Monday, December 21, 2015

A spoiler-filled reflection on STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Obligatory warning - this post is going to discuss all the major plot points from THE FORCE AWAKENS. This is your spoiler warning right here, so turn back now. If you wish a spoiler-free examination of the film, you can find that here.

Luke Skywalker - It's a testament to how good the film is that Luke doesn't appear until the final minute, and yet it still is one of the best Star Wars films to date. I like the mythic reputation the character has taken on in-universe and it really makes the whole "search for Luke Skywalker drive" really carry weight. Now the ball is in Episode VIII's court. It has to be worthy of all the build-up this film gave our exiled Jedi.

Leia - Carrie Fisher's screen time is briefer than Harrison Ford's, but Leia's encounters with Han are a highlight of the film. Fisher's persona has more recently been brasher and more humorous than Leia's, to the point where I was concerned that it might be hard to see the outspoken actress as a more reserved leader. I need not have worried. this feels like the same woman who took charge of her own rescue and later commanded the evacuation of Hoth.

It's a disappointment that she apparently didn't undergo any Jedi training. In JEDI she was held out as the last hope, but here, she's the same political leader she was before, albeit with a higher rank. How cool would it have been to see Leia light up a purple lightsaber during a ground assault? Or have her use some kind of Force abilities to gain insight into the attack? Or to reach out and try to communicate with Kylo Ren? (Or her own brother for that matter?) I like the Leia we got, but I can't help but feel an opportunity was missed here.

Kylo Ren's backstory - From the first images of Kylo Ren, people were theorizing that he was a Skywalker or Solo child, if not Luke himself. The film wasted no time dropping teases about his parentage, so it's no great shock that he's revealed as Han and Leia's son. I wish we'd gotten a little more of a tease as to exactly how his corruption by Supreme Leader Snoke happened. Even just giving us a vague point on the timeline would help. How old was he when he turned? Did his fall precede Rey being abandoned as a child?

How does a child born to two leaders of the Rebel Alliance, and trained by the man who destroyed the Sith become determined to follow an evil path? It's like an Orthodox Jew deciding to be the next Hitler. He's definitely got a warped view of Darth Vader, but does that mean he doesn't believe the story that Luke surely told? That Vader renounced his evil ways before his death? There's a key scene I'll get to later where he unmasks and he gives off the impression of being a brainwashed cult member. Adam Driver does great work, but I'd have loved just a few more bread crumbs about his turn and his goal beyond "finish[ing] what [Darth Vader] started."

Supreme Leader Snoke - At this point, he's not much more than the Emperor was in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - a mysterious figure communicating via hologram. The "Great and Powerful Oz" routine has me suspicious that we're not seeing his real form there. At a minimum, I don't think he's going to be remotely that big in person. I wonder about his history with Skywalker. Were they close? Was Snoke a Jedi instructor who infiltrated Luke's academy to corrupt Kylo Ren? It might be interesting if he was a Jedi who survived the Order 66 Purge, only to embrace the Dark Side late in life. (Hell, it might even work out that he was an escaped youngling from Anakin's attack on the Jedi Temple.

Coincidence after Coincidence - There's an adage that you're allowed one coincidence per film. I tend to look at that as a loose guideline, but the motivation behind that "rule" is worth keeping in mind. When too many coincidences drive the plot, the audience can sense the film "cheating." You don't want contrivance taking a too big a hand in things.

I can buy into the idea that the Millennium Falcon is just sitting there on Jakku, waiting for Rey and Finn to steal it. And you know what, I'll even spot the film the huge coincidence that Han Solo is able to track and recapture the Falcon almost immediately. What feels too convenient for me is the fact that Maz Kanata just happens to have Luke's old lightsaber. The last time we saw that thing, it was falling down a deep pit in Cloud City. I would have loved at least a hint of an explanation for how it went from A to B, rather than putting us off for a later explanation that will probably never come.

Rey's parentage - After the film, I immediately rejected the idea that Rey could be Han and Leia's daughter. There were just too many pieces that didn't seem to fit. It also felt like we weren't given enough information to really conclude she could be Luke's offspring, even if the film seems to want us to consider that. I decided that might be a mislead to keep us from considering other parentage. Could she be a descendant of Obi-Wan? Of Supreme Leader Snoke?

