Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Dec/152

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Years after Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia Organa destroyed the second Death Star their efforts at rebuilding the galaxy have been met with hostility.  The remaining shreds of the Empire has formed The First Order while the Republic-backed Resistance continues the fight.  With Skywalker missing, the fate of the universe falls on the hands of two unlikely heroes with some old friends helping along the way.  J.J. Abrams directs The Force Awakens from a screenplay written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt, and an ensemble cast led by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley.

Blue on blackSo I’ll start us off with the admission that having not ever been a huge Star Wars fan, I was surprisingly excited for The Force Awakens (and only a good half of that was due to Adam Driver, which I want to return to later). J.J. Abrams mobilized the nostalgia machine pretty impressively leading up to the release, and he did so in a way that not only pulled at Star Wars fans' hopes that the new movie would be a "return to form," but also made it seem like we might genuinely get at least a vague cultural hint of the sense of discovery that made the originals so significant.

I saw The Force Awakens at 10:30 on Thursday night, and I was glad to see it with such a crowd in part because it helped me contextualize my reaction (which was mostly cynical boredom)—this whole series is, now, at a point where "fan service" is its reason for existing. A franchise that has such culturally loaded value, the very nature of its nostalgia for many, doesn't really need to reinvent itself. This is a well-made movie that hits all the notes one should expect, that sets up sequels without completely undermining itself as a whole unit (though that's something else I want to return to later, less favorably than Driver), that's perfectly fun for those who want something new but that reminds them of what they love about the original trilogy (which now exists as a single continuous film in a lot of ways), and that will seem pretty hollow to those not so invested.

I was not so invested initially, so I felt like I was watching an expensive, competently fan-made "reboot" of A New Hope. Definitely not something worth getting mad or upset about, but it did act as a kind of reminder of just how fully we've moved into the franchise Hollywood stage. This was an ok movie that could have been a lot better, and that step up to something better would have relied on A) a little less reliance on empty pandering, and B) more fully developing the evolved lore of a familiar universe—lore that's clearly been thought about behind the scenes, but that's positioned almost clinically in the film to ensure it's rationed appropriately for the next two installments.

That said, there are things here that make me (again surprisingly) interested in the 8th movie, plus Rian Johnson.A grand assemblyYou hit on what surprised me so much about the secrecy behind A Force Awakens' plot. Disney, Abrams, and the rest of the cast have dealt out details so slowly fans were going insane with links when Abrams said the second word of dialogue. Now that I've seen A Force Awakens it seems they didn't want to reveal the plot not so much because of its surprises, but because it's - as you put it - a "reboot" of A New Hope. Considering fans have brayed for Lucas' blood since he digitally altered the originals and "refused" to release the originals (still available on millions of VHS' worldwide if you feel so inclined) the construction of The Force Awakens struck me as cowardly.

Aside from splitting up the Luke Skywalker role into Finn and Rey (with a touch of the others for flavor) The Force Awakens hits almost the same beats with roughly the same characters. But there's no sense of alien wonderment, no surprises, and no risks taken with the material. What was really odd to me was how the few aliens our protagonists interact with spoke in easy-to-understand English and had relatively humanoid features. Rey speaks with a trader who speaks in English whereas in the prequels we had races speaking their own tongues, and when Finn interacts with Maz Kanata (a wasted Lupita Nyong'o) she imparts advice about the Force with all the matronly charm of a nun in less memorable garb.

It's safe, straightforward, black and white, good and evil - and totally boring. Say what you will about the prequels, but there was little "safe" about them, and while there's a case to be made about the negatives of their presentation they weren't all crammed into Anglicized dealers of wisdom and / or mild opposition. Maz Kanata is the worst example of this as she's little more than an orange Yoda and certainly not weird enough to warrant the "don't stare" from Solo but, aside from Finn and Rey, all the characters suffer from the same affliction of stale familiarity. Oscar Isaac is saddled with dialogue and dress sense which makes him Han Solo 2.0, Adam Driver is equal parts Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker, and the supporting bad guys are all-bluster takes on the cool commanding officers of the Empire like Grand Moff Tarkin (putting it politely, Domnhall Gleeson is no Peter Cushing).

