Thinking Star Wars: How “The Force Awakens” Spent Too Much Energy On Emotion And Lost The Plot
A deep dive into a franchise changing hands and how it impacted the first Star Wars film in a post-George Lucas era
Star Wars is critic proof and everyone knows it. It would take a colossal failure of Death Star sized proportions to destroy the franchise; worse than anything we could possibly argue over in Episodes 1–3. This is a given and isn’t open to debate. Star Wars is also generational; what generation you fall in will skew how you look at the individual films.
I’m a first generation-er. I knew about the first Star Wars film well before — possibly a full year before — it came out. My fifth grade class would get these monthly Scholastic type mini magazines and on one page was a paragraph about this movie that was coming out months (or more) later and featured a picture of two guys in white plastic armor holding these big guns — Stormtroopers, obviously, but I didn’t know that at the time. So when May of 1977 came around I was there opening weekend. That was the first line I remember standing in — and back then lines were five hundred people deep, not like the piddly lines you get now because the theater is so small.
So, yeah…I’m an old school first-gen Star Wars guy. Saw it in ‘77 and another 70 or so times after that since the film played in some theaters for almost a year. I saw Empire Strikes Back opening day. Saw Return of the Jedi opening day. Seeing each film the first time was akin to a religious experience.
Yes, I’m one of those people…
Generations since who were raised on big budget effects-laden action flicks have no appreciation for what a game-changer Star Wars was. Oh, sure you can be told about it. You can read about it. You can appreciate it from those vantage points. But you never lived it so those facets of enjoyment, awe, and wonder that we experienced first hand will prove forever elusive to you.
JJ Abrams is my age so that should make him a first-gen-er, basked in the awe of experiencing Episodes 4, 5, and 6 when they first came out. And yet, watching The Force Awakens, you wouldn’t be sure of that.
Let me be clear at the outset — I liked The Force Awakens. I enjoyed the film very much. It held my attention. The effects were first rate.
Having said that, this film did not feel like a Star Wars film. It looked like one. But it came across to me as more of a technical exercise in extending the franchise than adhering to its heart.
To understand Star Wars’ heart you have to understand what George Lucas was doing back in 1977. He wasn’t making a science fiction film. He’d already done that with THX-1138. He was making a modern homage to the classic serial films of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s; a space fantasy with a galactic soap opera and a healthy dose of Akira Kurosawa thrown in. Think Flash Gordon (which Lucas originally tried to get the rights to before he came up with Star Wars). Think Zombies of the Stratosphere (which featured an early appearance by a certain pointy eared actor).
If you look at episodes 1–6, they all have that serial feel to them, right down to the blurry wipes used between big scene switches. There are cliffhangers galore with big sprawling vistas and strange sights aplenty.
This is where The Force Awakens fails as a Star Wars film while still succeeding overall as a film — it lacks that serial feel its predecessors had. The way this film is cut is different from its predecessors. This should not be surprising since Team Abrams was in charge of the edits and nobody involved in editing the first six films touched the scissors here. There are some of those old wipes present but their application is confusing in when they are and are not applied. There were times we should have gotten them and did not. In lieu of wipes the editors opted for either hard cuts (without a traditional-to-Star Wars vista pre-shot to set up the scene) or to lead the audio from the next scene so that it served as the transition point from one scene to the next. That lack of consistency disrupts the flow of the film.
There are at least two parts of the film where it looks like dialogue got cut out of the film. The first is when Han Solo, Chewbacca, Finn, and Rey split up off camera to get inside The First Order complex in order to plant their bombs. The second is when we jump to a shot of Rey and Leia holding hands before Rey departs on the Millennium Falcon and Leia says, “May The Force be with you.” Both scenes play out like an editing decision was made to drop dialogue and/or narrative from the film.
That shouldn’t happen. If a scene gets chopped up you shouldn’t be able to tell it’s been chopped up. The only way you should know something got cut is if you read about it. Sure enough, my intuition was accurate. Both of the above mentioned scenes did get trimmed, one pretty seriously. There may be valid reasons for such trimming but the viewer should never be on to the fact that something got trimmed just by watching the film.
The film makes an egregious miscalculation at the end. The last shots of the film are of Rey climbing up the side of the island’s peak to meet a hooded character who turns around and reveals himself to be Luke Skywalker, who we have heard being talked about the entire film but had not seen until then. She offers him his lightsaber. Not a word is spoken. End of film.
This is a classic TV style cliffhanger ending. It is not, however, a classic movie ending.
In TV you can get away with this type of ending. You can literally leave things frozen in time for a week until the next episode, or a few months until the next season if it’s a season ending cliffhanger, and then pick right back up at that point you left off at when the next episode airs. It’s been done repeatedly in TV. It’s not done much in film. It’s generally frowned upon as a cheap gimmick.