Then I read this excellent Film School Rejects speculation piece and it completely turned me around on the Solo child theory. Give it a read.

Another megaweapon? - In-universe I get it. These Death Star-level mega weapons can totally upset the balance of power. It's an important part of any arsenal. But three out of the last four (numerically) episodes have utilized one of these planet killing weapons. It doesn't help that they're always destroyed the same way - a tiny flaw that lets enemy firepower take out a crucial reactor. As much as the whole movie is a riff on A NEW HOPE, here's where I really wanted something more original. The preponderance of planet killing weapons was what quickly turned the Extended Universe novels in to an aspect of the franchise that deserved to die and I really hope we won't see another of these in Episodes XVIII and IX.

It's a fool's game to poke at the science in these films, but I think Starkiller Base is ridiculously implausible. As visualized on-screen, it either happens to be in the exact same system as five other Republic planets it attacks, or it fires a laser capable of traveling at hyperspeed. The former reeks of contrivance and the latter makes the weapon too powerful and scientifically ridiculous. (Which is also a factor if the whole planet is mobile.)

The political situation - After the endless talks of trade disputes and taxation in the prequels, I never expected people to come out of the new film craving "More politics." However, I have to concur that the situation between The First Order and the Resistance could have used some clarifying. We're told the Republic is backing the Resistance, but the implication seems to be that the Republic is considered the more legitimate governing body while The First Order is more of an insurgency (or at best, the equivalent of the Southern States in the Civil War.)

Yet the First Order seems to operate as if they have all the dominance that the Empire did in its prime, while the Resistance is reduced to hiding in remote bases. (And again, why is a military force supported by the dominant power called "the Resistance?" That's not the sort of name you'd give to something like the U.S. Military.)

Finn's skill with the lightsaber - I call massive bullshit on Finn lasting more than 15 seconds in a lightsaber duel with a Force-adept opponent who's been using his weapon for years. It's maybe the falsest moment in the entire film. In contrast...

Rey's Force skills - On one hand, it's a little absurd that Rey's Force abilties already outstrip Luke's in A NEW HOPE despite less training. Compare her pulling the lightsaber to her to all the effort Luke expends in EMPIRE trying to get his weapon while in the ice cave. And then there's the fact she displays the mind control it took Luke until JEDI to use. The topper to all of this is her duel with Kylo Ren, where she not only matches his skill, but decisively defeats him. He's only saved by a conveniently-forming chasm. Rey opening up a can of whoopass on Ren makes for one of the best lightsaber battles ever. It's a fist-pumping moment big enough to make us overlook that she's a complete novice.

But my theory is that this adeptness on her part is neither mistake, nor contrivance. She might be a latently-powerful Force-user, one whose natural ability can outstrip even Luke's. Kylo Ren's no novice, so the movie knows what it's doing in having Ren match him in combat. I hope this will be explored in later chapters.

The Map to Luke Skywalker - As a MacGuffin, this worked for me up until the point we saw it actually executed. I could go with the idea that the map is just a jigsaw puzzle piece-ike fragment. What feels aggressively convenient to me is that R2-D2 just so happens to have every part of that star chart except for that precisely missing fragment - to the point where his charts are displayed with a big gaping hole.

Artoo having shut himself down of his own accord, apparently, and then springing back to life when the plot requires it also rankles. Would it have been so hard to just have Artoo damaged in a battle and undergoing repairs until the moment when the script needs him to analyze the map? It also might have helped if Artoo first studied the map fragment, then made use of that data by triangulating some of the stars in it with stars that he already knew. The end result would still be that data in his memory banks gives the map the context needed to figure out where to go, but these changes would make it slightly less easy on our heroes.

The Death of Han Solo - From the moment Han stepped out on to that walkway, it was evident he was a dead man. The parallels to Obi-Wan's death in A NEW HOPE were just too strong, particularly when Finn and Rey arrive to bear witness from a distance. Being certain of the outcome didn't lessen the tension one bit for me. If anything, it heightened it. My heart has not been pounding like that in a film for a very long time.

