by A D Jameson
People keep calling The Force Awakens “a real Star Wars movie,” to the point where I wonder whether they’re quoting a Disney press release. I also have to wonder if they’ve seen the original Star Wars, or The Empire Strikes Back. Because make no mistake, The Force Awakens mostly reveals that J.J. Abrams and company don’t get what made those original movies classics.
I. Weaker Characters
I’ll start with what I expect to be my most controversial point: the characters in The Force Awakens are much less compelling than the characters in Star Wars and Empire.
It’ll help to recall that there are far fewer central characters in Star Wars and Empire—roughly a dozen in each film—and those characters are sharply defined and indelible. Luke is a whiny farm boy whose ambitions far exceed his abilities. Leia is an aloof leader of the Rebellion, wholly committed to her cause. Han Solo is a cocksure smuggler who looks out for himself (and Chewie), and who assumes a patronizing attitude toward the others. Our heroes are onscreen most of the two films, bickering even as they work together to achieve their goals. They are defined by their flaws and conflicts as much by their bravery and heroism, and a chief pleasure of the Original Trilogy is watching them grow individually and together. At the end of Star Wars, Han returns to help Luke blow up the Death Star. By Return of the Jedi, Luke has learned to not surrender to his emotions, while Han and Leia have fallen in love. Watching this happen is what binds them to one another, and us to them.
What defines the new characters central to The Force Awakens? Rey is a scavenger who’s self-reliant and fiercely independent … but who quickly learns to trust others. She’s also a natural at anything she tries. Finn is a squeamish Stormtrooper who defects and wants to flee the First Order … but who quickly learns to trust others. By the film’s end, he’s going toe-to-toe with the leader of the First Order himself in a lightsaber duel. Poe is a great pilot who quickly adopts Finn and mostly isn’t in the film. Unlike in Star Wars and Empire, the characters don’t really bicker, and they don’t have any substantial flaws that they have to overcome. Everyone turns out to be very nice! (It makes you wonder what they’re going to do with them in the next two films.) They also get much less screen time than their predecessors: by my reckoning, there are sixteen important characters in TFA, including ones who don’t really do anything, and who easily could have been saved for another time—Snoke and Captain Phasma, as well as Artoo and Threepio, who are there simply because they were in the Original Trilogy. Even Luke didn’t have to appear until Episode VIII.
The new characters are all too nice and capable, and suffer as a result. Their personalities also don’t drive the plot. Instead, Rey and Finn are at the service of the plot. Rather than being protagonists who pursue their own agendas, by the middle of the movie, they’re tagging along after Han Solo like baby ducks, going wherever he goes. Kudos to Abrams and Disney for casting Ridley and Boyega in lead roles—but one gets the impression the powers that be were afraid to then give the characters flaws, which smacks of pandering. Just compare Finn to Moses, John Boyega’s character in Attack the Block (a much better film than The Force Awakens): that young man starts out as a mugger and aspiring drug dealer before coming into his own and risking his life to save his friends and neighbors from an alien invasion. I’ve seen some call Finn “the Han Solo character” of Force Awakens, but Moses is more like Han Solo than Finn.
As for Rey, when Disney announced the initial cast of Star Wars VII, more than a few people decried the lack of female characters. (I wrote such an article myself and, yes, I’m still wondering where poor, forgotten Lando is. I mean, Nien Nunb and Ackbar returned, but not General Calrissian? What gives?) Producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy responded by saying there were still more casting announcements to come, and indeed the powers that be soon revealed that Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie would be in the film. But note which characters they wound up playing: Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata is a motion-capture alien, and Christie’s chrome trooper, Captain Phasma, spends the film bedecked in body armor. You wanna know what I think? The backlash to the initial casting announcement caught Disney with their pants down, so they made the easiest gender-swaps they could to avoid looking sexist. (Empire Magazine’s Helen O’Hara has voiced similar suspicions.) And I’ll bet anything that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan then revised Rey’s character, removing anything that risked making her seem weak. The result is patronizing, and poor storytelling.
Even Han and Leia, when we catch up with them, are shadows of their former selves. We learn that their relationship didn’t work out, which is fine—but when the two reteam, they’re … exceedingly polite to one another. They’re like Michael Corleone and Kay in The Godfather: Part III, kindly reminiscing over their failed marriage while sipping wine in the Italian countryside. (“You mean you don’t know where Lando is, either?”)
