Let’s talk about The Force Awakens. There’s a lot to talk about, and there are major spoilers ahead, so there’s your warning.
So let’s talk about a film with $528 million to its name worldwide and counting. How should we assess a film that also comes along with a 95% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes? That has two more forthcoming installments to fill in the details?
On balance, I’d say The Force Awakens does its job—it pays homage to favorite characters and scenes while introducing the “next generation” of characters. However, as many critics have already said, it feels in some ways like a film made by committee, and more of a pilot episode in a film series that will likely follow Disney’s hyper-successful model of Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Nothing can stand on its own anymore. Every film must provide seeds for its next installment.
We can start to understand this aspect if we go into the structure of the film. There are three acts. Act I introduces Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey on the desert planet Jakku (which just as well might be Tatooine). Act II starts when Han Solo and Chewbacca arrive on the scene, the group visits Maz, and the act concludes with Kylo Ren abducting Rey and Han, Chewy and Finn arrive at the Resistance. Act III is the Starkiller-Base/Death Star finale. And Rey’s journey to Luke is a satisfying epilogue, (though I’d argue that Luke doesn’t have to show up at all).
Act I does a terrific job setting up Rey, BB-8, Finn and Poe. It does so much more efficiently than Episode I’s exposition with Qui-Gonn, Obi-Wan, Padme and Jar-Jar. By the time Act II begins, we are thrilled to be reunited with Han and Chewy, but now have enough investment in Finn and Rey that we care about them. (The scene on Han’s freighter feels like one of those Star Wars-inspired scenes from Firefly). Maz’s expository scene and Rey’s dream sequence are adventure tropes that haven’t really been used to their full potential in Star Wars, aside from Luke’s Dagobah nightmare and Anakin’s dream of Padme’s death. The lightsaber’s identification with Excalibur-like ‘choosing’ powers adds a little bit more to the myth.
Act III, however, feels kind of lazy for the most part. Yet another Death Star blows up a planet we don’t really care about. It’s not exactly clear which one it is, but it’s the one with the New Republic’s Senate. Had they said the planet was Coruscant or Naboo, which might make sense as potential new capitals, this would have been huge. Having been familiar with a planet from previous films, the stakes of that event would have been raised through the roof. Instead, a government and fleet which we aren’t even sure about have been destroyed. We’re so used to this kind of cataclysm in movies at this point, that we don’t even need an Obi-Wan character to say that he’s felt “millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.” We’ve seen this before. Escalation only gets us so far. Then there’s the question of backstory.
THE REVELATION OF KYLO REN
How do you insert backstory? What is an efficient way to do so? At what point do you do it, and is it artificial if you try to obscure it? When Supreme Leader Snoke, the new Emperor or whatever, mentions in a throwaway line to Kylo Ren that Han Solo is his father, there was an audible gasp from the theater audience I attended the screening with. But why was the revelation here? Later scenes show Han Solo reacting to seeing Ren on Maz’s planet. He doesn’t indicate their relationship, however, but gives you a chance to think about it. When Han and Leia reunite, they engage in a conversation that gives us a lot of backstory—Ren turned to the dark side, caused Luke to disappear. It’s natural for them to talk about this stuff, and hard to tiptoe around. So while I think it’s possible for the revelation to be when Han walks onto the catwalk to confront Ren, it’s kind of hard to avoid at this moment in the film. Snoke’s mention complicates our understanding of Ren before we need it to be complicated, though it certainly raises the stakes.
There’s a similar dilemma in Hitchcock’s film Vertigo. When Kim Novak’s character, who has been portraying Madeline Elster, writes a letter to Jimmy Stewart’s character, she confesses that she was part of the scam. It’d be more fun to figure it out on your own, a la the plot twists in Mulholland Drive or Donnie Darko, but instead the studio forced Hitchcock to keep the scene in, even though the truth is explained pretty well visually by the zoom-in on the necklace later on in the film. That said, giving up the secret early makes us sympathize with Novak’s character as Stewart’s character creepily demands her to adopt the appearance of his lost love, Madeline Elster, which adds new layers to the text.
In the end, I’d say that this decision to give up the twist is so that the general audience, which includes kids the world over, can make sense of the plot. Which still doesn’t make sense—we don’t know the Republic from the Resistance, or what the heck the First Order is and why they are Empire Round 2 but not actually in charge, because the Republic is supposed to be…Still, some of the plot revisions can be sensed through some underdeveloped characters.
