My wife and a friend saw this movie yesterday, seemingly among the last people on Earth that had not already seen it according to the box office. I was mostly pressured by our friend; it was not something I found myself urgently needing to see at normal ticket prices. Also, in general I don’t understand using theaters as a social event. I would much rather eat and socialize. It was particularly awkward because afterward my wife and I expressed our disgust with the movie, while our friend seemed to enjoy it. Just another potential pitfall of seeing a movie with friends.
Anyways, our friend is not alone in his praise of the film. It currently sits at above 90% on both critical and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes for instance and Star Wars fans seem generally pleased. I am of course floored at the response. Where has all the vitriol the prequels generated gone? This movie is at least as bad as Phantom Menace and a far sight worse than the other two prequels (which I enjoyed a good amount). Apparently “fans” just wanted a slavish rehash of the original trilogy (OT). George Lucas was apparently trying too hard by giving us a new story. Unoriginality is only a minor sin, however, the real problem is that J.J. Abrams has made a potemkin village out of the OT. Here are all the surface attributes of the films presented again but in a vastly inferior form. It ends up like a horrible parody rather than a comforting homage.
Now before I entered the film I had already read a few articles documenting the very strong parallels between the film and A New Hope. However, I was still surprised at just how closely it aped ANH with a few things thrown in from the rest of the OT. I am not sure how much it pays to rewrite what is written elsewhere in depth. I will just talk about some particularly bad ones here.
One that stuck out at me was that the three major planets in the film are a desert world (like Tatooine), a snow planet (like Hoth) and a jungle world (like Endor), so the imagery is not even new or exciting.
For the main Sith villains we have an unsightly and pale old guy (like Emperor Palpatine) and a young man that wears a a voice altering mask (like Darth Vader) but for no functional reason.
Many criticized the heavy-handed political exposition in The Phantom Menace, but it was an integral part of the storyline. The Force Awakens is so light on exposition that it never comes up with a plausible reason for why the universe is back to the status quo that presided at the beginning of A New Hope. We have something called the First Order (essentially the old Empire) that appears to be the foremost power in the galaxy and a scrappy under-powered Resistance (the Rebels). There is also an inchoate new Republic, but they are quickly eliminated in the film.
What happened after Return of the Jedi? Everything that was accomplished in the OT has been rendered moot. The Republic is so ineffectual that they allow the remnants of the Empire to build a new Death Star in secret. Yes, they built a new superweapon inside a planet and nobody noticed. It’s also never clearly explained how the Resistance and the Republic are connected or why there is need of a Resistance in a galaxy where the Empire was defeated and a new Republic exists.
Speaking of the Death Star, did we really just recycle this superweapon for a third time in the same series? They destroyed it in Force Awakens in an unholy mashup of ANH and RotJ. Here there is a vent (ANH) that is the weakpoint that someone eventually flies into with a ship to destroy the weapon from the inside (RotJ). Let us not forget the ridiculous “planning” meeting where the Resistance, who are again caught entirely unaware of a planet-sized weapon, conjure up a scheme for its destruction in less than five minutes. Recall that in ANH, the heroes at least had to secure vital intelligence about the Death Star for the Rebels in order to enact its destruction. Not so here, the First Order leaves the same vulnerability and the Resistance knows exactly how to exploit it. There is no feeling of dread around this weapon like the original Death Star. It’s just another checkbox on the list of things they need to copy from the OT.
The new weapon makes even less sense. It is built in a planet (why?) and it needs to eat suns to power itself. The original Death Star was quite capable of destroying planets without eating suns, so what is the point of this new one? Also eating suns seems like a pretty horrific superweapon by itself. They should just have left it at that.
Apart from the Death Star, there are other examples of inept handling of familiar plot events. For instance, once again Han Solo leads a team to disable shield generators on the Death Planet’s surface (ANH and RotJ). In the OT these are tense sequences in the heart of the enemy stronghold. Here, the heroes literally just waltz in with little fuss. In fact the entire place is very empty, until just after Han’s death where Stormtroopers suddenly appear out of thin air.
Speaking of Han’s death, this was a pale imitation of the power of the Kenobi and Vader meeting in ANH. There the meeting is pregnant with all the shared history of master who feels he failed his apprentice. Here we have a father meeting his fallen son, which is not a terrible premise. However, Kylo Ren is a terrible whiny character and we know of no fathomable reason why he is on the Dark Side (since, again, this movie eschews all exposition). Second, what is Han hoping to accomplish here? At best, Kylo relents and is then executed for his previous crimes? Why does this take place on a catway over a bottomless pit except as a nod to Empire Strike Back? The encounter of father and son is a potentially good one but the movie has given it no emotional heft. The reaction from the audience is not at a son killing his father, but of Han Solo, beloved character, dying. This means you did it wrong.
