(There will be spoilers in this post, but the first part is not spoilery)
So I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this week.
How was it?
Tentatively, I say, wonderful.
Why “tentative?” Well, I’m old enough to remember seeing The Phantom Menace in theaters, and what my reaction was then. The hype was so strong that at first I told myself I enjoyed it. It took a long time to realize just how bad it was.
TFA is not a perfect movie. (What movie is?). I’ll talk about what bugged me later on in this post. But I spent most of the movie rapt, feeling glee and sorrow and nostalgia and awe — that all important element of SFF! — at all the right moments.
That is more than the sterile prequels ever did for me.
Okay, there will be actual
… after this point.
What I liked:
The new protagonists, Finn and Rey. Probably more than I enjoyed the reappearance of old friends from the original trilogy! Matt and I disagreed on which we liked better; he thought Finn was better developed, whereas I felt the opposite way.
I think some of it is how delightfully rare it is — still, alas — to have a female viewpoint character in SFF. I love Princess Leia, and she kicks some serious ass, but the original trilogy wasn’t her story in the same way TFA is Rey’s story.
And the shear amount of time Rey spends rescuing Finn! Or the look on Finn’s face when he realizes, “Hey, this woman I thought I was going to help can clearly take care of herself.” Or how she keeps insisting he not hold her hand. I loved it.
In particular, watching Rey test out the capabilities of the Force is delightful — turning Kylo Ren’s mind probe back on him, using a Jedi mind trick on her Stormtrooper guard (who is apparently played by Daniel Craig?), her final battle with Ren, etc. (There was cheering in the theater when we saw her call the lightsaber back from the snow before Ren could do the same).
The new antagonist, Kylo Ren. I’m seeing a lot of Kylo Ren hate and cries of “he’s not as fearsome as Vader!” but I have to admit, I adored him. (I joked on Facebook that he was my new fantasy boyfriend).
But then, I pretty much am the audience for attractive, tortured villains. Moreso if they have fabulous hair. WHICH HE DOES.
(Last week, Matt and I were in Target shopping for Christmas decorations, when I saw a giant Kylo Ren doll. As we often do when confronted with ridiculous products, I said something like, “Hey hon, do we need a giant plush Kylo Ren?” It was funny at the time, but now I kind of want one — but only if I can take his helmet off and brush his hair. I’m a creeeeeeeper).
And yes, he killed Han, yes, he’s a petulant child who has tantrums, and yes, everything in the Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account is pitch-perfect. But… I also really thought he was painted beautifully as this very young man, too young for the weight of his responsibilities, who is trying desperately to keep it together. He lusts for power, sure, that’s why he’s Dark Side. But so much of the rest of him is just… normal teenage stuff that he seems incapable of coping with. And so he picks the side where he doesn’t have to repress it, where emotional outburts are pretty much required.
(Let me not get into the fact that I’ve never understood, in universe, how the Sith can basically run the Empire — okay, this is First Order, not the Empire, but whatevs. How can you have a class of mentally unhinged cultists running a strict military dictatorship? The joke when I played an Imperial Agent in SWTOR is that the Sith coming in and fucking stuff up was the source of 99% of quests. Matt and I used to say, “Sith ruin everything,” which is also what I leaned over and said to him during the movie when Ren unleashed his fury on his subordinates. Or, you know. Just an instrument panel).
… okay, I guess I got into it).
Django and I were talking about it, and he said the Kylo Ren hatred might actually be an inexpert way of saying “the villains don’t feel menacing.” He argues this is partially because Lieutenant-General Hux — who’s sort of in the Tarkin role — is also baby-faced and petulant, and thus lacks gravitas.
(Sadly, the death of Peter Cushing has left a real lack of actors whose faces look like skulls.
But see, I liked that immaturity in Hux, too. The First Order feels like a bunch of kids playing Imperial dressup — and I think that’s intentional. It’s a feature, not a bug. Hux and Kylo Ren have power, but are too young to know how to wield it, and that makes them even more dangerous.
(It doesn’t help that “Hux” sounds like the nickname one would be given at a prep school).
None of this kept Hux’s fascist speech about decapitating the New Republic from being chilling. Yes, they use imagery and language from Nazism and from North Korea to back them up. I’m okay with that. It feels right.
Also, something I think is really interesting about Ren — did you notice how, in his final fight with Finn and Rey, he punches himself in the side, where Chewie shot him? Why does he do that? (Besides “JJ Abrams liked how blood on snow looked”). The only thing I can come up with is he does it to generate Dark Side feels — because he isn’t enough of a whirl of fear and anger and aggression already? But I read it as, he’s feeling compassion for Rey and/or Finn, and that isn’t gonna power his red lightsaber, ifyaknowwhatImean.
But it’s the first time, I think, we’ve seen Sith cause pain to themselves in order to fuel their powers, and it’s kind of awesome.
Also, I’m sure that will never, ever be used in fanfic. *shifty eyes*
(I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve only just skimmed the surface of SWTFA fanfic).
The death of Han. Well, I didn’t like it, per se, but it felt earned and dramatically appropriate. I had sort-of been spoiled on that — in the sense of, “hey, here are these production stills that look like Rey crying over Han’s dead body” — but it didn’t matter, because the minute Han stepped out onto that bridge with Kylo, I knew he was a dead man.