Han Solo reaches out to his son, a confused young man consumed by evil but clearly struggling with a good that threatens to awaken in him. Speaking like a programmed cult member, Ren tries to shut his father's words out and sees only one path that will ensure he can never return to the light again - he impales his father.

It is possibly the single most visceral act of evil depicted on screen in any of the STAR WARS films. Sure, we've seen planets blow up, but never with people we know on them. The deaths of billions is almost too abstract a concept to empathize with - but the painful death of one of the most beloved film characters of all time? That's epic in its emotional investment. The fact his given name is "Ben," presumably after Jedi Kenobi, only twists the knife further.

Chewie's reaction was equally heartbreaking. He doesn't hesitate for a second to fire at Ren. This is significant because the lore tells us that Chewie was bound to Han by a life debt. Han saved his life years ago and Wookie culture demanded Chewie remain indebted to Han. Some books have extrapolated that this would extend to Han's children. If that was at all true in this continuity, Chewie's attempt to avenge Han shows that he doesn't consider Ren to be Han's son any longer.

I may have regarded Darth Vader as pure evil, but I never wanted him dead the way I want Kylo Ren dead now.  DEAD. PAINFULLY. I want Luke, Leia and Chewie each to get a shot in, perhaps each taking off a limb. We surely will get the usual talk of redemption, of saving this wayward soul from the darkness... but I don't care. There's nothing there to save, nothing worth saving. He made his choice. I've never felt that Anakin really deserved to die as a hero after all he did and Ren deserves even less consideration.

STAR WARS exists in a universe where morality is absolute. Black and white. Good and Evil. Ren's patricide is an act without redemption. He made his choice, and I doubt there are few viewers who don't want to see him burn for it.

It's a powerful way to draw the film to a close, and one that makes us hungry to see the fallout among the older characters, and especially how they treat Kylo Ren at their next encounter.

We have less than two years until the next episode and already it feels like forever. J.J. Abrams gave us a new chapter that was a dose of the familiar mixed with some bold and powerful moves for the franchise. J.J. threw down the gauntlet. Now it'll be Rian Johnson's turn to deliver.


  1. re: Leia's abilities, she did 'feel' the moment Han died, so while she may not be a lightsaber-wielding badass, I took that moment to see that her powers had increased since ROTJ enough to make that moment sting...

    1. Ah, but is she feeling Han's death, or is she feeling her son's irrevocable move to the Dark Side? The latter might be more probable if her Force abilities are still unrefined.

  2. I completely agree about needing a few fillers of backstory to help clarify things. It didn't distract me too much. But I don't like having to devote a lot of active thought to understanding the plot. So it's definitely holding things back.

    I know Vader had no backstory in the original movie. But for some reason, Ren didn't work as well for me despite having a little more information about him. Perhaps it's because Vader had simple motivations; get the stolen plans and crush the rebellion. Ren's motivations seem more muddled. And then knowing he's Leia and Han's son just starts your brain down the rabbit hole that again, I'd rather not be doing too much of while trying to follow the movie.

    I also agree about the issue of Rey's advanced force abilities. When we get a close up of that lightsaber is sitting in the snow I thought that was going to be when Luke arrived. That scene on Hoth in Empire one of my favorite parts of the whole trilogy. It's when we finally get to see his Jedi potential.

    But dammit if Rey moving it with the force wasn't my favorite part of the movie. Having her use the force before that helped sell it. And the fact that I came to age with Buffy, which shaped my pop culture and even political sensibilities (helped pave the way to me becoming a feminist), made it even more significant to me.

    1. Vader's lack of backstory actually worked because of the lack of breadcrumbs. You accept him as just a bad dude. Ren's works the same way for the first twenty minutes or so when he appears to just be a young, impatient jackass with a bad tempter. But when you suddenly drop that Han/Leia's son trivia you immediately want to know what the hell is going on

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  4. I also had my qualms about Rey being so adept with a saber, until a friend pointed out that the film's specifically given her that long staff for this entire story - and we even see how skilled she is at using it as a weapon on Jakku. This chick is a natural stickfighter, probably from girlhood on. Add her emerging Force powers - plus the fact that Kylo Ren is pretty wounded by the time she duels him - and now I have no problem believing her victory.

