I can’t say it’s all that surprising that I was disappointed with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I only watched out of “cultural obligation” (and the fact that my friends voted me down when I wanted to see Sisters instead). What completely bowls me over, however, is how unanimous the praise has been from just about everyone else I’ve come in contact with, even from the most hard-nosed Star Wars fans (particularly those who hated the prequels). Everyone I’ve talked to had a very calm and rational explanation for moments I found questionable, characterizations I found flat and uninspired, and plot points I found bizarre and/or recycled from Star Wars: A New Hope. In fact, it’s the very rationality of their responses that leave me in doubt as to whether they actually enjoyed the movie or if they simply convinced themselves that they did.
Still, the enthusiasm I’ve encountered has been genuine, and I only wish I enjoyed the movie as much as they did. Lord knows I wanted to, and I certainly came into the movie with few expectations, positive, negative or otherwise. And yet, the movie threw too many obstacles in the way of my viewing experience for me to be completely engaged with the story and its characters. The feeling, after the movie was over, was one of being let down yet again by someone I’d previously trusted. It’s the same feeling I had with Book One of Korra, Frozen, and, most recently, Spectre (which is not the worst James Bond film I’ve ever seen, but definitely the worst I’ve seen in theaters, and definitely made worse by the fact that it followed the supremely entertaining Skyfall).
It’s likely that you’ve seen The Force Awakens by this point, but just in case, I’ll refrain from spoilers and state simply my main issues with the movie.
First of all, I found Rey to be a complete flatline of a protagonist for much the same reasons I tended to find Korra rather boring. By trying to make sure she came across as a Strong Female Character™, the filmmakers failed to give her any actual character, as well as provide her with any real obstacles that would have tested that character if she had any. Things come to her just a little too easily for her journey to be of any real interest. Whatever back story she has going for her adds little dimension to her personality. Still, she has agency, a kind heart, can hold her own in a fight, isn’t completely helpless, and played extremely well by Daisy Ridley, which I suppose is good enough for a Star Wars movie–just like Korra’s gymnastics were good enough for an American animated children’s show and the lack of romance in Frozen was good enough for a Disney Princess™ movie (in which “good enough,” of course, translates to “progressive”).
The standard retort I’ve found with Rey is that her story is basically Luke’s, and his character and story arc weren’t the deepest or most believable either. Why that’s license to give Rey even less depth and believability, I’m not sure. At least Luke got his ass kicked every once and a while, and as improbable as his victory in blowing up the Death Star was, that entire sequence had more build-up, tension, reversals, stakes, and excitement than anything that happens in The Force Awakens. (Hell, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what actually happened beat-by-beat in the movie, which is a problem in itself.)
I found both Finn and Poe to be marginally better (again, largely thanks to the performances of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, respectively), but still lacking in terms of actual character. Some of Finn’s comic moments went a little too far for my tastes (a misunderstood head nod from Han Solo is particularly cringeworthy), and Poe–for reasons I’ll leave unexplained–simply isn’t on-screen long enough to make a lasting impression. (Also, the fact that Poe gives Finn his name could have a potentialky racist subtext, but I’m probably just overthinking what should be a bonding moment between these two characters who have just met and are helping each other escape the New Order).
On the plus side, Kylo Ren is a great villain, played surprisingly well by Adam Driver. And isn’t it nice to see Harrison Ford actually having fun in a movie again? (There’s another Korra parallel: the older actors/characters and villains are much more enjoyable to watch than the protagonists!)
Had I liked the characters more, I doubt the rest of the issues I had with the movie would have bothered me too much. Like the fact that it’s filled to the brim with that sort of awkward meta-humor that’s become the norm in mainstream films and that I’ve grown to despise. The first scene between Kylo Ren and Poe–in which Poe points out an awkward silence and then complains about not being able to understand Kylo’s voice through his mask–belongs in a Youtube parody, not the actual movie.
Then there are lines that just should have been left on the cutting room floor. At one point, Finn and the R2-D2 ball named BB-8 (who I otherwise hardly remember in the movie) are arguing about something, and Finn responds with the line, “Droid, please!” I don’t know who should be more ashamed: Boyega for ad-libbing the line, or J.J. Abrams for keeping it in the movie (if, indeed, the line was ad-libbed and not written in the script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, or Michael Arndt, which would be even weirder). Also, when the X-Wing fighters arrive, one of the pilots says to the captain, “Right behind ya, bro!” Since when did “bro” enter the Star Wars lexicon?
