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More Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

December 23rd, 2015
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Well, my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has generated a lot of interesting feedback, and as friends have been seeing the film over the last several days I’ve had a number of fascinating conversations, digging deeply into the film.

Sometimes I find that if I write a review immediately after seeing a film, after a few days thinking about it my opinions can shift or change.  But in this case that hasn’t happened.  I still find myself feeling very much the same way about the The Force Awakens as I did when I walked out of the theatre.  I had a great time seeing the film, and there’s a lot that I loved about it.  At the same time, I’m bugged by some of the story-telling choices, some of which feel are conscious choices by the filmmakers that I happen to disagree with, and others of which feel like mistakes that the filmmakers did not intend.  Bottom line: the film is far better than I had suspected it would be, though not the triumph that I had secretly (and perhaps not-so-secretly) hoped for.

I stand by everything I wrote in my review.  Though, after continuing to think about and talk about the film, I find that despite my lengthy initial review I still have more to say.  And so, some additional thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

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The thing that most bugs me about the film is some of those story-telling blunders that start to accumulate in the second half.  There are too many coincidences in the film.  (Han just happens to bring Rey and Fin to the place where Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber has been kept?  A super-Force-strong girl, an old man with the location of Luke Skywalker, AND the Millennium Falcon are ALL on the same planet??)  Too many things in the film are hinted at and not explained.  (Who is the old man at the beginning of the film?  Why did Luke Skywalker create a map if he didn’t want to be found?  Why did that old man have a piece of it?  Why did the Empire have the rest?  Why was Artoo asleep for so many years and how/why did he re-awaken (should this film have been called The Droid Awakens?) at the end?)

I’m particularly mystified as to why the filmmakers did not more clearly establish the political situation in the galaxy.  Has a New Republic been re-established, as we’d all suspected it would have been following the events of Return of the Jedi?  Does this Republic control most of the galaxy?  Why would the destruction of five or six planets cripple the New Republic?  We’re not meant to think those five or six planets were the entirety of the New Republic, right?  How could the destruction of those planets have completely annihilated the Republic starfleet?  What is the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance?  Why are they not officially connected?  Why is there any need for a Rebellion/Resistance anymore?  Why isn’t Leia just in charge of the official Republic fleet (or government)? How is it that the Resistance in this film — even though it is connected (somehow) to the Republic — seems to have even fewer ships at their disposal than they ever did back in the Original Trilogy?  Meanwhile, on the other side of the good/dark divide, how widespread and powerful is the First Order?  Were their troops mostly just on that Starkiller base planet?  Or does the First Order control great swathes of the galaxy now?

Looking back at the original Star Wars, look at how economically they were able to give us all the backstory that we needed.  There was the opening crawl, of course, a clever device that I think could have been much better used in The Force Awakens to quickly and clearly spell out the galactic situation for us.  But also think about how Obi-Wan Kenobi, in one simple line of dialogue, tells us everything we need to know.  He tells Luke: “A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine before he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights.”  Boom.  We know everything we need to know about the galaxy (ruled by an evil Empire, with the guardians of peace and order wiped out), and the emotional stakes between Kenobi and Vader.  There’s nothing like that in The Force Awakens.  It feels like the filmmakers couldn’t figure out how to explain everything to us without gobs of exposition, so they just decided to cut out any explanation of backstory altogether.

In my review, I compared The Force Awakens to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, and in thinking about that further I found another similarity: both films fail at clearly establishing the relative distances of places in their respective galaxies.  It’s a problem in these movies when all the planets in the galaxy feel like they’re right next to one another.  Starkiller base is close enough to the center of the Republic to destroy their main planets with a laser beam?  And Maz Kanata’s planet is close enough to those core Republic planets that they can see those planets getting destroyed up in the sky?  (Remember, Han took Rey, Finn and BB-8 there so they could find a clean/untraceable ship to take them back to the Republic/Resistance — which would lead me to believe that Maz’s planet wasn’t right next-door to the Republic, so close that those Republic planets could be seen with the naked eye!!  Well then heck, why didn’t Han just drop Rey and Finn right off on one of those next-door planets??)

And, ahhh, Starkiller base.  I’ve been thinking about that, too.  I’ve really been wondering why J.J. Abrams and all of the other talented people involved in making this film, people who clearly love Star Wars and wanted to deliver a great new Star Wars film, wound up giving us a Death Star for the THIRD time.  Is this really what they thought Star Wars fans wanted?  To see the same old story told yet again?  Here’s my theory.  I think Mr. Abrams and his collaborators convinced themselves that they had developed a deep, complex backstory for Kylo Ren, that he was trying to be Darth Vader, perhaps to be even better than Vader.  And so he emulated Vader in recreating a Death Star, but because he has the adolescent need to be bigger and better than Vader, he oversaw the creation of not just a Death Star, but a whole Death Planet.  And perhaps Mr. Abrams and his team found thematic resonance in this recreation of a familiar Star Wars story.  I dunno, I’m just guessing here.  Because personally I was bummed when The Force Awakens turned into a we-have-to-destroy-the-Death-Star story for the THIRD time and I really can’t figure out why the filmmakers went that way.

