Some rambling thoughts on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I tried to write down my thoughts about The Force Awakens in order to stop myself from getting too negative about this film as I enounter so much praise in its direction. I realised that actually, most of what I disliked about the film was in the second half, although I don’t think I say as much. Really, this just descends into a discussion of the saga as a whole and The Force Awakens‘ place in it. On which: spoilers for all severn Star Wars films. Also, I haven’t watched A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back since 2007; I haven’t watched a prequel since 2005, and I can’t remember the last time I watched Return of the Jedi, as I can’t definitely recall doing so in 2007. I saw The Force Awakens on Thursday 17th December 2015, and I liked it. But not unconditionally.

The Starkiller base was the worst part of the movie. In A New Hope, the Death Star has a specific purpose: to control the galaxy through fear. Grand Moff Tarkin explicitly states that that is its intention; when the station is used – once in total – it is with the express purpose of demonstrating its power as a battle station. After the destruction of Alderaan, we see Leia’s despair, and the resolve to which it leads; furthermore, it actually fails to achieve the aim of persuading Leia to reveal the location of the rebel base – she claims that it is on Dantooine, where it is later revealed that the rebellion have left their base. In The Force Awakens, General Hux has none of Grand Moff Tarkin’s tactical sense or political know how. He screeches the order to destroy “the Republic”, of which we have no sense at this point in the movie, and then we see the faces of several terrified individuals as their planets are blown to pieces. There’s no attempt to use the station as a means of control – it is simply a means of destruction, a weapon to annihilate the enemy rather than to keep order. Given that Starkiller base is explicitly based on the Death Star, it is remarkable that there is no debate over whether or not to actually build or use such as a station, given the catastrophic failure of both Death Stars to achieve their aims. But this is the nature of the First Order – risen from the ashes of the Empire, they have none of its subtlety (and the Empire didn’t have massive amounts of that) nor the intelligence of its leadership. They wish to control the galaxy or destroy it. Had that been stated in the film, I might have liked it. But the First Order is just there, as if it requires no explanation, as if the Empire, too, just came out of nothing (rather than being the end result of some admittedly confusing political manoeuvres on the part of Senator/Chancellor/Emperor Palapatine/Darth Sidious). That the First Order is just a shadow of the Empire is expressed in its use of the Empire’s equipment – they have a couple of Star Destroyers and a fleet of (now two-person) TIE Fighters, but no TIE Bombers, Interceptors, or Advance Fighters; we see none of the Empire’s shuttle craft, no Super Star Destroyers, no AT-AT or AT-PT Walkers in the hands of the First Order. This is, by the looks of things, a severely weakened version of the Empire, with a massively over-powerful Death Star substitute. It is worrying that this sequel trilogy seems to think that it needs to up the stakes in this way – a bigger, more powerful Death Star – especially as that was the plot of former least-popular Star Wars film Return of the Jedi.

The Star Wars film widely-acclaimed as best (even if that title is somewhat up for debate) is the only one of the original trilogy to not feature a Death Star; indeed, it is the only Star Wars film besides The Phantom Menace in which the space station does not appear in some form or another. The Empire Strikes Back raises the stakes in a much more effective way, by raising the emotional stakes, not the destruction stakes. The rebellion is scattered at the beginning of the film, but they are able to re-group; throughout most of the film we don’t care about the fortunes of the rebellion, only those of the characters. The Force Awakens tries to achieve this, but I don’t think it’s as successful – largely because, in Empire, we’re dealing with heroes we already know and love, plus the new addition of Lando. The Force Awakens is introducing us to new characters, but doesn’t spend all that much time allowing them to get to know one another. I would have liked Rey, Finn, Han, Chewie, and BB-8 to spend some time on the Millennium Falcon getting to know one another, but no such chance occurs. This is largely the result of a problem which begins in Return of the Jedi, but is at its worst in Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and The Force Awakens: travelling through hyperspace becomes somewhat like dusting crops – i.e. really easy and somewhat fast. Unless the hyperdrive is broken, as in The Phantom Menace, there’s no time where the characters are in relative comfort and can, for example, sit down to a game of chess, or train with a lightsabre. The Force Awakens isn’t quite as bad at this as the prequels, as there is a good chunk of time where the aforementioned characters are together on the Falcon, but besides Rey and Han getting to know one another, there isn’t that much time for the new characters to relax and get to know one another. One could argue (although the argument could also be countered, I think) that this problem – action starting up early in the film and then never once getting a chance to stop and rest – is true of The Empire Strikes Back, too. If one ignores all of Luke’s time on Dagobar. And the early times on Cloud City. But I think it is worse in The Force Awakens, principally because by Empire we’ve had that time with Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, and the droids. We know them well enough already that we don’t need that time with them.

