Star Wars is like ice cream. It is the thing to which I turn when I simply want to enjoy myself.
One of the reasons that I find the “Prequel Trilogy” so intolerable is that it opposes my enjoyment on so many levels. It’s like digging into a tub of ice cream to find that it’s not ice cream at all, it’s mashed, frozen chickpeas. And that might be alright, there might be some people out there who like the taste of mashed frozen chickpeas, but this stuff isn’t even mashed very well; it’s lumpy, it’s hard, it’s bitter and has been flavoured with earwax and ebola.
In essence, the Prequels are awful because not only are they a poor substitute for Star Wars, but they’re also objectively poor in their own right. I won’t dive into the details here, as there are many and better reviews already out there.
If you think that my views are coloured by nostalgia, and that the “Original Trilogy” is just as flawed as the Prequels, then my proof lies in the following anecdote. My friend, we’ll call him “James”, tried to prove precisely that I was affected by “nostalgia glasses” by watching ‘A New Hope’ and noting down of all the problems with it; half an hour in and he’d forgotten to take any notes because he was enjoying the film so much.
Curiously, he managed to keep his concentration all the way through ‘The Phantom Menace’.
The truth is, all I need from any Star Wars experience is a warm and comfortable feeling of fun; almost as though I’m a bright-eyed happy kid again rather than the dour, depressive, bitter and bearded adult I have become. What I specifically don’t need is in-depth character studies, explanations of technology or The Force, political discussions, or pointless bloody child actors.
Six paragraphs in and I still haven’t mentioned the subject of this article, namely the latest Star Wars release, ‘The Force Awakens’, produced by Disney and directed by J. J. Abrams, the man behind another movie which is so stupid that being able to understand its plot is an indicator of brain damage. And I’m glad to say, he got everything right with this one.
Well, almost everything.
Fair warning, what lies ahead is almost entirely positive and, as such, much less entertaining than my usual frothing bile-ridden rants. What I am aiming to do is highlight all the things that this movie got right for me, but there are some rules:
- Aesthetics – I will avoid talking about appearances, music, acting and other stylistic choices, unless it’s an important feature of the story.
- No physics/realism discussion, because, y’know, this is fucking Star Wars.
- I won’t be using this as an excuse to slam the Prequels. I’ll happily compare its triumphs to their failures to make a point, but I’ll avoid devolving into an incoherent admonition of those three turds.
- I don’t give a shit about any “Expanded Universe” bollocks and I never will. That putrescent cauldron produced such pointless entities as the “Yuuzhan Vong” and the idiotic, ideas-from-the-notebook-of-a-spotty-teenager-who-thinks-cars-with-twelve-exhaust-pipes-are-cool-inspired “Suncrusher”, so no part of this article will address anything from any part of the Expanded Universe except maybe some of the more explicit pieces of slash-fiction, and then only indirectly and unintentionally.
- Similarly, there are novels and cartoons and other support media released alongside this film which are apparently “canon”. I couldn’t care less. This is a Movie franchise, damn it, and that’s exactly how I’ll treat it. If you’re meant to read a comic book before you can fully appreciate a film then they ought to put that on the bloody poster.
- These rules will be broken. Blow me.
I believe I’m in a strong position to dissect this movie, as I have now seen it a total of four times. I think I’ve reached saturation, in fact, as the last time I watched it I started dozing off a little, but in fairness it was eleven in the morning so I was pretty sleepy.
Finally, these observations are mostly mine, and I’ve avoided other peoples’ reviews of this film specifically so I could write this post. However, there are some points on here that were raised by other internet commentators, and for which I have failed to keep references. I’ll highlight this where I can, but I won’t be able to offer links so do your own bloody research and blow me.
And, obviously, spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
A New Cast For A New Age
This film does not mess around with establishing its own setting and characters, and it definitely feels like the beginning of a trilogy of new stories. Indeed, it doesn’t really feel like a “continuation” from the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’ at all, and that’s incredibly important for the purpose of crafting an engaging story.
In essence, the new trilogy has to leave the old characters behind. Luke defying the Emperor and redeeming his own father was the perfect climax to his character arc; actually showing him trying to rebuild the Jedi order would have felt stale. He’s already done the most exciting thing he’ll ever do, and everything that comes after will feel inferior by comparison.
This is best exemplified by the final chapters of ‘The Return of the King’ – Tolkien’s original ending saw the four Hobbits return to the Shire and wage a minor campaign to take their homes back from Saruman. It was sensibly dropped in the films because they had already won. Sam carried Frodo up the mountain, Frodo destroyed the ring. Prancing around Hobbiton on ponies and calling Grima Wormtongue a cunt is just a huge anti-climax.
