“The Force Awakens”: Excellent and Mediocre – Simultaneously


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SPOILER ALERT! IN CASE YOU WERE STILL UNCLEAR ON THIS POINT: YES, THIS REVIEW IS RIFE WITH SPOILERS. THE FIRST SENTENCE IS A SPOILER IN ITSELF. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE YET, STOP READING RIGHT NOW (AND COME BACK AFTER YOU HAVE).


“I’m being torn apart. I want to be rid of this pain.”

The second time I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Kylo Ren spoke this line, I wanted to shout:

“Brother, I feel your pain!”

Not because his delivery was particularly effective (it wasn’t, see below), but because I was being ripped in two myself by the movie. Part of me—the part that still cares deeply about the original trilogy, and hates George Lucas a little for inflicting the prequel trilogy on the world—wanted to rave about it, assign it 4.5 out of 5 stars, declare it one of the best in the saga, and watch it a third—and perhaps a fourth—time as soon as possible. The other part—the part that cares about storytelling, fleshed-out characters, creativity over commerce, and surprises—wants to rant and weep, grudgingly assign it 3/5 starts, send offended letters to J.J. Abrams, and keep coming up with reasons why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the most cynical piece of commercial claptrap to grace the silver screen in decades.

Both parts of me agree on a lot of things though. So let me start with those.

The Good News

The Force Awakens ties seamlessly into the original trilogy, in much the same way the prequel trilogy entirely failed to. Part of this is the production and art direction: the use of live sets, the grubbiness of costumes and props, and the unwashed tiredness of the characters grant us a much-needed homecoming to the aesthetic of Episode IV-VI. But it’s more than that. Everyone has seen the downed Star Destroyer in the trailer, and that’s just one example of how the aftermath of the Rebellion against the Empire is still seen, and felt, all through the movie. From desert dwellers living off scavenged spoils of war to lead character Rey inhabiting a downed AT-AT: every scene, every set breathes the history set out in the preceding films.

Speaking of Rey: in her, J.J. Abrams has created the perfect heroine for the new trilogy. Independent, kick-ass, skilled, but also vulnerable and lonely, Rey is a fully fleshed-out character, much as the young Anakin Skywalker wasn’t in the least. Rey is awesome, even more awesome than the Stormtrooper deserter child soldier Finn, who does a fairly good job of being awesome himself (but–see below). The pair of them make a worthy new generation of Star Wars heroes, and I can’t wait to see how they develop in the next two episodes.

And it’s not just casting these two that makes this movie good. The writing—by Abrams himself and Empire Strikes Back veteran Kasdan—is solid, believable, and mature, with dialogue that flows naturally, and interactions that make sense. Where the original trilogy may have had the most appeal for children and young adults, and the prequel trilogy seemed to have been intended for semi-sentient funghi, this new movie, finally, was written, filmed, and narrated with grownups in mind—albeit grownups with a penchant for SF fairy-tales.

The cinematography is excellent, the sets gorgeous, the action scenes spectacular, the battles real and brutal. In terms of technical quality, the movie deserves every single one of the 4.5 stars I’m not giving it.

And let’s not forget the ending. Promising wonderful things to come in the next episode, the final scene may be the best cliffhanger in the history of cliffhangers.

That’s the good news. And remember: the grumpy old part of me, the disappointed Star War fan who thinks this movie is worth 3/5, if that, agrees to all of it.

But.

Even if all of that makes it a very good movie, its flaws still make it a mediocre Star Wars episode at best.

Shall I Warm That Up For Ya?

Let’s start with plot. Mind you, I’m not saying the movie has a bad plot. Quite the contrary: the plot is fine. After all, it has sufficiently proven itself in two previous Star Wars episodes. And of course, that is the crux of the problem.

Let me illustrate by describing the plot to a very familiar Star Wars episode.

