Okay, everybody knows [Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens](tag:711158) opened this weekend, and it's definitely heavy on favorable reviews. It's a fun ride, for sure. I've now seen it twice - once with my 7-year old son, and a second time with my teenage nephews - and though fun, and though at times it evokes the Original Trilogy that fans such as myself hold in such high regard, there is just something "off" about it all. Upon the second viewing, I started to see some flaws - both minor and major.
The new characters are lively, unique, and the actors playing them are amazingly talented. While many think Kylo Ren stole the show, nearly as many think Daisy Ridley's Rey was the breakout success, myself included. These characters are strong, independent, and self-reliant, but each has their personal flaws and tragedies that make them human and relatable. This alone sets this new film apart from the Prequel Trilogy. However, it would seem that those much derided Episodes I-III have set the bar so low (basically they took the bar, and just tossed it out a window of a fast movie vehicle, never to be seen again) that when presented with a movie that is action packed yet heavily flawed, Fandom accepts this as a genius triumph.
I, sadly, disappointedly, disagree.
Keep in mind, overall I had a fun time with this film, and some of the points below are minor and nit-picky. But, I'm sorry, this is a major movie event with $100's of Millions behind it, and a team of creative people developing it, including the master of movie character dialogue, Lawrence Kasdan - there really shouldn't be this many holes it it.
Let's start with broad strokes and work our way down into the details. And I really shouldn't have to say this, but SPOILERS AHEAD! Thick, rich, meaty SPOILERS!
1) The "Mystery Box"
J J Abrams had a mountain of expectation stacked against him, coupled with Disney Corporate oversight, so it was nearly impossible for him to create a film that would thrill the masses as well as appease the hardcore fans. He did an okay job, but what really worked against him was the massive media coverage building up to the release date.
We were promised a spoiler-free, not going to tell us much experience lead up. With teaser trailers, and our "One and only" trailer, we were going to have a real experience here, something that was just being hinted at.
But then this turned into International trailers, and featurettes, and a thousand and one TV Spots, and magazine interviews, and endless speculation that left us with no mysteries at all. Even a cursory viewing of the main trailer and the movie's poster tells you pretty much everything that is going to happen except the order of events and minor details.
Now, is this somewhat beholden to the viewer to avoid these "spoilers", I suppose so, but a lot of this was almost impossible to avoid. Let's take just one small thing as a perfect example: In an interview with Empire magazine, J J told us Kylo Ren was in fact not a Sith, but rather a member of "The Knights of Ren" and works for Supreme Commander Snoke. This had me believing the movie itself would tell us much more about these Knights, and Snoke, and how they came to be because, this is a mystery box full of goodies, and why would the creator of the box tell me what is in it before I get to open it myself? But after seeing the movie, I know only that Kylo Ren is a member of the Knights of Ren and works for Supreme Commander Snoke. Nothing else was really given.
There was no depth here. No meat. I already knew everything going in. Just like I knew they were against a big Death Star 3.0 because of the movie poster. And just like I was disappointed by the perfectly predictable, mundane answer to "Why isn't Luke Skywalker on the poster? Where is he?? Why aren't they showing him?! There must be some REASON! Has he been disfigured? Turned to the dark side?!" Alas, no. He was simply missing from the poster because he was missing in the movie. Yawn. No surprise here. No twists anywhere. It's all surprisingly safe.
2) The Super Weapon
Really? Another super laser? Have they not learned anything? Sure, maybe there is a lesson here about the past repeating itself (quite literally in this case: bad guy builds big weapon, they use it once, good guys blow up weapon at the last moment), but as fans and the movie viewing public, it's time for something new.
Now, even if you let the parallels slide, the Starkiller Base makes little sense, and really isn't even being used properly. First off, I guess it shoots through hyperspace somehow? This isn't really explained. Instead we are shown the devastation of a planet we've never heard of until this moment, and it is never made clear if this is the entirety of the New Republic and their fleet, or just the capital.
So this weapon can shoot anywhere apparently, scary, but it needs the power of an entire sun to do it? The Death Star was a fraction of the size of Starkiller Base and it had no problem blowing up a planet under its own power. So they need to suck up a sun to power this planet-sized weapon. Doesn't this then have horrible affects of cold and/or tidal upheaval as the star they are orbiting is snuffed out?
Obviously the weapon can be used more than once, but not the sun, so it must be able to maintain it's own atmosphere and travel between stars for refueling? So why doesn't it just travel by hyperspace to blow up planets like it's little cousin the Death Star? And why isn't it just powered by the molten core of the very planet it inhabits? The input of power from a sun does not match the output of energy, and the recharging phase seems to only exists to build a ticking timeclock for the plot and our heroes. And, if it can travel by hyperspace to different star systems, and suck up entire stars, why doesn't it just do that? Just go to the New Republic system, suck up their sun, and watch as they quickly freeze to death?
3) The New Resistance
So, the New Republic, that was or maybe was not destroyed by Starkiller Base, we are told is the government that is funding The Resistance. So if there is a New Republic and a new Senate, and they are at odds with the seemingly newly arisen First Order, we presume they are a benevolent government that is running the Galaxy in the wake of the destruction of the Empire (again, nothing is explained, everything is skipped over for sake of expediency and plot), just what are they Resisting against??
I'm all for being thrown into the action and sorting things out as we go, but I'm given nothing in the way of street signs on the way, and by the time we're with the good guys trying to blow something up, I'm not really sure what's happening.
