Star Wars doesn’t suck. Its characters have charm, motivation, substance; its plot is full of twists and turns, revelations and mystery; it takes you to varied locations, amazes you with great special effects, and keeps you entertained with clashes full of emotional and narratological weight. Sure, there were some missteps along the way: arguably, only the first two movies could really be described as being great; Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace having to settle for ‘mismanaged,’ and ‘disappointing’, respectively, Revenge of the Sith requiring a descriptor halfway between ‘boring’ and ‘poorly executed’; and the less said about Attack of the Clones, the better. But even amid in the grudgingly plodding tempo of Episode II, even amid the disorientingly over-the-top spectacle of Episode III’s climax, even amid the anarcho-primitive teddy bears and cringe-inducing exposition on mystical cellular biology, there was a seed of something, a grain thirsty for whatever Lucas had in these films that kept its audiences coming back for more.
I thought I’d known what that seed was. Apparently, based on the reactions I’ve found in my discussions with friends, colleagues, and anonymous internet denizens, I was wrong.
Let me get this out of the way: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens sucks. It’s just fucking awful enough that I sincerely wished it was significantly worse just so we’d have an endlessly-quotable bad movie to riff on for a few months. Instead it happens to fall comfortably into that middle space of mediocre, executive-pleasing competency that outstrips truly terrible films and yet also falls wildly short of being great, good, or even enjoyable. Forget trying to recapture the magic of A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back; I’d have been pleased with something that didn’t leave me feeling robbed of the money I spent on the matinee.
And yet people legitimately enjoy this movie. And not just some, not just die-hard fans fervently looking for some shred of pleasure that they can bleed from the experience like those that staggered out, wide-eyed and shell-shocked, from the The Phantom Menace’s opening night. A lot of people dig this movie. Clearly, whatever my qualms with it, they’re quite easily chocked up to sneeringly intellectual snobbery and general, foolish, academic disdain for fun, popular things made for fun, popular people.
So where was I wrong? I had assumed, given the nature of the stories, that Star Wars fans enjoyed not just the special effects, not just the cool chic of the props, and not just the quotable one-liners and iconic imagery of the originals, but the very substance that made all of those things carry weight and function on any level beyond farce. The rock-solid characterization of its heroes and villains, the archetypal unfolding of its plot, that sort of thing. Essays, video-reviews, and even well-funded documentaries have already been released on this subject, so I’ll avoid going into too much depth, but the point is that Star Wars works because it had a lot of good shit in it that captured imaginations.
Is there a lot of good shit in The Force Awakens? No. Does it capture imaginations? Apparently it does.
Here’s where we get into all of the important things that this movie wrong.
Rey is literally perfect in all of the ways that don’t actually matter. She’s enormously intelligent, quick-witted, and extraordinarily skilled in martial arts, piloting, fencing, hypnosis, marksmanship, and rhetoric, and most importantly, her moral compass is unerringly strong and good. She not only knows what the Right Thing To Do is, she frequently demonstrates her adroitness in Doing The Right Thing, whether it’s helping out a droid in need, entwining herself in a battle against an evil galaxy-dominating First Order she was otherwise unconnected with, or assisting an unlikely Almost-Hero down on his luck. But here’s the thing: none of these things matter. She’s perfect at doing these things, but they don’t actually matter.
What matters is that she isn’t perfectly likeable. In fact, she isn’t even perfectly identifiable as a character. Is she a badass rogue? A begrudgingly heroic badass? A shining beacon of heroism and moral courage? An underdog? A tried & tested veteran of internal battles who’s been a few times around the block? Any one of these (realistically, even two) could work. Instead, she’s all of this and more, all wrapped up in a character type that’s so schizophrenic that you never get a chance to sink your relation into her and care about her ability to negotiate, outwit, fight, or otherwise get herself out of the numerous debacles protagonists are supposed to wind up in.
Without a specific archetype or blend of archetypes to adhere to, Rey has no starting point as a character. She has nowhere she can come from, no gimmick, so to speak, to rely on that she—and only she—is good at. Think back for a second. In the original trilogy, Han Solo had his quick wits and his smuggler’s luck (arguably one in the same, but he also had a wookie and that alone counts all by itself); Luke had his naive optimism and his hot-shot piloting skills; Leia had her ability to wield authority. Even in the prequels, we had Obi-Wan’s reckless confidence and Anakin’s conflict-riddled arrogance from which most of their actions can be explained.