The one new character who succeeds in making an indelible impression is Kylo Ren, who is very clearly defined, and who spends the film actively working to achieve his own goals. He’s also the cleverest thing about the movie. Tasked with creating a new Darth Vader, which risked being weaker and a letdown, Abrams &co. wrote the problem into the artwork, literally making the character a weaker Darth Vader. (That said, Ren shouldn’t have taken off his helmet until his confrontation with his father, if at all.)
Here’s how all of this could have been improved: Rey could have been fiercely independent and suspicious of others. Her being strong with the Force should have concerned Leia and Han, who fear she’ll be seduced, the way their son was. Poe should’ve been arrogant and aloof—a cocksure pilot. Han Solo should have been anything other than a friendly grandpa—losing his son and marriage should have made him far more conflicted.
Finn, meanwhile, shouldn’t have overcome his fear of the First Order so quickly—but I wouldn’t have made fear his defining characteristic. Why couldn’t he have been battle-hardened and cynical, rather than inexperienced? As the film is now, Finn’s choice to rebel looks like an error in his biological programming, rather than a decision he gradually came to via experience. Again, he seems more at the service of the plot, rather than driving it—which is why he spends the second half of the film with nothing to do. (People keep mistaking him for a Resistance fighter, so he just becomes one.)
II. Weaker Dialogue
Above all else, the biggest loss is the lack of bickering, which seems to me essential to a Star Wars film. How could Abrams and Kasdan have forgotten to include that? (Did I see a bad print?) Even the Marvel Movies remembered to include character conflict in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. (Guardians is more like a Star Wars movie than The Force Awakens.)
The incessant politeness reminded me of a fundamental problem on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Gene Roddenberry insisted that Starfleet officers never argue with one another—a constraint that famously hamstrung the show’s writers. Unsurprisingly, the dialogue in The Force Awakens is bland and forgettable. Early on in the film, when Poe gives the map chip to BB-8, he says (and I quote), “You take this. It’s safer with you than it is with me. You get as far away from here as you can! Do you here me? I’ll come back for you! You’ll be all right.” None of those lines are necessary, let alone all of them. If Poe really had to say something, how about just, “Get as far away as you can!” That would have at least some drama to it. But Abrams belongs to the “explain everything directly and repeatedly” club, because you never know—some viewers might be playing Angry Birds Star Wars on their cell phones, and thereby miss what’s going on. His cinema is just like his television: his characters constantly narrate everything they’re doing, and why.
Imagine if Princess Leia had said any of that slop in Star Wars, while sticking the data tapes in Artoo. When we see her crouching beside the little droid, she’s actually just finished recording a message—“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” But Lucas didn’t show us that; we don’t hear that message until much later. And before we get the full message, we get just a tease. This is what makes Star Wars so beguiling, and so memorable.
Star Wars is all memorable lines. It’s not Howard Hawks, but it’s snappy, and we quote from it endlessly—Empire, too. If you sat down a gaggle of geeks, and gave them pen and paper, they could recreate the screenplays from memory.
But can you remember a single line from The Force Awakens? Forty years from now, will anyone sit around quoting it? When you recite Poe Dameron’s instructions to BB-8, will you manage to include all those generic sentences in the right order? No, because forty years from now, no one will remember The Force Awakens. (Because it ain’t Star Wars.)
III. Weaker Narrative
The narrative of a Star Wars film should be simple, direct—A to B to C. In A New Hope, it’s Tatooine to the Death Star to Yavin IV. In Empire, it’s Hoth to the space chase / Dagobah (our heroes split up), then Bespin. We also spend some time cutting to Darth Vader, but he’s not a distraction—he’s the antagonist, busy making life miserable for our heroes.
The Force Awakens is more like the Prequels, in that it’s a convoluted mess. To begin with, the basic scenario is needlessly murky. Who are the Republic, the Resistance, the First Order? We’re immediately confused, unlike in A New Hope, where we understand at once that there’s an Empire (bad and big) and a Rebel Alliance (good and severely outgunned)—we learn that in the opening shot of the film. How big and powerful is the First Order? They must be huge, even bigger than the Empire, if they managed to build the Star Killer Base, which is so much bigger than the Death Star. Then how big is the Resistance? Are they outgunned? Or are they the official military of the Republic? How much of the galaxy does the Republic control? Why is the Republic headquartered on Hosnian Prime (?), rather than Coruscant? When the Hosnian System gets wiped out, does that mean the Republic got wiped out? Why is any of this a mystery? Could it be the people who made the film don’t actually know? (Abrams is bringing to Star Wars the same magic he brought to Lost.)