‘The Force Awakens’ grabs this principal and runs with it. Han and Leia are almost casual in their approach to destroying Starkiller Base; they’ve done this twice already for crying out loud, and Admiral Ackbar is the only familiar face to seem excited about the new mission, probably because he was so surprised to be invited back at all.
By hanging the plot entirely off of new characters like Rey and Finn, we get to go through their story sharing in their excitement, their fears and their uncertainties. We can see characters that grow and develop as they enter a whole new world of possibilities.
Speaking of A Whole New World…
A lot of people have expressed frustration with the ambiguity of the origins of the “First Order”, as well as other status quos such as the role of the Republic and its relationship to the Resistance. These are frustrations with which I sympathise, but the absence of details about background and setting are important to the integrity of the film itself.
For one thing, ‘A New Hope’ didn’t waste any time on any of its background at all, to its strength. It was entirely focused on the action at hand. We don’t see the Senate, we don’t even see Alderaan beyond a pale image on a view screen. The audience is thrown into the action and left to fill in the blanks with our own imagination.
You may think you want more details about the politics and the history, but that’s exactly what you got with the Senate sequences in ‘The Phantom Menace’, and do you recall how exciting and enjoyable those incredibly memorable scenes were? If we’re being honest with each other, we both want a lot more of BB-8 giving the thumbs-up with a cigarette lighter, and a lot less of Senators deferring their motions to allow committees to explore the validity of their accusations.
The truth is, the First Order firing their new super weapon is a lot more exciting than the story of how they built it. And whilst a bit of background explanation doesn’t hurt the story, these films have to come in at around the two-hour mark, and when you’re trying to arrange scenes like you’re playing the world’s most expensive game of ‘Tetris’, what exactly do you leave on the cutting room floor in order to make space for a two-minute piece of dry exposition on the logistics of space station construction?
Going back to characters for a moment, the same economy has to apply to the people as well as the setting. For instance, all of the conversations between Han and Leia in ‘The Force Awakens’ are not about each other, but instead focus on Kylo Ren, their son and the third main character. Knowing the intricacies of their relationship following ‘Return of the Jedi’ is so much less important than understanding their son and his story.
Last point on this subject, but exploring the intervening thirty years between this film and the last is a fast track to failure. Would the tale of an aging Luke Skywalker and how he grew his beard ever really live up to your expectations?
I think not.
‘The Force Awakens’ Nails Relationships Like Rhonda Rousey Taking On A Bus-Load Of School Children
With four words, “I like that Wookiee,” the diminutive orange Yoda-Lite Maz Canata immediately secures the trust of the audience. This was originally pointed out by a redditor on the Star Wars subreddit, and whilst I’m unable to relocate the post in question, This Is How Character Development Should Be Done.
By exploiting her friendship with a loved character like Chewie, the film-makers let us know that Maz is one of the good guys, in exactly the same way that we can identify a baddie by their mistreatment of the most sympathetic character.
Were this a prequel movie, we would doubtless have had two minutes of back-and-forth dialogue about “that time when Maz saved Han from that corridor of feeblecocks” or whatever, and the audience would be left baffled and wondering why they weren’t watching a better film.
What’s more impressive is that this is just about the only time in this movie that a friendship between two characters is established only with dialogue. The trust and fellowship between Rey and Finn is developed through their actions, and likewise between Finn and Poe. We see them work together, suffer together, triumph together, and every step of the way we understand why these people care for one another.
Compare the fury and uncertainty and anger that exists between Rey and Kylo, protagonist and antagonist, to the interactions between any of the villains in any of the prequels and their counterparts. I guess Nute Gunray kind of hates Padme, but she doesn’t seem to even acknowledge him, despite his attempt to INVADE HER FUCKING PLANET AND SUBJUGATE HER PEOPLE. Don’t even get me started on Darth Maul, or the emotional vacuum of Yoda fighting Palpatine.
The point is that by properly establishing relationships between characters through actions and choices, the audience is drawn into those relationships and made a part of them – we’re rooting for Poe and Finn to escape the Star Destroyer as much as they’re rooting for each other, and we feel just as excited as they do when they’re reunited.
Also, it’s my solemn hope that a beautiful relationship blossoms between Finn and Poe in the next installment. I want, nay, have to see Poe being dragged away to his doom, as Finn cries out “I love you!” and Poe smiles and says “I know.” And then later they bone.
