The Force Awakens: Repost

A few weeks after The Force Awakens released in 2015,  I wrote a blog post summarizing my thoughts on it for a different blog. As The Rise of Skywalker is about to hit theaters on Friday, I thought it would be pertinent to look back at my feelings on it. I’m reposting it in its entirety, unedited, here to start what will hopefully be a week of Star Wars blogging leading up to the movie’s release on Friday.

So here’s a look back at what I wrote in January 2016. Tomorrow I’ll be sharing my thoughts on The Last Jedi after I rewatched it this weekend, then on Wednesday and Thursday I will be talking about The Mandalorian and Jedi: Fallen Order. I’ll probably have thoughts on Episode 9 as well, but likely not until the new year as I’ve waited a bit after each movie before posting my thoughts. Anyway, enjoy this blast from my writing past:

The first time I’d ever heard of Star Wars, I was around 11. Every Sunday I went to church for three hours, and the second of those three hours was spent in a Sunday school class that was divided by age. When I was 11 I happened to be the only kid in that age group. So for an hour every week it was just me and my Sunday School teacher. Me being the type of kid I was, I would always go right to class after the first hour and be sitting in the classroom waiting when my teacher showed up.

One of these times, he remarked to me “You know, every time I enter the room and see you sitting here by yourself, I feel like Darth Vader coming in to interrogate the princess.” I, having no idea what he was talking about, stared blankly back at him. “You’ve never seen Star Wars?” I told him no. He then proceeded to explain to me the scene. Then next week, he brought in his VHS tape (yes I’m old) of the original Star Wars and actually played the scene for me.

I was captivated. And that was the beginning of my descent into Star Wars madness.

I made my parents get the trilogy on video tape so I could watch all three, and I loved them. To add fuel to the fire, the next year the Special Editions were released in theaters so I got to watch all three movies on the big screen soon after seeing them on tape. I began to consume anything with the Star Wars moniker – games, books, whatever I could get my hands on.

Then the prequels came out.

For a time, I was one of those people – the prequels did not exist. They were an affront to the amazing original trilogy that George Lucas blessed us with and WHAT THE FUCK WAS HE THINKING WITH JAR JAR and so on. Even now I will still say that Phantom Menace isn’t just a blemish to the Star Wars name; it’s really a bad movie, period.

But that isn’t what this blog piece is about.

For a while in my teenage years, I considered myself a Star Wars superfan. I knew what Leia’s cell number was, what the alien in the trash compactor was called, and the number of Bothans that died to bring you this information. (It’s many.) It wasn’t just limited to the movies either – I knew who Luke Skywalker’s wife was (Mara Jade), why Ton Phanan was a cyborg (he’s allergic to bacta), and the name of Mirax Terrik’s ship (Pulsar Skate). But as I grew older and wiser (not necessarily at equal speeds, unfortunately) I began to realize that I wasn’t as big a Star Wars fan as I thought. Yes, I absorbed copious amounts of useless knowledge, but I noticed I absorbed useless knowledge about everything I enjoyed, not just Star Wars.

Around college time I stopped consuming Star Wars material. Outside of the X-Wing and Timothy Zahn novels, in fact, I didn’t really read any more of the Star Wars EU (which, by the way, now that useless knowledge is even MORE useless since it is not Canon(tm)). The only Star Wars purchases I’ve made in the last five years were two books – a new X-Wing book by Aaron Allston and a book called Death Troopers (because zombies + Star Wars, why the fuck not?). Both of these books sit on my shelf still yet to be read.

Which brings us to The Force Awakens.

No, actually first let’s go back to 2009. That year, J.J. Abrams rebooted another beloved sci-fi franchise. And let me tell you, growing up I gave not one shit about Star Trek. I cared more about the Sun Crusher than Wesley Crusher. The most I ever watched of it were some Next Generation episodes out of the corner of my eye because my freshman year college roommate was super into it and wanted to watch old episodes whenever they were airing. I saw First Contact and thought it was a good movie, but that’s about all my interest in Star Trek.

But damn if the new Star Trek movie didn’t look cool.

So I went to see it. And it was a good movie. Do you know why it was a good movie? Very simple: old characters, old universe, but a new story. Now granted, there were time travel shenanigans and alternate timelines which allowed a window of opportunity for future installments to not preclude the already made movies and shows. Abrams brought back the characters that people loved, while not excluding new fans. He created a new origin story and opened up the possibilities for sequels, but still included nods to the old guard. Which is why the movie worked. When we saw Kirk, Sulu, and a red shirt guy get ready for an away mission, everyone knew what was going to happen. But there was no wink wink, nudge nudge, and the reference didn’t overstay its welcome. It happened, the story moved on.

Okay. Now we can talk Force Awakens.

