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24 Dec 2015

Review: The Force Awakens – On Tuesday HJ and I went out to see the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Critical opinion of the film so far has been overwhelmingly positive (at the time of writing, Rotten Tomatoes certifies the film as “95% fresh,” while Metacritic gives the film a slightly less exuberant but still quite good Metascore of 81), but I had heard some voices to the contrary, so I went in with expectations as low as I could get them.

“While I might have wanted a better film this time around, I still think we got a good one.”

As I was sitting there in the dark, waiting for that big orchestra hit and familiar logo, though, it was hard not to get a little excited. As I read the opening scroll, I was pleased to see that there was no talk of trade federations or complicated political plotting. I started to feel some of that excitement that the original trilogy stirred in me as a child. So I guess the question is: Did TFA deliver on that promise? I can’t really answer that question with a simple “yes” or “no,” but overall I will say that yes, I did feel some of that excitement while watching the film, and ultimately I did enjoy it. At the same time, there were things that did bother me. Today’s entry is going to be about some of those things. It will be less a comprehensive review and more of a discussion of a few specific issues in the film—how they worked and didn’t work. There will be spoilers, though, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, I would strongly recommend stopping here.

As with all thing related to the Force, there is a Light side and a Dark side to these issues. That is, all of the things that I am going to talk about today are good for some reasons and bad for other reasons. There’s probably a lot more I could talk about, but for now I am going to limit my discussion to three topics: TFA as a trip down memory lane, the protagonists and antagonists, and the Force itself.

All around me are familiar faces, worn out places

TFA feels very much like a love letter to the fans of the original Star Wars. It’s obvious that JJ Abrams was determined to make this kind of film from the very start. And it certainly works on some levels—seeing our old friends again is awesome, and being immersed once again in the universe we grew up in is a nostalgia rush. I never thought I would get to see Han Solo in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon again, but there he is! And while Princess Leia is a little worse for the wear, it’s still good to see them together again.

That being said, TFA tried to walk the fine line between being a trip down memory lane and being a tired rehash, and a lot of the time I think it fell off the line, stumbling firmly into rehash territory. I know I’m not the first person to point this out, but tell me if the following synopsis doesn’t sound familiar:

Our Hero is stuck on a desert planet without much hope of escaping, but the appearance of a droid carrying information critical to the Rebellion sets the wheels of a grand adventure in motion. Our Hero teams up with a Renegade on the run from the Space Nazis, and together they flee the planet under fire in the Millennium Falcon. We learn that a Jedi disciple has turned against his master and fallen under the sway of the Dark side. (This former disciple dresses all in black, wears a mask that alters his voice, and is ostensibly our Main Antagonist.) Our Hero goes to another planet and is treated to nuggets of wisdom from a tiny Wizened Muppet. The Hero enters a dark, confined space and has a disturbing encounter; though not yet ready, the Hero ignores the advice of the wizened Muppet and leaves. Meanwhile, the Space Nazis unleash the power of their superweapon, destroying a planet (or planets) to which we as the audience have no emotional attachment whatsoever. The Rebellion realizes that they need to destroy this weapon before it destroys them, so they send a fleet of X-Wing fighters to attack its weak spot. Aided by a team on the base itself, they succeed. However, this ground team does not escape unscathed—a respected old man is killed by the Main Antagonist. Our Hero has a showdown with the Main Antagonist, and both participants survive this encounter.

I will admit that this synopsis is a bit tortured in spots, but my point is that TFA often feels like a “greatest hits” collection of the original trilogy, most specifically the first film. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Abrams’ second entry in the rebooted Star Trek universe. That film was a rehash of the most popular ST film ever, Wrath of Khan, and it was (I think) the worse for it. While there was a lot of gnashing of teeth from committed ST fans over the first film, I actually enjoyed that for what it was. No, it was not original ST, but it was something quite new and different, and it was unabashed in its tone, style, and aesthetic. I was disappointed that ST2 turned out to be a remake of the original second film.

In the same way, I think we would have gotten a much better film in TFA had Abrams been a little more adventurous. I think it was inevitable that we were going to get some “fan service,” for lack of a better term, but I think more could have been done to make TFA its own film. Like I said above, though, there is a good side and a bad side to all of these issues, and the good side here is that it was awesome to see some old favorites reenacted with a modern sensibility, modern camerawork, and modern special effects. These things might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I had a lot of fun watching the Millennium Falcon trying to get away from the TIE Fighters on Jakku. I just think that—as with the Force—there is a proper balance of nostalgia and the new film being its own story, and the filmmakers’ strayed too often into the former at the expense of the latter.

