The Force Awakens has been in cinemas already for some time; most of those interested have already seen it, some more than once. I feel it is the right time for a little deeper analysis of what we actually have here, and what seems to be haunting many fans’ minds at this point. Unlike my previous review, this will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the film yet, you might want to stop reading now (also because you might not know what I am talking about).
Let me start by saying one thing. The Force Awakens is a good film in terms of Star Wars legacy. When watching it for the first time, I was not absolutely sure, but it made an overall positive impression. It left me with question marks, but some of those actually disappeared on second watching. Generally speaking, it is clearly a worthy follow-up to George Lucas’s saga. It does not disrupt any pre-existent notions about the Star Wars universe, which is probably the thing hardcore fans had been worried about the most. It does not even disrupt things which are part of the canon, but which many fans dislike – such as the midichlorians: they are simply not mentioned (an elegant and very nice solution). It uses many familiar tropes, but none of them are simply recycled, they have something new and fresh in them. Mostly, they are actually even completely new things, which only *feel* familiar; and that is what I think the film excels at.
Let’s take Rey for example. She is a Force-attuned orphan from a desert planet, she is a strong female character with a Leia-ish vibe, also a fairly good pilot and so on. She is a bit Luke and Leia, and also little Ani (think about the scavenging parts and her Force-enhanced piloting skills) and a bit Han Solo – yet she is not them, she has her own, completely different path. Her Jedi path is different from the previous characters in the small details – for instance, when she leaves on her quest, she lacks a mentor. On the other hand, since I am already talking about characters, Finn is a completely fresh introduction to the crew. His story is another take on the uncertain young hero archetype, but it is made special by that he is a defector from the other side – something we haven’t really seen in Star Wars before and something that, I hope, will still play its role – his “payback time” scene with Captain Phasma was certainly one of the highlights of the film, and it showed one side of Finn’s personality which contributed heavily to make him a real multidimensional character.
The same thing goes for some events. Many of the scenes ring with familiar tone one way or another. Example: at Maz Kanata’s stronghold, Finn runs away somewhat in a Han Solo-ish manner. Rey has visions somewhat alike to those Luke has in the cave on Dagobah. Yet again, the whole context is different, and so is the outcome of both. We can argue, of course, whether it is J.J. Abrams putting familiar feels into scenes he has written, or on the contrary picking up known tropes and wrapping new plots around them. But the bottom line is, whichever the case, the result feels unique. And that much I applaud.
I know some people have complained about the film doing too many of these “nudges to familiarity”. Personally, I would say they were still quite subtle and not in any way annoying (and nowhere near to, for example, the nudges to LotR in The Hobbit or other films which are trending right now). But even if it were a bit too much, in my opinion, it is actually better to have this than to have either a completely different film, whose plot is unrecognisable as Star Wars, or on the other end of the spectrum, some awful copy and paste with no soul of its own. Episodes I-III also hint at familiar scenes from the original trilogy, but I would almost say The Force Awakens handles it better by using it as part of the plot.
That is not to say the film is without flaws. There are many things that could be criticised. I am not going to make a list here, everyone can probably recall what they disliked and why, and many of the things I could name are fairly minor (one for the sake of example: the film could have easily ended without the “extra scene” of Rey finding Luke; an ending with Rey and Chewie jumping into hyperspace would have been a good enough conclusion. But presumably this ending eases up the start of next episode, and of course gives an excuse to Mark Hamill to appear at all).
I would instead like to stop at what I believe to be some bigger omissions and things which, I believe, trouble the minds of most of the fans. I have to say once again, however, that they are not that bad, if we take into account the big picture. The worst thing, actually, are a couple of “deus ex machina” moments. You can probably already think of what I have in mind. Most of all, it would be the fissure appearing right between Rey and Kylo Ren after their final duel, and R2-D2 awakening conveniently at the end of the film, without any reasonable explanation whatsoever. With the latter, I am kind of hoping for some explanation in the next film – for instance, that Luke might have installed some trigger into R2, which set off at a certain moment. However, I am not that hopeful, because I have a hard time imagining what such a trigger would be. There is literally nothing on-screen that would concern R2, and we probably can’t imagine the droid to respond to Han Solo’s death… well, unless it was a conscious decision on his part (“now these poor organics are despairing, I will show them the path to my master”). As for the gap appearing right between Rey and Kylo Ren, that is, sadly, a plot device used in many sci-fi, fantasy and action films nowadays, but that should not be an excuse. Star Wars should be better than that.
The way I see it, there are three kinds of actual problems in The Force Awakens. The second is the closest to what I’d call plot holes. Mostly it concerns Rey and the Force. To use a quote from the film, “this is not how the Force works.” How comes Rey suddenly knows how to mind-trick a stormtrooper if she has never seen it done before? How does she even know there is a possibility to do such a thing? Rey’s ability is innate, fair enough, but even little Ani used the Force unconsciously until he met Qui-Gon (or even, until he started training with Obi-Wan), while Rey’s effort is very much conscious without anyone actually explaining to her how it is supposed to work (Maz Kanata, not being a Force user, merely introduces her to the philosophical and spiritual aspect of it). The only explanation I can think of is that she had heard about it in the legends about Jedi which had reached her. But that’s a big stretch. It would probably work as a scene in a book – Rey tied up in her cell, thinking desperately how to get out, then remembering some crazy old tales about how Jedi used to trick their way out of trouble, but of course these are just stories… or did Maz Kanata just tell me that they are not and that I can hear the Force, too? But the film cannot show what goes on inside a character’s head, so even if this attempt of mine to explain it was true, it should have been explained to the majority of confused audience.
