The following article contains SPOILERS of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ Proceed only if you’ve already seen the movie, and if you haven’t what the heck is stopping you?
If its $1 billion take is any indication, most of us have already witnessed the force awaken (maybe three times if you, like me, were alone this holiday season). For the most part, Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems to have done a great job washing out the bad taste left in our mouths from the much maligned prequels. The reviews have been overwhelming, with some critics calling it the best in the saga since The Empire Strikes Back and fan reactions have for the most part mirrored this sentiment. But the praise has been far from unanimous. In fact, it only took a matter of hours from its December 18th awakening for the internet to sour on the Force.
Now before I go any further, I want to make something clear. I do not think The Force Awakens is a perfect movie. In fact, it’s riddled with many legitimate issues that hold it back from being among the best Star Wars films. Maybe you could argue that it’s in the top three, but that’s beside the point. I’m not here to discuss that. Star Wars isn’t nor has ever been Shakespeare, just as the lyrics of Adele’s “Hello” aren’t great poetry. But both still manage to tap deep enough into universal emotions that they capture the public consciousness. In that respect, TFA is a resounding success. That doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece.
There are many places one could poke holes in TFA but the sea of articles and fan blowback that I’ve read over the past two weeks haven’t once touched on JJ Abram’s pedestrian action flick direction or the phoned-in final run on the Death Star 3.0. Instead the crybabies of the internet have been railing on about things that are non-issues, things that had they employed even an ounce of their critical thinking skills, would implode like the First Order’s penis-envy Starkiller Base. So let’s take a look at those, the phony reasons that TFA isn’t a good movie.
1. It was a Shot-for-Shot Remake of “A New Hope”
On paper the plot of TFA looks pretty familiar. A droid carrying secret plans teams up with an orphan in the desert and has to find its way back to a group of freedom fighters before a totalitarian regime blows up the galaxy with its super weapon. Squint enough and you’re just watching the same movie again, right? Sure, if A New Hope started with the massacre of a small village, ended with Luke tracking down his Jedi mentor, and included a lightsaber-induced dream sequence as its hero’s call to action. Did we watch one of the faceless Stormtroopers break free from Darth Vader’s legions and blossom into a hero in his own right? Was our female protagonist a Force-wielding mechanical genius who didn’t once need rescuing? Was the curator of the Mos Eisley Cantina an ancient mystic who knew the ways of the Force and propelled our heroes toward their destiny? Actually, I’m pretty sure he only opened his mouth long enough to slur some anti-droid hate speech.
You’re right to call many elements of The Force Awakens derivative. Starkiller Base is a little on the nose for my taste too – recreating the Death Star and supersizing it is the root of all that is uneven with the third act of this movie.
But when we consider that, we also have to acknowledge that the entire Star Wars saga intentionally rips itself off. Going back as far as The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s Jedi training under Yoda hearkens back to his scenes with Obi-Wan in the previous film. In fact the concept for Yoda himself grew out of a version of the “Ben Kenobi” character from an early draft of A New Hope. Though they were derivative, these scenes from Empire ended up being better, darker, and gave us some of the saga’s most memorable moments (anyone remember Luke’s vision of facing Vader in the swamp?).
The lesson is this: Keep running with ideas that work and you’ll strike gold.
By that account, Lucas ran with his same bag of tricks for the rest of the series. The Death Star reared its head yet again in Return of the Jedi, albeit with a more complex route to its destruction. Even the prequels tended to “rhyme” an insane amount with the original trilogy, to use Lucas’ preferred word, and one of the criticisms against those films is that they tended to rhyme too much.
So yeah, the rhymes and echoes are present in The Force Awakens, but let’s not pretend that’s something new for a Star Wars movie.
2. Rey is a “Mary Sue”
If you don’t already know what the pejorative term “Mary Sue” means, I’m not going to get too into it here (you can check out Wikipedia for that). The short version is that she (it’s usually “she”) is a fictional character inserted into a story as an author surrogate, who usually saves the day through superhero-like abilities. This was a useful term in the world of fan-fiction once upon a time, but it’s now become predominately toxic and dismissive of strong female characters. Salon did an excellent piece on its history and why this is a totally stupid criticism of ‘TFA already, but I digress.
Suffice to say that the internet got itself into a bit of a tizzy over Rey’s perceived overwhelming power. I suppose we have American Ultra screenwriter Max Landis to thank for this, since he beat the rest of Twitter to the punch. The crux of his argument is this: Surely a nobody from the nowhere planet of Jakku couldn’t be a gearhead, crack pilot, Force-adept, and skilled swordsman without being simple wish-fulfillment. That would be ridiculous, right? Especially for a girl.
