Light and Dark — Thoughts on “The Force Awakens”

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December 19, 2015 by jamesessj

Well — that wasn’t so bad. After the prequels, any Star Wars fan could be forgiven for anticipating the worst from Episode VII. And while it’s hardly perfect, nor even, to my mind, an especially good movie, it’s at least an acceptable entry into the canon, on a par with, say, Return of the Jedi.

Let’s start with the good:

Harrison Ford is simply terrific as Han Solo. The moment when he yells, “Come on, Chewie!” over his shoulder makes you think it’s 1980 all over again. His hair — his lopsided grin — that marvelous blaster, which sounds like no other weapon in the saga — flying the Falcon — Ford was clearly having fun, despite his repeated disparagement of the role in the past. I suspect a large part of his willingness to come back was based on the fact that Han dies; he wasn’t signing up for a trilogy, he was signing up for a single film. (And — though I’m guessing everyone involved would deny it, even if it were true — I wonder if the reason for Han Solo’s death was because Ford would only agree to return for one film…or, more likely, that Kasdan & Abrams wrote Solo out of the series as a sweetener for Ford, knowing, again, that he’s disparaged the role repeatedly in the past.) (This also explains why this is such a Solo-centric film — they knew they’d only have him for this one, and no more.) Han’s death, by the way, is quite well-done, if entirely predictable. His body falling from the catwalk is a hauntingly beautiful image.

The newcomers are also terrific. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver do wonderful work. Ridley in particular is great, effortlessly carrying the lead role in what is obviously a huge movie. Boyega plays the transition from reluctant stormtrooper to would-be hero well, although in story terms this transition leaves a lot to be desired. Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is, for once, the sort of military leader you can actually imagine other people following into near-certain death. And Adam Driver is suitably menacing as Kylo Ren, his voice when masked a lush electronicized purr.

The production design doesn’t reach the heights of any of the original trilogy, but it also doesn’t sink to the depths of the prequels. The interior of the Starkiller is an obvious homage to the original Death Star, which is all well and good, but it does reinforce — to leap ahead to the bad — the plot’s sizable pilferage from the original Star Wars, Episode IV. The new-look Star Destroyers and X-Wings and stormtroopers are all fine, and things in general don’t look — as so much in the prequels did — as if they are from another galaxy altogether from the original trilogy.

The music is slightly sub-par John Williams, but sub-par Williams is still awfully damn good. Rey’s Theme is excellent, though the Resistance Theme is disappointing. And — I will never understand this — the closing credits once more aren’t so much a flowing composition as a rehash of themes one after the other. That flowing composition, with a big brassy finish, was one of the signatures of the original trilogy, but Williams abandoned it for the prequels and now again for Episode VII. I do not get this, I do not get it all. Overall, as with Crystal Skull, the most electrifying moments on the soundtrack are those employing themes from the original movies.

The big (and obligatory) lightsaber fight, first between Ren and Finn, then Ren and Rey, actually resembles, unlike every lightsaber fight in the prequels, something like what two combatants with deadly weapons might do in real life. Or movie life. The duel between Darth and Luke in Empire is still the gold standard of lightsaber fight scenes, but this one’s none too shabby.

Broadly speaking, the movie feels like Star Wars, in a way the prequels never did. Naturally this can be attributed to the presence of Han and Leia and Chewie and X-Wings and all the rest, but it’s also due to the production design, the acting, the script — there were lines that fell flat and lines that didn’t work and as usual in almost every Hollywood movie I see I kept thinking, “For God’s sake, where’s the wit?”, but there wasn’t a single line or moment that felt forced or untrue. The prequels were nothing but such moments.

So — before we dive into the bad, to state for the record: I liked The Force Awakens. Remember that.

