It’s probably impossible to quantify or fully articulate the impact that Star Wars has had on pop culture over the last forty years. Its imagery, characters, and many of its quotes are universally recognized and are bywords worldwide. With the unstoppable mega-machine of Disney merchandising now behind it, long-time Star Wars geeks are now having the strange experience of being marketed to with a vengeance, and civilians are being dragged down into Star Wars mania whether they want it or not.
Star Wars has already been the inspiration and subject matter of countless video games (not to mention novels, comics, audio plays, TV series, tabletop games, collectibles, etc), and it is absolutely guaranteed to be the subject of many more. With The Force Awakens we have already seen that movie’s impact on games, with special missions in the new Battlefront and a suite of Star Wars characters in Disney Infinity, as well as multiple mobile games.
With this trend sure to continue, gamers inspired to dig more deeply into the Star Wars universe may be rewarded for their diligence, as core story elements and characters from both the new movies being helmed by Disney, and the classic movies helmed by Lucas, become the settings and inspiration for new games yet to come.
There’s a wealth of existing Star Wars lore to explore, but for those eager for new Star Wars material to chomp on, beware… scratching below the surface of The Force Awakens may reveal that there isn’t quite as much new material there as one might think.
As a life-long Star Wars obsessee, to say that I was “curious” about what new Star Wars would look like under the Disney umbrella would be an enormous understatement. I would absolutely self-identify as a serious fan. Perhaps too serious. It’s quite possible that those purists or hardcore fans who like to consider themselves Star Wars scholars will find more to critique than to enjoy in The Force Awakens – and that more critical point of view was something I wanted to explore in a brief moderately-sized obsessee-sized editorial.
BE WARNED: this editorial spoils just about everything that could possibly be spoiled about The Force Awakens. So if you are one of the patient few who have not yet seen the movie and do not wish to be spoiled, you absolutely must turn back right now.
What The Force Awakens Accomplished
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Disney Studios and J.J. Abrams set out to show that they could make a new Star Wars movie homage to prove that a 2015 Star Wars experience could deliver the same magical, adventurous, entertaining experience that A New Hope once delivered to an unsuspecting world. At this goal, The Force Awakens succeeds admirably. It is a very well executed and realized homage to the classic, and as such, a delightful bit of fan service for the fans, and an introduction to the uninitiated that will allow them to understand why Star Wars once took the world by storm.
In fact, The Force Awakens is so successful as an homage to the classic, it’s like a walk down memory lane. One might even go so far as to say it is outright déjà vu, as fans find themselves treading a familiar path through the movie, experiencing the warm and fuzzy sensation of getting to see the old and familiar in snazzy new clothing. (And if in the course of reading the following description of the plot you find yourself wondering whether you’re in 1977 or in 2015, don’t worry – there’s a very good reason that your time sense is confused, as the following should illustrate…)
The opening crawl of The Force Awakens introduces us to a nebulous but expansive evil faction and army, a brave resistance, and a daring mission into which we are dropped mid-execution. The bad guys are arriving, and our resistance agent must place a critical piece of digital data into the safe keeping of a small droid, which has a better chance of escaping capture than its human counterpart. The droid is left to wander a desolate desert world in the hope of somehow executing the mission with which it has been entrusted.
Meanwhile, left behind, the droid’s master is captured by a battalion of white-armored Stormtroopers under the command of a tall, black-robed, masked, mechanically voiced Dark Side Force-user absolutely intent on recovering the digital data the rebel agent has worked so hard to acquire. But he will have to make do with his resistance prisoner instead, and back aboard the Bad Guys’ ship the Dark Side Force-user will try to interrogate his prisoner, only to find this rebel agent surprisingly resistant to conventional interrogation techniques.
