REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Seldom do I feel compelled to review anything, and this is the first time in my memory when I have actually written a review about a movie. Yes, there will be spoilers.
Today, my wife and I decided to go out and see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” We thought it would be a good idea to be able to say we saw it on opening weekend like so many others. Boy were we wrong!
What we saw brings to mind “The Royal Nonesuch” in Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. That’s where the King and the Duke put on a show and rook everyone in the audience, and that audience, which comprises half the town, decides that having been “sold” they will try to get the other half to pay to see the show, so that on the third day, the whole town can bring in tomatoes and throw them at the performers. Except that on the third day, the performers abscond with the price of admission without putting on the show and have the last laugh.
That is what “The Force Awakens” is like in a way. It’s a big disappointment. It seems like just as J.J. Abrams screwed up the Star Trek franchise, he has now done the same for the Star Wars franchise. Plus, the fact that Disney is now wrapped up in this whole thing means extra added problems for the never ending space opera. There are very few heart-rending moments, for example, and what the audience is getting force-fed (to use a pun) is light fare that is bland in taste and not very filling.
From the moment the movie begins, it’s flawed.
We are told via the flying synopsis of yellow letters that kick off Episode VII that a new threat has emerged which is in essence another version of the Empire called The First Order (and so we know there will be allusions to the Nazi Third Reich later on). Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is looking to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to help fight this menace.
Sounds like quite a lead up, right?
But the first thing that comes to mind is a question: Why does The First Order even exist? With the members of the rebellion having blown up the last Death Star in “Return of the Jedi”, did they not go after the remnants of the Empire and get rid of them? And since this movie happens 30 years after “Return”, one wonders what the resistance has been doing all this time if they haven’t been doing that. This question arises a second time later on when we discover that an even bigger weapon than anything we’ve seen before exists, a whole planet that houses a canon capable of destroying multiple planets at once. Didn’t the resistance think it might be advantageous to destroy this weapon before it became operational? Apparently not.
[As an aside, there have been similar stories about flying planets that can do nasty things in Doctor Who, but I’ll just skip talking about that, because it’s neither here nor there. Lots of science fiction stories copy stuff from other science fiction stories, so we will let that go. But as a fan of the classic Doctor Who series, when I heard about the flying planet weapon in Star Wars, my first thought was “Been there! Done that! Yawn!”]
There is also a bit of disappointment with the movie from the get-go in another respect, too. “What the hell, Abrams?” we want to say. “You mean Luke, Leia, and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) aren’t together? Does this mean that we’re going to waste half a movie as we try to gather everyone up together again?”
The answer to both questions is yes.
At any rate, the flying words tell us that Luke Skywalker has gone missing and a search is out for him. Why? We don’t know precisely. But this torpedoes my respect for Skywalker. What kind of leader cuts and runs when he’s needed the most?
Abrams inserts the usual amount of grittiness into this movie via scenery, just like he did in others he’s worked on, and so the magical universe of Star Wars feels like it’s become a cheap trashy dump, and that’s not dissimilar to the general setting: A desert planet a la Tatooine, except with a different name (Jakku), and this time, the desert is littered with crashed Star Destroyers and other junk left over from the battles of yesteryear. Among this wealth of elements, compounds, and computers are scavengers, who crawl over these ships and other metallic crap like ants. They take bits and pieces and sell them for food, but despite the enormous amount of valuable trash, they still cannot seem to make ends meet.
As in “Star Wars: A New Hope”, the bad guy (this time a slight, waif of a figure in a laughable mask and gown) named Kylo Ren ( Adam Driver) lands with a bunch of storm troopers to try and find a ‘droid that is carrying the missing piece of a map that tells Luke Skywalker’s location. Before more than a few moments have passed, we see that Ren uses the Force, and since he is with The First Order, we infer he has pledged his allegiance to The Dark Side.
One can guess at what the writers were thinking when they penned this scene. We’re supposed to wonder who Kylo Ren is. Is it Luke Skywalker gone bad? Is it someone else like Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams)? Maybe it’s even Han Solo? But this poorly contrived bit causes us not to care for two reasons: 1) Ren looks to be such a wimp that we figure he’ll get killed off soon… so he must be a minor character, and 2) We know we’ll find out eventually anyway, either before the end of this latest series of films, or at the ending of this film, and it will probably be somewhere near the end of this one, otherwise the fans would get really pissed.
Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) tries to smuggle the ‘droid off the planet, but winds up getting captured, even as the ‘droid makes a getaway.