CHARACTERS / AUDIENCE SURROGATES
Poe Dameron is likeable, gutsy and an overall good guy. He’s got no flaws to speak of, so it doesn’t make sense why he’s here. Apparently he was supposed to die in the crash in an earlier script, to follow a sort of ‘false protagonist’ trajectory. Which would have been fine with me. His appearance later, with the weak explanation, “I was thrown from the crash,” doesn’t do much. I hope in later installments it turns out he actually got brainwashed by Kylo Ren during the torture scene—hey, it would complicate things!
Another character who got the short shrift was Captain Phasma, Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne of Tarth of Stormtroopers. She was just kind of there. She has a cool outfit. She tells Han and company that they’ll pay for making her turn off the shields. But yeah. She’s here to sell action figures, I think—at least for now.
Part of the allure of this film, at least from the trailers, was the idea that characters were living in a post-Apocalyptic Star Wars, the wrecks of Star Destroyers and AT-ATs on Jakku notwithstanding. This is enticing at the beginning of the film. Finn and Rey’s amazement to discover that Luke Skywalker is not a myth is kind of weird, considering that everything only happened 30 years before. That’s like saying the USSR was a mythical country, but it turns out that the Soviets, and Ronald Reagan, were actually real … um, really?
Anyway, I think Finn and Kylo Ren feel like surrogates for the audience. For most of the beginning of the film, Finn is shocked at the consequences of being Stormtrooper, he chooses to join the Resistance, and gets to try his hand at being a Jedi, at least until Kylo Ren shows him who’s boss. Finn is the stand-in for the audience, the kids who have played Star Wars forever—now he actually gets to be in the adventure, the adventure he’s heard about all along, just like any number of child fans.
In a sleight of hand, J.J. actually positions Rey as the chosen one, the successor to Luke and Anakin, but she’s just as thrilled at being a part of the universe as Finn, but feels more at home on Jakku then perhaps she should?
Kylo Ren, in his playacting of Darth Vader, represents what all kids want to do—be cool like Vader, like Darth Maul, General Grievous, etc. His decidedly “Anakin” haircut is a nice, subtle wardrobe to make him seem like Anakin had Hayden Christensen been a better actor.
The decision to throw Luke in at the end was a good one, but only because it was promised and Mark Hamill was top-billed. He could have been cut, and it could have just ended with Rey jumping into space, as a lot of space movies handle it.
A note on the score—I like Rey’s theme, and Kylo Ren’s theme worked and was sinister enough. But there isn’t quite a new theme song for this movie like their was “Duel of the Fates,” “Across the Stars” and “Battle of the Heroes” for the last three movies. Those are great, iconic songs. These songs are more subtle and recall a lot of the old themes, but, yeah. John Williams didn’t quite give it a showstopper with this round.
THE FORCE EVALUATION
J.J. Abrams does a lot of pilots. He also did a lot of sequel-reboots (Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness…). If Super-8 was an homage to Spielberg, and the Star Trek films an homage to Star Trek and the Wrath of Khan, then The Force Awakens is an homage to A New Hope, with some scenes from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi thrown in. (With some very subtle prequel references, like some podracers in the background on Jakku). The references rarely feel too forced, (except for the trench run), and parallelism/fan service isn’t as unnecessary as it is in the prequels (why does Anakin have to build C-3PO?, but a cantina scene is something that is more likely to happen again in this universe, and already has with the Coruscant bar scene in Attack of the Clones…)
This movie introduces Star Wars to a new audience. A new audience perfectly willing to buy lots of toys and Legos and video games and stuff. A cross-generational movie like Jurassic World was successful for bringing in people who grew up with the original who also could bring their kids. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is inconvenient because of Shia Labeouf swinging with monkeys, nuclear blasts and fridges, aliens, and because of Shia Labeouf’s presence in general. This movie could have been the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Instead, it pays its respect to the past, which is what people wanted, and gives us a few characters to care about in the new films. Whether the films explore the new mysteries in an interesting way is unclear. The prequels tried some new things, and while visually impressive, were hindered by their scripts. Let’s hope the better scripts don’t hinder more daring storytelling. Is Rey Luke’s daughter? Probably. Are Ren and Rey destined for some “we are cousins” battle/revelation? Probably. Let’s hope Episode VIII is less Star Trek Into Darkness and more daring. Some backstory would be nice, too, rather than continuous action. Now we just have to wait and see.