If the other films are as safe as this then basically we'll have another Avengers franchise only with slightly better filmmakers at the helm.

Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren with an unpredictable streak of anger and desperate desire to be taken seriously as evil which gives The Force Awakens what little edge it has.

Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren with an unpredictable streak of anger and desperate desire to be taken seriously as evil which gives The Force Awakens what little edge it has.

Kyle Indifferent ThumbprintThe lack of any wonder or sense of a fully developed (and developing) world off-frame was what disappointed me the most, in part because the elements—of a larger conflict brewing, of a shifted political landscape, of characters who've evolved based on deep-seated wounds from and since the original films—are all there in The Force Awakens. They're just meted out with clinical precision. The movie follows a rhythm of fan service – hint at lore/larger mysterious contexts – plot detail – repeat. Since the moments of fan service can only carry so much weight and the plot is the same as 2/3 of the original trilogy, they needed to lean harder on what was new rather than treating these moments as vague suggestions of things to come.

A lot of discussion of those elements would involve what minimal spoilers you could actually reveal in The Force Awakens, but one of them that I want to at least mention is Driver's Kylo Ren. He is one of the only aspects of The Force Awakens where, for me, the blatant combining and repurposing of previous films worked to their advantage. As you said, he's piecemealed together from prequels’ Anakin and originals’ Vader, and the film presents him directly as such: he's from the same family line, going through essentially the same light/dark struggle. The interesting thing here is that he's presented as consciously pushing himself into that conflict—by making him an inversion of the "fight against the dark side" trope (he’s fighting against being “pulled toward the light”) and giving him a strangely articulated fan-boy-esque compulsion to follow in a previous iconic villain's footsteps, Abrams and Kasdan pulled a nice hat trick. They get a shameless Darth Vader ripoff who's trying to be a Vader ripoff.

That Driver plays him as someone motivated by a perverse need to prove himself—he seems one step away from shrilly screaming "I'm a bad guy too" in later scenes—and whose menace extends less from his power than his lack of control and total psychological instability was far and away the most interesting thing about the movie for me. The problem is that a lot of these scenes seem disconnected—they're engaging with the pre-existing Star Wars mythology about the force and the Skywalker family, but the rest of the movie seems to want to keep any actual engagement with that mythology at a safe distance. Considering that The Force Awakens has no purpose or value outside of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon this is a baffling decision.

Andrew Indifferent ThumbprintThe way the bits of Ren's lineage played out were so heavy-handed I felt a thunk on the screenplay. Solo gets to have the reveal where he says Ren is his son, then Leia and Solo engage in some of the flattest banter in the series where they reiterate - once again - Ren our son to a degree which would by hypnotic if it weren't so dull in its repetition. Really, any intrusion from the "old" to the "new" is where The Force Awakens begins to falter badly. Neither Carrie Fisher nor Harrison Ford carry the same spark their pairing did over thirty years ago. You can attribute some of that to them being estranged lovers for awhile now, but even with that consideration they both feel like they're going through the motions where Driver, John Boyega, and Daisy Ridley are trying to push fresh energy into the franchise with their performances.

I wasn't as appreciative of Driver as you but he and Ridley played off each other magnificently in their few scenes together. His pathetic attempt to "embrace the dark" was noticeably repelled by Ridley's natural charismatic strength. I liked Boyega too, but if only because his front of confidence was a well-constructed response to the masculinity sometimes forced on the women of Star Wars. This isn't to say Star Wars is a franchise lacking in strong women but when Rey kept chastising Finn for grabbing her hand during their escape from Jakku I was delighted.

Jakku is also as good a place as every to also discuss the odd cinematic rhythm of The Force Awakens. Despite the environment looking so familiar it might as well be called "Not-Tatooine: A Totally Original Planet" Abrams is frequently left to his devices, doesn't have to consider old symbols interacting with new, and it's great for a spell. The shots of Rey scouring by herself and getting into one-way conversations with droids have a desolate beauty about them and underscore how little has changed in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. She easily leads the high point of The Force Awakens with the charmingly constructed BB-8.