It’s not a bad movie. In fact, it’s an entertaining movie. 50% of the new characters are wonderful. There’s some great action, and much like Abrams’ version of Star Trek, it pulls on nostalgia and references without being heavy-handed.

But it’s not a new story, and that’s where the biggest problem lies.

Star Trek 2009: Old characters, old universe, new story.
Star Wars TFA: Old and new characters, old universe, old story.

(As a side note, I was also underwhelmed with Star Trek Into Darkness for the same reasons: it was Abrams’ remake of an old Star Trek story and everything about the movie fell flat. On the other hand, I’m really excited for when The Trek & The Furious comes out this summer because it looks great.)

Every problem I have with The Force Awakens can be traced back to the fact that this movie is playing it so safe it’s not ever leaving first base, even when the pitcher has missed the catcher by a mile. Every single story beat can be paralleled to A New Hope (with the exception of one or two, which I’ll get to because not surprisingly they’re my favorite parts of the movie) and everything detrimental about the movie is because they were trying to squeeze it into an already-created story outline.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I’ll show my work.

The most egregious example is, of course, the Starkiller base. In A New Hope, the Death Star is a powerful, dangerous superweapon that actually inspires fear. When it destroys Alderaan, that meaning is conveyed to the audience. Up until that point, Alderaan has been a focal point of the movie – our main characters are going to said planet, so it affects our story. It’s Leia’s home planet, so its destruction also affects another main character directly. On top of that, we get the great line “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.” Everything about that portion of the movie is memorable because it directly affects the plot.

The Starkiller base has none of that. It exists solely because they needed a plot parallel for New Hope. They needed a weapon of mass destruction to threaten the home base, along with something for the X-Wing squadron to blow up victoriously after a very specific component is targeted. The system that the Starkiller base destroys has no connection to our main characters – nobody is from there. Nobody’s trying to get there. Nothing important is there except for a nebulous “government” that up until this point in the movie has been as influential as squat. You can literally take out that section of the movie and everything about the movie’s plot still makes sense.

Not good, writers. Not. Good.

Oh by the way it sucks up stars like a Dirt Devil.

Now I’ve seen people say that “yes, this is stupid, but it sets up the Han Solo/Kylo Ren confrontation with a stylish backdrop so it’s okay.” No, no it’s not. You see – sucking up a sun’s energy is a fucking superweapon power of its own. It’s not as showy as a big laser blowing up planets, but anybody in a system where the star just got sucked into oblivion is going to die when physics takes over.

The movie can still be plot-driven without a superweapon. If you turn the superweapon into a regular First Order prison base, you can still have Finn and Han break in to rescue Rey. You can still have an X-Wing aerial battle with TIE fighters because the squadron is trying to cover their escape. Hell, you can even have shots of extras back at the Resistance base looking worried because hey, they’re worried about their friends instead of being selfish and worrying about their imminent destruction.

And fuck it, fine, even if you HAVE to have a superweapon – just make the thing suck up stars as its threat to all existence so you have your shiny metaphoric background. “What do you know about this superweapon, Finn?” “It sucks up a sun’s energy, then uses it to jump the whole planet into hyperspace because, you know, it’s a fucking planet and that takes a lot of energy.” “So now that they know our location, they can just suck up a sun and jump to our system, and then suck up our sun and kill us all?” “Yep, pretty much.” “Well, shit. ….does this thing have an open exhaust port?”

It’s things like this that are littered throughout the whole movie. “A New Hope had a droid with an important message, so we’re going to have a cuter droid with an important message. And our hero is going to discover the droid and take it under her wing.” “But wait, wasn’t there a translator droid in ANH?” “It’s okay, we’ll just have her be able to speak to the droid even though she lives in the shell of a crashed ship barely surviving by herself on a desert planet.” “Wait, but wasn’t a desert planet where Luke lived? Couldn’t we have some sort of other environment?” “Nah, because that’s the same kind of planet ANH started on and people fucking love desert planets. So then we’re going to have her escape with the droid in the Millennium Falcon.” “Wait, she can pilot too?” “Of course she can! Otherwise how are we going to have a chase scene with the Millennium Falcon? Moving on, they’re going to be looking for the Resistance, because A New Hope had a Rebellion.” “Wait hold on, but the Republic is the ruling government and there’s no evil Empire, just the First Order…so why is there a Resistance?” “Because we’ve got to blow something up, so we’re blowing up a Republic.” “Okay, but why do we need to blow something up?” “Well a planet got blown up in A New Hope, so we’re blowing up a bunch to top that.” “But do we need to ape ANH in every aspect?” “Um…duh? Oh, also, we’re going to kill an important mentor figure while the rest of the main characters are watching helplessly to add some gravitas for our bad guy…Harrison, you in?”

Maybe I’m coming across as a little nitpicky, but it’s all right there in the movie from beginning to end. Now don’t get me wrong, I still thought The Force Awakens was enjoyable, a good movie, and a fun time that’s much better than any of the prequels. But plot-wise, it’s a movie I’ve seen before. And that’s bad.

