The Force Awakens: Barely Better than the Prequels

Yesterday’s post was going to contain my final thoughts on Star Wars the Force Awakens, but it’s been such an inescapable pop culture suck for the last few months that I can’t not think about it. It’s odd, when you think about it. I think we can all agree that JJ Abrams was handed a project with a bar so low he couldn’t help but clear it. That project then ended up being attached to a hype train I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. Disney could have spent exactly zero dollars advertising the new movie and still gotten wall-to-wall coverage, since every other commercial has been Star Wars related even, hell, especially if it’s something that’s not-at-all Star Wars-y.[1]

The part at the end inevitably left me with two questions: first, where does the Force Awakens rank in the Star Wars universe overall and, second, is Star Wars the Force Awakens actually good? Given the nature of this post I would say it’s time to assume there will be spoilers. Such things are unavoidable, so if you don’t want to see any spoilers just, y’know, stop reading.

In order to answer those questions it’s necessary to establish a baseline. Let’s talk about three recent sci-fi movies and my reactions to them: Pacific Rim, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

First, there’s Pacific Rim. I am an unabashed fan of that movie. The first time I ever heard of it there was exactly one thing I wanted in the world: for Pacific Rim to be in my brain. In the weeks leading up to the actual release of the film it occurred to me finally that Pacific Rim might actually suck. I saw it on opening night in a regular theater. Over the course of the next 2 weeks I saw it three more times in IMAX 3D. I own it on Blu-Ray and have watched it several times. Hell, I was thinking of watching it today.

Second, there’s Age of Ultron. I was moderately excited for that one, given that I’ve enjoyed the MCU so far and I thought The Avengers was awesome, to the point where it’s now on FX’s regular rotation and I will watch the final fight scene in New York City pretty much every time it comes on. I saw Age of Ultron in IMAX 3D and then thought about going back to see it again and I just couldn’t bring myself to summon the energy.

Third, there’s Jurassic World. When I first saw they were making the movie my reaction was, “Who is asking for this, seriously?” I went and saw it in IMAX 3D not because I really wanted to, but because I figured it would be a spectacular failure and I wanted to see said spectacular failure in the most spectacular way possible. Then they took the train through the doors to the park and did that helicopter swoosh down the park’s main thoroughfare to the Jurassic Park music and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up and, long story short, I’ve seen that movie three times in IMAX 3D.

In the weeks following the releases of Pacific Rim and Jurassic World I saw plenty of articles ripping those movies apart. They were called dumb. Little details and reasonable size plot holes were picked apart. I was basically called an idiot for enjoying such stupid movies. The thing about it is that those articles didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already figured out on my own. I saw both movies three times in the biggest possible format.

There is no such thing as the perfect movie. We as a society have pretty much hit upon a formula where we can identify and more-or-less agree with each other about which movies are good and which ones are bad and then we can usually get to an agreement to the level of “so bad it’s good” and “fell just short of good and became awful.”

The place where problems and arguments start is that we have a hard time really coming up with a common understanding of how to deal with things like plot holes and general ridiculousness. Like, with Pacific Rim there was the question of, “Why didn’t they mention the damn sword earlier? Isn’t that convenient?” and, “No, really, giant robots punching giant monsters in the face? What the fuck, man?” I saw those things and kind of shrugged them away while others saw them and were all, “Well this is just goddamn stupid.” Which is something I knew already, since I went in expecting to see a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in their giant faces. This might have been the Citizen Kane of Humongous Mecha movies, but it was still a Humongous Mecha movie, which means it was never going to actually be Citizen Kane.

So from there we have to fall back to the question, “What is this movie about?” In the case of Pacific Rim it was Guillermo del Toro penning a love letter to a whole genre of movies with a little bit of environmentalism thrown in. It could have been awful but they picked a great cast who got into the ridiculousness wholeheartedly and made the question, “Would this look really fucking cool in IMAX 3D?” their guiding principle. In the case of Jurassic World it was actually more complicated. I realized early on that first time I saw it that the movie was actually a meta-movie about how summer blockbusters had changed, both for the better and worse, since Jurassic Park first came out.