What does Rey have? She’s got a past she doesn’t want to talk about that has something to do with orphanage, and there’s also that bit about people—presumably her parents—telling her they’d come back for her even though it’s quite obvious that they never will. She’s also got a history of fending for herself on an inhospitable planet seemingly populated only by equally destitute bandits and marauders. Thrown somewhere in there is a force-sensitive background that allows her unprecedented (and frankly, unbelievable) skill in the force to manifest. Add to this her unwavering moral compass that doesn’t seem to gel with her backstory in the slightest (if she grew up largely to fend for herself, why does she even care about helping out anyone at all, why does she bother thinking of the droid’s mission above getting tons of compensation for selling it off, why does she think of responsibilities beyond her own self-interest, etc., etc., etc.), and you have the makings of a character whose starting point mixes the moral compass of Luke, the conflicted self-interest of Anakin, the cunning of Han, and the confidence of prequel-era Obi-Wan. And if that isn’t enough, she’s takes authoritative command at crucial segments (such as the air-strike sequence on Jakku, or the bit in which she accidentally sets a bunch of demonic monsters loose on a freighter and puts everyone’s lives in danger—admittedly the only mistake she seems to make in the whole film) to evoke the commanding presence of Leia.
And this isn’t even getting into how all of these aspects end up translating into her actions in the narrative. But other people have already gone over that. They call her a Mary Sue: a character (generally female) who is implausibly good at just about everything—even at having a tragic past. Those people are right.
The schizophrenia present in Rey’s inability to be a specific character type is endemic of a problem with The Force Awakens’ entire narrative; it doesn’t even know what sort of movie it wants to be—not in terms of being “Star Wars” or not being “Star Wars”, but in terms of what type of narrative it wants to follow. Is it an epic hero’s journey in the classical sense? A bildungsroman? A story of an underdog? A family soap opera?
It’s actually all of those things. But it’s all of those things at once, with multiple plot threads hanging upon the dingy frames of woefully underdeveloped characters. Redemption story? Check—in the form of Finn the Stormtrooper indoctrinated from early childhood that, for reasons undefined, has suddenly discovered his moral compass and decided that, despite his orders, despite his training, and despite his conditioning, killing a bunch of random people he has no attachment to on an alien planet he’s never seen before in the name of the First Order who has given him his entire current life and career is a profession so disagreeable that he instantly prioritizes deserting not only his field, but the entire culture and society from which he’d been raised and which had presumably developed the very set of morals he decided to rebel against. The seeds of a second redemption arc were already planted in the form of Kylo Ren, an angst-ridden dark-side using wannabe who abandoned his first teacher and his parents to pursue the self-indulgent panderings of the Sith in exchange for dignity or reasoning abilities—in fact, might as well add to this drama the family soap opera angle, even if we’re just edging it into a few scenes here or there. Bildungsroman? Check—we got our young heroine coming of age and learning the pangs of training, hardships of life away from the status quo of her sequestered, loner lifestyle—and while we’re at it, we can pretend to color it the same hue as the classic hero’s journey… somehow.
The problem is that despite offering all these different styles—plot types that were certainly present in one form or another in the original trilogy—The Force Awakens fails to depict any of them well. The failing isn’t necessarily a purely structural one; after all, the movie’s three acts, the placement of its characters, and the culmination of its climax is lifted almost exactly from the original film, A New Hope. The difference lays in the development, depiction, and ultimately the very conception of its characters, leading us right back to Rey.
With Rey’s inexhaustible wellspring of abilities, there’s no need for her ex-Trooper sidekick to do anything, like say, rescue her from a bind and extract her from a Death Star holding facility; there’s nothing for a washed-up Han Solo to do for her either, because she’s already got masterclass piloting skills and a penetrating knowledge of starship engineering that she could reengineer the derelict Millennium Falcon unaided and practically on the go. And as for Maz: she’s hardly even a character and more a plot contrivance used to send Rey into freak-out mode over something that wasn’t conceivably even a big deal for a girl that was already a hard-as-nails gritty loner survivalist used to fighting her own battles. What’s left for any of the characters to do in a story so focused around a single protagonist? Especially when their arcs are either resolved so easily (Finn’s desire to be a tough-guy to impress Rey and his subsequent flight from the action because of inescapable fear) or are so haphazardly developed that their resolution signifies nothing except a quick cash-in on shock value (Han Solo). If you don’t have characters do anything then they’re only showing up for fanservice.
