Monday, December 28, 2015

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens': Good, But Didn't Trust Its Instincts


I've never made any secret of my ambivalence about Star Wars. When I first encountered the films as an eight year old, I liked them well enough. I even dressed up as Leia in her combat gear from the Battle of Endor for Halloween that year.* But I never really got into them. Not like I got into Lord of the Rings, which basically consumed my soul for six years and had me learning high elvish and memorizing obscure facts. I never got that way with Star Wars. The extended universe did nothing for me, and the prequels didn't help.

So upon hearing that Lucasfilm was finally going to get around to making more Star Wars movies, I wasn't really overjoyed. Not unhappy, for sure, but not thrilled. Just sort of meh. While the rest of the world (including all my fellow Crossover Appeal hosts) lost their collective shit over this new movie, I was sitting back and waiting to figure out what to make of it. Which is to say, thank you for being patient. I have now reached a verdict:

It's pretty good.

I know this isn't the rapturous response that you might have wanted to hear, or the vicious but hilarious takedown some of the rest of you were hoping for, but this is my honest opinion. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is pretty good. Not amazing, not spectacular, but fun and good and a solid Star Wars experience. 

There's a lot of good groundwork here. So much stuff is done incredibly well, and the characters they've set up for the rest of the series are ones I look forward to following. There was also stuff that was handled not so well, characters and allusions that made my eyes roll and my heart disengage. So overall I have to say that it was pretty good. It could have been better, but it also definitely could have been worse.

[SPOILERS from here on out.]

It's very hard to make a good sequel. The more time that has elapsed, the more beloved and "important" the story, the more cultural expectation attached, the hard it's going to be to make an even halfway decent sequel. And if ever there was a movie with a whole lot of baggage attached, it's this one. So it's really not surprising that in making a sequel to one of the most beloved film franchises of all time, JJ Abrams got some stuff right and some stuff wrong.

We'll start with the good. In this case, the best thing that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has going for it is the new characters. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) - and even BB-8 - are all precious lambs who I immediately fell in love with. There's a progressive bent to each of them, a way in which they are heroes for our new millennium, which I adore. Two men of color and a white woman who doesn't need their help but wants their friendship. These are heroes I'm happy to let my potential future children grow up watching, who I know will set good, compassionate examples.

I mean, each of them individually is a fantastic character, and taken together they're almost overwhelmingly lovely. Yes, it's brilliant that the protagonist of this series is a woman, but it's even more brilliant that she's such a complex and endearing woman. Rey is exactly the kind of mythic hero that Luke Skywalker was, not watered down or fetishized in any way. Her backstory is tragic, but she's a sweet and kind person in spite of it. She's crazy powerful with the Force. She's adorable and licks her plate. She can fly the Millennium Falcon on her first try. She thinks rain is magical.

Rey is a wonderful character, and while I can hear the baiting cries that she's nothing more than a Mary Sue, I beg all of you to disregard them. Rey is exactly as much a Mary Sue as Luke was, and I see nothing wrong with that. She's the special-est special to ever special, but gosh darn it, it couldn't have happened to a nicer girl. And there's something so lovely in having her be the one taking the lead, walking Finn through what it means to be a person. She doesn't need anyone to hold her hand, but after the initial frustration, she doesn't seem to mind it either. 

Rey is neither fiercely and psychotically independent (like so many other "strong female characters"), nor is she weak and cringing and dependent on her male friends. She is a whole person, with facets and quirks, and I love that. 

Also we got through her storyline with nary a shoehorned romance or inexplicable scene of nudity, so let's all rejoice on that one.

Then there's Finn, the cinnamon roll we didn't know to hope for. Finn is an interesting case because of how he so completely subverts our expectations about soldiers, masculinity, and race. I mean, sure, this is all taking place in a galaxy far far away, but our prejudices tend to linger with us there. It would have been very easy for the film to make Finn a caricature of himself. He's a strapping young black man who was raised since childhood to be a mindless killer for a genocidal regime. This could have gone full Beasts of No Nation. But it doesn't. Instead, Finn is an exploration in humanity and what is left behind when all of it gets stripped away.

According to this movie and Finn's characterization, what's left behind is a precious lamb who deserves all of the hugs. More seriously, what Finn personifies is the human desire for connection and recognition. Finn's an amazing hero precisely because he's so open about what he's feeling all the time. He's not fronting. He tells himself out loud to be calm. He holds Rey's hand not for her sake but for his own. 