The interesting thing about both Pacific Rim and Jurassic World is that both movies were full of references, callbacks, and Easter eggs. I can’t really speak to Pacific Rim, since I’m not really familiar with the genre as a whole, so I’ll just talk Jurassic World. Many of the setup shots in that movie were meant to directly mimic shots in Jurassic Park. There was, of course, the scene where the technician guy got called out for wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt, which seemed a bit heavy-handed but it also served as a piece of the meta-plot about the making of movies itself. It was there for a reason that did actually go beyond, “Hey, wouldn’t it be hilarious if we had a guy wearing a shirt from the 1993 movie?”

This is why while I admit that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a good movie I also didn’t care about it all that much and certainly not as much as I cared about The Avengers. Age of Ultron wasn’t about anything more than moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe forward. Yeah, it had the metaplot about the modern surveillance state and making ourselves into monsters because we obsess over fighting monsters, but on a deep, fundamental level the movie just existed to fill out a spot on Marvel’s schedule of taking over the world. It felt perfunctory and, if I’m completely honest, I’ve cared less about the MCU since I saw it than I did before, since it showed that the MCU exists to keep the MCU existing and keep all that money rolling in so that it can keep going.

So with this in mind we must go to Star Wars.

George Lucas started telling the stories in Star Wars because he wanted to tell the story of the Hero’s Journey. In the original movie he nailed the format and we could have just left it at that. But we didn’t and Lucas almost immediately started compromising his vision. What was the underlying message of Return of the Jedi, after all? It was, “Go to the store and buy toys!” That’s why the Ewoks were in the picture. To sell toys to children. Even so, Return of the Jedi couldn’t help but be a good movie, since the franchise had so much momentum coming out of The Empire Strikes Back and we still had to finish up the stories of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine and Luke and Leia and Han. In all honesty the world of Star Wars should have just stopped right there. But people being people the fanboys couldn’t leave well enough alone.

So what did George Lucas do? He created a two-hour toy commercial. Jar Jar Binks was the new Ewoks. Darth Maul’s ridiculous double-bladed lightsaber was there to look cool on the shelves at the Toys R Us. Lucas’s vision was compromised from the start since he didn’t actually care about making a Star Wars movie. Even if Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith had ended up being really good movies the prequels might have been sunk by that first movie. Which sucks, because there was an interesting story in there somewhere.

So this forces us to ask the question, “What is the underlying message of Star Wars the Force Awakens?”

That message is as simple as it is misguided. It’s, “Hey, look everybody, I, JJ Abrams, can totally make a Star Wars movie! Isn’t that neat?” That’s it. That’s the great message of the new Star Wars movie. JJ Abrams proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’s capable of chopping up the plot points of the two objectively great Star Wars movies and reassembling them in a slightly different order. And even at that he hasn’t proved that he can do it well.

First of all, there’s the minor problem that Abrams seems to have mistaken making references to things that already happened for good moviemaking. Every single thing that happens in The Force Awakens is a call-out to something that happened in either Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. Most of the scenes are designed to be direct compositional callouts. Most of the sets are designed to look like other places we’ve already been. He’s got a whole galaxy to play with and all he can think to do is make a desert planet, an ice planet, and a shady bar filled with crazy looking aliens. He could have pulled his villain from anywhere but all he could think to do there was make a new Darth Vader right down to the same exact origin story.

That part could have been an interesting meta-commentary on how good and evil are cyclical, but he even fucked that one up pretty badly. Kylo Renn is a bad character in general and a worse big bad. Interestingly enough he’s bad for the exact same reasons Anakin Skywalker was a bad…whatever we want to call him from the prequels. We already know him too well. This is actually where we get to the truth that an origin story for a villain is really, really, incredibly hard to do well, especially if everyone knows that the origin story in question is for a villain.

