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.


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'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'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.