He has no idea what he's doing, and he admits that pretty easily. Finn's value as a hero is in his humility and emotional honesty. It's refreshing to see a character like him raised up as the new hero of the rebellion. A young man of color who is fighting for the right thing, who might want to run away but always comes back, and who isn't ashamed of his feelings. Hell yes.

And finally we've got Poe Dameron, the most emotionally secure person in the galaxy it seems like. What makes Poe distinctive and amazing is how he manages to be a sort of carefree wisecracker and also a sensitive, emotionally intelligent man at the same time. He's snarky and sassy, but it's not coming out of insecurity. I mean, basically Poe seems like a genuinely happy person, which is bizarrely rare in an action movie. He's a man who really isn't haunted by his past. He likes people immediately and intensely. After all, it's only the second time he's ever seen Finn when he tells the guy to keep his prized leather jacket, the one that source material tells us Poe got for becoming a pilot in the first place.

Poe is kind and generous and funny and sweet and not at all what you expect when you explain his character as the "best pilot in the Resistance". He's not cocky. He's just...good. This too is valuable. Poe is an exemplary figure as a man with nothing to prove to anyone. He has no chips on his shoulders, he's just trying to do the right thing. I love that. I want more of that. I'm so happy Poe is going to be in the rest of the movies as well.

But here is where my praise starts to turn a bit. While there are other bright spots in the film - Captain Phasma is fantastically intimidating and scary, BB-8 is adorable without being obnoxious, and Jessika Pava needs more screen time - what unfortunately didn't work for me in this movie was just about everything else. Except Maz. I really liked Maz.

The real issue I had with this film was that it felt a bit too committed to making its audience nostalgic for the first Star Wars films. It was everywhere. From the sweeping John Williams score coming in to make us nostalgic about Han and Leia to the visual call-backs to episode four to the constant and unrelenting insistence that everything in this film be wrapped up in Skywalker family drama, the big problem for me in this movie was its reluctance to do its own thing.

Or, to put it another way that's going to make you all hate me, the biggest problem with this movie was Han Solo.

Before you start auto-addressing your hate mail, hear me out. By bringing Han into the story so early on, it kills the momentum that Rey and Finn have on their own with their own adventures. Bringing Han into the plot essentially means bringing in a character to say, "The adults are here. It's all fine. We'll fix it now." 

The issue with this from a storytelling standpoint is that it takes the pressure off of our heroes. With Han in the picture and his considerably larger knowledge of the galaxy, Rey and Finn don't actually have anything to do. There's no reason why they should stay in the story at all. Pressure is good and important in a plot - it's necessary for the plot to feel important. When Han shows up the pressure is off and therefore the plot goes into a freefall.

This is of course not even mentioning the fact that Harrison Ford didn't seem particularly invested in his acting in this film. The first five minutes of his appearance on screen are great, but they quickly fade into the realization that Ford isn't giving the character the oomph he needs to make the emotional scenes land. As a result, his moments with Leia and Kylo Ren really fall flat. So from both a storytelling standpoint and an acting one, I think the biggest problem with the film is Han Solo - his arc makes our heroes irrelevant and fails to achieve the emotional punch it was going for, all while slowing down the pace and tension of the rest of the film. A lot less Han would have gone a lot longer way.

Similarly, Leia's appearances fell far short of what we were promised, though in her case I'm less inclined to blame the actress and more inclined to blame the script. Despite being set up as the General in charge of the Resistance, we never get to see Leia in this capacity. Instead, every scene where we actually see Leia for a significant amount of time is actually about the men in her life and her emotional relationships. 

Either she's reconnecting with Han or insisting they search for Luke or lamenting the loss of her son. Leia doesn't get any badass command moments, which is a problem when we've set her up as a woman who buried her grief with duty. You can't just say that and not show it. 

Then, of course, there's Kylo Ren, who just fails to hit the bar for a compelling bad guy. There are a lot of ways that Ren (Adam Driver) falls short of our hopes and wishes as a villain, but I would argue that the real problem with his character is the narrative's choice to keep his parentage a secret twist for later in the movie. While the twist is shocking and well done, what it does is leave you wondering for the rest of the movie what the hell is this guy's problem. Because we don't know what Leia and Han are so sad about and also what Ren's damage is, we aren't able to get particularly emotionally invested in either issue. The revelation is later in the movie than it ought to be. 

I would also argue that a large part of the problem with Ren's "scariness" is his hair. Yes, that's a weird statement, but hear me out. When Ren first takes off his helmet and reveals that he isn't a twisted husk of a thing hiding behind his breathing assistance, the big thing that strikes you is how clean he looks. While Ren is being set up as a man on the brink of a full psychotic break, his hair is shiny and fluffy and way the hell nicer than mine is most of the time. What this does is visually signify that Ren, though unstable, is at least capable of taking care of himself and conditioning, which means he can't be that badly off.

