Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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After a riding a tsunami of hype that rivals its predecessors and geysers of gushing praise from media and fans alike, how does the Star Wars franchise fare in the hands of its new heir for this particular Star Wars OG?

It’s good, but JJ Abrams is no Jedi.

Yes, yes, yes. It erases the stink of the prequels, but the film misses the same opportunities and makes many of the same mistakes.

The film succeeds mostly by restoring the overall tone and spirit of the original series. It provides just enough visual invention and drama to keep the ball rolling, but just barely.

Yes, it’s great to see Han, Chewie, Leia, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Luke when he finally appears. Yes, the dialogue is snappy and humorous at times. Yes, there are some great battle sequences. Yes, BB-8 is adorable. Yes, it’s got a little of that old Star Wars feeling.

Not only does it feel like too much of a rehash, it falls short on character and story development. Most disappointingly, it fails to add anything truly new to the franchise. Star Wars may go down in history as a popcorn special effects spectacle, but it doesn’t get enough credit for being a successful human drama. Just as Lucas dropped this ball in the prequels, Abrams is also guilty of under writing his new heroes and half-assing the political drama in which he inserts us.

Even for a Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is asking us to make too many leaps of imagination.  There are way too many gaping holes in the stories of each of the new characters for me to feel truly invested in them.

This error is most egregiously evident in the new heroine, Rey. Rey is the new Luke and her story mirrors his almost exactly, but is infinitely more implausible.  With Luke, Lucas took time to introduce us to him. He’s an orphan, but he has a stable home life and parental guidance thanks to his aunt and uncle. He has responsibilities and his mechanical expertise can be explained by his upbringing and the skills he had to acquire by working on the farm. He has aspirations to be a pilot and the piloting skills he exhibits later in the film can be explained by the social life he had with his friends on Tatooine.

Rey, on the other hand, has none of these things. She lives completely alone. She has no guidance, no support and was presumably abandoned early in life and forced to survive in a hostile desert environment with limited access to food and water. Not only does she have fully developed language and social skills, she is in stunningly good health. She also has advanced fighting, piloting, and mechanical skills. And we’re to believe she acquired these simply by being a scavenger.  Right.

Luke spends an entire goddamn film training on a shithole planet with Yoda just to learn enough discipline to even use a lightsaber.  When he finally faces Vader, it’s dramatic because you knew what Luke had to overcome within himself. Even then, he almost gets himself killed. Rey goes through no comparable journey of emotional or skill development. She’s good at everything and acquired these skills without work, guidance or emotional growth. 

Give me a break, Abrams. Not only is this an implausible character, it runs roughshod over the pillars of the mythology.  This is the #STRONG Female Character taken to a cartoonish extreme. Rey is definitely a Mary Sue, and even if feminists are pleased the film suffers because of it. Suck it in and cope, feminists.

On a related note, it’s weird that feminists consider Rey feminist in any way. There’s nothing even remotely feminist about Rey. Rey uses firearms. Feminists oppose gun ownership. Rey is accomplished at combat. Feminists demand protection from the State. Rey has skills even if they’re implausibly acquired. Feminists demand preferential treatment simply for being female.  Feminists lecture people about gender pronouns, police what people say and are general killjoys and scolds. Rey is blessedly free of these annoying tendencies.

Finn suffers from a similar deficit of dramatic development.  Finn was presumably conscripted by the First Order as a youth and trained to kill without remorse, but we’re asked to accept his moment of awakened conscience immediately.  He suffers no PTSD or adverse effects on his social skills.  Star Wars is popcorn entertainment, but it’s still a war movie. The film could have raised the dramatic stakes by injecting just a little of this reality into it.

The same goes for Poe Dameron. I don’t know anything about him other than he’s the best pilot in the Resistance. I simply don’t know enough about him to feel truly invested in him.  Adam Driver has an enormous task filling the spiritual and psychological void of Vader as new Sith on the block, Kylo Ren. I’m not sure if the character or his acting skills are up to the task.

Abrams also stumbles by shortchanging the political drama.  For all of the flaws of the prequels (and they are numerous), Lucas gave us a pretty clear political backdrop. He intended the series as a Fall of the Roman Empire style allegory.  It was clumsily handled, but Lucas definitely wanted to show how a democratic republic devolves into a totalitarian dictatorship.  Nick Gillespie of Reason persuasively argued that the prequels mirrored the demise of the political ideals of the Boomers.

The Force Awakens inserts us into a divided galaxy 30 years after Jedi and a pretty resounding defeat of the Empire.  The second Death Star was destroyed. The Emperor and Vader are dead.  There was certainly ample opportunity for the believers of democracy to reclaim the seat of government power and restore “peace and justice”.

And yet…

The First Order have reasserted iron fisted dominion and are somehow able to amass significant military might in a remarkably short span of time. The Starkiller Base is several times the size and power of the previous Death Stars. The First Order manage to get it built in 30 years despite getting their asses kicked twice by the Rebellion.  They haven’t learned too much from their past mistakes, apparently.

Listen, guys. Military power of the kind to which you’re accustomed can only be amassed through taxation and budget deficits made possible by central bank monetary inflation. You’re not going to get too far by nuking every goddamn planet in the system. Chill out a little.

We accept that the Resistance are Good and the First Order are Bad. However, Abrams missed another opportunity by failing to spell out in greater detail where the moral fault lines lay and the political principles for which the Resistance fought.

Other missed opportunities included Carrie Fisher’s meager reprisal of Leia as well as Gwendoline Christie’s throwaway role as Phasma.  Both of these women were supposedly high ranking military officials, and yet, we see very little military style leadership from either.

Overall, it’s about as good as I could have hoped.  Not a complete catastrophe, but still short of the mythic human drama and invention that made the original soar. 

Abrams certainly hasn’t tarnished the legacy, but he hasn’t advanced it in a meaningful way either. It made me smile and I appreciated the love and reverence he brought to the enterprise. He was given the difficult task of reviving a beloved franchise while giving it a new lease on life. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect too much innovation from either Abrams or Disney. The Force might be awake, but I’m not yet convinced that the Force is strong in Disney’s hands.

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