More to the point, it’s never been done in any Star Wars film. That’s not how Star Wars films flow. That’s not how they end. Oh sure, at the end of Episode 5, we don’t know what’s become of the frozen-in-Carbonite Han Solo and we’re still coming to terms with the idea that Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker. Both of those storylines haunted us poor film-going bastards for three freaking years (back then it took longer to turn these films around and get the next one out).
But, we didn’t have Han freeze and then have the film end. We didn’t have have Vader say, “No, I am your father” and then cut to the credits. We didn’t have Darth Maul get killed by Obi-Wan and then immediately end the film. Lucas would never strand his audience like that. It’s bad film flow. Instead, he’d keep the film going a bit longer and guide it towards a softer landing. The cliffhangers would still be intact but the audience doesn’t go away feeling cheated.
This is why having Mark Hamill reveal himself to the audience in the final few frames of the film is the ultimate cheat and betrayal of everything Star Wars held dear: it not only screws the audience in this film, it’s going to screw them in the next film as well.
Consider what we were deprived of at the end of The Force Awakens…
- Luke’s reaction to Rey’s appearance.
- Luke’s reaction to seeing his lightsaber.
- Luke’s reaction to the death of Han Solo as Rey explains how she got here.
- Luke’s reaction to…well…ANYTHING!
Butbutbutbutbut…you say…we’ll get that in the next film.
Ahhhh…but will we?
Consider the format of the Star Wars open; the logo splashes on the screen followed by the film title and the three or four paragraphs of narrative. That narrative sets up everything that happens at the beginning of the film.
But how do you make that work when you need to pick up immediately right where you left off in the previous film? You need to pick up where you left off because you stranded your audience there. They’re expecting a reaction from Luke and you left them dangling. You owe your audience that reaction from Luke. Han Solo, who was his closest friend at one time, just got killed by a Sith wannabe…
Yeah…the Star Wars fans are owed that reaction scene. They deserve it. It would constitute one of the film’s money shots.
But given what happened with The Force Awakens, now you can only do that shot if you use the opening crawl to rehash everything up to the point Rey takes out the lightsaber, which destroys the whole purpose of the crawl in the first place. You absolutely cannot under any circumstances have Rey not reveal it immediately and instead wait for days to spring the news upon Luke. That would constitute horribly stupid plotting (“Oh yeah…Luke did I mention that Han Solo got killed by his son? I forget.”).
Your other alternatives are scrap the rolling crawl which would be totally not Star Wars on a scale that even the most devout fans, who play dress up and ravenously unquestionably consume anything with the word Jedi in it, would recoil in horror. Or, you move to some future point in time after the very end of the last film.
That’s what I think is going to happen. Having written themselves into an impossible corner, I think they’re going to basically say to the audience, “You know what? We should have given you a better ending. We should have had Rey talk to Luke and explain what had happened to her and to his former best buddy Han Solo. We screwed up. We could have served you without sacrificing cliffhanger potential. We could have given you that exposition and still left things undecided about what’s going to happen next for both Rey and Luke. That’s how Star Wars films are supposed to be handled. But we didn’t do that. Now, we don’t see a good way to address this and have it work so we’re just going to fast forward out of that mess. Sorry.”
That’s why The Force Awakens didn’t have a Star Wars ending — it had an anti-Star Wars ending.
You can have the characters. You can have the actors. You can have the droids. You can have the iconic space ships. You can have Ben Burtt doing the sound and John Williams doing the score. You can have ILM. You can combine all those things together and have something that approximates the look of Star Wars. But that doesn’t mean you automatically have a Star Wars film.
Does it feel like Star Wars? Does it have the soul of Star Wars? Does it have the sensibilities of Star Wars films up to this time (Episodes 1–6) Does it flow like a Star Wars movie would? All of these questions are just as important factors as the actors, characters, and people who make Star Wars films come to life. For The Force Awakens, some of these questions can be answered “Yes”. But some have to be answered “Inconclusive” and at least one is a resounding “No”.
Does it feel like Star Wars? — Inconclusive. There were times it did for me. But there were a lot of times it did not. I’ve already cited a couple of examples. More to come.
Does it have the soul of Star Wars? — Inconclusive. It tries mighty hard to replicate the soul of Star Wars. But its paint by numbers approach indicates an attempt to copy the masterpiece without understanding the reason behind the application and placement of the brush strokes to the original.
