Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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***SPOILERS. SERIOUSLY.***

I’ll come out and say it straight: I didn’t like the new Star Wars movie. In fact, for a few days after having watched it, I hated it with such a passion that  I would occasionally entertain idle fantasies of feeding a tied-up JJ Abrams into a nest of gundarks. (I’m better now.)

It wouldn’t be fair to say The Force Awakens was a bad movie, though. It was good entertainment for most people: fun, exciting, comedic, a visual feast for the eyes.

No, my reasons for disliking it are more subjective and personal. With The Force Awakens, I felt as if Disney had thrown away much of what had made Star Wars great, and in its place, instituted a generic, emotionally manipulative crowd-pleaser.

Star Wars was great because it was more than just a bunch of movies. Star Wars was the transmedia franchise to end them all, a fictional sandbox of planets, people and lore spread out across a 25,000 year timeline. This Expanded Universe (or EU), as it was called, was spread out through books, comics, video games, television shows, RPG sourcebooks and other material. While much of it was deservedly rubbish (looking at you, Jedi Prince), many of the books and video games of the franchise were the touchstones of my childhood. The KotOR games, Jedi Academy, Galaxy of Fear, Starfighters of Adumar – they have a special place in my memories.

The Expanded Universe made Star Wars something truly special. It created a galaxy of vast size and scope, and gave it a deep history and also a sense of unified continuity. It provided Star Wars with a kind of taped-together historicity that made it unique in transmedia franchises. More importantly, it provided a canvas in which the stories of our heroes from the original trilogy could continue. It alone sustained Star Wars during the twenty-year long interregnum where Star Wars slumbered as a franchise. It made the heroes of the Original Trilogy more than plucky action heroes; gave them depth and character. It built them a future, however tenuous and full of danger that future might have been.

The Force Awakens is the repudiation of all that I thought made Star Wars great, all in pursuit of a formula that is designed to please the average movie-goer, clued in to Star Wars only as a movie franchise. It’s not that it necessitated the throwing away of the old EU, it’s that it replaced the EU with something that shrank the scope of the Star Wars universe, lazily disregards the conventions of the franchise in some crucial aspects, and most upsettingly (to me), undid the future that the EU had built for the characters of the original Star Wars.

The Force Awakens reduced the hoary complexity of Star Wars by being such a naked and unsophisticated rehash of the story beats of A New Hope.  The variety and color of the many weird and wonderful stories of the EU were, in my view, eliminated from the Star Wars canon to be replaced by a product of singular unimaginativeness and manipulative nostalgia. Desert planet? Check. Round superweapons? Check. Cute droid? Check. Cocky pilot? Check. Destruction of important planet? Check. Rebels destroying a superweapon before it can target their base by exploiting a crucial weakness in the base infrastructure? Check. (There are a lot more that I haven’t bothered to mention) The callbacks and parallels to A New Hope  were, by Abram’s own admission, deliberate. And while it might have served some instrumental purpose to attract moviegoers with the promise of “more of the same”, that lack of innovation makes the throwing away of the EU seem like such a huge waste for an uninspired rehash of the original.

The funny thing is that, for all the failings of the prequel trilogy, that trilogy did a much better job of communicating the vast scale and scope of the Star Wars galaxy. The prequels had a much greater degree of political realism. Palpatine’s machinations felt devious and complex, and the prequels were able to communicate the vast scope of planets, people and events up to the fall of the Republic.

In contrast, this movie told its political story in vague generalities. We know that there is a Resistance and a First Order and a Republic, but not much more than that. Their relations seem simplistic – the First Order is evil, the Republic good but feckless, the Resistance the only thing standing in the way of evil. When the First Order destroys the Republic capital, it is assumed that that means the Republic is destroyed – but no explanation is given as to why that might be the case, given that surely the Republic, as a galaxy-spanning government, must have more resources at its disposal than one fleet stationed in a single star system. Why is the Republic appeasing the First Order? What sort of society is the First Order, and how do they get the money and wherewithal to build a giant superweapon when the Death Star taxed the resources of the entire Galactic Empire? How could the Republic be so blind as to disregard the threat of the First Order? The movie fails to provide context to many of these questions that might provide more realism to the political context of the film. Instead, all it cares about are archetypes and abstractions and how it might best parrot them from A New Hope. In doing so, it reduces the scope of the Star Wars universe.

But this deficiency was still, in my mind, acceptable. After all, Star Wars did start out as a simplistic good-vs-evil space opera before the EU came along. I have confidence that the new Disney continuity will be able to provide some of that complexity and texture to the franchise, and answer the more granular questions, in the same way that the EU did to the originals. Books like Lost Stars are testament to that, and the new Visual Dictionary answers a lot of the questions I had about the story gaps in The Force Awakens.

More importantly however, The Force Awakens was lazily written in a way that egregiously disregards key elements of the Star Wars mythos, even the ones in past movies. First of all, the galaxy feels shrunken in size – physical distances and scales feel truncated in a way that was never the case in the originals. Resistance pilots from their base in D’Qar can cross the galaxy to Starkiller Base in the span of a few minutes, even though in previous movies it was established that hyperspace jumps across large portions of the galaxy would have taken days.

More egregiously, the Starkiller base beam that destroys the Republic capital (thank fricking god not Coruscant) could be seen from Maz Kanata’s base on Takodana, even though Takodana would have been thousands of light years away. What gives? Does Abrams have no conception of astrophysics whatsoever? Even if this is Star Wars, a fantasy universe, certain predicates of reality and logic should be followed, and one of those is that the galaxy is large enough that it would take some time for the light from a giant planet killing beam to reach a planet thousands of light years away. This is a lazy and nonsensical way to communicate to the protagonists that something big-evil has just happened, and the First Order is behind it.

