Well, this holiday season was the big one all of geek culture was waiting for: Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens has come!
It was probably inevitable in what I grouchily refer to as the Age of the Remake, where Hollywood et al can barely seem to make anything that isn’t an adaptation, a remake or a sequel of something that came out twenty-plus years ago.
This particular instance was made more than usually unpalatable for me because the man at the helm is the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams. Apart from a general feeling that this is too much power for one nerd to hold, I’m still ticked off at him for building his resume for this job by running roughshod over my favourite franchise and effectively turning into a mindless Star Wars knockoff.
Let it not be said, however, that I buy into the age old Star Trek vs. Star Wars rivalry. I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan; Empire Strikes Back has been one of my favourite movies since before I was school-age. That said, I’ve never had the kind of personal loyalty to the franchise that I have to Star Trek. Not because there’s anything wrong with Star Wars. It’s just that Star Wars doesn’t have the mission or message that Trek does. Star Trek was here to tell us something really important about our potential for the future, albeit I’m beginning to think I’m the only one who noticed. Star Wars invited us on an epic and soulful whiz-bang space adventure, simple as that. And if that’s the bar they want to set, then I will concede that the Force Awakens more than delivers.
As the new plan came to light, mixed feelings arose in the fandom. The one that ticked off a lot of people is that, to develop a story for a new wave of Star Wars, they decided to chuck out the entire post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe canon and start from scratch. People who have invested themselves in experiencing the licensed comics and books were understandably left with a feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them. As someone who is only broadly aware of it, it seems to me that the EU has grown so vast, complex and detailed, that to successfully integrate all of it would be impractical.
Thirty years after the downfall of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, the new Republic is engaged in a proxy struggle against the First Order, what remains of the Galactic Empire. Rey, an orphaned battlefield scavenger, is pulled into an urgent mission by Finn, a Stormtrooper of the First Order who has deserted. Joining forces with heroes of the semi-legendary battle against the Empire, they have to evade capture by the fanatical disciple of the Dark Side Kylo Ren to bring the Resistance a droid, BB-8, who carries a map that will show them their great hope: the whereabouts of the missing Jedi Luke Skywalker. At the same time, the First Order have built yet another planet-destroying superweapon that must be destroyed for the Republic to survive and preserve the ancient Jedi ways.
A few people I know complained that the plot is basically just a retread of the very first Star Wars movie, and there is something in that. The fact that their opposition is basically an Even More Powerful version of the Death Star is certainly a clue. A lost droid with a secret mission is another one. The desert planet setting (oddly not Tatooine as I assumed) and the fact that our heroine – who even dresses a bit like Luke Skywalker in his farm boy days – meets a mentor figure are all very clearly revisiting the basic plot of Episode IV. All that said, it never crosses the line into straight-up ripoff territory in the same way that Star Trek: Into Darkness did.
Thorough worldbuilding has never been a strong point of Star Wars. George Lucas’ judgement about when to explain things and when to leave them ambiguous was shaky at best. This movie is no different, though at the stronger end of normal for the franchise. We see an inhabited planet get blown up, but it isn’t clear which one, nor is it dwelt on much, rather like Alderaan back in the day. The exact political or strategic situation is really fuzzy: is the Republic in direct conflict with the First Order? And if so why do you need a Resistance? And why does the Resistance include people who became top generals in the Rebel Alliance? Shouldn’t they be in the regular military? Star Wars allows a lot of latitude to not worry about this sort of thing, but it still makes the story universe seem a bit unpolished. The movie has a very interesting set of scenes where we see what it’s like to view the world when you’re sensitive to the Force, but the actual rules of the Force, what it makes you capable of and how much of your ability is talent and how much is training remain eternally ill-defined.
More irritating to me is that there are so many incidental encounters, supporting characters and other elements that, I am forced to assume are going to be significant in the movie-a-year Marvel-style cinematic saga that Star Wars is apparently now to become. Knowing that and seeing all these possible hints makes this movie feel less like an experience to be had and more like homework for an experience that hasn’t happened yet. This was the thing about Lost that always got on my nerves: the whole story seems to be trading on the promise of something awesome coming later rather than focusing on its own merits.
And merits the story does indeed have. I’d agree that the movie is a retread of Episode IV, but it is one in the same way that Star Trek: the Next Generation is a retread of the Original Star Trek, or that BioShock: Infinite is of BioShock, or that the Second World War was of the First. It’s a generational echo, a chance for a new group of people to undertake a similar cause in their own way.