Does it have the sensibilities of Star Wars films up to this time? — I would say more yes than no. A new series means new territories to explore so there are going to be differences between what occurs now and what came before. Overall I’d say this film achieved that balance. But this alone isn’t enough to make a film a Star Wars film.
Does it flow like a Star Wars movie would? — Under any metric one could come up with, no. It’s a hybrid; a film that tries to look to the past as a guide but feels neither obligated nor focused to stay on that path. That lack of focus more than anything else results in a frustrating maddeningly jerky film flow that needlessly sets this film apart from the rest of the Star Wars universe prior. There are no circumstances where I could see this as being a benefit.
The jerky film flow has many parents. It’s more than just abrupt editing and a handful of missing scene wipes; it’s narrative, it’s plot points that can’t stand up to even casual scrutiny, it’s about when and how to introduce characters, and it’s about the characters themselves.
The rest of this article will explore all this in extremely granular detail. Buckle up. You’re in for a long ride…
Before I dive any deeper I need to make a few stipulations.
Stipulation #1: Episodes 1–3 were a disappointment but I did not consider them the wretched horrors their fiercest critics made them out to be. I liked most of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.
Yes, Hayden Christensen…acting…I get it. Miscast Samuel L. Jackson…I get it. Jar Jar…I get it. The idiotic plot thread in Episode 1 where a pre-teen Anakin somehow bumbles his way in to the hanger bay of a Trade Federation control ship and saves the day…I totally get that. I even understand the frustration regarding the over reliance on green screen setups and how it hamstrung the actors talking to empty space by themselves (though that was never an issue for me unlike Zack Snyder’s over-use of green screens in every film including the upcoming Batman vs. Superman. Snyder drives drives me bonkers with that).
But when you look past those issues, you see those films still had Star Wars’ soul. 1–3 shared the look of 4–6. 1–3’s plotting and pace, with the exception of a few bumps in 3, flowed as smoothly as 4–6's. The execution may have been off, in some cases way off, but the heart was in the right place.
Stipulation #2: George Lucas can do wrong…beyond just episodes 1–3. I’m talking the unaltered versions of episodes 4–6 here. Return of the Jedi was a fractured film. Lucas seemed to like to do two things more than any other with his former franchise. First, he liked furry things. For every person that screams about Jar Jar and the Gungans, I present you with that other race of creatures that was there primarily as comedy relief, couldn’t fight its way out of a paper bag, and could be easily manipulated; the Ewoks. Second, Lucas loved to split up his main characters. Empire Strikes Back’s flow withstood that but in Jedi the flow of the film started suffering, particularly in the final battle. The destruction of the second Death Star felt more like an anti-climactic afterthought after everything else that had just happened.
Then there’s the acting in Episode 4. I will always have a soft spot for that film. But I can’t ignore the obvious — Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were green as hell. For all the slagging Hayden Christensen got for his performance as Anakin Skywalker he at least acted at a consistent level throughout Episodes 2 and 3. Yes, he was un-empathizable in the run up to and after chopping off Samuel L. Jackson’s arms in 3, but the script gave him zero help in turning an obvious turd scene into something better. In 4 there are scenes where the actors not named Guinness or Cushing look like this was their first big film as far as their acting goes. That’s on Lucas for not demanding better as much as it’s on them for not delivering better.
So I am no fanboy who thinks Episodes 4–6 are golden and beyond reproach and everything must be compared to them. Every film should be evaluated based on the era it takes place in. The problem for Force Awakens is that we just can’t do that here precisely because characters from 4–6 are popping up in 7 and comparisons are unavoidable.
Stipulation #3: You can’t go back. I knew going in to Force Awakens what I was in store for. I knew that 4–6's main surviving cast minus one notable exception (though supposedly this movie isn’t the final say on that score) was going to appear in this film. But, even though their shadows would loom large they would essentially be baton passers for the newer cast. This wasn’t going to be Luke-Han-Leia for the fourth time. You can’t go back there now. Too much time has passed and the characters are too old. I was at peace with that.
But you’re supposed to pass the baton…not play hot potato with it.
Stipulation #4: There’s been some criticism of Force Awakens being essentially a broad strokes recycling of Episode 4. I’m not interested in that angle. I think arguments could be made both for and against that theory.
There are some really bad contrivances in Force Awakens. George Lucas’ stories were hardly clunker-free, especially in Episodes 1 and 3; turning Darth Maul into Jedi canon fodder rather than a three dimensional character with a backstory and failing to deliver the goods with Anakin’s turn to the dark side when that series changing moment came, for example. And of course there is the biggest clunker of the original trilogy; watching and cringing as Alec Guinness channeled Lucas in Return of the Jedi trying to retcon his explanation to Luke in A New Hope about how Darth Vader “betrayed and murdered” his father “was true, from a certain point of view.” But as bad as Lucas could be at rare moments with hackneyed plotting, The Force Awakens has three absolute clunkers that are as bad or worse than anything Lucas did wrong.
