Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Review of The Force Awakens

OK, it's been weeks, so the spoiler moratorium is over. If you still haven't seen The Force Awakens directed by J.J. Abrams, then don't read this. If you do and the movie's ruined for you, it's your own fault.

The Force Awakens
Pretty much the full cast is represented with the exception of Luke

I've seen it twice (once in 3D, and once not). The second time was to double-check things that I thought I saw the first time 'round, and to see if I missed anything seriously important.


It didn't suck. It was OK family entertainment.
Production-wise it was stellar.
Story-wise, it was amateurish, immature and poorly structured.
Basically, it was a Disney movie.


What can I say? BB8 stole the show. He was there to be cute comic relief, and he was, to just the right degree. As a practical effect, this prop was seriously effective, even when you realize that there's basically one way to achieve it  (an omniwheel RC platform in a "hamsterball" with an internal magnetic boom to secure and move the "head"). Add in a few stunt doubles with waldoes and the illusion is perfect. And kudos to the production team for using practical effects wherever they could. It's difficult, especially in a film like this, but the results are worth it.

The CGI was (mostly) stellar. In particular, Maz Kanata was exquisitely rendered. She was totally believable, both visually and as a character. You never get the feeling that she's a digital puppet. Maz is easily my favorite new character.

There was perhaps a place or two elsewhere in the film where I felt that Newtonian physics were being violated and I visited the uncanny valley, but these were blessedly few. The use of 3D was very impressive, despite the fact that some distant backdrops appeared 'flat'.

The music was of the consistent quality that we've come to expect from John Williams. 'nuff said.

There's one new character that I could stand to see a lot more of: Poe Dameron. He's the archetypal "woodsman" of fairy tales... the heroic figure who does one thing and does it very well through training and profession, with no illusions of inadequacy within his field or competence outside of it. I like that he's got a story that occurs outside of the depicted events, and that J.J. Abrams didn't feel the need to bother us with those details.

Mark Hamill rocks the beard.
The marketing fake-out for this movie was, I must say, brilliant. Mark Hamill had not a word of dialog in this film. This alone justifies an official "reason" for him having been left off of all of the posters. However, that he did not appear fueled the reasonable supposition that he must have turned to the Dark Side, and would be playing Kylo Ren. It wasn't until they'd paid their shilling that the audience was left to wonder "wait, what?" We can now expect Luke Skywalker to be front and center in the next film as the new Jedi sage who will attend to Rey's training.

The politics of the film are unclear, and that's a Good Thing(tm). The politics of the storyteller's world should be known to the storyteller and should be revealed to the audience in the story itself. Without being slapped in the face with explanations, we can see that the Empire is gone, leaving a fractured galaxy. The New Republic has replaced it in part, with other areas giving rise to the First Order. Also without being told we can see that the Resistance operates within the territory of the First Order and is funded and supported by the New Republic. Politics done... storytime.


The film has been criticized as a 'rip-off' of A New Hope, and rightly so. The main points are incredibly close, much more so than are required for homage. I've heard defenses of it, but all are easily countered. (Q: "Did A New Hope begin with the massacre of a village by stormtroopers?" A: "Why yes, it did. Only the 'village' was called a 'rebel blockade runner'"). This is deliberate. They're drawing a parallel between the characters of Rey and Luke Skywalker. Actually, they're beating you over the head with it, so while the similarities aren't a major concern for me, the obviousness of it is. It's as if Abrams doesn't trust you to spot the parallel.

My bigger concern is that the main characters in this film pretty much sucked, in particular Rey. And yeah, yeah, you'll hate me for that, but here's why I think it:


Much of what I have to say about Rey has already been said by Max Landis. I found this video as I was looking for a character photo, so I'm going to pass it on here. Max hits almost every point I was going to use, including that Rey is unarguably a "Mary Sue" (and do read up on what that is).

