It seems like it often falls on me to be only one on our team of SciFi fans and aficionados to be hypercritical on films that everyone else seems to have given a free pass. Which brings me to Star Wars, Episode Seven, the Bank Awakens. Or whatever it’s called. Seriously, didn’t the force awaken in Luke in the original trilogy? Wasn’t that one of the primary plots, bringing back a belief system that had all but disappeared in the galaxy? Are we not told that Luke trained a series of Jedis in the years between the Ewok victory song (oh how I miss you) and this new installment? So did it go back to sleep? Did it hit the snooze button?
But before I go any further let me admit I had fun at Ep7. I am a Star Wars fan boy like any other. My entire allowance went to Kenner for years and I received the Death Star as a ‘good big brother’ present when my sister was born (which I’m not really sure I had earned yet… but still). I was just as excited as everyone else when the last ‘new trilogy’ was announced, and just as disappointed as anyone with how they finished. That being said, I was cautiously optimistic about the new trilogy. The first 4 and ½ seasons of LOST are my favorite television ever, and JJ had really done well with the Star Trek reboot. The promise of revisiting my favorite galaxy 27 years later and checking in with old heroes really offered great potential and of course the promise of more practical effects combined with what we can do in film now… and let’s face it, the obscene amount of money Disney was willing to throw behind these films, all of this made the film my most anticipated film release since THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
So why did I immediately forget most of the movie mere hours after watching it? Why have I not bothered to see it again? Why do I groan when I hear people talking about it, lavishing it with praise? Because I hold Star Wars to a higher standard than any other series, and because J.J. Abrams and his team didn’t. This new film suffered from lazy, repetitious storytelling, a disregard for the original trilogy, and a whole mess of missed opportunities. No, it wasn’t a terrible movie (I even said Fury Road wasn’t a terrible movie) but given all that could have been done, this was not the film I wanted, nor the film the series deserved.
We meet again, at last
One reason I had few memories of the film only moments after I had seen it, was that it felt like I had already seen the movie before. There is an astounding amount of lazy repetition in the film, the kind of story ideas and moments that should have never made it out of a first draft. Lame call-outs as simple as Han Solo asking about a trash compactor on the new death star do nothing to forward the characters or plot. Painfully out of place/fashion wipe-edits that are only placed in this film because they were in the original, do nothing but make me wish I was five again watching Empire Strikes Back for the first time, rather than this new film. And John Williams has mined this well a few too many times, that the score sounds well, like variations on the original by a grad student phoning in their degree thesis.
But the dull edge of nostalgia hurts most in storytelling. The lazy repetition of plot elements lifted from the original film droops like murky shadow over the proceedings here. A would-be Jedi without their parents? Check. A missing Jedi that the rebel alliance desperately needs? Check. An estranged father and son? Check. A desert planet? A quirky bar? An opening title scrawl? Check, check, check. It almost feels like they reduced the first Star Wars film (it’ll always just be Star Wars to me, never the dull pointless title A New Hope) to the most generic elements, tossed them in a hat and pulled them out one by one as story point.
Judge me by my size, do you?
The worst offender is the main ‘danger’ of the film, which happens to be a giant planet-sized starship that can wipe out planets in one shot. This was repetitious when they did it again in RETURN OF THE JEDI – now it’s just lazy. Is this the only idea the bad guys have in the Star Wars universe? But not just the element itself, but the need to have the film tie up in some sort of small ships race along the edge of a planet-type weapon and blow it up… it’s story by the numbers. One of the worst things the new film did was swipe aside years and volumes of great Star Wars literature, tons of great story ideas from serializations like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy or Kevin J. Anderson’s Academy Trilogy. These stories have a proven track record with fans and actually introduce new ideas and plots into the galaxy, rather than just new characters into cookie-cutter stories.
The basic premise of the Force Awakens seems to be it worked once, let’s do it again only bigger (the new Death Star being the most visual example of this). We have a fight scene on bridge in a giant air duct. We have the millennium falcon flying through something it shouldn’t be able to navigate. We have storm troopers and at-ats and a bad guy in a mask and wisecracking robots and other robots that only communicate in noises, we have small sized wise creatures living in remote planets, we have much of all three films, shoved into one. Maybe they are getting all the old ideas out first and leave the next two movies lots of room to be original (somehow I doubt it).
Strike me down, and I will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine
Part of what makes the idea of new Star Wars films so exciting is that you don’t HAVE TO remind people what the films were about – everyone knows the story of Star War. It’s such a part of our cultural DNA we don’t need anything other than ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far far away’ and we’re off. The story of the original trilogy is simple, but it’s powerful and memorable. What frustrated me the most about the new film is that it completely undercut the original three films by basically resetting the plot (so that it could essentially do the first Star Wars film again).
In THE FORCE AWAKENS, Han and Leia’s relationship has ended for essential purposes and he is once again a lone smuggler in it for nobody but him. Han’s growth over the three original films is the most complete of any character, his relationship with Leia is the best developed. To have them basically ‘break up’ in between films is to crap all over all they’ve been through. I get they had a kid that didn’t quite win Jedi Academy magna cum laude but you work it out if you are in love. Instead, we are asked to squeeze in a whole trilogy of distant-and-come-back-together-plot into one film. I’d rather see what it’s like for Han, the lone smuggler, to live into old age as the husband of the leader of the rebellion. That’s a much more interesting conflict and one we haven’t seen before.
