Star Wars means a lot to me.
As I stated in my first blog for Gaming AM, the way it influenced me as a child altered my perception of escapist pop culture forever and, more importantly, how I consume it. This is one of the reasons I grew to dislike the prequels with such disdain the more I considered them. Apart from their many narrative flaws, they suffered from a far more egregious problem: their few strengths were not enough to overcome their numerous weaknesses.
I couldn’t, in the end, forgive the prequels for their sins. There was no redemption, no return to the light, for these three accursed Sithspawn. Which isn’t to say that good things haven’t come from the wreckage of George Lucas’ misbegotten effort to whitewash our affection for the classic trilogy by burying us in prequel pap.
There were entertaining video games, novels and comic books aplenty set during the prequel era. None of them were perfect, but they were engaging enough that they helped increase awareness of the positive aspects of their source material and help us see them in a more pure light, separated from the murky quagmire of George Lucas’ technologically advanced but spiritually vacant storytelling.
The prequels gave us a great animated TV show called Star Wars: Clone Wars. It got off to a rocky start with the movie premiere, clearly three separate episodes pulled apart and put back together with terrible pacing in a failed attempt to showcase what the storytelling themes and principal relationships would be. The fact that Clone Wars survived the cinematic abortion that was The Motion Picture speaks more to its strength as compelling television than anything else.
So yeah. I recognize that the prequels were the birthing grounds for a number of fun, if ultimately unimportant, nerd distractions. And this isn’t to disparage the hard work of all the writers, artists, developers and actors associated with those productions. They’re exactly what they were meant to be: licensing tie-ins that were equally cynical and romantic.
Which brings us, circuitously, to The Force Awakens.
I’ve seen the film three times, never leaving my seat to go to the bathroom or respond to a text or phone message. From opening crawl to the last of the staff roll, The Force Awakens has scored a hat trick on me.
The first time I saw it was on December 17th, 2015, the Thursday night before the official premiere, and I was in a theater packed full of fellow fans eager to see what Disney and J.J. Abrams had in store for us. I turned off my critical eye and watched purely as an enthusiast that hadn’t read a single spoiler. I only exposed myself to official trailers throughout the lifespan of this film’s marketing blitz. I didn’t even watch any of the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff Disney officially released along the way
The second time I saw the movie was with my mother, who was ultimately the gatekeeper back in ’77 when I asked her to take me to see the movie in the summer of that year. Ever since then, Star Wars is the one thing that me and my mother share in the same fashion we did back when I was an excitable child ready to be thrilled by tales of heroic adventure. We’ve seen every Star Wars movie in the theater together since then, and when we go I allow myself to completely become her son once again. I abandon my mature self and am just ‘Tommy’, sitting in the theater with ‘Mommy’ and watching good guys and bad guys fight with light swords and laser guns. Although I can’t help but sneak a sidelong look at her face now and again to see how she’s reacting. My mother is not a very sophisticated person, being a Greek immigrant with a 4th grade education but the heart of an immortal. I love watching her perpetually lit up eyes and wondrous smile as she sees new adventures taking place in these familiar environs. I’m thinking about watching Clone Wars with her. I think she wouldn’t take the CGI very seriously, but I believe she’d enjoy it once she grasped who the characters were and which relationships mattered.
The third time I watched The Force Awakens, it was as a critic. Not of the film as an individual work of digital entertainment, mind you. I could criticize the lack of logical storytelling in a number of instances including:
- 2 seat TIE Fighters
- Poe and Finn not needing oxygen masks to pilot said TIE Fighter
- Rey knowing how to do EVERYTHING ‘like a baos’ despite being an underprivileged person on a backwater world with limited access to the resources necessary to evolve into a Mary Sue
- Han Solo and Chewie being right where they needed to when the Millenium Falcon escaped Jakku’s atmosphere.
- The Falcon jumping to hyperspace inside of a freighter without any preparation or course plotting at all
- Finn being able to use a lightsaber without cutting his own head off
- Poe Dameron surviving AND finding his own way off Jakku to return ot the Resistance
- Starkiller Base not making any damn sense at all
- Landing on the surface of Starkiller Base at lightspeed without dying
- Resistance ships and the Falcon escaping the birth of a sun without being vaporized or their pilots melting into puddles
Before any of you Star Wars nerds start white knighting the movie here, I’ll do us both the kindness of unhorsing you right now.
You see, I TOO am a Star Wars white knight.
I own and have read all of the technical manuals, adaptations and novelizations of the new film.
I’ve read all the post Disney acquisition novels, whether they say ‘Journey to The Force Awakens’ at the top or not. And yes, Disney has confirmed that if it has the Mouse’s blessing, it’s canon.