But everything that was character driven and not plot-driven in the movie was amazing. And that’s good.

Finn is one of the best big screen protagonists I’ve seen in a long time. He’s afraid, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, he doesn’t want to be a hero – and yet he steps up anyways. He doesn’t fit into any established archetype in the Star Wars universe – he’s not a scoundrel like Han Solo, or a naive farmboy like Luke, or a wisened Jedi like Obi-Wan. He’s a Stormtrooper who doesn’t want to be a Stormtrooper, and also wants to get the fuck out of Dodge. His moments with Rey, BB-8, and Poe are the highlights of the film, and my favorite action sequences are when he’s desperately trying to use a lightsaber as a weapon and getting his ass kicked instead.

On the dark side, Kylo Ren is one of the best big screen antagonists in a long time, too. He’s a much better realization of the dark side of the Force than the stoic Darth Vader or the scene-chewing Unambiguously Evil Emperor. He’s a brat who gets angry when things don’t go his way, and the first time he is challenged by somebody who can also use the Force he fails miserably because he’s used to being the Only One. You can imagine exactly why training this kid in the Force would go horribly wrong.

I mentioned earlier two story beats that were my favorite scenes in the movie – the first involves Kylo Ren. After Rey and Finn escape, a terrified mook comes up to Kylo Ren and gives him the bad news. Because of how closely ANH was being paralleled, I was expecting Kylo Ren’s “Force Choke” moment. Instead, he goes batshit and hacks a computer terminal to pieces. And I was excited and happy. Because it did exactly what I wished the rest of the movie did: played on our nostalgia for the original trilogy, but did something new and unique with it, thereby throwing a curveball at our expectations.

The scene is improved upon even further when later on, him hacking things to bits is played for comedic effect by Stormtroopers noping out of the way. At that point you realize these guys aren’t afraid of Kylo Ren the same way people were afraid of Vader. People feared Darth Vader because he would Fuck You Up. People fear Kylo Ren because he’s just Fucked Up.

The other scene that stood out to me was the goofy killer aliens in a spaceship scene. It was refreshing because it gave us a little breathing room. We got to see Han Solo in action again (to everyone’s delight) and we got to have some more bonding time between Rey and Finn. Granted, it wasn’t perfect and instead of drawing from A New Hope it felt more like it was being drawn from Men In Black, but let’s be honest here. Because this was included, we got to see Han Solo chuck a guy into a monster’s open maw.

And don’t we all deserve to see that?

There’s more I could talk about. Like how BB-8, despite being a Walking/Rolling Merchandise Hook(tm), was incredibly cute and a great addition to the droids in the Star Wars universe. Or how Rey could be a great character if she wasn’t overburdened with all the necessary Plot Skills. (To make a D&D metaphor, you can tell that Finn and Rey are both at the same level, but Finn’s player has clearly never played D&D before, while Rey’s is totally a min/maxer.) Or how Poe should have either stayed dead or not have been introduced until halfway through the movie. Or how General Hux and the giant hologram Snore were useless cookie-cutter Obviously Evil villains. Or how I know his name isn’t Snore, but seriously. Why waste screen time on His Boringness when we could have more Kylo Ren being his delightfully obnoxious self?

In the end, I know I’m not a Star Wars superfan. I know this because I haven’t watched any of the original trilogy in at least five or six years. I wouldn’t even put any of the original trilogy in my top ten movies of all-time. I won’t be putting The Force Awakens in that top ten either. But I also don’t think The Force Awakens ruined anything. Yes, Disney did take years upon years of Expanded Universe content and toss it in the trash compactor, but honestly wouldn’t you do the same if you just bought Star Wars for $4 billion? The Force Awakens is overall a solid character piece which brings me hope for the next two episodes, providing they don’t mirror the original trilogy in those as well.

I know I’m not a Star Wars superfan because I nearly didn’t even get tickets to see TFA opening weekend, only did so because a friend asked me to go with him. I know I’m not a Star Wars superfan because I’ll probably only see the movie once more in theaters, if that, but I’ll gladly pick up the Blu-Ray at some point for my collection. I know I’m not a Star Wars superfan because I can look past my long history with the Star Wars franchise and look past the glaring flaws in the movie and say to myself “You know what? The Force Awakens was entertaining and had great, memorable characters. Maybe this can be a new generation’s New Hope.” And I know I’m not a Star Wars superfan because I’m secretly hoping the cliffhanger in Episode VIII involves Jason Statham calling up Kylo Ren after blowing up General Hux and telling him “You don’t know me, but you’re about to.”

Then again.

I did just write a 3000 word treatise on the new Star Wars movie.

Fuck if I know what kind of fan I am.

But that’s just my opinion, man.