My first reaction to The Force Awakens was incredibly mixed bordering on negative, but then I found that some of the better elements got stuck in my head in a way a merely mediocre movie simply wouldn’t manage. So I wanted to find out if this was a movie with huge massive problems I could still really like (like Prometheus), or whether its good aspects are ultimately overwhelmed by the flaws. After watching it again I think it’s definitely the former, but I also got a better idea of why so many things about it feel unsatisfying, particularly in the light of some discussions on the internet that sprung up after the movie’s release.
I imagine that everyone and their dog saw the movie at this point, but just in case:
Whatever else you can say about the movie, it’s immensely fun and likeable. Even its weakest sequence – the part with the pirate gangs and tentacle monsters which frankly belongs in some cheesy sci-fi B-movie – is still watchable. Most of the humour is great and feels organic, though there are a couple of instances when it gets too Joss Whedon-esque (you got a boyfriend? A cute boyfriend?) and feels out of place. It’s got a warm human feel to it that is almost completely absent from the prequels and the characters actually feel like real people rather than actors reciting clunky dialogue at each other.
The sequence on Jakku which is basically A Day in the Life of Rey is just wonderful and so elegantly shot, with the gorgeous desert scenery and the eerie husks of massive ships looming in the background. I like the small touches like the shot of a desert flower in Rey’s home. In fact, the entire first 30-40 minutes of the film, right until the moment Rey and Finn run into Han and Chewie, are fantastic, with great introductions to the new characters and fun action scenes.
The problem with Rey
Don’t get me wrong, I love Rey, which is not surprising because they did everything in their power to make her lovable. I still think that Daisy Ridley’s acting is a tad wonky in places, but damn if she doesn’t bring truckloads of charm, vulnerability, energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm to the role and the camera lurves her. Whoever designed her costume is a genius – it’s both practical and gracefully feminine, with the drapes that bring to mind Grecian tunics. She is a smart, scrappy survivor with a heart of gold and the above-mentioned sequence put me in her corner straight away. So what are the problems?
I’ve seen plenty of discussions on whether or not Rey is an impossibly perfect Mary Sue character, and whether this reaction is simply about sexism and men being uncomfortable with a strong capable female character. While sexism is very real, I think it’s worth wondering why this particular capable female character sparked the controversy when characters like Katniss and Furiosa didn't. I feel like what people are reacting to is that, with Rey, they’re simultaneously trying to do the “strong kickass heroine doing awesome stuff” story and the coming-of-age type of story that they did with Luke in the original trilogy. The big difference is that while Luke’s story is total wish-fulfillment, there’s a sense of build-up throughout the first movie which culminates with Luke blowing up the Death Star, and that’s really the only big amazing thing he does in the entire movie. Whereas Rey starts doing amazing things in the first quarter of the film and then never stops. The only arc she has in this movie is about her letting go of hope that whoever dropped her off at Planet Boring was going to come back, and embracing her future, but it's a rather muddled arc. That moment when Luke’s lightsaber lands in her hands and she accepts it is clearly meant to be important, especially in the light of an earlier scene where she touches the lightsaber and runs away scared by the vision. But because we’ve already seen her tap into the Force when she was a captive, this moment simply doesn’t have the impact it was meant to have. Likewise, I can’t really tell when the moment she gives up on her futile hope happens – she’s given a pep talk and then a bunch of stuff happens fast and then she’s leaving on the ship.
You could argue of course that what they’re doing with Rey is setting up a mystery that will be revealed in the next movie, which will also explain why she’s such a natural with the Force. While that could be the case, I just much prefer to see a character truly learn things, instead of being taunted with a mystery box that may cause thousands of discussions before the next release, but which is essentially a one-shot weapon. What’s going to be left after the mystery is revealed? And if Rey can already feel the Force, where’s the challenge and struggle? I sure hope there’ll be some serious struggle in the next movie where Rey royally screws up somehow and might even need help and saving. Which would probably make some people howl with indignation at how this strong female character got reduced to someone who needs to be saved by a man or whatever.
Also, for all that Rey gets lauded as a new strong feminist icon, in some ways she is a surprisingly passive character, with no clear drive or goals or ambitions or interests. Her only expressed wish in the movie is to be reunited with her family - which doesn't involve her looking for them, instead she simply stays put on the planet waiting for them to come back. Which incidentally would never happen if she was a male character - if Rey was Ray I'm pretty sure he would never be portrayed with this kind of passivity. Rey speaks multiple languages, flies and fixes the ships, but I don't get an impression that these are her interests as such - they're just skills she needs to have to move the story forward. She is excited when she finds out that the Jedi and Force are real, but does she actually want to be a Jedi herself? I've got no idea. She is intrigued when Finn tells her that he is from The Resistance, and she wants to help BB-8 to get back to The Resistance, but is it because of personal sympathy for BB-8 or does she feel strongly about The Resistance's cause? I've no idea, and because she's basically chased off the planet by The First Order there's little sense of an active decision made by Rey. Does she go to find Luke because she wants to be a Jedi, or is she there simply to ask him to come back? Again, no idea. This is not to knock on Rey - figuring out what you want is a perfectly fine character journey - but comparing her with someone like Furiosa is a tad premature, I think.
The death scene
I had thought that Han Solo’s death felt weirdly lackluster the first time around, but seeing the movie again, the death scene itself is actually pretty damn great. I still feel like I didn’t get enough sense of the father/son relationship to really care about it, but in terms of what the scene means to the characters individually, it works; I did feel how desperate Han is to get his son back and how desperate Kylo Ren is to prove that he’s cut out for the dark side. I also liked the visual cue with the light going out right when Kylo finally makes up his mind.
The big problem is the aftermath and I can’t believe how badly it’s screwed up here. The secret to a big emotional death is the reaction and grief of the other characters; more often than not it’s what triggers the viewer’s own emotions. When Gandalf dies in The Fellowship of the Ring, we have Frodo’s reaction and the massive group bawling; here, it just gets lost in a shuffle because millions of things happen right after, and when the movie does pause for some grieving and hugging, it happens between Rey and Leia who never even met before so their shared grief makes little sense.
I was in Hitler’s Youth
Finn is a fun character and probably the closest thing the movie has to an everyman. He’s not particularly brave, not particularly gifted at anything, he lies to impress a girl, he just wants to run the hell away from the First Order. Which is all good stuff. What does make the character ring false though is that his personality doesn’t gel at all with his background where he supposedly was taken away from his parents and raised to be a killer. He comes off more like a very recent recruit who, after his first taste of violence, goes oh shit I’m out of here. Maybe there’s a whole backstory on why he’s so different from your average stormtrooper but we never get to see it. His background could potentially have been a source of conflict or tension, but nope all the other characters are totally cool with his past and no one questions his sincerity. Finn feels like a great character idea wasted in a rush to make the character as likable as possible, fast.
The Force Awakens overall is safe as hell, so I appreciated the off-the-wall casting choice and general direction for his character which feels like the film’s only bold move. Revealing that your main villain looks like a young pasty nerd underneath that scary mask is not going to go down well with the part of the audience who just want an intimidating badass villain they see in the opening sequence (a woman behind me actually said what the hell out loud when they showed his face). And yes he is pretty effective as a sort of Darth Vader MkII, but I’m glad there was a hell lot more to the character than that. I do think though that at the moment the new series lacks a strong Just Plain Evil villain in the mold of Palpatine. I don’t think Kylo’s going to be it despite what he’s done, and the rest of the villains are rather underwhelming so far.