Before I move on to the new characters, I want to point out the piss poor plot. Essentially everyone wants a map that Luke Skywalker left as to his whereabouts (reminds me of the search for Yoda). Why did Luke leave anyway? Why did he leave a map to his location? Has he been waiting on the same planet for years looking forlornly out to sea in solitude on a rocky island? Why do they need him anyway? I feel like he is going to be an imitation of old Kenobi, because we needed another carbon copy of a character from ANH. Of course all of that is sidetracked for the last 1/3 of the film when a Death Star appears out of nowhere that the heroes need to blow up. Again everything just feels shoehorned in because the movie must retread every previous plot point.
I have also seen a lot of love for the new characters introduced. I don’t get it. Poe is barely in the film, so why the adoration? Finn has potential as a man fighting back against years of indoctrination by a horrible regime, but none of that is on display in the film. Mostly he sounds stupid a lot of the time, yelling obvious comments or inane questions and generally being fairly inept. If he is in Sanitation for the Death Planet then why was he with the soldiers massacring innocents at the beginning of the movie? Also he brings up a lot of inconsistencies about Stormtroopers. If they are clones of an elite bounty hunter and trained and indoctrinated from birth then why are they so ineffective?
The worst new characters are the two force users. Kylo Ren is so poorly drawn that nothing he does makes any sense. His temper tantrums are ridiculous shows of adolescent whining and are actually used for a slapstick moment. Filmmakers take note, don’t make your villains into the butt of jokes. Joss Whedon did it in Avengers to Loki and it undermined his effectiveness. Finally he shows himself to be woefully incompetent at every turn, even losing to Finn (a non-Jedi) and Rey (untrained force user) in the final battle with a terrible sloppy fighting style. All of this despite apparently besting Luke Skywalker and his Jedi already.
Finally, we come to the main character who will draw obvious comparison to Luke Skywalker. Rey has no personality. Luke Skywalker who is a cliche of the naive, ignorant boy pining for adventure and awed by much of what he sees at first. It is cliche, but it is an inherently enjoyable one. Rey in contrast, is already competent, is rarely surprised (some throwaway comment about a forest planet is about all we get) and has an inexplicable reclusive nature such that she wants to get back to Jakku. Rey is accused of being a Mary Sue because she is so damn good at everything. The problem is there is no explanation of where she acquired these skills. She appears to have been living alone eeking out a subsistence life from scavenging parts on a frontier world. Yet she knows advanced engineering and is highly proficient in spaceship piloting and melee combat. She knows the Millennium Falcon better than Han Solo after a few minutes. Somehow, she speaks a bunch of languages, including Wookie and droid. It takes her literally no training to use advanced force powers like Jedi mind tricks and she bests Kylo Ren in sword combat despite never wielding a lightsaber before.
Many concede she is a Mary Sue, but then point out that Star Wars is always full of Mary Sues. Strangely they use Luke to show this despite being a complete contrast. Luke is pretty incompetent for most of the first movie, even Stormtroopers are dangerous. When he gets some skills he gets a bit puffed up before Vader brings him low in the second movie. Even in the third movie he is the weakest of the known force users, triumphing not because of his skills alone. Yes he does defeat the Death Star in the first movie despite little piloting experience, but he did use the Force. Hitting a target accurately is a far more believable “use of the Force” than Rey using it to defeat Kylo Ren, who is also a Force user. The better example would be Anakin in The Phantom Menace who as a little boy is also an engineering and piloting genius like Rey. Except that I and almost everyone else hated him in the first movie for these very Mary Sue like qualities. I am sure Rey will develop more as Anakin did, but here she is boring.
A few other minor things bothered me about the film. The comedy almost always failed. The action scenes were pretty poor in general and further degraded by how similar they were to scenes in past Star Wars films. The final and only lightsaber battle in the film was a travesty with Kylo Ren lazily swinging around against untrained combatants. The makers of the film boasted about how they were using real props rather than CGI for many things, but the film looks pretty shoddy in places and the visuals have none of the imagination of the previous films and the prequels, despite their age, seem to be of better technical quality.
Finally, for whatever reason the Star Wars setting annoyed me far more in this movie than in prior movies or games. Everything from droids that don’t speak to the incongruity of desert hovel worlds with easy space travel bothered me. Nobody writes anything down apparently because Jedis are myths despite being a prominent organization for millenia up until very recently. I was always aware of the shoddiness of the Star Wars settings , but I could always excuse it in the face of a good movie. However, the Force Awakens is not a good movie. Apart from the above criticisms, it is hard to convey just how bad the movie is from moment. Almost nothing works here, from the utterly predictable plot to the vapid character interactions to the inert action sequences.
J.J. Abrams is a good director and a dedicated fan of Star Wars and yet in my opinion has tarnished the film franchise in way George Lucas could never have dreamed of.