Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Dir. J.J. Abrams. Starring Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver

This is absolutely riddled with spoilers. If you want a review without spoilers, this is not the one you’re looking for.

Let’s get this out of the way. The Force Awakens is a good movie. It is not a great movie, but it is significantly better than at least two of the prequels. It is not as good as any of the original three films. It’s definitely better than Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. And yet – better get some whole milk before you read this, because this one’s hot – I kind of wish it had a little more Phantom Menace in it. Whatever sins the prequels committed – Jar Jar Binks, a character named “Dooku,” Hayden Christiansen, etc. – there are at least new ideas in there, or, barring that, interesting offshoots of old ideas. (For example, our understanding of the Jedi Order, as well as the existence of some folks who identify as the Sith, are ideas that are hinted at in three movies but which are not explained in those three movies.)

There’s not a new idea in The Force Awakens. It’s Star Wars in a blender. It reminds me of that Neil Gaiman quote which, if I use ever again, I’ll have to put it in the masthead so I can just link to the darn thing:

Fans know exactly what they want. Fans want more of the last thing they read and they liked. That’s what fans want. They liked that thing you did, they would like another one of those, please.

No one on the planet understands this principle as well as J.J. Abrams, whose productions, I’m afraid, will always remind me of a paint-by-numbers Starry Night. The film reflects that sensibility: it is the epitome of “another one of those, please.” A desert planet and a Force-sensitive youngster, a droid with a message from the Rebellion, a guy with an ugly past but a heart of gold, an old resistance fighter who suits up for one last rodeo, a desperate attempt against a Death Star, the death of the mentor, and someone who used to be a good guy but turned into a bad one for reasons unknown. (And just like in Star Wars, we’re not going to “know” that Ben and Rey are twins until next movie, so we’ll leave that out for now.) Perhaps this sounds vague, but I’m going to gamble on two things: 1) you’ve seen the movies and connected the dots and/or 2) you want to read the Excel file of similarities about as much as I want to make one. Return of the Jedi gets some criticism for another Death Star. At this point, three out of seven Star Wars movies have featured a Death Star, and three of those movies really couldn’t have featured one at all. I liked The Force Awakens. Everyone likes The Force Awakens. It was designed as cynically as possible to ensure that you – and everyone you know – would like it. It’s a safe choice; a blockade of a totally unfamiliar planet by a totally unfamiliar trade federation was a bad choice, but at least it was different. Typically, I tend to give a movie that shoots for something different, something ambitious, the benefit of the doubt rather than the movie that shoots lower and hits the mark. (This is either the Anton Ego Principle or the Cloud Atlas Code, depending on your ‘druthers.) Of course, The Phantom Menace did not execute well, and The Force Awakens executes far better: not flawlessly, not even close, but better.

Aside: I’m bothered as heck by the destruction of the Hosnian system, which I think is the low point in the film; I’m not bothered by the destruction of the Hosnian system as a historical event, and that’s a huge problem, a huge failure on the part of the filmmakers. Not only do we have to go through the motions of “Golly, a Death Star!” again, we also watch five planets and a fleet get incinerated and feel absolutely nothing. Like, wow, it’s a Death Star that can hit five targets at once, and that’s big, but, uh, thanks for the shot of like, twenty innocent people screaming when they died, because I’ve never seen The Avengers or Transformers or Gettysburg for that matter, and  innumerable nameless deaths in film still affect me. There are moments like that scattered through The Force Awakens where I know I’m supposed to feel something – Han Solo’s death is the marquee here – and I can see it coming so clearly and so far away that I can’t actually react to the moment because I reacted to it minutes before it happened. Feeling shouldn’t be an obligation in a film, and my major issue with The Force Awakens is that every ounce of feeling is shrewdly calculated on an abacus that got passed out in someone’s Screenwriting 101 class.