The problem I’ve had with The Force Awakens is that, in spending too much time listening to effusive praise of the film, I’ve been focusing too strongly on the negative. Actually, there’s a lot to like about it – principally, the character of Rey. By spending a lot of the first act of the film establishing Rey’s place on Tatooine Jakku, we get to know her quite well before the main action catches up to her. If she were living in an area definitely under First Order control – as if it were the remains of a Galactic Empire, for example – but on the fringes, where crime lords were given some free reign, then that action would fit in a bit better. But she’s interesting, and her story is good: she’s been waiting around for who-knows-how-long for a family who abandoned her (apparently alone, which is awkward); she’s skilful and resourceful, but seems to fail to put these skills to good use (or to have the opportunity to do so); she’s loyal, even when there’s no reason to be. She connects with Han, because she’s lost a father and he’s lost a child (perhaps) – the best moment with Han’s actual child is when he tells her that, as a father, Han “would have disappointed” her. What disappointed me is that, for the last act of the film, there’s too much attention on the Resistance and the stupid Starkiller base (does not actually kill stars, except its own, but that comes back maybe so it can power itself, who knows) and not enough on Rey. The clearest point for this is that, for all the screaming of “look this is like the original trilogy!!!” that The Force Awakens does, it fails to deliver on the emotional punch moment which the first films in these trilogies always deliver – Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Han’s deaths, with Luke, Obi-Wan, and Rey screaming “no” – Abrams’ direction does not give Rey the attention this moment deserves. After all, it could well be her in Episode X.

The other characters are fun, and potentially interesting, but this film doesn’t give them what they deserve. Finn, for example, as a traitor to the First Order, gets some comedy, some awkward attempts at flirting with Rey, and some of amateurish glee when they’re actually successful in a plan which characterises the (male) characters in this film, but we don’t get a lot of reflection on his decision to desert. Who was the other Stormtrooper whose blood was wiped across Finn’s helmet in the opening battle? What is it that prompted his departure at this moment, and why did his conditioning fail? I was expecting the “awakening” to have been in him – hence his decision – but it appears to have been about Rey? Ultimately, this is just another problem with the First Order: we’re given no reason to understand why anyone would be a member of the First Order, so we’re expected not to be surprised by desertions. But if that’s the case, why are there so few? Similarly, Po Dameron is a member of the Resistance because, uh, he is, OK? Admittedly, this is also a problem with Biggs in every released version of A New Hope (the scene in which he explains his decision to Luke having been cut); but the Empire is so much more understandable than the First Order – it keeps order through fear – that it makes sense that people are part of it and others rebel. I hope that we get more about these characters in future instalments, but I also wish that we weren’t so satisfied with “waiting for future instalments” in films these days. I hope that The Force Awakens is only the beginning of a trilogy, because otherwise we may never get more development, a resolution to this story – we’ll just keep on following it, hoping that it comes.

The hope lies in two characters: Rey, whose story will hopefully be explored with Luke in the next film; and Kylo Ren, about whom we’ve had some hints already. There are a number of problems with Kylo Ren’s character arc in this film: the reveal of his parentage is so terrible that it really ought to have been in the trailers and the opening crawl so as to have been less disappointing; he’s portrayed somewhat as less-powerful than Anakin and Luke Skywalker, and disappointed in himself because of that, but he performs feats which we’ve never seen a Jedi or a Sith manage. On the other hand, he’s unable to completely penetrate Rey’s mind, and his use of his over-the-top lightsabre is pleasingly amateurish. Indeed, while his lightsabre is not explained in the context of the film, it looks like his entire deal is that he is a Vader fanboy – trying to be his grandfather, the cool, evil guy, but the Dark Side just isn’t giving him the power he needs. I have my own ideas about where I’d like to see Ren’s storyline go; needless to say, he and Rey need an encounter which rivals that of Luke and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back in the next film to make this trilogy really worthwhile.

