The Force Awakens (Review)

The Ironic Article Title of the year award goes to David Roberts writing an article called Critics are going too easy on Star Wars: The Force Awakens in which he goes entirely too easy on Force Awakens. Hell, he even comes back to revise his already excessively high grade upward just because some whiny fans made him feel ashamed of himself. Irony!

He thinks it’s a "solid B," later revised to "B+." I think it’s a C+ max. It’s the very definition of a C+, really. It’s that essay turned in by a kid who tries really hard – so, you know, it’s slightly better than average – but at the end of the day he doesn’t really "get it." He’s learned enough to ape the subject and pass the test, but he hasn’t really gained any lasting insight. He’ll forget what he learned next semester.

If I knew more about J.J. Abrams, I would probably put something in here about how his whole career is like that. Un(?)fortunately, I haven’t seen his Star Trek reboot movie series, so I can’t confirm this. But all the reviews I read (well, the ones from actual Star Trek fans, anyway) say more or less that. He’s made a movie that’s clearly a legitimate Star Trek movie, but it misses – possibly deliberately? – the point of everything that fans actually like about Star Trek. It goes through the motions of recreating Star Trek, but something essential is missing. And you know, I DID see LOST, and it was the same thing. For the first season, I was really engrossed, because it was a phenomenal idea for a show, and done really well. But Somewhere early in the second season it became clear that Abrams and Co-runner were just aping an intriguing show. They’d mastered the form of dangling the truth just out of reach, and they knew that critics liked developed characters, so they "developed" their characters by giving them pro forma motivations and backstories, but they’d never bothered to actually make the show about anything. They had no idea what the big secrets were, they had no idea how these characters fit together – hell, they didn’t even know which of the characters they wanted on the island. So, in the end, LOST turned out to be a completely stupid waste of time.

Something like that is going on with Star Wars: Force Awakens. I’m not going to try too hard to fit this to my theory about Abrams, actually – Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote Empire, the only one of the Star Wars movies that can truly be called "great," is equally responsible for this, and the quibbles I’m saying fit Abrams’ pattern might be equally his fault for all I know. The point is just that whether this is all J.J. Abrams’ fault or not, they’ve produced a movie that is aping Star Wars without really understanding the essence of what made Star Wars so attractive. They’ve made a movie that inarguably IS a Star Wars movie, but isn’t about anything. Therefore, it’s boring, average, and mostly a waste of time.

If, in the interest of brevity, you wanted to point to a single, central THING that’s wrong with it, I’d say they missed the originals’ sense of the uncanny. It’s a thing not widely noticed about Star Wars – or, actually, I guess it’s noticed, but people rarely know what to make of it – that for all the stark, cartoonish terms it puts everything in, it had this kind of cool haibt of throwing in your face just how unjustified a lot of its dichotomies were. Now, there’s the obvious one where Darth Vader turns out to be Luke’s father and to still "have good in him," even though he participated in the destruction of an entire planet and tried his best, and nearly succeeded, in completely crushing the Rebellion and enforcing Imperial hegemony over the galaxy. So, it always rang a little false when the movie claimed Luke rehabilitated him just moments before his death. And yet, we also can’t help noticing that Darth Vader’s body burns, whereas the other Jedi good guys seem to just disappear. So, right there before your eyes, the movie makes a bald-faced claim that can’t be true, passes it off as true, but lets you know that it knows that it isn’t true. There’s a lot of stuff like that in Star Wars.