The bad:

The weakest part of the film is its plot. It saddens me to say this because Lawrence Kasdan is something of a hero, for Empire, for Raiders, for his contributions to my childhood. But this film steals so much from the original Star Wars — a droid with hidden information, a down-on-his/her-luck hero/heroine on a backwater planet, a superweapon that has to be destroyed before it destroys the Rebel/Resistance base — and what it doesn’t steal depends on some extremely contrived coincidences. The Millennium Falcon just happens to be on Jakku? Han and Chewie in their freighter just happen to find the Falcon out in the vastness of space? (Which leads, incidentally, to the “Chewie, we’re home,” line, which I’d swear they wrote just so it could be in the trailer. Because it’s not a line that sits well in the actual film.) Maz, the one person to whom Han decides to go for help, just happens to have Luke’s/Anakin’s old lightsaber?

I recall reading — it may have been a Syd Field book, back in the dark ages when I was trying to learn how to write a screenplay — about Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliant use of what’s called a “reversal” in his script for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy is wandering through the German camp in the desert and he just happens to stumble into the tent where Marion is being held prisoner — the sort of coincidence that makes for very bad screenwriting. But Kasdan redeems himself when Indy doesn’t rescue Marion…he leaves her there, because he wants the Ark! Why Marion ever forgives him for this is another bit of what I call “movie logic,” but Kasdan “reverses” the situation skillfully, erasing in the viewer’s mind the absurd coincidence that Indy should just happen to stumble into Marion’s tent.

Not so in The Force Awakens. The coincidences are bald and blatant and never redeemed by anything, much less with any skill. (Instead of having Maz say, “Another story for another time,” when asked where she got the lightsaber — which is adding insult to injury — she could have said, “A trader from the Bespin system,” or something similar; this would have tied in nicely with Empire and while it wouldn’t have erased the coincidence, it at least wouldn’t have been yet another case of, “Don’t pay too much attention to the details, because we didn’t, either.”)

Also, a superweapon? Again? Please.

And, a superweapon that can be destroyed by a concentrated attack on a single target? Doesn’t the Empire — I mean the First Order — ever learn? Nothing is ever completely indestructible, but you’d think they’d have learned after two Death Stars (and countless other superweapons in the novels and the comics, though those are all moot now, so let’s just say, after two Death Stars) not to put all their eggs in one X-Wing target-able basket. Han’s comment that “There’s always a way to blow these things up” rings as a rather pathetic excuse for more bad screenwriting — and also a bit of a poke in the eye, for basically it’s the filmmakers saying, “Hey, just go along with this, okay?”

One other aspect of the plot that strains credulity past its breaking point — R2’s awakening at the end. What was it, precisely, that triggered this? The only answer I can think of is, they needed that ending where Rey heads off to find Luke. Because what other explanation is there? It would make sense, for example, for the presence of the other piece of the map to trigger R2’s awakening — but when BB-8 first finds him, the other piece of the map is right there in his little drawer thingie, yet R2 slumbers on. They needed to get the rest of the movie over with and have Rey’s discovery of Luke be its big finale, that’s why R2 wakes up when he does.

Which is just horrible storytelling. As with so many of these plot holes, this could easily be covered with a line or two of dialogue, or a touch of shoehorning here or there. As I’ve written before, I find it impossible to believe that, with as many levels of development as there are in Hollywood, none of the eight thousand people who read these scripts or are involved in the production of the film don’t raise these same questions — so why don’t they ever fix these holes? It can only be because a) they think no one will notice or b) they don’t care if anyone notices. Either of which options speaks rather poorly of Abrams & Co.

Oh, and why is it Rey who goes to find Luke? She’s a latecomer to this party, for heaven’s sake. Leia is Luke’s sister — you’d think, even if she is a big important general, she might take time out to go find her only living non-Dark-Side-adept relative. For that matter, why doesn’t she travel along with the whole damn Resistance fleet to find arguably the most important person in the galaxy, the last Jedi? To repeat the ongoing theme, it’s because to the screenwriters Rey is the heroine of our story, so of course it’s her who goes. With only Chewie for company. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, except in the mind of a screenwriter.

