*Many spoilers ahead, you have been warned*
Trilogies are tricky. I want to talk about a lot of the things that I didn’t like in this movie, but in doing so I need to preface everything within the context of this being the first in a trilogy. When Star Wars was first released, its future was uncertain. So the film needed to function by itself. That isn’t really the case for The Force Awakens. A film that’s such a sure thing that 5 other films were already in the pipeline before it came out.
So the question here is whether it’s okay if this film doesn’t hold up by itself? Maybe I’ll be okay with it when the next episode is out, but right now? Hell no. It’s the first film in a trilogy and it needs to stand on its own. So imagine that every one of my arguments are predicated on the idea that I know a sequel is coming out that might fix some of the things that are wrong with the film, and I supremely don’t care. Got it? Ok, let’s do this.
The film opens so strongly. The first 30 minutes of this film is a wonderful collection of mythic storytelling. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, completely on board with everything that was going on. Kylo Ren’s first appearance is strong and he’s immediately set up as a powerful presence, stopping a blaster shot in midair. He is clearly a sith with a lot of power, doing things that even Vader couldn’t with his interrogation methods.
But what really interests me about his character is that he’s basically petulant child. He’s Anakin in the sequels. Vader was calm and intimidating, his very presence struck fear in the people around him. Kylo Ren does not have that effect. He’s whiny, he has tantrums and he seems more than a little unhinged. This is the kind of thing that just makes sense to me. It’s building from the already established canon. He wants to be just like Vader but he can’t, He isn’t cold enough, he isn’t heartless enough. He’s the mirror of every Jedi that battles to keep the dark side at bay. He’ has a conscience.
This is also mirrored in the stormtrooper played by John Boyega. He defies the way he has been controlled since birth because he too has a conscience. Great idea. His chemistry in the escape scene with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is absolutely fantastic. They work so well together that it feels like a waste that he just disappears for most of the movie.They are the bro-est of bros and them running towards each other near the end is the most romantic part of the entire film.
We flash forward then to a great, mostly wordless section of the film centered entirely around Daisy Ridley’s character, Rey, collecting junk and selling them for scraps. It really works because it takes something from the original trilogy and puts it in a different context. Tatooine feels empty. It feels like just the kind of empty small town that a kid like Luke would want to get out of. Both Rey and Luke are trapped but their circumstances change everything.
She is immediately presented as a character that doesn’t need anything. She’s someone that is completely self sustaining. Finn repeatedly tries to save her only to find out that she didn’t really need his help to begin with. Which is a nice kind of progressive point about damsels in distress but it also works well as a character moment. Of course Finn wants to save her, he wants to be the hero. He has never been able to experience that feeling before. As a stormtrooper, he’s never able to feel or experience all of the things that he wants to do, and it’s interesting that his very first real act is trying to save Rey. It makes an interesting point for her too, because while she doesn’t need saving, for most of her life she has never had the choice. She has to get through the day by herself because there’s nobody around. Her reaction to Finn when he finds her on the Starkiller base (haha, that name) is one of pure happiness, because they actually came back. She still doesn’t need saving, but she’s happy that someone actually cares. Finn is a person who has never been able to love and Rey is a person who has never been loved. It’s a character dynamic that fits together well.
I like Rey. At some points her own technical skill undercuts the drama and I’ll get to that, but for the most part I like her. She’s clearly a badass, but not in the classical stoic archetype. She has feelings, she’s capable of showing affection and has more facial expressions than a scowl or rage. I also really like that Han immediately likes her. It’s not a reaction that we have ever seen it have and I think it says more about him than it does about her. It proves that even though he is back to smuggling, he isn’t the same person. In fact, everyone in this film seems to like each other a lot and I find myself really wanting to spend more time with these characters,
Outside of the context of the film, I’m just glad this character exists. I mean, look at this:
It has been less than a week since the film came out and I’ve seen stories like these everywhere. I’ve got a little Rey emoji on my phone. That’s awesome.
This combination of her technical badassery and winning personality has already received a backlash, because this is the internet and of course it has. I do wonder how much of this is just because it’s a female character. I mean, you have to ask yourself the question of whether there would be anywhere near this level of fuss if the character was a man. I don’t know whether I’d place the entirety of the blame on that, but it’s certainly something worth considering.
