Spoilery thoughts on STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, with spoilers, in case you were wondering (Spoilers!)
I was going to see The Force Awakens on Tuesday (which is discount day), but I did so much writing the night before that I couldn’t shut my mind down and hardly got any sleep, so I was in no condition to drive on Tuesday. I was going to wait a week, but I realized that the earliest 2D showing on any given day was cheaper than the 3D showings on Tuesdays, and I decided, what the heck, I didn’t see any of the other Star Wars movies in 3D. Plus I needed groceries and wanted to check out the new Kroger next to the theater (which turned out to be a huge shopping complex with a food court on one side and a mini-department store on the other). So I went this morning, and now I’ve finally gone from the avoiding-spoilers side to the talking-about-spoilers side. So if you’re afraid of spoilers, be warned there are spoilers here. Have I said “spoilers” enough yet? Spoilers!
Just to provide a little extra spoiler space (Spoilers!), here follows a brief anecdote of a good deed I done did on the way to the theater. As I was driving on a one-way street and came toward a red light, a car coming through on the cross street from my right started to turn the wrong way onto the one-way street. It turned out to make a full U-turn in the middle of the intersection, though I’m not sure if that was the driver’s intention or their correction after realizing their error. Either way, it wasn’t right. But anyway, the driver of the car ahead and to the right of me got out to yell at the other driver. I noticed an object fall from the yelling guy’s car, and realized it was his cell phone. So I rolled down my right-side window and yelled, “You dropped your phone, sir, you dropped your phone!” The guy picked up his phone and got back in. He didn’t thank me or anything. But if he was angry enough to get out of his car to yell at another driver, imagine how angry he might’ve been if he’d later discovered that he’d lost his phone. Maybe the favor I did was ultimately for someone else.
And now for something completely spoilery:
I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan. The original trilogy was part of my childhood, along with the NPR radio series, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and Han Solo at Stars’ End. And I still have a near-complete collection of Marvel’s original SW comic, which is just about my favorite iteration of the franchise. But it’s just something I watch and find moderately entertaining and well-made; it doesn’t have the same meaning for me that Star Trek or Doctor Who does. So I was able to come in without a lot of baggage or demands. Probably a good way to approach any movie.
Still, it was a lot of fun to see “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and that fanfare and the opening crawl — although I was a bit disappointed that the crawl was such clean digital text instead of physically printed text scrolled over by a tilted camera, since I’m that old-school. The opening line “Luke Skywalker has vanished” is a great way to start. And I liked how the opening shot evoked the nostalgia of the original film’s opening but brought an impressive new visual and stylistic twist, with the Star Destroyer in silhouette, and then the very Abramsesque montage shots of the Stormtroopers.
I knew to expect a lot of nostalgia and homage to the original trilogy, but I’m okay with that. I think George Lucas has said that he wanted the prequel trilogy to “rhyme” with the OT, to have some similar beats in a different way, but I think this film achieved that more successfully, mixing the old with the new. I could see the resonances, but I feel they were remixed in a fresh way… err, for the most part.
In particular, J.J. Abrams (who cowrote with Lawrence Kasdan as well as directing) has always been good at focusing on the emotional core of characters and their journeys. People make fair complaints about the plot logic in his stories, but I’ve always appreciated how deeply his stories are grounded in character and emotion, which makes them work despite the holes. It’s exactly what this franchise needed after the sterility of the prequels. I love the freshness of focusing on a Stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience and deserts. It’s nicely subversive. Until now, Stormtroopers were always faceless myrmidons who could be disposed of without qualms, but now we get to see one as a person (John Boyega’s Finn), and it’s great. (The Clone Wars achieved something similar with the Clone Troopers.) It does make it a little incongruous, though, when Finn is whooping it up at his success at blowing away his fellow Stormtroopers during his escape with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Still, for a Star Wars movie to even touch on the idea of violence as a difficult thing to bear on one’s conscience is a major step forward, however inconsistently it’s handled. (This is one reason I liked the Marvel comics so much — the characters there expressed a regard for life that they never expressed in the films.) I’m not sure whether it’s a bug or a feature that we never get an explanation for why Finn had a conscience despite his lifelong brainwashing. It might’ve been nice to know what made him different from the others, but on the other hand, it’s nice to have a character just intrinsically have a sense of decency despite every effort to destroy it.