Mr. Dark Side is intent on breaking his prisoner, but his non Force-using military counterpart – a straight-laced military man devoted to the cause but uniquely not intimidated by Mr. Dark Side even while his underlings quake in their boots at the idea of delivering failure reports – does not approve of Mr. Dark Side’s arcane methods and personal goals, and feels he himself is better and more prosaically equipped to execute their Evil Overlord’s designs. (Evil Overlord – a bald, melty-faced pale man – obviously is occupied elsewhere in the galaxy with mysterious Dark Side business and must convey his commands to his underlings via hologram, leaving them to squabble over methodology amongst themselves.)
Back on the desert world, the little droid with the vital digital data is wandering the sands until he is captured by a small, faceless, local life form intent on profiting from the droid as mechanical scrap. But the droid escapes this fate thanks to the timely intervention of a young desert local who is barely scraping by on this hardscrabble world and is keenly aware that if there is a bright center to the galaxy they have long been stuck on the world it is furthest from. It doesn’t take long before the young desert local learns that the droid is working for the resistance and has vital information it needs to see delivered to its master.
Soon enough, Mr. Dark Side discovers that the missing droid has the digital data, and that it must be on the desert world below. Stormtroopers are sent down to the planet to search for the droid, and they obviously begin by screening the locals. With the help of a newly acquired ally, the young desert local – now turned idealistic adventurer – escapes the arid planet aboard the Millennium Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. They are now underway with the intent to deliver the droid to the resistance, but they will not be able to accomplish this task without the aid of smuggler Han Solo and his Wookiee partner. Fortunately for Han Solo, this idealistic adventurer is his unexpected and quick ticket to escape from the clutches of his impatient creditors.
Now all together aboard the Falcon, this motley crew will discuss whether or not the Force and the Jedi are real. The young idealistic adventurer will eventually prove themselves enough that Han Solo will invite them to stay aboard as part of his crew, but the young idealist is intent on chasing the legacy of their long-lost family, and on aiding the resistance cause, and therefore must refuse. But before talk about the future will really matter, they must first survive their mission to deliver the droid safely – a mission that will be cut short by the machinations of Mr. Dark Side and his Stormtroopers. (Although not before the motley crew gets in a drink at a seedy cantina filled with never before seen aliens revealed in a long sequence of jumping camera shots, which include a small creature exchanging a glass at a bar and a band of bizarre alien beings playing a chipper tune.)
After a fair amount of blaster fire, the little droid is finally delivered into the hands of the resistance. At this point, Han Solo must decide whether or not to give up the self-interested and short-sighted life of a smuggler in order to embrace a more meaningful cause, and move beyond tense bickering with rebel-leader Leia to something more romantic. But once the battle-briefing is under way, Han Solo can’t help but speak up with a daring plan, and volunteer for the mission in spite of himself. It’s probably a good thing too; his pizzazz will be needed because all he’ll have to support him is a suicidally brave batch of X-Wing pilots intent on exploiting a small structural weakness in a spherical planet-sized super-weapon that can destroy whole worlds with one red laser beam. And in fact, the Bad Guys have decided to make a statement to the resistance and those worlds who would support them by blowing up some planets just so that the message gets across: “Fall into line, you mealy-mouthed punks! We have a big planet-sized weapon with the word ‘star’ in its name!”
While the daring attack on the super-weapon structure is being executed, many things will happen: X-Wing pilots will drop like flies during an attack mission that culminates in a trench run down the super structure with a single pilot making the crucial final shot; the young idealistic adventurer will fully accept that they have a connection to the Force and use it deliberately for the first time in their life; and… most critically… the older man whom the adventurer-turned-proto Jedi has come to love and admire as a role model and guide will be killed right before their eyes, by none other than the tall black-robed Dark Side user (who also has an old and deeply personal connection to the man they’ve just killed, an act which cuts the final tie between their brighter past and their dark present). Thus a critical enmity is sealed, and the proto Jedi is left bereft of a guide and grimly determined to embrace the fate that awaits them, now ready to seek out a new teacher.
It all makes for a really great story and an adventurous, magical romp to watch… again.
Newcomers to the Star Wars saga just got a treat, but the millions of people familiar with A New Hope will have to wait a while longer to get a story they have not in fact already seen. At least they will have the undeniable thrill of seeing the Falcon and X-Wings fly again to tide them over.
