Fan Review: The Force Awakens

THERE BE SPOILERS HERE.

(Seriously…if you think you might see the film, and haven’t been spoiled, back away now.)

The day I bought my tickets for the film, I noted on Twitter that the last time I’d anticipated a Star Wars film this much was for Return of the Jedi, and added as a tag the plea, #PleaseDontSuck.”

I don’t think it did, and in fact, I liked much of it a great deal. But it also left me rather unsettled about the story they’re telling.

First, what I enjoyed in an unqualified way:

Rey:

The character test for me comes down to, ‘Do I like this person? Do I care about them? Do I want to see more of them?’ And the answer to all of those questions is yes. It’s interesting to me that she’s sort of a combination of Han (pilot, scavenger) and Luke (Jedi) and I liked her determination to get BB-8 back to the Resistance; I also enjoyed her interactions with Han. That job offer felt like a big deal, and in that sense, seeing her pilot the Millennium Falcon at the end was very satisfying.  Whatever comes later with Luke and being a Jedi, there was a bond between her and Han, and that matters to me.

I also liked her as a hero who happens to be a woman. I don’t view film stereotypes the way many do (I think there’s actually an anti-stereotype stereotype), but they do exist, and are problematic. Personally, I’m drawn to strong women characters, provided they’re not intentionally anti-female, both for myself, and my young nieces and nephews. (Since it’s as important for boys to see strong, interesting girls in primary roles as it is for girls to see them.)  And Rey qualifies.

Finn:

He, too, passes the character test. I thought the scene where we see him rebelling against his programming, while still hidden behind the mask, very well done. And his relationship with Rey also worked for me. No idea where they’re headed there, but it struck me that they’re alike in a key way: both of them have lacked someone to look out for them, to care about them.

Plus, he upsets the apple cart in terms of faceless, disposable troops (be they clones or brainwashed/kidnapped victims.) And that’s interesting to me.

Now for all the complicated stuff.

The Empire Strikes Back came out the summer after I graduated from high school, and was the first film I saw multiple times in the theater (eighteen times, which remained a personal record until LOTR.) I loved it for the humor, the plot twist (he’s Luke’s what?), the drama, the romance…and for the relationships in general.

Han Solo was my first slightly-complicated hero. I still prefer good guys to ‘bad boys,’ but Han taught me that what a person does at the end of the day is what matters, even when it’s packaged in sarcasm, cynicism, and apparent self-interest.  (Also: dear Powers That Be…with Han gone, one of the new characters needs to be a source of snappy, witty one-liners that will still be part of pop culture thirty years from now. Thank you.)

I was also fascinated by his relationships with the others.  With both Chewbacca and Luke, we see the bond that can grow between two very dissimilar men (or, er, man and Wookiee); with Leia, well, we’ll just say that I see echoes of their romance in all my favorite romantic stories.

(You’re figuring out how much I love Han Solo, right?)

That means I really liked much of this film, from his concern for Luke when Rey and Finn tell him what BB-8 was carrying, to his joy in the Millennium Falcon and those scenes with Leia.

With some reservations, I liked the basic plot – that his and Leia’s son chose the Dark Side. It turns out that in that galaxy, like this one, kids sometimes make the wrong choices for no good reason. (The films spent three installments explaining why Anakin succumbed; Ben seemingly needed no reason at all.)

And the effects of a child going bad on his parents might be …this. Each dealing with the loss in their own way, living separate lives, despite their love for one another; and neither one completely giving up on the child.

About the time Han confronted Ren (aka Ben, which is very sad to me), my inner alarm that something bad was getting ready to go down was going off, but even so, I was wholly unprepared for the gut-punch of that moment, or for the rush of renewed love I felt for Han when he caresses the face of the son who’s just killed him. And then we saw Leia stagger with the knowledge of what had just happened, and my heart broke.

All that aside, though, I’m conflicted about his death. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine the Star Wars universe without Han Solo in it; on the other, it ups the emotional stakes of the story. It’s not that we’ve not seen people we cared about die before – Obi Wan, Qui-Gon – but this is different.

But that’s good, right? When a film kills a beloved character, it means, as my friend Kirsty would say, ‘shit’s getting real.’ Han Solo is dead, so we have a Villain, ladies and gentlemen, with a capital ‘V.’  And the film needed that. The first six films told the story of Darth Vader, from his childhood, through his turn to the dark side, to his eventual redemption. Have to top that, somehow, with a worse-than-Vader villain, right?