Finn and Poe bond pretty well in their brief time together, and Poe is reasonably charismatic and irreverent, but he doesn’t leave as much of an impression on me as the other characters, since he’s basically just a hotshot pilot and good guy, and because he’s missing for so much of the film (indeed, he was originally intended to stay dead). But after recently seeing Isaac be so effective as the bad guy and Domnhall Gleeson as the nice guy in Ex Machina (which is a fabulous film, by the way, go watch it), I was unsure how well they’d pull off the role reversal here. But Isaac was totally without the creep factor that seemed such an indelible part of his Ex Machina character — and just to get a bit ahead of the chronology here, Gleeson’s General Hux was startlingly evil and terrifying in his Hitleresque speech to the masses. They’re both quite chameleonic actors, and I’m most impressed, even if Poe is not the most impressive character on Isaac’s resume.
Speaking of lacking impressions, I’m afraid Captain Phasma didn’t live up to the hype. Or maybe she did, since she was touted as the new Boba Fett, and Boba Fett was a character who did and said so little that it always bewildered me that fans made such a big deal out of him. But I quite liked Gwendoline Christie in Wizards vs. Aliens (nope, never seen that thing with the thrones), and I wanted her to get more to do here. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her.
Of course, our main heroine is Daisy Ridley’s Rey, who was quite effective. Ridley is beautiful, but that’s not what she’s here to be, and she did quite well as the resourceful scavenger who’s had to pick up a lot of skills to survive and who turned out to have the makings of a hero without realizing it. (I’ll let my pal Keith DeCandido tear apart the stupid and sexist “Rey is a Mary Sue” meme.) I like her offbeat approach to problem-solving, like pulling the fuses in the maintenance ducts to open or lock doors. Her knack for piloting is nothing unusual in a franchise that’s largely about ships and pilots, and adds credence to the suspicion that she may be of Skywalker blood. She’s maybe a little underdeveloped as a character, but much of her story is clearly being held back for the next two movies. The original film at least told a complete story with closure for everyone (except poor Chewie not getting his medal) while still leaving room for more. I liked Rey in the present, but I would’ve liked more answers about her past.
Really, one thing I kept thinking while watching this movie was that I was more interested in the stuff that happened before this movie. Kylo Ren turning on Luke, Rey’s backstory, Finn’s backstory, etc. I wouldn’t mind seeing those stories told. Maybe that’ll be the next animated series after Rebels. Or maybe it’ll be in novels.
Kylo Ren wasn’t quite as iconic a villain as Darth Vader, but then, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? He’s a wannabe Vader, but he doesn’t quite have it down yet. But Adam Driver does a reasonably good job as a more angry and turmoil-driven villain than we’ve seen before; again, Abrams makes sure to ground it in emotional conflict, particularly family issues. Now, the one thing I did get spoiled on (because I read something I should’ve known to avoid) was THE big spoiler about who Kylo Ren was and what he did to Han Solo. So I knew that was coming. Even so, the way their relationship was revealed seemed a bit awkward. When Supreme Leader Snoke just casually up and said “Your father, Han Solo” in the middle of a conversation, I was thinking, “Dude, spoilers!” I would’ve expected that reveal to come more dramatically, like maybe between Han and Leia when they were reunited. Anyway, knowing what happened at the big moment didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the scene, because knowing it was coming gave it weight, and I was able to focus on the parts I didn’t know, i.e. how it happened, what was said, how it was set up. And that was done very well. Some good dialogue and acting there.