The story pulls a bit of fast one by setting up a main character who it turns out isn’t actually the main character; he’s a bit more analogous Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy. The characters have personal struggles and traumas of various sorts, and it’s fascinating how we have two Hero’s Journey stories running together and mutually supporting. Finn and Rey’s refusal of the call phase is a bit more than just a formality as it is for Luke in Episode IV. Rey’s loner lifestyle gives way to her becoming part of a team and a circle of friends without her losing her personal indepedence or a turning into a cookie-cutter love interest.
Finn’s defection to free agency is probably going to transition into his joining the Resistance in a later movie, but oddly for playing the long game, his arc seems more rushed even than the others, and they all feel rushed. His defection seems to come with no particular precedent – it’s even noted he never had a single discipline problem prior to that – and he goes through the opening steps of the Hero’s Journey at an especially breakneck pace. He clearly has a lot to do later in the series. He’s a good guy with a good heart and although he’s somewhat the comic relief, it’s never to the point of disrespecting him, because he’s honestly out of his depth, being neither an ace pilot nor a potential Jedi like most Star Wars protagonists.
Abrams has proven that he’s really good at building a character arc in the context of television series, like Lost and Fringe. But it feels like he panics and rushes things when he’s limited to the runtime of a movie. It can be done: Joss Whedon’s Avengers can stand on its own as a character piece even if you haven’t seen Thor or Iron Man. It might even have been worthwile for Abrams to go full Peter Jackson and make a three hour mega-movie if it allowed a bit more modest pacing.
Overall, the new crop of heroes are perhaps my favourite thing in the movie: they aren’t supermen – or even all men – or aces or destined saviours – although there’s an element of Arthurian imagery with Rey. They’re regular people with complimentary skills and talents, and there’s less of a sense of living up to a pre-ordained destiny, as in the other two trilogies, than of just trying to be a good person and make your way in the world. Er, galaxy.
As for the returning champions like Han Solo and Leia, contrary to what I feared given Abrams’ history with Star Trek, the movie honours their contribution to the franchise. Although Solo’s character seems to have had a bit of the old reset button, and the way he enters the story’s a tad contrived, the old guard have arcs of their own. They don’t take over the story and turn it into fanfiction, nor are they in there just as a fanservice bribe, nor as comic relief to make fun of the franchise. To Rey and Finn, these people are practically folk legends, and yet they relate to them as people and learn and grow from their influence.
All this is set neatly against the villain Kylo Ren. It kept occurring to me that Rey and Ren are like opposite sides of a fandom argument on a comment thread. While Rey is enriched by her encounter with history and yet remains her own person, Ren is consumed by it. He’s basically the worst gatekeeper-type fanboy. He’s obssessed with being a Dark Side badass. He worships Darth Vader’s memory as the ultimate master of the Dark Side, to the point of wearing a ripoff of Vader’s mask for no other apparent reason. His lightsabre appears to be both oversized and overpowered – it gives off heatwaves and deals a lot more damage than normal – and punches his own open wounds to show off how tough he is. Despite all these trappings, the untrained Rey gives him a run for his money; he lacks Vader’s imposing stoicism – indeed he has almost no self-control at all – and doesn’t appear to know how to use the old Sith standby of Force Lightning. It all goes to make him both scary and loathsome. The fact that he’s pitted against a group of gender and race-diverse protagonists of the kind that the whitebread macho fanboys railed against gives it a rather grimly satisfying symbolism. Really, every franchise should do something like this, just to sort out the Reys and Finns from the Kylos in their midst…
Overall, I really enjoyed the Force Awakens. It walks a fine line between doing something new and riffing on the classic that gives you a reasonable amount of both. It’s cheesy and maybe shallow, but Star Wars was always cheesy and shallow, and it was epic regardless. The characters are really fascinating, the special effects are awesome, the connection with the original trilogy is touching, the music is superb and the dialogue, the butt of many a joke at Star Wars’ expense, has improved a good deal. Abrams has also reined in his lens flare fetish a bit. My main concern is whether the revived franchise will be able to maintain a sense of momentum going forward. We’ve already escalated to a Mega-Badass-Super-Death Star™, and I’m not sure where we can go from here.
However, for the first time in a while, I can honestly say, I’m looking forward to finding out.
Happy New Year, and may the Force be with you.