I would like to think that Abrams, having laid his sacrifice at the altar of the fanboys with the first film, will feel free to do more of his own thing in the second film. However, I’m not too confident that this will actually be the case. For one, with the film as successful as it appears to be, it’s likely that the lesson he will learn will be that nostalgia sells. Also, Abrams is more of a Star Wars fan than a Star Trek fan, so he might feel more beholden to the original material. Still, I hold out hope that he has exciting new things in store for us in the second film.

And in the blue corner...

This second topic follows somewhat from the first, in that bringing back the old faces of Solo, Leia, and Chewie to complement the fresh new faces of Rey, Finn, and Poe gives us quite a stable of good guys to root for. And even though I did lump Finn and Solo together under the “Renegade” archetype in my synopsis above, they are indeed two very different characters. For that matter, Rey and Luke are also very different characters, so the dynamic between Rey and Finn here is quite distinct from the dynamic we saw between Luke and Han in the original trilogy. This is a good thing, and it saves the film from being too much of a throwback. Kevin, in his review of the film, said that he “would have liked to see the old folks a little more in the thick of things,” but I have to disagree. I think we saw enough of them, and I’m glad that the spotlight was on the new characters and their relationship. (Although I suspect that Kevin might get his wish in the second film, as Luke will most likely play a prominent role.)

For as healthy a cast of characters as we saw on the Light side, though, the Dark side left much to be desired. Our three main antagonists are Kylo Ren (“Ren” actually comes from his membership in the Knights of Ren, so I’ll be referring to this character as “Kylo”), Supreme Leader Snoke, and General Hux. Hux is apparently supposed to be Space Hitler, judging by the very Nazi-rally-inspired speech he gives shortly before ordering the attack that destroys the Republic’s home planets. I thought he was a pretty decent villain, following in the tradition of the Moffs of the old Empire, and as a strict, disciplined authoritarian he is a good foil to Kylo’s more temperamental villain. In fact, I thought Hux was the most sinister antagonist of the three. Supreme Leader Snoke is supposed to be more sinister, but he spends the entire film as an oversized hologram sitting on a throne and not doing anything. While it is true that Emperor Palpatine also does little in the first film, he felt like a more sinister presence here than Snoke. Also, Snoke is a stupid name.

Most of my ire, though, is reserved for Kylo Ren. Kylo—basically an emo kid with Force powers—is a very poor substitute for Darth Vader, one of the most iconic film villains of all time. One of the things that made Darth Vader so menacing was his mask. Kylo Ren taking off his mask might not itself have been a problem, but it was symbolic of the many problems this character has. Yes, villains tend to be more intimidating and sinister when you can’t see their faces, but Vader’s mask (and the apparatus of his suit in general) was an important part of his character in that it symbolized him hiding away that part of him that was still good. Kylo wears his mask presumably in tribute to his grandfather, but he bares his conflicted soul to the audience much more quickly than Vader did. I guess this is supposed to make him more nuanced, but all it really did, in my opinion, was make him another young Anakin. (Although I must admit that he was a far better young Anakin than Hayden Christensen was—he was the Anakin we should have seen in the prequels.) We may gain a “complex” and “nuanced” character, but we lose a menacing villain. I have to admit that I am a bit torn on the basic concept here; I like the idea of having a more nuanced villain—someone who is not just a faceless force of pure evil—but in practice I’m not sure if it really worked.

Part of the reason why I think it might not have worked is Kylo’s relationship to the Force. We do learn in the film that Kylo’s training has not yet been completed, so in reality he is still just an apprentice, but it is clear that he is very powerful in his command of the Force. Darth Vader can deflect blaster bolts, but Kylo Ren stops a blaster bolt in mid-air. Jedi are known to manipulate the minds of the weak, but Kylo can actually read minds (more on this in the next section). And yet, when Rey picks up a lightsaber for the first time in her life, she holds her own against him and probably would have defeated him had the planet not started to fall apart. How is that possible? I understand that Rey is the main protagonist, but Luke got destroyed in his first duel with Vader, and Luke had at least had some training. Rey had absolutely none. While it may have been a heroic moment for her, all it really did in my mind was weaken the main antagonist to the point where he just wasn’t scary anymore.

I said this above, but I think it all boils down in large part to the filmmakers’ decision to have a complex and nuanced villain instead of a powerful, assured, menacing villain. As with the nostalgia aspect, I think that a better balance could have been struck. I think we could have had a menacing villain who remained complex and nuanced—I don’t think these things are necessarily mutually exclusive. While this character decision was obviously very important in determining the Kylo Ren that we ended up with, though, I don’t think it was the only factor. And that seems like a pretty good way to segue into my third topic....

