“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: The Dark Side

Inline image 5Courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

“The Force Awakens” is breaking box office records, and two of our writers, Robert Lees and Nathan Swift, have differing opinions on it. Here is a little point-counterpoint piece they wrote together. Beware, major spoilers ahead.

Rob’s Argument

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has finally come out, and everyone has come off the hype train and stopped overreacting about nonexistent spoilers lurking on Facebook. I saw it, and though it was enjoyable, I feel like it has some major issues that place it in the realm of “above average science-fiction film” and not in “ZOMFG way better than ‘Empire’ Han Solo RIP in peace.”

My first problem with “The Force Awakens” is that I don’t feel a sense of weight with the story. The big apocalyptic event that ushers in the film’s final battle is the destruction of the New Republic using the First Order’s cataclysmic plot device. In the original trilogy, the destruction of Alderaan by the Empire changed the trajectory of the heroes, showed how evil the villainous Empire was and intertwined the stories of Leia, Luke, Han and Darth Vader. This set up the contentious relationship that would dominate the rest of Luke’s story. There really isn’t a sense of that in “The Force Awakens.” “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and no one gave a shit.”

Whose story is this anyway? This film focuses on a gaggle of interesting and fleshed-out heroes and blah blah blah, and all of them fight for screen time. While it necessarily isn’t a problem to have an extensive cast, giving each of the protagonists arcs that dominate the run time only serves to cheapen them by having them all played out together, much like eating five candy bars one after another. In comparison to the original “Star Wars,” Luke’s change from Tatooine hillbilly to hero of the rebellion dominated the story, and the supporting arcs of Leia, Han Solo and Ben Kenobi stayed where they belonged: in the background. I also don’t feel a great sense of urgency from any of the protagonists, as Finn’s goal is to escape the First Order while Rey’s goal is to do … something, I guess. The only hero with a vested interest in The Resistance is Poe Dameron, and he pulls a disappearing act for most of the film. I feel a closer focus on one character would have been better in the context of a narrative, while keeping the rest of the cast in a supporting role. Giving all the protagonists in the cast equal screen time and importance is a hallmark of children’s theater, not grown-up cinema.

The same problem with the heroes is also endemic to the villains, and all four of them — Kylo Ren, Hux, the silver stormtrooper chick and ghost Count Chocula — must all have been in a “Who can be the biggest asshole?” contest where the biggest loser is the audience. The original films had Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and the Emperor, basically three big bads, while this one film has four evil people running around, making it hard to decide who I’m supposed to hate the most. Also, I felt it was a bit weird that the female stormtrooper talks as if she’s dedicated to the First Order, then spills her secrets almost instantly.

Aside from the hero/villain problems, the story is also plagued by good pacing but poor story structure. Act one introduces everyone through a series of jump cuts, act two is basically “look everyone, it’s Han Solo!” and act three is a rushed battle over the Starkiller base. Everyone in the script has different goals and motivations, and having them all meet up for a climactic battle through deus ex machina shows lazy screenwriting.

I have a question for any of you familiar with Star Wars: What the hell happened to Princess Leia? She used to be a strong-willed, badass woman who didn’t take sass from anybody, and could dish it out with the best of them. Now she’s a sad, tired grandma that probably wandered out of a nursing home somewhere. This also isn’t helped by the fact that Han says “she doesn’t want to see me again” but they hug and get teary-eyed during their reunion. The original Princess Leia would have smacked Han upside his deadbeat dad head and called him a “scruffy looking Nerf herder” (that’s “motherfucker” in common parlance).

 

I got the sense that the First Order was supposed to be a splinter faction that was created with the dissolution of the Empire, yet they seem to have nearly unlimited resources. I’m sure making two Death Stars was no small feat, but that pales in engineering cost compared to hollowing out an entire planet to create the Starkiller Base, which eats suns and spits death. Speaking of which …

The Starkiller Base is one of the dumbest things in the entire film franchise. Yes, including the prequels. I bet there’s a copout, canon reason for it being so huge, but the movie honestly felt like it was trying to raise the stakes by making a bigger doomsday weapon than the original trilogy. Also, what’s the point of building a superweapon you can only fire twice? Unless you can make an entire planet travel through hyperspace, it’s going to take hundreds of thousands of years to get that thing to another star for ammunition.

However, the biggest problem isn’t any single aspect of “The Force Awakens,” but the film itself. Everything you enjoyed was a rehashing, a reimagining or blatant imagery reused from earlier films. To truly appreciate the Millennium Falcon, the crashed Star Destroyers, X-wings and the importance of Luke Skywalker, you need three films worth of backstory. In fact, the death of Han Solo, the biggest single part of the film, only has any weight if you’ve seen the original movies. We see people bite it by the billions in “The Force Awakens,” and the only reason we care about the death of Solo is because he was part of the original trilogy, and not because he plays an important role in “The Force Awakens” —  he’s basically another member of The Resistance at this point. Like it or not, there wasn’t three films of required homework needed to enjoy the original “Star Wars.”