The capture of the Millennium Falcon by Han Solo — It just so happened that he was there at the same time the Falcon was in scanning range? In a galaxy that size? And then to toss in a line about the Falcon not being a “clean ship” as the explanation only to then undermine that explanation by having someone at Maz Kanata’s cantina who is on the side of the First Order radio in that they found the droid when all the First Order had to do was track the ship since it wasn’t “clean”? Oy…
Lightsabers have feelings too — We’ve had six Star Wars movies over 38 years to establish the notion that inanimate objects are receptacles of The Force. Oh wait…that’s backwards. We’ve had 38 years to establish the notion that inanimate objects are not receptacles of The Force. Never. Not one time has any inanimate object been shown to be a receptacle of The Force. But now all of a sudden in Force Awakens lightsabers carry mystical psychic powers and form connections with nascent Jedi? Ugh…
Let me sleep dammit — R2D2 is switched off for most of the film and then switches himself on only after Rey has been rescued so that the map can be pieced together? Who writes this stuff?
Actually we know who at least partially wrote this stuff and that’s what makes these clunkers all the more shocking. Lawrence Kasdan has had a long history with Lucas and the original trilogy. He co-wrote the screenplays for Empire and Jedi. He should know better than to allow inane plot contrivances like these to make it all the way to the big screen.
(I’ll ignore the big unanswered question as to why Luke’s original lightsaber was in Maz Kanata’s possession on the grounds that it could get answered in the next film. I have doubts it will though…particularly after reading about what got cut from Force Awakens regarding the lightsaber, which would make this plot point the 4th giant clunker in this movie.)
I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Seth Abramson did his own take on the hackneyed plotting and narrative in this film for The Huffington Post. I don’t agree with all his points — indeed, I found quite a few of them to be either trivial or beyond irrelevant. But he does raise enough genuine questions about this film’s swiss cheese narrative and plotting to give one serious pause about how well this film really holds up. For example…
(Direct quotes form Abramson’s story are in italics. Other sentences are paraphrases of Abramson by me. Still others are points Abramson himself didn’t raise or are points that are based off other points Abramson raised)
Update (01/06/2016): Unbeknownst to me Abramson posted a fallow-up article to respond to the (absolutely predictable) firestorm that erupted from his article. In it he lists the 10 things he felt made Force Awakens the best Star Wars film ever made. You can read that here.
- How could Han Solo lose track of the Millennium Falcon for a dozen years? His prized possession…and, if to be believed, “not clean” and therefore trackable.
- Rey becomes nearly as effective a Force-user in a few hours as Luke Skywalker did in a few years.
- Just minutes before Starkiller Base explodes, Supreme Leader Snoke tells Hux to go get Kylo Ren and take him off the planet. Remember Ren was out in a forest somewhere and badly injured. I guess he wasn’t “clean” just like the Millennium Falcon wasn’t “clean” and therefore easily trackable? I would have dropped this one if we had just one shot of Kylo Ren being taken away instead of everything transpiring off camera.
- The chasm that opens up preventing Rey from finishing off Kylo Ren. In terms of stupid plotting, that’s right up there with The Kurgan almost killing Connor MacLeod in the first Highlander film only to be stopped by the rest of Clan MacLeod getting in the way. The Kurgan was going through them all like a hot knife through butter before that moment. Now suddenly all he can do is yell out “Another time MacLeod!” as he’s pushed away? Yeah, right.
- If Luke decided to run off because of his failure with Kylo Ren, in effect leaving his previous world behind in order to become a hermit, why was there such an obvious trail to track him down?
- If the first Jedi temple was this mythical thing that nobody knew for sure existed, how could Luke manage to leave a map to it when he didn’t know where he was going to wind up?
- Why couldn’t the Resistance download R2D2’s memory to get the damn map instead of letting him gather dust for years? And stuck on low power all this time? Is the term “jump start” a completely foreign concept to the Resistance?
- How is it The First Order has a downloaded copy of the map, minus that one piece, which it got from The Republic’s archives but The Resistance, which according to the film is backed by The Republic, can’t get a copy?
- How does Kylo Ren sense Han Solo’s presence on Starkiller Base when Solo isn’t versed in the ways of The Force? It’s never been established in the six previous films that Jedi/Sith could sense other people…just disturbances in The Force centered around people. Since Solo couldn’t disturb The Force because he doesn’t have that capability in him how does Kylo Ren sense him then?