Keeping It On The Screen
Just as relationships are shown to us clearly, so are the qualities of individual characters. We’re told at the beginning of the film that Poe Dameron is a top pilot, but that is never sealed until we see him in action, pulling head-spinning manoeuvres and downing TIE Fighters faster than a combine harvester can chew through a line of nuns.
We don’t actually get told how powerful Kylo Ren is; we get to see it for ourselves as he stops time, rips secrets out of our heroes’ minds and destroys innocent consoles. Kylo is a symbol of fear and threat not because of the film telling us how dangerous he is but by showing us what he’s capable of. And he doesn’t even have any tattoos or head spikes.
In ‘Return of the Jedi’, we see Lando spot the Imperial trap, co-ordinate his squadrons to avoid destruction, and in general render poor Admiral Ackbar completely redundant. Any question over his suitability as a General is completely wiped clean as we see him naturally settle into the role.
Anakin Skywalker is apparently a great pilot because he tried spinning. That was a neat trick. He could also fly a skycar around pretty well I guess, but it seemed like Obi Wan did a better job.
Having qualities that are visible to the audience is just about the most important part of creating a character for a film. When characters lack defining qualities, or when their traits are talked about but never displayed, you end up with bland characters who fail to compel the audience.
Motivation Is Important
“Why?” is just as important as “How?” when it comes to storytelling. Sometimes more so. Vader’s revelation to Luke at the end of ‘Empire Strikes Back’ is so powerful a moment because it expands his motivations – he has doggedly pursued Luke and his friends throughout the whole film, but the fact that it was so personal adds a new dimension to the conflict.
Fortunately, ‘The Force Awakens’ gets its motivations right, too. Rey is characterised as the ‘noble survivor’, someone determined to make it through to the next day whilst doing the right thing. Finn’s dialogue-free breakdown during the opening battle tells us everything we need to know about why he decides to escape, and why he later refuses to get involved with the Resistance’s cause except to rescue Rey.
In ‘A New Hope’ we see Luke dreaming of adventures and excitement. We understand Tarkin’s objectives of crushing the Rebellion once and for all. We’re never faced with some silent enemy who turns up randomly at a hangar with the intention of… killing two specific Jedi, apparently. Hell, Boba Fett gets about ninety nanoseconds of screen-time, but we still understand his simple and clear motivations as a bounty hunter ten-million-times better than we do the intentions of Count
It’s The Little Touches
One of the things that everyone can enjoy in any Star Wars movie is the detail; the menagerie of aliens, a myriad of vehicles and technologies, the costumes, and so on. And in the best tradition, ‘The Force Awakens’ is replete with clever little flourishes, the significance of which could be easily missed.
- My good friend Simon pointed out that Han, being chased by the tentacled Vagina Dentatas, punches and then throws a mercenary into one of the gaping maws as he and Chewie flee the carnage. This is classic, ruthless Han Solo, and detaches us from the weird alternate universe presented in the Special Editions where for some reason, only the baddies shoot first.
- Another is in Rey’s interrogation scene, as Kylo talks about the ocean in Rey’s dreams, and the island she sees. She’s dreaming of Luke Skywalker, already linking to him through the Force, but until you see the closing scene this just seems like fairly standard dream imagery.
- All of Rey’s skills and abilities are carefully built up early in the movie; she spends her life scavenging Imperial ships, and so is already a capable mechanic, and is well-prepared to stealthily navigate a First Order base when she later needs to escape, used to Imperial designs and layouts.
- Snoke’s towering introduction immediately asserts him as a powerful, terrifying figure, and the revelation that it’s a hologram adds a brilliant ‘Wizard of Oz’, “man behind the curtain” feel to his character.
- Another one from Reddit, the use of lighting during the confrontation between Kylo and Han, the fading of the bright light to bloody red as Kylo resolves to carry out his terrible deed. The fact it echoes Poe’s earlier statement of “As long as there’s light, we’ve got a chance” is just lovely.
- Rey and Finn can barely move the grating that they hide underneath aboard the Falcon, so when Chewbacca casually hoists it without trouble, newcomers to the franchise are immediately informed of his colossal strength.
- Love or hate the cross-guard, the instability of Kylo’s lightsaber, and the brutal crackle of it as it twitches, barely contained, is a fantastic alternative to the “Vader Rebreather” as a menacing indicator of the villain’s presence. And is several steps above and beyond the wheezing coughs of General Grievous.