As a result, his later emotional turmoil feels hollow. We have no real visual signifiers that Ren is conflicted and about to go off the deep end. While you could argue that using hygiene as an indicator of mental health is discriminatory and wrong, I think it's important to have some identification early in the movie about Ren's emotional turmoil. His hair is the most logical place to show that. Imagine if he'd taken off his helmet and underneath he was sweaty and gross, hair all chopped up or all matted and snarled. Much scarier, right?

But this is side-dressing. The real point I'm making here is that while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a good movie, it didn't seem to trust itself to make a movie worth watching without hammering on our nostalgia strings. It feels like this film set up all the pieces it needed in order to tell an epic adventure and then just chickened out at the last minute and let the grownups take over. As a result, the film feels loose and badly plotted. Not a lot happens and the stakes are either pitifully low or so high as to be hard to emotionally fathom. 

We don't need bigger and scarier weapons for the bad guys and more wisecracking humans to take them down, we need emotional sincerity and a plot that actually commits. If you're going to tell a story about two middle-aged parents trying to rescue their son, do it. If you're telling a coming of age epic about two lost orphans learning how to be heroes, then tell that story. But don't try to do both and do neither by accident.

So is this Star Wars movie good? Sure. But it could have been better, and I sincerely hope that the next one will be.


*Yes, I still have the pictures, and, yes, they are painfully adorable.

13 comments:

  1. This one's one of our rare disagreements, because I love this film to bits (in fact, I prefer it to the originals). Not entirely unreservedly, though. You started with the good, I'll start with the bad.

    The real issue I had with this film was that it felt a bit too committed to making its audience nostalgic for the first Star Wars films.

    My main criticism would be that the plot is essentially a greatest hits album of the original triliogy. Partly, that's a good palatte cleanser from the prequels, but it's still an album we have. Likewise, I'm of the school of thought that thinks the characters slot pretty well into niches of the old films' - Rey as the Luke, Finn as the Han,* Poe as a combo Leia/Wedge, Han as the Obi-Wan...

    * By which I mean the one who's not invested in a struggle against the First Order until he starts to put specific faces onto their generic "threat to people" nature; most specifically Rey's.


    Or, to put it another way that's going to make you all hate me, the biggest problem with this movie was Han Solo.
    ...
    Similarly, Leia's appearances fell far short of what we were promised, though in her case I'm less inclined to blame the actress and more inclined to blame the script.


    I see what you mean about the implication of Han's appearance (and hadn't thought of it like that) - and agree that we didn't see enough of Leia as leader - though I thought it was Harrison Ford who brought a better acting game than Carrie Fisher. However, Han did play into one of the things I liked best, which I'll get to in a bit. With Han comes Chewie, of course, and I thought this film was Chewie's finest hour: for the first time, a script treated him as Han's partner and equal instead of sidekick and extension.

    And the Starkiller base was a bit daft, as a super-duper-hubba-hubba Death Star. (Although given the Empire-cultish nature of the First Order, I do wonder if "we want a super-duper-hubba-hubba Death Star" was part of the in-setting reason for it).


    Then, of course, there's Kylo Ren, who just fails to hit the bar for a compelling bad guy.

    On the other hand, I think Kylo was done quite cleverly. Darth Vader became the iconic evil space knight the moment he stepped onto the screen. Whoever their evil Force user was, the question of how he would live up to Vader would loom large - so they made it the *character's* defining question - that he's essentially a Vader cultist, eager to live up to his predecessor's legacy, but doubtful of his ability. Until he finally commits the crime that Vader couldn't.

    Similarly, I like that he was held in barely concealed contempt by General Hux, in contrast to the genuine regard that existed between Vader and Tarkin.

    [As an aside: I am rather hoping that Snoke's hologram will turn out to be life-size]


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's weird. I love the fandom for this movie. I love the new characters. I can look at fanart and fanfiction and gifsets of them all day. But the actual movie? Meh. I like the idea of it more than I actually appreciate the execution here. But I really really like the idea.

      I am so on board for the idea of the new heroes fitting archetypes about the old heroes. I am particularly down for us all recognizing Poe as the new Leia, especially now that we have background information telling us that she was his hero growing up. I love that.