As an homage, The Force Awakens is flawless. It has all the visual spectacle, colorful characters, and witty dialogue exchanges of the original. Like the very best of fan service, it gives us what we already love, dressed up in subtly different but thematically identical outfits and more witty dialogue exchanges.
However, as a new chapter to the Star Wars story, The Force Awakens… isn’t.
If the intent behind The Force Awakens was to prove that J.J. Abrams could execute Star Wars well, by virtue of being an excellent homage to the 1977 experience as down payment on future installments to come – future installments which will then (and now with fans’ faith and confidence that the magic can indeed be recreated) proceed to break into new territory and an original story – then the movie succeeded.
If, on the other hand, The Force Awakens was meant to be a not-utterly-predictable addition to the Star Wars canon, to break fresh ground, then the movie failed.
Either way, perhaps there is still hope. In Star Wars, hope is a famous word and as fans we must embrace it. The Kessel Run is measured in parsecs; Star Wars fans’ hope is measured in years. Two years, to be precise – Episode 8 is promised in 2017. Abrams proved he could do a great homage, so now we’ll see if Rian Johnson can actually give us a new adventure.
The degree to which Johnson can do that, however, will be limited by how much of the plot of the next two movies has already been pre-decided. There is great risk, given that the plot so far has been set up as practically identical to A New Hope, that the natural progression of the story as it currently stands will take us through the same basic events we’ve already seen in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – with Luke (or someone) confessing to Rey that in fact they are her real parent, and with Kylo Ren dying in the arms of a family member at the moment of his redemption, admitting that there was still good in him after all. The script that Rian Johnson is given to work with will determine much, and we can only hope that the writers will be brave enough to break away from the homage and try something new.
The Force Awakens bought time and hope from the fans. Now it’s up to the next team to deliver on that promise.
Five Missed Opportunities
This section is titled missed opportunities, because it would be a little too harsh to call them outright errors or missteps, although in my opinion some tread that line very closely. But below, in reverse order, are some areas which I believe would have, if firmed up and better delivered, added some much needed dimension and emotional punch to The Force Awakens experience.
5. THE REPUBLIC – Even in A New Hope, at a time when audiences had never before glimpsed a Galactic Republic far, far away, the idea of the Republic as a great civilization was more present than it was in The Force Awakens. In A New Hope, Admiral Tarkin takes pains to discuss the dissolution of the old Senate as the culmination of two decades worth of Imperial effort. Obi-Wan Kenobi rhapsodizes about a more civilized age, its lost guardians, and the great war that was needed in order to bring it to a close. The entire Rebel Alliance is willing to sacrifice all in a painful, protracted, underdog battle to restore that great civilization.
But in The Force Awakens, all that Luke, Leia and Han fought for is… barely remarked upon (and never once by the good guys), and effectively invisible. In the effort to so completely echo the original trilogy, The Force Awakens provided us with a “resistance,” but without giving us any idea what they were fighting for. Tarkin’s successor (unremarkable enough in comparison to his craggy predecessor that his name never lodged in this reviewer’s brain; perhaps he needed a spitfire princess to announce it with disdain to make it stand out) speaks passionately about a Republic that shelters the Resistance and should be punished, but there is a disconnect to that concept that is not quite obscured by his tears of fervor or an ocean of saluting troopers.
Where is this Republic anyway? If a galaxy-spanning Republic has been restored, how in blazes is the First Order being left so free to act unopposed? Why is a ragtag resistance group the only thing the entirety of the New Republic can muster? Or did the whole Imperial military appartus defect to the First Order, leaving the New Republic with, apparently, nothing at all? And if that’s the case, how has only a small Resistance prevented it from reconquering everything? Otherwise, if it took the Empire two decades and the vast resources of a galaxy-spanning government to create the Death Star, where exactly is the First Order getting its funding and materials and institutions of industrialized manpower and military machinery?
