First of all I should give a great big SPOILER WARNING. If you haven’t seen Star Wars for yourself, go see it first. Or don’t, whatever floats your boat. But just be wary – I spoil EVERYTHING in this rant.
I went into this movie really wanting to like it. I was cautiously optimistic – the decision to scrap the expanded Star Wars universe never really sat well with me, but the film was being raved about constantly so I had hope that JJ Abrams had stepped up and created an exciting, rich new universe to be discovered. I think that if I had never heard of star wars before I would have enjoyed this movie – on the surface it presents itself as an entertaining movie – but when you have an already established canon you have a responsibility to do more than that. If you’re building upon a universe that already exists, your job is to make it richer and to flesh it out further. Throughout my childhood and into my adulthood the Star Wars expanded universe did that wonderfully. There was an immense tapestry of intriguing story lines that all wove together and created something grand. If you are going to eliminate that you damn well better have something interesting to replace it with which this film – sadly – didn’t even attempt to do.
One of the most common praises I heard sung of this film was that ‘It really feels like a Star Wars film!’ This in some ways is a step up from JJ Abrahms reboot of Star Trek – which didn’t so much feel like a Star Trek film as it did a generic Hollywood sci-fi flick with star trek characters. But after having watched Star Wars, there’s no way it couldn’t have felt like a Star Wars film – it’s basically just a modern day remake of ‘A New Hope’ – and a much weaker version that struggles to connect all of the recycled plot points and set pieces.
Open with a star-destroyer-like ship chasing a member of the rebel alliance *ahem* resistance to a desert planet that might as well be Tatooine where vital information that desperately needs to get into the hands of the rebel alliance *ahem* resistance is being sent away in a robot that looks like R2-D2 got it on with a beach ball.
What annoys me about this scene – apart from the fact that it is basically copy-pasted from ‘A New Hope’ is that the plot devices are set up worse than in ‘A New Hope’. In the original Star Wars Leia gave the plans to the droids and sent them off in an escape pod because the Empire wouldn’t detect any life signs (cause their droids) and would let it fall onto Tatooine. In ‘The Force Awakens’ BB4 is simply told by his pilot that it would have a better chance of making it than he would. – No it wouldn’t. You have a blaster not to mention appendages. True to form, later on it is discovered that BB4 was captured by a scavenger. And the pilot should have known that was going to happen because IT ALSO HAPPENED IN A NEW HOPE!
The droid is of course discovered by the desert dwelling young’un (who will end up being the next great jedi) and both of them team up with a reluctant hero and escape what might as well be Tatooine on – you guessed it – the Millenium Falcon.
Rey is basically just Luke and Fin is basically just Han Solo. They have different characteristics and back stories, but those are the roles that they play. Fin (the ex-stormtrooper) actually plays a doubly plagiaristic role because it turns out he also ends up being the source of the information that the rebel alliance *ahem* resistance needs to destroy the Death Star *ahem* Starkiller Ba… you know what, I’m gonna call it what it is – it blows up planets – it’s a f#$%ing death star.
Luke Skywalkers lightsaber is found by Rey in the ‘Star Wars Cantina’ knockoff. This bothered me immensely because they decided to go with Luke’s blue lightsaber which – as you may recall – dropped into the gas giant Bespin after Luke’s hand was cut off during his lightsaber battle with Darth Vader in cloud city. By way of explanation, the small bespectacled alien merely tells us that “That is a story for another time”. But with all the other bullshit that this film has thrown at me so far this explanation tastes bitterly of someone desperately backtracking and trying to justify the crazy shit that they have written rather than someone who has methodically and intelligently crafted his story so that all of its elements hang together and make sense within its established universe. In this case it just seems lazy since they easily could have used Luke’s green lightsaber which he constructed for ‘Return of the Jedi’ and suddenly all of those problems go away.