The great thing about Darth Vader was that we knew basically nothing about him.[2] He’s only actually on screen for maybe 15 minutes of the run time of the original movie. What does he do in that time? He captures Leia, he Force chokes his own Admiral, he blows up a goddamn planet just to make a point, and then he kills Obi-Wan. That is a terrifying dude.

I’ve already talked about this, but we already know Kylo Renn too well. Abrams couldn’t wait to spoil his parentage. He then had a temper tantrum and destroyed a room. Then he took off his mask and pitched a fit and let Rey know that he was scared of her. What the fuck kind of villain does that? It makes him look weak and pathetic and the exact opposite of scary. He had the hero at his mercy and ended up being all, “Ehrmagerd, you’re more powerful than me. I’ma go run to my giant orc hologram buddy for help.” And in the next scene he was standing there without his damn mask whining away to his boss. No. Just…no. I could not take him seriously as a bad guy at that point.[3]

Oh, also, Supreme Leader Snoke is a terrible character. It apparently never occurred to JJ Abrams that it might be hard to take a bad guy who looks like Voldemort and Gollum had a love child who nearly died in a house fire. And making him a hundred-foot tall hologram just makes him, well, let’s just say I’m guessing he drives a big ol’ SUV with truck nutz hanging off the back. At this point the only thing that can possibly redeem Supreme Leader Snoke is if we have a Wizard of Oz moment and it turns out that he’s actually an old man behind a curtain. Or Jar Jar Binks. Or Admiral Ackbar, who started the First Order[4] as an elaborate false flag to get more military funding from the Republic.[5]

And here we get to the part that’s sure to make me plenty of enemies on the internet and will also make me friends with people I don’t want to be friends with. Rey is not a good character. She’s a full-on Mary Sue fanfic insert who was impossible to take seriously as a character.

This is absolutely not because Rey is a woman. Let me make that clear right now. I actually think it’s fantastic that the two leads of the movie are a woman and a black dude. I think it’s awesome that we have a female Jedi. I think it’s fantastic that Rey figured out how to take care of herself. I just wish they’d managed to do all of that in a way that wasn’t just totally, mind-numbingly stupid.

Rey starts the movie as a presumably uneducated orphan living in the leg of a dead AT-AT walker on a planet that makes Tatooine look positively civilized. By the end of the movie she’s figured out how to fly and repair the Millennium Falcon, how to use her Jedi mind tricks to get a Stormtrooper to release her from custody, use the Force to telekinetically grab a lightsaber that another Jedi who is trained and also physically closer to it is also reaching for, and how to beat a bigger, stronger, actually trained Jedi in lightsaber combat. Yet she doesn’t receive a moment of training for any of that and there’s nothing in her backstory that indicates she has any sort of training in anything but stripping parts from busted Star Destroyers.

She actually completely destroyed my ability to suspend my disbelief almost immediately.[6] The First Order tracks BB-8 down and she and Finn have to beat a hasty retreat. So they end up stealing the Millennium Falcon and trying to outrun a couple TIE fighters. This leads to that most tired sci-fi cliché: the attempt to shake the bad guys by flying through an impossibly tight space at high speeds, in this case the hulk of a crashed Star Destroyer. This is the Millennium Falcon. It’s a really wide ship with the cockpit all the way over on the far right. Taking it into tight spaces at high speed within moments of taking off for the first time is a recipe for disaster. But it all works out great because double plot armor, I guess.

Then in the middle of the movie she finds out she’s a Jedi. By the end of the movie she’s a pretty kick-ass Jedi even though she’s never even met another Jedi. Why? I’m guessing it’s because JJ Abrams couldn’t figure out a way to actually make a believable movie.

Let’s go back to the original Star Wars. Luke finds out he’s a Jedi. Yet throughout the first movie he’s still pretty much helpless. The only moment he actually uses the Force is at the very end. Meanwhile, he can fly an X-Wing because he already knows how to fly and we can only assume there was an off-screen moment where Jek Porkins and Wedge Antilles showed him how to find the on switch and the trigger mechanism. The first time we see Luke use the telekinetic Force grab trick is in The Empire Strikes Back when he’s trying to escape from the Wampa and that takes him quite a bit of effort.