      Definitely agree about Chewie. He's finally starting to become his own character, which is about damn time. He's always been really interesting, even without the confounding idea that he fought in the Clone Wars with Yoda. More Chewie, please! I like that this film saw fit to give him his own narrative arc, even if it was rather small.

      I actually really like the idea of the First Order just trying to do everything the Empire did but bigger and more, so I think the Starkiller Base is interesting from a meta point of view, but not a storytelling one.

      I'm planning on doing a whole article on Kylo Ren at some point, so I'll refrain from blowing it all here, but basically, I see what you mean about the deeper implications and I agree. There's a lot of good material here. It's just that it didn't play. It doesn't work in the story and it makes the film feel cheap and weak. There was something missing that would have been required in order to make Kylo Ren the complex character he is but also a really menacing bad guy who can drive the plot. As it is, it doesn't live up to its potential.

      Delete
    2. In my head, I think of the Chewbacca from Revenge of the Sith as a different wookie with the same name.

      Delete
  2. We'll start with the good. In this case, the best thing that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has going for it is the new characters.

    Here, we agree. Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8 are all brilliant.

    Rey... Mary Sue, my ass. She's lived a hardscrabble existence scavanging for scrap to trade for food - of course she's good at a lot of stuff, because if she wasn't she'd be dead by now - compared to her, Luke's background was idyllic. That even ties into her rapid development in the Force - taking what she finds and making it useful had been the running them of her entire life (she's sort of a Mad Max Womble).

    Finn... Finn can be summed up by the fact that after disaster, his first thoughts are always of whomever he was with. He's a straight up earnestly good person. If he wanted to run, it was because he didn't think the First Order could be fought - and he didn't want to abandon his friend, he wanted to take her with him. He's an anti-Stormtrooper. But can he really be the only one who's broken conditioning, rather than just the only one who did so at a time when an avenue of escape also presented itself? I would love see Finn reach some other Stormtroopers and free them at some point.

    And something I like that crosses all the new characters is how much they like each other. Rey and Finn have their desperate dogfight in the Falcon, and reuinite with adorable gushing praise for one another. Finn and Poe are overjoyed to see each other again. Han takes to Rey, and less vocally Finn, in a way that his younger self probably wouldn't have. When Rey thanks the gang for coming after her on the Starkiller base, Chewie is quick to add that it was Finn's idea. They build each other up all the time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love the concept that Rey has been using the Force all along and is just now becoming aware of it. It's such a cool idea that we so rarely see in a female character. I'm all on board. Team Rey.

      There's this cool headcanon I read about how Finn is going to slowly become a symbol of the Resistance in the stormtrooper ranks and that there are going to be defections because of him, defectors who realize that if FN-2187 could break away then so can they.

      The level of sincere emotion in the film is definitely one of the big things it has going for it. I love that the main trio never tries to play it cool or aloof. That's appealing to me. The best parts of Star Wars, and any franchise, really, are always about building a community around your characters, so I think that's what this film does best.

      Delete
    2. here's a pretty common fan theory that Rey is a survivor of Luke's Jedi academy, left on Jakku after the rest were killed, and she's repressed the memory of it. I don't know if I hope that's true. But if it is, I hope a related theory is true, that it's Kylo Ren who left her there - at that stake of his career in evil, having balked at killing a five year old - because Jakku isn't the kind of place you leave someone to keep them safe, but it is the kind of place you might leave someone in the hopes they'll wind up dead without *you* having to do it.

      Exactly: I so want Finn to inspire and lead a rebellion. It validates his heart, follows on from the ways they've been humanising the stormtroopers, and would be a different sort of redemption story than Vader's was.

      There's a neat real world bit about community. A really cringey interview with Harrison Ford in Empire, where among other things, the interviewer wanted anecdotes of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega treating Ford with awed reverence, and Ford wasn't having it. He was working on the film, they were working on the film, ergo they were his peers. (Though he did say they were polite in the ways you're supposed to be polite to old people).

      Delete
  3. I agree that Kylo Ren is a weaker spot in the film. I could get over his fluffy hair if only he were good at a being bad. The guy got owned in three light saber duels with untrained opponents! and spent two scenes showing us his internal conflict. Weak sauce.

    If a bad guy is gonna be a BAD, they have to do some damage. They have to kill a mentor or take a hand off your best friend.

    That's my $.02

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think with the internal conflict at least, part of the problem was that they brought it out too early. We needed time to really fear him before getting that he was unhinged because he was struggling with himself. That would have made it scarier.