There are so many things wrong here that I don’t really know where to begin. Is Rey really that unrealistically competent? Let’s take a look. First, she’s really good at fixing machines. Well, she spent her entire life scavenging parts from crashed spaceships. If she doesn’t know what these parts are, what they do, or how to put them together/take them apart then she doesn’t eat. Next she’s a good pilot, and figures out how to fly an unfamiliar spaceship rather quickly. But her piloting of the Millennium Falcon is far from perfect (I’m pretty sure a nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker didn’t drag his podracer across the desert floor for a solid ten seconds), and her decades of tinkering have probably put her in a position where she at least knows what she’s doing in theory. Finally she’s strong in the Force, learning to use Force powers incredibly fast. But that isn’t unprecedented in the Star Wars universe. Luke Skywalker picks up a lightsaber for the first time 45 minutes into A New Hope and is using the Force with his eyes closed by the end of the movie.
Even so, some people have claimed that she comes into her own rather quickly as a Force user, considering she doesn’t have Obi Wan to train her. How does Rey know to use a Jedi mind trick? How does she know about grabbing the lightsaber with the Force? To answer these questions, we actually have to read between the lines a little, but it’s also one of The Force Awakens’ strongest storytelling moments. We know through verbal cues (“Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth!”) and the set pieces in Rey’s AT-AT home that she has grown up with stories of the Jedi and the Galactic Civil War. They are part of the mythos of Rey’s world just as they are of ours. Think of it this way, she has grown up on the Star Wars saga just as much as we have as an audience. We know about Force tricks because we’ve seen them on screen. She knows about them because of oral tradition. She’s a Star Wars fan just like us.
So maybe in that respect she IS a “Mary Sue,” but an unrealistic character she is not. She’s just more of a badass than the average male viewer is comfortable with.
3. There Isn’t Enough Backstory
Who the heck are the First Order? Who is the Resistance resisting? Are they somehow affiliated with the New Republic? These are difficult questions to answer – if you literally pay zero attention to the movie. As soon as the giant logo flashes across the screen to John Williams’ epic fanfare, every Star Wars film gets right to the business of filling us in on all the details that will make our story make sense. TFA is no exception. Immediately we’re let in on what the galaxy’s been up to for the past 30+ years. Luke Skywalker is gone (oh no!), the villainous First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire like a Nazi phoenix, and Leia has created the Resistance to take the fight to them. That about clear things up?
An unfortunate side effect of our blockbuster-driven cinema culture is that we’ve started to rely on movies to spoon-feed us every bite of information that might come into play later down the line. Producers assume that audience members are stupid and to be fair some are (ie. the entire audience of Pixels) but as a byproduct that means that the rest of us suffer. There was a time when we could use inductive reasoning and story clues to create context for ourselves. Now we have excessive voiceovers and sci-splaining through every plot beat lest we somehow fall off the narrative train and nap our way through the final half of Fantastic Four (trust me, that’s not why we’re sleeping).
The original Star Wars didn’t resort to any of that. George Lucas trusted that the title crawl would be enough to transport us to a galaxy far, far away and accept whatever rules came with it. Part of what made it such an amazing piece of science fiction fantasy was how big its world was and how little was explained to us. The Clone Wars were originally a throwaway line explaining Obi Wan’s relationship to Luke’s father, Jabba the Hut was a faceless gangster with minions everywhere, the crumbling of the Old Republic into the grip of the Empire was only hinted at with a few well-placed conversations. The rest of the galaxy was free for our imaginations to explore.
JJ Abrams is very much a student of this school of thought. His scenes are riddled with hints of the larger universe, while keeping only the important details at the forefront. And if you’re upset that they didn’t go deeper into Rey’s past, explain how the Republic will recover from the destruction of its capital, or tell us what Luke’s been doing on that island all these years, you need to cool your jets, bro. This is a trilogy.
4. Kylo Ren Is a Weak Villain
Sure, he mopes around the screen lashing out like a petulant teenager who was told he can’t go to a blessthefall concert, but that’s because Star Wars has finally given us something it hasn’t before, a villain who isn’t finished. Unlike Darth Vader who stalked onto movie screens in 1977 like he was prepackaged at the League of Evil, Kylo isn’t as one-note as his grandfather. Yes, we saw Vader’s prolonged fall from grace in the prequels, but those films imagined Anakin as being mostly whiny and pathetic. On paper he was supposed to have a lot in common with the angst of his future grandson. Young Anakin was torn between the light and dark, compromised by his feelings for other people – feelings that send him on a path to the Dark Side. But on paper isn’t the same thing as on film.
With Kylo, however, that struggle is made palpable. He isn’t the towering menace that Vader was, but that’s the whole point. He worships his grandfather, but fears he will never be his equal. He’s tortured and complex, caught between the poles of light and dark. This inner turmoil makes him unpredictable and terrifying every time he’s on screen. Where Vader’s rage was cold and calculated (he never lost his cool while summarily Force choking the Empire leadership), Kylo’s is easy to see on the surface, making him one of the series’ most emotional, and hence most resonant, villains.
