A friend of mine texted me a couple months ago. He told me he hadn’t been able to hold out any longer. He had just watched The Force Awakens. I asked him a simple question: “Did you like it?”
His response was perfect. “It’s Star Wars,” he said. “It’s more complicated than that.”
I knew what he meant. Star Wars has never been just a series of entertaining movies for us or a diverting way to shrug off reality for an afternoon. Those films spoke to us and fired our imaginations, they became filters for understanding our own complicated world and provoked us to ask larger philosophical questions about morality, purpose and meaning.
Those six films are invaluable texts to me, figuratively dog-eared and highlighted and practically falling apart from all the times I have pored over them searching for new secrets. They speak to me in a profound, almost spiritual way; they are my Holy Bible, Complete Works of Shakespeare, and Plato’s Republic all rolled into one thirteen-hour saga.
So it pains me to report that after seeing The Force Awakens for myself, the only real complication is explaining all the ways it has failed me and framing that inexhaustible list of disappointments into something that doesn’t devolve into a total rant.
I’ll do my best.
To those who know me well, the fact that I didn’t like TFA probably doesn’t come as a surprise. I don’t care for J.J. Abrams as a director. I find his films to be derivative, simplistic, and visually dull. His fondness for lens flare is baffling and his disinterest in a cohesive plot is frustrating. To his credit, he does wonders getting engaging performances out of his actors and he often brings an interesting twist or spin on a familiar concept. But good filmmaking is about far more than skilled acting and a fresh coat of paint on an old franchise.
If that’s Strike One against The Force Awakens, here’s Strike Two: we simply don’t need any more Star Wars movies. That may sound ludicrous coming from someone who just professed an undying love for the franchise, but crucial to that passion is the belief that truly great stories have a beginning, middle, and ultimately an end. While I have been a voracious consumer in the past of the extraneous novels, comic books, television shows, and video games that expand the galaxy far, far away and delve into every corner, the cinematic story of Star Wars has been told to completion. New films are being created not because there is a compelling story that must be told, but because these films will make a lot of money. Artificially extending a story for no reason beyond financial gain is Disney’s prerogative, but I am not duty bound or eager to follow.
Finally, Strike Three hit me as soon as I watched the first trailers. Whereas the majority opinion seemed to be awe and joy, I didn’t see anything in those trailers that I hadn’t seen before already in a previous Star Wars film. For a lot of people, that was a good sign that Star Wars was “getting back on track” and “recapturing the old magic,” but to my eyes, it just looked like they were ripping off the older films. I’ll delve deeper into this topic below.
I mention all of this because I want to make something clear: I definitely had a bias against this film before I finally relented and sat down to watch it. Despite that bias, I also fully intended to enjoy it for what it was now that my expectations had been sufficiently lowered. If I can enjoy Jurassic World or the latest James Bond movie for being mainstream popcorn films, surely I could enjoy this, I reasoned.
It probably shouldn’t have surprised me that I didn’t like it, but I was at least expecting I’d understand why so many other people did. Instead, I walked away from my viewing utterly mystified how this movie garnered such overwhelming praise among the critical community. It’s not just that it felt unnecessary and derivative; it’s a narrative disaster with lazy plotting and one-dimensional characters; it’s cinematically middling and unambitious; and perhaps most depressing of all, it is shockingly unimaginative.
I know that’s a lot of criticism to process at once, so let’s start big picture and condense down. Visually, The Force Awakens lacks any distinguishing characteristics. Its planets are a repeat of the same landscapes in Episodes IV-VI: a desert planet, a forest planet, and an ice planet. Its spaceships are a repeat of those we saw in Episode IV: TIE Fighters and X-Wings with new paint jobs. Ditto the Stormtroopers. Starkiller Base’s interior looks the same as the Death Star (the little of it we see, that is). The Resistance’s war room is a carbon copy of the one on Yavin IV. The alien characters and creatures are generally less memorable than the ones created for the prior films and those that are computer generated are less believable than Jar Jar or Watto from The Phantom Menace fifteen (!) years earlier.