Perhaps I’m a fool for letting these little things bother me and stifle what entertainment value could be found in this movie. Perhaps I simply expected too much from a Star Wars movie. Sure, Star Wars has always been cheesy, but it was never stupid. And above all, it was completely sincere and honest about itself. The filmmakers behind The Force Awakens are too smart and self-aware for their own good, injecting a cynical wink-wink quality into a franchise that was successful precisely because such knowing cynicism didn’t spoil the picture. The fact that it not only pervades the new movie but goes by unnoticed–or, at least, completely rationalized–by most people is a fairly grim sign of the times. Back then, it was a miracle that Star Wars could be accomplished at all, let alone also be a good movie. Paradoxically, the ubiquity of Star Wars nowadays makes a new entry into the franchise easy to accomplish, but harder to make worthwhile.
Simply put, I find it hard to believe that this was the best Abrams and company could come up with. We’ve already had Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, two more sequels with even less of a reason for existing than The Force Awakens, and yet both were much more imaginative, consistent, and thoroughly entertaining than they had any right to be. Then again, with George Miller’s recent Happy Feet credentials and Tom Cruise’s ever-fading popularity, maybe those films had more going against them and felt the need to push harder against expectations. After all, The Force Awakens didn’t have to be as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back (or even Return of the Jedi, which is currently receiving a strange, but not entirely unwarranted retroactive backlash upon Star Wars fans); it just had to be better than the prequels.
In other words, it had to be “good enough.” And so it was, much to the world’s delight, and my personal disappointment.
I have to wonder if any of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s young audience were converted into hard-nosed skeptics after watching “The Fortuneteller.” The main conflict involves a village that puts all its trust in the local fortuneteller, Aunt Wu; if Aunt Wu says the village will not be destroyed by the nearby volcano, everyone believes it. So when said volcano shows signs of an impending eruption, the villagers smugly refuse to accept that they’re in any danger, despite the evidence presented by our heroes. One could almost call the episode subversive if it hadn’t handled its faith vs. science theme so gingerly.
For one thing, the episode never makes it clear whether Aunt Wu is a sham or not. She certainly seems to believe in what she’s doing, and her prediction about the volcano was technically correct since our heroes saved the day. (She even accurately predicts Aang’s trials as the Avatar.) Then again, her cloud readings—which are interpreted with a special book—seem pretty arbitrary, and apparently take place at the same time every day, despite the fact that clouds are constantly moving and making new shapes. Even if the cloud of death had formed on its own—and without the clever Bending of Aang and Katara—Aunt Wu would have missed it had Sokka not pointed it out to her.
Speaking of Sokka, he plays the role of skeptical man of science, chastising the villagers for blindly putting their fate in the hands of Aunt Wu. And yet, Aunt Wu’s prediction that Sokka’s pain would mostly be self-inflicted is not only true, it undermines Sokka’s endorsement of facts and logic by reminding us that he’s the Comic Relief, and thus doomed not to be taken seriously, by the villagers or the audience.
The villagers themselves aren’t treated any better. Their extreme devotion to Aunt Wu is mostly a setup for Sokka’s mockery and a source of tension for the plot. Most of their predictions revolve around petty personal matters with no real significance (i.e. the man you marry will have large ears). There’s not a single substantial testimony that would give their trust in Aunt Wu’s wisdom some legitimacy. It’s one thing to ignore the crazed ranting of Sokka. But to ignore the physical evidence of an incoming volcano eruption is straying too close into Darwin territory.
So is the “The Fortuneteller” pro-faith or pro-science? It’s hard to tell, and that’s one of the problems with this episode. The fact that this conversation takes place at all is an unusual achievement for a children’s show, but the writers’ refusal to take a stance and instead use the potential dialogue as a platform for silly comedy is all too typical. It’s rather telling that the one person whose reaction we don’t see to the volcano’s pre-eruption activity is Aunt Wu. Her reaction probably would have determined once and for all whether her abilities could be called into question. But alas, she’s conveniently away when the plot doesn’t need her and conveniently back when it does (we have no idea where she was when the volcano was starting to act up, but Sokka comes across her immediately when its time to point out the doom cloud).