Who is supposed to be the protagonist of the film—who is the Luke character? I’d guess Rey (and it should be Rey), but it turns out to be Han Solo: he’s the one calling the shots, presumably because Harrison Ford would only return if he got top billing, and got to be in charge. Imagine if Alec Guinness had turned out to be the hero of A New Hope, rather than a supporting character to Luke. Or just remember Star Trek: Generations, where Kirk fought Picard for top billing. The Force Awakens is Star Wars: Generations.
Why do we cut around so much, go so many places? Star Wars and Empire were set in five and six locations, respectively (including outer space). The Force Awakens has no fewer than ten locations: Jakku, the First Order Star Destroyer, the Millennium Falcon, Han and Chewie’s creature smuggling ship, Maz Kanata’s planet, the Resistance’s base planet (?), the Star Killer Base, Hosnian Prime, outer space (of course), and wherever it is Luke is standing around at the end of the film, busy looking like a bum. It has roughly as many central characters and locations as Return of the Jedi, which was the third film of its trilogy. (How many characters and locations will we have by Episode IX?)
What’s more, not all of those people and places were needed. We didn’t need to see the citizens of Alderaan before it blew up, and we sure don’t need to see the people on Hosnian Prime. Just detonate the system and be done with it! Han and Chewie could have simply boarded the Falcon—we didn’t need the scene with the Beholders on their own ship, and we certainly didn’t need the rival gangs, who looked like they walked in from The Fifth Element. Luke could have been saved for the next film—imagine if Yoda had suddenly appeared at the end of Star Wars! (It would have sucked!) But more than anything else, the film should have belonged to Rey and Finn, whose conflicting personalities and decisions should have driven the action forward, the same way the decisions made by Luke, Leia, and Han propelled both Star Wars and Empire.
(I’m not going to even get into how idiotic it is for the First Order to make a third Death Star, only to have the Rebels once again swoop in and shoot it until it explodes. Even our heroes couldn’t get excited about this bit of nonsense—Han could barely contain his boredom—and I was bored beyond belief. The assaults on Death Stars Mark 1 and 2, in A New Hope and Jedi, are thrilling. Here—whatever. Nor am I going to rag on the bizarre and horrible physics of the Star Killer Base draining suns and blowing up other systems, all of which is somehow visible from the Resistance Base, as though Leia and the others were standing on a rooftop in my home neighborhood, Logan Square, watching an attack on downtown Chicago—except to say that, just like in the Prequel Trilogy, all of this made the people in The Force Awakens seem very stupid, and the galaxy feel very small.)
IV. Weaker Filmmaking
The entirety of The Force Awakens feels diminished, less epic, less grand. Remember how Star Wars opened? The tiny Rebel Blockade Runner is pursued by the massive Imperial Star Destroyer, then swallowed up. We cut inside to rushing droids and chaos—Threepio and Artoo have no idea what’s going on. Rebel soldiers rush by and grimly prepare to be boarded. They look frightened but resolute. Then the action calms down: Lucas takes his time, using the soundtrack—those echoing clanks—to create an air of mystery as to what will happen next. A door sparks, then explodes, and gleaming white Stormtroopers start spilling through. Wordlessly, a pitched battle ensues. Finally, Darth Vader is given one of the greatest entrances in film history. Black and towering—visually distinguished from everything we’ve seen thus far, and forming a stark contrast with the white troopers and corridor—he steps through the blasted doorway, calmly surveys the bodies, then silently strides on. This is visual storytelling, clear and focused and dramatic.
How does The Force Awakens open? With mishmash. A Star Destroyer eclipses a planet, but the shot is dim and weakly composed. Abrams next gives us flashes of Stormtroopers in a transport—a fine stab at an impressionistic style, although the film proceeds to entirely drop that approach. We next get a flat exchange between Lor San Tekka and Dameron Poe, indifferently framed and edited. Their dialogue immediately nods to the Original Trilogy, with an in-joke about General Leia no longer being a princess. This is not cinema, but television—close-ups of characters telling us what they’re doing and why, with fan-service substituted for drama.
Then the Stormtroopers land, and the film becomes a blur of shots and edits. Abrams swings the camera every which way in extensive tracking shots, hoping that the movement will create excitement. It doesn’t. There’s no clear agenda, no suspense, no focused attempt at a strong, dramatic effect—there’s just stuff. He also intercuts Poe’s perspective with that of the Stormtroopers, instead of staying with one or the other. In a random shot, he places the camera inside the Stormtrooper transport; we watch the troops rush past us, out onto Jakku, in a moment perhaps cribbed from Saving Private Ryan. Imagine if Lucas had cut away from the Rebel troops to show us what the Stormtroopers were seeing as they boarded the Blockade Runner. Imagine if Spielberg had cut away from the Allied troops, in Ryan, to show us the German soldiers preparing for the assault. There’s a reason why those two filmmakers didn’t do that. Abrams may worship Lucas and Spielberg, but he hasn’t studied their films carefully enough, because he doesn’t understand why their filmmaking works.