Update (01/06/2016): If I could put strikethrough on the above point I would. The reason being I had forgotten, and was reminded, that in Episode 4 Obi Wan sensed the destruction of Alderan “as if millions of voices cried out in pain and were suddenly silenced”. That doesn’t exactly invalidate my questions about whether Jedi can sense other people not versed in The Force or not but it does make things a lot more ambiguous — ambiguous enough that I’m no longer comfortable making the argument.
- How can something as big as Starkiller Base be defended by just a handful of Tie fighters? In Return of the Jedi, the Empire threw more fighters at the Rebellion than the First Order did at the Resistance.
- How does Chewbacca manage to yell out not once but twice when Han Solo gets killed and yet not one Stormtrooper starts firing at him until only after he shoots Kylo Ren?
- Kylo Ren stopped Poe Dameron’s laser blast before it could hit him. Froze it solid. And Ren didn’t see that shot coming. He reacted to the shot. And yet he let Chewbacca succeed at firing a crippling shot at him? Wha?
- When Finn and Rey show up to see Han Solo walk out to meet Kylo Ren, the filmmakers set up the scene so that the light from outside came down upon both Solo and Kylo Ren. Yet Kylo Ren only sees Finn and Rey after the shooting starts? I’ll ignore the question of how he beat them outside considering he was wounded.
- How did Kylo Ren manage to get his hands on Darth Vader’s melted down mask when there’s no indication Luke kept it at the end of Return of the Jedi? And why would Luke melt it down and then decide to keep it?
- Why does Kylo Ren have just one Stormtrooper guarding Rey, particularly since it’s now known she’s dangerous and capable of wielding The Force to some degree?
- How does Rey know about Jedi mind tricks given that the Jedi by this point were more of a myth than anything else as far as she was concerned?
- How does Rey kick Kylo Ren’s ass when she’s only had The Force on her side for at most a few days? Why doesn’t Kylo Ren use The Force to kill her and instead gets bogged down in a lightsaber duel (which he still should have won)? This is the guy who can hold a blaster shot frozen in space but he can’t knock out this girl who is kicking his ass? He had just knocked her out a few minutes prior!
- Speaking of fair fights, how does Finn hold his ground and even manage to graze Kylo Ren with Luke’s lightsaber when he has no experience and, unlike Rey, doesn’t have The Force flowing through him? Why didn’t Kylo Ren just knock Finn out like he did Rey?
- Why do the Rathtars immediately kill every person they come upon except Finn who gets dragged by a Rathtar around the ship?
- How long have Han and Chewbacca been together? How many decades? And only now does Han try Chewy’s crossbow gun? Seriously?
- Why is Luke the last Jedi? Uh…anyone remember Episode 6? You know…the episode where Leia is revealed as Luke’s sister and she’s starting to feel The Force flow through her? Uh…what the hell happened there? Why isn’t Leia a Jedi? She passed The Force on to her son for crying out loud! If there’s a reason for this it should have been revealed.
I could go on. But you get the picture…
I think a lot of these contrivances are a result of Abrams’ vision. This quote from an interview he did early on I find particularly telling…
The key is to return to the roots of the first films, trying to be more in emotion than in the explanation.
I would disagree that the first films were rooted more in emotion than explanation. The emotion in Episodes 4–6 was there, but not at the expense of making everything that happened sensical, with a few obvious exceptions like Obi-Wan trying to reconcile his earlier explanation in 4 regarding Anakin’s death with the tortured explanation he gave to Luke in 6.
Whatever transpired in 4–6 made sense…on some basic level it all mostly fit. Lucas saw that there was enough explanation in his films to keep the narrative from unwinding. You can’t cite a single film in that series, or its later prequels, that had the sheer volume of dangling plot threads or nonsensical narratives that The Force Awakens has. Lucas ensured that didn’t happen. His films carried the audience away on pure emotion but they did so with a solid foundation in the mostly bullet-proof narrative.
By eschewing explanation in favor of raw emotion, JJ Abrams has crafted a film where you have to switch your brain off to get his intended payoff. The only way to properly ride the emotions he expertly crafted is to not think. The moment you start thinking, you start pulling at all those loose threads this film is infested with. And then things start unraveling.
That is not Star Wars. Those films were never like that.
I don’t have a problem with The Force Awakens killing off Han Solo if that’s what needs to happen to advance Kylo Ren’s embrace of the Dark Side. But the way it was handled was a missed opportunity on a number of levels.
If you’re going to kill Han you have to give his death meaning. We know what can happen when you give an iconic character a stupid death. Han didn’t have a stupid death but it was a meaningless one.