It was okay to see Han and Chewie again, still up to their old tricks. But Han was never a favorite character of mine. And they did seem to show up kind of randomly, though not as randomly as the Falcon just happening to be there on Jakku. At least we got an explanation later for how they found it. Harrison Ford did a good job, and it’s clear that Kasdan still loves writing Han. But really, it took this long for Han to try using Chewie’s bowcaster? It was nice to see Leia again too — and by the way, Internet, Carrie Fisher looks great. But it’s frustrating that we saw so little of Luke, and that we never got to hear his voice, which of course is Mark Hamill’s greatest asset as an actor. I hope he’ll have a big role in the next film.
Oh, of course I should talk about the real star of the film, BB-8. Well, the star of the first act, anyway. He is a very well-designed and well-executed character. Giving his head the ability to tilt in all directions makes him much more expressive than R2-D2 ever was. He’s a lot of fun. And he has a pretty good “voice” treatment too — distinct from R2, a bit more organic-sounding, but definitely much better than that irritating “wah-wah-wah” voice used for Chopper on Rebels.
Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata was pretty good as the Yoda-ish figure of the film, though I wonder if she could’ve been done as a puppet instead of by performance capture. I guess they wanted to get her facial performance onscreen as well as her voice. Anyway, Maz being a thousand years old is interesting; it means maybe we could see her on Rebels at some point. And Max Von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka might also appear as an associate of Bail Organa’s, say.
Storywise, I could’ve done without another plot revolving around a giant planetkiller weapon. That’s a well we’ve seen returned to a bit too often now. But as with Kylo, maybe the attempt at imitation is kind of the point — the First Order is trying to preserve the Empire, and all the Empire really had going for it was destruction. They’re trapped by their need to emulate the past, just as Kylo is.
Now, a lot of people have complained about the destruction of the Republic capital and the Hosnian system being visible across space from Takodana. It’s true that this is a trope Abrams has used before, in Star Trek when he showed Spock Prime seeing Vulcan’s destruction from the surface of Delta Vega. I always took that as symbolic, but it’s more literal here. Still, I’m not too bothered. It’s no worse than the question of how the Falcon got from Hoth to Bespin without a hyperdrive in The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve seen it theorized that maybe Hoth and Bespin were in the same star system, or maybe around the two stars in a close binary, say. A similar explanation could work here. Maybe “the Hosnian system” is a term like “the Jovian system” for Jupiter and its moons. And maybe Takodana is in the same star system and wasn’t targeted because it’s neutral. Anyway, Star Wars has always been space fantasy rather than science fiction (in Lucas’s own words), so it’s never really tried to be plausible. It’s an annoyance, but a minor one.
The bigger problem with the destruction of the Republic capital is that it’s so cursory. There were going to be scenes of Maisie Richardson-Sellers as Leia’s envoy to the Republic, someone we’d know and have some reason to care about when the planet was destroyed, but her appearance was reduced to a brief shot without dialogue as she saw the beam coming in. And since we never really see the Republic as an actual factor in the story, and since none of the characters have any personal connection there that we know of, its destruction hardly seems relevant. Still, getting to see the people on the surface at all is an improvement on the destruction of Alderaan. And so is the visual effect. I’ve always hated that the destruction of Alderaan was represented by a quick, instantaneous “poof,” a jump cut from a shot of the planet to the same kind of liquid-fuel explosion used for spaceships blowing up. I always felt it should be more like the effect of the wave-motion gun in Star Blazers or the destruction of the Genesis Planet in The Search for Spock — a slow, roiling upheaval that took time to build to a full eruption because of the vastness of the thing being destroyed. And we finally got that here, both with Hosnian Prime and at the end with Starkiller Base. So I appreciate that, at least. If it had to be a replay of something we’ve already seen, at least they handled the details better this time. (Although, no, we didn’t need another scene of X-Wings in a trench. That was just self-indulgent.)
