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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

We finally went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens today. It’s fun! Action-packed. Great special effects. And Max Von Sydow!

But it’s by no means a perfect film. I wonder if it’s even worth reviewing a Star Wars film, because historically they’ve been either fun-but-not-very-deep, or utter crap. But I’m not going to let that stop me, so: Spoilers ahoy!

As I imagine most people of my generation did, I watched the original trilogy relentlessly on cable TV in the early-to-mid 1980s. While fun, it never resonated with me the way Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan did, and honestly it rather lost me in Return of the Jedi between the Ewoks (those bloody Ewoks) and the reprise of the Death Star. Having the film’s big threat be the same as the first movie made it seem like Lucas and company had run out of ideas, and they compounded the problem by layering the ridiculous notion that Luke and Leia were twins on top of the awkward idea that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. Hard enough to pull off the latter, impossible to pull off the former.

The prequel trilogy, well, the less said about it the better. I’ve said recently (and stand by it) that the only reason to watch those films is to watch Ewan McGregor, who not only does an uncanny impression of Alec Guinness, but is the only actor in those films who manages to overcome the awful script and direction of George Lucas to turn in a credible performance.

Anyway.

The Force Awakens is clearly trying to evoke the original trilogy and avoid the prequels, which is great! The decision to bring back most of the original cast is also cool, as we get some continuity with the original films, and a bridge to the characters who will presumably be carrying the series from this point forward. (Which could be a good trick, since the original trilogy was unambiguously about Luke Skywalker, and I’m going to find it hard to follow a Star Wars which is not about him, much as I largely reject a Star Trek which is not about Captain Kirk.)

My biggest complaint about the film is the extreme derivative nature of the film. If, like me, you were annoyed that Jedi featured a second Death Star, then in TFA you have these to look forward to:

  • A droid carrying essential information trying to avoid the villains to deliver it to the heroes.
  • The droid is lost on a desert planet.
  • A third Death Star.
  • Another trench run to destroy the Death Star.
  • One of our heroes giving himself over to the main villain. (Okay, this one plays out slightly differently.)

While Star Wars may not have been an especially original series, the first two films did a pretty good job of crafting memorable characters and mixing the well-known pieces into new configurations, and in particular The Empire Strikes Back was notably different in tone and structure from Star Wars. TFA feels like they just didn’t have space for an original story between introducing new characters, bringing back old characters, the all the action scenes.

(Note: When you don’t have space for an original story, you’re doing something wrong.)

That said, it does a lot of things right, starting with Finn (John Boyega), who runs away from his life as a Stormtrooper with nothing, and has to build himself up from nothing. He’s not very self-aware, he’s something of a coward, he clearly falls for Rey (Daisy Ridley) and gets his priorities mixed up. But there are probably a lot of people who can relate to that, and honestly it’s kind of nice to see a protagonist in an action film who’s not just a power fantasy figure.

The power fantasy figure, of course, is Rey, who is the new Chosen One of the Force. She’s the character with the mystery surrounding her, and revealing those mysteries will presumably drive the next film or two. (For example: Who are her parents? Why did they leave her? How did she so naturally figure out how to harness the Force given that she thought it was all a myth a few days ago? Does she have a last name?) For my money, Finn is the more interesting character, but then, he’s the character whose story is complete in this film; Rey’s is still unfolding.

Debbi asked me what my favorite scene in the film was, and I’d say hands-down it was Rey and Finn taking off in the Millennium Falcon, with the pure excitement of the chase and the open question of what the ship had been doing there for the previous years.

But the film was much better with the action than with the explanations, and illustrated the reason the original trilogy kept its background so simple. The political scenario in TFA makes no sense at all (and even less considering the First Order destroyed the Republic and its entire fleet – that ought to throw the galaxy into total chaos for a while). Luke’s disappearance also seems pretty sketchy, although it’s not too hard to imagine a reasonable explanation for it (he was probably pretty emotionally fragile after Jedi and losing his Jedi-in-training to Kylo Ren might have made him unable to keep going).

While it’s nice to think that Disney can build out the Star Wars mythology and craft a convincing universe, past history indicates that trying to make sense of Star Wars is a fool’s game. Make the characters’ journeys rewarding and exciting and that’s pretty much what the series is all about. Anything more is most likely punching above its weight.

Let’s just stop with the endless parade of Death Stars, can’t we?

2 comments to Star Wars: The Force Awakens

  • Subrata Sircar

    I relentlessly watched the original trilogy in theaters :<) The first movie is certainly the movie I've seen in theaters the most – at least ten times I can recall, and possibly more. It was more captivating to my ten-year-old self than Star Trek was, but having so many more hours of Trek to watch won me over eventually. (For some reason I never wanted to be a Jedi, but I definitely wanted to be on a starship …)

  • Sean Callanan

    One parallel I just thought of is the Rebuild of Evangelion movies in Japan. They’re based on a very popular series that was horrifically abused (episodes 25-26, “Death and Rebirth”, “End of Evangelion”).

    The rebuild movies start with one movie that follows the plot of the original series very closely, packing in the set pieces that people remembered and loved, but with (much) better effects. Having thus convinced the fans that the filmmakers are capable of doing the series justice, they proceed to deviate wildly from the series in the next movie, and the third movie would be completely alien to someone who’s seen the original.

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