I, and probably everyone else in the theater, knew Han was a dead man walking before it happened. I knew it the moment Kylo Ren revealed his parentage. I just didn’t know for sure whether it would be in this film or a later one until I saw Kylo Ren start walking out on that long gangway. Talk about bull in a china shop foreshadowing. It’s not as bad as the movie cliche of someone going into the basement in a horror movie, but, walking out on a long gangway with nothing to break your fall in order to confront someone who hates you…well…it’s within range.
So the surprise factor and shock value of Solo’s death was now neutered from the film since we knew it was coming. With it neutered, what was needed now was an understanding of why Han had to die; and I don’t mean why he had to die to advance the narrative of Kylo Ren’s journey to the Dark Side…I mean why his own son hated him so much he wanted him dead. We already knew he hated his father but we don’t know why. Without understanding the why (beyond the handful of vague offhand allusions made by Leia and Han) Han’s death was a death without meaning; a tool to advance a plot narrative and not something the audience is capable of comprehending a deeper understanding of, precisely because Abrams failed to provide one. This is a symptom of a greater issue that casts a large shadow over The Force Awakens; how to integrate the new cast in with the old.
There are a lot of different ways you can go about making this movie. For whatever reason, JJ Abrams was adamant about splitting up the 4–6 cast from the start rather than have them still be together. This is a familiar trap a lot of Hollywood sequels fall in to. I don’t understand the logic behind it. Why can’t the group start off together? What’s so awful about that? Would it kill the film? Why do they absolutely always have to be split up?
Splitting up the cast can boomerang back on you. Gene Roddenberry and Alan Dean Foster split up the Star Trek cast in 1979, making Kirk an Admiral and Spock an ex-Starfleet officer, and it took four more films to finally get everyone back together on the Enterprise permanently where the fans wanted them in the first place. Imagine what could have been accomplished if they had just started out together.
But, the 4–6 cast was split up as The Force Awakens starts. Even with that proviso, there are still lots of things you can do differently in the film and still adhere to the major plot points. Here’s where we get into a flow problem the original trilogies didn’t have.
I’ll acknowledge it’s a tricky proposition to integrate a new cast with an established cast. You spend too much time on the old cast, you’ve stunted the growth of the cast you plan on carrying the franchise forward. You spend too much time on the new cast, your audience who wants to see the old cast starts getting annoyed. You have to strike a balance and that’s not easy.
With The Force Awakens I am torn in two. The early scenes with Rey were great. Finn started getting on my nerves a bit with all the comedic bits and his frady cat shtick sticking around longer than I think it should have (as did Rey’s constant “I need to get home” record skipping). I already said how annoyed I was that Abrams allowed that beyond-belief plot twist that just happened to allow The Millennium Falcon to get captured by Han Solo. Watching Harrison Ford do his hot/cold 2015 take on a character he hadn’t touched in 32 years was interesting. I kept feeling like I was watching two Han Solos; one old, tired, and beaten down…the other the conniving scoundrel “old” Han from 4–6. I couldn’t make up my mind which was the real deal so I gave up and just enjoyed the spectacle.
The moment the Resistance X-wings chased off the First Order after the attack on Maz’s cantina the film changed. It went from a consistent deliberate pace into a fractured uneven faster tempo.
Abrams paced Force Awakens almost linearly in a single thread the first half of the film. The only cutaways were to scenes of the First Order. Abrams waited over halfway to bring Leia and the Resistance in to the movie. He could have done it sooner. He could have done it as soon as Poe Dameron realizes that the First Order are on to him and after the map. I’m not saying he had to do it there but he could have. From reading about the deleted scenes, we know the film originally did bring the Resistance and Leia in earlier.
Instead of bringing them in earlier, and multi-threading Force Awakens most of the way through; going from the Resistance to the main protagonists and then to the First Order and back, we wait until the film is over half over. It made the second half more disjointed because now we’re getting plot threads and character re-introductions thrown at us rapid fire…
- Leia and Han meet and we finally get some (very little) exposition on Kylo Ren’s backstory.
- C-3P0 appears with a red arm.
- R2D2 is shown gathering dust with a ham-handed explanation for why, via 3P0.
- Rey’s nascent Jedi powers go hyperactive.
These plot points played out awkwardly precisely because they were all shoe-horned in around the same time when they could have been more spread out through the film via multi-threading the plot lines. This resulted in a back-loaded film. When you back-load a film like that you run the risk of being forced to short change the viewer as you cram a lot of things in to a relatively short time span.
In this case it impacted the screen times and character development of some key Episode 4–6 characters, namely Leia, 3P0, and R2D2. All three have essentially extended cameos when the narrative that was being played out screamed for more detail and better segues. Without that, their scenes, particularly the droids’ scenes, played out like they got shoved in place like forcing a jigsaw puzzle piece into a position that doesn’t perfectly fit.
