Well, it’s been awhile and needed to sit down and write about something this weekend, and since it’s on my mind this week, I’ll go ahead and talk about the new Star Wars. The Force Awakens has had a good reception, and it was great seeing it over the holiday with my family. Since then, seen it two more times with friends, so have a little bit of perspective on it by now. For those who haven’t seen it yet, spoilers ahead, so stop reading!
Each time I’ve seen it, I’ve felt better on the whole, but I think my initial reaction still stands – as a Star Wars movie, it felt like this is really is just a placeholder for future stories. Loved the new characters and the dialogue – Abrams really did a wonderful job bringing back personality to the series with this movie, but – and it’s a big but – he really took a pass on advancing our storyline. There’s a lot of things I disagree with George Lucas on, but I think I do agree with his recent assessments that we’ve seen and heard this story before. But before diving into that, let’s talk about the good stuff.
I like Poe. I like Finn. I like Rey. I really like Maz. I even like emo Kylo Ren. These are really great characters, good flaws, but likable, and that’s a huge advance over the prequels right there. Poe’s a good tough guy, not easily rattled, and great at what he does. Finn’s scared, but learns quickly, and not exactly a coward, but hasn’t learned how to be brave yet. Rey (when she gets a chance between running around in action scenes) shines through as a bright, determined, tough and talented person – easily our heroine. Nice to see a woman in the lead role here, and really looking forward to seeing her grow. Maz is a great successor to Yoda, and love having an older and wiser figure in the mix – that crawling-over-the-table-to-look-at-Finn scene was pure and great Star Wars. When you compare a great character like Maz with a clownish puppet like Jar Jar, you can literally feel the course correction.
Even whiny Kylo has some funny lines and personality, which is really, when you think about it, an improvement over Darth Vader in the earlier movies. Certainly not as tough, and maybe too fannish over Darth, but he has some depth and perhaps more power than he knows what to do with. I love that he doubts his dedication to being completely evil and has temper tantrums – good stuff!
The dialogue and acting are huge improvements over the prequels, and places The Force Awakens squarely in the mix with the original trilogy. Somewhere along the line, George Lucas forgot that humor was important, or at least lowered his standards for humor to include only 5 year olds. I have a feeling that for A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had more to do with snappy and funny dialogue that George Lucas ever did in his scripts (people could talk back to him in those days). The Force Awakens has some genuinely funny lines, and not all of them uttered by Han Solo, which is a good sign that the writers know what they are doing. I think one of my favorite scenes, even though it was a bit silly, was Han’s freighter scene, and the big ugly monsters on the loose. Star Wars has a way of making these scary creature scenes fun at the same time – I think it matches the Rankor scene in Return of the Jedi, the ice creature on Hoth, the asteroid worm in Empire. They nailed that sort of crazy goofiness there.
Finally, the writers seem to have brought a sense of mysticism and majesty back the force. No midichlorians or weird references to science in a space fantasy series. Yeah, there was a lot of weird flashbacks and how-did-you-get-those powers-so-fast with Rey, but I’ll talk about those a bit later.
Okay, before I talk about the bad, just wanted to mention a few minor quibbles about the good stuff. Although I like these new characters, and the dialogue was great, one thing I did notice was that these characters meet each other and become friends, well…rather quickly. One minute Finn meets Poe as a Stormtrooper and then next minute they’re the Best Buddies Ever. Finn meets Rey, and after a little bit of stuff blowing up around them, they’re suddenly good friends and sparks of romance are flying. Does anyone remember Luke meeting Han for the first time? Han thought Luke was a stupid kid, and Luke thought Han was, well, kind of an asshole. They bickered a lot before they started liking each other, and even kept bickering into Empire. Remember a certain rescue of Princess Leia, where she basically insulted Luke and Han for the next 30 minutes or so before a sort of grudging acceptance set in? I’m not saying everyone needs to hate each other on sight, but sheez, give those relationships a little time to develop!