I’ve only read one review of The Force Awakens – it’s Alan Sepinwall’s, and I’ll link to it here – discusses how Rey (Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) each have little bits and pieces of Luke, Han, and Leia in them. My take on those three, plus Kylo Ren (Driver), is pleasant surprise. I was favorably impressed by how Han Solo (and Leia, though this was always going to happen) melted into the background, functioning as supporting characters for the next generation. I was terrified going into the film that they would take over the movie in a parade of fanservice, but not only did that not happen, they functioned as important supporting characters who did things for people like Rey and Finn and Poe. I was also scared that Luke was going to be dead, offscreen, before the movie even began; “Luke Skywalker has vanished” was big for me. (There could have been nothing more awfully fanboyish than choosing to build the new series of Star Wars movies off of Han Solo rather than Luke Skywalker.) Han Solo’s death, plus Luke’s absence in this film and Leia’s predictable shift to the back burner, means that the new Star Wars movies are the province of a much younger, fresh-faced bunch. Oscar Isaac, at 36, is the old man on campus now. Domnhall Gleeson is 32, as is Adam Driver. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both 23. There is a youthfulness in this film that was surprising, and are so constantly doing something – flying the Millennium Falcon, lightsaber-dueling, sneaking around Starkiller Base – that their youth gets to read as energy instead of impatience. Even Kylo Ren and General Hux – the 32-year-olds – look incredibly young. One gets the feeling that thirty years after Endor, the children really are the future. (Again: Return of the Jedi is older than Adam Driver.) It’s people who are younger than forty who are going to actively do the things which change the galaxy. Perhaps, and I can’t believe I’m saying nice things about J.J. Abrams, but the moving camera helps. George Lucas’ camera tends to sit still for as long as possible, following a line of action from a single vantage point and using cuts to change perspective; Abrams, especially in scenes featuring Finn (like the battle at the rubble of Maz Kanata’s, or when he leaves Poe before the battle at Starkiller Base), uses tracking shots well. Motion may be at a premium in a film like The Phantom Menace, but The Force Awakens makes motion part of its ethos in a way that’s definitely appealing, and which works as a sort of objective correlative to the younger cast.

Going back to the age thing: compare people like Ridley and Boyega and Driver and so on to the prequels, where people like Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson and Ian McDiarmid and Jimmy Smits and…Yoda…were shaping policy. Even Ewan McGregor was about the same age as Driver during the prequels, but spent most of The Phantom Menace hanging out; Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were spent in constant motion against minor characters (Zam Wessell, Jango Fett, an Acklay, General Grievous…) before finally hacking off Anakin’s arms and legs. So little of what Obi-Wan actually did seemed to matter – not least because we knew that he was going to survive into Star Wars – but at least he did stuff. Hayden Christiansen’s Anakin moped, whined, and otherwise complained in fancy rooms; the only action-y thing I can remember him doing alone featured him, very briefly, chopping up Tusken Raiders. And Natalie Portman…we can only say how many times that we are sorry that she had to be Padme. It’s the nothing role that Amy Irving thought Princess Leia was back in the mid-’70s. If this feels like a fresh start for Star Wars despite the fact that the plot is exactly the same as a certain flick from 1977, that’s because it is.

Perhaps that’s why characters like Supreme Leader Snoke or Maz Kanata just don’t ring true: they’re made to look old, and they are CGI, and no matter how much I love Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o, it’s hard to latch on to either of those two the way that I did with like, Domnhall Gleeson, much less Daisy Ridley. I find myself totally apathetic about both of the major CGI characters, incidentally. Snoke simply doesn’t make enough sense to me from a geopolitical perspective for me to care about his influence just yet; I read way too many of the EU books, which feature about a million different leaders of the zillion Imperial remnants (Thrawn! Buddy!), to be impressed with this guy who has no other purpose in this movie but to be the reason that Adam Driver’s character is Kylo Ren and not Ben Solo. Maz is a little bit more troubling to me; I want to think that she’s important, but at the same time she seems like Yoda without any of the credentials that Yoda brings to the part. Unlike Yoda, she is not a Jedi, much less a Jedi Master. Unlike Yoda, she is used as a plot point (she’s the one with Luke’s lightsaber! and thus our first real proof of Rey’s Force sensitivity! Jeepers!) rather than a character who we can imagine existing outside of the actions of the protagonists (even before the prequels, the idea of Yoda going slowly insane by himself, or perhaps making lesson plans for the “New Hope” enters our minds. He’s just on screen longer, and we linger over his accomplishments and the way that he changes other people.) Where Yoda changes the story, Maz is a placeholder, a face to put on a map. I don’t know what else there is for her to do in another movie, which is a pity; burning Lupita Nyong’o on a CGI character with about five minutes of screen time is like drawing a straight flush off the flop when no one else has better than a pair.

Just as the tragedy (boy, does that word have several meanings in context) of Anakin Skywalker dominates the first six films, the tragedy of Kylo Ren is being set up as the pivot for the next…trilogy. (Count me in, likewise, on the anthology treatment that’s being given in the upcoming Rogue One and presumably in the Han Solo movie in 2018.) In my dreams, Episode VIII is backstory to the events of Episode VII: how Luke organized his Jedi academy, how Rey was separated from her parents Han and Leia, how Ben was turned to the Dark Side, and how the Knights of Ren came to be. I’m fascinated by his powers; we’ve never watched someone with such a predilection for arresting the motion of other objects in the air, or his skill for freezing people in place, or for out-and-out mind reading, but it’s also fairly obvious that he is not a great swordsman. (Did anyone else have a weird flashback to that time when Harry managed to accidentally play Occlumency with Snape’s mind instead of having Snape probe into his own when Rey figured out Ren’s motivation? That was a good time.) I’ve always been in favor of explication of what exactly Jedi powers are, and this movie has opened doors through Ren that I was not quite expecting.