Then there’s Kylo Ren. Han and Leia’s (only?) child. Star Wars has never been any good at showing how it is, exactly, that a person falls to the Dark Side. Anger, hatred, jealousy, these are all supposed to lead you down that path, but these are also basic human emotions that everyone everywhere feels every day…what is it that takes you from, for instance, defending the Republic with your life to, for instance, cutting down six-year-olds with your lightsaber? (In Jedi we’re given a good sense of how the Dark Side could temporarily tempt a person, as Luke gives in to hatred and tries to kill the Emperor and then Vader, but what if he had killed Vader? Or the Emperor? Or both? Would he suddenly have become the new Emperor, filled with the Dark Side, a completely evil being? He’d have turned on Han and Leia, turned on the Rebellion? Is that how turning to the Dark Side works? Wham, you’re evil? The lesson, I think, is that you can’t look at this stuff too closely. Nonetheless, let’s continue looking at this stuff too closely.)

In Force Awakens we’re presented with a boy who clearly has any number of issues, mostly of the daddy variety. But why? Han wasn’t an absent father — he and Leia only broke up after Ben turned to the Dark Side. Perhaps he was a bad father, but we’re never told how so, if so. Ren says Rey will be “disappointed” in Han, but that’s as close to clarification as we ever get. I would argue that if whatever happened to Ben to turn him to the Dark Side was so transformational that it would lead him to kill his own father, we deserve more of an explanation than, “You’ll be disappointed in him.”

This ties in with Luke’s disappearance, which is also largely unexplained, except that “one” of his apprentices — presumably Ben/Ren — turned on the rest, which Luke couldn’t handle and so exiled himself. We’ll find out more about this in future installments, but the whole thing just smacks — I keep repeating myself — of screenwriterly convenience. We want Luke to disappear, only to be found at the end of the movie, so let’s have him disappear because his nephew turned to the Dark Side, but we won’t explain why or how his nephew turned to the Dark Side, nor will we explain why this led Luke to abandon the galaxy, yet also leave behind a map so he could be found when…what? Rey awakens? Is she the one who will, God help us, restore balance to the Force? When the hell has the Force ever been balanced? It’s like trying to balance a ball bearing on the point of a needle, this Force.

So much for the big stuff. Smaller, but no less incriminating, points:

Snoke. Snoke? This is not Dr. Seuss. Please.

Ren’s mask is…in a word, uninspired. Darth Vader’s molten mask looks better.

Poor Anthony Daniels. What’d he have, four lines?

Why is it Rey who hugs Leia when they return from the Starkiller? Shouldn’t it be Chewie? Here we go again — it’s because Rey is the screenwriters’ heroine, so of course she gets to console, and be consoled by, Leia. Not the Wookiee who spent his every waking moment with Han and will feel the loss more deeply, even, than Leia.

Ren’s temper tantrums. This is supposed to inspire confidence? Fear, perhaps, to an extent, but moreso pity and ridicule…can you imagine the conversation between the stormtroopers? “Yeah, he slashed the crap out of that console! Maybe he was carving his initials, let’s go check!”

And, that final earthquake — or Starkillerquake — that conveniently puts a chasm between Ren and Rey. To call this clichéd would be a disservice to clichés everywhere. “They can’t fight to the death, or the trilogy’s a unilogy! What do we do?” “I know! The ground opens up beneath them and suddenly they’re separated by a football field’s worth of nothingness!” “Yes, you magnificent bastard! That’s never been done before!”

Okay, enough nitpicking. Although I don’t consider too much of this nitpicking — every movie has its flaws, and we still love them even so. (Why does Marion forgive Indy? He chooses the Ark over her!) I can’t say I loved Episode VII, but I didn’t hate it as I do the prequels — even to call them “movies” is the moral equivalent of calling the Unabomber’s manifesto “literature” — and I’m glad that Star Wars as a franchise has at least returned to relative respectability. You can’t go home again — it will never again be 1980 — but you can look back with fondness and with new hope.


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