Likewise: Unless we get some explanation in the future, we have to convince ourselves really hard that in their duel, Rey was just that lucky and Kylo that much wounded and out-of-focus because of the recent events, that he lost. With Finn, we can at least say he had some previous battle training (that is by the way what I consider to be the reason for his melee duel with another stormtrooper earlier and why the stormtrooper was armed with a melee weapon, to tell us that “stormtroopers are trained in melee, too, and not only with blasters”). And Finn lost, so I am fine with it. But Rey? Her proficiency with the staff and Kylo’s state still do not provide convincing explanation by themselves.
And this is also my only complaint to Daisy Ridley’s acting during the whole film (but maybe it wasn’t her and the role prescribed it to her): after we see her almost losing to Kylo Ren, she is reminded of the Force, she closes her eyes and serenely connects to it. So far so good. Next thing, she opens her eyes, bares her teeth and continues fighting with her teeth bared like that until the very end (yes, I was actually paying attention just to that when I was watching that scene the second time). Jedi are supposed to fight with inner calm, that is what should have made Rey triumph over Kylo! I can see the scene how it should have been: at first, Kylo wounded, and Rey fierce because she’s protecting Finn and remembering poor Han. But Kylo, because of his training, still prevails. Then Rey remembers the Force. And a powerful ally it is. She forgets everything and lets herself be guided, and Kylo Ren, full of anger and self-doubt which is further undermined by realisation that he is suddenly losing, on top of that losing to someone clearly calling on the Light Side, is so much off-balance that he actually loses. That would have been believable, but it doesn’t look like that on the screen. Rey should have been angry or physically strained (or whatever the bared teeth are supposed to stand for) before her “connecting moment”, not after. Otherwise she should have just became angry and smashed Kylo into a pulp, thus setting up plot problem for her future Jedi training. Don’t get me wrong, I like Rey and the way Daisy Ridley acts, but the way this scene is handled just puzzles me.
The third problem, and actually what I considered the worst on first watch, is confusion. I said I liked it that the film did not spend long time by explaining historical background and instead put us straight into the here and now. We can gather most of the information about the Galaxy’s state from the film. But it could be still a bit clearer, certainly for majority of the audience who haven’t had any access to new galactic encyclopedias or any expanded universe material. One typical point of confusion is the relation between the Republic, the Resistance and the First Order. And that becomes crucial during the scene with the Starkiller Base’s first shot. What has just happened? It doesn’t help that people say “that was the Republic” upon seeing several globes in the sky blow up. The visual depiction is also confusing. First, we see the death rays hitting a couple of planets, obviously in one system; next, Han Solo and co. watch it from one planet and see it spread throughout the sky. So how far are we from the place? How far are the targets from each other? Did the First Order blow up several targets throughout the entire galaxy at once (what could then beat the superweapon?). Or did J.J. Abrams just shrink the whole Galaxy to a cluster of planets next to each other? (That was actually my first thought and major concern on first watching the film.) To add more confusion, we are showed a shot of a planet most would immediately think was Coruscant. It is, in fact, the Hosnian system, which is mentioned in the film, but so off-handedly (and much later) that most won’t notice it on first sight.
For those who are concerned, I could say it here: no, Coruscant wasn’t just destroyed almost off-screen and no, everything has a reasonable explanation. But the problem is that the reasonable explanation is not very well explained in the film, it is, in fact, not explained at all, even though it is presupposed. If you read some of the new books set after the Battle of Endor, you’ll learn that Republic has now a rotating government moving between its member worlds, and also that you should see both the Resistance and the First Order rather as political factions than separate entities. It can be sort of put together from the information in the films, but it would have helped to have e.g. Han or Leia (or even Finn) throw in a couple of lines to explain it.
That goes back to what I said about the characters being the main focus. But however much I like that, this should be Star Wars. It is also about the whole Galaxy. In the first films, the conflict between the Republic and the Empire also served mostly as background, but it was clear what was happening. It would not have taken so much effort for the makers to actually do this bit right.
It is not very much more than this one bit, however. If I look back at Episode II, it had much worse plot holes than The Force Awakens. Despite some of the abovementioned things disturbing my mind upon watching, the film actually fared better in comparison to some of the older ones. Most of all, it was interesting and entertaining, and the characters and the feel are just right.
Last thing I feel obliged to mention is the “new Death Star”, possibly the last thing I have heard many complain about (indeed, was it really necessary to bring such things back?). I actually think the film might have been better without it – it really does not play any role in the first half of the story, and even the second would have worked without it (the reason to go back to the base might have been simply to bring back Rey, plus Han possibly wanting to get Ben back after seeing him recently). But it is true that it makes the plot just so much easier to weave when there is the large threat looming over the Galaxy, and it explains Finn’s fear of the First Order just as much as it provides a ground for Kylo Ren and General Hux to squabble on. It is also one of those details which might have made this film even so much better if the plot around it was used to its full potential. But more about it perhaps some other time. Sufficient to say, I am actually fairly okay with Starkiller Base being in the film, it contributes to what The Force Awakens really is – a space fairytale, something Star Wars always was and which the prequel trilogy sometimes tried to conceal, with the result being a bit awkward. The whole point of Star Wars is that you can watch a space fairytale and still recognise it as something dead serious, deep and intelligent.
So the fandom looked at the seven films and lo, it was very good.