So with over $500 million in box office receipts, I doubt am the only one who decided give Star Wars: The Force Awakens another go. It is hard to deny the power this particular series still has on me, even as I rail against other corporate movie franchises (which, one has to admit is automatically the case with any IP owned by a gigantic, money-sucking force of pure evil like Disney!) and realizing that I have been burned more times than have been satisfied by it. When all the “Star Wars is back!” and “You did it, J. J.!” sheen wore off, how would this movie hold up as a movie, separated from its massive pop-culture impact? Having seen it again at a matinee with a significantly more docile audience, I have ten thoughts I would like to share with you:
1. A second viewing and one week later, can anyone honestly describe the climax of the movie – attack the glaring design flaw to destroy the big superweapon before it wipes out home base – as anything but seriously deflating? I’m especially surprised that J. J. Abrams would go with such a conclusion since “Death Star II” is almost as complained about an aspect of Return of the Jedi as “those goddamn teddy bears,” and these new films by all indications are at least partially being informed by the negative feedback to previous Star Wars entries. Ever since Abrams secured directing duties I was never under the illusion that this was going to be the most original entry in the series canon, but that part in particular was, and remains, one nostalgic bridge too far for me.
2. I will, however, grant that the film’s other fanservicey gestures surprisingly land more often than not, relative both to similar attempts in the Star Wars prequels and within Abrams’ own filmography. It’s interesting to me that this came right at the heels of Creed, another movie with the same hyper-awareness of its debt to a long-running series it’s cribbing from, and remixing that successful formula with just enough little twists to make it seem compelling to a new audience even as it unabashedly tells the exact same basic story of its predecessor. That people have embraced both films so wholeheartedly is interesting, and perhaps has been the key to producing remakes that don’t seem musty or desperate to moviegoers. It is also almost certainly not a coincidence that the new casts of both films are significantly more racially diverse.
3. There’s been a pretty heated debate online recently about the character of Rey, and whether or not she’s written as a hyper-idealized Mary Sue. Perhaps as expected, very few of the arguments are being made in good faith (on either side), but it is a debate that has motivated me, at least, to think a lot lately about protagonists in high fantasy/sci-fi mainstream entertainment; what we’ve accepted as well-written ones and more importantly, what we should hold up as an ideal protagonist. Initially I was very defensive of people making the Rey-is-a-Mary-Sue argument and found the charges of sexism against them knee-jerk and completely inappropriate, especially as it recalled the undeserved gushing that greeted Katniss Everdeen as a “feminist icon”1 when The Hunger Games first hit the big screen. I don’t ever trust pop-feminism that just so happens to dovetail with fanboy oversensitivity.
For the record, I don’t believe Rey is a boring character and I’m not entirely convinced she’s a fantasy surrogate for J. J. Abrams. The term “Mary Sue” is a very specific trope in fanfiction that Rey only fills in a very abstract sense, and I’m willing to wait for the conclusion of the trilogy before making a concrete judgment about her arc (or lack thereof). Remember, it wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that Luke Skywalker was mutilated twice, fell short in his Jedi training and got his ass kicked by the villain. Who knows what challenges lie ahead for our new heroine in the future?
Besides, at the end of the day, Rey still passes the “Plinkett Test” with flying colors, one of my favorite barometers for how effective a character is not just in Star Wars, but in any piece of fiction (start at 6:53):
There is only one other character “test” that I find more useful (far more useful, in fact), and that’s Film Crit Hulk’s 7 Basic Questions of Character Development.2 Does Rey pass this evaluation? Well, almost…
4. …but it does seem like she faces a lot less personal conflict and change in this film relative to the men, doesn’t it? Finn was faced with a crisis of conscience, struggled to overcome his own paranoia, and ended up stumbling into something he could finally truly believe in. Kylo Ren is driven by an inferiority complex, manifesting itself in his short temper and familial resentment. Han Solo was wracked with a guilt that he masked by receding back to his old smuggler life. Rey – an insanely likeable, engaging character, I fully acknowledge – had to overcome…doubting her powers? I guess? She only faces actual dramatic conflict twice in the whole narrative and they’re resolved in minutes and don’t seem to result in a significant change in who she is.
So perhaps there’s nothing wrong with Rey herself, but rather being placed in a story unworthy of her.3 That’s not criticism driven by “men feeling threatened by a capable woman” or some such nonsense, that’s just noting a shortcoming of the script. The worst that can happen if such criticism is heeded is Rey being placed in more dramatically interesting situations that present greater challenges to her in future installments. That to me is a more far positive development for a Strong Female Character™ in this series than trying to aggressively celebrate her as is and push her to become a placeholder for fans to project their own fantasies onto. Here’s to hoping Rian Johnson throws a ton of conflict at her in Episode VIII (and Colin Trevorrow doesn’t misogynistically “punish” her in Episode IX…oof, maybe we shouldn’t criticize Rey’s character too much lest he get any ideas).