The main point (for me) is this: where Rey is concerned, there is no hero's journey. Everything happens just perfectly to put her in an elevated position, and she never ever has to learn anything along the way.

Her character was supposedly abandoned on a desert planet (Jakku... or in my mind, "Jakkooine") and left to scavenge for spaceship scrap for a living. Remember, she is pulling pieces off of dead and derelict wreckage and selling it to a scrap dealer for literally whatever he feels like paying her. There's no consistency in the value of her work, and this is explicitly highlighted in a scene. From her experience in pulling cold dead components from cold dead hulks we are to believe that she has somehow acquired ace piloting and combat skillz, as well as the technological savvy to fix literally anything on first sight, as well as the ability to understand both Astromech Droid and Wookie. The appearance of exceptional 'luck' can be attributed to the Force, but not all of this.

In A New Hope, Luke was a farmboy who was fairly well-off by Tatooine standards, with a T-16 Skyhopper and plenty of time to practice targeting womp rats. In The Phantom Menace, Watto ran a junkyard and repair shop. Young Anakin, though a slave, had the run of the place. He was encouraged to tinker and to race. He had access to working equipment, diagnostic tools, workshops. Even then, fans knew that his building of C3PO was pushing the boundary of credibility. In The Force Awakens, Rey lived in a wrecked AT-AT and fetched junk and stood at a window for her "portion". Rey hasn't the backstory to justify her abilities.

My problem with this is isn't just the unbelievability of it. It's that Rey sprang forth as a fully developed superbeing from the forehead of whatever god watches over the Star Wars universe. Any protestation on her part is pro forma.

There's one scene that fully highlights the problem. It's both a very cool idea, and a huge mistake. During that lightsaber fight, where she force-wrests Anakin's sabre from Kylo Ren (to the accompaniment of a swell of the Luke Skywalker theme music, nudge, nudge, wink, wink), there is a moment in the banter where Kylo Ren tells her that he can train her. At that point there's a pause where many in the audience were thinking, "well get on with it!" This was a call-back to the earlier interrogation scene where Ren and Rey probe each other's minds. What is happening in that lull is that she has realized that he can teach her to fight, and she is pulling the information directly from his mind. When she then mops up the floor with him, it's because she's using his own knowledge against him.

While that's very cool, it's the sort of thing you'd want to save for when your character has fully come into her own. In drama, every challenge and hurdle is a test of the character. There is no challenge to being handed a test and the answer sheet. There's no tension, no suspense, no nothing.

Exactly none of my criticism of Rey has to do with the actress, Daisy Ridley, who actually did a fine job with the dross she was handed.


I could easily like the character of Finn (John Boyega) more were he not largely relegated to breathing hard and sweating profusely. Seriously, that's my only real beef with him. In truth, he's a much better character than Rey. He's newly promoted to Stormtrooper, and on his very first outing he's tasked with slaughtering a village. Ouch. So he's got some serious soul-searching to do, and quick. Story-wise, I think he became a little too attached to Rey a little too quickly. The devotion should have been saved for a sequel... but that's not so much Finn's flaw as it is Rey's. She's a Mary Sue, so people have to love her.[1]

       Less of this                       and more of this, please


This isn't so much a problem as observations I have about this character... I make no representation that this information is correct. Rather, it would be correct if I were writing the sequels in a way to make sense of what we see in The Force Awakens.

The mask just reminds us of how
un-badass he is without it.
Proclaimed "Master of the Knights of Ren", in reality Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo, played by Adam Driver) is revealed to be a master of nothing. He can't even master his own emotions. When Darth Vader force-choked a minion to death, it's because they were in his opinion too useless to continue consuming air on his ship. Kylo just has tantrums. We know that as Ben he was sent to Luke for training. We're told that Something Bad Happened, Ben wound up with the Knights of Ren, and Luke's training academy fell apart. Exactly how that happened is yet to be revealed, but I sincerely doubt that Ben was a driver of that revolt. Rather, it seems clear to me that Supreme Leader Snoke has been blowing smoke up Ben's butt... flattering him... inflating his ego. While Kylo Ren undeniably has raw strength and some talent, his training is so poor that he found taking out a former rookie stormtrooper nee garbageman to be a challenge. He was then defeated by a completely untrained junkyard rat.[2] Even his lightsabre sputters and flickers in a way that doesn't imply power so much as poor construction.

