I mentioned Han Solo’s appearance about midway through the movie, I neglected to mention just how much the second half of the movie becomes the Han Solo Show, to the detriment of the picture. I know everyone loves Han, and I do too, but Harrison just isn’t into it anymore. John Boyega, as Finn, was carrying the first half of the movie, and Rey had the potential to blossom into a very interesting protagonist, but Han Solo just swoops in to take up all the oxygen in the second half. He now pilots the Falcon, he brings them to the cantina-world, he leads them to the Resistance, he takes charge of the assault on the new superweapon. Oh, and Kylo Ren turns out to be Han and Leia’s son, a fact that is not really treated as a twist in the movie, but just sort of gets talked about until the audience is tired of hearing it.
Kylo Ren is actually a great villain. He’s introduced very similarly to Darth Vader: black armor, no face, all ruthlessness. As the movie progresses, though, we get the sense that beneath all his bluster, he’s really a pretty immature person with insecurity and a lingering doubt that he will ever live up to his grandfather’s legacy. As the movie goes along, he becomes almost the anti-Vader. He takes his helmet off frequently, revealing a handsome young man below, without the wounds that necessitated Vader’s helmet and armor. He’s powerful, of course, but he for some reason seems unable to access his full potential when it counts. And, most importantly, he’s tempted by the light side of the Force. That’s something we really haven’t seen before. We’ve seen good Jedi, and evil Sith, and good characters tempted by the dark side, and good characters gone bad, but we haven’t seen a truly evil character tempted by the light side. Vader wasn’t tempted by the light side; he embraced passion in all of its forms, and this led him to the dark side, but also led him back to the light. Ren, on the other hand, is an evil character, as demonstrated by his patricide at the climax. There’s no redemption for that character. Yet he’s still fighting off his temptation to embrace the light. That’s new.
I really liked this movie, honestly. There were, however, many decisions the filmmakers made that left me scratching my head. First and foremost, Finn’s search for identity is just abandoned when Solo shows up. The movie basically starts with a nameless, faceless, history-less ex-stormtrooper who’s trying to discover what kind of a man he is in the real world. This is an exciting new premise for a Star Wars movie, and I don’t think they could have found someone better than Boyega for the part. The guy’s personality shines through the screen, and it makes sense for a character who’s never been able to express emotion and individuality before to go wild with his new-found freedom to be himself. His offbeat way of speaking and genuine charm are far and away the best part of the movie. He’s also the source of much of the movie’s humor. But when Solo shows up, the movie just gradually forgets about Finn. Oh, he’s still there, and he’s still great, but his character arc is pretty much over before the climax. The plot turns to Solo’s attempt to reconcile with his son, and Rey’s choice between living in the past and embracing her destiny, a choice made more urgent with her capture by Kylo Ren and his goons.
There were other things too, little things that didn’t quite add up in my mind. What was the point of the faux-Mos Eisley scene, other than to evoke the feeling of A New Hope? The lightsaber discovery could have happened any number of ways, but the movie introduced a new planet, a new environment, and a new character, and doesn’t give them enough screen time to feel like a piece of a coherent movie. Ditto for Han’s confrontation with the gangs after recapturing the Falcon. What was the point? I think it was supposed to remind us, again, of Han’s first appearance in A New Hope, in which he’s almost immediately confronted by a bounty hunter who’s more interested in taking Han dead than alive. It felt instead like something out of Firefly, which wouldn’t on its own be a bad thing, except that Firefly is pretty much based on Star Wars, with Serenity in place of the Falcon and Captain Mal Reynolds in place of Captain Han Solo. I love Firefly, but that show is pretty open about being a Star Wars knock-off, and it’s not good when the real thing feels more like its much younger TV cousin.
Then there are the ideas that felt completely rushed. They introduced the new Death Star (okay, I know they make it very clear that it’s not a Death Star, but I don’t remember what they called it and, come on, it’s a Death Star), only to attack it and blow it up in the same way that the two previous Death Stars were blown up. Hell, it’s actually easier; at least Death Stars I and II had a whole movie of build-up before the final battle. In The Force Awakens, the dialogue was pretty much: “Hey, there’s this superweapon.” “A Death Star?” “No, definitely not a Death Star.” “What should we do?” “Well, let’s say it was a Death Star. It would have a trench and an exhaust port leading to the core. Torpedoing that hole could blow the whole station apart. I think we should just do that. Why mess with a good thing?” “Damn, good call. I would never have thought of that. That’s why I’m not a General, I guess.” “Damn right.”*
I’m not even opposed to the idea of a new Death Star, I just don’t know why the movie thought it could get away with only giving the superweapon about twenty minutes of build-up before its destruction. The ability to destroy multiple planets at once doesn’t make up for its lack of screen time.