But perhaps most remarkable is the lack of interesting action sequences and set pieces. The TIE Fighter/Millennium Falcon chase through the ruins of a downed Star Destroyer comes the closest to being kinetic and gripping, but it’s a relatively quick scene and there isn’t much in the way of variety in this sequence or any sense of escalating danger. Navigating the wreckage could have offered up obstacles and perils on par with the asteroid chase in Empire.
Similarly, the climactic lightsaber battle in the forest doesn’t take advantage of the setting to give its characters environmental advantages or disadvantages as the Naboo lightsaber duel attempted in The Phantom Menace, for instance. Because TFA‘s settings are so common place and so relatable to our own planet, there is a lack of grandiosity, of spectacle.
Even in the original trilogy, the locations are larger than life. The Death Star is a massive labyrinth with chasms and pits, closing doors, stormtroopers around every corner, and a trash compactor with a strange tentacled monster inside; Bespin is a gas planet with dreamlike structures floating in the clouds; Endor has trees so massive that entire civilizations can live on top of them, connected by drawbridges and huts. There is nothing in TFA that comes even close to those settings and no unique, unusual planet-specific threat for our heroes to overcome in any of these locations.
That lack of imagination is probably my biggest complaint with The Force Awakens. And it extends to just about every facet of its production. The narrative is practically a carbon copy of A New Hope, the villain is a Darth Vader wannabe, the galaxy is still fighting the same war using the same ships with the same factions. There is no effort made here to project this story into a new era, to create something different and exciting, to use the original films as an inspiration and launching-off point rather than a nostalgic crutch.
This lack of creativity is frustrating for a number of reasons, but chiefly because it flies in the face of what Star Wars has always represented. Each of the original three films is a distinctive, unique entry from what has come prior; similarly, the prequels are about as different from the original trilogy as is possible while still being set in the same galaxy and using some of the same characters.
And cinematically, Star Wars has always pushed the boundaries of what is possible in filmmaking. The marketing for this film never spoke to the story that needed to be told, to the characters, or to any theme or idea; it was solely about how this Star Wars film was going to employ practical effects, as if the previous three films were all entirely green screen without any model work, on-location filming or props; for the record, that just isn’t true. And TFA is certainly brimming with digital characters and sets.
The practical effects drum that Abrams and Kennedy beat around this film was essentially an excuse for a lack of innovation behind the scenes. Star Wars has always been about breaking out of the box of standard film practices and dragging the rest of the artistic and technical community kicking and screaming into the future, whether it was with the state-of-the-art special effects of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, the editing innovations of Return of the Jedi, the fully realized CG characters created for The Phantom Menace, or the digital filmmaking of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
But Abrams’ film leaves no new tools, techniques or even inspiring visuals for filmmakers who follow in its wake. While there are some beautifully composed shots early in the film with Finn on the stormtrooper transport and the depiction of Rey’s lonely existence on the planet Jaaku, there is nothing revolutionary here; nothing that we haven’t seen in countless other blockbuster action films.
Compare this dearth with the cinematic bravado of another 2015 film, Mad Max: Fury Road. Although it was also heavily devoted to practical effects, it still managed to deliver its share of holy-shit visual spectacles to rival anything a computer generated image can do. Where was that level of innovation, of vision, of cinematic style and talent when it came time to make a new Star Wars film?
My same criticism extends to the auditory realm: the sound effects and the film’s score. Star Wars has always been famous for spectacular sound design, whether it’s a howling creature, a bizarre alien dialect, a mechanical roar, or a strange weapon firing. But nothing stood out here as particularly new or different. Even Kylo Ren’s broadsword-ish lightsaber sounded pretty much like every other lightsaber in the saga.
Similarly, John Williams turned in his least compelling soundtrack to date, essentially a new mix of old scores pasted together from the original trilogy. If it was too much to expect another gem like “The Imperial March,” “Yoda’s Theme,” or “Duel of the Fates,” I would have been content with something on the level of “Battle of the Heroes,” “Luke and Leia,” or “Across the Stars.”
Though many will claim that such technical artistry is less important than characters and plot, I would disagree. A film is entirely dependent on imaginative and creative decisions of the visual and auditory varieties, but I am sympathetic to those individuals who value a strong script and further mystified that these individuals have largely been pleased with TFA‘s efforts in this department; it plays out like a rough draft in need of a few more rounds of editing.