Snoke knows that Kylo isn't a leader... that's why the military authorities are in charge. Snoke explicitly states that Kylo's training is incomplete. So why does Snoke flatter the kid? Because Kylo Ren's value lies not in what he can do, but on who he is. Losing Ben to the Dark Side devastated Luke and effectively shut down the training of new Jedi. Ben does more damage by simply being a loser than he has ever done as a bad-ass villain. I think that this is a revelation that could be used to satisfyingly creative effect in sequels... for instance, by building up his false sense of competence to the point where Kylo thinks he can take on Luke; an attempt which could get him killed and further drive Luke into despair. But I also think that the chances are mighty slim that this is the direction they've chosen.


Now wasn't this convenient?  There in  the Jakku junkyard was an all-too-familiar Corellian YT-1300 class freighter... filthy, but in practically perfect working order. Rey and Finn use it to escape the Imperial First Order troops, fly off with the First Order in hot pursuit. Then there's a big action scene so Mary Sue can do her stuff. Within moments of leaving the atmosphere, they're captured, not by by the guys who had orders to catch them, but by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Han and Chewie apparently have been searching for ages for their missing ship and just happened to be at this exact place at this exact moment. "We're home," proclaims Han. Yay! BUT -- oh my gosh! -- within moments of that, they're set upon by not one, but two rival gangs, each of which claims that Han has cheated them by taking out a loan with other, even though neither loan is yet due, and they actually catch him as he is carrying out the task he said he would accomplish. Han has actually shown exactly zero intent to defraud any of the people who tracked him down. That's OK, though... Han happens to be transporting some some big ravenous loan-shark-seeking mouths (Rathars). In accordance with Star Wars Evolutionary Theory ("survival of the most lucrative"), these creatures eat bad guys immediately and carry good guys around until they're rescued.

If any part of that sounded like a satisfying narrative to you, then you're probably less than 12 years old. The entire purpose of this sequence of events has nothing to do with storytelling. It is to show the audience some dangerous, toothy bug-eyed monsters in 3D. The gangs have no purpose other than to provide something for the monsters to eat. The freighter served no purpose other than to ferry the monsters to our heroes. The monsters themselves served no purpose. And oh, by the way, here are Han and Chewie.

However, the entire purpose of the scene should have been to introduce the characters of Han and Chewie. I maintain there are better ways to do it.

Consider this one: rather than being stuck in a junkyard, the Falcon is simply parked. The ship is stolen, just as in the movie, but Rey isn't getting out of this so easily. A hair-raising chase scene ensues in which Rey survives more by luck than skill. Near the end, a First Order fighter has her in its sights and she's about to be picked off when the fighter is destroyed by an intervening blast. The remaining fighters fall to this "guardian angel". Once clear of the atmosphere, the Falcon develops a fault and Rey is at a loss as to what's wrong. The "guardian angel" docks, and in step Han and Chewie, pretty much as before; only Han's not too pleased at having his ship stolen, and having to have stolen another himself to get it back. He was on Jakku conducting business, not on some side-quest. The 'fault' with the Falcon isn't a fault at all... it's the hyperspace equivalent of "you forgot to release the parking brake". This changes the dynamic between them a bit, gives Rey room for character growth, and doesn't undermine Han's character. He was a scoundrel, not a cheat; and he had his own character arc that The Force Awakens undoes. Later, Han can still offer Rey a job... but because he sees potential in her; not because she fixes everything better than the people who have lived and breathed in this ship for 40 years.

