Because fans should be critical, too

In Which “The Force Awakens” The Grinch Within…

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.

Merry Christmas!

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9 responses

  1. Ian

    AH, i always love disagreeing with you 🙂

    Honestly i dont know what to say to your arguments because a lot of it is very subjective. Just as every character in a movie has the potential to be likeable or not by the audience so the same is with this movie. As you said, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Issac all played their parts wonderfully just like the original trilogy star wars actors did. It really all comes down to personal preference. I had no previous experience with star wars outside of vague memories of each film. None of the original characters were memorable enough for me. I remembered them being good movies but nothing groundbreaking in my opinion just good movies that were competently made. With the force awakens, I LOVED the new characters. I think comparing rey to luke is a terrible idea as both serve different purposes in their story. But if i must for protagonist sakes i must say i find Rey much more interesting. Its like if Aang didnt know he was the avatar and was finding himself being able to manipulate water out of nowhere and seeing that he has the avatar state. Reys arc is more external than internal with the her, as the title suggests, awakening her inner powers with the force, but that made her even more interesting and seeing as she was already a likeable character, i was intent on seeing her succeed. She was very relateable, not wanting to take on the responsibility of the lightsaber and having to come to terms wih realizing her family was never coming back (that one i definitely could relate to).

    Im watching a new hope as i type this and im at the part after Obi wan dies. And i must say that it didnt work with me. I dont care about Obi wan and its not because hes not well acted or written, i just dont really like him all that much. Same goes with Luke, hes fine for a protagonist but im not really enthralled in him succeeding. However, I LOVE Han solo and the princess (who i might add doesnt really do anything but say cheesy lines and shoot open a grate) but im finding myself enjoying her screen time over Chewie, whom i adored in the force awakens.

    *wow im just now remembering i forgot to talk about R2-D2 and C3P0. they’re fine. I like R2 a bit more but hes nothing special to me. Now BB8? Love love love love it! he has such a personality and the attention to detail on him was great like when he went down stairs and he had to watch his individual step. He just had more emotion to his design which allowed for me to instantly enjoy him. The fact that he was a real prop made him all the more real.

    *also forgot Vader. At this point he had an interesting moment with Obi wan and i did feel very invested in that scene. Outside of that, hes a cool henchman to that imperial guy, and i like that the imperial called him friend, implying some sort of comradery.

    I liked watching Rey grow in her powers, the climax of the movie i was entirely invested because i wanted to see rey beat Kylo ren, and i cheered when she caught the lightsaber instead of Kylo because i loved her character and wanted to see her succeed.

    Ah well, thats why we have opinions i guess 🙂

    To compare her with Korra, the reason i dont like Korra all that much in book 1 and 2 is because she was a jerk to people and was not interesting from the get go, a staple of character writing. We KNOW what korras all about from the moment we see her. Reys first appearance is silence and were instantly intrigued. The more she talks the more we learn about her, and the more the movie goes the more she learns about herself. Shes likeable, she has flaws (she releases the rathtars and almost gets Finn killed), and most importantly she has to TRY to succeed. Korra had everything handed to her and when she was defeated it didnt really mean much.

    As for your complaints about meta humor and out of place lines. I dont see it at all. I never took Poe talking about who talks first or not understanding Kylo as meta humor because it was Poes character being established. He later is asked if hes comfortable in his restraints and he cockily says, “not reeeally,” Hes the type of character who trys to use jokes to keep cool and isnt afraid to smack talk the villain in order to feel confident. I think your looking to much into this. I instantly felt likeablity to Poe because he was established as the best pilot in the resistance he talked like he was. But then we instantly are treated to him not being able to withstand Kylos mind reading and it humanized him showing that hes not perfect. It was great!

    Thoughts?

    December 26, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    • I think comparing rey to luke is a terrible idea as both serve different purposes in their story.

      Exactly, which is why that argument makes little sense to me. It’s not like they don’t have certain similarities, but her narrative trajectory is unique to her (which deserves some credit, I’ll admit). Unique–even relatable, to an extent–but not very interesting, at least to me. That said, I’d nearly forgotten that her chemistry with Finn was adorably on-point, and I would have loved more goofy on-screen interaction between those two, even if that was due more to Ridley and Boyega than the script itself.

      Im watching a new hope as i type this and im at the part after Obi wan dies. And i must say that it didnt work with me. I dont care about Obi wan and its not because hes not well acted or written, i just dont really like him all that much.

      That scene always affected me more for Luke’s reaction than my personal feelings for Obi-Wan. After all, Luke’s the one who knew him most his life as a crazy old hermit before finding out he was a Jedi Knight and a former friend of his father’s. All that hope seemingly flies out the window with his death (although he swiftly reappears as a voice in Luke’s head, so it’s not too bad).

      He just had more emotion to his design which allowed for me to instantly enjoy him. The fact that he was a real prop made him all the more real.

      I’ll admit that BB8 has more instant appeal, you’re right about that (and the fact that he’s a real prop is awesome). He didn’t seem to have a lot to do, though. Maybe he was missing his own C3P0 counterpart to bounce off?

      Hes the type of character who trys to use jokes to keep cool and isnt afraid to smack talk the villain in order to feel confident.

      I liked that about Poe. I wanted to see more of him for that.

      Ah well, thats why we have opinions i guess 🙂

      Absolutely. They tend to say more about us than about the subject matter, don’t they? And that’s not a bad thing!

