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

Inline image 7Courtesy 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.

Nathan’s Argument

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a great movie, and whoever says otherwise has sold their soul to Lucifer in exchange for never having fun with cinema. Here’s why this movie is great.

First and foremost, it’s fantastically shot. The cinematography is outstanding, especially when viewed in beautiful, 70mm IMAX. For all the flak that JJ Abrams has received throughout his career regarding his choices in style and story, you can at least admit he knows how to direct kickass action sequences.

But what really grounds “The Force Awakens” is its devotion to the original trilogy. JJ Abrams knew what fans wanted and what they hated. The aesthetics of the first films — all the hand puppets, minimal CGI and shooting on location — are what people loved. It’s like one giant fucking love letter written to all the older and millennial-age Star Wars fans with a “p.s.: we’ll never listen to George Lucas and cast Hayden Christensen ever again, we promise.”

And why shouldn’t this film be that way? Nobody respects George Lucas as a storyteller anymore. He’s a businessman. His primary goal in life is to sell as many Jar Jar Binks dolls as he can. He recently admitted that he hated the retro feel that Abrams was going for because he “wanted to make new things.” New planets, new characters, new storylines … which all equates to more merchandise for children. That basically means, if given the chance to direct it, Lucas would’ve turned “The Force Awakens” into “The Phantom Menace” 2.0. He’s like an alcoholic father who’s lost custody of his children: after too many failures and bad choices, he just can’t be trusted with such a delicate legacy anymore.

The new characters are fantastic. Rey is just adorable (damn you, Daisy Ridley), and despite the complaints, I find nothing wrong with Finn’s (John Boyega) character. He’s an ex-stormtrooper who finds the First Order and their murderous shenanigans morally appalling. He’s essentially the movie’s moral compass. Yes, he does lie to everybody about being a member of the Resistance, but primarily being anti-First Order is what he’s all about. That’s what Han Solo turned into by the end of the original “Star Wars,” and having Finn’s characterization start in reverse of that —  as a good guy motivated by the morals of not being an asshole — isn’t bad storytelling. Also, Poe absolutely kicks ass as the best X-wing pilot in the galaxy (and I’m a huge Oscar Isaac fan).

I love the movie’s take on Rey’s character and her connection to the Force. Many people don’t like Rey for being “unrealistically too powerful” in the movie, and felt that her learning how to use several different types of Force powers on her own ruined her character. To those people I say: learn to read between the lines, and learn to not be such a fucking grump. Disney and Abrams more than likely did all of that on purpose in order to drop a huge surprise on us regarding Rey’s parentage in the next movie (my bets are on Luke Skywalker being her father). As for Rey being “unrealistically powerful,” give me a break. In a fantasy sci-fi movie full of space wizards with laser swords, Rey was the one thing that seemed unrealistic or too perfect? In the first “Star Wars,” Luke doesn’t know squat shit about the Force and receives like two minutes of training, yet by the end he amazingly utilizes the Force to help blow up the Death Star. The most powerful thing Rey does is a Jedi mind trick, yet she’s the one who seems unrealistic or too powerful? Please, spare me the dumb help-me-I-can’t-handle-a-kickass-female comments for “Episode VIII,” when plenty will say “she was asking for it” in regards to her inevitable hand loss.

Kylo Ren was also spectacular. Not only does he command a screen presence that’s almost equal to Darth Vader, but his creation shows that Abrams is much better at listening to the Star Wars fanbase than Lucas is, because Kylo Ren is everything Anakin Skywalker should’ve been like in the prequels. Ren wasn’t shy about showing off his badass side throughout the movie, but we weren’t quite convinced of just how truly evil he was until he did the unthinkable: murdering his own father and fan favorite, Han fucking Solo. To have enough depth to the point where you have to do something like that in order to become truly evil, now that’s character-building for a villain done right.

 

The story wasn’t bad, but it didn’t quite amaze me, but was it supposed to? The original movie’s plot isn’t close to perfect. In fact, out of all seven “Star Wars” movies, “The Empire Strikes Back” is the only masterpiece that most believe to be truly perfect. But this movie wasn’t created to compete with its best predecessor, or any of them for that matter. It was created to introduce a familiar setting filled with new characters and stories.

This level of cinematic borrowing and recycling not only appeals to both old and new fans, but also to the original creative spirit that made “Star Wars” so great in the first place. To all the mouth-breathing haters out there who go on about how movies are unoriginal nowadays, guess what: art has always been like that! The original “Star Wars” basically payed homage and ripped off so many different things, from old samurai movies and footage of WW2 aerial dogfights to old “Flash Gordon” and other lowbrow sci-fi serials from the 1930s and ‘40s. The “original” “Star Wars” movie was never truly original at all; no great art is 100 percent original and neither is “The Force Awakens.” And that’s okay.

Inline image 8Courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

Rob’s Rebuttal

I’m going to ignore Nathan’s blatant ad hominem attacks (tips fedora), as even though I am a mouth-breathing grump that sold his soul to Lucifer, I don’t feel like my character should play a role in this debate.