As I mentioned before, narratively this film is almost a direct carbon copy of A New Hope and that’s a shame for a couple reasons: 1) because it’s creatively lazy to take the same plot from a previous film and repeat it over again and 2) because as soon as the viewer realizes what’s happening, there are no surprises; it becomes very obvious very quickly exactly what’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to. There was no surprise to me that Han Solo was going to die, for instance, because I already saw that scene play out with Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death in the original Star Wars film.
I suppose the one advantage to reusing a plot from a great movie is that at least you can be assured of it making sense. So it’s even more frustrating that the few instances where the script strays from A New Hope, it makes such baffling choices. Rebel pilot Poe Dameron disappears halfway through the first act of the film and is believed to be dead until he randomly shows up in the third act just fine and dandy with no real explanation. Rey and Finn just happen to find the Millennium Falcon sitting around waiting for them on the planet of Jaaku; when they jump to hyperspace, they immediately run into Han and Chewie. Anakin’s lightsaber, lost over 35 years ago on Cloud City is just hanging out in a box for Rey to discover when Han takes the gang to meet Maz Kanata. The Republic has based its entire government on several planets in the same star system which allows Starkiller Base to obliterate all of them at once. Call these conveniences, plot holes or just lazy plotting; regardless, contrivances start to add up over time and break an audience’s immersion in the story.
If you’d asked me before I watched the film to predict TFA‘s greatest strength, I would have said the characters. I assumed the combination of Kasdan’s dialogue with Abrams’ knack for getting solid performances out of his actors would make me glad to revisit the old gang and be introduced to the next generation.
Well, I got two of the three right. The acting is indeed very good and there’s some solid old school Star Wars dialogue that feels right at home. But the characterization is a shambles and may be the most surprising fumble of the film.
Let’s start with the legacy characters. When we meet Han and Leia, we learn that they, along with Luke, are not only failures but irresponsible failures. After almost single-handedly defeating the Empire as a ragtag group of Rebels, they bungled the resuscitation of the Republic by not delivering the killing stroke to the last vestiges of a headless Empire. Thirty-five years later, they are still fighting a version of the Empire and still–somehow–the underdog.
Meanwhile, Han and Leia have raised a child who is this new Empire’s strong-armed Dark Side enforcer. How did Han and Leia, knowing that Luke and Leia’s father was Darth Freaking Vader, still manage to completely fail at raising this kid right, and why did they give up trying? What is Han Solo doing hunting tentacle monsters when his son is colluding with dudes who have built Death Star III?
Leia has had thirty-five years to learn how to use the Force. She’s not powerful enough to confront Kylo Ren/Ben Solo and send the petulant brat to his room?
Meanwhile, Uncle Luke may actually fare the worst of the trinity. He allows his nephew to kill all the other students of his new Jedi Order and then just goes into hiding now that he’s unleashed Vader Jr. on the galaxy?
I’m all for flawed characters, but they at least need to make sense and be consistent to their original characterization. This is behavior and morality that doesn’t correspond with anything we know of these characters; it completely undercuts the growth they each experienced over the course of the original three films and is a sloppy and lazy way to generate a new conflict for the next generation of heroes to face.
Unfortunately, Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren don’t fare much better as characters. Without clear motivations or a sensible backstory, these characters reach the end of the film as much a mystery as they began it.
Let’s start with Finn. He’s a stormtrooper who has been conditioned since birth to shoot innocent people and be loyal to the First Order, and yet Day One on the job he decides it’s not for him. Besides the questionable logic of assigning a stormtrooper who has never been in a battle to accompany your Dark Side enforcer on a vital mission to uncover the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, it simply makes no sense why this guy turns traitor right off the bat. Beyond that leap of logic, it’s similarly baffling that Finn shows absolutely no signs of having experienced nearly two decades worth of Imperial conditioning. To claim that he just shrugged off his conditioning is a pretty big pill to swallow, but showing no emotional scars, no inner turmoil over his decision, no inherent bias against the Resistance or its heroes? That’s a pill as big as your head.