      Delete
    2. I disagree that he got owned. He'd been shot by Chewie - then ended up against Finn, who if "Traitor!"-guy is anything to go by is melee trained, and was wounded again before beating him - and then Rey who was managing to centre herself right about the time blood loss would have been threating to make Kylo pass out. I don't think losing reflects particularly badly on him.

      If he does win a rematch with Rey, which seems likely at some point, I'm hoping he scars her face. Another lost hand seems repetetive, and it also seems like the kind of revenge he'd take.

      (Plus that's a kind of maiming we rarely see in heroines).

      I wonder what the other Ren knights are like too.

      Delete
  4. I also agree with your end conclusion, of good, but not epic. I loved it visually. I felt like it stayed really true and authentic to the original feel and look of episodes 4-6. I really liked the introduction to Rey's character, she seemed capable and obviously had a backstory that got me excited to find out what had happened to her.
    I didn't really ever believe Finn's character. He was brainwashed and conditioned as a child for war and to take orders, and then on the other side you get this sensitive, sweet, simple guy? What were his motives? His training had to have included exposure to war, and killing, and death his whole childhood, which if he'd decided to back out of that way of life would have built an incredibly complex character with intentionality in his decision. In his scenes he looks like some naive kid who got thrust into war, has no idea what how to handle himself, or the death of his friend, and sort of accidentally, impulsively decides to escape.... not plausible. He must have experienced death his whole childhood, and he would be incredibly adept at masking his true feelings in order to escape notice as non-conforming up to that point. I mean, I love truley GOOD characters, but in his case, I just didn't believe him and could not figure out any inciting incident that propelled him to make the choice he did. The massacred village could not have been a new experience for him...
    I actually enjoyed Han Solo's appearance, as I thought I probably laughed the most at his lines and interactions, but I can totally see, from a story standpoint he upstaged the new main characters we were supposed to be invested in. The new characters story fell flat for me, and I think looking back, it was probably about the time Hans Solo entered the picture. Also, I totally did not see any moment between Han and Rey that made their connection believable... and also felt like the chemistry between Han and Leia was non-existent. They loved each other, and after that much time apart, their was almost no reaction between them about their own relationship. No anger, no rekindled chemistry. It was like they were just old acquaintances who ran into teacher other and happened to have a common mutual character they cared about. It was kind of weird and broke the fourth wall a little for me actually. I was like, "Oh, these are two actors who have this scene they need to do together...ok."
    I actually saw the Kylo Ren is Han and Leia's son thing pretty early on, so it didn't feel like a twist. I mean that twist was already done in the first set of movies so it was obvious that's what was happening, especially as the whole story was pretty much recycled and just put different characters in the roles... I enjoy the Hero's Journey plotting tool, love it actually, but their are creative ways to keep that as the structure and still make it interesting and different.
    Anyway, I could go on and write a whole new blog post underneath your blog post lol ...but I'll end with. Visually I thought it was beautiful to look at, I was interested in Rey as a main character, but the movie lost interest in her story, and didn't give me enough somehow. I was sad when they killed off Han, cause he made me laugh, and I'm pretty sure I snorted when Kylo was revealed. Not scary. Didn't feel the tension of our characters going up against him cause he seemed wimpy and uncommitted. But enjoyed the movie enough overall that I will probably go see the next one. I hope Poe will be the next funny guy to add in humor since Han is gone. I felt Poe seemed really natural and fun to watch, even in the few glimpses we get of him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think with Finn a lot of the problem is how they didn't have time to tell his story well enough for it to make sense. Because we spend so much time doing a Greatest Hits of the original trilogy, there isn't time anywhere outside the novelization and external materials to get into why Finn broke then (because the stormtrooper who dies in his arms was from his squad and he'd known him his entire life and was functionally his brother). So definitely a plot-allocation fail. If we'd spent less time with storylines that don't matter, we could have really gotten into this.

      There definitely wasn't as much passion in the Han/Leia interaction as we've come to expect from them, especially considering the circumstances of their reunion. It was like the filmmakers wanted us to bask in the feelings without having to question them or puzzle them out, which I don't appreciate. I would rather have them at odds and then have Han's death be all the more tragic after.

      Someone is secretly someone else's family member is a twist that has been driven into the ground by now. That's why I actually hope that in the end the big reveal about Rey's parents is that they weren't at all related to the plot. Like they were just some random people and it's not a mystery at all. That is what I want.

      I do agree. The visuals were stunning and Rey is fantastic. :DDD

      Delete
  5. So also, because it is you Debbie... I do know the difference between their and there... autocorrect maybe? Not sure how that happened, but I am typing on a tablet lol

    ReplyDelete