It was high times for the Rebel Alliance at the end of Return of the Jedi (1983). Across the galaxy, crowds rejoiced at the destruction of the second Death Star and the apparent defeat of Emperor Palpatine. Princess Leia Organa, who two films earlier had seen her home planet exploded for sport, was re-united with a twin brother she never knew she had, becoming aware of her own Force sensitivity, and in love with a swashbuckling hero who would later father her son. It was a resounding victory, and deservedly so, even if Ewoks had to help.
The Force Awakens begins thirty years later, yet reveals nothing about the consequences of the Rebellion’s victory. One might think democracy was restored and the title scroll refers quickly to “THE REPUBLIC” before never mentioning it again. The original Republic, of course, existed in the time of the prequel trilogy and was transformed into the first Galactic Empire through the machinations of Palpatine, a dark lord of the Sith. But now, without any political backdrop, Leia and her band of good guys are called “The Resistance” and the masked jerks with Star Destroyers are called “The First Order.” Where, exactly, is the New Republic in all this? We never find out.
Instead the entire film propels itself in pursuit of a particularly foolish MacGuffin (an object, for example, that everyone wants to get their hands on.) This is a common technique in action films and was used in A New Hope (1977) as the Empire tries to recover stolen Death Star plans. In The Force Awakens, the object everyone desires is a map to Luke Skywalker, who has gone into hiding because he messed up as a Jedi Master and created a pitiful gothic monster in the form of his nephew, Kylo Ren. The whole idea of following a map across the galaxy in order to find a planet is embarrassing—space is 3-D and wide open; all ones needs are coordinates. Instead we are shown a meandering orange trail that stretches for tens of thousands of light-years. What if you’re coming from a different direction? I don’t know, fly casual?
Luke is only in the film for about a minute, and he has no dialogue. The MacGuffin, despite being relied upon throughout the entire film, is only a tease. Where else can we look for an actual story? There is Leia, who is now a General with the Resistance. Her situation must be painfully tragic. Not only is she a woman without a home or a family, but the rebellion she led so fiercely has failed to change much at all. She seems not to have been trained in the Force, and she is separated from Han Solo, who cruises the galaxy with his Wookiee bro looking for their junky old spaceship. Leia and Han’s son, Kylo Ren, has run away to apprentice for an evil mastermind and wants to murder Leia’s brother. And yet the film doesn’t explore Leia’s potential pathos at all. It mostly places her in the background. Although, for Leia, the worst is yet to come.
Han Solo’s Death Wish
Harrison Ford was ready for Han Solo to die in Return of the Jedi, although he didn’t get his wish. He was tired of his character and maybe George Lucas as well; it’s probably only because of the latter’s departure (and Disney’s deep pockets) that Ford reprised the role at all. Still, he was only in it for a last hurrah, and so Disney needed to kill off his character. Han Solo was always a cagey, wily, brave and lucky bastard; despite what George Lucas later revised, Han did shoot first, because he knew if he didn’t, Greedo would fry his ass. Han Solo is nobody’s fool, and neither is his brother-in-arms Chewbacca, who hardly even loses at chess.
Yet Han’s death in the film is hard to understand. After many years he has been reunited with the Millennium Falcon, he has seen Leia again and they agree that he should ask young Kylo to come home. So Han flies to Starkiller base, where Ren likes to brood, and confronts him. Han walks out onto the longest, narrowest, most railing-less, most pointless catwalk in the galaxy, above an abyss that is undoubtedly bottomless. He says, kiddo, please, let me help you? And Kylo agrees by switching on his lightsaber. These two may be father and son, but could Han really be so credulous, so naive, have such a blind spot to let himself be murdered by a well-known psychotic, without even a contingency plan? To let down everyone who has ever loved him? While Han’s death is the core of the film’s narrative, it’s also meaningless, because we know nothing about the relationship Han and Kylo once had.
Kylo Ren turns out to be a kind of metaphor for the whole movie: a clueless newcomer who idolizes the remains of Darth Vader and wants to get rid of the characters we love.
Consider also Chewbacca, who was once a rather menacing (if big-hearted) presence. In The Force Awakens he just mugs for the camera. And the droids, who George Lucas envisioned as the point of view for all of Star Wars, are likewise relegated to the sidelines; R2-D2 is asleep for most of the movie, and C-3P0 only gets in somebody’s way once.
Diverse New Idols
Of course, this film is supposed to be about the new characters, not the old ones. Disney made a very clear nod to gender and racial equality in casting their lead actors. The unfortunate thing is that neither of these characters is given any substantial backstory or character development. They demonstrate no internal conflict or struggle. They experience no defeat, and little growth. It seems to be within these two that the Force has “awakened,” since it gets them out of every jam with killer, invincible instinct. Rey, although she begins the film as a poor desert scavenger, is purely virtuous and physically adept from the beginning: she excels at hand-to-hand combat, won’t sell out a friend for money, magically flies a spaceship for the first time, magically wields a lightsaber for the first time, etc. Her basic attribute is that she kicks ass and while that’s always fun, she’s little more than an totem, and therefore a stereotype. The film tells us nothing about her personal history or relationships, except that she has been waiting in the desert for someone to return.
