Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Time/place: 6pm in San Clemente with Nick
The movie ended a short while ago, and I have been staring at this cursor in a desperate attempt to imagine how I start this review. I still don’t know if this is the best way, but it’s all I could muster.
I love Star Wars. I grew up watching the original trilogy of movies, and they filled my imagination to the brim with fun creatures, exciting action, and brilliant new ideas such as the Force and lightsabers. The iconography is, of course, a monumental staple in pop-culture, but it’s just as strong a presence in my own life. I don’t dress up as characters or follow the extended universe, but not being that type of fan does not mean that I am any less of one. I simply love those three movies for just about every reason I love movies… they excite me, they interest me, and they tell a fantastic story — which is the aspect I have come to appreciate more than anything as I’ve grown from my childhood fantasies (not that I don’t still smile when thinking about Jabba the Hutt). The three original Star Wars movies tell a story filled with great characters that have engaging arcs and are people I choose to root for. The end of Return of the Jedi is climactic and intense not because a lot of things are blowing up or the camerawork is frenetic, but because Luke is attempting to save Vader and risking his own turn to the dark side in the process, and the rest of our heroes are concurrently in deadly battle to save their own lives. Everything hangs in the balance, loaded even more so by the weight of having a history with these characters over three movies, and when our heroes come out on the other side victorious in all regards it is not only a great happy ending, but also a supremely satisfying conclusion to a story that I’d become really invested in.
Then The Force Awakens comes along and takes a huge dump on that satisfaction and undercuts any happy ending we’d previously had… leaving us with a vapid, unfinished mess of a movie that is bad enough on its own, but is absolutely horrendous when considering it as a sequel to the previous three movies — and heartbreaking.
To start with, J.J. Abrams doesn’t make good movies. He moves his camera often without purpose, his obsession with mystery only leads to more mysteries without answers, and he has yet to craft a compelling story. I, certainly, am not a fan of the man’s work. The closest he’s come to directing something enjoyable was Super 8, which is actually decent in the beginning… until it falls apart and becomes uninteresting again. My viewing partner tonight made the comment that he thinks, “J.J. simply buckles under the pressure,” and I think that’s accurate. Abrams seems to creates work with more questions than answers, not as a means of evoking thoughtful depth… but because he doesn’t have the answers, himself. He seems like a pleasant fella, and I have nothing against him personally, but I certainly tend to dislike his work… and this new movie is possibly his worst, yet. I sure didn’t like Star Trek, but even considering how terrible that movie is, from a story and character point of view it was still more competent than The Force Awakens… and that’s saying something, since I lambasted the former for its complete failure on those very things.
I began this review by discussing why I loved the original Star Wars movies, because, in every way, this new entry fails to deliver the same experience. The goal of The Force Awakens seems to be flawed from the beginning, as its focus is all wrong. As much as other stories have expanded this world, these movies are all about one family — and how much more so should a direct sequel actually follow the characters from the original movies that we love? Instead we are introduced to a slew of characters who have no depth, no interesting storyline of their own, and we’re asked to then care about them as the movie plods through its paces. Bringing in new characters is fine, and should be expected, as is even the idea of starting a new generation to carry the story forward with, but not at the expense of having to then push the old characters I already care about, the ones I WANT to see, to the sideline. During marketing for this movie, grand speculation rose about Luke Skywalker’s involvement in the story because he didn’t appear in any of the trailers, posters, or images that were released — which is very odd, considering he is the main character of the three films that precede this one. It was fine, though, I supposed, as perhaps it was merely another ploy of the J.J. Abrams mystery-box scheme to save Luke’s reveal for the audience in the theater. As little as I care for this movie, I will still save my spoilers for later on, but I will say that his part in this movie is not at all what it should have been. The same could be said for all of the original cast, though, with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo getting more screen-time than the others… though he still played a second fiddle. Even further beyond this poor choice, however, is an even more painful one… and the source of my greatest issue with the millions of movie-goers who absolutely love this movie. Not only does The Force Awakens push my beloved characters to the shadowed sides of the movie, to make way for younger but terribly less interesting ones, but the story that these authors chose to tell us is one that completely undercuts the happy ending of Return of the Jedi. This new movie takes place 30 years after its predecessor, but in that time our three main heroes have evidently led horrible, tragic lives. I can accept that life isn’t always perfect, but the degree to which The Force Awakens seems to have complete contempt for the lives of Luke, Han, and Leia is astonishing. This is not only a sad way to write their story, but it’s also one that seems completely disjointed from the previous three movies that told their tale. Certainly, the mysterious, non-answer-riddled screenplay that we’re presented with here isn’t giving us the full story, but what we ARE told (and what is inferred) is absolutely dreadful. J.J. Abrams said that one of his primary goals with The Force Awakens was to make something “delightful” — but I am entirely lost on which part of the tragic future he concocted for our old favorites that word is supposed to refer to.
