Well, the force awakened a bit over a week ago, and I finally got around to making my way to the movie theater, hoping (vainly) that the crowds had thinned. Not so, much to my chagrin. I was excited to see the movie, but not beside myself. As a child and youth I loved Star Wars and delved headfirst into the expanded universe of comic books, games and novels. Like many young people, I dreamt up my own adventures in a galaxy far, far away. My enthusiasm for the world has waned with time (three awful movies will do that to you), but there has always been a special place reserved in my cerebellum for Star Wars. I wanted very much to like this movie. It just didn’t happen. No matter my love for the original trilogy, something just did not work for me, and I will try to explain the reasons as best I can.
Where There’s Snoke There’s Fire
There was something very much out of balance in this movie, and it took me a while to figure out just what it was. The original trilogy is full of great moments of heroism from Han Solo, Luke, Leia, R2D2 and all the other forces of the rebel alliance, but they are offset by villains more than equal to their courage and goodness. Darth Vader, The Emperor, Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett, are all memorable and worthy adversaries. The Empire’s crushing stranglehold on the galaxy steeps the entire trilogy in a sense of stifling, authoritarian dread. Every victory by the rebel forces seems hard-fought and won only by the skin on their teeth. The oppressive political power of the empire is the status quo of a regime holding to the power it usurped from the senate. This is all explained without needlessly excessive exposition. God knows less is sometimes more, especially when faced with essentially hearing the Trade Federation’s tax forms read aloud in the prequels. The problem with TFA (The Force Awakens) is that it flees in the opposite direction and favors explaining nothing at all.
What do we know? Well, there is something called The Republic, made up of planets full of people, apparently. They support something called The Resistance, which is essentially just the Rebel Alliance with a new PR agent. We have the remains of the empire in the form of the First Order, which doesn’t seem to control anything aside from their planet with a gun on it. We have no idea why the First Order wants to destroy The Republic, or why The Resistance has to remain in hiding when the remnant of the empire obviously does not actually control the galaxy anymore. The First Order in particular comes off as ridiculous meanies who just like being mean, since, you know, they’re bad guys. Destroying Alderaan as an example made sense in A New Hope, since it was a political move by an authoritarian regime. The First Order just seems to be a group of dicks who like to be dicks while wearing black uniforms and blowing stuff up. Vader was not part of the military hierarchy in the original trilogy, and he had generals openly disagreeing with him on strategy. There was an obvious separation of powers on the surface. Yes, the emperor was a sith lord, but he was first and foremost an emperor.
Essentially what we have in this new film is a group of jack-booted thugs getting high off the fumes of Vader’s melting helmet, which would be fine if that was more of an element. The Nazi themes in the First Order do not possess the pagan cultism that existed within that regime. All we get is one scene of Kylo Ren talking to a melted helmet. There seems to be a whole helluvalot of squandered opportunity to make the group more fanatically terroristic and religious (think cult of Vader), and if they are not a regime anymore and are merely a splinter cell, then they are a terrorist group. Yes, blowing up a few planets is good and all, but there is no ‘why’ explained, no mouthpiece broadcasting himself to the surviving planets and outlining a manifesto or ideology. I almost expected Walter Sobchak to show up at any moment and say: “I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
The problems with the villains does not end there. We have general Hux; who we know nothing about except that he hates freedom and goodness, Captain Phasma; same count on the freedom and goodness, and Supreme Ayatollah Snoke; who we can guess is a sith and thus has at least some motivation. That leaves us with the main villain, Kylo, who cannot hold up his end of the good versus evil balance. His inner conflict is not a bad thing as it gives him dimension, but the result is that the First Order never comes across as equal to the Resistance and all their good people fighting for good. Darth Vader was worth a Rebel Alliance, but Kylo Ren never seems equal to his enemies, especially after removing his mask. I understand that the character is still developing and he will probably be back with much greater anger and power, but his brooding petulance gave off prequel Anakin vibes that did not sit well with me. There needed to be a strong villainous entity to temper his conflicted nature with an unwavering hand, and none of the one-note First Order flybys by forgettable bad guys offered that element. Sure, he kills Han Solo, but the man doesn’t even have his weapon drawn. If this is all the dark side has to offer now, then they need to put up some craigslist job offers.
The force must have had a long and restful nap because it woke up snarling like an angry grizzly bear. Chance encounters are a part of the original trilogy. Luke runs into Obi Wan on Tatooine, then they run into Han Solo, and eventually they all meet up with Leia on the Death Star, but none of those encounters seem explicitly destined. Han Solo could have been any smuggler honestly, although we are glad it was the man in question. In Empire, Luke takes a spill within strolling range of Yoda’s bachelor pad and so on. In TFA, this chance-as-destiny concept is soaked in isopropyl and lit on fire. Not all of the force-concidence-craziness got under my skin, but the sheer magnitude started to wear on me. Let’s look at a list for some perspective: 1) BB-8 runs into Rey 2) Fin runs into Poe 3) Fin crashes near Rey 4) The Millennium Falcon is rusting away within spitting distance 5) Han and Chewie find the Falcon 6) That weird goggle lady has Luke’s lightsaber . . . and I could go on, but my head is spinning.