  5. I enjoyed my second viewing more as some story points made sense, I decided Reys Saber skills were a combination of her ability with the staff and Force guidance, the same way Luke destroys the Death Star in New Hope, she spends the first half of the fight just defending and running then when Kylo tries to tempt her she follows Maz's instructions and feels the force.

  6. I didn't mind Finn holding his own against the emotionally and physically wounded Kylo Ren, because the film had already established that First Order Stromtroopers were trained to fight an opponent armed with a lightsaber. As for Rey, I think she took quite a lot more from Re's mind than he took from her.

  7. Apologies in advance that his is kind of long:

    I agree with some of the above re: Rey's use of the lightsaber (already adept with her staff) and able to defeat Kylo Ren (concentrates on using the force). Actually, the times that she actively uses the force and succeeds (blocking Kylo Ren reading her thoughts, mind trick on the Daniel Craig stormtrooper, defeating Kylo Ren in the lightsaber duel) are when she closes her eyes and concentrates. Cubro is right that she's mostly just defending herself for the majority of the fight with Kylo Ren since she's really just running from him and parrying his attacks. It's not until he has her cornered and tells her he can teach her the dark side of the force that she concentrates on using the force and then attacks.

    I think it's kind of unfair that people dismiss Rey's use of the force as unrealistic by comparing her to Luke since if I remember correctly, Luke only tries actively using the force two times in ANH (parrying shots from the remote while learning to use the lightsaber, then evading Vader and taking out the Death Star). But Luke also had to close his eyes and concentrate each of these times.

    I think Rey pulling the lightsaber out of the snow makes sense for a reason other than just the force, which is set up earlier: Maz tells her to take the lightsaber when she leaves because it's hers now after the lightsaber has chosen her as its new owner. I think this is something that other people either didn't notice or just dismissed as meaningless, but in my opinion, the lightsaber going to Rey instead of Kylo Ren despite Kylo Ren being more powerful is just paying off Maz's set up: the lightsaber is responding to its true owner. If I'm right, and unless I'm mistaken, this is something new to Star Wars (lightsabers sort of having a mind of their own & chosing its owner) and seems like it was probably inspired by the Harry Potter movies (wands chose owners).

    Even if I'm wrong regarding the lightsaber responding to Rey, it seems unfair to dismiss her being able to do this just because Luke didn't do it until Empire. When Luke does it, he presumably hasn't had any additional training with the force between ANH and Empire and has never seen anyone use the force to move objects. At least Rey sees Kylo Ren trying to summon the lightsaber before trying it herself, rather than just randomly trying it on her own.

    The one use of a force power by Rey that's kind of questionable to me is using the mind trick since she hadn't seen anyone else use it. But honestly, I was so entertained by that scene and the movie as a whole by that point that I let it slide. And it's not like she instantly was able to do it, it took her a few tries.

  8. I guess the question is: does the film break the rule of containing improbable possibilities as opposed to probable possibilities?

    I have to admit - I never felt let down by any of those moments.

    I'll also admit - I'm biased. When Star Wars-A New Hope came out, it hit me in my little-kid, adventure and toy-loving wheelhouse. I'm not a mega-expanded-universe fan, but the franchise means something special to me.

    And again, maybe, this is just what I'm bringing to it. At the moment, I'm going through some very difficult times personally. When I saw this on Saturday, all those issues were completely gone for every bit of 135 minutes. I was not only swept away by this thing but I left the theater smiling and on some sort of Star-Wars-high that I didn't come down from three hours (it was almost exactly three hours - unfortunately I remember the precise moment when reality set back in).

    I know there's a lot to pick apart and I hate to go sideways with that discussion...I'll follow everyone's take here with interest, but please let me just say that my only take-away from this was pure joy.

    If I had a way to do it and time to figure out the proper channels, I would try and reach JJ Abrams just to say 'thank you.' His work, at least for a little while, provided a needed escape for my troubled brain.

  9. When Rey kissed Finn on the forehead and used the word friend does that mean he's now in the dreaded "Friend-Zone" (tm)?!!

  10. To comment on what you mentioned about Kylo Ren's backstory: in the novelization, it is stated that he betrayed Luke and killed his padawans about 20 years before The Force Awakens, and Pablo Hidalgo mentioned that Ren is 29-30 years old in the film. This means that he was a pre-teen when he fell to the dark side and betrayed Luke.

