What Star Wars: The Force Awakens did right

January 17, 2016

(Previous post: Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The Introduction)

In my spoiler-free one sentence review of The Force Awakens, I said:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a good Star Wars movie, but it’s not as good as most people are saying.

(I feel this should be obvious, but spoilers ahead.)

Let’s concern ourselves with the first part for now. Notice my phrasing. I didn’t say that The Force Awakens was a good movie (though it is). I said it was a good Star Wars movie. That phrasing is deliberate.

Feels Like A Star Wars Movie

The first thing you realize upon watching Episode VII, whether you consciously realize it or not, is that it feels like a Star Wars movie. This is as opposed to the prequels, which did not. The Force Awakens is a deliberate throwback to the original trilogy, with everything including its characters, technology, politics, costumes, story archetypes, atmosphere—everything about it feels like Star Wars again.

Which is great! There’s a certain nostalgia to seeing a Star Wars movie that feels like the good Star Wars movies, instead of the overly choreographed, oddly technologically advanced, walk-and-talk-and-all-the-characters-suck disappointment that was the prequels. Though it’s not just nostalgia—it’s also an aesthetic and formula that worked, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Episode VII brings that back with a vengeance.

Practical Effects

J.J. Abrams and co also brought back some of the production techniques that made the original series work so much better than the prequels. I’m talking, of course, about practical effects—mocking up X-wings and Tie Fighters and all the settings and the extras, as opposed to acting in front of a green screen and shoving all of that in later with CGI.

Aside: Personally, I don’t entirely blame Lucas or the prequels for this mistake, because we didn’t know that too much CGI could snap immersion and destroy any sense of reality until the Star Wars prequels taught us that. They were the mistake that taught the lesson. But nonetheless, The Force Awakens goes back to practical effects, to good, er, effect.

Good Humor and Likable Characters

If there’s one lesson The Force Awakens took to heart from the original series, it’s this one simple cornerstone of good storytelling that so many big-budget Hollywood films forget: Much can be forgiven when you have likable characters and a sense of humor.

Take the Marvel cinematic universe. One of its greatest strengths is that it doesn’t take itself entirely seriously—which is good when you’re making movies about spandex-wearing superheroes. But it also pays more fundamental dividends. When someone makes us smile, we like them more, and we’re willing to overlook a flaw or two and still think kindly of them. This is as true of movies as it is with people. Contrast that to DC movies like Man of Steel, and you’ll see the flip side. Without an occasional moment of levity, all but the most dramatic of movies canend up mirthless and cold.

The Force Awakens appears to realize this. Though I’ll get into everything the film does badly in the next post, most of those foibles are forgivable for the simple fact that Rey, Finn, and Poe are interesting, likable characters that I left the theater already wanting to know more about. That and the funny moments, with jokes that land more often than not and endear us to the characters, reveal that above all else, this movie has one goal: To be fun. Too many storytellers forget that this simple goal is a worthy one. The Force Awakens is fun! That counts for a lot.

Kylo Ren Is Not Darth Vader

I’ve heard some people referring to Kylo Ren as the new Darth Vader. Which is obviously correct in a way, in that he’s a menacing dark Jedi who wears a black mask and plays the dragon (trope) to the big baddie of the local evil empire—but in all other ways, it’s not. Kylo Ren is not meant to be the new Darth Vader. He’s not as iconic as Darth Vader, nor will he ever be. But that’s because Darth Vader was going for a different vibe.

For much of the original trilogy, Darth Vader wasn’t so much a character as a force of nature; he was an implacable, undefeatable, wheezing nightmare. He was more machine than man, more magic space wizard Terminator than complex human being. His humanization and eventual redemption was the journey of taking a larger-than-life character and splicing just a touch of humanity into him, which, like a pinch of salt in a pastry, enhanced the flavor of the underlying terrifying legend rather than spoiling it entirely.

(That spoiling came from the prequels. Introduce too much squishy human irrationality and teenage angst into the legend that is Darth Vader, and you poison the well. It’s a miracle that most people are able to section off the prequels enough to still appreciate Darth Vader.)

Kylo Ren isn’t like that. Kylo Ren isn’t a force of nature. He’s a complex, emotionally tumultuous kid who’s in over his head and doesn’t realize it. Kylo Ren isn’t the new Darth Vader. Kylo Ren is the new Anakin Skywalker, done right.

They accomplished this feat in several ways. Taking off his helmet allowed him to emote, and gave him a human face rather than Vader’s unrelenting death’s head mask. His rage was not the cold, menacing anger of Darth Vader, but hotter and more explosive. This was not only surprising, and lead to a funny moment or two, but it directly showed us his tempestuous nature, and that he was grasping for control, and sometimes slipping.