Even if one could distance oneself from the fact that this new movie is a sequel, it still fails entirely. The Force Awakens spends its time setting things up for the next movie, without addressing the present concerns in any sort of satisfactory way; one character even says (paraphrased) “That is an answer for another time.” Even the entire plot of the movie leads us to a concluding moment that is nothing but a setup for the next movie, where the real story may actually begin. The Force Awakens‘ storyline is peculiar in that it is either the 3rd act of the story that came before it or the 1st act of the story that will follow it — both of which would make a more interesting tale. In all sincerity, while I had my preconceived thoughts based on the director and the marketing, I watched this movie as I watch any movie… with the hope of enjoying it. Not long into The Force Awakens, though, and I was entirely bored. Stormtroopers shot their guns, things blew up, and I was being told by the movie that this should all be exciting and rousing, but the cinematic language used did not once match its intent. The characters and situations were generally quite wooden and unexplained, and I had no reason to care.
Pacing-wise, the movie was also very scattered. The first Star Wars movie follows a very simple progression of events, and they make sense. It’s a story about a young boy going on an adventure and becoming a hero, a classic tale indeed, but neither its plot nor its characters are ever convenient. In The Force Awakens, nearly everything that happens is a matter of disturbingly convenient coincidence. I can forgive this on occasion, if the rest of the story has rung true and the characters have understandable motivations, but this movie not only fails to provide that support but also leads us through a tale made up of so many conveniences that it is laughable. I say this quite literally, because I was laughing out loud at how horribly thought-out these situations were by the end of the movie.
Similarly, while the Star Wars prequels are often picked on for their poor and clunky dialogue (rightfully so), The Force Awakens astonishingly fares no better. In fact, most of what the creators of this movie did to attempt to distance their work for Lucas’ prequels didn’t work at all. In many ways, Abrams simply repeated the same mistakes in a different way. While Lucas focused on using CGI to fill his scenes with creatures and visual spectacle that not only felt fake but was also way too busy to enjoy, J.J. Abrams pulled off the same thing with his practical-effects creatures and wonky camerawork. Both Abrams and Lucas fail in the department of dialogue subtlety and tend to use their characters as simple pawns to move the plot along without consideration for any level of sincere motivation.
Speaking of previous Star Wars movies, while George Lucas put together some abysmal movies with his prequels, he at least chose to tell a new story and try new things. Because those movies irked so many fans, though, Abrams went in the complete opposite direction and played The Force Awakens very, very safe. He played it so safe, in fact, that it is embarrassing how much his movie completely copies and mirrors the original trilogy — especially A New Hope. I knew many of the shared plot elements going into my viewing tonight, but I was genuinely surprised at just how much echoed the old movie. George Lucas was quoted as saying that The Force Awakens is, “…very much the kind of movie they’ve [fans] been looking for.” I agree, to a point, because I’ve already seen this movie… it came out in 1977. That version was a heck of a lot better, though.
I have already written a great deal, and I could certainly write a great deal more, but what saddens me most is that it will fall mostly on deaf ears. My friend Nick and I are in the extreme minority in our opinion on this movie, and while in most cases I can at least appreciate the fact that others were able to enjoy something, this time it brings me no joy. The Force Awakens, to a degree beyond even what I was expecting, broke my heart. It may seem silly to care so much, and of course my life is still going splendidly and things carry along, but I love Star Wars. Creatively and personally, the original trilogy carries a huge place in my heart, and to see it followed up by a sequel that treats the characters and the galaxy I know and love so well this way, well… it just makes me very, very sad.