Oh, wait... there are no useless rival gangs and no toothy BEMs. What an improvement. Those squishy tentacled things would make crappy toys anyway. Which reminds me...

Ladies and Gentlemen, the producers would like me to remind you
that all of your old Millennium Falcon merchandise is obsolete.
Falcons with the new dish are available at your local retailer.


Literal overkill
This is the situation where the storytellers should have paid attention to the politics for themselves. The entire unified Empire took quite a bit of time and resources to build the Death Star and its successor. Vader himself was concerned that the schedule was slipping. So we're to believe that one faction of a fractured galaxy could afford to expend the resources and expertise build a superweapon out of an entire planet... that this superweapon could contain an entire star... that it can target and fire a beam across the interstellar reaches... that the beam itself could travel in hyperspace... and that you can get more than one shot out of it. Remember, we already saw it fire before it was preparing for another shot. Where did it get the second sun? If it was a binary system, why would they have built a two-shot weapon? If they could move it to reload, why not just do so to fire? Can you drain a star unless you already possesses more energy that the star contains? In which case, do you need the star? Am I overthinking this?


The franchise simply fell into the trap of mo-bigger, mo-better. If they don't climb out of it, they'll soon be facing the heroes off against the Cosmic Galaxy-devouring Munch Monster. If they never blow up another big round thing again, it will be too soon.


Carrie Fisher looked good and acted well. She looked like a general with thirty years of history behind her, which was perfect. The same goes for Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew. It wasn't Ford's best performance; but sadly, he didn't have much to work with other than his death scene. I was neither dismayed nor elated at Han Solo's death. Someone asked me why it would have taken so long for Han to have tried out Chewie's bowcaster, and the answer is obvious: it hadn't been caught on film before, and this was the last chance to show it before Han bought the farm.

I think the movie could get an Oscar for BB8, and maybe for some of the motion-capture CGI. I'm not convinced that anything else deserves a mention.

So that's it... basically this is a Disney movie with a simplistic Disney story and simplistic Disney characters. Kylo Ren has some potential, but mostly because he's so flawed. Finn has the most potential to become a well-rounded character. Rey is a missed opportunity. As we've increasingly come to expect with the Star Wars franchise, this is in very great part a 135-minute infomercial for new toys and merchandise.

[1] I mean this literally. Other characters are compelled to love a Mary Sue. Not only does Finn immediately love Rey, but Han does as well, to the point where he offers her a job their first flight out. He does this because her awesome awesomeness demands that he hire her, and so that her future presence on the Falcon has legitimacy. (Characters do not need to know about the plot to engage in actions that have no purpose other than to promote the Mary Sue.) Even Kylo Ren offers to take her on as an apprentice rather than simply destroy her. This has nothing to do with her having seen the map. He would do it in any event, compelled by her Mary Sueness.

Another example of the trope is Bella Swan from the Twilight series.

[2] And here you have the real danger of including a Mary Sue in your cast. Because the character is fundamentally wish fulfilment, the author is never as good as the character, and thus has no experience to draw upon to make the character believable. Incapable of making the Mary Sue look truly outstanding, the author does the next best thing and makes the rest of the cast look incompetent. Every other character suffers. In this film Kylo Ren got the brunt of it.


  1. As far as Rey goes. There was a scene which I understand was left on the cutting room floor. At night, she would sneak on board the ships, Falcon included, and examine how they worked. This could have easily been left in the final edit so the audience won't say "How the f did she know how to do all that?"

    1. They'd have had plenty of time to do that if they hadn't wasted it on the Rathars. JJ and co. should have paid attention to Galaxy Quest:

      Gwen DeMarco: What is this thing? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway. No, I mean we shouldn't have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here?
      Jason Nesmith: 'Cause it's on the television show.
      Gwen DeMarco: Well forget it! I'm not doing it! This episode was badly written!

      As it stands, "Pictures, or it didn't happen."

    2. BTW, is there any footage on the cutting room floor of her spending late nights with Wookies as well? ;)