Not enough of this film felt like it was made by someone who understood the essence of Star Wars. Too much of the film felt like it was assembled by someone looking to reverse engineer Star Wars by going through the series with a checklist.
- Evil Supreme Leader — check.
- Jedi turning to the Dark Side — check.
- X-wing fighters and Tie fighters — check.
- Han, Luke, and Leia — check.
- C-3P0 and R2D2 — check.
- Lightsabers — check.
- Chewbacca — check.
- Millennium Falcon — check.
- Stormtroopers — check.
- Holo-chess — check.
- Resistance to an Evil organization bent on ruling the universe — check.
- Ultimate Weapon which gets destroyed in the end — check.
Remember, George Lucas made all these films on his own without studio meddling. Though Episode 4 was financed by Twentieth Century Fox, Episodes 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 were financed by Lucas. It was all his vision done his way. He was a committee of one, answering to himself. He could afford to hand directorial duties off to someone else in 5 and 6 knowing that he had put together a framework that preserved his vision. That worked well for him in Eps 4–6. It may have worked a bit against him in Eps 1–3 precisely because he didn’t have someone there to step in and say, “Hang on. Maybe this particular idea isn’t good enough or could be done in a different better way.”
But Disney owns Star Wars now. The Force Awakens was not made by one man with a singular vision. It was made by a group of people in typical Hollywood style — film by committee, if you will — trying to preserve that vision but without having worked with it previously. I don’t understand the team angle. Take a look at the long list of Producers and Executive Producers this film has — at least triple the number the largest production list any Lucas based film had. So I guess I should not be too surprised that what I saw in The Force Awakens was a facsimile of the original series…but not with the heart of the original series.
This is hard for me because I’m having trouble resolving what Abrams did here with Force Awakens with what he did in rebooting Star Trek. He nailed that one perfectly. He got everything right and it felt like Star Trek — it honored everything Star Trek stood for…going all the way back to the original TV series — even with actors playing the roles made famous by others.
That film felt genuine. This one felt like a clone made with incomplete DNA strands. But Star Trek had an out that The Force Awakens couldn’t have.
The most important thing Abrams did with Star Trek was to create the alternative timeline plot thread. It removed all the shackles that would have constrained him from doing his take on the franchise. Without that plot thread, Abrams is boxed in…beholden to what came before. With it, he can go anywhere and explore anything because it’s an entirely new timeline. All he had to do was make sure the characters were recreated well enough so the audience would agree, “Yeah, that’s typical Scotty” or “That’s typical Bones”.
Abrams didn’t have that out in Force Awakens. What came next was entirely dependent upon what came before. If you want to extend the franchise and you don’t have an alternate timeline plot device to allow you to deviate however you wish, you’re boxed in. You have to follow established canon in the first six films. You are constrained from deviating from precedent. You have to adhere closer to your predecessor’s vision, especially if you haven’t provided your audience with a reason why things should be different now. Abrams deviated without explanation, without exposition, hanging the audience out to dry if they started thinking about what they were watching rather than just watching for the pure enjoyment of it all. And watching for emotion is what he wanted. Not for explanation.
This will needlessly divide Star Wars fans between those who can ignore all these issues and enjoy the film the way Abrams wanted them to and those, like me, who just can’t ignore the obvious; yes it was enjoyable but in a nonsensical way, something the original trilogy never was.
Again, I need to repeat this here because I’ve devoted thousands of words digging in to The Force Awakens at an extremely granular level and revealing all its shortcomings particularly in how it fits in (or doesn’t) with the previous six films, but I enjoyed the film when I saw it. I’ve seen it four more times since then over the Christmas break. It’s a very exciting film and as action films go it doesn’t ever let you down.
Whatever issues I have with it — issues that are not going to go away with repeated viewings — JJ Abrams didn’t destroy the franchise the way Steven Spielberg and Lucas destroyed the Indiana Jones franchise with the wretched Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. That film sucked and Harrison Ford looked terrible in it. This film doesn’t suck and nobody looks terrible in it.
Daisy Ridley and Harrison Ford carry this film. Yeah Ford was “mumbles” at first — an old guy acting his age (here’s where I started having Crystal Skull flashbacks). But eventually he becomes more “old Han” and even starts barking like old Han would have in Episodes 4–6.
I cannot state enough how good Ridley was in this film. So much depended upon her. The film can afford to have John Boyega being forced by the script to do a little too much comic relief and play the frady cat role too long. He’s not the central character. He’s not even the second most important character in this film in terms of holding it together (it’s Ford). But Ridley is another matter. She would either make or break this film. Fortunately for the film it was decidedly the former and not the latter. I can’t fault her for the script giving her a ludicrously quick transition from non-Jedi to potential Jedi. At least she did her best trying to act her way through that silliness.