But this follows the drastically opening where the shaky camera and poor electrical work in the lighting as the Stormtroopers land made me think Kathryn Bigelow was hired for second unit work and was trying to make Zero Dark Jedi. Then when Abrams overdid the images it was laughably bad - like the blood mark on Finn's Stormtrooper helmet, the Starkiller which can take out five planets instead of one, or the surprisingly dull X-Wing intervention at the end. I loved the climactic lightsaber duel with the way it called back to Revenge of the Sith with the planet itself coming apart as Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren fought. But the high points of isolation, away from the mythos, made the overdone "reboot" bits all the more flat.

The early and quiet moments on Jakku are filled with a sense of patience, discovery, and wonder missing from the rest of The Force Awakens.

The early and quiet moments on Jakku are filled with a sense of patience, discovery, and wonder missing from the rest of The Force Awakens.

Kyle Indifferent ThumbprintI didn't have a whole lot of love for the opening parts on Jakku aside from the raw visuals, which had a hint of the awe we were both missing throughout - but I do agree Ridley brought some significant force to her character. More time spent in the desert before she and Finn dart off into space could have provided some additional texture to the universe that was badly needed, but instead they jumped straight into the first of many "we're telegraphing 'twists' for the sequels" moments by inserting some mystery about the parents/family that abandoned her. This feels at first like a clunky way of very quickly tacking on emotional baggage and establishing hollow significance for her first journey away from home, and then it gets revisited later in a flashback that I'm sure we'll see more of in the next movies.

To contextualize some of this in a slightly different way, I watched all three of the original movies before going to The Force Awakens (which may have been a mistake). It was probably only the second or third time I'd seen any of them the whole way through, and I was struck specifically by how little the movies were separated in my memory. I remembered a lot of the iconic moments clearly, but until I was actually watching them I wouldn't have been able to tell you how they fit into individual plot lines.

My point in mentioning this is twofold: first, A New Hope is not really that great of a movie. It's fun and considered historically super important, but also underwhelming as its own experience. When held against its (unfair) cultural status and expectations, it's a small, well-made B movie that had seeds for something greater. Second, extending from this the original trilogy is, I think, actually better viewed as a single unit—The Empire Strikes Back, for example, is very nearly a Mad Max-esque single action scene with tenuous grounding at the beginning and end, barely a coherent individual story and in the long run better for it. Disney knows this too, and that's why they're so carefully seeding future revelations and evolution in the mythology. The reason that's so frustrating is they're missing the fact that in order for the original trilogy to do this in Episodes 5 and 6, Episode 4 had to establish a compelling, mostly developed world with characters and conflicts that didn't stop at being mere sketches.

Andrew Indifferent ThumbprintHaving seen both the original and prequel trilogies a number of times I didn't feel it necessary to revisit before The Force Awakens.  Yet, I can't help but feel I would not have as many kind things to say about it as I do.  Finn and Rey are compelling, excellently acted, and backed by an army of filmmakers who want to see them grow.

I do too.  Rey, in particular, has the potential to become as driving a cultural presence as Furiosa.  But by miring them in the past, in particular that awful climactic shot where Ridley and Mark Hamill have a serious staring competition, all it does is underscore how The Force Awakens was never meant to stand alone.  It's a third of the new trilogy's storyline with so many spinoffs on the way it might end of being barely 10% of a new story.

I'm exhausted from this kind of film-making, though I shouldn't be surprised.  Disney's partnership with Marvel has stretched out the idea of "the climax is in the next film we swear" production that I have little faith any of the ideas presented in The Force Awakens will ever reach a satisfying conclusion.

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Tail - The Force AwakensStar Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Screenplay written by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt.
Starring John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, and Carrie Fisher.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I couldn’t disagree with this review more. “this whole series is, now, at a point where “fan service” is its reason for existing.” Completely disagree…I’m not a super fan, but I like the original trilogy, and I 110% loved The Force Awakens. Great analysis though 🙂

    • Glad you still took the time to comment Courtney. I disagree with Kyle there as Rey and Finn both represent radical changes in the philosophy for the Star Wars universe, but The Force Awakens still stumbled in incorporating the old with the new. However, with Rian Johnson handling the next one I hope it’ll lean more heavily on the new.


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