(Of course some might object here that we need all those shots from the Stormtroopers’ POV because Finn is among them. But we don’t know who Finn is yet, and these shots do nothing to establish his character. We don’t realize Finn is special until his fallen comrade bloodies his mask. And we don’t really need Finn until Poe gets captured—that’s when the perspective should shift, like the passing of a baton. I mean, c’mon folks—this ain’t Rashômon.)
Note also how Kylo Ren is introduced. Poe sees his ship approach, and seems scared—that much is fine. But Abrams again cuts around willy-nilly, including a needless extreme wide shot that diminishes the moment’s intensity. And when the ship’s hatch opens and Ren comes striding out, the shot is framed on an oblique angle that doesn’t do the character any favors. Abrams then cuts to a much better shot of Ren marching straight toward the camera—so why all the other fuss? It could’ve all been done in a single shot: cut from Poe to a tightly framed image of Ren’s ship landing, the hatch opening, the villain striding imperiously toward us.
So what do people mean when they say Abrams made “a real Star Wars film”? They mean he got the production design right. In the lead up to the film, there were countless fawning articles about how Abrams was using puppets and miniatures, foregoing the endless CGI that marred the Prequel Trilogy. This time around, there would be real locations, and realist, practical effects. And those things do, to some extent, distinguish Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. But the Original Trilogy was always much more than that.
V. A Lack of Realism
Not that Abrams got the realism right, mind you. In Star Wars and Empire, a large part of the realist effect comes from how Lucas and company present the extraordinary world they’d constructed as something mundane. Starships and droids are remarkable to us, the viewers, but they’re common, everyday things in that galaxy far, far away. Threepio and Artoo are nothing special—indeed, the first time we see them, there’s another robot much like Threepio in the background of the shot. And soon the droids are being bought and sold like appliances, surrounded by other robots. Luke, their new master, turns out to be kinder than most of their former owners, but even he tunes Threepio out. (He doesn’t take any interest until he finds out they belonged to the Rebellion.)
The characters don’t marvel at things in Star Wars; they take their world for granted. But in The Force Awakens, Rey and Finn are constantly in awe over the people and things they encounter. Luke dismisses the Millennium Falcon as “a piece of junk.” For Rey, the Falcon is an historical artifact—a legendary ship—and Han and Chewie are also legends. “This is the ship that made the Kessel Run in under fourteen parsecs!” she breathlessly exclaims, and while she gets her facts slightly wrong, she could be any Star Wars fan. That’s because she is a Star Wars fan—she and Finn are audience surrogates in a way Luke and Han and Leia never were. Unlike their predecessors, Rey and Finn know the lore of Star Wars, more or less, and are impressed by it. This is what makes The Force Awakens feel like a fan-film, like Star Wars cosplay—something cheap. Star Wars should be epic, and above all else, ignorant of the viewer. Imagine if, when Han Solo told Rey that she was standing aboard the Millennium Falcon, her response had been, “Never heard of it.” That would have made her more like Luke, a kid from a backwater planet who’s out of the loop. It also would have better established her character—someone fiercely independent, and wrapped up in her own problems. (She could even have been lying to Solo—imagine that! Characters with their own agendas who say things other than exposition!)
As for the indomitable BB-8, why don’t we see other robots like her? Bright orange and white, she stands out everywhere she goes (and leaves obvious tracks that anyone could follow). No wonder that, no matter what planet she finds herself on, people immediately know she’s the droid that everyone is looking for. Imagine if she’d instead been lost in a sea of other droids identical to her—just like Threepio and Artoo. (And not to nitpick, but how can Rey speak her language? Especially when no one else can. Threepio needed to interpret Artoo, and Luke used a computer to translate what the astromech droid was saying—the rest of the time, he just guessed.)
VI. A Lack of Romanticism
Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were subtle blends of realism and expressionism (as in German Expressionism). They were also Wagnerian, epic in their look and sound. In making them, Lucas drew on the work of directors like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and Leni Riefenstahl, as well as visually daring filmmakers like John Ford and Akira Kurosawa. He also learned from directors like Jean-Luc Godard—the New Hollywood absorbed a lot from the French New Wave—and experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, whose 1964 short film 21-87 provided the term “the Force,” and much inspiration for the soundtrack. (Lucas’s earlier feature THX-1138 is a clear homage to Lipsett.) There’s a reason why the shots and sounds of the Original Trilogy have lingered in the popular consciousness, and why A New Hope won the Academy Award for Best Editing: Lucas’s supposed popcorn movies are distillations of a wide spectrum of filmmaking craft.