- My friend James pointed out that Poe’s X-Wing, black and orange, is the exact colour inversion of the rest of the squadron in blue and white. Just try and pretend that’s not neat.
Filling In The Plot Holes
No story is watertight, and sometimes the necessity for excitement and drama requires a certain suspension of disbelief. If things are exciting and dramatic enough, then the audience won’t even notice – nobody really cares about gaps in the plot of ‘The Matrix’ because we’re all too busy being entertained.
There are some elements of story of ‘The Force Awakens’ which sadly do rely upon a bit of coincidence, or which don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny. But unlike J. J. Abrams previous directorial endeavour, most of them are too small to be noticed compared to all of the amazing sights and sounds, and most of them get ironed out upon further scrutiny.
There are better articles for filling this movie’s plot holes, but the real core of the matter is that most of the plot holes don’t matter in the first place. The story itself, like in ‘A New Hope’ (we’ll get to that soon) is straightforward – it doesn’t hang off space politics, trade taxes and territory disputes, but instead keeps matters focused on the characters at the heart of everything.
It is a bit of a coincidence that Finn happens to stumble into the same town as Rey and BB-8, but how he ended up there doesn’t really matter. And, if you really need an explanation, then this is one of the perfect candidates for that otherwise eye-rolling excuse “The Force Did It”. Influencing the random direction chosen by a person wandering aimlessly through the desert is exactly the kind of thing that an omnipresent mystical energy field might do – and in fact, I kind of like the idea that maybe the Force guided Finn towards Rey – it adds to the mystery and the power of the whole concept.
But that aside, I’ve watched this film four times now, and I’m yet to notice any flaws which ruin my enjoyment of it. I don’t care how Maz got hold of Luke’s lightsaber – her little den of smugglers and space-farers seems like exactly the kind of place where strange relics and artefacts would end up anyway. Finn’s ability with a lightsaber might seem perplexing, until you realise that he got completely demolished by a bloody Stormtrooper, and that as soon as he lands a lucky hit on Kylo, the Emo Wonder stops fucking around and spends about thirty milliseconds disarming the hapless hero and giving his spine a brand new look on life.
None of it matters, though, because the story itself holds together, our characters do things that you might expect them to do in each situation, and none of it gets in the way of a good romp. This isn’t ‘Prometheus’, where the motivations of each character are so opaque that their actions seem random; nor is it the Prequels, where a bad dream can cause you to lose control for a moment and attack your colleagues, murder children, travel several thousand lightyears, murder a whole bunch more people, and then try to murder your friend and mentor shortly after trying to choke to death the person about whom you were having the bad dream, then go on to help found an Empire of corruption and oppression and torture whilst systematically hunting down a whole cadre of war heroes alongside whom you used to fight, eventually culminating in you actually murdering your mentor and friend, trying to murder your own son and all of his friends, and choking to death anyone who in any way fails to live up to expectations.
Hey, we all have nightmares.
There’s Something Familiar About This Place…
As just about everybody has already pointed out, there are several “parallels” between the overall plot of ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘A New Hope’. This is fairly obvious, but that’s just it: it’s obvious. It’s surface features. Yes, it involves a band of freedom fighters taking down the planet-destroying space station of a tyrannical force of evil, but once you start looking at things in a little more detail, it becomes a bit more clear that the similarities are mostly skin-deep.
I’ve made this point a few times now, but Star Wars is, really, all about the characters and their journeys. ‘A New Hope’ is the tale of a restless farmboy, bored of his uneventful circumstances, desperate for adventure. Tragic circumstances end his old life suddenly and he embarks on the adventure he always wanted, discovering magic, rescuing a princess from a wicked tyrant and then destroying the evil fortress and saving the day.
‘The Force Awakens’ is about a girl abandoned by her family, struggling to get by day-to-day, until she gets dragged, literally and reluctantly, into a fight between good and evil. She gets captured by a masked villain, only to discover something completely new about herself, and eventually confronts and defeats the monster who captured her, before taking her first steps (literally) on a strange and mysterious path to the force.
The themes in both films are completely different, and the actual similarities are structural; the fact is, elements like a humble beginning for our hero (Tatooine and Jakku), an aged mentor who gives their life for the cause (Obi Wan and Han Solo) and and a terrifying weapon (the Death Star and Starkiller Base) are fantastic features around which to hang a story that’s meant to be exciting and thrilling and engaging and enjoyable and I just love Star Wars so much it huuuurts.