Meanwhile Finn the black Stormtrooper begins the film by having a panic attack in battle. He witnesses his fellow Stormtrooper killed and bloodied, and refuses to fire on the enemy. He soon defects from the First Order and joins up with Rey for mindless hijinx. Finn’s moment of truth is presented as a moral revelation: he realizes that killing is wrong and refuses to do so. And yet, once he joins the good guys, he has no problem turning around and shooting his former comrades. Finn says that he was kidnapped as a child and indoctrinated as a soldier all his life—presumably those other Stormtroopers were too. Finn ought to have immense sympathy for them; he should be deeply conflicted about his actions and his future. Instead, he’s a happy-go-lucky blaster jockey: another totem. Both actors are partially wasted in this film because their roles are meaningless. And that is not what women or racial minorities (or anyone) needs.
Furthermore, the giftedness of these characters undermines everything the other films have taught us about the Force. These new heroes don’t have to learn anything; it comes to them naturally. This is the only Star Wars film without a line of dialogue spoken by a Jedi Master. Star Wars has always been about learning and discovering the difference between dark and light, but here that sense of erudition and discovery is wholly lacking.
Um, That’s Not How Starkilling Works
Even if the technology in speculative fiction is more advanced than our own, the rules of physics still usually apply. Even magic such as the Force is plausible as long as it operates according to a set of rules. But when writers make lazy shortcuts, it’s hard to take their storytelling seriously.
Consider the First Order’s headquarters, Starkiller Base. Although The Force Awakens is dead-set on recreating every iconic element of the original trilogy, someone in Hollywood must have thought that after two Death Stars with highly vulnerable shafts, it was time for for the First Order to up the ante. The result is Starkiller Base, an entire planet that has been hollowed out and turned into a weapon that sucks up the mass of a star and fires it across the galaxy. It basically does the same job as a Death Star, except from longer range. Honestly a Death Star would be much more economical, if only someone could design some good grates.
The first time Starkiller Base fires its weapon, we see a cinematic technique J.J. Abrams used previously in Star Trek (2009). Here, people on one planet look up in the sky just in time to see another planet destroyed, in broad daylight. And they go, OMG! Now the speed of light is not a limiting factor in the Star Wars universe; spacecraft can exceed it. But the beam fired by Starkiller Base is not traveling faster than light, and likewise appears to consist of matter rather than radiation, meaning it is traveling much slower. So how many years should it take to reach its target, if ever? And once its target is destroyed, how many years until the light from that event reaches another solar system? I don’t know why Abrams insists on making galaxies feel so tiny when we know they are truly epic.
I Have a Bad Feeling About This…
In fact the whole film is an a-causal jumble of narrative serendipity: a steady stream of nostalgic, unconnected tropes that we can expect to see again and again as the franchise rolls forward. We know the Force works in mysterious ways, and so we can accept that Rey stumbles upon the Millennium Falcon sitting under a tarp, collecting dust in a junkyard on the planet where she lives. What is harder to believe is that on a world full of scavengers, she is able to walk onto the ship, power it up, and fly it away without a key. Everything is there for the characters when they need it.
Repetition of elements also defines Star Wars; George Lucas said of the prequel trilogy that it was supposed to mirror the original. Disney obviously had no problem with this concept, but rather than crafting a variation on a theme, they hack up every element from the original trilogy that they can. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) reveals a great secret: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father and Leia’s as well. One can expect a similar bombshell will drop in Episode VIII, and will almost certainly involve Rey and the mysterious figure she was waiting for in the desert. I wager that Rey is Luke’s daughter, or Kylo’s sister, or even Leia’s clone. She must be a Skywalker; she appears to be more gifted than even Anakin. Her
midichlorian count must be through the roof.
Now, like everyone else who loved Star Wars and was excited for the prequel trilogy, I was bewildered by The Phantom Menace (1999). Aliens are argue about economics, the acting is stilted, the dialogue is poorly written, the plot is inscrutable, Jar-Jar Binks tries to coin a catchphrase, and everybody dies a little inside. Attack of the Clones (2002) generates more narrative interest; Anakin is old enough to discover himself and his love for Padme; he shows flashes of the lust and rage that will ultimately lead him into desolation. And Revenge of the Sith (2005) features some truly incredible moments, as Palpatine pulls the strings of his trap together and Obi-Wan tries to convince Anakin to come back to the light. Aside from from their special effects, the prequels make for poor viewing, but underneath their obscure, indiosyncratic presentation, there is an interesting story about good and evil. The prequel trilogy burns brightly in my imagination (if not onscreen). Meanwhile, The Force Awakens is just the opposite. It is an exciting movie to watch. But it has no compelling storyline, no character development, and no moral. It’s obviously a set-up for larger plot elements to follow, but still this is supposed to be cinema, not a television pilot.
They also made X-Wings uglier. Two stars.
See also: Notes on the new Star Wars Movie on Aardvarchaeology