While these may seem, on the surface, like the sorts of concerns only a hardcore nerd would bother with, I would argue that it fundamentally makes the movie’s entire setting much too fragile. In A New Hope, the story was about the Rebel Alliance’s fight against the enemy, yes. That is also true in The Force Awakens. But where A New Hope managed to convey a sense of nostalgia for a civilized age that needed to be restored (all the more remarkable given that it was a civilization never seen by the audience), The Force Awakens attempts simply to side-step the question of the greater galactic setting altogether (an all the more bizarre absence given that the audience has now already seen glittering Coruscant and the vast technological reach of the Republic-turned Empire-turned New Republic).
As a general story-telling rule of thumb, in a hero story the Bad Guys’ cause should not get more screen time and speechifying than the Good Guys’ cause, and setting is important. It’s not enough for the Rebel Alliance Resistance to just have something they’re fighting against. Heroes in stories are defined by their causes, and no story is more archetypal in this regard than Star Wars. It would have been kind of nice to catch a glimpse of what the Resistance was trying to protect, after all the struggling our heroes did (three whole movies of it, in fact) to rebuild it.
4. MAZ KANATA – You wanted the Yoda homage. We understand. A small, weird looking alien to deliver both humor and soulful wisdom, with a message to set the hero (who will, of course, not heed the advice) on their destined path. But as a Yoda homage, Maz Kanata fell far, far short. In her defense, Yoda is truly iconic. You’re just not going to compare. Why you would choose to emulate the iconic rather than create something different, only those involved in the production could say. But the following might have helped to sell Maz better:
- An explanation. There was no mystery about why (once his identity was revealed) Luke should listen to Yoda; they outright told us: he was the Jedi Master who had once trained Obi-Wan, the last repository of Jedi wisdom and power for the hero to draw on. Why, on the other hand, are we supposed to believe in Maz? Telling us absolutely nothing of significance about her only serves to make her feel insignificant.
- Yoda transitioned between whimsical imp and wizened sage with a Gollum-like proficiency that made his moments of solemnity all the more striking. A character of extremes needs extremes. If Maz was meant to be as charmingly eccentric as Yoda, then she was ultimately a little too muddy to sell either extreme well.
- A character meant to be earthy and soulful probably would have benefited from not being CGI, guys. Didn’t we learn that lesson with the prequels? When this character is staring into Finn’s eyes and making speeches about eyes being the window to the soul, her own artificial CGI orbs probably shouldn’t be the close-up visual gimmick we are calling attention to.
3. FINN – The character who doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If, as he claims, he was taken as a child and given to the military machine of the First Order, apparently trained his whole life to be a faceless cog in the Stormtrooper machine, the following questions can’t help but arise:
- Where does this extreme discomfort with military conformism come from?
- Wait, Jakku was his first battle? Huh? If janitors don’t normally get battlefield time, one is left wondering what sort of personnel shortage caused his deployment on such a critical mission. Judging by the ocean of Stormtroopers saluting Ginger!Tarkin, the First Order isn’t exactly lacking for manpower.
- Why doesn’t Finn give a **** about his brother troopers being slaughtered by Resistance X-Wings? Even a man whose conscience spurred him to desert surely wouldn’t be whooping and cheering the people murdering the men who had been his life-long comrades in arms only one day earlier… right?
- What, did all First Order Stormtroopers receive advanced training in archaic hand-to-hand weaponry? Because he’s pretty inexplicably and instanteously handy with that lightsaber. Your attempt at a faceless female Fett-in-the-making Stormtrooper commander had best be seen drilling troopers in vibroblade combat in the next movie, is all I’m saying.
- Wait, is this guy actually a plant? An unwitting, unknowing spy with a sleeper command a la Order 66 that will trigger at a critical moment in the second movie? I shouldn’t have to be making up reasons to explain him, guys…
- For a guy who didn’t even have a name until 24 hours ago, Finn sure expresses a lot of quirks and individualized personality, doesn’t he? Well, if that’s the unrealistic tack you want to take, all right. Except:
- Does this guy have any personality beyond being the deliverer of bumbling humor? It would be unfair to say he’s only there to fill the comic relief role… or would it really? The fact that his vocabulary does not include the word “meesa” is a saving grace, but it’s a shame that his character needed a saving grace for lack of defining character traits elsewhere.
