Okay, with a full four weeks behind us — since Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted — I think I can safely discuss the particulars of the film, without being wary of spoilers. But, if you still haven’t seen the movie? Stop reading now.
(This SNL skit is totally canon! It has to be!)
On a scale of 1 to 10 (for the franchise as a whole) I’d give SW:TFA a solid 7 — with Empire Strikes Back at 9, and Revenge of the Sith at 2.
SW:TFA hit a lot of right notes with me. The acting was solid, there was a fair balance between practical and CGI effects, and I think they were smart to give the relationships in SW:TFA a very dysfunctional 21st-century sensibility.
I mean, Han and Leia were clearly a train wreck. As fairy tales go, that’s a lousy way to plot their relationship. Return of the Jedi was a very happily-ever-after finish to the first three films. But if we examine who these characters are, realistically, it’s pretty obvious that they were headed for some rough times, following Jedi. Neither of them was what we might call good parent material. Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) was probably more of an accident, than he was planned. We’re not even sure Han and Leia were married at the time. With the re-rise of the Republic, duking it out with the remains of the Empire — and the founding of the Resistance — there was precious little time for settling down and raising a family. Han and Leia were probably grateful to pawn Ben off on Luke, the way some parents might send a sulking, troubled boy to a military academy. In the hope that Uncle Luke could straighten the kid out.
Except, Ben (the Force-sensitive emo basket case) wasn’t so easily steered away from the Dark Side. Unloved and unloving, he was probably a major thorn in Luke’s side. So that, try as he might, Luke could not get the kid to turn around. Probably, the harder Luke tried, the more Ben plunged into his anger — at having been raised by a shitty set of parents, who never gave him enough love and structure when it counted. So that when Luke tried to fill the role of surrogate, Ben’s frustration and hatred were already a large component of his general state of mind.
This is all, of course, armchair psych analysis. But when writing bad characters, it’s important for any writer to really crawl inside the bad guy’s head, and figure out why he is the way he is. I liked that we were given a lot of strong signs, pointing to Ben’s apparently unhappy childhood. Kylo is filled with rage, and a need to control. That kind of sentiment doesn’t come from nowhere.
Which made Han Solo’s death — at Ben’s hands — the best scene in the movie, in my opinion. Without it, there is nothing to anchor SW:TFA to the larger family drama stretching all the way back to when Darth Vader boarded the Tantive IV at the beginning of the fourth (first, for my generation) episode. Ben clearly wants to throw himself over fully to the Dark Side, and Han clearly wants to try to find some way of getting his son back.
Speaking as a father, those few moments when Han and Ben are face to face, that made the film for me. Because even though Ben is a mess, and has been doing some terrible things, Han Solo is still a decent man. And a decent man looks at what has become of his son, and he asks, How did I screw my son up this much? Let it go this far? What am I prepared to do, to try to salvage what’s left?
When Solo says, “Anything,” I believed him emphatically.
Han doesn’t even struggle much, when Ben runs his father through. Just cups Ben’s cheek with a fatherly palm — as if to say he still loves Ben.
Now, if you’re not a parent, this might not key so hotly for you. I really do think being a parent sets this scene apart, from almost any other scene I’ve ever experienced in any of the other Star Wars films.
For Han, he’s looking in Ben’s face, and seeing the eyes of his five year old child staring up at him. Vulnerable. So much pain and hurt, between those early years, and that cat walk in the center of Starkiller Base. And Han felt responsible. Solo was ready to give his life for the sake of his boy. That touched me in a very personal place.
As the saying goes, you never stop being a parent.
So of course Ben has to off his dad, thus becoming Kylo Ren permanently. It’s the singular act of Ben’s young life, up to that point. The one he hopes will erase all doubts. Thus making his later chest-beating — during the forest fight with Rey — reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
As for Rey, we were served a steady diet of question marks. Is she a Kenobi? Is she a Skywalker? It seems like a fifty-fifty proposition at this point. I personally would love for her to be a Kenobi, just because I think that would make for some wonderful symmetry with this whole series. But the how and the why of Rey’s abandoning on Jakku is a real humdinger. It was obviously necessary, for reasons not easily discerned. She certainly seems to have emerged from her childhood damage in much better shape than Kylo. Surviving as orphans on a desert world seems to do the Force-sensitive a lot of good, if Luke (in the originals) is any indicator. But what’s Rey’s connection? What was the whole vision in Maz Kanata’s cellar about? How about the memories from being dropped off on Jakku in the first place?
Personally, seeing little Rey screaming, “Don’t go! Don’t go!” was hard for me to take. Great, brief moments of acting on that little girl’s part. Hit me right in the feels. So much so I had to ask, “What terrible thing would force me to dump my own daughter, at that age, on a barren, hostile planet?”
I guess the next two movies will help us find out.