Kylo Ren suffers similar logic issues. He’s angry and sullen and a total brat, but is it ever revealed exactly why he hates his father enough to ACTUALLY kill him? Why does he turn against his uncle Luke and murder the other students? You can tell me that I have to wait until the next film to get these answers, but that’s ludicrous. Unlike Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is revealed to be family very early on in the film (and in probably the least dramatic way possible–standing in a featureless room talking to a bad CGI hologram of Supreme Leader Snoke), so if we’re supposed to think of him as Han Solo’s son and not just the evil, faceless bad guy ala Episode IV Vader, we should know a little more about him and his motivations in THIS film, not the next one. As it stands, he comes off as a not very threatening villain who is evil JUST BECAUSE.
And the reason he comes off as not very threatening (despite being trained by Luke, killing a bunch of other students, murdering his own father and being able to hold a blaster bolt in mid-air for ten minutes) is because it’s hard to take him seriously when he’s getting his ass handed to him by Rey. This scavenger from the planet Jaaku is waiting for her family to return to her after at least a decade of being stranded. It stands to reason, given the lack of originality in this film, that she is either Luke’s daughter or Han and Leia’s other offspring, and that it was decided that since the three of them are SO terrible at raising children, maybe they ought to just dump her somewhere and let her raise herself.
Apparently, letting children raise themselves works great, because without any formal training, she’s already more powerful than any other character in the film, including the aforementioned Kylo Ren. She can fly the Millennium Falcon better than Han Solo, she can use the Jedi Mind Trick almost as well as Old Ben Kenobi, she can outduel Kylo Ren, and pull a lightsaber to her hand using the Force even when Kylo is pulling from the other end.
Obviously, Anakin and Luke are powerful characters in the Star Wars saga as well, but certainly not that powerful that quickly and certainly not that accomplished at that many things. Anakin and Luke are both good pilots in the first film, but it is explained that they have been training as pilots their whole lives; Rey is a scavenger who can barely afford a half portion of food each day; how would she have any experience flying a starship?
Both Anakin and Luke are pretty lousy at fighting with a lightsaber until their third films, by which time they have had appendages chopped off. And as for mastery of Force powers, Anakin is clearly more accomplished than Luke by his second film, but he has been training for ten years as a Jedi padawan. Luke is barely able to pull his lightsaber out of the snow in the Wampa cave in Empire, let alone win a tug of war with a better trained Dark Side acolyte or pull off a Jedi Mind Trick.
Rey is not a character so much as she is a plot device. If the only logical answer to her ridiculously fast mastery of everything is that the Force is controlling her like a puppet, that’s not a compelling character to follow. We’re not watching her fail and pick herself back up again; we’re not seeing the necessary struggle that any character be they strong or weak in the Force must undergo to defeat a conflict. Her talents and powers come out of nowhere whenever a challenge presents itself, and that’s a shame because watching characters legitimately overcome challenges is far more compelling and exciting to watch than the movie equivalent of typing in a cheat code and automatically winning.
If you loved The Force Awakens, then nothing I have said or can say will change your mind; nor should it. I have no interest in ruining anyone’s good time. Believe me: I know what it feels like to love a Star Wars film that someone else hates, and ironically, I find myself on the other side of the divide now and it’s a lousy place to be.
I’m telling you all of this because it’s not my intention to be contrarian; I would honestly prefer to share the experience that so many others have had in embracing this film, but I also have to be true to myself and what I value from an artistic work, and The Force Awakens fails on just about every conceivable level for me.
The last three thousand five hundred words may suggest otherwise, but I don’t enjoy writing about things that I dislike. Some critics relish the opportunity to sharpen their vocabulary and spear anything that they find distasteful. I wrote this review to gather all my thoughts in one place and to reach out to others who may have been similarly disappointed but struggled to articulate why exactly.
And so this piece serves as my once and final say on the film; focusing on hatred towards something is counter-productive and only fills your life with anger and animosity. It’s far more rewarding to concentrate one’s energies on those works which mean something to you and share in the joy that comes from communicating your passions with others.
And that’s really the silver lining to all of this. Watching films that disappoint us crystalizes our appreciation for the storytelling that does truly move us. It helps us articulate what we actually enjoy about art and what we are looking for when we confront a new creative work. I’ll have more to say about this idea later, but for now, thanks for sticking with me until the bitter end. The Force is clearly strong with you.