About to be taken prisoner by Stormtroopers, one of our main characters entrusts a digitized secret, that can change the course of the war, to a trusty drone with a spinning head that speaks in bleeps. The character is captured, but the drone escapes.
Meanwhile, on a desert planet, our hero leads a life of toil and drudgery, dreaming of a time when things will change. The fates of hero and drone coincidentally become entangled, and after the hero’s home is destroyed by Stormtroopers searching for the drone, they escape from the planet in the Millennium Falcon.
When he is told of the escape, the black-masked evil overload throws a tantrum on his Star Destroyer. His high-ranking military colleague decides to set an example by firing his brand-new weapon of mass destruction upon a defenseless planet, destroying it.
The reluctant, makeshift band of rebels make their way to the rebel base, and hand over the droid and its digitized secret. At some point, the female member of the band is captured, and to rescue her they are forced to enter the moon-sized WMD where she was taken.
In the meantime, the WMD is slowly brought to bear on the rebel base. In a race against the clock, the rebels send out their top pilots to destroy the WMD before it annihilates their base, and with it their only hope of victory. Since the WMD is protected by a forcefield, a small band of volunteers is sent out to destroy the forcefield generator first.
One of the band is strong in the Force, and ends up facing the black-masked evil overlord. They duel with lightsabers.
After repeated and failed attempts, and under continuous fire from countless tie fighters, the rebel ace pilot, after a trench run under turbo-laser fire, makes that one-in-a-million shot that triggers the chain reaction that makes the WMD explode.
The rebel squadron returns to the base to cheers and applause.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s most of the plot to A New Hope, with a smattering of Return of the Jedi. Depressingly, it is also the exact plot of The Force Awakens. And if you think I’m exaggerating: I’ve left out the rowdy bar where the band of rebels go to seek help, and the tiny, gnarled, green-skinned wise counselor handing out advice and plot points. In fact, one of the few differences between A New Hope and The Force Awakens is that this time, Yoda—or rather, his equivalent—is located in the Mos Eisley Cantina—or it’s equivalent. The similarities are more numerous than Ewoks on Endor; so much so, in fact, that in some ways The Force Awakens feels more like an unnecessary remake than a new episode.

And this is a problem. A big problem. The movie does contain some nice surprises, but to anyone familiar with the saga, the main plot as described above is entirely predictable, from start to finish, every step of the way. Even with all the cool stuff I’ve described, and the truly, and wonderfully, exciting surprises interspersed in the narrative, I feel cheated by the plot.

What doesn’t help is how the new stuff is introduced, or rather, isn’t. The director seems to have felt incredible urgency to get everything out there as soon as he could, because nothing new gets any buildup. One major—and infuriating—example of this failure is the iconic appearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca. That moment is in the trailer (“Chewie, we’re home”), and seemed highly promising: a suggestion of the two of them having traveled and toiled and adventured tremendously to finally enter their old ship. In reality, it’s their very first moment on-screen.

Same problem with Finn: the very first thing we see of him is his moment of doubt and desertion. It must have been a tough decision, there must have been some history leading up to this choice, there must have been something in his character that made him desert where thousands of other Stormtroopers didn’t. But we get to see nothing of that: here’s Finn, bang, he deserts, woo-hoo, he joins the heroes.

I can’t wait to see if J.J. comes up with a director’s cut, because this lack of introductions—as well as the odd continuity jumps, incomprehensible dialog fragments, and other irregularities—suggests that more material ended up on the cutting room floor than was good for the movie.

The Awful Guys

Which brings me to the Bad Guys. Put bluntly: they are indeed bad, but probably not in the way Abrams intended. Truth be told, they’re more awful than bad. A disfigured, booming hologram, a foaming-at-the-mouth-hysterical Nazi Obersturmführer caricature, and an effeminate, whining princeling, the three of them are more ridiculous than anything else. Add to that the female Stormtrooper captain in the gold suit, who I expected to unfurl red braids from under her helmet at any moment, and the entire cast of bad guys seems to have been designed specifically for satire.

Here, too, the lack of introductions kills the effect. Remember how in Return of the Jedi, the mere mention that the Emperor was coming to inspect the Death Star instilled fear in everyone? And how he was received with pomp and glory? By contrast, we never get any kind of introduction to the Supreme Leader in The Force Awakens. He’s just suddenly there, a towering hologram speaking in a booming voice while General Hux and Kylo Ren seem entirely unimpressed. And why would they be? Not only does the guy fail to exude the slightest menace or even authority, not only has Abrams put no effort at all into establishing him as a force to be reckoned with; his name, incredibly, is Snoke.

Snoke? Yes, Snoke. When I first heard that, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the wizard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, played by John Cleese, who introduces himself as:

“There are some who call me… Tim?”

Well, there are many who call this Supreme Leader ‘Snoke’, but that name is so utterly un-evocative that Abrams would have been better off calling the guy Bill or Ted.

Even with that name, and that lack of menace, Snoke still isn’t as ridiculous as General Hux. In most of his scenes, Hux makes so little impression that it took me reading a review and watching the movie a second time to realize that this guy is the commander of the entire First Order Stormtrooper army. Even the second time around, I often lost sight of the guy altogether, and that was in scenes where he had the main speaking part. With his weird speech patterns, his odd accent, and his utter lack of authority, he seemed intended less for a Star Wars movie than an ‘Allo ‘Allo episode. His inaugural speech at the commissioning of the Starkiller (the weapon of mass destruction) is the low point in his atrocious performance, and in fact in the movie as a whole: a spitting, foaming rant in an absurd semi-German accent, more suited to a comedy about Hitler.

