DATARAMA

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

January 19, 2016

When I left the cinema after seeing J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek reboot, I had some reflections: It was a very good high-visual-spectacle action adventure, but also a rather bad Star Trek film. the Trek format usually works best when there's a scientific mystery or diplomatic crisis to be solved with thinking, talking, technobabble and (relatively) sparing last-resort phaser bolts. Essentially, Abrams had created a Star Wars film that happened to be set in the Star Trek universe.

So I was very excited when Abrams was signed on to direct the first new Star Wars sequel after Disney acquired Lucasfilm. I am pleased to report that he did not disappoint. Unlike the prequels, this felt like a real Star Wars film. It had the grit, the run-down technology and the high-stakes epic sense of adventure of the original trilogy. Ironically, it felt less like Disney fodder than the prequels did.

Plot Summary

The evil Space Nazis, led by a hideous withered dictator and his sinister, Force-wielding, masked enforcer clad all in black, are building a monstrous superweapon to destroy the heroic resistance fighters once and for all.

But wait! A lowly service droid has a secret clue to save the day. After stranding on a backwater desert world, it is found by a young Force-sensitive hero with a mysterious family background, and they (along with a newfound friend of dubious allegiance) are swept into action after meeting a grizzled veteran of the last war.

The heroes launch a daring assault on the superweapon, which has a critical engineering flaw that can be exploited by small, fast starfighters. The heroes are victorious, but at a cost: After an emotional standoff, the old veteran meets his tragic demise at the hands of the villain, despite the close relationship they once had.

Yeah, it's basically Star Wars IV: A New Hope with the serial numbers filed off.

Criticisms & Countercriticisms

The similarity to A New Hope is perhaps the most criticized aspect of the film, but it didn't bother me much. In fact, I think it worked, and that it worked really well. It's even played for comedic value, when Han Solo points out that planetary-scale superweapons "always" have a weak point.

A New Hope served very well as a beginning to the original trilogy. It established the setting, the conflict and the stakes, using a protagonist who had been isolated from major events so the viewer can be introduced to the plot without necessitating awkward exposition. Back then, it worked well because viewers didn't know about the Star Wars universe yet, and it works now because viewers don't know about what has gone on in that universe in the 30+ years since the Battle of Endor.

I think George Lucas is being sort of disingenuous when he criticizes it as "retro" — although the original trilogy was groundbreaking, it was also retro. It was openly inspired by old serials and comics, Flash Gordon and the like. In fact, it revitalized the space opera genre, and (given the overwhelmingly positive fan response) I think The Force Awakens has revitalized Star Wars too.

A general theme of this criticism is that there's too much nostalgia and too much fan service, but I think this is completely wrong-headed. In an old and well-established franchise like Star Wars, some degree of fan service is just paying respect to the fans — which I think is entirely warranted, given that the entire Expanded Universe (which many fans were heavily invested in) has now been declared non-canon. For instance, I enjoyed that the Death Star MkIII was named "Starkiller Base", because I'm the kind of obsessive nerd who knows that Luke was named "Luke Starkiller" in the original Star Wars script. And there's no way fans of a 35+-year old setting can revisit it without nostalgia.

Is Rey a Mary Sue?

Another of the most common criticisms is that Rey is supposedly a Mary Sue. I strongly disagree. While it is correct that she is a much more competent character than Luke Skywalker is in the beginning of A New Hope, this is mostly consistent with what we know about her background. Luke was a sheltered country bumpkin (who turned out to be very strong in the Force), Rey is a scavenger who has spent most of her life in a tough environment only two steps removed from a Hobbesian war of all against all. She's a good pilot, a good fighter and good at jury-rigging technology — but she also screws up, on multiple occasions. She accidentally unleashes the Rathtars on Solo's new ship, nearly dooming everyone.

Much has been made of her final duel against Kylo Ren. However, 1) we know Rey is a competent melee fighter (we have already seen her defeat nasty aliens using a simple staff weapon), 2) we also know that she is prodigiously strong in the Force, and 3) Kylo has (and I realize that this is the kind of minor detail less pedantic viewers might miss) just been shot in the gut with a Wookiee fucking Bowcaster! It's a minor miracle (and testament to his fortitude) that he's even able to stand up.