I’m not sure they succeeded there. Part of my problem with the prequels was Anakin’s tantrums, because, darn it, I wanted falling to the dark side to be about more than adolescent mood swings gone bad, and it never really felt that way to me. This does, a bit, but still, Ren was a weak villain who got lucky, more than anything. He succeeded in killing Han because Han, his guard down, let him, not because he’s a formidable foe. But maybe that was the point? A not-terribly-scary villain deals us a devastating blow?

Whatever the plan was there, killing his father will presumably make him stronger, Dark-side-of-the-Force-wise, so…bad-ass dude. Now what?

And this is where I get stuck, because while I enjoyed much about the film, a voice in the back of my head kept whispering, ‘is there a new story here, apart from the idea that anyone can go bad?’

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: on a desert planet, a droid carrying critical info that must not fall into the hands of the bad guys instead winds up in the care of an unlikely young person unaware of their potential; there are adventures, including an alien bar, as they try to get the droid back where it needs to be; meanwhile, the bad guys wipe out a planet (or several) with their ‘fully armed and operational’…uh, Death Planet Starkiller; the guy who was becoming a mentor is murdered in front of the hero by his former protege/son, and there’s a big space battle where the Death-Star-on-steroids is blown up just in the nick of time. (That SFX of the beam shooting through space was a really cool effect, though.)

To me, The Force Awakens feels like a retelling of A New Hope combined with the first part of The Empire Strikes Back, only with luckier bad guys. And you know, that’s not an automatic deal-breaker. I love those films, and it’s sort of fun seeing the story play out with new characters.

And since I did like the film, pointing out the similarities makes me feel rather uncharitable, because as a general rule, I think it’s too easy to nitpick about where the line is between paying homage to something and in copying it. And perhaps that’s nowhere more obvious than with this film. Read any discussion of it online, and you’ll see plenty of comments from people who loved it because ‘it’s just like the original!’ as well as people criticizing it for the same reason. My brother, who was a fan before I was, loved it, in part for what he sees as ‘parallels’ to the original trilogy.

One fan’s parallel is another fan’s copy, I guess.

And there are also degrees. While a few of the, er, parallels resulted in at least partial eye-rolling from me, the Starkiller made sense. We’ve already seen that the bad guys in this galaxy don’t give up easily where Death Stars are concerned, so of course they’d try again in a bigger way.

From a writing perspective, J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan presumably felt like they were telling a significantly different story, just with lots and lots (and lots) of callbacks to the original trilogy, and that, too, gives me pause in not simply writing off the film as repetitive.

Maybe they’ll surprise me, and they really are telling a completely different story here than that of a young person, unaware they’re Force sensitive, becoming a Jedi in midst of an epic battle with a master/apprentice duo of the Dark Side. Or perhaps that is quite intentionally the story they’re telling, and it’s the characters and their relationships which will differentiate it.

If that is what they’re doing, what will it mean for the whole nine-part story? Won’t it sort of feel like the point is that there are no interesting stories in that galaxy except for whether or not young Jedi Knights choose the dark side over the light, and the consequences of that?

On the other hand, if they are telling a very different story that just happens to be similar in its beginning, where will it diverge? (Snark, because I can’t help myself: At least Rey didn’t find Luke in the Dagobah system…)

In one sense, it’s odd that I even care so much about that aspect of things. Generally, character matters much more to me than plot, so my primary interest in the sequel is what comes next for Rey, as well as how Luke and Leia deal with the fallout of Han’s death. I spent this film waiting for Luke to show up, and whatever my reservations are, I was moved when he turns and sees Rey at the end. After Han’s death, I’d had a moment or two of wondering whether I’d even want to see the next film, but that moment, which I thought more effective for not having any dialog, brought me back from that ledge.

I’m also planning to see this one again within the next few days. It’s quite often the case that a second viewing of something gives me a new perspective on it, and I’m interested to see if that happens here.

Bonus Quotes:

“Luke Skywalker? I though he was a myth.” (Rey)

***

“Women always figure out the truth. Always.” (Han)

***

“Is that possible?”
“I never ask that question until after we’ve done it.” (Rey, Han)

***

“I always hated watching you leave.”
“That’s why I did it. So you’d miss me.” (Leia & Han)

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