  11. One relatively small change would have made a huge difference for me.

    Have Han and Chewie on Jakku already trying to get to Kylo Ren. It eliminates a huge story convenience - the Falcon being there, and it provides Han a characterization much more in keeping with the growth he underwent in the original trilogy and even mirroring it nicely - instead of running from his problems he's now pursuing the people that mean the most to him.

    Have Rey and Finn pass the Falcon so you keep the great line about it being a piece of junk, but they take a smaller ship - which would be a little more believable than Rey pulling off more elaborate maneuvers than we've ever seen the Falcon do. Han and Chewie swoop in and save them.

    Then we learn about Han's goal nice and early instead of over halfway through the film. You could still tease out who his son is - maybe it's Poe. Revealing it's Kylo could elicit a great reaction from Finn, and it would start a conversation about the force that would start Rey on her journey a lot earlier.

  12. I don't know why this doesn't get discussed more when people debate Rey and her Force abilities, but it seemed *really* obvious to me that she was one of the young children trained by Luke, before Kylo destroyed the Academy.

    Kylo sees in her mind the ocean and the island (the Jedi temple), she has flashbacks of Kylo and others on a rainy night, Luke and R2, and her being left (read: hidden away) on Jakku.

    When Kylo tries to get the information out of her, Rey's embedded Jedi mental defenses kick in, and it is obvious - at least to me - that her training begins to bubble back up to the surface. She's not *finding* her Force abilities, she's *remembering* that she has them.

    1. I want to find where Patient Zero for this theory is because I've seen it accepted a lot of places as indisputable fact, and I really, really don't buy it.

      Rey's five when she's abandoned, which would make her very young for someone trained by Luke. We're talking Force Pre-school here. I don't think the Jedi Mind Trick would be a part of that, for one thing. Would mental defenses really be something they'd be training in someone so young? It's more likely at that point, it's easier to teach the more basic skills.

      There's also the fact that the first image of her Jedi vision is absolutely not something Rey has encountered - the hallways of Cloud City. Thus, there's no reason to assume she was physically present at any of the other instances in the vision.

      I think it's easier to accept that her more mature mind was better able to commune with the Force than the idea that she's got a long-buried crash course in everything that gets turned on. That's an assumption that overcomplicates things needlessly.

      I could be wrong, but I really don't buy into the "she was a student who had her memory erased" theory.

    2. I can see your points, but it just makes more sense to me that what happened was intended to represent unlocked ability.

      Regarding the age issue, yeah, she's young, but then again, in Ep 1 they go to some pains to point out that young Anakin was "too old" to begin Jedi training, which means it was normally something begun the moment a child was determined to be Force-sensitive, and I'm guessing that was probably toddler age or younger.

      Of course, if these aren't buried skills, one thought regarding the Mind Trick is that it is something Rey remembers the Jedi have the ability to do...but if that was the case, I'd want a bit of foreshadowing ("Jedi could jump great distances and control someone's mind with a few words!").

      Also, Rey's *insistence* that she not leave Jakku feels more to me like a conditioned behavior, rather than the memory of a small child told to stay and wait for her family to return. For me, the whole plot thread of her being left on the planet kind of dangles unsatisfyingly if it isn't tied to the Jedi Academy somehow.

      We will have to wait (!!!) and see.

    3. Yeah but beginning the training could mean a lot of different things. I'm not sure a five year-old is even capable of grasping the concept of something the Jedi Mind Trick. I feel like the early education would almost have to be more about developing the connection with the Force first before trying to hone specific skill sets.

      We've seen some Force abilities be instinctive in people with no training at all. Anakin's piloting ability is the biggest example, but we could also argue Leia's resistance to the mindprobe and her success at strangling Jabba both could be the result of a connection to the Force.

      I just don't feel like there's any ability that Rey displays that gets any better explained by the idea she had early training. And then you have to go with the whole memory wipe idea, which just feels messy to me.

      The idea that her insistence on staying on Jakku is conditioning is an interesting one, but I worry that messes with her arc. You take away her agency in that moment changes the meaning of her development. She goes from someone learning to let go of a comforting lie, to someone who's merely overcoming an implanted compulsion.

