ATTENTION: The following SPOILERS contain SPOILERS.
They also refer to opinions which contain SPOILERS.
Also, I stumbled into an opening-day ticket without trying, so I’m feeling SPOILED.
Finally, I left my opinions outside and they became SPOILED.
Ten thoughts and SPOILERS about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS:
1) J.J. Abrams gave a TED talk in which he explained his “Mystery Box” philosophy: engage the viewer’s imagination by leaving key questions unanswered. His definitive work was the TV series LOST, which was riveting as the mysteries developed. He’s an entertaining bus driver who may or may not arrive somewhere.
At their best, Star Wars movies build drama by investing a tremendous amount of meaning in a single gesture. In Episode IV, Luke’s big moment at the end of the Death Star battle represented the culmination of: 1) the Rebels’ campaign against The Empire, 2) The Empire’s immediate threat against the Rebel Base, 3) Princess Leia’s mission to disarm the new battle station, 4) Luke’s involvement with the Rebellion, 5) Luke’s relationship with Ben Kenobi, 6) Luke’s embrace of The Force, 7) The Force doing what machines could not do, 8) Luke’s break from his family, and 9) Han Solo’s emergence as a hero. It’s also an important step in Luke, Leia’s and Han’s relationships with one another. By the time we reach the Trophy Room scene, there’s nothing left to do but revel in the triumph, so all the meanings of that one moment are savored for another few glorious minutes.
J.J. Abrams’ mystery box strategy does exactly the opposite. By telling the audience little or nothing about the characters, their goals or their relationships with one another, every gesture is invested with mystery but not with meaning.
We see awesome crashed star ships, but we learn nothing about how they got there that we didn’t already know from the trailer. The image makes for a great starting point for a story, and when the movie is over that story is still waiting to be told. Leaving some details unexplained can allow the world to reach beyond the limits of the screen, of course, but it shouldn’t be the directors’ only strategy for getting the audience to pay attention.
With clever ideas he never follows for long, J.J. Abrams is *really* good at making movies that are *pretty* good. He creates dazzling visuals and compelling scenarios, but very few images speak to anything deeper than what we’re shown at that moment. The scenes are entertaining, but every bite tastes like the same popcorn.
2) Every character’s backstory in this movie is one sentence long. Rey scavenges for a living, but we never learn whether she’s a loner or part of the village – so when she leaves, there’s no sense of what she’s leaving behind. There’s a poignant scene where she accepts that her family won’t return, but it’s a moment of emotion, not revelation or decision.
(And while we’re at it, does The Force “Awaken”? I’m guessing the title refers to Rey’s discovery of her powers, but I didn’t see that moment – or any other moment – as being the core of the movie. If Rey’s transformation was supposed to be the center of the movie, we needed to know more about who she was before it happened.)
3) Some shots are dramatically staged to emphasize their importance, but only references to the earlier movies are allowed to have any weight beyond their visual impact. This reaches a high level of goofy as R2-D2 spends this entire movie depressed that we’re not already in the next sequel. C-3P0 has been an irrelevant panicking trip hazard since 1983, but his glum counterpart hasn’t collected enough Original Trilogy mojo even to fire up his hologram projector.
The Millennium Falcon and Luke’s light saber are revered as treasured relics of a lost world, yet we never see that value in the way they are used. Han Solo says “We’re home!” when he enters his old ship (yes I cried) but we don’t see him use it in a way he couldn’t use any ship; the vessel’s only real value is sentimental. And the encounter with Luke Skywalker gives us nothing at all: with Luke as the goal of every character’s search, our heroine completes her quest, only to give him the light saber he deliberately left behind. I know he’s being invited to rejoin a conflict grand enough to span the mighty sequels, but I want a filmmaker to try a bit harder to figure out what a scene like that means in THIS movie. (If it was only an ‘Easter egg’ teaser for the next movie, put it after the credits. At my screening, the entire house waited to the end for a coda that wasn’t there.)
4) There’s some talk about “complete your training”, but nobody in this movie learns anything at all. Rey is anxious and fearful, yet she never seems to encounter a problem she can’t solve. Apparently, every character can fly every spaceship with harrowing precision. (Okay, Finn can’t – but then, he’s the only one who should be able to.) Dueling with a light saber is presented not as a skill to be developed, but simply a level of commitment to be reached. Fighting prowess is considered a reflection of character alone.
5) Several moments did reach into that deep well of Star Wars wonder inside me. Han Solo’s “it’s all true” moment had me in joyful tears. The impact would have been greater, however, if we’d spent the first 30 minutes of the movie getting a sense of the myth that The Force and those heroes had become. Simply having the younger characters say “But I thought that was a myth!” explains the characters’ reactions but gives no heft to the story.
6) The moments with Han and Leia spoke to me as a Star Wars fan and as a dad. These are powerful themes, but only one scene shows the parent & child confront one another. And in that scene, neither character seems to show any real change of heart.
7) None of the characters act with any authority. Kylo Ren has no commanding presence, no significant role to play in Imperial business, and no reason to wear a helmet. He throws tantrums and nobody does what he tells them to. His reverence for his grandfather, Darth Vader, makes some sense – but his role in The Empire doesn’t.
8) The rebel pilot, Poe, makes fun of Kylo Ren for wearing a helmet. It’s funny, but it weakens the platform of costumes and contrivances upon which the entire series is based. The laughs do more harm than good. That Kylo Ren does not actually need a helmet is a separate problem.
9) This movie is way, way better than the prequels. Then again, I recall one critic saying, back when one of the prequels were released, that at least The Phantom Menace was better than Return of the Jedi. (Which it wasn’t.) There’s plenty to enjoy about this movie, but I think people are so invested in the franchise – both their own experience of it, and that of their friends – that we’re all afraid to be objective in discussing its strengths and weaknesses. Everybody now agrees the prequels sucked, but it took years for that consensus to emerge. It’s tough to compare one thing that’s up close with another thing that’s far, far away.
10) We may think of “myths” as stories that evolve on their own, separate from the “entertainment” that is created by and for the marketplace. Yet both types of stories change over time, both reflect the needs and values of the culture – and now that every one of us is a creator of digital content as well as a consumer, the line between active mythology and commercial entertainment is vanishing. So those endless online discussions which track the changes in Superman’s costume or analyze the characters in a Star Wars movie are not simply nerds pursuing mindless obsessions: they’re also the active process through which our modern myths are evolving. That’s happened throughout human history, but it’s never happened so rapidly as it does now. “She don’t look like much, but she’s got it where it counts.”