How does an action sequence make for a good film? Action sequences are supposed to put our characters in mortal danger, and since we care for them, we feel tension throughout the scene. The prequels had amazing action sequences that ultimately fell flat because the characters were one-dimensional and unlikeable. A good action sequence needs a solid story to back it up, and an action sequence alone, regardless of cinematography and the use of 70mm film, can’t hold up a move that doesn’t have a solid story foundation. An action sequence without context is like jingling your keys in front of a baby: all style and no substance.

Now, as a critic, my job isn’t to tell you what you’re supposed to like and what you’re supposed to dislike. If you want fan service, that’s fine by me, but “The Force Awakens” came across to me as a film that was “playing it safe.” Disney sunk millions of dollars into acquiring the rights from Lucas and filming this movie, but it all amounted to rehashing old scenes and plotlines and not taking things in a bold, new direction. Why try anything new and attempt to take the story in a bold, new direction when that isn’t guaranteed to make Disney and its investors millions of dollars? That’s what art is about, right?

Let’s talk some numbers. Physically filming “The Force Awakens” cost $200 million, no small chunk of change. However, that number pales in comparison to the $223 million Disney spent on advertising the film. I have no love for the man, but Lucas is a Buddhist ascetic compared to Disney. This film was advertised everywhere, on Facebook, through sponsored content on websites, on television, in movie theaters and literally everywhere else. There are films that become box office successes and eventual classics that don’t have this same maelstrom of marketing, but Disney carried out this extensive ad campaign to ensure that they would at least break even if it came to pass that this movie was garbage. The quality of the film ultimately didn’t matter economically. Disney would have turned a profit regardless.

 

I’ll talk about Rey in a little while, but for now I want to focus on Finn. I somehow don’t feel that he’s the moral compass of the film, and he doesn’t seem particularly anti-First Order until the end of the film. If anything, he serves as a personification of the flight-or-fight response, as he was ready to jump and abandon Han and Rey at his first opportunity. While he does eventually stand and fight, this culminates in his arc, and regarding him as the moral compass for the film is daft. I also don’t quite comprehend how he is characterized backwards compared to Han Solo in the first film. Both are characters with dubious pasts who, up until their change of heart toward the end of the film, are primarily concerned with saving their own skin above all else. Finn lies about being in the resistance to escape the reach of the First Order, while Han used the rebellion as a way to make enough money to pay off his debts to Jabba the Hutt. Yawn, I’ve heard this story before.

Yea, Poe Dameron is such a cool character. If only he was in the movie for more than 10 fucking minutes.

Nathan’s speculation that Rey’s exceptional command of the Force is obviously a set-up for her possible parentage or some other bombshell in the next movie is exactly that: speculation. Unless Nathan has a stolen copy of the next script hidden in his house, making claims of positivity on something that may or may not come to pass is ludicrous. I remember reading fan theories about Loki’s role in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and they all amounted to squat. And compared to Luke, Rey’s force power puts her somewhere in the realm of the supernatural. She manages to grab a lightsaber using the force from the infinitely better trained Kylo Ren with absolutely no training, while Luke had to struggle for several minutes to move his lightsaber a few inches in the opening scenes of “Empire.” Also, Luke’s fantastic targeting at the end of the original “Star Wars” didn’t come across to me as him having amazing Force ability (remember, he used to shoot Womp Rats from his speeder back on Tatooine, and they’re not much bigger than two meters). If anything, Luke turning off his targeting computer showed his willingness to let go and accept the power of something far greater than himself. And while there isn’t particularly anything wrong with Rey’s amazing Force capabilities, they break the rules established within the “Star Wars” canon, and ultimately broke some of my immersion.

I admit that I do like Kylo Ren as a villain. While he is a whiny, hormonal teenager that shops at space Hot Topic, I have to admit that I’m only about six years removed from a pair of skinny jeans, black eyeliner and a Marilyn Manson t-shirt. My problem with Kylo Ren is that he has to share the villain spotlight with the far less interesting Hux, Snoke and Captain Phasma. Stop sharing the spotlight with these jokers, Kylo! Do what grandpa Darth would have done: choke them out and take your place as the badass villain.

Admitting that one of the weaker parts of a film is its story is hardly a point in the movie’s favor. At least it was shot on 70mm film, that’s way more important.

I will admit that all art is derivative. However, the difference between the original “Star Wars” and “The Force Awakens” is where bits were borrowed and ripped off from. The original drew from innumerable sources, with scenes, archetypes and motifs gathered from almost everywhere in the world and held together with the string of original thought. Lucas and the original crew of “Star Wars” created their own galaxy, coalescing the matter and energy from hundreds (if not thousands) of sources and coalescing into something that felt new and familiar all at the same time. There’s no sense of complex borrowing in “The Force Awakens,” and the fact that its inspiration could be a simple flow chart from the original trilogy to itself blurs the line between paying homage and blatant ripping-off. It was all things I’d seen before, and while it was certainly familiar, it didn’t feel particularly new. I found myself forgetting the film as I stepped into the sunny exterior of the theater, and the film’s ultimate failing is that it isn’t particularly memorable. You know what I would have remembered?

Something new.

We can both agree, though, that the lightsaber fight between Kylo Ren and Rey was fucking awesome.

Do you know more than our writers? What did you think of “The Force Awakens?” Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @UCRHighlander

 

Facebook Comments