I hate to say it, but…

…the new Star Wars movie kinda sucks. I know that in saying this I am pushing against an overwhelming tide of positive reviews (95% on Rotten Tomatoes!), and will likely convince no one who already loves it, but I came out of the film sad and disappointed, and my sense of disappointment has only grown as I have digested it over the last couple days.

Let me begin by saying that, while my super-fan son had something to do with it, it is telling that I went to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens on its opening weekend. I haven’t seen a movie on its opening weekend, that I recall, since Attack of the Clones more than a decade ago, because I generally hate seeing movies in crowded theaters*. So the fact that I went to see one of the most anticipated movies of my lifetime on its record-setting opening weekend is a pretty good indicator of just how excited I was to see it. While I may not be a Star Wars fan on the level of some of the fans I saw this weekend, the folks who stood in line for hours dressed in Star Wars gear to see the film on opening night, for example, the movies and toys were a big part of my childhood, and I will always love them for that reason, I remember how my parents used to get me baby toys from http://www.popular-toddler-toys.com/ they were the best.

Knowing that, I hope you’ll understand how saddened I am to tell you it is not a good movie. It is at most a mindlessly entertaining action blockbuster in the Independence Day or Armageddon vein. At worst, it is a poorly constructed, confused mixture of fan fiction and science fiction clichés. I will try to explain, with many spoilers, in the blacked-out text below.

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Perhaps what disappoints me the most is that it did not have to be as bad as it is. The story is built around two characters with a great deal of potential as protagonist and antagonist. The former is a strong, self-sufficient, but emotionally damaged young woman who was abandoned by her parents as a young child in a stark, violent desert town, and the latter a conflicted young man whose adolescent rebellion has led him into the arms of a charismatic cult leader. Their fates are intertwined by their connections to a mysterious and powerful force, the Force, connections which will result in their internal and external struggles impacting events on a scale far beyond their ability to comprehend, much less foresee. This, it seems to me at least, is the foundation for a really interesting story, one that could easily fill three films. Alas, if the first film is any indication, the story built upon this foundation will be so convoluted and unnecessarily adorned with references to the earlier films that it will never come close to reaching its potential.

It is in fact so weighed-down by references that it would not be an exaggeration to describe The Force Awakens as a shameless pastiche of Episode IV. The basic plot-structure and many of the elements are virtually identical: a cute, spunky droid is given a secret that must be delivered to the Rebels/Resistance. After being captured to be traded (perhaps for scraps), the droid, which is hunted by an evil power (the Empire or The First Order) led by a masked, seemingly magical, masked figure who is desperate to obtain the secret, is rescued by a teenager on a desert planet. The thereby becomes a target of the evil power, and in their initial meeting, the masked Empirical/First Order leader recognizes that there is something special about the teenager, something that only those initiated in the magical world from which he draws his power could recognize, which makes him/her as important a target as the secret-carrying droid.

In both films the teens escape the desert planet in the same damn ship, The Millennium Falcon; in both films they are ultimately aided by the same damn person, Han Solo, who in both films uses his knowledge of the galaxy’s underworld to help them. Of course, in both films, things go horribly wrong and they are nearly killed while hanging out with Hans’ underworld cohorts.

There are more superficial similarities as well: at one point in both movies the Millennium Falcon escapes pursuit by diving into the belly of a beast (though in The Force Awakens, the beast is figurative: a fallen Imperial destroyer). Hell, even the opening shot, with a large Imperial First Order warship passing us, is an imitation of the opening shot of Episode IV.

Finally, as if an identical beginning and middle weren’t enough, both movies end with Rebels/The Resistance blowing up a planet-sized, planet-destroying weapons system with an X-Wing fighter attack that exploits a small, easily recognized but poorly defended weakness in the system.

Add to the pastiche some outright silliness on the level of the prequels, e.g., the surprisingly giant, surprisingly agile tentacled-beasts that actually save Han, Finn, and Rey from two groups of loan sharks out to kill Han, in an utterly unnecessarily part of the film that is little more than a nod to Han’s trouble with bounty hunters in the first two films and plays no real role in the plot, and some nonsensical plot elements, e.g., the First Order foot soldier and former janitor who understands an incredibly complex, planet-sized weapon system well enough to know precisely where its fatal weakness lies, and you’ve got a hugely disappointing film clearly produced more out of fear of failure and fan anger than of a desire to tell an interesting story.

