Thursday, January 14, 2016

12 Reasons The Force Awakens is a Terrible Movie

I'll admit to being a contrarian.  When something's supposed to be the most amazing thing ever, and everyone is singing praises, I approach it with shields up.  I am wary of the whims of the herd.

Having lived and breathed Star Wars as a kid, I was doubly guarded about The Force Awakens, and continued to be so as flames of enthusiasm poured from the LucasArts/Disney publicity engine.

Everyone tries to latch on to that energy, pitching out their "the theology of Star Wars" and "the science of Star Wars" schtick.

It's just not that great a film.  I say this as a film lover, as a geek, and as someone who saw the powerful use of archetypes at play in the first trilogy.  

Watching it, I honestly struggled with why it is that otherwise sentient folks imagine that it's anything more meaningful than one-a-them Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon movies.

So here, because we are in the drab heart of a listicle age, are the twelve reasons The Force Awakens isn't the thing our culture claims it is.  Or, to be more precise, eleven trivial flaws that bugged me, the pebble-in-my-shoe dissonances of plot, character, and continuity.

And, to cap it off, the one catastrophic failure of vision that sabotages the myth.

1) Finn seems to have no problem killing.  We're introduced to a character in the throes of psychological trauma.  Another trooper dies...a friend, we're supposed to infer...leaving a bloody mark on his helmet.  He stands, helpless to act, unable to engage in the savagery all around him.  It's one of the closest moments the film gets to being moving.  This faceless trooper, overwhelmed by the human horror at violence.

And then, within minutes, he's blasting the crap out of people, hooting and hollering as he massacres his former colleagues by the dozen.  He doesn't freeze up.  He doesn't weep or shudder.  He doesn't even seem to notice, other than shout victoriously.  For me, as someone with counseling training, that was more than a little jarring.  And it was the first in a series of dissonant, wrong character notes.

2) Rey is an amazing pilot.  We take that for granted.  But why would she be?  I mean, sure, Han Solo is a pilot.  That's his character.  And Luke Skywalker had experience taking out womp rats in Beggar's Canyon back home.  But Rey?  Rey may be a scrapper and a rockclimber and cunning, but nothing in the story leads us to believe that she's ever even been anything other than a passenger in a spacecraft.  We are shown that she lives a feral existence, much like the children in the third world who make a meager living scavenging from trash heaps.  That's her story, as we're introduced to her.  Take one of those children, put them in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter, and see what happens.

I'll tell you what happens: dark, brief comedy.

It was jarring, in the same way that derpy young Anakin's preternatural giftedness at all things was jarring.

3) Swordfighting is like the easiest thing ever.  I took kendo classes for about six months, years ago.  Kendo is the Japanese art of swordplay, taught with bamboo and wood "blades" and armor.  It was jolly good fun whacking around, but it taught me that you can't just pick up a blade and expect to be amazing.  It also taught me...through repeated blows administered by a black belt...that someone trained with a sword makes quick work of a novice.

Yet we're expected to believe that a sanitation engineer and a street urchin could both just pick up a light saber and more than hold their own against someone with training.  Heck, even Skywalker had to be trained first.  Right?  I mean, right?   We remember that, right?   Hell, how do they even know how to turn the damn thing on?  

It's as if, having just been handed his father's lightsaber by Old Ben, Luke suddenly was confronted by Asajj Ventress...and beat her.

4) The Republic.  What and the what?  The destruction of the "Republic" by the Starkiller was, well, it was such a rushed plot point that we aren't given time to think.  Think about what?  Well, how about the idea that the capital planet of a galactic republic...presumably the one that was re-established in the wake of the fall of the Empire...sees a planet-sized vessel approaching, and then draining all of the energy from the freakin' sun, but doesn't bother putting out a fleet of ships to resist it.  We only see a rushed sketch of panicked cities and a fleet getting incinerated in low orbit.  Wouldn't they know about the First Order?  And be actively resisting it on a war footing?  You know, like the freakin' Rebel Alliance did?

What we're given is just a sketch of a civilization, a plot point penciled on a napkin at a quick luncheon meeting, so devoid of detail as to be irrelevant.