Rey's prodigious abilities are entirely explicable in-universe (and given the Romantic sensibilities of Star Wars, it likely has to do with her obscure family background), and they don't overshadow the skills or significance of the other characters — much like Luke didn't steal the entire show from Han Solo, way back when.

Speaking of Han…

The Death of Han Solo

My own reaction to the major climax of the film was mixed. On the one hand, Han was my favourite hero in the original trilogy (I always found Luke boring, and Leia took too much of a background role) and I'm sad to see him out of the story so early in the new trilogy. On the other hand, his death makes perfect narrative sense. It nails home that Kylo has now fallen so completely to the Dark Side (despite his earlier struggles with the "temptation of the Light") that he's capable of cold-blooded patricide — murdering a beloved character, no less.

Given that the films are primarily about the new characters, it's entirely to be expected that the old ones have to be relegated to background roles — and Han is the only one who has no appropriate background role to fill. It's entirely suitable for Leia to be a strategist leading from the background, much like Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar did in the original movies. Luke can take on the role of a teacher, training Rey like he was once trained by Yoda and Obi-Wan. The nonhuman characters were already background characters, and there's little chance of Chewbacca stealing the spotlight from Rey, Finn and Poe given we need a human (or protocol droid) around to even understand what he's saying. On the other hand, there is no appropriate background role for Han.

He's not exactly a politician, and now that we're on the subject of politics…

Space Politics by Other Means

One flaw that bothered me was that the film never really gave any explanation about the politics of this particular Galactic era. The original trilogy was easy enough to follow: There was a powerful, authoritarian evil Empire, and there was a secret, organized resistance movement against it — basically the Galactic-scale version of the situation in 1940s Nazi-occupied Europe. In The Force Awakens, we get nearly no idea about what the First Order is. Remnants of the Empire? A new faction emulating the Empire? We're never told. What we are told is that they're pure evil, in a cringe-inducingly ham-fisted reenactment of a Hitler speech, courtesy of General Hux.

We also never get to learn much about the Republic, or the Resistance, or what relation either of them had to the Rebel Alliance. I think that the Republic is the government created by the Rebel Alliance after the events of Return of the Jedi, and that it's giving aid to an internal resistance faction that has arisen within the territories held by the First Order. But given that the First Order seems to be basically a reincarnation of the Empire and an oppressive power with no qualms about mass murder, I'm very confused why the Republic only lends semi-clandestine support to an internal resistance movement, rather than launching an outright military attack.

Also, what is it that's destroyed in the inaugural mass murder festival of Starkiller Base? It seems that it's supposed to be "The Republic" (and another reviewer therefore identifies its destruction as "the most significant atrocity ever seen in the Star Wars universe"), but that makes no sense. The Republic of the prequels and the Empire of the originals were both Galactic-scale civilizations, and what Starkiller Base destroys is clearly a single solar system. On the scale of Star Wars, a single-system civilization is provincial, not a major player. Perhaps it was the Republic Senate or other ruling body. We're never told.

Inconvenient Plot Conveniences

I didn't much like the final crescendo leading up to Han's death in Starkiller Base, because it made the First Order seem incompetent, and that demeans the heroes' efforts in outwitting them. It rather closely mirrored the sequence in A New Hope where Luke, Han and Obi-Wan sneak through the Death Star to rescue Leia and face off with Vader. Unfortunately, all the suspense and tension from that scene, I think, was gone. In The Force Awakens, our heroes arrive at Starkiller Base by virtue of Han's absurd superhuman piloting skills alone, wander into the base, and bump into Rey by random chance in a facility the size of a planet. The final act of sabotage seems almost effortless — right up until they meet Kylo, and Han confronts him. Until that scene, most of the sequence seemed oddly "by the book".

In contrast, the largely-similar sequence in A New Hope was intense. Luke and Han frequently encountered Stormtroopers, and each faceoff seemed seriously risky. The trash compactor scene had Indiana Jones-like levels of making-it-by-a-hair's-breadth. Obi-Wan managing to get past armies of Stormtroopers unnoticed before his final confrontation with Vader seemed more like testament to the old Jedi Master's formidable abilities than like plot-convenient coincidence.

Verdict

On the Star Wars quality scale, I place it somewhere between Return of the Jedi and A New Hope. It's definitely better than all the prequels, and it's definitely not as good as The Empire Strikes Back.

I recommend watching it at least twice. There's a lot of detail that's easily missed the first time, and I personally liked it better the second time.

 
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