      December 27, 2015 at 10:40 am

  2. Ian

    Oh, one more thing, the men say “were with you POE” not bro. I too would have found that weird. I however found nothing wrong with “Droid, please” because the way he said it was literally asking please to the droid. I see nothing wrong with that.

    December 26, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    • OH MY GOD, YOU’RE PROBABLY RIGHT.

      Thanks for that correction, Ian, that’s the best laugh I’ve had in a long, long time. My filthy little mind is tainting this movie for me!

      As for “Droid, please!,” I thought…you know what? I’ll let it slide. It’s just my filthy mind playing tricks on me again!

      December 27, 2015 at 10:43 am

  3. Ian

    I dont say this to be rude Marshall so please dont take what im about to say as a personal attack. But do you think that you personally take a bit of a waiting period before you can just appreciate things as is? Like take for instance Avatar the last airbender, you state on your site it took a long time for you to warm up to it and you hated it for a while, but after a long wait you saw the positives for what they were and those positives, in the end i believe, outweighed the negatives for you on the show, and now you even love it to an extent! Sometimes maybe there really does need to be a lul in between the hype of a show or movie before you can truly appreciate it critically. I think you mentioned the same about the beatles (in that you didnt fully appreciate them for a long while)

    To put the spotlight on me for a second though i have this similar problem with Gravity Falls. When a new episode comes out i get SO EXCITED. The show is such a joy to watch and the conspiracy’s and mysteries keep me busy on boring days. However when i watch a new episode i inevitably am disappointed for a day or so. None of it appeases me at first and i feel let down. This mystery wasnt touched on or the episode didnt focus on this thing for as long as id hoped. Thankfully, with the exception of ONE episode, my rewatches only make the episode better because i watch it for what it is and fall in love with what the creators of the episode wanted to create and how well it was done, instead of what i wanted. I then can critique what they wanted to do and if it was done well.

    Sadly movies and shows are so subjective and as critics (myself included) sometimes we get lost in trying to find the CORRECT way to develop a character, or the CORRECT way to tell this story and weave its narrative. When at the end of the day it really just comes down to some basics of storytelling being done well and details that come with it (voice acting, visuals, music) and, sadly, LUCK.

    SPOILERS

    Hans death i felt was SUPER emotional, it had great build up and the scene and everyone’s reactions were heartbreaking. But no matter how well i think the director did on the lighting representing the fading of the light and the addition of darkness, or how well i think this ends Hans character or how great the performances were, at the end of the day someone will think it wasnt impactfull or emotional or the way they think Han should have died.

    END OF SPOILERS

    This is me with star wars. its a great movie on its own, and while i didnt have much love for it on this rewatch i still appreciate its craft and see what positives are there even if they dont work for me personally.

    Last thing i want to bring up is something i call the marty Mcfly syndrome.

    Theres been quite a fuss on the internet saying that Rey is a perfect character and a mary su (a perfect character who gets all that they want and never has any problems and everyone likes them)

    Some say this makes her a bad character, the fact that she does have a lot of initiative and external qualities that are super great. But i have to wonder. Wheres all the backlash then for marty mcfly? One of the most perfect characters in cinema. He has no arc in back to the future 1, makes one mistake the whole movie (saving his dad from getting hit by a car (try that for a mistake) and is externally perfect and everyone in the film loves him sans Biff. (I dont count Mr. strictland)

    Yet for some reason he is a pop culture phenomna, everyone loves marty, hes a beloved character, and all for what? If you strip him down to the bareness of the script, hes literally just the perfect teenager going through a weird event. but because his actor Micheal j fox brought such life to him and made him so dang likeable, we want to see him succeed. This is how i felt about Rey when i watched her, she is a marty mcfly character. She is externally pretty perfect (with some flaws like not being master at a blaster or lightsaber but competent enough) she is very likeable and has personal internal baggage like marty that makes her relate able. At this point in the films trilogy, thats all i need. She can be to young girls (and even boys) what marty was to me, the ideal teenage hero who i could relate to. I dont see why thats a bad thing to anyone.

    So long as they develop her in the sequels (like marty had with his not wanting to be called chicken, even if that is really thin characterization but it worked) then i see no problem with this being her current state.

    thoughts?

    December 28, 2015 at 12:32 am

  4. Feeana

    I’m curious to know – did any of you see the resemblance of Zuko’s character in Kylo Ren? To me it was quite striking.

    December 28, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    • Ian

      Hmm. I did not, What do you mean specifically?

      December 28, 2015 at 7:11 pm

  5. Yunus58

    The one thing that I was annoyed with was Death Star 3, sorry, Starkiller Base. I mean come on JJ. But otherwise it was a fun movie.

    January 15, 2016 at 11:50 am

  6. Rosemont

    I wonder what you would make of this article:

    http://www.themarysue.com/daisy-ridley-rey-not-a-mary-sue/

    A common retort is that Mary Sue as a term is sexist, but I think people resort to this defense so many times that the claim that the word itself is sexist obscures how often “you’re just tainted by sexism” is used as a defense against legitimate claims of bad writing, some of which is influenced by “positive” discrimination – still a form of sexism, in that one perfect, flawless (and boring) role model female character can make up for all the other female capital C-characters that just don’t exist.

    October 28, 2016 at 9:23 am

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