A storm trooper gone good, Finn (John Boyega), witnesses this assault and decides he’s going to defect, but rather than run while he is on the planet, Finn decides he is going to do so when he is on the ship where Poe Dameron winds up being held. Through a series of run of the mill adventures, they escape fairly easily. The TIE fighter they steal crashes back on Jakku, and with Poe apparently dead, Finn sets off on his own, and we all hope the real adventure will begin soon, because thus far, we are moderately bored, and the cast of characters is not very impressive.
There is nothing about Poe physically speaking that would endear him to too many women, and his personality is without any depth, and with him dead so early on in the movie, one wonders why they even cast the character with such a prominent role in the first place. [Later he shows up alive, however, and then we know it’s so that Abrams can tug at our emotions, except we don’t care anyway because Abrams bungles the reunion.] Finn has to tremble now and then to remind viewers that he’s scared of The First Order finding him, making us all wonder what kind of sheep comprise The First Order and also making us wonder again why the resistance hasn’t wiped them out. And as I have already indicated, Kylo Ren is a joke, although later on, when his mask is removed, we see that he looks a little like Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) from Harry Potter. I’m guessing the likeness is deliberate. If you’re a kid, you might not know who Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are, but you can relate to Professor Snape!
The ‘droid is cute, and thus far is the cutest member of the cast. He sounds like the WALL-E from the film of the same name. However, it cannot carry the film. Fortunately, Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who can’t make ends meet despite plundering downed Star Destroyers with the rest of the planet’s inhabitants, meets up with this ‘droid and eventually Finn. She’s kind of cute too.
The First Order figures out where Rey, Finn, and the ‘droid are, and the three steal the already stolen Milennium Falcon (I won’t bother to explain this part of the story) and leave Jakku. The Falcon has been aged and run down and weathered, and it’s disappointing to see that Abrams has turned our favorite spaceship into a shit heap, but this seems par for the course for him. He seems to destroy much of what we love about our favorite franchises. And what the hell? “The Force Awakens” is only a movie anyway, and an easily forgettable one at that, so we can forget the ugly Falcon eventually.
Enter an unbelievable statistical improbability masquerading as a clever plot twist where we’re all supposed to say “Wow!” This new crew is flying the Falcon through space and gets hit by a tractor beam, and the ship that pulls it in is piloted by none other than Han Solo and Chewbacca (Peter Mahew). When we see how old Han looks, we’re immediately pissed off at George Lucas for putting out Episodes I, II, and III, before selling the franchise so that VII can grace our movie screens. Han is old. We’re happy to see him, but crud, what has happened since we last saw him, and what is he capable of doing now that he’s so wrinkled? I mean, what the hell? Harrison Ford is 73 now, and wasn’t much younger when this movie started production!
“Chewie, we’re home,” says Ford as he and our favorite furry friend step aboard the Falcon, and as people in the audience try to stifle giggles at the silly line.
Questions plague the viewers and prevent them from focusing on the movie at this point. Why is Solo not with Princess Leia who is now a general for the resistance? You mean that Han fell back to his old scoundrel self? Whose freighter is this that he’s piloting and why did he give up the Falcon?
We get an answer as far as the Falcon is concerned, but not much else, and while it seems that Han has mellowed a little with age, he’s still pretty much the same wise-cracking, shallow kind of guy that made you want to smack him in the first three movies he appeared in.
What a disappointment! The viewer guesses that we’re in for the kind of two dimensional Han that Ford wanted to kill off at the end of “Return of the Jedi.”
Adding to the disappointment is the fact that J.J. Abrams doesn’t give him much of a role, and the dialogue seems…scripted…besides. Just like Leonard Nimoy’s modicum of work in the Star Trek movie, we’re supposed to sit awestruck as we watch our hero from times past in action again, except he really doesn’t do that much, except walk in Obi Wan’s (Alec Guinness) footsteps, albeit without the lightsaber and without the Force.
Han explains that Luke ran off after one of the Jedi he was training (Ren) turned to the Dark Side and here the viewer has to ask why Luke is so highly sought after when he turns tail and runs away after a setback similar to that of Anakin/Vader that Yoda and Kenobi handled just fine. How weak does the resistance have to be to put their faith in this quitter?
The cast makes their way to another planet and enter a bar scene similar to the one on Tatooine, but this time, the creatures therein look less Star Wars-y and more like foam rubber creatures a la “Labyrinth”. We expect David Bowie to walk into the room any second, but he doesn’t. We must accept that residents of different planets and different star systems will look different than previous creatures we have seen in other Star Wars movies, but still, they are so different that they are a little distracting.