      I like that she has to learn to let go of this fantasy that her family's coming back for her, and that she only can once she sees a new path and has found the strength to face the unknown alone. (This is also one reason I'm hoping she doesn't turn out to be Luke's kid. Then Rey can go from waiting for her family to find her to making her her own family, of sorts.)

  13. It's my first time back here in a while, and I thought (hoped?) you might be in the more critically minded camp regarding this film. Be interested to know if your positive impression holds now some time has passed?

    For me it was a massive, confusing let down; a film that didn't care about character consistency (who exactly is Finn again, trained killer or comedy sidekick? Why did Leia send someone she'd never met to find Luke instead of going herself, or sending Poe? What happened to Poe and his vital mission after the crash on Jakku? Why does Chewie ignore Leia at the end? Why is Luke a coward now?); a film that wanted to pretend it wasn't a sequel (political reset to ANH with no explanation). Remove Starkiller Base and it would be better, but there's a lot of basic fundamentals the script gets wrong that jar more with every viewing.

    I don't hate it, but it's an inverse film to any of the Prequels - full of verve and character, but completely lacking in originality, creativity and basic storytelling. Still amazed at the pass it got from some critics, seemingly only because it's Star Wars.

    1. Positive impression definitely holds up after about six or seven viewings. Honestly, I think this is probably the most re-watchable of the seven films. The rest of the original trilogy all have stretches that drag in places. After far too many tentpole films verging on three-hours, JJ's brisk pace was like a breath of fresh air.

      The Starkiller Base thing is the one point that nags me more on each viewing. If the Death Star hadn't been brought back for an encore in JEDI it would be less egregious, but after ROGUE ONE, 4 of 8 movies will feature a Death Star-type super-weapon in prominent capacity.

      As far as Leia sending Rey, I can buy that - especially with the blow they just got dealt - she's far more crucially needed at the command base. And as soon as she learned about Rey's force abilities, I can buy her feeling there's some Force-ordained destiny going on here. And she sends him with Chewie and R2, so it's not like Luke's going to be wanting for familiar faces.

      As I understand Poe's mission, it was to get the map and get out. If by the time he gets to the settlement, everyone's buzzing about the two fugitives and droid that stole a freighter (remember, EVERYONE seems to know about this quickly), it makes sense he'd get extracted somehow and report to base.

      I don't know if I agree with the call that Luke is a coward. The only hint we have to his motivations is Han's supposition and it's clearly a guess. It seems that he likely WAS looking for the Jedi Temple, trying to find wisdom about how to deal with what seems like a rise of the Sith. It's pretty clear that Episode VIII will have to offer more about what Luke found and why he's been biding his time there.

      I don't agree that it got "a pass" from critics. Especially "because it's Star Wars." The Prequels were also Star Wars and they got pretty savaged.

    2. The OT can drag in places, but ROTJ is still far more re-watchable than TFA. It hits a better balance of exposition and action set pieces, IMO. I've watched TFA three times, and every single time it starts to drag as soon as we get to Maz's Castle - so much so that I couldn't make it any further than that on a fourth viewing.

      I don't think I can agree that the pacing was a breath of fresh air either. The most pertinent counter-argument is Civil War, a tentpole film that's part of an established continuity that juggled multiple characters and set-pieces competently, giving us character growth and development next to status-quo shattering plot. It is also hugely re-watchable (getting bogged down in your second act? Introduce Spider-Man!). Effectively free of continuity, Mad Max: Fury Road showed us pure visceral entertainment at a breakneck pace. I honestly don't think TFA compares favourably to either.

      I can accept your inferences on the plot, but to me these points jarred on viewing and don't reflect well on Abrams. I'm all up for reading between the lines but making us guess so much about why things are unfolding as they are isn't good storytelling. And if VIII and IX fix these holes, does that mean VII can legitimately stand on its own merits? I'm saying no - which is why I was surprised by the critical reaction. But then, this is a film that epitomises Abrams' style more than any other, which is filmmaking solely for the moment. As long as you don't put any thought into what's going on you'll have a great time. That's the currency of modern cinema, it's just painful to watch it applied to Star Wars.

      So I guess we'll have to agree to disagree!