My only hope for the next two films is that they’ve gotten all of the fan fiction out of their system and can start telling the interesting story of how the conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren shapes events on a galactic scale.

*Turns out the theater, the same one in which I saw the re-release of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and two of the three prequels (I didn’t see Revenge of the Sith in a theater), wasn’t even half full.


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Chris lives in Austin, TX, where he once shook Willie Nelson's hand. ...more →

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52 thoughts on “I hate to say it, but…

  1. That I am not the only person to realize that it was “A New Hope: Redux” is relieving. I very much enjoyed it, but if Episode VIII is “Empire: Redux”, I’m going to get worried. My hope is buoyed by the new Captaincy of the Falcon, as that can have a lot of fun twists to it. I’m also hopeful that the Jedi training we know will come will involve a Jedi Master who is much more self-aware and honest of the failings of his order than his recent predecessors were (my evidence for that hope is his journey to the first temple).

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    • I wouldn’t mind it if it didn’t completely drown out anything interesting about the two main characters. I mean, Rey becomes largely a Luke Skywalker stand in, and little more, while Kylo Ren just looks like a spoiled teenager with some really serious Daddy issues.

      I assume they’ll explore those characters in more depth in the future, but they were completely wasted in this film, and with the exception of Finn, who was largely wasted for most of the second half of the film (though interesting for the first part), I’m not sure there were any characters to care about at all (except the ones we cared about because they were in earlier films).

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      • It probably should have been called “The Last Ride of Han Solo”, more than anything else.

        I liked the Kylo Ren character. I am tired of Sith who are supposed to embrace anger & hate & still be very tightly controlled. I know Tarkin was supposed to be holding Vader’s leash, but I never got the feeling Vader needed his leash held. Ren, on the other hand, needs Hux to rein him in, & Ren hates that.

        I also enjoyed the end light saber battle, with both Finn & Rey taking turns at it, and both showing a profound lack of proficiency with it. If Ren hadn’t been such a frothing hothead, he would have cut them both to cauterized ribbons in seconds, but fencing never lends itself to a lack of self-control.

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    • SPOILERS BELOW

      That I am not the only person to realize that it was “A New Hope: Redux” is relieving.

      I have that thought as well. My thought that it was an equal combination of a sequel and a reboot in the way that the movie paid tribute to the original trilogy. Therefore, I can see exactly where Chris is coming from and why I have no real issues with his review. I’ve read a couple of negative reviews and they pretty much say the same thing. Fair enough.

      There were plenty of things I found odd, especially the existence of the Starkiller. How what looks to me like a rogue state could construct something that size without either the Republic or the Resistance finding out and using military assets to stop it escapes my imagination.

      My only hope for the next two films is that they’ve gotten all of the fan fiction out of their system and can start telling the interesting story of how the conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren shapes events on a galactic scale.

      I think this will happen. All the nostalgia and references to the original trilogy aside, by the time the movie ends, I thought we were at the point where the torch got passed. Han’s death was necessary. Leia has her role and she’ll be the equivalent of Mon Mothma. We saw C-3PO (yay!). I think R2 and Chewy will have their places in the next two episodes but they won’t dominate. I’m fine with that.

      Also, I cared less about the original characters than the new ones, especially Rey and Kylo Ren. I think Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver gave their characters a level of complexity that far surpassed the characters in any of the first six movies, and that really became clear to me when Han Solo first made his appearance with Rey and Finn.

      Sure, there’s a bit of teen agnst in Kylo Ren, but I don’t think anyone can surpass Episode II Anakin Skywalker in that regard.

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      • There were plenty of things I found odd, especially the existence of the Starkiller. How what looks to me like a rogue state could construct something that size without either the Republic or the Resistance finding out and using military assets to stop it escapes my imagination.

