Spoiler Warning: Yep. I spoil it all. It’s true. All of J. J. Abrams’ stupid mystery boxes. I open them all. At least when regarding Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled about it, don’t read this.
So last night my roommate and I watched The Force Awakens. It was okay! It was …okay. I was pleasantly surprised that it was better than I expected. And it was better than any of the prequels, and very few bits of it were actually painful to watch. It’s sad that that’s become my standard for Star Wars.
What I liked
• Droidspeak (mostly BB-8‘s) understood by humans. Yeah, those of us who live with our machines learn its languages, audio or otherwise.
• WWII staged photos with Star Wars elements Considering Lucas’ references and use of WWII imagery, this actually served as a good nod to his input and method. There are numerous moments throughout the movie that match almost verbatim historical photos from the WWII era, only with Tie Fighters and Stormtroopers rather than Zeros and Nazis.
• Stormtrooper PTSD and defection, essentially the origin of Finn, the first indicator in Star Wars that war action might have adverse effects on living units. Especially special task force units who aren’t prepared to commit war atrocities when ordered. Curiously, Captain Phasma interpreted Finn’s symptoms as a discipline problem. Either she didn’t recognize Stormtrooper shell-shock — or she didn’t care. Phasma later calls the incident his first offense suggesting that Stormtroopers can commonly have more than one.
A missed heartwarming opportunity would have seen Finn reach the resistance to be received by fellow defected troopers. They’d tell him that no, he’s not the first guy ever who couldn’t stomach First Order engagements. He’s not alone. And, oh by the way, we have a chapter here where you can get camaraderie, emotional support and donuts. And Finn would realize that, at long last, he has found home.
• Women as adventurers! Women as more than princesses, courtesans and tragic mom! It’s sad that I have to mention this at all, but the previous movies have set such a horrible precedent. In the original series, women got very few roles in Star Wars. In the prequels this got only slightly better. Rey is crazy competent among the new heroes (endangering Finn into becoming Ron Weasley to Rey’s Harry Potter). As I note below, she may be too competent, almost sliding into Mary Sue territory, which endangers her turning into a replacement for Kylo Ren. Also, women all over the First Order and the Resistance! That was awesome.
• Kylo Ren's inferiority complex. I liken it to the kind of body dysmorphia that drives anorexics and body builders, only it’s regarding Kylo’s badassitude. Force dysmorphic disorder. I mean, the guy stops blaster bolts midair and yet sobs to the Vadey-mask about being inadequate. I know your feel Kylo. I get you, man.
• Kylo Ren’s temper tantrums. Holy wanton destruction! First Order repair and maintenance staff must hate that guy. At least he hasn’t killed any officers…that we’ve seen.
• Kylo Ren’s internal conflict. Early Star Wars always used language suggesting the force spectrum was a slippery slope to the Dark Side. That one was either true to the Light Side (i.e. perfect) or seduced by the Dark Side (i.e. not), even though Luke recovered fine after playing everything-to-Dark to pour the beat-down on Vader in ROTJ. It was even implied that this was essential to Jedi mastery. Other sources, for me the games, considered the potentium, that the lightness / darkness of the force rested not in what effects were created but what was done with it. (Of course, if you have to slaughter a hundred children in order to raise your wife from the dead, it might raise some cost-to-benefit issues). That said, I appreciate the notion that the continuum between light and dark goes in both directions. Love and family and belonging are strong allures. We just don’t consider them seductive because they are accepted and expected.
• Maz Kanata, played by Lupita Nyong’o (Swoon! Squee!) Kanata is as close as we get to Old Ben Kenobi (the old master). Like Obi-Wan, (and like Admiral Piett), Kanata really deserves her own epic series and comic book.
• Flee! Flee from the call! Both Finn and Rey fled as fast as their little feet could carry them once the call to adventure came knocking. Finn was already exhibiting PTSD symptoms, and had been looking to get the heck out of dodge from the beginning. He took the first ship out of Castle Kanata. One forcey vision from a lightsaber and Rey was running out into the forest before she even considered what she was going to do out there. And Rey went back to Jakku, opened a salvage and second-hand shop, had four children and lived happily ever after! Really, it’s the best thing: A Jedi’s lot is not a happy one.