5. Continuing on this point, I think the story might have worked better if we were informed why Rey so desperately wanted to stay on Jakku as soon as she was introduced to us, as well as some concrete reason for her initial reluctance to embrace her discovery of the Force with Maz. That way, The Force Awakens would’ve been a character-driven, rather than plot-driven story, and any potential “Mary Sue” complaints would instantly evaporate. As written, the former issue is introduced way too late to have much of an emotional impact with us, and the latter feels far too perfunctory an attempt to stick with the Joseph Campbell formula without a reason for it to even exist.
Wow, I’m really cranking on Rey’s part of this story, aren’t I? Look, she is still a character I really liked and I’m very excited to find out what happens to her next. But seeing the film a second time made me realize that’s largely because of what Daisy Ridley brought to the part.
6.Seriously though, bless the entire cast of The Force Awakens. So much of what makes Rey “work” despite all the issues noted earlier I attribute almost entirely to newcomer Ridley, who could not only charm the pants off us reading Jeb Bush’s stump speeches, but really should be cast in a Georgia-esque sister drama with Keira Knightley, like, right now. But Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and especially John Boyega also acquitted themselves phenomenally well, and as an added bonus seemed to feed off each other’s energy and took full advantage of the limited time they were given together to establish strong chemistry. And boy, was it nice to see Harrison Ford seize the opportunity to give one of his most iconic characters a proper send-off after the buffoonery he was subjected to in Return of the Jedi. If I was feeling especially cynical I might attribute his enthusiasm to his knowledge that this performance would be his last in a Star Wars movie, and his infectious joy was nothing more than laughing all the way to the bank. But he could have easily refused to play the part, and I’d prefer instead to imagine that he finally “got” what made Han Solo such a beloved character and decided to embrace someone the public had loved against his wishes for decades now before saying goodbye to him for good.
7. Not that I think the entire cast was utilized to the best of their ability. If I squint real hard I can sort of see the argument for Lupita Nyong’o playing an alien via mo-cap, considering the prodigious physical aspect of her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave that may have lent itself well to the technology. But what exactly was the point of casting two of the world’s Silat superstars only to have them just stand around in space armor and scowl at Ford? That would be like casting Kevin Kline in a musical and not have him sing a full song in it.
Yes, yes, I realize a lot of actors wanted to be a part of this film and there are all sorts of celebrity cameos in it – Simon Pegg as the Jakku junk dealer, Daniel Craig as the stormtrooper that falls under Rey’s control and unwittingly helps her escape, etc. None of this is necessarily “bad,” but it does strike me as odd that studios are seemingly okay with making their celebrity cameos completely unnoticeable to the general public without the aid of internet research. Note to studio executives and tentpole filmmakers: stop focusing on the actors, and start focusing on what the actors can do for your movie.
8. Obviously being the first live-action Star Wars feature without any participation from creator George Lucas, several series mainstays are expected to disappear from these new films. Chief among these – at least in The Force Awakens – turned out to be an almost complete absence of terrible dialogue. But a second go-around sadly left me with a lack of any really memorable dialogue, either. So okay, there are no Toschi Stations or Scruffy-Looking Nerf Herders or Lakes on Naboo… but also no wonderful “I love you!” “I know.” or iconic “It’s a trap!” moments, either. Cheesiness in a space opera adventure I can tolerate (enjoy, even!). A major movie event without any truly quotable lines is something that detracts a lot, I think, from the kind of cultural import such “events” normally carry (see also: Avatar).
9. That’s become my biggest concern with this film in general. For all that we crank on the prequels, they left a lot lingering in the cultural landscape long after we all finally accepted the failures they were as films – double-bladed lightsabers, the “Duel of the Fates” theme, even something horrible like Jar Jar Binks has undeniably burned into the cultural memory. And while The Force Awakens is inarguably a “better” movie than the prequels (and arguably perhaps even a little better than Return of the Jedi), I’m increasingly doubting its staying power as a cultural object by itself. The only way to do that is to break out of the comfort zones of the Star Wars universe and really show us things we have not seen before. We enjoyed the Star Wars “Greatest Hits” collection – now it is time for some new material.
10. And despite all these gripes, I still really enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Maybe because there was a warmth between the characters that was totally absent from the prequels, or maybe I was feeding off the genuine enthusiasm for this revival that the filmmakers and audience I was with the first time clearly had from start to finish, which is just so rare with any movie franchise. Either way, despite whatever misgivings I have with the story, lack of originality, etc. I fully acknowledge that Then Force Awakens works. But my curiosity as to what you all think still lingers. Should I be embarrassed that, despite my not-ecstatic reaction to this film, I am hugely excited for Episode VIII, if only to see how the director of Looper will leave his mark on this franchise? Does anyone else share my utter disinterest in Snoke, who I guess is the new Emperor only with weak CGI and even less interesting? Is anyone else thinking of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story yet, and how much the Disney marketing department will have to belabor the point that this is a spin-off, not a continuation, of the new trilogy? And what the heck is the body count so far in this series? Are we in the trillions, now? I’d like to know what’s been lingering in your mind after letting this film “settle.”
3 Hat tip to longtime Awards Circuit community member Robert MacFarlane for helping me come to this conclusion.