Maybe they're counting on fanfolk to retroactively write coherence into it.  Maybe there's fan fiction out there that fleshes this whole thing out.  Because Lord Have Mercy, that made no sense.

5) The Starkiller Itself.  So here's the mechanism, as presented:  you lumber your carved-out-of-a-planet death machine into a system.  You charge up your Megadeathbeams (tm) by sucking the system's sun dry.  Then, you blow up all enemy planets in said system with your Megadeathbeams (tm).

The issue with this seems obvious: the Megadeathbeam (tm) is completely redundant.

If you CONSUME THE SUN, you kinda sorta render a solar system uninhabitable.   Why even bother blowing up the planets?  Everyone not in a ship or a sealed habitat is going to die anyway BECAUSE THERE IS NO SUN.

AAAAAAAAAAGH.

Which, of course, raises the question: how are people traipsing about on the surface of said Starkiller?  Sure, it's a "planet."  But it moves from system to system, right?  Meaning, the surface is probably more like the surface of Titan, meaning: it's not just winter.  It's seas of liquid methane.  And given that they're destroying the freakin' sun, that'd be rapidly freezing methane.

That would add a different spin to some of those later scenes.

6)  Attacking the Starkiller.  Sure.  It has shields, which have to be taken down.  But if the way to destroy the planet is to blow up a large armored building on the surface...why use tiny little fighters with tiny little payloads?  How 'bout the aforementioned capital ships, which have big guns that'd blow the bejabbers out of a ground-based target.  It's not like you *need* little fighters to peg a womprat sized hole.  That odd conceit was just to make it feel like A New Hope.

It's this huge freakin' object right out on the surface.  Just take the shield down, and bombard it with big ships and their big guns.

7)  Attacking the Starkiller.  Yeah, again.  But the thing about attacking the Death Stars was this: it was hard, hard enough to be a major plot point.  You had to have the plans ferreted away in a droid, the getting-of-which-to-the-Rebellion was the whole first movie.  Many Bothans died to get the information required to take out the second Death Star.

But the Starkiller, the Super-Death-Star-On-Steroids?  The attack plan is basically: "Eh, we'll wing it."  We'll use a low level sanitation engineer's limited knowledge to kind of figure out how to blow things up when we get there.  Good thing it was remarkably easy.  I mean, why would you have any significant security presence around a vital heat management system?  Or any staff, for that matter?

8) The Map.  BB-8's A New Hope Artoo redux schtick involved having a portion of a galactic map in memory, one which shows the way to Luke Skywalker.  But, we are told, there's a problem.  Without the full galactic map, there's just no way to know where that piece fits.

Why?  The galaxy in question may be far far away, but it's a mapped place, in the same way our planet is a mapped place.  We know, having watched the last scene of the Empire Strikes Back, that galactic civilization has advanced to the point where it can move beyond the galaxy and observe it.  Key features are known.  If said key features show up in a map..even just a part of it..you'll know where it is.

If you give me a map of England showing the route from London to Stoke-On-Trent, I won't need a freakin' globe to know where the heck that is.  I recognize familiar features from existing cartography, and boom.  Unless for some reason both cartography and astrophysics in the Star Wars universe are less advanced than that on Earth today, this seems something of a narrative flaw.

9) Poe Dameron's wildly varying skill level:  That scene where the X-Wings come sweeping in, and Poe Dameron proceeds to take out a Tie Fighter every two seconds?   I mean, he's supposed to be good.  But this was "oh you've got to be kidding me" good.  It felt analogous to that scene in Two Towers where Legolas surfs down the stairs on a shield, blipping off arrows like it's just the easiest thing in the world.  It's not cool...it's cartoonish, Wiley Coyote absurd.

And then, in the attack on the Starkiller, they seem to be struggling.  Why, would this be, if you've got a pilot who can pop a TIE Fighter every two seconds?  I'm sure there's some explanation having to do with midichlorian depletion, but...c'mon.

10) Maz Kanata.  Really?  Jesus Mary and Joseph, her name is Mas Que Nada?  I found myself humming that opportunistic Black Eyed Peas remix of the Sergio Mendes classic almost the moment that name dropped, because it seemed apropos.  It was an Admiral Ackbar's flagship Mon Calamari moment, only they kept saying it.  It just reminds us that this really is a silly thing that doesn't mean anything, which...hey.  That's what mas que nada means.  Hmmm.