Starkiller Base’s reveal was about the point JJ totally lost me. Starkiller base is this film’s Death Star, I guess two of them weren’t enough? Despite being arguably the most powerful superweapon of the three death stars, I can’t help but notice that this one had – by far – the least emotional impact on me. The first Death Star could only blow up one planet and then had to wait ages and ages to reload – but that one planet was Aldaraan, Princess Leia’s home planet – so immediately we have a connection to the place and there is a great deal more impact when they blew it up. Not to mention Obi-Wan loses his shit when he feels billions of lives suddenly end through the force. In ‘Return of the Jedi’ the new Death Star is suddenly revealed to be operational just when the Rebel fleet arrives (who could forget Admiral Ackbar’s iconic “IT’S A TRAP!”) and it immediately starts picking off rebel cruisers left and right like it’s killing fruit flies – raising some serious tension! The Starkiller base not only completely failed to make an emotional impact like those other two – it did so whilest simultaneously blowing up four or five planets! I read later on Wikipedia that one of the planets was apparently the capital of the republic – I guess I missed that bit. But while reading that line all I can think is: no it isn’t! Coruscant is the capital, and that has been established by works that are still considered canon! Even if there was some back story where they changed the capital, we haven’t been told it and we’re given no reason to care about the new one. The worst part is, if they had blown up Coruscant everyone sitting in the theatre would be thinking “Holy shit, that’s Coruscant, I recognize that planet… HOLY SHIT THEY JUST DESTROYED CORUSCANT!” If you’re blowing up a single planet (not to mention 5) and not getting that reaction you are doing something horribly wrong.
As a side note I desperately need to ask why for the love of god did they not blow up the resistance base first? They blew up 5 planets but not the rebel base? On the Wikipedia plot summary it says that one of the things that was blown up was the republic fleet – but that was never shown on camera and I don’t remember anyone mentioning it so it might as well have been 5 random planets populated by the ‘briefly terrified’. Now one might put forth the argument – “the First Order didn’t know where the resistance base was!” If you meant to say “The Empire didn’t know where the Rebel base was”, you would be right. Because in ‘A New Hope’ the Empire doesn’t learn of the location of the rebel base until they plant a tracking beacon on the Millennium Falcon. In ‘The Force Awakens’ the First Order never discovers where the resistance base is and it can only be concluded that they knew where it was all along. Kylo Ren (this films Darth Vader) even goes so far as to ignore capturing BB4, a droid which could have given him that information. Rey is interrogated and also could have given him that information, but they can’t get any info from her because she just discovered newfangled force powers which she is suddenly really good at because…um………..reasons. And just in case you were planning on mentioning the pilot who was interrogated at the beginning of the film – that was at the beginning of the film so if the First Order got that info from him, they would have already known the resistance base location by the time they fired their big gun.
*UPDATED NOTE* I’ve been corrected on ‘The First Order knowing the location of the resistance base’ thing. I’m told that The First Order tracked the Resistance’s recon ship that was checking out Starkiller Base. I totally missed this in the film and can only come to the conclusion that it was mentioned more in passing by one of the characters. It seems that Abrams had decided that since everyone watching the film assumed this inevitably had to happen there wasn’t much point in giving it more than a cursory justification – which is a shame. After watching Starkiller Base blow up 5 planets we didn’t care about it would have been nice to have had a little more than a casual “Oh yeah, now their coming for a planet you’re supposed to care about”. Come on JJ, my emotions and feelings are right here, ready to go – manipulate them goddammit!
Kylo Ren is this films version of Darth Vader. Now it’s explained that he looks and sounds like Darth Vader because he has an unhealthy obsession for him (I imagine when his hyperbaric chamber closes up he’s got a bunch of Vader posters hanging and maybe a lock of his hair tucked away in a box or something) – but after all of the other recycled plot points this comes across as shockingly weak. In the first couple scenes of the movie he was kind of a bad-ass. He was freezing people, freezing blaster bolts in mid-air. Hell, Darth Vader had to keep is hand clenched the whole time when he was choking people but Kylo Ren just seems to make a gesture and then forget about it. This was utterly ruined for me the moment he took off his helmet and we discovered that he was essentially a mewling teenager with anger issues (or perhaps a satirical take on George Lucas’ Anakin Skywalker). In fact, I’m just going to refer to him as Darth Puberty from now on. I can see why they did it – they wanted to establish that DP wasn’t as powerful or in control as we thought so that Rey would have a chance to beat him with her completely untrained but conveniently good-enough light sabre skills. But after the total bad-assery of the first few scenes they had to ramp up his flaws so much that I couldn’t take him seriously as a villain.