Droids are another example. Droids are treated like slaves. Luke, our hero, is completely dismissive of them in the first movie. This is something that the Empire also is. The stolen plans for the Death Star only get away from Darth Vader because his lackeys don’t really see droids as anything to fuss about. They’re so busy arresting all the humans that they forget to confine all the droids in a hangar somewhere, so R2D2 and C3P0 manage to escape on a shuttle pod. We then spend a lot of time in a seemingly pointless sequence in which C3P0 and R2D2 split up, only to end up on the same scavanger transport, and on the transport is a whole menagerie of droids who look and act fully human. Without even introducing the characters, we see that they have personalities, and indeed, that lots of them are in bad repair, or old, or whatever else. But off the transport, no one treats them like agents, even though they must know that they are (it requires a restraining bolt to keep R2D2 around, for example, and the bartender at the Cantina in Mos Eisley refuses to "serve their kind," as though you can actually serve a droid at a bar). It’s completely uncanny: it’s the one thing but it’s also not. We see a subworld in our world which is fully human but isn’t. And again, there’s no great distinction between the Empire and the Rebellion on this point. True, we don’t see any Imperials with "pet" droids the way Luke, Leia and Han actually interact with C3P0 and R2D2, so maybe the Empire is worse about this. Or perhaps the word is "consistent?" But even if you want to call it "consistent," the Storm Troopers compound the problem by being humans that are, in many ways, more robotic than most of the droids we meet. In any case, there’s something a little unsettling about the whole thing, and it’s never properly addressed in the movies. The movies make you aware that they’re aware of this issue (on more than one occasion C3P0 complains about the treatment of droids), but they blatantly refuse to solve it.

Maybe I’m wearing out my welcome with examples, but one that’s always struck me as kind of important is the confused Nazi references. The Empire is clearly supposed to be some fearsome totalitarian force. Their apparent racial homogeneity (the Storm Troopers turn out to be clones, and we never see anyone who’s not white and male – and British, for that matter – in the upper ranks) makes the parallel explicit: these are Nazis. And yet, the scene that any movie critic will tell you is lifted directly from Triumph of the Will involves the Rebellion. It’s the medal scene at the end of A New Hope, when Luke, Han and Chewie (but not the droids! Even though they’re the ones who actually got the stolen plans off the transport…) get decorated for valor, or whatever. No one can miss the visual reference. YouTube has had a lot of fun with it. Maybe not everyone gets it explicitly or consciously – because hey, very few viewers in 1977 had actually seen Triumph of the Will. But that’s not the point – the point is that there’s something unmistakeably Nazi-esque about that medal scene. The stark lights on the stage, the banners, the fact that everyone turns in lockstep as our heroes approach down the aisle, that the music changes to something a little more military-march, even though we recognize the theme – any and all of these things tell you something’s not quite right here. On one level, your brain’s enjoying the feel-good award scene as the conclusion to an unabashedly fun movie where the good guys triumph against all odds in classic cinematic fashion. On another level, a completely different part of your brain is saying "I’ve got a bad feeling about this; something isn’t right here; just what are you trying to pull, anyway?" And that same part of your brain will have noticed that the good guys aren’t actually the unambiguous good guys. Luke doesn’t seem to care that his aunt and uncle were killed, for example. He treats droids like things. He’s whiny and entitled. Han, for that matter, is a criminal smuggler. And Leia – well, she seems to think she’s supposed to be in charge, and the Rebellion certainly treats her as though she were in charge, but nothing much justifies it. She’s a princess – and that’s it. But wait, aren’t we all Americans here? And isn’t this movie making an explicit point of that by giving the good guys American accents and the bad guys British accents? And yet, Leia speaks with a kind of (terrible) British accent in her first couple of lines, and she’s royalty. Didn’t we fight a war about not having royalty? Why is the monarchy better than the fascist order, exactly? I mean, they don’t seem to blow up planets, so I guess there’s that, but something in the back of my mind tells me I’m being offered a forced choice between two evils, and the Nazi imagery isn’t helping to keep it quiet.