11) Captain Shinyhelmet Wusses Out.  Evidently, she's supposed to be amazing or something, which again, I'll leave fanfiction to work out.  The sketchy script means we never see her do anything but tromp around and look shiny. But as a villain?  She's pretty mediocre.  When you point a blaster to her head and say: "Give up the information that will allow us to destroy this entire world, defeat your right-wing reactionary counterrevolution, and kill everyone under your command?"  She does.  Is this the reaction of a cold, hardened warrior?  "Go to hell," she would say.  "Your Resistance is doomed," she would spit, right before they coldcocked her.

Speaking of which: what the hell happened to her?  Did I miss that?  I mean, I know she's showing up in the next episode, because, well, duh.  But did they lock her in a closet?  Did they take her helmet as a souvenir?  Did they, having gotten the information, pat her on the head and send her on her way?  I should remember this, but maybe my mind was wandering at that point.

There, eleven reasons it didn't work for me.  And yes, I get it. It's fantasy.  It doesn't have to feel real.  These are trivial, my geeky overthinking and nattering.  But there's something more, and it's this:

12)  The Force Awakens destroys the Myth of the Original Trilogy.  What we got from JJ Abrams, frankly, was similar to his craven cannibalizing of the Khan narrative in that wildly disappointing second Star Trek film.  He didn't create a new movie.  He just cobbled together a film from bits and pieces of earlier work.

And sure, it's better than the prequels.  Anything is better than the prequels.  

But The Force Awakens, unlike the Benedict Khanberbatch debacle, does not exist in a convenient alternate universe.  It is part of the same story.  And cast into the light of what will end up being a nine movie series, the derivative character of The Force Awakens corrupts the mythic narrative of first trilogy.  It destroys the power of the Star Wars story.

All of the story of the Original Trilogy?  The narrative arc that affirms the triumph of light over darkness?  The tale of victory through the final redemption of a fallen soul?  All of it, a complete waste of time.  Things are just going to fall apart again, so quickly that not even a single generation will have passed before a functionally identical conflict returns.

Mythopoetically speaking, it's like having another battle after Ragnarok.  It turns the Return of the Jedi from a moment of apocalyptic fulfillment to just a meaningless datapoint in an endless Nietzschean cycle of return, the final cosmic victory demoted to a moment of self-delusion in the ever-turning wheel of samsara.

But damn, it's made Disney a lot of money.

14 comments:

  1. I concur with all you said.

    But really? You expect a recycled space opera to make sense? All I expected was quantum improvement in special effects, & was therefore not disappointed.

    If you want space opera to make the least bit of sense, you need to read some of the great sci-fi authors, past & present. (I'll work up a list of my favorites one of these days.) On-screen, I think SyFy's "The Expanse," based on a pretty good near-future novel, has got more substance than all of the Star Wars franchise combined.

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  2. I did't, Ralph. It's like those old serials. Nothing more, nothing less. But there is this assumption, misplaced, that somehow this is anything other than entertainment.

    And my favorite sci fi...folks like Iain Banks and Vernor Vinge...is grounded in science. But I'm fine with fantasy, too, even absurd stuff, so long as the characters and concepts are novel and delightful. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, for example, are simply marvelous.

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  3. "And sure, it's better than the prequels." - Really? This is what you're going with? So 1 bad character (jar jar, no one's arguing that, except the sith lord conspiracy lot), makes 3 films redundant to you, I've got to ask have you even seen them? The only good thing about this new dismal waste of 2h, is that it shows how the prequels weren't actually bad, that they could have been much much much much worse. Like the force awakens was. And I can explain to you very simply the 2 things that destroyed this film. 1). The main protagonists have no ambitions, they just let the story happen to them. 2). The story that is happening to them has already happened, in episode IV, except this time the protagonists don't really care what's going on around them.