May the Force be with you

There is no doubt that the Force plays an important role in this film—heck, it’s the first film to feature “Force” in its title. Before I saw the film, I was desperately hoping that Abrams would drop the ridiculous concept of midichlorians that had been introduced in the prequels. I was relieved to see that he had, and that the Force was back to its mystical origins. We even get the voice of Yoda talking about the Force in Rey’s vision, and Maz echoes Yoda just a short while before the vision occurs. So it looks like we’re back to the Force being something that permeates everything, a mystical power that can be used by those sensitive to it.

Actually, before I go on, I want to talk about midichlorians for a bit, as I think there are some things that need clarifying. When the prequels came out, I heard people complaining that the Force had been reduced to some banal scientific/medical explanation. But that’s not entirely accurate. The Force itself never changed; it remained something that “surrounds us and binds us.” Midichlorians are just symbiotes that give sentient beings sensitivity to the Force. They are not the Force, nor do they change any of the mechanisms of the Force as we understand it. As far as the films are concerned, they give Lucas a very easy (and lazy) way to tell his story. Rather than showing us that the Force is strong with young Anakin, he takes a blood sample and then tells us that his Force Sensitivity Number is really, really high. It takes no effort, and allows Lucas to get back to his beloved special effects. (I also suspect that the concept might have been introduced to appeal to the video game generation, but that’s just a theory with no real evidence.)

At any rate, I was very glad that there was no mention of midichlorians, and I am fairly confident that we won’t see them in future installments of the franchise. However, just because Abrams didn’t bring back midichlorians doesn’t mean I think he handled the Force properly. When Kylo Ren stopped a blaster bolt in mid-air, that was something we had never seen before, and I have to admit that it was pretty awesome. But then when he started reading people’s minds with the Force... uh, what? No one in the history of Star Wars (at least in the films—I know nothing about the “expanded universe”) has ever been able to read minds, not even Darth Vader. And this guy who still hasn’t even finished his training can somehow do this? I don’t buy it. I realize that different characters in the universe have different Force powers, but mind reading seems like it is off the usual charts.

But Kylo Ren is not even the most egregious example of Force abuse. That honor goes to our protagonist, Rey. Keep in mind that, as I mentioned above, Rey has never received any training in using the Force. She only discovers that she is sensitive to the Force at Maz Kanada’s bar (the new film’s version of the Mos Eisley cantina), when she comes into contact with Luke’s original lightsaber and has terrifying and confusing visions. But she knows nothing about how the Force works, or how to harness its power. And yet, when she is captured and held hostage, she manipulates her guard into letting her go and giving her his weapon. While the scene was worth a chuckle, it is ridiculous to think that she could have figured out how to do this on her own. This is something that normally takes years of training to learn how to do. And then there is the duel with Kylo. I mentioned this above as an example of how Kylo is not scary, but it’s also a very good example of how ridiculous Rey’s mastery of the Force is. She’s getting whooped by Kylo, but all she needs to do is close her eyes and focus and suddenly she’s not left-handed? How is this possible?

When Finn and Han Solo are trying to figure out how to sabotage Starkiller Base, Finn says, “We’ll use the Force!” Han testily replies, “That’s not how it works!” This is kind of what I felt like saying to JJ Abrams during these scenes. The truth is that Abrams may not have brought back midichlorians, but he might as well have. He treats the Force in the same cavalier way, as if it were an easily quantifiable power that depends more on innate sensitivity than years of training and discipline.

After reading the above, you might look back at my initial assessment of the film with some surprise. To be honest, after writing writing the above, I find myself surprised as well. There are plenty of things wrong with this film, plenty of things that bugged me that I didn’t even mention here (e.g., if Finn is essentially a space janitor, what is he doing as part of an assault team on Jakku?). But all this aside, I still enjoyed the film. Could it have been better? Yes, I think it could have been. But it really all boils down to one thing for me: Did the film recapture some of that excitement I felt as a child watching the original trilogy? It did, and for that reason I am going to give it a thumbs up.

Let’s be honest—this film was never going to be what the original trilogy was for me because I am no longer a kid. Looking back at those first three films now (especially the last one), there is plenty to be critical of. As a kid I didn’t really see a lot of those flaws or ask the tough questions. I was just excited to see a space pirate help the rebels defeat the evil empire. It is impossible as an adult to see a film and not use at least some of my brain power picking it apart. But if, in spite of all that, a film can still inspire a sense of wonder at seeing something amazing happening on the screen, then I think we can call it a success. TFA does this for me, flaws and all. While I might have wanted a better film this time around, I still think we got a good one.

So, for now, I give it a thumbs up. Another appraisal will be necessary once this new trilogy is complete, of course, because this film—unlike the first—does not stand on its own. But I am looking forward to seeing where JJ Abrams takes this.

And with that I will take my leave. It is Christmas Eve here, and in a little while I will be heading out to dinner with HJ. Wherever you are, I hope you have a happy and blessed holiday season... and may the Force be with you.

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