Here’s the thing about the force going batshit: it allows for crazy plot-holes that make the writing very lazy. One of the most notable moments for me was when Rey magically decides to Jedi mind trick a strom-trooper without even knowing the force existed 24 hours prior. I mean, she has never seen a jedi mind trick or have a reason to think it would even work. The fact that her character is so powerful out of seemingly nowhere does not even gel with the version of the force we see in the original trilogy. It takes arduous training from Yoda for Luke to become even somewhat able to harness the force competently, and that is after being trained by Obi Wan while they traveled together. Rey reading a trained dark Jedi’s mind and telekinetically taking Luke’s lightsaber from his grasp is just too much to believe.
And since when does the force make you good at everything? In A New Hope, Luke found himself in many helpless situations and needed Han Solo or Leia to save his hide. Rey, on the other hand, can repair starships, pilot them, shoot without missing, and manipulate the inner workings of facilities and ships she has never been to. The flying by the seat of the pants heroism and dumb luck of A New Hope is scrapped for far less believable prior knowledge and ‘force-y’ insight that Rey apparently and inexplicably possesses. Yes, it moves the story along but at the cost of our existent understanding of how the force and the world of Star Wars works.
Light Side, Strong Side
Another theme of this new movie was very apparent to me in the cantina scene in particular. If one puts the scene side by side with the iconic barroom tinderbox of A New Hope, there is something missing. The Tatooine cantina seems dangerous and contains an explosive tension. There is an impression that the galaxy is full of desperate people who will come to blows just to get an inch ahead. Pair this with Lando’s betrayal of Han in Empire and the ne’er do wells populating Jabba’s palace. In the original trilogy there is a distinct impression that the galaxy is a dark place with threats lurking around every corner. In TFA, this does not seem to be the case.
Goggle lady’s cantina seems peaceful, and all the alien races are co-existing. It’s no surprise after the shot of all the flags hanging on the exterior and indicating a sort of no-man’s land. This singular example of community seems to fly in the face of the barely-contained savagery in the original trilogy. One could imagine that the Empire would have supporters among the common people in A New Hope, since they at least offered stability and order in a dangerous world. In TFA, the galaxy seems able to make its own peace, and the First Order is simply a spiteful remnant hateful of that fact. That’s all well and good, but it removes a certain wild-west element of the original films, an earned cynicism that made allegiance to the empire understandable, but also the peaceful intervention of the jedi even more noble.
I think this complaint ties in with the movie’s villain problem as well. The forces of good are too strong to make us really worry about the galaxy, and the Resistance seems to have allies everywhere. The only element of betrayal in the film is some informer giving The First Order a heads-up at the cantina, and it is all very nebulous. Is not the force neutral? Like a Yin-Yang there is a dark and light side conflicting at all times, but what of when the light has assumed greater power? That seems to be the central problem of the movie in my mind. The light is too bright to give the darkness more credence than an angry shadow. I’ve read reviews praising the movie for avoiding overly brooding characters and embracing wonder and optimism, but is that not simply different and reactionary form of imbalance? Think of Luke’s crisis in Empire. He is told that he will fall into the dark side if he leaves Dagobah and forsakes his training to save his friends. It is a beautifully morally grey moment that shows how utterly neural the force is, yet in TFA we have nothing even approaching this torturous conflict. The characters are never forced to choose against their conscience. To put it succinctly: it is just too black and white.
This is obvious, ironically so, in a brief exchange between Finn and Han Solo, when the former asserts that he essentially has no plan, and is expecting the force to give them one. In response, Solo claims that the force doesn’t work in that way, however, the film only seems to provide evidence that he is wrong, and that, yes, the force will find a way to get you out of a bind, so long as you are one of the good guys. In this way, the power does seem to be disproportionately weighted on one side and treads the path a bit too far from mysticism to convenience.
Yes, I am being pretty rough on the film, but I do so from having a guarded and dogged love of the original three movies. There was quite a bit to like about TFA: I found Finn to be a great new addition, and of course Han and Chewie were great as always. Some of this certainly boils down to comparative bias, since I was treated to another 30 years in the making reboot earlier this year in Mad Max: Fury Road that completely exceeded my wildest hopes, despite my cynicism. After that film, I left the theater euphoric, but that was simply not the case with Star Wars. Maybe I am just older now and the magic has left me, but I think there has been something lost in translation as well.
That being said, nobody with a clean conscience can say that the movie did not play it safe. It tread the path more traveled for the sake of fan service and nostalgia, and some of the elements used to this effect simply did not work well in the new vision of the world. Perhaps this all gets to a problem facing art and entertainment. People want to be entertained, but they also want to be immersed in a world that they can, at least for a few hours, believe in completely. It is somewhat apparent to me that TAF put its money on entertainment. Bear with me here for a moment. If Star Wars is a world of its own that we merely peer into for a time, and it keeps whirring away whether we look or not, then this newest film did a poor job of manifesting that world, but if Star Wars is something we make purely for our most immediate selves, then it was a great success. That does leave us to wonder, however, how long ago and far away that galaxy really is.