Tangled into this fortunetelling business is the subject of love. Aang’s feelings for Katara have finally started to manifest, but for most people, it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that the two will end up together, so there’s not much of interest there. At this point, Aang is waist deep in the Friend Zone, so his feelings aren’t reciprocated. But, while eavesdropping on Aunt Wu’s prediction of Katara’s love life, he learns that she’ll eventually marry a powerful Bender, which puts the odds in his favor.
Of course, putting your love life in a fortuneteller’s hands turns out to be a bad idea. Aunt Wu’s assistant, a little girl named Meng, was told that she’d eventually marry a man with large ears. Upon meeting Aang, she just knows he’s the one (although any five-year-old can tell you that you can’t marry someone you just met). Naturally, her feelings aren’t returned, which should provide a lesson about moving on, but considering how predictably Aang and Katara’s story turns out, it’s a lesson for us normal people and not the main characters in fantasy tales.
The only real point of interest with Meng is that she’s voiced by Jessie Flower, who would return in the next season as Toph Bei Fong, one of the most beloved characters in the series. Otherwise, she’s a pretty indistinct character, which may or may not have been the point, but I’m not sure. In any case, she stalks Aang throughout the village, and ends up helping him find Aunt Wu’s cloud book to save the village. The stalking aspect of that sequence is played for laughs, but considering that it conveniently worked to Aang’s (and the village’s) advantage, Aang should consider himself lucky for having those big ears.
At the end of the episode, Meng initially appears to have pushed her feelings for Aang aside for the greater good. But after waving goodbye to our heroes, she calls Katara a naughty word. Again, it’s played for laughs, but the implication that Meng will never let it go and harbor some lingering jealousy is a little much. Isn’t this girl, like, eight-years-old? (Admittedly, we’re never told Meng’s age, but considering Flower must have been ten when they recorded this episode, that’s probably the range they were aiming for.)
So “The Fortuneteller” is not of the series’ strongest episodes—in fact, it’s borderline filler—but it’s entertaining enough. The humor generally works, which is always a good thing. Katara’s obsession with Aunt Wu’s predictions is funny thanks to Mae Whitman. And who doesn’t get a kick out of seeing Sokka being tormented by the universe? Having said that, the writers missed a big opportunity for a laugh by not having the doom cloud be a cute fluffy bunny (especially since the episode establishes that fluffy bunny clouds are signs of doom and destruction) instead of the obvious skull of death.
Perhaps the lack of a Zuko/Iroh subplot keeps this episode from being better, but that will be somewhat rectified in the next episode.
On a side note, this episode may just be the first appearance of a Hybrid Animal. Not the concept itself (which goes back as far as the first episode), but the explicit nature of naming them after the animals being fused (in this case, it’s a platypus-bear). Apparently, during production, the writers were so taken with co-creator Bryan Konietzko’s initial Hybrid Animals (i.e. Momo the lemur-bat) that they took it upon themselves to up the ante with the weirdest possible combinations in future episodes. I won’t go so far as to say Hybrid Animals ruin the series—it’s a harmless running gag—but it does reek of typical children’s show cheekiness in that the cleverness of the joke stifles our engagement with the story and its characters. This type of humor always feels like it’s more for the writers’ amusement than ours. (This kind of meta-humor pops up sporadically throughout the series, and would eventually reach its nadir with the awful “The Ember Island Players.”)
Additionally, the piecemeal nature of the Hybrid Animals calls into question the series’ own imperfect synthesis of different parts and sensibilities (mostly those of anime, Western cartoons, young adult fantasy, and of course, Star Wars). Avatar may be a fantasy, but even fantasy requires a cohesive tone and consistent worldbuilding in order for the story to resonate. Hybrid Animals have no true connection to the reality of the world of Avatar and continually shatter the suspension of disbelief. Might it have been better if the combinations didn’t breach good taste (ex. bison-manitee, yes; pig-rooster, no) and if they hadn’t lazily named them after the animals they were created from?
If you ask me, things like the Hybrid Animals—and all the silliness they exude—are why Avatar ranks fairly low in the pop cultural conversation.
P.S. Great Scott, the responses to this post were lengthy, passionate, and well-thought out. Once I have a chance to sit still for a good hour or so, I’ll contribute to the conversation. Thank you so much, guys! This is what I’ve missed the most in my time away from this blog!
One does not simply disappear for fifteen weeks–precisely one-hundred and five days–without offering a grueling, detailed explanation as to why. That explanation will come, but not now. In the meantime, it’ll take nothing short of a miracle to get this blog back into shape again. Looks like I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.
Here we go again!