Now, I’m not trying to go down the rabbit hole of guessing what Star Wars‘ politics are. For the record, I suspect they’re monarchist/elitist, but I also suspect they’re not the main point. What’s really going on here is that what set the original three Star Wars movies apart from every other blockbuster, special-effects-splosion (and, let’s keep this real, Star Wars as good as created the genre) extravaganza wasn’t JUST the technical wizardy, the mythological sensibilities and the unashamedly escapist and juvenile (I mean that as a compliment) heroes-vs-bad-guys plots – it was that it really took you out of your world into one that was both familiar and alien. The Uncanny was the whole bleeding point. They have good guys and bad guys just like we do, but their idea of good guys isn’t exactly the same as ours. Droids are humans, but they’re not. We recognize the Cantina on Mos Eisley as a bar, but it’s populated by alien species we know nothing about. Do all aliens drink in bars, come to think of it? The band playing there is playing music that seems singularly out of place for a rough joint. Luke complains that the Millenium Falcon is a "piece of junk,’ and we guess it is, if he says so, but we have no way of knowing that for ourselves since we don’t know how to compare space ships. It rings true that a smuggler you hire in a bar will be driving something a few notches off of top of the line, and yet the thing looks pretty damn cool to us. Chewie and R2 play something that looks like Chess, but it isn’t Chess. It’s some circular game with lots of holograms. It has rules, because C3P0 tells us that R2 "made a fair move," but damned if we know what they are. By the way, droids play Space Chess for fun. What was great about Star Wars was that it lingered on the little details like that and got them right. This world is marvelous to us, but it’s ordinary to the people who live in it. The Uncanny was the point.

Abrams and Kasdan made a movie that owes so much to A New Hope that you sometimes wonder if a shot-for-shot remake wouldn’t have been a better idea. Possibly to keep you from wondering that, they make some blatant changes here and there to convince you you’re watching a different movie that’s somehow the same. They want to comfort you at the same time they’re convincing you that this is new and going somewhere different. We’ll have to wait for the next two movies to see if they deliver on the "reboot" promise, of course, but the striking thing about this movie is that at every single turn without fail they make the wrong choice when altering things. Every single damn time they take something that was uncanny and make it conventional instead.

Let’s start with the hero. She’s clearly a lot stronger than Luke. Unlike the whiny kid we saw in A New Hope, the hero here is fully formed. Hell, she doesn’t even need Jedi training. She learns the Force is real, and suddenly she can perform the Jedi mind trick much better than Old Ben and even hold her own in a light saber battle against someone who’s been explicitly trained. Blech. I liked the callow kid better. The fact that he was annoying and didn’t seem to deserve what he got took me in to the movie by taking me out of it. In its strange way, it convinced me that this was real, because you know, real life is like that. You frequently meet people who do well for themselves but seem like they shouldn’t. When you read about your heroes they never turn out to be quite like you imagined them. So it goes.

And where did she come from? Well, she comes from a world where life is actually cartoonishly hard. She has to scavange for parts to sell for food to the only merchant in town. She seems better than this – so why does she stay? She stays because she’s expecting her family to come back. So this all seems plausible. A little TOO plausible. Luke’s situation, by contrast, makes less sense, but it sells itself better for it somehow. Uncle Owen is a farmer of some kind on a world where farming seems patently absurd. I think there’s some mention of him being a water farmer or something, but we didn’t really catch any kind of explanation. His job seems ridiculously hard for a civilization with the kind of technology we’ve seen on display. I mean, can’t they have solved the water-farming problem? Why does anyone actually live on this crazy dangerous planet? These are all good questions, and yet by not answering them the movie convinces us it has answers – because real life is like that too. An outsider looking at our own world would have a lot of the same questions. Go to Tokyo and marvel at the technology, and you would expect that Japan were the largest economy on the planet, but it’s not. Then go to backwater Africa and ask yourself why people live like this when people also live like they live in Tokyo. There are people – Bernie Sanders supporters – who really think these problems are easily solved, but we laugh at them because we know they’re not. We don’t really know why the world works the way it does – and we’re constantly trying to reason it out to make it better. Star Wars with its water farmers stuck in dead end jobs on backwater planets rings true. Force Awakens doesn’t – and it doesn’t because it both answers all of your questions and fails to provide any piddling details (like Aunt Beru making something that looks like bok choy in futuristic cooking equipment in a house that’s domestic but alien and seems both better and worse than where you live) to convince you.