The phrase Mary Sue is being banded around at the moment, from the ever controversial Max Landis. I get it, I do. I don’t think the terminology is really suited, I think it’s reductive and silly, but the problem that he has speaks to a larger problem in the narrative of the film. Everyone is good at everything and nobody has to work at it. Nothing in the film is really earned. The problem isn’t that she’s good at everything, it’s that we don’t really know why. We’re never brought to the point where things make sense. This isn’t something that is exclusive to her character and it all comes to head in the final fight with Kylo Ren. He is a stormtrooper that has only fought with a lightsaber once, and he holds his own for several minutes against a person trained as both a Jedi and a Sith. It diminishes him as a threat. He is injured at the time which in retrospect does mitigate it somewhat, but it still basically has the same dramatic effect.
I initially didn’t like that Rey could hold her own against Ren, but after thinking about it, I realised that she uses her lightsaber exactly the way she uses her staff. It’s all thrusts and parries. I remember immediately thinking that her fighting style was odd and this is it. But I didn’t think of this while I was watching the actual movie, because the action is speeding by and we have no time to notice the context that her skills reside in.
Do I like the fact that she actually wins? It does feel odd. Ultimately though, I’m not sure if I really care about that anymore. It annoyed me coming out of the cinema but I don’t know if it really matters now. A Mary Sue is a character that is a self insert for the audience, an idealised person that they can project themselves onto and pretend that they’re the hero. So if making little girls everywhere want to be a lightsaber wielding, millennium falcon flying, sith destroying badasses, then fine, she’s a Mary Sue, and it’s awesome.
The real problem here isn’t the characters at all. It’s the story. It is really just kind of nothing. There just isn’t enough there and it really halts the film after that strong opening. The galaxy is vast, there’s so much things that we could see, but instead we’re just subjected to retreads of everything from the original trilogy. I thought I would be okay with that, but it turns out I’m not. One of the best things about the original trilogy was how the aesthetic was so interesting. The world felt lived in and exciting, so by retreading the same things, it makes it all seem so tired. Is there nothing left to explore? Is there nothing left to see? Where’s the passion? Where’s the wonder? Has nothing changed? 40 years have passed since the original trilogy and the empire is still around, Leia is still leading a resistance. Nothing has changed and nothing has accomplished. This universe seems so small now.The film is so immersed in itself that it forgets the wonders of adventure and exploration.
These fantastic characters are given so little to actually do that it completely breaks the film for me. Why does there need to be a third death star? They fire that bad boy up, go and kill a bunch of people that we don’t know that have no basis on the actual plot and when they die, it doesn’t matter and nothing changes. Think about how this works in A New Hope when Alderaan is destroyed – It’s not about them at all. It’s about Princess Leia, and her refusal to give up any information about the resistance. It’s about her strength of character of her continuing to fight even though so many of the people that she cares about are now dead. Do you see the difference here? The starkiller base (still funny) has no relation to the character arcs of any of the characters, and isn’t even brought up for a good portion of the film.
They could have just made storming the enemy base about finding the second part of the map. That would have made entirely more sense and it would stop the “find Luke” story from being sidetracked for such a long part of the movie.
Remember that bit where they show a diagram of the death star and show how much bigger the new weapon is? Fuck that bit.
Also, how do you kill off Han Solo and not make me actually care about it. Han solo, one of the most pervasive and lovable characters in movie history. He is killed and it’s so devoid of any emotion that even I don’t care.
JJ Abrams really has no artistic soul. He only seems capable to copy the work of other people, but in a way that feels heartless. Where Star Wars teems with wonder and imagination, this film feels woefully inert. If it wasn’t for the new characters and the great cast that they are made up of, I’d be willing to completely write this film off. But they’re here so I can’t. So now I’m just vaguely mad and disappointed.
But I’m hopeful of the future. Rian Johnson takes over writing and directing duties for the next film and I have a lot of confidence in his abilities. Let’s just hope that he takes these characters that I really do like and makes them do something worth a damn.