I can extrapolate my own explanations for any of this stuff from either the source material or by simply getting out my Jedi shovel and filling the plot holes with enough Star Wars geek dirt to satisfy my need for things to make sense.
Just like I did with the classic trilogy, which also has its share of nonsensical bullshit:
· Princess Leia’s hair
· R2-D2 rolling around the desert and never getting stuck or suffering environmental damage
· Jawas roving around on a planet at the ass end of space that somehow happens to have enough stray droids in the desert that they can make a business of collecting them, refurbishing them and pawning them off on country bumpkins
· Greedo shooting first
· Monsters in trash compactors in military space stations run by oppressive regimes
· Planet disintegrating superweapons defended by only a dozen single manned spacecraft and a sprinkling of defense turrets
· A magical superpower delivering payload down a narrow shaft that can destroy said planet disintegrating superweapon in a single shot
And this is just the FIRST film. There are just as many examples in the other movies.
But here’s the thing.
We forgive Star Wars for its narrative failings because when Star Wars works, it does so because it makes us care about the more important aspects of the story. The characters. Their journeys. Their conflicts and struggles. The larger picture of toppling a militant organization that subjugates the innocent. Of reuniting with long lost families and helping overcome their weaknesses. Of finding redemption and returning to the light.
The classic trilogy works, despite its numerous silly plot miscues, because it has the heart where it counts.
It is for this reason that the prequels fail to survive the same kind of scrutiny. They lack the conviction of the classic films, the vibrant soul that is more about myth than money, about substance over style, about the telling and not the technology.
If I may nerd out a bit here, the Force is with the classic trilogy. The prequels…not so much.
So. The Force Awakens.
Is the Force strong with it?
Well, for the most part, yes. The film has many narrative shortcomings and nonsensical plot points but, like the classic trilogy, its strengths far outweight its weaknesses and are therefore forgivable.
But there are a few missteps that I do NOT forgive. It doesn’t mean I suddenly dislike this movie. I still very much like it. But this is a rare case of a film I loved having some things in it that I absolutely hate. I will still buy the BD on day one, and watch it numerous times. I still embrace The Force Awakens. But when I do so, I’ll be making sure not to brush up against some of its bigger warts.
Star Wars primarily matters to us because of how it affects us as enduring pop culture. It’s a global phenomenon, touching each of us because of the characters, their struggles and their relationships. These are truly the things that matter the most in Star Wars, why it has gone beyond the realm of ‘disposable entertainment’ in human culture and become an artistic monolith for people to circle around and give praise to for as long as the Mouse, or whoever inherits it after him, keeps producing content that sustains its relevance. Yeah, the ships are cool and the laser sword fights are fun to watch, but the action doesn’t carry the weight. It’s the people flying those ships and holding those laser swords.
The Force Awakens betrays its characters in three ways that just bug me. Here they are.
1.) Han letting Maz Kanata give Luke’s lightsaber to Finn without protest
This is the scene shortly after Rey has refused to take Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and she runs into the forest. Just after that, Han and Finn make their way into the basement of the ancient barkeep Maz Kanata’s cantina and she insists that Finn take the weapon into the coming battle.
Han registers some skepticism about Maz having the fabled, and long lost, relic and she dismisses his scrutiny by saying, essentially, ‘another story for another day’. Never mind that she may end up dying as a result of the coming battle and its information that people need to know. Maz’s tidy sidestep of the question isn’t the problem.
It’s that Han just lets Finn take the weapon without saying a single word.
Look, I understand Han has fallen into something of a funk since his son Ben was seduced by the Dark Side, and that gives him some heebeejeebies about anything having to do with the Force. But do you seriously mean to tell me that his own reticence on the subject is stronger than the compassion and protectiveness he would certainly feel upon seeing Luke’s lightsaber dangling in front of him? That he would just stand by and watch as a family heirloom, a family he belongs to by the way, is just handed on to a person he met a few days ago and really knows nothing about? Even if this person were to somehow remind him of Luke in some ways (which is never substantiated, and even if it were, it still isn’t enough rationale)?
I do not accept Han just standing there and watching that happen. I do not accept him letting that slide.
I would accept him snatching the weapon before Finn can lay a hand on it and saying something along the lines of ‘I don’t care what you think about this thing, Maz. It belonged to one of my best friends, my brother-in-law and a person I and someone I love care for very deeply. I don’t know where Luke is, but this belongs to him and I’m not just going to let you pawn it off on a cowardly former stormtrooper just because you’ve been around a thousand years. I’ll be holding on to this. Luke is MY blood. This is MY decision. Not yours.’