    Luke had a life and personality before he joined the resistance, the person he greets so warmly when he reaches the rebel base is his childhood friend Biggs (confusingly copied in VII between complete strangers). In VII, Ray and Fin seem like they were born 20-something years old at the beginning of the film, with basic motor functions and speech pre-programmed in. It is an empty film, that JJ has attempted to make interesting with "fancy" camerawork, which really just serves to distract you from the nothing that is going on.

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  4. If you just want pretty lights with no context, may I recommend a nice screensaver?

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  5. To your first quibble: Yes. That is what I'm going with. The prequels were dismal, cluttered, wretched messes, devoid of emotion. Jar Jar was, I will admit, terrible. But so was derpy young Anakin. So was soulless older Anakin. So was the overbusy palette of shoveled-in effects, with scenes constructed with all the apparent intentionality of a Jackson Pollack CGI painting. As *film,* and as narrative, they were heartbreakingly mediocre after the iconic, archetypal brilliance of New Hope, the almost-a-perfect-movie Empire Strikes Back, and the utterly satisfying conclusion provided by Return of the Jedi. We will agree to disagree.

    But your other points, yeah. You nailed it. I'm there with you. Empty. Soulless. Less emotionally engaging than a good round of Battlefront.

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  6. Fair enough, though 1 thing, given that he was conceived by the force, he must have been crazy powerful and had alot of abilities that nobody else would ever understand. That sort of unique power at that age, I think he portrays a young man battling with the idea of him alone conquering any enemy including death itself, fueled by the desire to stay with his frail mother and keep her safe, quite well. I mean living forever is an idea we all have when younger at one point, that we shrug off because we accept we can't control it, but what if you felt you could? An idea that strong, would anything else matter? Well that's what I saw in anikin anyway (probably just me), and for me obi wan and qui gon were the main protagonists and palpatine the main antagonist.

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  7. Agree on every point. After all the fresh and new awe subsided I really began to see how much of a disappointment this movie really was. Was this the 30 years after the final battle on endor we expected to See? Or just a rushed out rehashing of a new Hope? It's pretty much just the same shit different day for the star wars gang

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  8. Actually this infamous 7th movie made me forgive all the negative things that prequels had

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  9. Yeah it's pretty shocking, I don't even like to acknowledge it. A 3 minute trailer of Rogue One was more impressive and interesting to me than the entire VII film.

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  10. When I walked out the cinema I thought the movie was good, not great but pretty good. Then I started to think about it and now I think it is pretty bad.

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  11. The infinitely superior Rogue One makes TFA look even worse

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  12. Agree on all points and I can add a couple:

    a) Kylo Ren's light sabre does not need a hilt. This is apparently a gimmick to make HIS weapon look original but the hilt is completely impractical, in fact he should be injuring himself quite regularly with that, and...

    b) Kylo Ren himself - really? This is the "bad guy"? A sucky whiny kid who is obsessed with his grandpa so much that he wears a mask for no reason? And why would he idolize Vader anyway, does he not know Annakin Skywalker turned from the dark side?

    A greatly disappointing effort here that was to me, by far the most poorly written installment of the entire run so far, prequels included.

    Finally went to see Rogue One last week and wow, what an excellent, vastly superior film it is. I mean WOW.

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  13. I am born 86 and i grew up watching original trilogy. I dont even give a damn abt prequels. I just went to Force awakens as i am going to watch part 4 of the trilogy i loved all my 30 years of life. What i got is total piece of disappointment. This film actually ruins the original trilogy so much where it was about light wining over darkness storyline only to make a sequel after all these years to say they have not won the war and still in hiding. Above all HAN GOT KILLED. Imagine watching a star wars movie where your fav wont be there here after. it was always about these 3 characters. Luke does not even come till the last frame. Yes i wanted to watch all three in one frame but hell it is not going to happen. It can be passing on torch but you dont get to kill a charac. I dod not go there watch some rey poe or fin. I went for han luke and leia now thanks JJ for killing everything. I ma happy now Lucas did not make it. will just consider it as fan move and have the last shot return of jedi as the star wars ending.

    After ROTJ jedi are back and suppose to have the jedi rebuild with Leia are the leader of the senate but they are still rebels. it makes pretty sad that started when they are young and still fighting as rebels. So luke has not won anything and just another loser.

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