Once Boyega’s character Finn settled down, I started liking him more. For a while there I was on the verge of making comparisons to Jar Jar in how annoying Finn was. I have a low tolerance for characters who are written badly and, for too much of the film, Finn was written badly. It was never really convincingly established for me why Finn felt so obligated to Rey. Because she looked at him a certain way? Is that really enough? That lack of authenticity undermined scenes like Finn running after Rey when Kylo Ren carried her off. It rang hollow. None of this is Boyega’s fault. You play the hand you’re dealt and the script dealt him a bad one. I’m hoping the next film plays Finn a little more seriously. I want more of the Finn who confronted Kylo Ren and less of the Finn who was afraid of his own shadow.
Adam Driver was a mixed bag. I liked how he played Kylo Ren most of the time. One of the few original parts of the screenplay was focusing on Kylo Ren being pulled to the Light as opposed to all the times we have seen Jedi getting pulled to the Dark Side. Kylo Ren’s struggle was really the first time we saw it played out. Yes, it happened in Return of the Jedi, technically, as Darth Vader went back to being Anakin Skywalker but we never really saw that struggle; we just got a few lines from James Earl Jones like “Obi Wan once thought as you” and “It’s too late for me…son”. Driver actually goes through the struggle on camera. That part I liked.
I also liked that we got to see Driver’s face for good portions of the film. Driver’s character comes across better on screen with the hood off. After the mess Rey left him in I wonder if we will see as much of his face in the next film.
Driver’s scene with Ridley at Starkiller base was flawless. It was perfectly acted and directed. The subtle reactions Driver gave as Kylo Ren probed Rey’s mind and found Han Solo residing there was priceless. For me it was the key moment in the film for both characters and the moment Driver went from having a one dimensional character to one with complex depth.
What I didn’t like was the whiny “look at me channel Hayden Christensen” thing Driver would do when Kylo Ren didn’t get his way or something went wrong. Darth Vader would never take a lightsaber to a control panel, he’d kill someone. Darth Vader wouldn’t say “That lightsaber, it belongs to me!”…he’d just go kick ass and take it. Granted, this is more the fault of the screenplay for how it put Driver in these positions that turned Kylo Ren from sinister bad guy you wanted to boo to a confused twenty-something snot nosed Beverly Hills 90210 sissy punk type you just wanted to bitch slap until he shut up.
And it bears repeating; it was criminal that the audience leaves the film having no clue why Kylo Ren hated his father so much that he’d kill him.
ILM did its usual awesome job when it came to Star Wars effects. I think they did a very good job in keeping true to the vision Lucas laid out 40 years ago while still going in the direction Abrams wanted to go with the CGI. It’s a tough balancing act but I think they pulled it off. This was truest when Rey and Finn are being chased in the Falcon by a tie fighter and they have to go inside a downed ship on Jakku in tight quarters; echoing similar sequences in Episodes 5 and 6.
So I’m torn about this film. On the one hand it’s a very entertaining, well made, dramatic, exciting piece of cinema. You go and your attention will be easily held the entire film. But in terms of capturing the heart and soul of Star Wars as a franchise beyond mere raw emotion, it was a miss.
There were times during Force Awakens when I was most definitely feeling what I felt in Episodes 4–6; Han and Chewy disagreeing with each other, Han yelling out the way he did back in the day, the Falcon dodging fighters and pulling off impossible maneuvers, 3P0 getting in the middle of Han and Leia’s reunion in typical 3P0 fashion, the X-Wings skirting the surface of the lake on the way to Maz Kanata’s cantina, Rey running around on her hover thing in the Jakkuan desert.
There were times when I watched Force Awakens and felt, “Yeah, this is it.” Just not enough of them to make me feel Abrams really captured the essence of Star Wars in all its finely tuned details.
The scene that really stuck with me the most — the one where I got flushed and choked up because everything was hitting the same transcendent note in unison — was when Kylo Ren was trying to use The Force to get Luke’s lightsaber out of the snow and it whizzed by him right into Rey’s hands and right on cue John Williams’ score revived the fanfare of all fanfares from Episode 4.
It was such a moment. What Star Wars was all about back then. Its heart and soul. Every time I’ve seen Force Awakens and the film got to that shot, the audience erupted with the biggest reaction of the entire film. Even writing about it now still gets me worked up.
…But then I remembered — Rey didn’t know squat about The Force just a couple of days ago. How is this scene even plausible?