Again, I gave the movie a 7 out of 10. Not perfect. No way. But then, nothing — after over 30 years of waiting for some true sequels to the originals — was going to make SW:TFA perfect. All of us have wondered, and there have been the Expanded Universe books and series (now scrapped.) We have all, I suspect, also written our own personalized scenarios in our hearts, and in our heads; about how things worked out. Like I said, Jedi served us a very fairy tale ending. The Emperor is dead! Vader is dead! The new Death Star is destroyed! The Imperial fleet has tucked tail and retreated! Han and Leia are going to be together! Luke is finally a Jedi!
Except, fairy tale endings don’t lend themselves well to sequels. You have no conflict upon which to construct more story. SW:TFA needed conflict, and that conflict had to be rooted in the events of Jedi. So, the First Order rises from the — assumed — competition between the remaining, loyal Imperial generals and admirals, to salvage their power. Some of the galaxy has gratefully gone back to the pre-Rebellion days, when the Empire did provide a kind of order. Tyranny, sure. But order. Some people want and need order, above all else. With the Empire down, the galactic economy and political situation must have been a pure mess. The First Order offers structure, and a chance for stability — even if they are iron-fisted about their work.
As a writer, I feel like my job is not to back-seat-drive another writer’s work. That’s usually something a lot of critics do — their ranks being replete with frustrated and failed writers. If I am examining a piece, and especially if I am examining a piece that’s been successful with a broad audience, I am seeking clues to that piece’s appeal. What made it tick? What was the general audience reaction? What was my own reaction, and does it square with most everyone else’s?
I said up top that SW:TFA hit the right notes, for me. It provided a healthy amount of spectacle, twined with nicely-written drama. There was enough meat on these bones — which I didn’t find with the prequels — that the movie kept me suspended in a timeless state for the duration. That’s usually my bottom-line gauge. Did the movie make me forget the clock? Few movies do, these days. But SW:TFA did. And I was grateful for that.
But I also thought the film erred in a few ways. Such as giving Phasma almost no dialogue. And in gifting Finn with a thousand-yard stare that didn’t mesh with his position as a relatively inexperienced combat troop. I mean, for a guy whose job it is to burn the galactic shitter, he sure became disillusioned with the horrors of war mighty quickly.
Now, it’s not unheard of. Humans, as a rule, struggle to kill. Failure to pull the trigger is a documented phenomenon in every war since World War One. Many men simply can’t bring themselves to do it. Even hard men, who’ve endured hard training. But Finn talks like he’s dropped on two dozen worlds, and seen far too much death and blood for his taste.
That’s something I’d have expected from Phasma, frankly.
Which makes me ask: how did the guy who burns the galactic shitter wind up on a combat insertion in the first place? Was he replacing somebody who went to sick call? Is the First Order that short on guys, that the shitter-burner has to put down his matches and his can of galactic diesel, in order to draw a weapon and go out on an op?
Speaking of which, the clone nature of the vaunted Imperial Stormtroopers seems to have been scuttled. I mean, all through the original three films, we never got any indication that any of the Stormtroopers are clones. The prequels made it clear that they were, but now the First Order is changing things up? Or is Finn merely part of a series, derived from one of many different samples? How about Phasma? Also, how about the black-uniform officers? They don’t seem to be clones. We’re never clear on whether or not the Empire promotes up, all the way from Private.
For the next film, I’d like to see more of Phasma, and more of Poe Dameron, frankly. His character’s satus is largely implied, by reputation, but we don’t see or experience much of him. Will this be true for the next two movies? Is Poe merely the new Wedge Antilles? Seems like you could do a lot more with this guy. Fill in his story. He’s the Resistance’s top fighter jock. And he’s not a kid, either. What’s his journey?
As for Rey and Kylo . . . it’s all but certain that these two are going to be saber-battling until the end of the third and final movie in the latest trilogy. Rey as the heir to Luke, and Kylo as the heir to Vader. Will Kylo turn back to the Light Side at the end, as Vader did?
I know a lot of people have hated Kylo’s mopey petulance. What kind of bad guy is that? Vader was a scary, imposing mofo. Kylo makes you want to pick him up and dangle him by his ankles, with his head in the toilet, while you flush repeatedly. (See the video at the top of this post.) Frankly, I think it’s fitting. Kylo is a neurotic, unhappy soul, who wants to bring “order” to the galaxy, thus living up to his grandpa’s legacy. In other words, he’s just like all the children — on modern college campuses — who are angry at the universe, and who expect the universe to change for them, otherwise they need a safe space to run to.
Hitler and Stalin were also neurotic, and expected the whole universe to change for them. And they were some of the most evil men — along with Mao, Che, Castro, Pol Pot — the world has ever seen. Ever. They were also, in their own minds, the heroes. Of their own stories. Which Kylo is too. In his world, it’s the Resistance who are the bad guys, because the Resistance means the Republic, and the Republic means Mom and Dad, and dear God let’s not go there again, because it makes Kylo want to thrash a computer workstation with his lightsaber.
Nice work, Abrams. And nice work, Disney. If you can do this well with the next two movies, and also the auxiliary spinoffs, I think the Star Wars franchise is going to be healthier and more enjoyable than it’s been in decades.
Speaking as a Star Wars fan, this makes me smile.