So, I saw the new Star Wars film yesterday. It was pretty good — not great, but pretty good. I’m glad I saw it, and it definitely achieved the most important task in front of the filmmakers, which was to get the franchise back on track after the disaster of the three prequels. The battle scenes were well-executed. I like the new villain, Kylo Ren (Andy Samberg + Alan Rickman as Prof. Snape = Kylo Ren), and I like the new hero, Rey. (Finn was meh, but I expect his character to develop in future episodes).
The worst problem here — and it is a massive one — is that the storytelling is extremely lazy. Extremely. The plot points and devices are so derivative of the first film, 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, that I thought director J.J. Abrams was winking at us the first time he did it (the film opens with stormtroopers on a desert planet looking for a droid carrying information vital to the
Rebel Alliance Resistance). But it keeps happening, over and over. The only thing I can say in defense of it is maybe the filmmakers are trying to make a point about the recurrence of mythological themes in history. But I don’t really buy it. I think they were just trying to play it extremely safe. The real title of this movie should be, The Force Awakens…And It’s ‘Groundhog Day’.
It was disappointing, for sure, but it did not ruin the film for me. I really did enjoy the movie. But I hope that in future episodes, they kick the formula to the side.
I’m going to have an open thread discussion of the film among you readers. I have a few more comments to make, but they will contain spoilers, so I’m going to put them below the jump. Also, if you have not yet seen the movie but plan to, please don’t read the comments, as they will surely contain spoilers.
Now, about the derivative nature of the new film. Honestly, J.J. Abrams. Honestly. Another exotic cantina scene? Yet another plot in which the Bad Guys build a planet-sized killing machine that can obliterate other planets, but the Good Guys find one tiny flaw they can exploit to destroy it? Another moment in which Good Guy military brass — including Admiral Akbar — stand around a table looking at a hologram of the Bad Guy killing machine? Really?
And the father-son stuff, again. Oy. And: no explanation of what the Republic is, how the First Order arose out of the Empire, and who that giant hologram Voldemort dude is? I know, I know, too much back story could sink the thing (it’s one reason I gave up on the prequels; I couldn’t follow the Byzantine politics, and got very bored with them), but come on, shouldn’t we have some exposition? Would it have killed the screenwriters to have given us some theological background on Snoke, the Voldemortish Führer of the Dark Side? Why does BB-8 look like a cutesy-poo Pixar creation? He’s like a metallic, spherical Ewok.
J.J. Abrams & Co. are giving an uncritical fan base what it wants. Hey, this one is much, much better than the three that preceded it, and like I said, I’m pleased that the series is back on track. We can forget the prequels like we forgot the second season of Friday Night Lights, with its stupid Landry murder plot. Besides, the final sequence, with Luke on the edge of the world, was enough to justify the whole thing. That was filmed at Skellig Michael, and the ruins in which Luke lives are those of an actual sixth-century Christian monastery. All my Benedict Option circuits were overwhelmed by the sight. I could watch that final sequence over and over.
OK, your own thoughts and impressions…
UPDATE: Oh, wow, you have to read this nerdtacular Tolkien/Star Wars mash-up post that Jon Swerens highlights in the comments. It concludes with:
So I think the emerging critical consensus that The Force Awakens infantilizes its audience by re-presenting us with the same images we all saw as children is actually deeply wrong: The Force Awakens condemns Luke, Leia, and Han to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it, and it condemns us too.
You really do want to know how the author arrives at that conclusion. Trust me.
UPDATE.2: I should have added that I think that post above is really interesting, but ultimately a highly complex way to justify, through the philosophy of history, the fact that J.J. Abrams and his team just didn’t give a damn. Moments ago, I found this Ross Douthat post from before Christmas, in which he waylays the movie as a sign of cultural decadence. Excerpt:
Walk with me here: You’ve got an orphaned Force adept unaware of her powers living on a desert planet near an old man played by a famous British actor who probably holds secrets to her past; she then meets up with a droid carrying secret plans that its Rebel Alliance — sorry, Resistance — owner hid inside it just before she — sorry, he — was captured and tortured by the Empire — sorry, the First Order. You’ve got teams of stormtroopers scouring said planet in search of those plans, killing innocents along the way. You’ve got a Grand Moff Tarkin figure who wants to rely on a planet-destroying superweapon instead of the Force and who’s in a rivalry with a masked Darth Vader figure for the trust of a strange deformed Emperor — sorry, Supreme Leader. You’ve got the stop at a Mos Eisley cantina-style watering hole filled with smugglers and crooks. You’ve got the destruction of a planet(s) crucial to the Resistance effort midway through the movie, and then you’ve got the threatened destruction of a rebel base on a verdant planet by the same superweapon, which can only be averted by an X-Wing attack on a single weak point. You’ve got a confrontation between the Darth Vader figure and an older, wiser force for good who knew him intimately before he fell, which ends with the older wiser figure being killed by the Vader figure while our young hero — sorry, heroine — looks on in horror. And then you’ve got the X-Wing attack itself, which succeeds in blowing up the entire enemy super-base literally seconds before the superweapon is scheduled to fire on the base where Princess — sorry, General — Leia and a group of Resistance leaders are watching the attack unfold.
There was a moment, right before the attack succeeds, when I thought, wait, maybe it’s going to fail. Maybe Abrams is subverting our expectations, maybe he’s self-aware about how much this feels like a remake, maybe he’s going to blow up the rebel base this time, and leave our heroes to face the reborn Empire without the exact same rebel-alliance infrastructure they had in the original movies.
That would have been a good idea. A new idea. (Ben Domenech had a similar thought, which he maps out in more detail.) Didn’t happen. Instead you just had a busy, cluttered, semi-comprehensible, FX-laden version of the attack and outcome that made this a thrilling, flawless fifteen minutes of cinema almost forty years ago.
By “decadence,” Douthat means:
Not the decadence of orgies and debauchery, but the decadence of drift, stagnation and repetition, as defined by Jacques Barzun:
All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ . . . . The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.