• Kylo Ren's human face. Unlike Vader who was forced into his mask from injury and circumstance, the mask is Kylo’s religion. He wears the mask the way Christians wear their cross or Jews wear the kippah. This smacks a bit of Dr. Doom‘s mask covering his (allegedly) disfigured face. (Kylo is not the only big bad with dysmorphia.)
• A not-terrible death of Han Solo. I think I’ve become rather numb to bad deaths of big well-known heroes. Going for broke to get his son back, getting betrayed and murdered and then falling into the abyss is not a sucky way to check out, as cinematic heroic deaths go.
• A Lightsaber™ fight in the woods. I’d have loved to see a proper saber fight in the opulant streets of Theed in TPM, but for some reason the battle with Darth Maul made its way into a power reactor. I’ll give kudos for any Lightsaber™ fight that’s not in an industrial park or military installation. I’m that desperate.
What I hated
• Kylo Ren's blaster-bolt trick reminds me too much of the power escalation between the first three films (and the Jedi Knight games) and then Starkiller in The Force Unleashed who really could pluck a tie-fighter out of the air and beat a Stormtrooper to death with it. In ANH, the force was pretty darned subtle. Vader only used the active force to intimidate mouthy officers, (later, in ESB to execute them a la John Byng). Why do we have to make every force-attuned warrior a god among insects? Maybe the galaxy is getting forcier so that soon force-adepts won’t be able to sneeze without sensitives feeling it lightyears away?
• Poe resists torture until Kylo Ren darkside-mind-rapes him. The notion that (conventional) torture can be resisted with heroic will, and that a victim can recover from it without time and support is not a good message for Hollywood to be conveying, especially since The US now has an actual torture program and legal torture policy founded on fictional misunderstandings of torture. In real life, torture will reduce a person’s psyche to mush. It will also yield dubious intelligence that is likely be false or incomplete, since if you torture someone long enough (less than three minutes will do it) they’ll tell you anything out of desperation to get it to stop. Kylo Ren’s technique is assuredly more effective in sifting out complete truth, and is probably more humane than US accepted enhanced interrogation techniques still in practice. If we can assume the First Order interrogation unit has at least the techniques in the US torture playbook (if not more!) then we can assume Poe Dameron would have folded for them like an upsilon-class shuttle. It would have been an interesting twist to acknowledge this. You get lucky today. I need that map, and I need you to tell me now. Normally I’d let the interrogation dogs have their way with you, pull you apart over days like salvage. My haste spares you from them… so, think of what I’m about to do…as a kindness.
• Yet another giant planet-demolishing superweapon. Ugh. Where to begin? Did we really need yet another bigger Death Star? I’ve already covered how planet-busters serve as poor military weapons. I know that big mega weapons make for nice clean doomsday countdowns but that wasn’t even used very well with movie relativity and only two clock-checks. Really, a massive army or a bomber squadron or the Blitz or any one of countless other war tropes would have served, and served better because it wouldn’t be the same thing as two other Star Wars films.
Also, this runs the risk of turning the First order into a caricature. What made the Empire a great evil dystopian superpower was that it balanced its evils (corruption, intolerance, brutality) with a certain degree of pragmatism. Resources that you don’t blow up for the lulz (or to send a message) are resources that can be captured and used. This is why we don’t salt the earth, even when we’ve defeated Carthage. Both US and Russian administrations have realized their nuclear arsenals do us no good — maybe, if we’re lucky, they are a deterrent — but more likely, should a nuclear device be set off by a radical or madman, they’ll only tempt us to retaliate in kind against an affiliated country whose population neither facilitated nor condoned the use of nukes. Sure we can make devastating weapons, but even evil empires know better than to actually use them.
• Starkiller Base engulfing an entire star is ridiculous. I’m the sort who understands cosmology enough to know what the oort cloud is, and while I know many people are not too space-savvy, it’s offensive when people don’t know the size / mass relationship of planets to stars. It’s pretty vast. Put biblically, it’s easier for a rich man to get into Heaven than to squeeze a star into a planet. We’re talking camel through the eye of a needle here, or to borrow a simile from David Mitchell, squeezing a planet into a shoe.
A star is the universe’s grey goo, that no matter how much you add, you get star. And if you put too much of anything in one place, you get star. And if you suck enough matter to make a star into your planet-sized superweapon, you still get star, and star trumps planet or superweapon every time.