Soon Rey walks off and sees visions which give us thirty years of confusing backstory in less than thirty seconds. She also finds Luke’s lightsaber, and no real explanation is given for how it got there. We just have to accept that Abrams put it there to make the plot work.
The First Order shows up in short order [sorry, I couldn’t resist] to collect the ‘droid.
The resistance comes to the rescue, and as they arrive, one wishes that Abrams would have done the scene differently. They come in like the cavalry to save the day, and that’s terrific, but the problem is, the viewer is never more aware that they are out of the action than at that time in the movie. One wishes to be with the resistance, not to watch as they come to the rescue. It’s also the type of trick Abrams has used in Star Trek, so that further diffuses our excitement at seeing the X-Wings come into the fray.
After the battle is over, Ren walks off to his ship carrying the unconscious body of Rey, and Ren’s ship takes off. Meanwhile, Leia exits one of the resistance’s ships to meet Han.
Scant unconvincing dialogue takes place between Han and Leia, and this is where we learn that Ren is their mutual child. (Not that this revelation matters or surprises. It had already been revealed earlier in the movie that Ren was Solo’s son. We just didn’t know who the mommy was.) I saved both revelations until now to show the impact that could have happened had Abrams done the same thing.
Do we care?
Only as movie ticket holders. You see, it was already explained earlier that Luke ran off after one of the Jedi he was training (Ren) turned to the Dark Side. And we’ve seen something like this before when Anakin Skywalker ran away from Obi Wan Kenobi to become Darth Vader, and so with the revelation that Leia and Solo’s son has turned to the Dark Side, we realize we’re seeing the same plot a second time.
What a rip off!
But at least we were spared an iteration of the “Luke! I am your father!” thing.
We’re also spared the lengthy drama about how Solo’s son turned, and I think this is probably the one move Abrams deserves credit for. After watching episodes I, II, and III, I really felt that Anakin was a weakling. There are people in real life who have suffered far more than Anakin has who have stayed good without even thinking of acting bad. But after seeing how Anakin chose to go after power rather than enjoy the value in his relationship with Padmé and delight in his ranking among the Jedi, Anakin, and by proxy, Vader, seemed weak to me. In fact, it shattered any fear I had previously felt for Vader in episodes IV, V, and VI. Perhaps this was why Lucas chose to do episodes IV, V and VI first?
Well, without the story of how Solo’s son turned, we can make up any story we want that fits our fancy, but the trouble is, Ren doesn’t inspire fear in anyone. He comes across as an angry little boy, and this is never more apparent than when he is throwing tantrums and wrecking things with his lightsaber when he’s frustrated.
But the other thing that happens is, we wonder how it is that a former Princess could have raised such scum. We can believe that Han would make a crappy father. But Princess Leia a mother that would raise a son who would turn to the Dark Side? Come on!
Then again, if she could step out of her status and slum with Solo, maybe it’s possible, but still…
At any rate, Abrams gives us no significant details as to what happened. Impressed upon the audience is that they are not supposed to be thinking about such things anyway. We’re supposed to be wowed by the appearance of Leia and marveling at how much Carrie Fisher has aged, and how her voice box sounds like it’s been dragged over a cheese grater. No! Wait a minute! I’m sorry. We’re supposed to be wondering if we’re going to see Leia and Han go off to find Luke together, because remember, Luke told Leia in “Return” that she was strong in the Force just as Vader was, and this is “The Force Awakens” right?
Here again the viewer removes himself or herself from the movie in order to reflect that if Leia was strong in the Force, why wasn’t she trained up to be a Jedi? And whether she was or wasn’t trained, why isn’t she out there doing the stuff that she wants Luke to do? Was Luke wrong about his belief that Leia possessed the Force? Or was she weak in the Force?
Well, never mind. Abrams is going to set things straight and explain everything. Right? So far, we’ve been sleeping throughout this movie and it’s about time we wake up!
But instead, Leia packs Han off to find their son, and she goes back to generalling the resistance, which is going to destroy the latest enemy zowie weapon: The Starkiller [a weapon with a name that sounds less foreboding than Star Destroyer (a ship) or Death Star]. Even though Admiral Ackbar from “Return” could do the job of managing the resistance just as well -he’s here in this movie- Leia -for whatever reason- stays there with the resistance.
Just a note on the dumb “Starkiller” weapon: When the plans are brought up in holographic form and set beside the plans of the destroyed Death Star from “Return”, Abrams has a chance to impress the audience. But just as we’re about to say to ourselves that the weapon is huge, Han does it for us with a “who cares” attitude, thereby throwing down any amazement we had and dancing on it. The line was probably one of Abrams’s attempts to get a cheap laugh out of the audience, but it fell flat.