There’s another thing this rage did: It juxtaposed him, as a user of the dark side, to the serene light side Jedi he ultimately faced in Rey. My favorite moment was when he pounded on his wounds in the final battle. He was using pain as a focal point, to draw on the dark side and work himself up to kill again. Perhaps this is the boy who read too many extended universe (EU) novels as a boy, but that felt more like the dark side as I know it than any evil Jedi shown on screen so far, with perhaps the exception the cackling Emperor Palpatine.

What’s more, Kylo Ren’s story is probably the one I’m most interested in hearing more of. Like Zuko in Avater: The Last Airbender, he has the most room to grow, and possibly redeem himself. Or not—he’s the biggest X factor, the largest unknown, because while we can be pretty sure that good will ultimately triumph, we don’t have a clue what role Kylo Ren will play. That makes him more fascinating than most.

Rey Saved Herself

For a series that shoved Princess Leia into a metal bikini in Episode VI, and left Padmé barefoot and pregnant for the entirety of Episode III, there are some justifiable concerns about its depiction of women. Usually it’s pretty good (Leia does kill an intergalactic mob boss while she’s in that metal bikini), but the worry remains. If ever they were going to screw it up in The Force Awakens, it would be when Rey got captured.

Note: I’m not against female characters getting kidnapped. Cutting off a potential plot decide because it was used to much in the past would be stupid. But I’m reminded of The Dresden Files, where it took like four books for Karrin Murphy to ever play the damsel in distress, proving that, though she could be overpowered and defeated, a damsel was not who she was.

That’s why I was happy when Rey saved herself. She butted heads with Kylo Ren, and then used her fledgling Force abilities to get out of her cell on her own. Sure, she needed a ride from the crew in the Falcon, but that’s just meeting her halfway. She wasn’t a Disney princess who needed rescuing. She was a friend and teammate who could use a little help.

Stealing from the Extended Universe

When Disney ruled that the entire EU was no longer canon, I wasn’t mad. I understood why they did it. They wouldn’t have room to make new stories themselves if there were 35+ years of books cluttering up the timeline. Besides, it gave Disney a chance to do something Marvel and DC have done so well: Steal from themselves.

Why wouldn’t you, when you have a bunch of stories which have been beta tested with audiences for upwards to three decades, just steal all the best parts? Most of the books weren’t iconic, and many weren’t even good, but some of them were amazing. Steal from those and you could put together some amazing movies.

I would have liked to see them do more of this, to be honest, but at least it feels like they stole a thing or two. Ben Solo, in particular—though in the EU novels it was Ben Skywalker, and another Solo son who went to the dark side. And this time around it was Han who got the viking funeral on an exploding planet, instead of Chewie. Granted, I feel like Chewie’s death had more impact than Han’s did here, because we got to see what it did to Han, but the more of the good EU plots and elements they plunder for future movies, the better they’ll be.

Mara Jade, anyone? Though I’m not holding my breath.

Take Care of the Little Things

There were a lot of small details that The Force Awakens paid attention to, to its benefit. I remember wondering early on how BB-8, the little rolling droid, would handle stairs. Eventually, he had to get down some stairs, and he dealt with them just fine, so I didn’t have to think about that anymore.

It was also good that they built up how powerful Chewie’s bowcaster is throughout the movie, even though I can’t accept that, in all the years they knew each other, Han had never fired Chewie’s weapon before now. (I know, I know, I’ll save the demerits for the next post.) Even so, the demonstrated power of Chewie’s weapon lent credence to the moment when Chewie shot Kylo Ren after Han’s death, as Kylo wasn’t able to block or divert it like every other blaster.

Though to be fair, Kylo was a little emotionally distracted at the time. Understandably so.

In the same vein, I like that everyone got beat up, in particular Kylo Ren, because he needed to be injured for amateurs like Finn and Rey to have a reasonable chance against him.

I liked the blood mark that got slapped on the stormtrooper who would become Finn, marking which stormtrooper was ours. A little movie trick, and perhaps it showed a lack of trust in the viewer, but I thought it worked and looked cool.

Rey and Finn are adorable as a couple. I started shipping them instantly. I’m sure there are other people who favor other possibilities, but that’s the only potential relationship with any grounding in the text of the movie, via Finn’s adorkable actions and reactions to Rey. Also, we can be pretty sure that they’re not related this time, which is a nice change.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens did a lot of things right, both big and small. That made it a good, fun-to-watch Star Wars movie. It was not, however, perfect.

Now let’s talk about what it did wrong.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

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