The first time I saw this movie, my fiancee and I giggled uncontrollably when Adam Driver took off the mask. We’re used to him from Girls. And then he sounds just like himself on Girls! The second time around, I was prepared. And the more I see this film, I’m sure that I will find his scene where Kylo Ren interrogates Rey more dramatic and less hysterical; at least, I hope so, because I have faith that Kylo Ren might be one of the best characters in any of the Star Wars films by the end of this new trilogy. Anakin Skywalker was the one who brought balance to the Force; in other words, he was a Jedi first, then a Sith lord who destroyed the Jedi, and finally renounced the Dark Side in his final hours. His story is tragic enough, but he is not the son of two of the Rebellion’s most iconic leaders, and Anakin had no father to take out any patricidal rage on. The fact that Adam Driver is a far better actor than Hayden Christiansen makes me optimistic that there’s at least some smoke on the horizon. I won’t speculate much further on that, but I want to be on record as saying that the success of this new trilogy hinges on Kylo Ren. (I’m sure everyone else is saying that too. I still get to think so.) He’s slightly less mysterious than Rey, but I find myself far more interested in knowing how he got to where he was. Rey’s going to learn to become a Jedi – can’t wait until she has to jump through a swamp with fat Mark Hamill on her back – but Ren is going to have to learn how to become a person again.

Aside that’s probably been discussed to death on like, Reddit or something: In the books, Han and Leia have three kids: twins, Jacen and Jaina, and then a son, Anakin. Anakin is the most powerful of the bunch, but is killed at a young age. Jacen, who was probably the gentler and more empathetic of the twins, becomes a Sith lord; it’s Jaina, who is a crack pilot and her father’s daughter, who strikes him down. If that’s what happens in the later films, the people who wrote the Legacy of the Force series oughta sue.

I’m split on the two new protagonists. I am all in on Rey. Ridley has a marvelous screen presence, with about a zillion times more charisma than Hayden Christiansen. I don’t know if she’s a good actress – the only person on the screen who said “good at acting” to me with any volume was Isaac – but she can fill up the screen. I was invested in Rey; I was invested in how she related to Finn, how she picked up BB-8 (whom I love and can’t believe I haven’t talked about more – all astromechs are dogs and cats and they make me happy), how she slid in neatly with Han Solo, how she matched her Force power with Kylo Ren despite having not a lick of training. I was not invested in Finn. It’s not Boyega’s fault, who I think got to fill up the screen himself a couple of times. (Honestly, I feel like there’s more for him to do. I can’t wait for the next movie to see what he’s given to work with in future flicks.) He has some comic chops; “Droid, please” and “Why you doing that?” complete with matching chin motion have gotten me both times. I blame my relative lack of interest in him on the moviemakers, who decided to hit us over the head repeatedly, in about ninety seconds, with shots of the stormtrooper with the bloodstains on his helmet who doesn’t want to fire on a civilian population. Then we were run through the fairly standard “Oh, I’m going to tell this person who I want to be instead of who I am and hope it doesn’t bite me in the bum later” plot that Finn follows, until he follows the “I’ve grown up and I’m ready to take some responsibility” plot. None of it strikes me. There’s no mystery in that character; everything is on the surface. There’s just so much more for Daisy Ridley to work from than there is for John Boyega. There’s got to be more for him to do; like Kylo Ren, I think Finn will also learn to become a person in future movies. He’s a decent person, but if we only wanted to watch movies about decent people, then Hollywood would have been sold cheap back when Jimmy Stewart died. I look forward to seeing what more there is for him to do in Episode VIII.

I liked The Force Awakens more the second time than the first time. It’s a good movie, and it’s a fun time. I found myself anticipating the exciting bits, which is definitely out of character for me as a viewer. But I’ve written about this phenomenon before. Just as the praise for Inside Out was a little hyperbolic because everyone was relieved to get a bona fide Pixar hit for the first time in five years, I think everyone’s a little relieved to get a Star Wars movie that isn’t mediocre-to-bad for the first time in thirty-two years, and we may be a touch giddy. Even if we are carried away, though, It’s nice to have a movie that hits and doesn’t, in the words of Garven Dreis, just impact off the surface.

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