What this all illustrates is that JJ Abrams doesn’t actually understand what drove George Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place. Lucas had a vision. Yes, he compromised that vision as soon as he realized he could make enough money to make Scrooge McDuck jealous, but at the beginning he had a vision and he created an enduring movie because he followed through on that vision and understood what it was all about.

JJ Abrams doesn’t have a vision. JJ Abrams knows that Star Wars is cool and that he wanted to make a Star Wars. So he went out and made a Star Wars. That’s good for him, I guess. But I would argue that JJ Abrams’ lack of vision caused The Force Awakens to fail almost as badly as George Lucas’s compromised vision caused the prequels to fail. The only thing that’s saved him so far is that the bar was literally set at, “I’ll love it if it doesn’t have Jar Jar Binks.” But Lucas managed to clear that bar in Revenge of the Sith. I don’t recall anyone saying nice things about that movie.

The one saving grace for the Star Wars franchise is that we probably won’t get a Star Wars Into Darkness, though. We already know that Rian Johnson is directing Episode VIII. He did Looper and Brick, so we can only hope that this means we’ll find out that Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is actually pulling the holographic strings for Supreme Leader Snoke. I would be totally okay with that.

Seriously, though. How do you complain about Jar Jar Binks and give Snoke a pass? He’s easily as dumb even if he isn’t as annoying.


[1]”Go buy some jewelry in your new Fiat 500 Abarth and then see Star Wars the Force Awakens, in theaters December 17th!” Huh? What?

[2]This, incidentally, is the mark of any good movies’ treatment of the bad guy. We should not know the bad guy beyond their powers and their presumed intentions. We should spend all of our time watching the good guys scramble around to try to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it. Think about it in terms of movies I’ve already discussed. In Jurassic Park and Jurassic World the dinosaurs that are terrorizing everyone are barely on screen. They break out of their pens. They have big set-pieces to set up the whole, “Yeah, that’s why we should be terrified,” and then they kinda just…disappear for a bit and let us worry that they’re around every corner. In Pacific Rim we never actually really even see the real bad guys. The Kaiju are just their foot soldiers and we only see their dimension for a moment at the end, leaving everyone to wonder who the fuck these guys are and how they’ve decided that bio-engineering thousand-ton killing machines and sending them through a hole in the ocean floor is actually a good plan. In The Avengers we do see Loki quite a bit, but he follows the same pattern and we see way more of the Avengers trying to get their shit together.

[3]This, weirdly, reminds me of nothing so much as Superman Returns, or whatever that movie was called. There was a scene in that movie where Lois Lane snuck aboard Lex Luthor’s yacht and all of the sudden runs into him…while he’s brushing his teeth. That was actually a great scene in an otherwise terrible movie and not just because Kevin Spacey is awesome. See, Lex Luthor is a regular human who’s trying to come up with a plot that has to get around the fact that at some point god hisownself will notice and step in to stop him. So when we see Lex Luthor brushing his teeth it drives home the point that he’s just a human. Which makes it all the more impressive that he’s going through with his plan to try to kill god.

[4]Also, I’ve realized that I spent almost all of yesterday’s post calling the First Order the New Order. I cannot be arsed to change that, since I actually don’t care. The names are both just so generically boring.

[5]It’s a trap!

[6]This scene also has a patented “JJ Abrams doesn’t have a fucking clue how anything works” series. First, the Millennium Falcon, which has been sitting under a tarp in the desert, just starts right up. Second, Rey manages to crash it into literally everything while trying to lift off. She hits the ground a couple of times and plows through an archway. There’s no way that would end well for a spaceship.

One thought on “The Force Awakens: Barely Better than the Prequels

  1. Spaceships in SW occupy the narrative role of cars and trucks. You can bash a car (gently) against the back of the garage and it’ll be fine. Ergo you can do the same thing to spaceships.

    I commend to your attention Emo Kylo Ren:

    I can’t agree with you on the Mary Sue thing because I think all Star Wars good guys are like that. It’s the shape of the story.

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