As long as it’s arctic levels of cold outside, I figured I may as well stay in and get to a piece that I’ve put off for a bit too long. While not as timely as it could’ve been, here it is—my review of The Force Awakens (after some spoiler space):
For starters, let me say it wasn’t horrible. In the build to the film’s release, there were all kinds of rumors that really worried me—particularly in regard to Luke Skywalker (now and forever my favorite Star Wars character and a childhood icon for me, right up there with Spider-Man). The big rumor was that he was going to turn out to be the villain in the movie (and presumably the series going forward), which, thankfully, did not happen. If this had happened, I would’ve despised the film and cursed the very existence of J.J. Abrams.
So they avoided disaster with this choice and gave us a film that was entertaining, but still deeply flawed. Many of these flaws have been well covered by others (this is what happens when your review comes out seven weeks after the film opens), but let me revisit some of them anyway, just for the sake of offering my own perspective.
Same Old Story
The biggest criticism of the film is that it’s pretty much the same story as Star Wars (and for those lacking maturity and taste, when I say “Star Wars” I mean “A New Hope”). It’s a criticism that is perfectly valid in my eyes. Let’s take a look at The Force Awakens in its broadest strokes:
The movie starts with a droid holding secret documents/files escaping the clutches of the bad guys, who are led by a force-powerful dude dressed all in black. The droid is eventually discovered on a desert world by a lonely teenager (or near teenager) whose past is a mystery to her. She joins forces with another guy as they both seek to protect the droid from the bad guys looking for it. Our fledgling heroes eventually find their way to the Millennium Falcon and hook up with some older heroes that were previously thought to be just legends. Turns out the legends were true.
They go to a cantina with all kinds of wild looking aliens as they seek a way to get the droid into the hands of the good guys. Meanwhile, we learn that the bad guys have a superweapon capable of destroying star systems, which they use to blow up the capital/main base of the good guys.
This leads to a mission to the bad guys’ base to destroy their superweapon. During the mission, one of the legendary heroes dies in dramatic fashion. Despite this loss, the good guys still manage to destroy the superweapon.
…Now there are many differences in the smaller details of the story, but come on—as far as the major plot points go, it’s basically the same movie. Flip the gender of our teenage protagonist and reverse the order of the intros to the Millennium Falcon & the cantina scene and it’s exactly the same.
But it’s more than just the plot points. The First Order is basically the Empire, just as the Resistance are the Rebels. After the events of Return of the Jedi, these roles should have been reversed, practically speaking, but such does not appear to be the case at all. The First Order appears to have tremendous manpower and near-infinite resources, much like the Empire did, while the Resistance seems to be scuffling to get by, just as the Rebels once had to.
Then there are the characters.
…Or perhaps that should be “The Characters’ lack of Character.” As Megan McArdle put it in the her review:
I’m not arguing that the original “Star Wars” is going to go down in history as one of the great in-depth character sketches of all time. But the people in it felt like people—stock characters, to be sure, but ones painted in 3-D and vivid Technicolor. You could imagine what these people would be like if you ran into them down at your local bar—Luke complaining that the bartender wouldn’t serve him, Leia arguing passionately about politics, Han Solo berating the bartender about the quality of the hooch, while Kenobi and the Wookiee look on in gentle bemusement. What are Rey, Poe Dameron and Finn like in a real-life situation—say, dealing with an obstructive clerk at the DMV?
There’s no answer to this last question because all three characters are strangers to us—McArdle hit the nail right on the head with this. None of them have any distinctive personality traits to help define them.
Take Poe. All we know about him is that he’s a good pilot and loyal to the Resistance. The script gives him nothing else at all. Oscar Isaac stated in an interview that Poe was originally killed off early on in the first drafts of the script, and this seems to show on the screen. How much does the reveal of Poe being alive really affect the film in story terms? The truth of the matter is that if Poe had indeed died in that crash onto Jakku, it would have given the overall story a lot more dramatic weight and raised the emotional stakes for the audience. (I’m guessing the sole reason the character was revived was because producers realized it would be a grievous waste to limit an actor of Isaac’s talents to a mere cameo role.)
Finn has similar problems. Who is he? (You can pose this question about any of our three heroes, really, and there is never a clear answer.) While it’s interesting that Finn can’t bring himself to kill (which is what leads to his desertion from the ranks of the stormtroopers), it’s never made clear why he feels this way; never addressed in a way beyond mere exposition. One of the biggest rules in writing is show, don’t just tell. Well all they did with Finn was tell; they never showed. Of all the characters in the film, I think Finn was the one most desperately in need of a flashback scene or two to help flesh out what was there on the surface.