Similarly, the movie builds up Captain Phasma as a bad-ass giant silver stormtroooper leading Finn’s unit, only to discard her toward the end. She’s a menacing presence, but when Han and Finn land on the new Death Star, they capture her without a fight, and she promptly lowers the station’s shields so that the attack can commence. I’m not saying that’s not a reasonable reaction in the face of death, but it kind of undermines the bad-ass image they’d been going for. Then, after a poorly-delivered one-liner from Han, they dispose of Phasma off-screen, and she’s never spoken of again. If that was going to happen, why did they need to make a special character? Any low-level grunt would’ve done the trick, and the movie already has three other major villains to keep track of.
Then there’s Rey. Rey wasn’t the worst thing about this movie, and like I said, I really think she would have been a great character if the movie hadn’t embraced Han Solo as its driving force. But her perfection and invincibility, gradually revealed over the course of a single picture, make me wonder where the character can go from here. With the possible exception of Luke, she’s clearly the most powerful being in the movie. She learns how to perform a Jedi mind trick without having been taught, or even having seen it done. She bests Kylo Ren with no lightsaber training whatsoever. I mean, Luke never beat Vader, at least not without embracing the dark side. How can Rey beat Kylo Ren already? If she’s already the most powerful, the only thing they can do is make her a potential villain, and I don’t want them to set up a new protagonist who’s tempted by the dark side. We’ve seen that series. Twice. Anakin was tempted by the dark side, and gave in. Luke was tempted by the dark side, and rejected it, redeeming Anakin in the process. There’s no third option. There’s nothing else to do with that plot line.
Here’s how my Force Awakens would’ve gone. I think the first part would be much the same. Finn and Poe land on Jakku, get separated, and Finn finds Rey. Instead of immediately getting attacked by the First Order, they take 10-15 minutes to talk and get to know each other a little bit. The problem with Rey essentially comes from her lack of characterization. While I think the filmmakers intentionally tried to create an air of mystery about her, she ended up feeling pretty hollow to me. Leaving her history blank was a good move, but some time with Finn could’ve built up the aspects of her personality that aren’t, “I’m good at everything.” Plus, it would’ve built a more solid foundation for the strong relationship that’s so necessary in a movie like this.
Anyways, the First Order comes, then Finn and Rey board the Falcon and flee on their own to fake-Mos Eisley. They spend more time with that seemingly omnipotent alien lady, who then becomes a real character rather than a plot device. The climax of this movie would involve three plot elements coming together: Rey’s discovery of the lightsaber, a symbol of her destiny and latent power; the appearance of Han Solo, who can lead the protagonists to the Resistance and possibly even the disappeared Luke Skywalker; and Kylo Ren’s attempt to capture BB-8 and capture or kill Finn and Rey. The two protagonists come clean, set aside the deceit, and open up to one another for the first time, making them both stronger and able to face Kylo Ren. As the protagonists escape the New Order, Han has a brief moment with Kylo Ren, in which it’s revealed that the two are father and son. Rey, seeing Han’s danger, finally takes up the lightsaber, helps Han and Finn escape aboard the Falcon, and decides to seek out Luke, now that BB-8 and R2-D2 have given her his location. The film ends with the reveal of a First Order superweapon, many times more powerful than the Death Star, destroying a series of planets and threatening the destruction of the Republic.
Ideally, the next movie would end the way this one did, with the Pyrrhic victory of the Death Star’s destruction at the cost of Han’s life. Let’s face it, we have to get rid of Harrison Ford, who isn’t exactly doing the film any favors with his “acting.” I think that would allow for another movie of the audience wondering what kind of a person Kylo Ren is, because once he kills Han, that’s it, he’s evil. Rey could spend time with Luke, growing more powerful, leading to her first real confrontation with Ren, which she wins. But then the problem still remains; if she can beat Kylo Ren, what’s the conflict of the next one going to be? Ren can’t be redeemed, but maybe he can be used as a tool by Luke, and the third movie’s conflict could revolve around Rey’s reluctant involvement in a plan to use Kylo Ren as a weapon against the First Order, a situation made all the more difficult by the reveal that her parents were Jedi that were murdered when Ren abandoned Luke’s training, leaving Rey stranded on Jakka.
But hey, what do I know. Some of what the filmmakers did, I’m sure, was done this way for a very specific purpose: they need to set the next two movies up. Assuming they know what they want to do over the arc of a trilogy, they probably had a lot of stuff that they had to get through in this one so that they could hit everything they wanted in episodes VIII and IX. I get that. But I’m not reviewing episodes VIII and IX, however good they might turn out to be. I’m reviewing The Force Awakens, and The Force Awakens has problems with awkward pacing, lack of a central idea, too many characters, and a plot that keeps shifting focus.
This doesn’t mean The Force Awakens wasn’t an awesome movie. It was, and it was one of the most fun movies I’ve seen in a while, funny and exciting throughout. But I can’t ignore its faults just because I love Star Wars. There are many things it could’ve done better, things that could’ve taken it from a B to an A+. As it is, we’ll have to content ourselves with a good movie that didn’t quite live up to its potential.
*Might not be actual dialogue. I haven’t memorized this movie yet.