Then there’s Rey, who is somehow able to master  her nascent force powers and lightsaber combat without any prior training whatsoever to defeat Kylo Ren (who is saved by a convenient crevasse opening up between them at the last moment – is this a shounen anime episode?). This is even though it’s been well established that Jedi training takes minimally months, if not years of careful training – see Luke’s training on Dagobah and Anakin’s long apprenticeship. This feels more like lazy writing than anything – a way for Rey to kick ass without giving her a reason to be able to, and worse, disregarding already established conventions of the canonical source material.

There are many such examples of lazy writing elsewhere. Most of these are just predicated on overly-fortuitous coincidences. Like how Rey and Finn happen to jump on the Millennium Falcon to escape – providing a too-easy opportunity for a cute fan-pleasing moment. How Han and Chewie just happened to be in the area searching for their missing ship. How Han and Finn just happened to be able to meet Rey by chance while running around a planet-sized base. There’s Captain Phasma, who meekly drops the shields to the base without resistance and is later deposited into a garbage compactor for cheap laughs. It’s lazy writing over plot coherence and consistency.

But all these are minor points compared to the one that really strikes me as the film’s single biggest sin – which is that it destroys the future of the characters we came to know and love from the original trilogy. Han and Leia marry and have a son who turns to the dark side. They become estranged, and Han goes back to his old smuggler ways – and, as seen, isn’t particularly successful at it – he even loses the Millennium Falcon. Luke’s attempts to rebuild the Jedi Order are cruelly foiled, and he goes into seclusion. And of course, Han dies, killed by his own son, while trying to turn him back to the light.

This last event was the singular capstone that killed the film for me. I can apprehend why they did it – for commercial and plot reasons – to give the character of Kylo Ren that essential quality of evil, to raise the stakes, to make it so they wouldn’t have to pay Ford another exorbitant amount to star in the next few films.

But Han died in vain, killed during the nadir of his life when he was adrift and purposeless, killed by his own flesh and blood. This was not the ending I’d have imagined for my favorite character of the original trilogy. Han Solo didn’t deserve the ignominy of the death he got – he didn’t deserve to die so that an unworthy Star Wars film could have “guts” (screw you, Abrams), or so that Disney could save some money. He didn’t deserve to have his death mourned only by Leia, Rey and Chewbacca while the rest of the Resistance celebrated the destruction of Starkiller Base (and I guess they also forgot that a billion people died with the destruction of Hosnian Prime).

Han’s death, and more generally, the situation that Han, Leia and Luke were in in The Force Awakens, have served to tarnish the Original Trilogy for me. You know the ending of Return of the Jedi where the Rebels celebrated the destruction of the Death Star, and Han, Leia and Luke could rest knowing that they had won? We can never now watch that scene in the hopefulness that that was just the start of a brighter future for them, filled with adversaries and crises but always turning out better for them in the end. Watching them in that scene will now be tinged with a profound melancholia that from then on, their lives, and the things they fought for, would be marred and destroyed by the First Order.

It therefore pains me that we threw away the EU, which was in many ways the realisation of that brighter future that was promised, albeit with adversities and sadnesses along the way. With the post-Return of the Jedi EU, Han and Leia at least raised a next generation of Solos, Luke got married and had a son, and the New Republic grew from strength to strength (at least till NJO and beyond). In this film, we see the crumbling of their hard-fought legacy. Works published in the post-Return of the Jedi, pre-The Force Awakens era will just seem empty and hollow now, because we know how it all turns out – not well.

It’s true that the original characters had to be shunted aside to make way for a new generation of Star Wars heroes – Rey, Finn, and Poe (and maybe Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo, after his inevitable moment of redemption, depending on whether or not he dies). But the original characters didn’t so much pass the torch as they did drop it and let the new characters pick it up by themselves. And so far, I’m still ambivalent about the potential for Rey, Finn and Poe to be worthy successors for Han, Leia and Luke. While their performances in the movie were good, it feels like they’ve been pushed on us to strongly and enthusiastically by Disney. I mean, they even started selling their merchandise before the movie was released, before we even had a chance to size them up as characters and to form affective connections with them. If that isn’t nakedly manipulative consumerism, I don’t know what is. Rey, Finn and Poe need the chance to shine by themselves without being aggressively marketed by Disney as being the next big thing, and ticking all the right boxes by having them be close cognates of the archetypes that the originals embodied.

But in the end, not all hope has been lost. Star Wars has always been bigger than the movies, and I think Disney will create as rich a galaxy as the one that they so cavalierly disposed of. But this film in particular – its lazy writing, its lack of regard for the rules of the universe, its lack of innovation, and its wanton trampling on the legacy of the original heroes – this film is not likely to be a part of the Star Wars universe that I’ll come to appreciate as much as I did the EU.

I’ll watch episodes VII and VIII, and all the subsequent films in the never-ending Disney-Star Wars machine, for sure. They might even be better movies than this one. But I’ll be watching them with a critical distance, regarding them not as the inheritors of Star Wars, but as big-budget fan fiction. And the post-RotJ EU stories (well, some of them anyway) will remain in my personal headcanon as the definitive version of the Star Wars story.

I give this movie: 2.5 out of 5 stupid cross-guard lightsabers

 

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