Film Micrœview #262: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
12.20.2015 § Leave a comment
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Clearly this is no “micro” review. It is the longest one I’ve ever written. But I have a lot to say about this film.
I expected, walking into Episode VII, to walk out either thinking that it was awesome, or that it was awful. What I didn’t expect was that I’d walk out thinking a bit of both. Some moments were among the best in the series; others among the worst. Some qualities were admirable, others lamentable. Overall, I would say my feelings roughly cancel out, to the point where I can’t really say I’m on board with it, but I also wouldn’t feel quite fair calling it a failure. Since the general reaction I’ve come across in others so far has been largely positive, I think I’ll start with the worst stuff and work my way up.
THE BAD STUFF
-10: Emotional Vacuousness
Han Solo’s death scene made me sad, but not in the way I hoped it would.
I understand why so few of our burning plot questions were answered in this episode, and why they should not have been. However, we needed to know more about the relationship between Han, Leia, and their son Ben in order for this event to pack the wallop of feelings it needed to.
It didn’t help one bit that the reunion of Han and Leia was brutally awkward. Did Lucas guest write this dialog? Did Ford and Fisher agree to act as badly as possible for this film? Would it really not have been better if these two characters had remained in touch, and the cringe-inducing exposition of them recounting step for step the Facts and Events between them over the past few decades substituted for some implicit in media res illustration thereof? Was it even worth it, considering that they didn’t even answer any questions that hadn’t already been answered with no aplomb by the bad guys (Han’s parentage established point-blank by Snoke, and Leia’s by Kylo) (aside from the Fact that Han and Leia know about Snoke)?
As for all these Facts and Events, it really was made impossible for us to experience this moment as something unto itself, as it was so incredibly overloaded with intertextuality with the Vader-Kenobi face-off of IV and Vader-Luke face-off of V. Finn and Rey watch passively as this unfolds, reflecting our own viewership back at us, underscoring the perceived importance of the moment rather than letting it stand for itself. Han deserved his own moment – something emotional, not just telegraphing meaningfulness. Believe me, I really, really, really saw what they did there, but I did not feel it. (Even within VII, the moment was clouded further by its function as an overt callback to Han’s introductory scene wherein it is demonstrated that he believes he can talk his way out of any situation but only ever really succeeds with his blaster, a character point we know well enough and didn’t need pounded in with such an embarrassingly dumb modern screenwriting convention… although I guess they used it in IV too when Luke puts his blinders on to see with the Force…)
Chewie does indeed get super pissed, but I suppose I figured we’d see some, like, next-level Wookie rage here, like as in that he would scare the shit out of me, all while I vented my pain through his violence.
Han’s death was by far the single worst offense in this category, though I was also bothered by the emotional vacuousness of character and conflict throughout. Luke lost his family to the fire of stormtrooper flamethrowers; Finn just loses his innocence on the other side of such fire meted on strangers. Leia lost her entire planet in a horrifically cruel act of the Empire; we don’t even know the names of the planets blown up by the First Order in this one (or why we care that its main weapon is charging during the climax; whatever was at risk was certainly not as apparent to me as Yavin V was in IV). Rey is excited to finally jump into some adventure, but why should we care? What are the stakes?!
-9: Lame Bad Guys
The marketing efforts of VII promised us that the bad guys would be far more menacing this time around. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I could imagine quite a bit. I was hugely underwhelmed.
I knew there would be references to the other films, that some of them would be inverted, and others taken on face value. I saw on the poster that the bad guys had a new Death Star, and I wished this would be one of those inverted references. Unfortunately, it played out exactly the same.
That the Empire rebuilt the Death Star in VI made sense, and that it again had one exploitable vulnerability made sense; this rhymes with the blind, wasteful, and monolithic natures of the Sith and indeed the impossibility of the quest for domination in general. I didn’t need that point made again.
I was hoping for a more profound connection between the grandiose technological manifestation of evil we see in the Imperial fleet with the more mysterious and gloomy manifestation of evil we see in the Lords of the Sith. If a creepy Andy Serkis voice had felt an awakening, I figured this new Death Star might somehow be channeling raw, sentient Dark Side or something like that. Or that more would be protecting it than a force field – maybe more like the cloud over Order 66 that Palpatine suspended.
Instead all we got was a Death Star that was bigger, and fired multiple shots simultaneously. It channeled suns, not the force (aren’t planets screwed without a sun, without also needing to be blown up?)