At this point let me say that all the actors involved did a wonderful job. None of this was their fault, they just needed a lot more to work with in terms of material.
The best of the new characters (and this seems to be the near-universal opinion) is the villain, Kylo Ren. This is likely due to the fact that while he appears to be a Darth Vader ripoff on the surface, he’s actually quite different. Kylo Ren is a hothead, while Darth Vader was as cool as the other side of the pillow. It’s the one element of Force Awakens that provides us a fresh flavor.
Brian Kesinger, an artist at Disney, has been putting a Calvin & Hobbes spin on Kylo’s childhood via his Instagram account, with hilarious results. (AV Club has the best of them here.) In order to be so successfully lampooned in this fashion, a character needs some specific traits and qualities to draw upon, which Kylo Ren has, unlike the heroes here.
Which brings us to our protagonist.
Much has been made over whether or not Rey is a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a character that serves as an author stand-in who is flawless, perfect, superior to every other character in the story in every way, knows everything, and is always right. Basically, the presence of a Mary Sue renders any story in which it appears as a mere exercise in the author’s egotism.
Rey is not a Mary Sue because she’s not a stand-in for any of the writers (at least not as far as I or, seemingly, anyone else knows). But she does seem to tick all the other boxes in the definition, hence the confusion.
And again, perfection seems to be her only quality, as we know nothing about her and are shown nothing else. Some of the film’s defenders have pointed out that Rey is supposed to be a mystery and her true character will likely be revealed in upcoming installments of the franchise—which may very well be the case, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for this particular film. Installments of film franchises can and should still be judged on their individual merits and flaws, and make no mistake about it, Rey’s complete lack of character development is a huge flaw in The Force Awakens.
Seriously now, in character terms even the droids of the original films were better defined than the heroes of this film. Ask yourself: Who were R2-D2 and C3PO? The answers come readily and easily: R2 was a headstrong, brave, and sassy astromech droid, while C3PO was a whining drama queen of a protocol droid.
What could have been done to make this film better? Well assuming a total rewrite was out of the question, they could have still done themselves a favor by reordering the sequence of events at the very least. For example: Rather than start out with the escaping droid and introducing our big-bad in black up front (like the original film), maybe start out on Jakku with Rey encountering BB-8 without the audience knowing the droid’s backstory yet. (This would also align the audience’s perspective with Rey’s, which could have been useful.) Then shake up later scenes in a similar manner.
Putting Rey on a desert planet was also likely a mistake—it makes things just way too similar to the original Star Wars. I would have wracked my brain trying to give us a totally new environment. This would be difficult, as the Star Wars series has already given us a desert planet (Tatooine), an ice planet (Hoth), a swamp planet (Dagobah), a gas giant (Bespin), a forest planet (Endor), a water world (Kamino), a “city planet” (Coruscant), and a fire/volcanic planet (Mustafar).
What if they had made Jakku a rock planet? No sand, no trees, no above-ground water sources, just all stone everywhere. This would be an incredibly harsh environment and suit potential character purposes for Rey just as well, if not better, than a desert world. The only drawback is that we lose the dramatic images of those star destroyers buried in the sand (which is probably the very reason they made Jakku a desert world in the first place). Still, I think an alternate environment would have served the film better here.
And, as mentioned earlier, the First Order and the Resistance are far too similar (if not outright identical) to the Empire and Rebels, respectively, of the original films. After the events of Return of the Jedi, the Empire should have been left splintered and scattered. With the deaths of both the Emperor and Vader, they would have been plagued by power struggles between surviving officers and beset with internal strife, while the Rebel Forces would have been relatively united in their victory. It was a perfect opportunity to flip the whole paradigm, but they blew it.
Imagine if the First Order was a small, fringe group, using guerrilla tactics and terrorism, focusing on smaller targets (as opposed to blowing up entire galaxies) of the now-corporate and in-charge former Rebellion. How refreshing would this have been? More than that, it would have been more relatable to contemporary moviegoers. When Star Wars first came out in ’77, we were only thirty years removed from World War II. Hitler and Mussolini were figures of living memory for many members of movie audiences then, which made the Empire a very relatable threat. Now terrorism is the main threat for most of us—making it the more relatable menace for audiences of today. To say nothing of the fact that the whole conflict would have been given an entirely different flavor than the original films. Opportunity missed.
Any of these things would have helped the film a great deal. But the lack of depth of our three heroes was clearly the issue most in need of addressing. We’ll see how things improve (or not) with the next chapter.