The big reveal that Darth Puberty was Han and Leia’s son also rang very hollow for me. I could tell that this was meant to be a big ‘oh shit’ moment, but the thing with those is that they only happen when you dramatically upset a person’s expectations and preconceptions. In the original trilogy we were told in the first film that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. We then spent that film and the next one watching what a terrible dude Darth Vader was until the end of the second film we learn that Darth Vader IS Luke’s father. That has serious weight because we are invested in the characters and a subtle yet profound piece of information completely changes our view of them (and also sets up Darth Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi). In ‘The Force Awakens’ we don’t know who Han and Leia’s son is thus we have no expectations to confound. We don’t even really know who Han is since his character in this film more closely resembles the Han of ‘A New Hope’ instead of the Han he had become by the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’.
The New Order is this film’s Empire. Apart from the fact that this idea has been done before (like just about everything else in this film), it’s existence poses huge contextual problems. We saw the rise of the Empire across the prequel trilogy, we know that it came out of the Republic – a society that was built up over hundreds if not thousands of years – so when we see the vast infrastructure and resources that the Empire has in the original films it makes sense, we understand where it comes from. The original films didn’t have to justify where it came from because they were creating the universe – they got to dictate what was in it. ‘The Force Awakens’ doesn’t have that luxury and so the problem of where an enormously powerful group came from nags at me. You can argue that these are the remnants of the Empire and given the stormtroopers and ships are all pretty much Empire design I think that’s the argument that JJ Abrams is running with. But given the ages of Han, Leia and Luke, this film is set maybe 20-30 years after the original trilogy and yet the First Order has the power and infrastructure of an organization that needs hundreds of years to get there. If this really were the remnants of the Empire then they should have had much more of an ‘underdog rebellion’ feel to their operation. The resistance should be the reigning power in the republic, otherwise why in the hell did the original trilogy even happen? And yet we are right back to the original formula of this giant, evil, unstoppable military force against the scrappy underdogs even though it makes absolutely no sense with the continuity of the universe. I would make the argument that a movie about a rebuilding Republic under attack from a desperate scattered Empire, forced to resort to shadowy guerrilla tactics, would have made a much better movie. And then it wouldn’t have been annoying that Darth Puberty was so pathetic because the Empire would have been desperate and he was all they had! Or you could have just come up with something original…
Snoke is the sinister shadowy figure behind it all – this film’s version of Palpatine. In fact, I’m not totally convinced that he isn’t Palpatine being resurrected somehow from the dead (If that happens I totally called it!) But that would be an amazingly sad next-level of unoriginality since both Palpatine and ‘Palpatine poorly disguising himself as an evil puppet-master‘ have been done across the last 6 movies.
The Assault on Starbase Killer – I almost threw a fit when I saw this scene because there is an actual trench that the X-wings have to go into so that they could fly into the hole in the wall and blow up the magical maguffin that keeps the whole base from exploding. It’s like they’re not even trying.
The weird thing is at multiple points in the film characters say things making fun of the fact that so much of this stuff is recycled from the original films. This doesn’t make it OK! What it tells me is that this film is not a result of incompetence, accident or an unfortunate set of circumstances. JJ Abrams deliberately and knowingly set out to make the blandest, most generic and least interesting Star Wars film ever made. Yes, the prequel trilogy was not good, but at least it was trying to do something new – and with a story that had elements we already knew had to happen. This film had carte-blanche to do whatever the hell it wanted and it chose mediocrity. And the fact that it wiped out the tapestry of creative, interesting and imaginative story lines to do that is so very sad.
Disney, can we please have Joss Whedon do the next one? This franchise desperately needs a director with balls who is unafraid of changing the status quo and making an interesting story with the rich universe of Star Wars. At the very least, Jar Jar Abrams needs to stop ruining my favourite sci-fi. God help you if you touch Battlestar…