In some ways, my problem with The Force Awakens is its potential, too. The film feels a little like the opening episodes of most seasons of Smallville, in which the preceding season’s storyline was ineffectually wrapped up and the new one begun. In The Force Awakens, we have all the pieces of the puzzle (except Lando) put in place for the next two films. But, like those episodes of Smallville (and, in many ways, The Phantom Menace) very little actually happens in the film to make it a compelling story of its own. There’s the pleasing character development between Rey and Han, but other than that all of the story beats feel like a pastiche of the original trilogy (mostly Hope and Empire, but the attack on Starkiller base is also pretty much Return of the Jedi) at best, and at worst parody (like the First Order and their massively overpowered weapon). It looks like there could be some good films to follow this one, but if they’re not that great then will The Force Awakens hold up? The disappointment with The Phantom Menace seems to have resulted in the fun Revenge of the Sith, at least, so will effusive praise for The Force Awakens result in lacklustre attempts to follow it as people were satisfied with a minimal story already? I really like both of Rian Johnson’s films that I have seen (Brick and Looper), so I am pretty excited that he’s taking over from the usually mediocre J.J. Abrams. Hopefully, Joseph Gordon Lovett will be in Episode VIII too.

One other aspect in which The Force Awakens is disappointing, in which it follows the prequel trilogy, is that there has not yet been a space battle in any Star Wars trilogy which comes close to matching the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. Jedi gets a lot of underserved criticism, largely because the Ewoks were the first of the slightly-dubious races which were particularly problematic in The Phantom Menace, as well as the fact that the Empire was overcome by a bunch of teddy bears (who perhaps should have been lifted onto Starkiller base?). But alongside the ground battle, there’s some spectacular work going on in the skies. Massive variety in the spacecraft; manoeuvres; explosions – it’s all there, in perhaps the least important part of the Battle of Endor, but still an impressive looking one. There’s nothing like it in Attack of the Clones; those in The Phantom Menace and The Force Awakens are pastiches of the Battle of Yavin in A New Hope; the one which starts Revenge of the Sith is good, but not quite given the time to be as excellent as the Battle of Endor. The only battle which comes close isn’t even really a battle – it’s the Millennium Falcon’s escape through the unrealistic asteroid belt in The Empire Strikes Back. There, the massive forces commanded by the Empire are established and overwhelm the Millennium Falcon. The lengths to which Vader will go to pursue them are also there, perhaps undermining the feasibility of the Empire, but also understanding the lengths of Vader’s obsession (made even more clear by the final minutes of Revenge of the Sith) and the resources which a galaxy-spanning Empire can draw upon. The nature of his command is also made plain in this film: he rules by fear, just like the Empire. The power the Sith rulers of the galaxy have is beyond any challenge to them – except, perhaps, Luke Skywalker, explaining Vader’s campaign.

As a reboot, The Force Awakens introduces some potentially interesting new characters to the Star Wars universe; as a remake, it introduces the story of A New Hope featuring actual women and people of colour, which is valuable for the twenty-first century. But I don’t think it carries off the same story as effectively; I don’t think it stands on its own at all. I think it is very much like the old expanded universe. And I already had one of those, which I left happily when the New Republic made peace with the Empire at the end of Vision of the Future. So far, The Force Awakens hasn’t surpassed it. The most similar parallel I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 8, the comic book continuation of the television series, which takes a happy ending and makes things all dark and overblown again. But I liked my happy ending. Going forward, I think Episode VIII needs to learn from Buffy season 9: raising the emotional stakes is more important than making the explosions bigger; raising the emotional stakes means making the characters, particularly Rey and Leia, go through something which we can see onscreen, not something we’re just told about. Really, how much I like The Force Awakens will depend on how I feel about Episode VIII, which is really my main feeling about the film as a whole: it can’t stand on its own.

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