Which is the fundamental problem with Star Wars VII, and it’s a problem I foresee plaguing the rest of the Star Wars films from here on out. They aren’t going to be Star Wars movies in the same sense that the original trilogy was, and they aren’t going to be Star Wars even in the sense that the prequels were. They’ll be competently made in terms of a camera pointing at actors in front of digitally-brushed up sets and props and it’ll all be edited together into something that can at least be called a motion picture. They’ll be well-received in the short-term because they have all the packings audiences come to expect from modern blockbusters—not anything new, mind you; newness is risky, uncertain; newness, arguably, flunked the prequels before they were even fully formulated. But they’ll be insta-hits reeling in money to satisfy moviegoers who are quenching their thirst for special effects and nostalgia trips in between the next Avengers installment or Bond film or Mission: Impossible sequel or remake of a 90s movie.
The truth is, it’s hard not to feel some semblance of Lucas-apologeticism creeping into my thoughts after seeing Disney’s and Abrams’ hackneyed attempt to recapture the magic of the original 1977 Star Wars film. Lucas envisioned an entertaining pastiche story set in a futuristic space-fantasy universe; he created characters, set them along paths of development, and structured it all according to Cambell’s monomyth. It had a clearly defined three act structure in each of the original films, great action set-pieces, and for the most part, nuanced use of the medium. The prequels repeated the trend of narrative elements, creating wheels within wheels of story structure that mirrored the original films which were to take place later in the narrative. The prequels’ failures weren’t specifically the concepts behind the story, they were the methods in which the story was executed—story decisions, how characters were developed, how actors were directed, and how the films were actually made.
The Force Awakens provides for us practically a photonegative of the prequels. Where the filmmaking approach in the prequels was flawed, to say the least, the new film is a marvel of what modern audiences want out of blockbuster movies. Where the actors were poorly directed and given stilted dialogue in the prequels, Star Wars VII features hip dialogue, cute one-liners, and actors who feel comfortable, confident, and at home in their roles and around each other. The story decisions consist of the movie’s biggest flaw, and the reason for that is inextricable from the very concept of the story itself. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens wasn’t made as the other Star Wars movies were—here are some characters, they have adventures and visit these various settings; it all lines up in a the right structural framework of a narrative and hey presto! slap the Star Wars moniker on the product and go sell those toys! Instead we had a studio project that looked at what the original trilogy did well and distilled all of its superficial elements into a flat conceptual framework of individual, disconnected pieces, and from this toolbox of ideas they assembled a loud, explosive, pretty-looking Frankenstein of a movie that bears only the weakest resemblance to the very name it keeps. Like fanfiction. Or a commercial. Because that’s what it is.
The Force Awakens is a commercial for your childhood. It’s not even a commercial for your kids’ childhood—not like the original was, not like the prequels even were. It’s a movie for twenty-somethings too jaded to be interested in the fundamental premises of the first two trilogies. It’s for the post-ironic crowd that want everything in their stories to be ‘new’—not actually new, mind you, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing another Star Wars movie at all; rather, it’s for those who want something old remade, refurbished, and reverse-engineered in an attempt to change the name’s fundamental character. And simultaneously, it’s for those of us too disinterested to feel the value in pulling apart the entertainment we consume, too passive, too overworked, bored, or stressed out by other avenues of life to bother with the exercise of questioning the stuff we actively pay to watch, read, or listen to. The Force Awakens is another in a long chain of tune-in, drop-out movie going experiences whose spectacle is no less a drug than the caffeine served by the vendors in the lobby. There is no underlying moral to the movie. There is no fundamental message. There is no remarkable twist that leaves you questioning or reflecting back on your own actions, thoughts, or life. Worse still, any attempt to find any of these things inevitably leads you to conclude that the films is staunchly misanthropic and disgustingly fatalistic, mocking its audiences as it derides them as imbeciles.
But that’s the nature of your modern blockbuster. Who wants to think about the fun you’re having watching all these explosions and characters you’ve seen before when you can simply sit back, ignore yourself, and indulge in spectacles of excess? Relax, count backwards from ten; you’ll be out before you even get to six…