Fast-forwarding a little, the resistance mounts one of its raids -said raid essentially differing from the ones we saw in “A New Hope” and “Return” by not much at all, and Han tracks down Ren.
Solo calls out to him: “Ben!” and we cringe. Solo has named his kid after Ben “Obi Wan” Kenobi, except that the Ben of this movie has gone over to the Dark Side. Oh the [contrived cheap-shot] irony!
But anyway, just as Luke had told Leia that there was good in Vader, Leia has told Han that there is good in Ren, and so Han tries to win his son over.
His son runs him through with a lightsaber, however, proving that even in matters pertaining to her own son, the Force appears to have eluded Leia. And Harrison Ford is out of the series forever (one assumes) just like he wanted to be at the end of “Return.”
The odd thing is, I felt no sense of loss when Solo dies, probably because Abrams mostly used him as eye candy. One can’t feel much passion for a cardboard cutout that moves. Leia obviously doesn’t feel much of a sense of loss either, because she doesn’t even shed a tear when she hears the news, even though she has admitted earlier in the movie that she still has feelings for Solo.
But the dumbest part of the movie is yet to come, not surprisingly enough, and that’s when Rey, having escaped confinement, and who has just discovered that she is possessed by the Force, engages Ren in a lightsaber battle that ends in a draw. How she has become as powerful as Ren, who has trained extensively with Skywalker, and who has presumably done well on his own up until now, is not explained. But it certainly does not speak well of Skywalker’s training methods.
Finn plays a small role in the battle (using the lightsaber) and gets hurt. We’re all supposed to worry about him, but by this time, we’re more worried about the movie ending before we see anything of Luke Skywalker. And we’re also thinking that if Finn, who doesn’t possess the Force, can do battle with Ren, surely Leia could have done the same.
But as to Luke, where the fuck is he? With the Starkiller powering up to destroy the resistance and an upstart Jedi and ex-stormtrooper being all that stands between Ren and the destruction of all that is good, won’t Luke show up now?
But he doesn’t.
Instead, Rey leaves the maimed Ren behind without bothering to kill him off, and goes off with Chewie to the resistance’s planet to celebrate, because by this time, the Starkiller has begun to collapse.
We don’t know what’s become of Ren, but Finn (alive or dead, we’re not quite sure) is brought back to the resistance’s planet and left there. Then, the map to Skywalker is put together and Rey makes a lightning quick hyperdrive trip to Skywalker. Once there, she gives him his lightsaber.
At this point, we wonder why. The Starkiller is destroyed, Ren is probably dead. One assumes the resistance can mop up the rest of The First Order. What the hell do we need Luke for?
The sequels, of course.
But as we see Skywalker, we know the real reason Abrams has saved him for last. Hamill appears to look rather ugly now that he is older, and especially with a beard. One cannot imagine spending a whole movie along side of him without cringing.
Overall, I’d give this movie two stars… Obi Wan, and Yoda… but they’re both dead, and we don’t see them here. But in terms of rating the movie, I’d say that the special effects are pretty good. In many places, you have a hard time telling the difference between CGI and real stuff. The script was poor, and the dialogue hackneyed. So overall (in terms of a rating) I’d say this movie is worth two and a half stars, and that’s not quite as complimentary as it sounds. Despite the fact that I could not relate to any of the characters in episodes I, II, and III, I enjoyed the political intrigue, and believed those movies fell in the three star range. Episodes IV and VI I’d give five stars, and episode V I’d give four and a half.
So this one is the worst of the lot in my opinion, and I’d attribute much of the fault for this to Abrams, although composer John Williams deserves a kick in the pants for devising such a halfhearted and forgettable sound score. Then again, I’m sure Williams wasn’t given a free license to write such crap. He was directed to, by you-know-who.
Let’s hope for the next part of this series that Disney shows Abrams the door. He’s over-rated. And something needs to be done about the cast he put together, too. Rey and Finn are not enough to carry it forward, Chewie is not as enjoyable with Han dead, and unless Leia is going to show us some of that Force she supposedly possesses, there is no point in having her in future films.
In closing, I just thought I would bring up one little point, and that was one that was made by my wife as we drove back from the theater: It could be that Rey is Luke Skywalker’s daughter. If that’s the case, remember to say “Wow!” when that revelation is made, and then ask yourself why Leia (Luke’s sister) and Rey showed no recognition when they meet up on the resistance’s planet.
Thomas D. Taylor