Other differences between the two films include the focus on a villain as a primary character; Obi Wan’s death in ‘A New Hope’ is all part of Luke’s story, but Han’s death is very much more a part of Kylo’s story than it is Rey’s. Similarly, ‘The Force Awakens’ shows us the journey of Finn, a Stormtrooper gone rogue – someone going through some serious revelations and who defects not so much to the side of Good but rather tries to escape the whole affair altogether.
It’s for those reasons that I never felt like I was watching the same film. All of the same features are used to tell two very different stories, and although the structure might be similar, the actual meaty content of it all is very distinct.
But Nothing Is Perfect
Despite all of my dribbling adoration, there are still flaws with ‘The Force Awakens’ which cannot escape scrutiny. Given what they had to achieve, what expectations were laid upon them and what consequences there were for failure, I feel the film-makers achieved something incredible. I also feel they had more-or-less unlimited resources provided by the second-largest entertainment company in the world, so I have to call them out on their failures.
- I would really have liked to seen more from Captain Phasma. This might be more a result of my crippling infatuation with Gwendoline Christie, but Phasma’s promise as a ruthless , terrifying military badass was dissolved by her lack of relevance in the film. In truth, Finn and friends could have taken any First Officer prisoner to lower the shields, and I feel that she lacked any particular qualities that actually stood out. Hopefully the next film will rectify this, as Phasma relentlessly pursues the despicable traitor who deserted her division and humiliated her after forcing her to betray her duties. Hopefully.
- The first time I watched through the film, I felt it was over-paced. It moved so quickly that I could hardly catch my breath. In subsequent viewings this was less of an issue since I knew what was going on. However, ‘A New Hope’ managed a few lovely, slow scenes, such as Luke training aboard the Falcon, or the gradual build-up towards the final battle, which really helped let everything I’d seen sink in without loading me with yet more information.
- None of the music was quite iconic enough compared to my expectations. John Williams is one of my favourite musicians full stop, and I was sad we didn’t get anything on par with ‘Duel of the Fates’ or ‘The Imperial March’ out of this. ‘Rey’s Theme’ has become a favourite, and Williams’ use of the old melody when Rey ignites the lightsaber for the first time brought a tear to my eye, but none of the new music is quite as timeless and encapsulating as some of the previous scores.
- I was going to include the “Thermal Oscillator” in this bit, but apparently thermal oscillation is actually a thing and would make sense in the context it’s described, so I’m forced to give it a pass, even if it does sound stupid.
- Speaking of stupid-sounding things, “Supreme Leader Snoke” is just ridiculous enough to be distracting. “Snoke” is a fine name for some dumb, clumsy alien with a long trunk for a nose and bright blue skin, but not for a super-secretive uber-villain.
- Ventral cannons. Ventral cannons should act like cannons, not missile launchers. I don’t care if a cannon can actually fire missiles, it still annoys me.
- The scene in which Kylo attempts to use the Force to interrogate Rey is just silly enough to remind me of that episode of South Park where Cartman develops psychic powers and has “mind battles” with other mystics.
- And as for that scene, Kylo almost comes across as a bit… rapey with some of his dialogue. However, I have chosen to give this a pass since I’m pretty sure that if Rey was a man rather than a woman I would never have thought that.
- This is super-minor, but I would really have enjoyed seeing some more varied ship designs. With the final assault on Starkiller Base, they could have had all sorts of Resistance ships getting involved, with some real visual variety in the designs. As is, the dogfights were still exciting and engrossing, so it’s mostly fine, but I feel like they missed a trick here.
And… that’s it. That’s the sum of things that stand out as being negative about this movie for me.
Some Final Thoughts
Maybe I’m just a wide-eyed fanboy, but I really think they nailed this one. We have characters that we care about; characters with clear motivations; characters who come to life on the screen. We have gorgeous settings, amazing shots, and in general this film manages to improve my state of being from “obnoxious arsehole” to “smiling fool”.
It wasn’t quite on a par with the originals, but it was never going to be, not in my eyes. The first three Star Wars films hold a special enough place in my heart that nothing could ever match them. But I reckon that for less die-hard fans, or for people new to the franchise, ‘The Force Awakens’ will become the new standard for Star Wars films.
Everyone who I’ve spoken to who has seen it has said that they can’t wait to see the next one, and that’s the sign of a quality movie. It doesn’t answer every single question, and it doesn’t have to; this is as much the beginning of a story as ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, and I have a feeling the whole series is going to be just as epic.
… Actually, one final thought; I don’t know what his character was actually called, but “Max von Sydow” is a perfect Star Wars name.