Inline image 3Courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

Nathan’s rebuttal:

There was nothing wrong with the destruction of the New Republic. In the original “Star Wars,” we never got a sense of what Alderaan was like; we were simply told that it’s vaguely tied to the Rebel Alliance. Substitute “Rebel Alliance” with “The Resistance,” and it’s pretty much the same thing. And if it works for one movie without heavy criticism, then it should work for another as well. Also, given how much gimmicky, shitty CGI was used in showing off other worlds and planets in the prequels, it was a good choice for JJ Abrams to take the safe route and not have our heroes slug through 90 minutes of green screen sets and characters. This movie wasn’t about the New Republic, so just like Alderaan, it didn’t need much exploring beyond “hey, this place exists! And billions will die here!”

Complaining about having too many interesting, fleshed-out and awesome characters to keep track of? Man, Americans are getting lazier!

First off, that “silver stormtrooper chick” has a name, dammit, and it’s Captain Phasma (played by Brienne of fucking Tarth). And she’s awesome. And I think it’s obvious that for now, Kylo Ren is the one we’re supposed to hate the most. He’s the one doing all the fighting and the Han Solo-slaying. Hux and the Count Chocula parody are obviously Grand Moff Tarkin and the Emperor (who was the true baddie in the OG trilogy), and it’s pretty clear that Captain Phasma is this trilogy’s Boba Fett. If one trilogy used multiple-bad-guys formula, then why can’t this one? It works for both films.

“Look everybody, it’s Han Solo!” Do you possess no heart, good sir? Is that not exciting enough to you? Are you not entertained? And I’d hate to activate my “the original trilogy did it too” trap card for the sake of not sounding as redundant as the “Attack of the Clones” script, but the OG trilogy is full of deus ex machinas. Han Solo saves Luke’s ass before the Death Star is blown up (yeah, sure, he saved him at the last second because of character development, whatever), the Millennium Falcon is conveniently still in Cloud City for Luke’s ass to be saved yet again, and Lando waits right until the convenient time to blow up the Death Star so that Luke conveniently gets his ass out of dodge. Look, I’m not saying it’s wrong to criticize deus ex machinas, but in a multimedia franchise full of them, it’s unfair to just cherry pick which plot conveniences (and thus which movies) we hate on, even when multiple films pull the exact same moves.

For Princess Leia, two words: character development. It was never shown or even implied in “Return of the Jedi” that she was going to start any sort of Jedi training. She was always a better leader than Han Solo — maybe all those years spent out of action as a political leader in the post-Rebel Alliance galaxy made her soft? Or perhaps Carrie Fisher simply wasn’t as comfortable as Harrison Ford with doing a bunch of action scenes? Also, technically it makes sense for Han Solo to be a deadbeat dad because, well, trying to love his evil son with psychic powers is what ends up getting him killed. I’d fear that shit too if I was him.

Dude, this is motherfucking “Star Wars” we’re talking about. The sub genre it’s in is titled “space opera,” not “space economics.”

Maybe the creators named the bad guy’s base “Starkiller” in homage to “The Force Awakens” video games (wherein the hero is named “Starkiller”). This is primarily an American film with an American story, goddamnit. So of course it makes sense for the Starkiller to be bigger than the Death Star, because in ‘Merica, what’s bigger is better, and everything here is bigger and better.

Actually, there was plenty of homework to do in order to fully enjoy the original trilogy — or at least for the first film. The first “Star Wars” liberally borrowed from plenty of previous sources. The giant, kickass space battle at the end? Copy and pasted footage of World War II aerial dogfights. Lightsaber duels? Inspired from old samurai movies and kendo fighting techniques. Soapy space adventures? You should be thanking all the old, popular, cheesy sci-fi serials from the ‘30s and ‘40s (which both George Lucas and 1977’s audiences were fully aware of). Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the entirety of the franchise’s existence relies on this unarguable fact, and that’s not a bad thing. Also, I find difficulty in seeing the merit in complaining about people “doing their homework” in order to fully understand everything in “The Force Awakens,” including Han Solo’s death. For all intents and purposes, viewing the original trilogy is about as genuine an American experience as tasting apple pie, going to a baseball game or shitting on Donald Trump. And if “doing your homework” before seeing “The Force Awakens” is a genuine complaint, then what’s the purpose in getting excited about the entire franchise as a whole? What’s the point of enjoying “Star Wars” if you refuse to see all of it?
We can both agree, though, that the lightsaber fight between Kylo Ren and Rey was fucking awesome.

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