It really bothers me that the central plot of the new trilogy requires that Luke has somehow blown off the rebellion and is somewhere sulking because his Jedi Academy went sour. This is not Luke. He is an eternal (albeit naïve) optimist, so this doesn’t gel with his essential character. On top of that, one thing we know about Luke is that he never, NEVER, ever abandons his friends. Remember how he blew off his training with Yoda to go to Cloud City? He’s not going to abandon his sister and hide… and if he really wanted to hide, why would he leave clues… and if he left clues why would he leave them – never mind, it’s just stupid.
And while we are talking about the force, and training, and Jedi, how is it that Rey has Return-of-the-Jedi Luke-level powers with absolutely no training? This seems to call into question the entire purpose of Jedi training and apprentices and masters firmly established in the universe (and to a brain-wearying degree in the prequel trilogy). Sure, maybe she’s the daughter of a Jedi, a really great one…. BUT SO WAS LUKE!! He was the son of the Jedi with the most Midi-chlorians of all time. Oh right, we’re pretending those don’t exist now. So anyone can be a Jedi right? You aren’t born into it? Okay, then how does Rey essentially defeat Kylo Ren, a Jedi with training and lineage?
The biggest F-U to the original trilogy is the rise of the First Order. By forcing the rebels to take on a group of imperial-minded bad guys that are basically just the next generation of storm-troopers (with their own next generation of Vader and Palpatine in Kylo Ren and Snoke) it’s as if all the fight (and all the celebrating at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI) serves no purposes. Cult of Personality Regimes like the Empire crumble instantly upon removal of the figurehead (see Hitler, Mussolini, Franco). Here we have the Empire basically operating as it was 30 years earlier as if Luke had not taken out the Death Star and Darth Vader had not turned back to the light side of the force and ended The Emperor’s life (and reign). A PR victory like that should have sealed the rebellion’s case to the galaxy and reinstated the original republic (which remember came about when Jar Jar Binks proposed giving Palpatine emergency powers a mere 24 years earlier). The Republic had governed the galaxy for a thousand years prior to this imperial blip. You cannot make any sort of realistic argument that the Empire had gained a stronger hold on the galaxy in 24 years than the Republic did in a thousand. The years after the victory on Endor (or Yavin as canon says happened a few months later) should have been a swift return to years of political tradition and safe-guarding military and diplomatic practices to assure it could never happen again. So no, I don’t buy The First Order at all.
Do you hear that? That is the sound of a thousand terrible things heading this way.
The most disappointing thing about THE FORCE AWAKENS is not all that is in the film that shouldn’t be there, it’s all the missed opportunities. Okay, there is the missed opportunity of the whole film being great, but besides that, this is the most beloved franchise of all time (suck it Harry Potter) and you have a chance to take us places we’ve only dreamed… and you even sort of promised you would in the trailer.
Who doesn’t want to know more about Stormtroopers? Ever since John Boyega popped up, terrified and obviously a former Stormtooper, I was excited. I was desperate to know what makes one a Stormtrooper, how do they train, recruit etc. What are their daily lives like? Instead we get like a half second of backstory and Boyega basically freaking out because his one Stormtrooper friend died and that’s all. We really know nothing about if he was more inclined to this or if it’s happening more regularly or really anything. Honestly, you could have built a whole film around an ex-Stormtrooper and have had plenty of story to tell if you wanted to tell it. Instead it’s just a squandered character introduction.
Leia is apparently leading a splinter group called The Resistance – which is just as outsider-y as the original Rebel Alliance. This is ‘necessary’ so she is in the exact same position in this movie as the first one. But why not let us see her as the leader she was always meant to be? Her planet was long blown away so she doesn’t have a horse in any race, she can always rule completely unencumbered by prejudices. Or maybe she’s a bad leader because of this. Or maybe the New Republic fell apart because of her, and the First Order rose up… I don’t know but Leia has always been the most interesting character in the original trilogy and she is made into a mere necessity of plot in this film. And the murky background of what happened after the ‘war was won’ to now when there seems to be no republic (yet again) is really unsatisfactory.
Finally, and this goes back to my feelings on the rise of the First Order, but why not show what it’s like to live in the remnants of Empire. That shot from the trailer of the sand-locked star destroyer got me really excited. I loved seeing Rey scavenge in the hulk of the ship and eat her dinner in the shadow of its decay. That’s what the film should have been about. How much more frightening are hundreds of tiny rogue nation-planets with no one to keep them in check than one Nazi-like identical-to-the-Empire power that seems still obsessed with killing Jedis? Maybe the last vestiges of the Empire are even more dangerous because they will do anything… that’s a story closer to modern day understanding of the geo-political world than a large group going off to unknown parts of the galaxy and rebuilding their strength (and apparently all their starships). This is the biggest missed opportunity of the film and this mistake works its way into creating almost every other problem on this list.
You can either profit by this or be destroyed
So yeah, THE FORCE AWAKENS squandered all my excitement based off a really fantastic trailer and almost 40 years of fandom. While everyone else seems anxious for Rian Johnson’s episode 8 (and I do love me some BRICK and LOOPER), I’m checking the trades for updates on BLADE RUNNER 2. And then this week I saw the trailer for ROGUE ONE and I got excited. This film seems to know exactly where it lives in the Star Wars story, being much more boxed in. And it looks positively fantastic.