Turning to other things that I really LIKED about The Force Awakens:

John Williams’ score.  Mr. Williams’ involvement is as critical an element in the Star Wars magic as any of the returning cast-members.  I dread the day when we will see a Star Wars movie with a score composed by someone else.  (That day might be coming soon — I wonder if the Star Wars “spin-off” films will have scores by Mr. Williams…)  I need to see the film again to more deeply engross myself in Mr. Williams’ soundtrack.  But on an initial viewing, I can say that I adored the masterful way in which Mr. Williams incorporated so many of his familiar themes (and not just the obvious ones) while also introducing us to a number of new musical themes for the many new characters.

I love how big a role Chewbacca had in the film.  Chewie had a lot to do, and I loved it!  Hoping to see even more of him in Episode VIII!  (I also loved finally getting to see the damage that Chewie’s awesome-looking crossbow could do!)

Holy cow were there some great sequences of the Millennium Falcon in combat in this film!  I loved all of that!

I loved the revelation of Kylo Ren’s real name.

One of my very favorite continuity nods in the film is how, when Rey first touches Luke’s lightsaber, we see a very brief glimpse of the iconic Cloud City corridor where Luke fought Vader (and eventually got his hand chopped off).  (By the way, since several of my knowledgeable Star Wars friends were confused on this point, I want to clarify for everyone: the lightsaber featured in this film is Anakin Skywalker’s saber, the one that Obi-Wan picked up after their duel on Mustafar in Episode III and gave to Luke in Star Wars.  This saber was the lost when Luke got his saber-holding hand sliced off on Cloud City in Empire.  The saber Luke used in Return of a Jedi was a new lightsaber that Luke had constructed himself, with a green blade as opposed to the original blue-colored one.)  By the way, just how DID Maz get that saber from Cloud City?  I hope that’s something we get an in-movie explanation for in Episode VIII or IX.

Speaking of forthcoming explanations, I find myself very torn about Rey’s parentage.  On the one hand, I would love an in-movie explanation for how she is so hugely Force-strong in this film.  With no training whatsoever, she is far stronger at the end of this film than even Luke was at the end of two movies, after receiving training from both Ben Kenobi and Yoda.  One explanation could be, of course, that Rey is a daughter of Luke or Han, and thus related to the strongest Jedi the galaxy has ever seen.  On the other hand, the prequels already made the Star Wars universe way too small and inter-connected.  (Remember, folks, Darth Vader built C-3PO!)  And so I just want to see some new characters in this universe, unconnected to the Skywalker family!  So I’m not sure what I’m hoping for.

I was intrigued that one of the moments from the trailers to this film that I’d most wondered about — of someone (in hindsight, I believe it was Maz) handing Luke’s lightsaber to someone else (probably Leia) — wasn’t in the film at all!

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This endlessly fascinates me.  Was there an alternate version of this film in which Maz and Leia met?  Was there some other way that Luke’s lighstaber originally came back into the story?  Or, my new theory: was this material from a flashback that was shot but not included in the film, in which Leia gave Maz Luke’s lightsaber after Kylo Ren killed all of Luke’s Jedi apprentices and Luke disappeared?

You know what other iconic shot from the trailers wasn’t in the film?  That shot of Kylo Ren staggering through the woods and first unleashing his distinctive lightsaber.  I can’t believe that shot isn’t actually in the film!

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Where was Kylo Ren’s huge Super Star-Destroyer in the final battle?

No Lando in this film?  Nien Nunb made it in, but no Lando??  I really hope Lando is involved in Episode VIII.

I am wondering how many of the questions raised in this film (many of which I’d listed above) will be answered in future films.  (Will we learn the story behind that old man at the beginning of the film?  Will we learn why R2-D2 shut down and then woke back up?)  There’s no question that franchise film-making these days results in films that often don’t stand so well on their own.  Perhaps, several years from now, after Episode XIII and Episode IX have been released, many of these questions have been answered to my satisfaction.  Then maybe I’ll look back and say, well, OK, The Force Awakens left me mildly unsatisfied at the time, but now that I can see the whole trilogy, it all fits together.  Or maybe we’ll find that these questions were never answered.  How this plays out will significantly affect how I ultimately feel about The Force Awakens.

One thing is for certain.  The Force Awakens is a film that I have loved thinking about and talking about with fellow Star Wars fans.  It has plenty of flaws, but it also does so much so right.  It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s exciting, and it introduces us to four wonderful new lead characters (Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren) who I can’t wait to follow through future films.  The ending of The Force Awakens leaves me salivating for the next installment.  (Will this be the first Star Wars film to pick up immediately after the end of the previous film?  Or, by the time Episode XIII opens, will months or even years have passed in-universe?  These are only the first of many, many questions I have, to which I can’t wait to learn the answers.)  Star Wars is clearly very much alive.  I am excited to see where the Star Wars story goes next.

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