Let’s see, what else… I like the way the climactic fight made it look as though Finn was the hero who’d save the damsel in distress from the bad man, and then turned it around and had Rey turn out to be the hero. I personally didn’t need that point made, I’ve seen (and written) plenty of female action heroes, but maybe it’s a statement that was necessary for a large part of the action movie audience. And it’s a trick Abrams has pulled before, in the climax of Mission: Impossible III. Although it goes farther here, since it’s not a temporary role reversal, it’s the emergence of the trilogy’s true hero.
See, this is why I don’t get the “Mary Sue” claims. A Mary Sue would overshadow everyone else from the start. Rey has a learning curve, and the fact that she’s the real hero of the story doesn’t become evident until the third act. Everyone treats her like the traditional damsel — Finn holding her hand, Ren kidnapping her and strapping her into bondage — and she subverts the role as much as Leia did in 1977, but this is the version of Star Wars where Leia turns out to be the hero and Luke ends up half-dead. (Okay, yes, Rey was coded as the Luke surrogate from the start by being on a desert planet and connecting with the cute droid. But no analogy is perfect.)
The resolution of the search for Luke is too sudden — R2 had the info all along, he was just taking a really long nap? And he woke up for no clear reason (although at first I thought it was in response to Chewie’s grief). I’ve read that he just woke up slowly after overhearing C3PO talk about the map, but they could’ve hinted at that by showing a standby light start to blink on R2 at the end of that scene, or something. Honestly, of all the returning characters (discounting the cameos of Ackbar and Nien Nunb), 3PO and R2 are the ones the story could’ve most easily done without. I didn’t feel their brief appearances really added all that much. Though R2 at least got to be a Macguffin of sorts again, even if he was a Macguffin nobody knew they should be after. (Which, if you think about it, is probably the best position to be in if you’re a Macguffin.)
You know… while a lot of what George Lucas has said about the franchise recently has been pretty ridiculous, he has a point about how he always tried to feature new and different planetary environments rather than rehashing old ones. Here, aside from the Tatooine-like desert planet, most of the worlds were forested and hard to tell apart. The only thing that set Starkiller Base apart from Takodana or the Resistance base planet was that it was snowing. It wasn’t as visually interesting as the mix of worlds we got in the OT and the prequels. (And when we did get a forest moon in ROTJ, it was a stunningly massive redwood forest. It was the ultimate forest, just as Tatooine was the ultimate desert and Hoth was the ultimate ice world. The worlds here looked kinda like Planet Vancouver.)
Still, I’ve never understood fandom’s criticisms of Abrams as a director. I’ve said how much I like his emphasis on character and emotion, and I think he’s a good director stylistically as well. In fact, I felt this didn’t seem to have enough of his usual style and sensibility, as if he were trying to conform more to the Star Wars house style. I would’ve liked it to have even more of an Abramsy feel.
Or maybe it’s just that John Williams was doing the score instead of Michael Giacchino. I have to say, I didn’t find any of the new musical themes to stand out as much as the old ones. Maybe it’s just that I don’t have the new themes burned in my mind from years of listening to the soundtrack albums as a kid, but the score felt underwhelming except when it quoted the greatest hits. And I was disappointed that the end titles didn’t conclude with the main theme reprise like they did in the OT. That’s as important a musical bookend as the opening theme. (But then, I was the only one who bothered to stick around to the very end of the credits.)
Speaking of which — the coolest thing in the credits was learning that a lot of the background voices were done by cast members from The Clone Wars, including showrunner Dave Filoni, sound editor Matthew Wood (Grievous/droids), Dee Bradley Baker (the clones), Tom Kane (narrator/Yoda), Matt Lanter (Anakin), Cat Taber (Padme), James Arnold Taylor (Obi-Wan), and Sam Witwer (Darth Maul, and now Palpatine on Rebels). Since Rey’s Force vision included a voiceover by Ewan McGregor and archive audio of Sir Alec Guiness, that means all three Obi-Wan actors’ voices are heard in this movie.
I guess that’s enough for now. This has been really long. Question: Is it worth seeing this again in 3D?