Give ’em the old Razzle-Dazzle…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfectly acceptable, run-of-the-mill Hollywood Action movie. It’s fine brain candy, nothing too exciting or interesting, but very pretty. There’s no need to go out of your way to see it, but grab some friends and kill some time (maybe on a discount night) and see a fun film.
However, since Star Wars is woven into the cultural zeitgeist as tightly as it is, people seem hell bent on insisting it is better than it is to justify the nostalgia hit it gives them.

This isn’t particularly spoiler-filled, but I am not going out of my way to avoid spoilers here, so if you want to back out now, you probably should. If you like a more spoiler-filled version that makes many of the same points, go check out my friend Andrew Collas (The Grumpy Old Gamer). His YouTube review has a similar critique, but he goes into more story specifics.

Visually, the film is lovely. It looks like Star Wars, it moves like Star Wars, and it has the wonderful, lived-in feel to the technology, locale, and universe. It is clear JJ Abrams and company really wanted to make sure everything felt and looked right, and took clear delight in making it. There are a few CGI-based elements that are a little weaker, but I can’t complain too much there.

John Williams adds a new soundtrack and it swoops and soars and roars triumphantly with gleeful abandon.

The acting is mostly strong. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are a delight to watch as Rey and Finn, and I expect both to go on to be big stars. Oscar Isaac is also wonderful, in the lesser-used part of Poe Dameron.  I really expect I would love a story about them.

A shame I didn’t get one.

The problem ultimately falls on JJ Abrams’ belief that set pieces and emotional beats are all that are needed for a film, and pesky things like actually crafting a story are just annoyances that get in the way.

The result is a film that tells instead of shows, uses shots of cheap nostalgia to cover for lazy writing, and never creates any actual emotional investment in the people in the story. Give the crowd some nostalgia, make it familiar and safe, and use the fact fans will fill in the emotional heft for you and even better convince themselves they aren’t doing it.

No one is well served by the writing here.

The saddest case is probably Rey. Given the chance to write a female lead as the center of a Star Wars movie, it instead gives us a character who never has to earn a victory. She’s a JJ Abrams patented “Mystery Box Woman”, and he can’t even be bothered to hint at a resolution (probably because he doesn’t know and figures someone else has to deal with it anyway). She has no arc and nothing to do, existing almost as a plot device in her own story.  It is only Ridley’s wonderful screen presence that finds ways to make her someone you want to side with rather than a source of actual frustration.

Finn at least gets a character arc of sorts, sketchy as it is. We still get more things told than shown, but at least they seemed to try with Finn.

The movie gives gives far too much screen time to Han Solo instead of letting him pass the torch to a new generation, and fails to justify that heavy presence by actually building an emotional arc that merits it. Instead, he gets quips and one liners to keep him “charming” and remind people why they have great affection for the character, so that he can be used for an emotional scene later without having to actually write an arc building to it.

And finally, poor Kylo Ren has his legs completely cut out from under him as a villain. He starts off well, and even gets the potential for an interesting twist on a classic Star Wars set up (a villain tempted by the light side rather than a hero tempted by the dark) that they simply can’t be bothered to actually craft. The movie  even botches something that was supposedly a “big reveal” with both awkward dialogue and dropping it in casually too early and without build up. In the end, Ren comes off as ineffectual and useless, actually becoming less effective and threatening right after the big moment that should have pushed him to a new level. He never ends up as a menace worth defeating, he doesn’t come across as someone it is important to face again later, and is effectively a wasted opportunity. Maybe that’s the point, as a parallel to Anakin and Luke as whiny teens. As it stands, however, the fact the film implies he will return, and therefore possibly become more compelling, is maybe the only thing that keeps him from being less relevant than Darth Maul, who never even had dialogue.

JJ Abrams can’t understand why you would give up a set piece if you can get to the emotional beat with a short cut instead of actual story. He’s efficient that way. If nostalgia means people will be invested, then why on earth would you give the audience an actual in-movie reason to be invested – that just wastes time. You can see where all the elements for a good story are here, but actually spending the time to craft a real script would get in the way of set pieces, and JJ Abrams loves his set pieces.

Even with the set pieces the movie is surprisingly lazy. People remember there being a desert planet, let’s give them a desert planet! People remember there being an ice planet, let’s give them snow! People remember the Death Star, give them a bigger one! Give them a trench run! It again feels like just tagging on a nostalgia hit to make sure the audience is on your side. The actual scenes are wonderfully done, but it is hard not to notice him trying very hard to hedge his bets with fan service. (There is one location that looks new and fresh and interesting – they of course destroy it almost immediately.)