Still, the ridicule Snoke and Hux heap upon themselves isn’t quite as bad as the pathetic character of Kylo Ren himself. This failed Darth Vader wannabe keeps some semblance of menace while he is still hidden behind his mask. But the moment he first takes it off, the illusion collapses, and all that’s left is a pathetic, pimpled teenager whining about the unfairness of it all. Adam Driver, on the face of it a competent actor, seems to have taken a page out of the Hayden-Christensen-does-Anakin-Skywalker acting manual. Staring into the middle distance with a frown is the extent of his expressive repertoire. And even setting aside his acting, the character of Kylo Ren is so ineffective that he first has trouble besting a Stormtrooper holding a lightsaber for the first time, and is then defeated by Rey, who is equally new to the art of luminous fencing.

Come Again?


And if the stolen plot and the Awful Guys aren’t bad enough, the movie contains a number of logical absurdities that instantly snapped the wires on my suspension of disbelief.

First of all, Rey is introduced to us as she scavenges around the cavernous interior of a downed Star Destroyer. A wonderful scene in itself, made more powerful through starting on a close-up of her goggled eyes and scarved face. But then she goes outside, out of the windless, sandless interior of the Star Destroyer, and into the windblown sand, heat, and dryness of the desert, and she takes off her face coverings!

Now by itself, I would have forgiven Abrams for this leap of illogic. After all, it’s a great series of images to introduce Rey with. But then the movie proceeds, and things get much, much worse. Rest assured that I am cherry-picking here: there’s more lunacy where this came from (such as the duel between Finn with his lightsaber, and a Stormtrooper with a lightsaber-resistent club which said Stormtrooper would have no reason in the Galaxy to carry in the first place). For brevity’s sake, I’ll focus on the Starkiller, or as I fondly like to call it, the Starsilly.

This weapon of mass destruction is like a Deathstar on steroids. Obviously—and as the ridiculous size of the Snoke hologram proves—Abrams is of the bigger-is-better school of directing. Why have a man-made spaceship the size of a moon, when you can also build your Really Big Gun into the very core of a planet? However, the logic behind this weapon is not just flawed: it’s entirely absent.

To start with the least offense: when first fired after General Hux’s foaming rant, the beam of this weapon splits into five, and strikes five planets. which are not just in sub-moon-orbit range of one another, but also happen to be in the sightlines of our rebel band at that time. Now I get that Abrams wanted to make clear that our heroes know what happened, and I admit the destruction was especially well-visualized, but the distances just beggar belief. No six planets are that close together, and no planetary destruction is that visible from within another planet’s atmosphere.

But let’s for the sake of argument say I forgive Abrams for this load of baloney. And let’s further assume I accept that the weapon is charged by draining the sun it orbits, and that the planet the weapon is built into can somehow contain the energy of its own star. I still cannot ignore the main glaring logic error in the use of this weapon.

It is clearly stated, while the weapon charges in preparation for annihilating the rebel base, that it’s charged by draining its sun, and that the rebels will know when charging is complete because the sun will then have disappeared, and darkness will fall.

How is it even remotely possible, then, that the Starsilly had already been fired once at that time?

To Make A Long Review Short

I cannot escape the conclusion that the process of conceiving, writing, and producing this movie was not so much creative, but driven by horribly cynical commercialism. “Here’s what we’ll do! For plot, use a mashup of two succesful originals. For bad guys, work from the Darth Vader – Emperor – Admiral template. Throw in a cute droid because R2-D2 is one of the most popular characters in the saga; and give the droid the McGuffin, because that was a great plot point in A New Hope. Work in a father-son-relationship; that worked very well in the original. Write a scene for a Cantina-like set (but just to be different, let the alien musicians play reggae this time!). Create a Death Star, and let the rebels destroy it after one of those exciting trench runs. Damn all logic if it gets in the way of stuff looking cool. And don’t forget: bigger is better!”

As a science fiction fairy-tale adventure movie, I’m still giving this 4.5 stars.

As a Star Wars episode, I oscillate between 2 and 4, depending on my mood, the freshness of my memory, and which section of this really long review I’ve just completed.

I’m settling for 3.5, and throwing in an atheist’s prayer that by the next episode Disney will have gotten over their fear of trying something new for a change. God knows they’ll have made enough money off The Force Awakens to afford it.