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.