It isn’t a bad movie, really, just lazy and pedestrian. The “write beat to beat” style is a common one in Hollywood these days, and especially with a dedicated fan base, an effective one because they will paper over the flaws themselves since character identification is more important to most than story. It is gorgeous and fun. It clears the very low bar of being better than the prequels. It is probably the third or fourth best main Star Wars film depending on exactly how you rate Return of the Jedi. Like Jedi, it does the job without embarrassing itself, but it isn’t a particularly good film.  A 7 out of 10, and hopefully the next one has a real story with Abrams no longer involved.


UPDATE: After some discussion with a reader and being pointed to this piece by Charlie Jane Anders, I edited out the reference to “Mary Sue” for Rey. The term probably does have too much baggage and needs to be pushed back to a specific fan fiction usage. I disagree with Anders on Kylo Ren as Rey’s “teacher” – I only think one scene justifies that reading. (It is, in fact, the scene I thought most effective in showing us using her force powers, and if the rest had been done that way, I would have had no complaints.)

  • Andrew Collas
    December 21, 2015

    I disagree with your editing out of the “Mary Sue” term, since it fully applies to her and that article you linked to did nothing to convince me otherwise.

    1] She is better at everything than everyone else

    2] All the characters look at her with awe and wonder, Leia, not even knowing who the fuck she is gives he a big warm motherly hug at the end.

    3] Come on, she is either Abrams avatar in the movie of Kasdan’s, but either way she IS an actual Mary Sue.

    Riddely does an amazing job with what she is given, but the more I think about it, the more I feel she was a Mary Sur.

    Good essay sir.

    • lightcastle
      December 24, 2015

      Well, not to derail into an extended discussion of Mary Sue-dom, but I’m fine with the argument for keeping it as a fan-fiction term.
      I’m also not convinced about 3, but that is always the trickiest point to prove, I think.

      A more interesting argument for me is that given this is Abrams playing in Lucas’s world, does it actually qualify as “ascended fan-fic” in some way?

      The Leia thing kind of annoyed me. I totally get it as a “passing of the torch” moment, but CHEWIE IS RIGHT THERE! That should have been a scene for Chewie and Leia. Add Rey in as they accept her as family, sure, but don’t disrespect the relationship of Chewie and Han.

  • Michael
    December 28, 2015

    Hey Laurent – nice review, and I have to say I agree with much of it, and particularly the overall thrust…

    Some reactions:

    I think the stormtrooper captain in the silver suit was a character that went nowhere – they probably should have merged her in with one of the “new Tarkins” that kept going to see Snoke with Kylo Ren to fill it out a bit, and considering it was a name actor in the part, they could have unhelmeted her as well, no?

    Snoke was distracting for a simpler reason – although I knew it was Serkis with mocap dots, why did they choose to make him look exactly like Bill Nighy? Maybe I’d just heard too much about it going in but it was really really distracting to me.

    The whole “who’s who” puzzle was pretty poorly done as well – either they told the punchline too early or kept it too secret (while not really secret at all). When the big reveal happens next movie you know it’s going to be a disappointment…

    Last – do union rules *allow* you to put an actor in the credits who didn’t have a single word of dialogue?

    Anyhow you’re right that they got the tone bang on for the most part and it was fun to watch… but missing some major pieces at the core. It kind of had me wistfully wishing for some of the extra-complex politics of the prequels at times.

    Oh and BB8 was worse than Jar Jar Binks.

    • lightcastle
      December 30, 2015

      I agree Phasma was a bit of a waste, although from everything I understand they decided to make them a name actor and give them an actual name late in the game. So I figure this is one case of just establishing someone is there to use them later.

      Still, they could have done something more with the character. At least made them fight back instead of quietly submitting to dropping the shield.

      I thought we could have seen less Snoke to keep him more mysterious, but in the end I think he was a pretty minor problem.

      I’m not sure which who’s who you are talking about. The Ren one was botched horribly, and by not doing anything with Rey it is just going to be a let down if they then do make her a Skywalker or something.

      I would have appreciated even a token effort at politics, but people should only do complex politics if they are good at it.

      I disagree about BB-8.

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