Abrams has never had a strong grasp over film grammar, and his compositions and editing are consistently murky and unfocused. The look of Force Awakens is more like Firefly than Star Wars—functional, but never artistic (although Firefly, to be fair, was aiming for a less composed look). The best moment by far, visually, is the confrontation between Kylo Ren and Han Solo on the long bridge, where Abrams does his best to mimic Peter Suschitzky’s phenomenal cinematography on Empire. (Why didn’t he hire Suschitzky to shoot this new film? The man’s still working.) But like the flash of impressionism with the Stormtroopers early on, it comes across as mere momentary imitation, because there’s nothing else like it in the film—The Force Awakens lacks the elegant, consistent appearances of either Star Wars or Empire.
In composing the score for Star Wars, John Williams understood the Romantic effect Lucas was aiming for, which is why he wrote something so Wagnerian. The movie was supposed to be epic, transcendent of any particular place or time. (This is why it’s set as far away from present-day Earth as possible.) Star Wars is supposed to be sincerely mythical and Romantic. Lucas famously instructed his actors to play the purplish dialogue straight, to avoid winking at the camera or hamming it up. The Force Awakens betrays that sensibility, constantly winking at its viewers, showering us with feeble jokes that won’t age well—BB-8 using her lighter to give a thumbs up—not to mention empty nods to the Original Trilogy. The score, too, mostly finds Williams revisiting past glories. Rey gets a somewhat memorable leitmotif, but the rest is just callbacks to Star Wars. Say what you want about The Phantom Menace, but at least I left the theater humming “Duel of the Fates.”
VII. A Lack of Vision
All in all, the worst failing of The Force Awakens is a lack of vision. No matter whether you love or hate George Lucas, the man is a genius. Back in the mid-70s, no one else could have made Star Wars—no one else could even understand what Lucas was going on about (see Dale Pollock’s brilliant biography Skywalking). No one except maybe Steven Spielberg thought the movie would turn out to be any good, let alone a smash hit. Lucas blindsided everyone.
And when it came time to make a sequel, no one expected that the man would hire Irvin Kershner and Peter Suschitzky and let them make an independent art film. It would have been far safer to make Star Wars II—especially since Lucas was funding the film himself, and risked losing everything—but instead everyone involved made something more daring, and artier. They doubled down on the Wagnerian Romanticism, doubled down on the space opera, doubled down on their protagonists being flawed—and threw in an unhappy ending to boot.
And when it came time to make the Prequel Trilogy, Lucas again made what he wanted to make. You might loathe those three films, think them the worst movies ever made—and make no mistake, they are very bad movies—but they are also innovative and astonishing. Nearly seventeen years after The Phantom Menace, there’s still a part of me that doesn’t believe that movie got made and screened in theaters—that it wasn’t somehow a practical joke. I keep expecting to wake up and learn it was all just a dream. The Phantom Menace was a failure, but it was a spectacular failure. Lucas never did anything small.
By way of contrast, what is The Force Awakens? It’s a watery remake of A New Hope, reminiscent of other cynically calculating, made-by-committee movies trading openly in nostalgia, like Jurassic World. It’s not even the best action blockbuster of 2015. (That would be Mad Max: Fury Road.) It doesn’t do anything new or daring or bold—it just cribs from the Original Trilogy, and throws in copious amounts of fan service to remind you of what are much better films, movies I know I’d rather be watching. Return of the Jedi was a disappointment after the glory that is Empire, retreading familiar ground, but it still gave us wonderful new characters, like Jabba and the Emperor, and it pushed its characters further (especially Luke). It also brought the Original Trilogy to a close via Luke’s confrontation with Vader, a highlight of the first three films.
The Force Awakens doesn’t even match Jedi. In the end, it isn’t Star Wars for a very simple reason: George Lucas is a genius, a visionary filmmaker with aesthetic ambition and a deep and eclectic interest in cinema. J.J. Abrams, meanwhile, is a slavish director-for-hire who knows how to copy certain things from better artists, but who doesn’t understand what made their movies so magnificent in the first place.
(Thanks to Joel Janiurek, Mazin Saleem, Tim Feeney, Jeremy M. Davies, and especially Justin Roman for helping me clarify my thoughts about the film.)