When Kylo talks about how he knows how to reform, but he just doesn’t know if he’s strong enough, my mental monologue was all, “nope, they’re not gonna reform him in the first movie; he’s going to buy it the same way Anakin did, with his death, in the third movie.” I knew where that lightsaber was heading, and it wasn’t over the chasm.
So I was willing to say goodbye to Han, in the name of a good narrative.
The humor. There was humor! Decent, adult humor! After the prequels taking themselves So Damn Seriously (when they weren’t being goofy and slapstick), this was very, very welcome. The first laugh was moments into the movie, when Kylo Ren bends down next to our new sassy pilot friend Poe Dameron (in prelude to interrogation), and Poe nervously says something like, “So how does this go? Do I talk first, or do you?” It was so out of place it got a chuckle out of all of us.
There was dirt! I described the prequels as sterile, and that’s a good way to contrast them with this movie. In the prequels, much of the scenery is CG. Many of the characters are, too; a lot of the time it’s just one or two actors and a greenscreen. No one ever sweats, or gets dirty. When there’s violence, it’s bloodless.
TFA rejects that categorically, from some of its earliest shots. Rey, with a sweaty face and wisps of escaped hair, sitting outside her home, a burnt-out AT-AT. That bloody handprint on Finn’s Stormtrooper mask. To name just a couple of examples.
(The obsession with our actors being sweaty is actually kind of hilarious, after a time; in that way it reminds me of Top Gun, which featured similarly sweaty actors AT ALL TIMES).
It’s… nice. It makes us feel like these aren’t characters, they’re people, and that the world they inhabit follows the same rules as ours, and extends beyond the screen.
The diversity. I’m not the best to comment on ethnic diversity, but it felt like a colorful cast to me, with POC characters who got to be Big Damn Heroes.
More personally relevant, there were so many women in this world. Female Stormtroopers! (Captain Phasma! I hope she escapes from that trash compactor…) Female TIE fighter pilots! And, of course, our heroine, Rey, who checks off every hero trope without her gender being relevant, even once. (This article talks a lot about this)
What I Didn’t Like:
This is less “what I didn’t like” and more “what didn’t make sense” or “what could have been better.”
The plot is basically the same plot as episode IV: plucky rebels have to destroy this deadly weapon of a fascist government by using an improbable design flaw against it. In this case the macguffin, instead of the plans for said Deadly Weapon, is the map to Luke Skywalker.
But classic plots are classic for a reason — they work. I’m willing to buy Chuck Wendig’s thoughts on the matter, which is that the plot is old and predictable in a mythic way.
Speaking of mythic…
Slavish devotion to the “Hero’s Journey” formula. I grew up watching those PBS specials where George Lucas and Joseph Campbell talk about all the mythic qualities of Star Wars, so I am very steeped in this formula, and see it everywhere.
Abrams and Kasdan — wisely, I think — very much tried to do the same thing with their script. For the most part, it doesn’t interfere, which is the thing you want from a plot structure.
But other times, it’s SO painfully obvious. Like, here’s Rey, with not really anything to go back to on Jakku… and yet, she resists the call to adventure, because the Hero’s Journey says she must.
A minor quibble, though, really…
So many plot holes…. why does Luke leave a map to where he’s hiding? How the fuck do you drain power from a star in order to fuel a weapon? How come the people on other planets can see Hosnian, the seat of the Republic, being destroyed, if they are literal light-years away? If Starkiller Base is the size of a planet, why is everything conveniently located just where our protagonists need it? Why does nobody ever submit sensitive information electronically, instead of handing it to droids to take care of? How believable is it that Rey knows how to fly the Millenium Falcon? How the hell does the Falcon end up on Jakku? How the hell did Maz end up with Luke’s lightsaber?* WHY IS EVERYONE RELATED??**
* My working theory: well, she was working on Bespin during the Galactic Civil War and one day this arm just fell out of the sky…
** (Okay, the only confirmed one is Kylo Ren being Han and Leia’s kid, and thus Vader’s grandson. But… Rey’s visions are awfully indicting, and I would believe it if she ended up being part of the Skywalker clan, too. The other theory I’ve heard is that she’s Obi-Wan’s grandkid. Although how that would happen, who knows).
But, to be fair, a lot of these were issues with the original trilogy. And, to paraphrase Yoda, continuity not make a story great.
The lack of explanation of the political situation. What planets does the Starkiller Base destroy? (I only know because I looked it up!) Is the Resistance the same as the New Republic? What are they resisting? Why does Jakku have all this derelict military equipment? What’s up with the First Order?
There are some great articles out there that explain the political situation (mostly referring to the novelization of the movie), but none of that is on-screen. God forbid we get the political diatribe that was the prequels, but I could have used a LITTLE bit more.
Nostalgia porn. TFA is also getting picked on a little for being too over-the-top with the nostalgia. To me, this wasn’t a huge issue. Some moments are clearly meant to be fan fodder (i.e. “Chewie, we’re home”), but the other stuff is just subtle. Calling the Ultimate Weapon ™ “Starkiller,” for example, or Finn finding the remote Luke was training against while going through stuff on the Falcon.
Is that all I have to say? Probably not! But that’s enough for now.
What did you think of the movie? Good, bad, or decidedly meh?