The Force Awakens fails in two ways: as a coherent and well-told story and as a sequel to a trilogy that I care for so much. While the former is simply cause for an unenjoyable movie-watching experience, the latter is a huge disappointment that strikes a much more personal chord. While the general audience may simply enjoy seeing things blow up and mindlessly take in a flat story without complaint, what perplexes me to the greatest degree is how those who say they are Star Wars fans can applaud this new movie as a great new chapter. I don’t know what it is that these fans appreciate about the Star Wars movies, but it is certainly quite different from what I do. More than any release in a long time, I wanted to have loved The Force Awakens… and I am absolutely saddened that I did not.
Warning: There be spoilers below…
Though, to be fair, I care so little about this movie, and so strongly dislike its fans for loving it, that I care less about spoiling this movie’s story than I have others before it. But still.
If I were to offer a beat-by-beat commentary on all of the things that I disliked about this movie, I would be here all night. As it is, I spent the entirety of my review before this spoiler-free and look at the length THAT reached. Instead, I will offer an unordered list of problems, issues, and disappointments:
- To begin with, this movie sold itself entirely on two things: hype/nostalgia and the fact that it was going to use practical effects. That’s all we were sold in the marketing, no character intrigue or story-interest. It was sold simply on the fact that it was Star Wars. This is evident in the fact that I personally know someone who was over-the-moon excited about Captain Phasma before seeing the movie, yet this character does absolutely NOTHING in the movie… and is barely in it at all. Is that a fault of the movie? Not necessarily, but it’s indicative of what the movie ended up being… a lot of telling us why we’re excited, but very little of actually evoking those reactions. Even John Williams’ score was very, very muted and even non-existent in places where I expected to at least be cued musically that something important was happening… but it seems like he saw the movie and was just as disengaged as I was. When Han confronts Kylo, the complete absence of any emotional support from the soundtrack makes for a very strange scene.
- Speaking of which, that entire moment is absolutely dreadful… both in terms of movie-watching experience and regarding the characters as well. Never mind the fact that Han just happens upon his son walking by (one of the innumerable conveniences), but because we know nothing about Kylo and have spent no time building this relationship, the moment ultimately falls flat and emotionless. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke is going specifically to save his dad (unlike Han, who is there to blow up the planet/ship and just happens to see his son), but we have also been building up this moment over the course of three movies. While this situation of failed connection occurs frequently in The Force Awakens, I think this is the worst one because it is supposed to be a pivotal part of the movie — the tragic climax — but it’s instead a peculiar and dull scene.
- Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are absolutely Han and Leia again, which makes their horrible character-situations all the more sad to watch. And Luke? He’s the hero of our overall story and he only makes a mute appearance a minute from the end of the movie? Don’t the fans of this new movie realize that we will now never get to see Han and Luke together? Why did the writers think this was the best choice for these characters? To take Han and Leia and have their marriage end? To turn Luke into a recluse who hasn’t contacted his sister or best friend? I simply don’t understand why THESE are the choices Abrams opted to go with for the overall storyline. He could have made anything… and this is what he chose to do.
- Why did R2-D2 suddenly wake up? Why is everyone trying to find Luke? Why did Abrams not only ramp up the Nazi symbolism but hit us over the head with it? Why is Kylo trying so hard to become a bad guy? Why didn’t the new-Empire start charging their base’s weapon immediately after firing it? Why did Han react to firing Chewbacca’s gun as if he’d never shot it (or even seen it work) before, when they’ve been together for 30+ years? Why is Luke just awkwardly standing on top of a hill at the end of the movie? Why? Why? Why? Why?
- When Rey turns the tide in her battle against Kylo at the end of the movie, it seems quite evident that she uses the strength of her anger to win. The only time we see Luke win in his duels against Darth Vader in the original trilogy is when he lets his anger flow through him… when he is LOSING his personal battle against the dark side! That is the lure of the dark side, of course, yet when we see Rey viciously defeat Kylo with a glint of determined rage in her eyes, the movie plays the moment as if we are to feel good about this… as if she has won in a good way, yet that totally flies in the face of the Force doctrine we have been sold in the previous movies.
Again, I am going to cut myself off here, because I could certainly discuss the faults and disappointments with this movie ad nauseam… but it’s late, I’m disappointed (though writing this was certainly cathartic), and I have life to return to.