I was hoping that Starkiller base would be powerful enough that the Resistance would fail to destroy it using their first plan, that it would persist through to the next film or even both of them, that would actually send chills down my spine for the future safety of our heroes. I understand why VII needed to end on a positive note, but wasn’t it enough that Rey kicks Kylo’s butt and finally finds Luke? Honestly, I think we could have also done without Rey clearly winning that duel (and Finn getting a hit in? Without even knowing what a lightsaber was a day ago? How?!)
Making matters worse, Hux’s over-the-top Nazi speech with a ridiculous hat was a major face-palmer. His character is thoroughly annoying and pointless.
Phasma was criminally underutilized.
Snoke was a silly giant baby CG Gollum.
Clearly I have left one thing yet unaddressed with respect to the increasedly menacing nature of the enemies: mind-reading. Sure, here is an actual new idea, and a significant threat. But is it really Star Wars-y? At least J.J. didn’t introduce time travel, but it is clear he wouldn’t agree with me that the Force power of seeing other’s unguarded thoughts is a lot more interesting when left to the imagination. Two opponents trying to Force lift an object in opposite directions is one thing: visual and physical. We don’t need that type of exertion bleeding into the mind. “Sister!” while Luke is hiding in the shadowy rafters is 100x more intense than a furrowed brow ever could be.
-8: It was essentially a remake
If you could unlearn what you have learned, and imagine watching the entire series extracted from any knowledge of the history of their creation, VII would feel off. You would wonder why this VIIth movie wasn’t really a new chapter in the story so much as consisted by an extensive set of elements taken from earlier films. Making the effect even more striking, these elements would be clear to have come only from the previous three episodes and notably nothing at all drawn from the first three.
I believe I understand why Lucas came around to supporting VII after seeing it. It was then that he realized Disney hadn’t ditched his new ideas for other new ideas, but that they had essentially rebooted his franchise, paying homage to his original ideas. It didn’t threaten his artistic integrity. It is basically a huge-budget fan film.
What I sense while watching VII is a tension between two opposing motives, neither of which as a fan of the originals I enjoy. On one hand, I am witnessing an attempt to update and modernize for new fans the experience I already had with IV and which they could have perfectly well with IV if they wanted (and are having it just because the culture industry is serving it to them now). On the other hand I am being pandered to with force dreams, skinny platforms over pits, Sith Lord holograms, lightsabers pulled out of the snow, Han Solo leading a mission to deactivate a shield generator for a giant spherical battlestation, and that’s only counting some of the references to V and VI; the list of references to IV would be far, far too long to put here.
How can Poe, Finn, Rey, and Ben take shape when they are so overtly refactorings of Han, Luke, and Leia?
Way too many moments when what was going on or what was about to happen was explained. We’re going to do this, then this, then this. Got it. I guess focus groups determined that five-year-olds needed some help.
-6: Rathtar set piece
Fortunately there weren’t too many of these. And I suppose I’m about as offended by its weird nod to Indiana Jones as I am by its toyeticness.
Max Von Sidow hands over a treasure map out of nowhere and promptly dies. R2D2 awakens with the other half when the time is right in the script. Rey, who literally found Luke’s lightsaber in a treasure chest, heads off without Leia to meet Luke. The authorial hand weighs heavy in VII.
-4: The Music
I expected more from a John Williams Star Wars score. Even the prequel trilogy gave us some grand new themes. But here, Rey’s theme doesn’t fit, Kylo’s is lame, and while there are at least two additional new and recognizable themes on either side of the Force, they felt more like B-sides from Hook, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones than Star Wars-y. Certainly no new Duel of the Fates.
-3: Unimaginative planets
Tatooine, Death Star, Yavin V, Hoth, and forest moon of Endor all over again. Couldn’t they have ended up on a water planet, or a pastel plastic planet, or something new like that?
-2: Rey and Poe not flawed enough
We get a little hubris with Finn, but Rey and Poe are just flat, boring super-skilled winners.
-1: Spinny camera
Spinny camera will be looked back on as this film’s lens flare (JJ was mocked for his overuse of it on his Star Trek reboot). He even through in a dutch tilt once or twice; you gotta either go for it completely Gilliam-mode engage or just not do it! As much as I hate to hate on this, since at least JJ did try to forge a new grammar inspired by the original film yet original in its own right – a very brave challenge to take on, I should add – I wasn’t that into it. It feel to me like, with the final shot, the particularly egregious spin around Luke atop his mystical mountain, that Abrams just couldn’t hold back his spinniness any longer. Put that together with the obnoxious indulgence of Hamill’s legendariness, and the out-of-character-for-Star-Wars-but-very-in-character-for-Abrams cliffhanger nature of the ending, and you’re left with a really weird taste in your mouth.