Now let’s think about the Nazi thing again. In this movie, it’s clear who the good guys and bad guys are, both consciously and subconsciously. And it’s so thoroughly consistent that it strikes you as ridiculous, because again, we know that real life never actually works that way. We get an explicit Nazi scene in this movie too, but it’s squarely First Order that’s Nazi-esque. They give us plenty of reasons why the First Order is bad – we see them killing villagers to a man, just because. Evil! And in case you missed it, they make this an explicit plot point. Our Han Solo analogue – the guy who fit in to the status quo in his way but slowly wakes up to the need to change it, who is capable but adjacent to the real heroes and the real story – "wakes up" beacuse he starts to see the First Order for the evil they are. We never question, not even subconsciously, which side we should be on – and yes, as strange as it sounds, that actually is a problem.

You can go down the list for literally everything in this movie and perform the same exercise. It’s all rationalized … and therefore ridiculous. Because you can’t – you just can’t – make a fantasy movie convincing by covering all your bases. Fantasy, like magic, is sold mostly on gumption. Everyone at a magic show knows it’s not real, but they want to be amazed. That’s why the smoke and the lights and the magician’s voice … all that jazz … plays such an important role. The technical wizardry of the tricks is important, but it’s a step less important than how you sell it. Ditto comedy. The jokes matter – of course they matter. But they’re secondary to the delivery. That’s just how it is. It’s one thing to think of something funny, but quite another thing to get a laugh.

Force Awakens is like that. It’s a joke delivered by the joke writer rather than the comedian. A magic trick performed by the physicist who came up with it rather than David Copperfield. It wants so badly to convince us that its Star Wars that it forgets to be Star Wars. It very much is the solid C student who tries really hard but ultimately doesn’t get it.

This movie is a C+. No movie was ever more of a C+. It is the movie that the C+ grade was invented for. If I were training someone to write the TV and movie reviews that I write in the way that I write them using the same grading system that I use, this is the one that I would put on the shelf for reference in the C+ slot. I never been more confident in handing out a mark, for it is the very essence of C+: it tried really hard, it wants it really bad, it studied the subject long enough to pass the test, but never with any real interest or conviction. It’s a Star Wars movie by force of effort alone, but ultimately made by people who don’t care that much about making a Star Wars movie. It’s a movie made to be measured by a proxy: did the fans like it? Well of course they did – because you bleeding stocked every scene full of references to things they can nudge each other about. But absolutely none of those references do what they did in the original movies. In the original movie, we got a Chess game that was uncanny in being Chess but not being Chess. In this movie, we get a reference to that – a visual gag that literally is just "hey, remember that time when there was that cool space chess game? That was so cool!" And I feel like the teacher who has to give a student a C+. Because the teacher always hates that student, because the teacher senses the fraud, and yet we have to play by the rules or it’s arbitrary, right? So, Mr. J.J. Abrams, here you go. Here’s your C+. You earned it. And I hate you for it. Go fuck yourself.

Overall Rating C+

I want to type that again.

Overall Rating C+

2 thoughts on “The Force Awakens (Review)

  1. I really appreciate your arguments, though I differ that Abrams didn’t want to make a Star Wars movie – it’s painfully clear from his Star Trek movies that he desperately, desperately wanted to make a Star Wars movie. I think you’re right on the money that he doesn’t really know what makes a Star Wars movie beyond really lazy iconography and plot plagiarism (and he doesn’t even really do that correctly, since the Star Wars films are so episodic and this new one is classic zip zip zip).

    • You’re probably right. I keep reading that Abrams is a big Star Wars fan. He flat-out admitted that he didn’t know much about Star Trek before trying that on, but I guess Star Wars is something he actually really likes. Which just leaves me without a theory as to why Force Awakens fails in the ways that it does. At least it was more watchable than the prequels.

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