ON SEEING STAR WARS
STAR WARS: The Force Awakens is a triumph of technology, with the technology serving the telling of the story instead of overwhelming it. As has been noted in numerous reviews, this version returns to all of the elements that caused millions around the world to fall in love with the saga in the first place: Vast landscapes on distant and mysteriously beautiful worlds, a planetary saloon on the edge of nowhere inhabited by the detritus of the varied populations of disparate worlds in a galaxy far, far away, ancillary characters who range from charming to wise to icky to cute to creepy but never failing to interest and fascinate, and gallant heroes to cheer for and villains to boo. The film connects to Episodes IV, V and VI in ways that Episodes I, II and III never will (with the exception of Darth Maul who, for this action fan anyway, still ranks as the only villain who can rival Lord Vader himself.).
But, for all the incredible special effects and photography, the great stunt work, and soaring majesty of John Williams' score, the magic and wonder of Episode IV remains missing. To be sure that is in part because the "newness" of Star Wars itself has long since dissipated: Light sabers, the Millennium Falcon flashing through space at light speed, the spectacular destruction of giant war machines like the Death Star, dogfights in space, an unlikely ragtag gaggle of heroes -- all very familiar now, no longer new, in no matter how many variations the filmmakers may attempt. I get it. But, I think the reason - for me, at least - lies neither with the familiarity of the special effects or necessarily with the introduction of new characters. I was distracted by the construct of the dramatic narrative. The REASON for the journey our Protagonists undertake remains underwhelming. I had no personal stake in its outcome. I didn't feel pulled into it in anyway.
Yes, I know: The First Order has emerged from the ashes of the destroyed Empire and, now, thirty years later is on the brink of overthrowing the Rebels. The Dark Side of the Force has prevailed and there is only one thing that can stop it: a Jedi Master. But the last Jedi known to be alive has disappeared to another quadrant of the Galaxy. Many believe he is dead; the First Order fears he may still be alive. The Last Jedi must be found and killed. His death will destroy the spirit of the Rebellion and mopping them up will be a mere formality. Okay. Cool. Harkens back to Episode IV, when the idea was to find Obi Wan Kenobi. But, that is a goal in the story that must be achieved by characters whose journey we, the audience, will have to invest in, be compelled by and root for. And, um, none of that happened for me, because, t some point I was no longer clear about began whose story this was supposed to be. Rey? Po? Finn? Ultimately, the movie makes clear that Rey is the Protagonist, but by the time it does two thirds of the film has gone by, which creates a sense of relief for some and for others begs the question, “Geez, what took them (the writers and director) so long?” That was never a problem in Episode IV. The Point of View that drove Episode IV belonged to Luke Skywalker, even though the story did not begin with him. But, from the moment he falls in love with the holographic image of Princess Leia through his discovery of the bodies of his aunt and uncle, slain by the forces of the evil Galactic Empire, we know what drives this boy and we gladly go along with him because we want to know whether or not he will succeed; we are invested.
On the other hand, I was “invited” to travel along with Rey by the demands of the action in “Force Awakens”, but I was not invested. Rey is introduced to us as a salvager, an orphan living alone for who knows how long on a planet seemingly distant from the machinations of the First Order and its struggles against the Rebellion. She discovers a droid that is trapped in the net of another salvager. I still don’t get why she cares about its fate, no matter what it purports to say. Luke would not have really cared about R2D2 had he not seen the image of Leia. That’s what sets him on his journey. Why should Rey care about a droid, or the map stored in its files? They are inanimate objects. She could easily surrender the droid to the First Order, reap a reward and continue on her merry way. She’s a salvager. The subsequent extended series of action sequences required to cause her to become aware of the droid’s importance, while exciting to view, seem drawn out, perhaps even repetitive. And they shouldn’t.
Rey’s growing awareness of her inherent powers is compelling, so why wasn’t it allowed to be her primary motivation? And if the power to connect with the Force has been within her since birth, why hasn’t it manifested itself before this? Why this period in time? Why not yesterday? Why not two years ago? What is different? That question was not adequately answered for me.
The other lead character is, Finn, a Storm Trooper in the Army of the First Order. We learn that the First Order no longer depends on cloned soldiers, as did the Empire. The First Order grows its soldiers in test tubes, conditioning them as “combat units” from birth. These soldiers have no parents, no families, nothing to connect them to the rest of society beyond their society of soldiers. Their allegiance is to the State and to their commanding officers. When we first see him, Finn is assigned to a unit led by Kylo Ren, the chief villain. Their job is to find a map that will lead them to the Last Jedi. It is a very important mission. Possibly even Top Secret. Finn is, at first, all gung ho to do his duty as a soldier and then a close friend, one of the other troopers, is killed. Ren, being thorough, orders all of the captives killed, first because they hid away a potential enemy of the State, and two, they could betray his presence in the quadrant to the Rebels. Finn is appalled at the order and refuses to fire his weapon. Ren, detecting this “tremor” in the force, fixes his eye on Finn and lets him know he is being watched. Now, I am good with all of this but later in the movie Finn will reveal to another major character that his actual rank in the First Order’s army is not that of a Strom Trooper; that he had a lesser assignment, and rank. The moment is played for comedy and also heightens the intensity of an action sequence. My problem: Why would a low ranking soldier with virtually no combat experience be put into a fire squad whose job is to acquire one of the biggest secrets in the galaxy? You send your best soldiers, not your least experienced. A minor detail, perhaps, but a key one, because story logic is sacrificed at the expense of a “joke” that comes more than halfway through the entire movie, and really lends nothing new to our understanding of Finn as a person.
Kylo Ren, the villain in this and future episodes, is a Master in training. His teacher appears to be a new Emperor, visible to us only as a projected image that makes him appear to be fifty feet tall. His face is scarred and sunken to almost appearing to be a skull with dead skin stretched over its dead surface. Ren carries a terrible secret about his origins. It is a secret that ninety per cent of the audience, especially hardcore Star Wars fans, will quickly guess, and it raises a ton of questions, which promise to be answered in future episodes appearing in a theater near you in the coming years. But, again there is so much exposition that the forward motion of the story is weighed down and a climactic sword battle is, when it finally does arrive, perhaps twenty minutes late. The good thing, however, is that at the end of that sword fight you realize that the writers have given themselves an incredible opportunity to turn Ren into a fantastic villain in future episodes, one who will be capable, as did Vader, of carrying a movie on his shoulders for nearly as much time as the Protagonist, and we will enjoy the time we spend with him. Right now, though, not so much. Interestingly, the interpretation given to Kylo Ren’s character in this film is precisely what Anakin Skywalker should have been in the much-criticized Episode III.
The Force Awakens is a long, long-winded, morass of a film, highlighted by the emergence of two very likeable leading actors, the presence of dependable favorites, excellent special effects, another great score by John Williams and a suitably expansive vision from JJ Abrams, the director. But it is undone by the unevenness of the script. However, the film is already a box office smash. The screenwriters may be thinking to themselves that they’ll get it all right the next time – the mantra of writers the world over. May the Force be with them.