Stuff that wasn’t terrible but it would have been better if it were different
• BB-8's floating head-cap design. It’s cute and I want to like it. But I can’t get past it not actually making mechanical sense, at least none I can find. (I wanted some moment in the movie to show why BB-8 is built this way.) I can only assume that BB-8 uses some kind of continuous tractoring technology to keep the head attached to the ball, something as strong as a solid bracket and yet without the leaky transmissions that an electromagnetic bond would produce. A more practical version would omit the head-cap, and install BB-8's sensors all over the ball. One could also install repulsors all over the ball and let BB-8 float around to wherever it needs to go.
I still find amusing BB-8's similarity to VINCENT from Disney’s The Black Hole. VINCENT used levitation tech to flit around, but needed googley eyes for 70's cute. As an additional note, BB-8’s head cap rotates independently from the attaching foot that connects it to the ball (the seam is below the silvery band.) Obviously much thought has been put into this design, so what gives?
• Captain Phasma got very little screen time. Considering there was a lot of chrome-plated-Stormtrooper buzz, plus a controversy over a Captain Phasma costume marketed for boys (elsewhere marketed as gender neutral). In the film proper, she did very little. Maybe her story evolves later.
• Rey's received pronunciation That is, her Posh-Beeb-Newscaster / Generic-UK stuffy British accent. This was reserved in the original trilogy for stuffy Imperial officers but not the enlisted men, and certainly no-one from the Rebel Alliance that wasn’t a princess. It’s not like anyone she talks to speaks like a coreworlder, and she’s neither an Imp officer nor a stuffy princess. Because she reminds me a bit of Janey Springs (Borderlands) I sorta want her to sound Australian. I think I just don’t hear received pronunciation in a Star Wars movie and think orphan desert scavenger.
• A bit too much Han and Chewie. This took me a while to get straight…I think. Sometimes a movie developer who is a fan of the source material (or prior material) will add a continuity nod, and those reflect that the developer is also a fan. And that stuff is super cool. Sometimes a movie developer will add a bit that is supposed to be call-out to prior fans, but because this developer isn’t a fan (and didn’t fully do his homework) it feels contrived. That’s how much of the original-trilogy callbacks felt to me. Contrived. R2D2’s standby-power-status and awakening was possibly the worst, as if some marketer somewhere decided that my generation was supposed to squee over that.
Contrast the laser sights on the Stormtrooper blaster rifles, a nod to the notorious inaccuracy of the Imperial-era Stormtrooper rifles. Someone who designed the new rifles knew their stuff. Even if they just did some research, That gave me a buzz.
• Force Plot Intervention. There was a nicely established dynamic in the original trilogy that Dark-siders always beat Light-siders in a stand-up fight, so the Light-siders had to figure out alternatives to fighting: Running away; Pleading to dad for help; Smuggling compartments. Even Yoda was a non-combatant, a master of the non-confrontational solution. The Emperor was a dark-side sorceror-thing beyond the pitiful tricks of Sith and Jedi. His lightning showed he dabbled in force arts beyond the scope of anyone else, and no-one could rise to confront him directly.
Then this was completely tossed out in the prequels starting with Obi-Wan defeating (established badass) Darth Maul by no discernible means. Then Count Dooku got lightning with his Sith card. Yoda pulled out a Lightsaber™ and swashed his buckle with the rest. Anakin beat Dooku by no plausible means other than the scriptwriter said so.
In TFA this trend resumes with an untrained Rey beating (very established badass) Kylo Ren through an unsatisfying moment of inspiration. Personally, I think a saved-by-the-gunship moment might have been in order. Especially given the Millennium Falcon was already en route. It could have blasted a few anti-material rounds Kylo’s way and Another time, MacLeod! I wonder if the reason this didn’t happen was part of what was a clear effort to show Rey never needs rescuing ever. I can appreciate the sentiment given how often women have been involved only as an object to be rescued. Still, I’m pretty sure that Rey is allowed to be bested by the already-established-baddest-motherfucker-in-the-valley. I mean, she already beat Kylo Ren at force-mind-probing and Kylo does crush everyone else ever, except his own boss. Rey had done plenty enough to prove that she’s nobody’s hostage.
It was a good moment for gunship intervention. Though to be fair, I seem to find gunship cavalry moments pretty satisfying.