2. REY’S PROFICIENCY WITH THE FORCE – A trap that writers tasked with writing sequels often fall into is believing that the only way to move forward is to outperform. Heroes in sequels too often do everything their predecessors did, exactly as their predecessors did them, except better, and bigger, and faster. Aside from being a lazy writing crutch, this also has the unfortunate side-effect of trivializing the struggles and accomplishments of the heroes who came before.
Luke had to train hard to become a Jedi. It took him three movies. We saw them. In fact, the journey of his Jedi training was the story. He never spontaneously manifested abilities without first receiving some guidance or seeing an example in action. And whatever else he might have been, we were told very clearly that he was strong in the Force.
Early in The Force Awakens, Rey reveals that she had come to believe the Jedi weren’t even real, that they were only a story. And yet, within a day of having spoken those words, she has suddenly developed the ability to resist mental invasion, to perform the Jedi Mind Trick (let alone know such a thing was even possible), and to spontaneously manifest lightsaber fighting skills.
One can only hope that these remarkable achievements of spontaneous Force-use will be addressed in Episode 8, because if they are not they have managed to achieve several negative things all at once: to trivialize Luke’s journey in the previous three movies; to make Rey’s evolution less believable and very rushed; and to befuddle and frustrate legions of fans who have invested a lot of love into the idea that Jedi training is an involved affair with a massive mythos built up around it.
While the last point may not seem objectively relevant to the quality of a movie not beholden to fans’ fetishes, the idea of training being important still has traction in the context of The Force Awakens itself, a movie in which Luke’s training of a new Jedi Order has already been mentioned as pivotal, and in which our already powerful villain is questioning his own training and is recalled for training as a key point of transition into the next movie.
Now… if Rey is in fact Luke Skywalker’s mystery daughter, abandoned on Jakku to protect her from Snoke and Kylo’s attack on the New Jedi Order, left in the keeping of the nameless old Jakku villager who gives Poe the map, with only her father’s Rebel Alliance pilot helmet and piloting lessons to remember him by, and a vague memory of stories about Jedi and about things she had once been told Jedi could do and maybe even some childhood training she had come to think she’d only imagined but now remembers… then… OK… I guess. Predictable, but at least that would be an explanation. Some kind of explanation would be nice.
As a woman who, in childhood, pretended to be Luke’s other sister who did become a Jedi because she longed so badly to see a girl with a lightsaber… well, as that girl-turned-woman, I am thrilled to see Rey kicking ass and taking center stage as the new movies’ main Jedi hero. But here’s the thing: she was already kicking ass with her staff and her junkyard skills. I would have bought her as a hero even if she hadn’t been instantly proficient with the Force, even if she had had to survive that fight with Kylo Ren by the skin of her teeth and gotten away on luck. Or perhaps even (more interestingly) if, instead of meditating her way into Jedi serenity with no precedent or training, she’d only survived that fight by tapping instinctively into the Dark Side of the Force, driven by her fear and sorrow and desperation. Coming back from that would have been an interesting plot point for the next movie, with Luke trying to help her unlearn what she had learned as he himself once had to do, under Yoda’s tutelage. That at least would have been an homage to the original that was thematically appropriate.
After all, the heart of a Hero’s Journey story is the journey from farmerhood to badassness. Spontaneous power manifestation is briefly entertaining, but not nearly as fulfilling a story in the long term.
1. HAN’S FINAL MOMENTS – Here is the biggest opportunity Abrams and Kasdan missed. Their choice to kill Han might be regarded as ballsy and risky, or it might be seen as totally predictable given how blatantly the plot of Episode 7 mirrored that of Episode 4; maybe it was both at once. Either way, they were banking on the audience’s grief, but what they missed was the power that a proper farewell to Han Solo would have had. Falling down bottomless pits is a faceless end reserved for villains at the moment of their ignominious death. You throw Palpatine down a shaft, but not Han Solo.