And speaking of developing, I think The Force Awakens is somewhat a victim of our modern moviemaking impatience. God forbid characters get a few moments without an action scene to breathe so we actually get to know them a little better. A New Hope is a study in slow-burn character development – sure we have an action scene up front, but the movie slows way down after that, and we get to learn lots about Luke, C3PO, R2D2, and Obi-Wan over the next hour or so. We really like these people by the time the action starts ramping up again. When I watched Force Awakens the next couple times, I did notice that there were a few slower scenes here and there, but they felt rushed, and pretty soon out characters were running around dodging explosions and blaster fire again. Note to all modern day blockbuster makers: slow the hell down and make us care about these people!
I’ll also put a note here about Rey’s super Jedi powers miraculously appearing without any training. I actually didn’t mind this too much, as I have this feeling that she’s either the daughter or Luke or Obi-Wan, and somehow born with much more innate talent. Yeah, it may be a bit easier for her as a result of her heritage, but I have a feeling it won’t be easier for her down the road. I’ll wait to see what they do with her in later movies.
Okay, time to vent. J.J. Abrams, could you really not come up with a better story than droid-escapes with-secret-plans/map-on-desert-planet and world-destroying-super-weapon-with-on-the-nose-EmpireSequel-as-Third-Reich? Really? So many other directions you could have taken with a great new cast and characters. By bringing back the First Order/Empire and Resistance/Rebellion, you basically nullified our heroes’ accomplishments in the original trilogy. We’re basically fighting the Empire all over again – whee! Emperor dead? Heck, we’ll just pull our spare one out of the mothballs. Second Death Star destroyed? Well, we’ve got this extra planet killer thingy we’ve been working on too. So much lame rehashing – I do really hope you have something new for us in the next one, and I do hope you put the First Order away in Short Order in the next one. We really need some new villains here, and a new threat – if every movie is going to be another TIE fighter/X-Wing battle, I’ll know that Disney is officially out of ideas – go talk to some of the novel writers, or even George again if you need to!
The other rehash is the father/son story of Empire, only this time it’s Han and Leia’s son. This one I can sorta live with, because I think Kylo’s at least kind of an interesting bad guy, and his origins make sense for his conflict. I’m just not sure how long you can keep milking the family story here, JJ. We’ve obviously got another big reveal coming up with Rey as well, but I think after this, we really need to sorta cool it on the Skywalker lineage thing – the whole prophecy bit was always one of the weaker aspects of original story anyway, though the soap opera elements are fun. Let’s get that new Jedi Academy going, Luke, and move on.
Okay, so the killing of Han Solo. I get it, JJ, you wanted to let Harrison off the hook for future movies (he asked George to kill him off way back in Return of the Jedi). You wanted a huge shock in the movie, to make the death of major character matter. You wanted impact, and you wanted to turn things over to the youngsters. The thing is, you killed him off and it didn’t matter. I mean, when everyone disembarks the Millennium Falcon after the planet killer base has been destroyed, Chewie walks right past Leia and over to a bunch of random Rebels (er—Resistence)! Rey, who has just met Han a few days ago is the one who gives Leia the big emotional hug? Huge WTF moment there. That scene was made for Chewie, and, and would have been a wonderful closing of the circle from “get this walking carpet out of my way” in A New Hope. Chewie had some nice moments in Force Awakens, and he deserved that scene, no one else.
The tone deafness of Han’s death was probably the worst part of the movie – pretty quickly characters are moving on – there isn’t even a short memorial scene, or any words from anyone for Han before characters are shooting off to find Luke. If you’re going to kill a major character, JJ, give us some emotional closure (see Obi-Wan’s death, or Luke’s burning of dad in Return of the Jedi) for God’s sake. A little sigh from Chewie in the cockpit of the Falcon and Leia staring contemplatively isn’t enough.
I think at the end of the day, JJ gave us half of a good movie. Good work on some of the real let-downs of the prequels, but not enough homework on what helps us know and love these characters, and not nearly enough thought on what might have changed since the Emperor’s death. Instead, we got people who we want to really like, but can’t because they are in an original trilogy mirror universe with too many things exploding nearby.