Wouldn't it have made much more sense to have Leia and her army be part of the New Republic, and then when Starkiller Base blows the shit out of their Capitol system, they would now become the Resitance - the last remaining remnants of the Government, now on the run from a highly motivated, surprisingly equipped (see Poe Dameron's reaction when being brought on board the Star Destroyer at the beginning of the movie) First Order?
4) Too Many McGuffins
Luke Skywalker's whereabouts. Part of a map. A conveniently placed lightsaber. A droid. One McGuffin - an object, place, or person that the protagonist pursues, which is typically unimportant to the overall plot - is plenty to kickstart a narrative and get our characters motivated and moving forward. While the map, droid, and Luke are all the same thing really, having it referred in three different ways confuses the overall motivation.
As suggested in this surprisingly accurate plot synopsis from way back in May it would have made more sense if only the Lightsaber were our McGuffin. Having the mysterious character played by Max Von Sydow handing off Luke's lost Lightsaber to Poe at the beginning would make more sense than Rey finding it by accident in Maz's cellar on a planet she just happen to have been brought to after accidentally running into Han Solo who has somehow found his missing Millennium Falcon after years of searching at just the same time.
So Poe hides the saber inside BB-8 who goes on the run. Everyone is after the Droid, streamlined. The First Order doesn't just show up out of nowhere to try and get some map that they somehow know about and that it's in Max Von Sydow's possession, they are here tracking Poe Dameron - a known Resistance Sympathizer. When they bring him onboard for Kylo Ren to interrogate, Ren learns of what Dameron hid inside BB-8. We learn he is a collector of such artifacts, and has been searching for this weapon for some time as he speaks to Darth Vader's helmet.
Max Kanata serves no purpose in this film and succeeds in doing nothing except forcing Finn to get his ass kicked twice by handing him a lightsaber instead of a Blaster that he actually knows how to use. Rey could discover the saber herself within BB-8 and have her cool flashback slash force-vision moment. She resists the call to adventure here, and shoves it back into BB-8, or into the hands of Finn. Or maybe into the hands of Han Solo, who recognizes the saber immediately, as he has used it himself on Hoth all those years ago. "This is Luke's..." "Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth." "It's all true..." etc.
At the end we discover that the saber itself contains a map, or a simply coordinates that will lead to Luke. This implies that Luke went back and found the saber himself at some point, or recovered it from someone, and implanted his secret inside, waiting for a force sensitive individual to activate it. Or, perhaps when the blade is first activated half-way through the movie, R2D2 could be signaled to become activated and he contains the map - but everyone is too busy with the impending battle that no one listens to him until later. A little more organic than more goddamn coincidences like R2 just picking the final moment to wake up after years of waiting.
5) That Long, Beautiful Hair
This is minor, but it was distracting. Nobody thought the "cut" to Kylo Ren with perfectly brushed Adam Driver hair after removing his helmet was a stupid, dated, ridiculous idea? Did Driver have a hair-clause in his contract or something? They couldn't have tied it back, or at the very least mussed it up a bit. Or has the same civilization that developed laserswords also developed helmet technology that does not cause "helmet hair"?
Luke's hair looked kind of stupid too. The beard was awesome.
6) Hello, I'm Not in this Movie
To say that Captain Phasma was underutilized in this movie is a bold, daring understatement. Exactly the kind of bold and daringness I expected from such a cooly designed and cast character. Instead we got a perfunctory schoolmarm that was just there to keep her boys in line.
I read a comment on Facebook today that had a simple fix for this: Why wasn't it Phasma that was facing off against Finn and the lightsaber, instead of some nameless riot-cop Stormtrooper? How much more rewarding would that have been for Finn to face off against his oppressor? And a great character arc if he was defeated here, only to face her later in Episode 8 after he's grown as a fighter and as a person. This would have been an epic Luke Vs Vader even though he's nowhere near ready Empire Strikes Back level showdown, but instead it was just a quick aside, that ended with Chewie's suddenly overpowered Bowcaster. Just another short action piece with no gravitas.
7) Deja Vu All Over Again
Star Wars has always referenced itself. From "I've got a bad feeling about this", to the "rhyming" story structure of the Prequels and Original Trilogies. It's part of the mythology, and part of the charm. The Force Awakens hits these stanza's just a little too damn hard. It's to the point at the end that I was left feeling like I was watching "A New Hope 2.0" and not a movie set more than 30 years later with all new characters.
The Force Awakens, somehow, works best when it is focused on the new characters. Something the Prequels couldn't pull of with even one character over the course of three movies. When Han and Chewie show up, it should be thrilling, but it's just kind of awkward. Like the old guy hanging out at a party for young people - nobody is sure why he's there, but he's got the cool drugs (or space ship in this case).
Clearly Han is just mirroring the mentor/character motivator that Ben Kenobi did in A New Hope, which is great. But we didn't really get Han Solo here, not the swaggering, shoot-first badass gunslinger hand anyway, we got the ineffectual, thawed out, bumbling comic relief Han from Return of the Jedi. I suppose that accurate from a continuity stand-point, but his climactic death-scene is simply 30 years too late and I didn't feel anything.
That's about it. I still enjoyed the movie, I was just a little disappointed. I know with such high expectations there probably wasn't much that could have pleased me, but I think most of these items above could have been easily avoided. The odd editing and overly rushed pace of the movie makes me think J J ran out of time, or had more oversight in the end from Executives than he let on. We could have gotten a perfect gem of awesomeness in our mystery box, instead we opened it and got a flawed, common stone. Still, it's fun to look at, and promises great things to come. But what has me worried is all the unfulfilled potential of this current movie. Will the others be able to fill in all the gaps? Let's hope so.
Let me know if I'm wrong or if there's anything I missed!