The analogue that most easily comes to mind is that of Zuko, the tortured son of the Firelord in Avatar: The Last Airbender (no relation to the M. Night Shyamalan film of the same name). While first presented as a dastardly villain set on capturing and killing Aang – the titular airbender – Zuko’s inner turmoil is soon revealed. He is a perpetual disappointment to his father and lives in the shadow of his sisters. He sees his mission as the only way to prove himself to his family, but as failure mounts on failure, he begins to question if he is even on the right path. His arc is arguably more compelling than Aang’s although ATLA’s storytelling strengths stem from its compelling cast of characters across the spectrum. From what we’ve seen of Kylo, it’s possible that he will follow a similar path, mitigating his Dark Side aspirations with his perpetual battle of conscience. Though he struck down his father, he did so through tears and anguish. Some have even suggested that this means he is not a villain at all.
In any case, The Force Awakens has left the door wide open for future episodes to explore the troubled Kylo. Whether that means he’s on a path to redemption or further into the darkness is yet to be seen, but overall he’s one of the most enigmatic, powerfully realized characters in the series to date.
5. Finn Is Evident of “Hyper-Tokenism”
For this one I want to discuss a very specific article. When wading through the muck of weak diatribe, this Indiewire piece stood out to me, particularly because I usually respect their work. But here they’ve churned out the ultimate “you can’t please everybody” piece, and it’s mostly nonsense.
Alright, so what is hyper-tokenism? To understand it, we first have to talk about “regular” tokenism, which has been a standby in White filmmaking (basically mainstream Hollywood) for decades now. It’s essentially the placement of a single Black actor with limited dramatic agency into a story in order to attract a Black audience for a particular film. We have already seen this with Billy Dee Williams as Lando Cairissian in the original Star Wars trilogy and again with Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu in the prequels. But as Seewood argues, the Star Wars saga is not out of the woods yet with their treatment of characters of color. According to him, TFA falls prey to hyper-tokenism with John Boyega’s Finn. He is given more dramatic agency than Black characters in previous installments, but ultimately acts as a conduit for the White characters to control the story. The crux of his argument is that because Finn is left wounded and unconscious “throughout the final act of the movie” (really the last 15 minutes if we are being honest), he ushers in a new, more powerful form of racial tokenism meant to hook a Black audience for an entire series of White films.
Seewood is right about one thing. Star Wars has fallen prey to tokenism before. They are films made by White filmmakers for a predominately White audience that didn’t concern themselves with accurate racial representation. Hell, most of mainstream Hollywood was that way until very recently. Yet despite that, they are a series of films that cross demographic and racial boundaries and are beloved across the world. Though their cast is predominantly White, they feature a wide berth of galactic diversity (though we see more crawfish people than Blacks or Latinos). It’s an issue that the new trilogy has quickly set to work tearing down. We have our first Black protagonist, our first Latino fighter pilot, our first woman who hasn’t been relegated to a supporting role or to barefoot and pregnant (though we have two more movies where that could happen).
But Seewood seems caught on the idea that Finn is only a supporting character because of his failure at the end of the film. Clearly this is just an underhanded ploy to get Black money into the White studio coffers (his words, not mine). The underlying issue is that this is part one of a trilogy, so Finn’s arc is far from finished. Are we to assume he – or anyone for that matter – should have beaten Kylo Ren outright (the fact that Rey cuts him down so easily is one of the great question marks of that final confrontation)? Yes, he is mortally wounded, but he also drives the plot more than any other character on screen. He’s the one who cast aside his upbringing to do the right thing. He’s the one who rescues Poe Dameron. He’s the one who convinces Rey to get BB-8 into the hands of the Resistance. He’s the one who overcomes his fear of the First Order to go back to Starkiller Base for Rey. Just as Kylo is our most compelling villain, Finn is arguably our strongest protagonist. Keep in mind that Luke Skywalker was also maimed and defeated at the end of Empire.
Again the sequels will determine if Finn is utilized to his full potential or it Seewood’s cry of “hyper-tokenism” comes true, but the possibilities are bright at this juncture. TFA hints at a burgeoning romance between Finn and Rey, the first interracial coupling in a Star Wars movie if it indeed happens. Also, his incapacitation may give him the narrative drive and motivation to take on Kylo and the First Order with greater force in the coming films. It’s too early for this to be a relevant complaint.
As I’ve said before, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a perfect movie. Hell, I’d argue it isn’t even a great movie. But it does do a few things well, enough that the future of the series looks bright and promising. Plus we don’t go to a Star Wars movie to pick apart the inconsequential details clearly in place to move the plot along (especially if there’s nothing wrong with them in the first place). We go to be entertained and to feel actual emotions.