Let’s imagine, for a few moments, what we might have felt if we had seen some version of the following instead:
Kylo/Ben runs his father through on a narrow bridge without rails over a bottomless chasm (proving yet again that the Star Wars galaxy lacks any form of building codes or safety regulations). Rather than tipping the body of a beloved icon over the side as if it were no more significant than a video game ragdoll death display, Kylo instead lets his father’s body slide slowly off his pulsing lightsaber onto the bridge at his feet.
He stares down into his father’s dimming eyes, and then, incrementally, the anguish in Kylo/Ben’s face starts to melt away. Now a colder expression begins to build; each twitching facial muscle, as it becomes still, is a step toward cementing and embodying the callous darkness he was seeking to attain with this act of severing his last tie to goodness and light. We witness this transformation in his face, and when he turns away from his father’s death to stride off and address the wailing sirens and his base under attack, all signs of Ben Solo are now gone and he is truly Kylo Ren at last.
And now here comes Chewbacca, howling with rage, mowing down every Stormtrooper in his path. Amidst explosions and violence and sound, the giant Wookiee finally reaches his fallen friend and slides down to his knees, pulling Han into his lap, pawing at him with his furry hands and moaning in desperation. Han, with his last strength, manages to pat feebly at Chewbacca’s hand.
“Looks like…” Han says with great difficulty, his eyes glassy as he tries to focus on his partner’s face above him, “… no more… life debt… buddy.”
Chewbacca moans again and shakes his shaggy head in adamant denial.
“ ‘S ok,” Han murmurs. “We had… a good run. You’ve gotta… forgive him. For me. And… take care… of Leia. Tell her I… tried… and that I… I…”
And with his final declarations of love and hope and regret unsaid, Han Solo falls still, his wise-cracking, beloved voice never to quip again. Chewbacca throws back his head and keens in pure anguish. Then, with the base exploding all around him and his companions above calling out their own shock at this death and calling also for him to join them in their urgent need for escape, Chewbacca slowly stands, lifting the body of his old friend. And, with the firestorm below the bridge rising higher and the need for speed upon him, the great Wookiee slowly, reverently, gives Han Solo’s body to the flames.
Later, when the Millennium Falcon returns to the Resistance, and Leia – who has felt Han’s death through the Force – is slowly approaching a disembarking Chewbacca, this old Wookiee, Han’s oldest friend, Leia’s old protector, and undoubtedly the guardian of young Ben before he turned bad, does not walk right past her without a single glance in favor of following after some ex-Stormtrooper he barely knows. Instead, Leia is enfolded in big Chewie arms, and the only two people in the galaxy who could share the same level of grief over this loss take one freakin’ moment to commiserate before Leia then moves on to comfort the girl she only met earlier today and knows next to nothing about.
But maybe, ultimately, the most important relationship to consider, when it comes to the death of an icon, is the audience’s relationship with that icon. Our love for him. Our tears, which the movie is trying to get out of us. We needed to farewell Han – and for that we needed him to have a dignified exit scene.
This author, at least, mourned the absence of a proper tearful farewell to the character more than even the death of the character himself, whose end was both predictable and far too sudden – and too suddenly over – to really penetrate. Maybe repeat viewings will do the trick. But if you need repeat viewings to elicit tears at the death of Han freakin’ Solo, then you did something very wrong. Even Qui-Gon Jinn got more final moments than Han did, with the opportunity to pass a last message on to a loved one, and coming in second to the prequels’ execution is not the position one wants to be in.
Take a note, Episode 8 and Episode 9 production teams. When Anakin Skywalker died, he had a touching moment when he looked upon his son’s face with his own eyes and said farewell. Han Solo deserved no less. And if you plan to kill off any other iconic characters, please make sure they don’t get dumped off a bridge without the chance for some final words. To paraphrase the inimitable Ackbar: I don’t think my heart could repel (or forgive) another missed opportunity of that magnitude.