I know Han reveres Maz. He even says so just before entering her cantina. But Han is also an emotional person, a person of impulse. Even if he HAS come to accept the Force, even if he HAS embraced the idea that Maz ‘knows a lot of things’ and understands the Force, given EVERYTHING that happened between himself, Luke, Leia and, most importantly, Ben Solo, that lightsaber is a cipher, a nexus, for all the swirling emotions and sentiments surrounding the most important parts of Han’s life.
No matter how scared he is of facing his past, returning to Leia or dealing with the fallout of Luke’s disappearance, this movie doesn’t do enough to convince me that he’d be all right with Finn taking the weapon. Rey, maybe.
But not Finn.
2.) Chewie not acknowledging Han’s death to Leia upon returning to the Illenium system.
First of all, J.J….you can’t just remove the letter ‘M’ from Millenium and call it a system. Fucking lazy. But that’s a nitpick.
In fairness, Han and Rey established a pretty decent relationship throughout the film and I buy that Rey would have felt some sense of loss at the elderly scoundrel’s death. Especially given that she knows everything about everything and has had her whole life to romanticize people like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and ships like the Millenium Falcon. I’m not ready to pass judgement on Rey’s status as a Mary Sue just yet. The Force is working in mysterious ways with her and that story is not fully told. Patience, padawans.
Think of how conflicted Chewie must be about all of this. He watched as Ben Solo murdered his best friend, who he had a life debt to and was unflinchingly loyal towards regardless of the stakes, in cold blood. How many times did Chewie hold that kid? How many times did he take him for ice cream or to the park to play on the swings or wrestle with him and let him win just to put a smile on his face?
And then he shoots Ben. Shoots that kid. Because he (understandably) lost his temper over Han’s fate.
I get it. Chewie’s a product. He’s a plush toy waiting to be sold. But in the story, the area where his legacy to pop culture matters on a level that goes beyond the manufacturing of consumer goods, he’s a warrior.
And HE should have been the first one to embrace Leia upon seeing her in the Illenium System. They’ve both lost someone immeasurably important to them.
I hate it more than Greedo shooting first.
It is fucking inexcusable and Disney owes us all an apology.
Or at least a version of the movie with a better take of this scene. Maybe in the Special Edition.
3.) Leia not going with Rey to find Luke
This one bugs me too, and is the final stroke in the ‘Disney is trying too hard to pass the torch’ painting that this film showcased.
That’s cool. The new cast is great so far. I like Finn a LOT more than I thought I would. Poe seems like a fun guy, but he needs to be with the group in the next movie. Put Rey and Finn in the gunwells and Poe and Chewie at the cockpit of the Falcon and you have a formidable team. Plus, the characters all get along really well and I can forsee myself liking this new family of misfits very much
But first thing’s first.
- Help save her son from the Dark Side
- Help the Resistance in their fight with the First Order
- Be a family again
- Help him overcome his own grief at his failure to establish a new Jedi order and Ben’s betrayal
While a less egregious misstep than Chewie and Leia passing by each others as though they’re complete strangers following Han’s death, this one is a problem as well. If Leia is so desperate to find Luke, why isn’t she on the Falcon with Chewie and Rey? Especially after Han’s nurder. Especially after the heroes failed to bring Ben home. Especially when, upon seeing his lightsaber in REY’S POSSESSION (because there’s no way she wouldn’t show it to Leia or talk about it), after being gone so long and with her needing him more than ever, she must also want to see him more than ever.
Family. You know. Like her brother Luke Skywalker. And CHEWBACCA, who makes the trip to the first Jedi temple at the end with Rey and R2-D2.
But to not even make the trip to see her brother that she’s been desperate to bring back into the fold? In the days following Han’s death and the potential hope that Ben Solo can be brought back into the light? When she knows there’s every possibility Luke may not want to return and needs to hear otherwise from the person that matters to him the most?
Like I said, I understand. Rey is the hero now. That is fine. I like Rey and hope they don’t fuck her up in the next two chapters.
But Disney Mister Mouse.
Leia is in The Force Awakens. She’s likely in the next one too. Maybe even Episode IX.
You need to write her better. She needs to be more believable and accurately portrayed in her thoughts, decisions and actions. She’s simply too strong and charismatic a presence in these films to be so casually neglected.
Again, I must stress that despite my grievances with The Force Awakens, I enjoyed the film and consider it essential for any Star Wars fan. It’s a really good movie with a great new cast, an adventurous spirit and enough callbacks that it feels like it belongs ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’
With three really shitty parts.
That’s a LOT more than I can say for the prequels.