ALRIGHT, NOW FOR THE GOOD STUFF!
1: The opening shot
As irksome as the conclusion of the film felt, I knew as soon as that Star Destroyer eclipsed a planet that we were off to a good start.
2: A couple great action sequence character meetings
I loved Poe and Finn getting to know each other as they escaped from the First Order. Not too long later, Finn and Rey get to know each other under similar highly-pressured circumstances (on top of everything, stealing the Falcon!). Moment-for-moment, the tactical challenges grappled with by the characters during the battles were interesting and exciting.
Others action sequences were not so wonderful and memorable, really.
3: Wreckage from Galactic Civil War
We saw the downed Star Destroyer sinking into the sands of Jakku in the trailer, but I also dug the rusty old AT-AT.
4: Revisions to things that had worked in the originals
New stormtrooper design? Cool. Rey’s speeder? Groovy. BB8? Genius.
5: Inversions from originals
I suppose this is mostly in terms of Kylo Ren’s relationship with Darth Vader. That he fears lapsing back to the light side of the force is interesting. And his temper tantrum when a subordinate informs him of some failure of his peons was a welcome answer to Vader’s famous force choke streak of his commanders in V.
6: New stuff
Kylo Ren stops a blaster shot. One of those “of course, why didn’t we think of that before” moments that really clicked. (Well actually, now that I think about it, I guess this is kind of like Vader “catching” blaster shots from Han Solo… although that is maybe more like Yoda absorbing force lighting…)
The Falcon makes a hyperspeed landing on a planet. Ridiculous, incredible, but a big part of why we come to see Star Wars.
I salute the effort to represent a broader range of humanity here, and to acknowledge this as a big factor in the conflict Star Wars is about.
As frustrated as I was not to really get a handle on the politics of the world 30 years after the Battle of Endor, I appreciate the decision to focus on character arc instead. The story really felt bottom-up in that respect; these people just live in this world and come to know about greater movements within it just as we do.
The worlds they come from – while, yes, the planets themselves are pretty bland – are populated by visceral, grungy, imaginative alien beings. The practical effects we were all excited about really paid off.
Rey makes some space bread in her little bungalow. We feel for a moment like we know what it would be like for us to live our day to day in the same conditions.
The generally good dialog and performances carried the film well. Thank you to Larry Kasdan, and especially to Adam Driver, whose creepy distance between his words and feelings make him sound like he’s listening to his own performance within the performance.
I know said earlier that the overuse of references to the originals was a weak point. I think that aspect could have been significantly toned down, while still preserving the truly powerful and meaningful side to the reflexiveness for those of us who do love what Star Wars can mean: that it is “True. All of it,” at least that we understand it is while we are in this world with them. That these heroes are legends to the new characters in the world just as they are to us outside.
I also appreciate that VII took on that always-challenging issue of reconciling older society’s outdated vision of more advanced technology, and it did so with a wry smile at the jankiness of the Falcon.
VII may just be the funniest movie in the entire series.
Some of this humor draws its energy from reference to earlier films. I’m thinking C3PO’s jolting intro, the “There is [a trash compactor]!” line, or Rey’s using Jedi mind tricks for the first time scene. In the latter case, it is especially potent, as it is deployed as an inversion of the familiar moment, also underscoring (since she could only be attempting this because she heard it was a thing) the legends-within-the-world element, and is also a great moment in her character arc.
Chewie is actually significantly developed as a character in this one. Han’s “Oh that’s a better idea” moment with him is gold, as is the moment when the nurse assures him “he must be so brave.”
Finn’s crush on Rey, beginning with his fail-save of her, through BB8’s thumbs-up scene, to Han’s calling him out on women figuring out the truth, is genuine and solid. Also a big fan of the “that’s not how the Force works!” exchange.
I definitely lol’d at Rey and BB8’s meeting.
Poe’s flippancy with Kylo was key.
Even Maz Kanata, brief as her role was and mysterious as her disappearance was, was perfect.
With he-who-shall-not-be-named-who-already-spoiled-a-childhood-favorite-franchise-of-mine directing IX, and Rian Johnson writing both and directing VIII, we can pretty much say, welp, it’s over.
I’ll watch them, of course, and I’m sure I’ll be seeing VII again.
P.S. While I was saddened by the lack of material featuring my fav character R2D2, I have a silly theory that brings me amusement. We don’t yet really know what it means that the Force has Awakened, but think about it – what is the only thing in the film which awakened? That’s right. R2D2 may not be the chosen one, but he is far too powerful to just be a particularly talented, lucky, and historicitical droid.