        Well, space is big, and mostly empty, so it isn’t hard to find a solitary planet and do nefarious things to it. That said, even if there was a good supply of local resources, some things would have to get shipped in, and in quantities large enough to raise suspicions, so I suspect the Republic/Resistance knew something was happening. I think the movie even alludes to the fact that they knew about it, and had information about it, but did not have the resources to confront it directly. Until Finn gave them the Glaring Weakness (PS never doubt the ability of facilities maintenance staff to learn all manner of interesting things about a place, especially custodial).

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  2. Oddly, this movie reminded me more than anything of Star Trek: Into the Darkness.

    STITD was basically a retelling of The Wrath of Khan, but one where Abrams kept mirroring the original. It wasn’t Khan that had had taken technology from the Federation and turned it into an abomination of death, but rather the opposite. Kirk and Spock reliving their death/resurrection story, but with roles reversed. SW7 relied on the same formula; although unlike Chis I think it worked better in the Star Wars universe. So again we had a villain that a Skywalker knew still had good in him, but this time the chips fell in the other direction. In a way, SW7 tried to be a pastiche not of New Hope so much as the whole original Trilogy, albeit through a negative filter. The movie’s begging was all New Hope, but the ending was all Return of the Jedi: plucky guerrilla rebels planting bombs on a forest moon in the hopes of allowing X-Wings to take out a planet destroyer.

    If I may, I will also make two predictions for the future movies:

    1. Rae will turn out to be Luke’s daughter, stranded on a desert planet for her own protection against the Sith Lords.

    2. The Dark lord we see in the hologram will turn out to be Palpatin, massively injured after his fall in the Death Star, but still quite powerful.

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      • I think I assumed (1) from before it was known to be possible in the film. Agreed about (2), though. I think Plaugeis would be more plausible if it were a set of novels, rather than a set of movies; his presence would open too many doors, and require many more to have already been opened by the prequels* and original trilogy.

        As to @tod-kelly’s point above, I felt the movie was closer to ST ’09 in feel than Into Darkness, but I think it’s more that I thought Star Wars and ’09 were both better paced and a bit more coherent than Into Darkness. Not having seen a great deal of Trek besides the Abrams movies, I’ll accept the analysis of others more knowledgeable than me.

        *Wouldn’t it have been nice if the prequels were good enough to enhance the sequels?

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  3. There is a discussion on the Atlantic that came to the same conclusion. It had a good explanation on why Abrams decided to do a reset of Star Wars IV than anything new, laziness and easy world-building.

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    • Or, maybe, someone might say “there’s a zillion fans out there and they all *love* the universe established by ANH. The last time anyone tried to take Star Wars movies in a new direction it was the prequels and we all hated them. Abrams ain’t no dummy; he is well aware of what is expected of him, and he aims to deliver.”

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      • I think you’re right about that. Star Wars was beloved because of the setting and the characters. The story was not exactly anything to write home about. Episodes I-III ditched the old characters for new, completely flat characters and then modified the universe enough to lose the original Star Wars magic. To pull that kind of “new direction” off, you need a pretty compelling story to keep viewers on board. We all know how that turned out.

        I don’t think I could have summarized the plot of Episode I the day after I saw it. I remember nothing at all about Episode II. Literally nothing. Yes, it was a long time ago, but I remember the plots to a lot of movies I saw before Episode II. I remember thinking that Episode III did an OK job of winding up back in the right place to lead into Episode IV. They might have gotten away with that mess if the movies had otherwise “felt” like Star Wars. But they felt like some entirely different universe–one that nobody had come to love. Combine that with high expectations from fans and you’re well and truly screwed.

        OK, Abrams basically remade Episode IV with new characters. For me, the key is that it gets very high marks for Star Wars continuity. It’s set in the same reality and it feels like it’s set in the same reality. Even without bringing back old characters, it was convincingly Star Wars. It could have been released in 1987. So they have that good foundation to start with instead of starting from scratch.

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    • Movie-specific reasons: more noise, more people stepping over me/walking in front of the screen, longer lines for popcorn and bathrooms. Plus a tall person with a hat on always manages to sit in front of me. It’s just a hassle that can be avoided by going at an off time.

      I actually go to crowded movies somewhat frequently, but at the Alamo, which is a completely different animal.

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    • I don’t know about Chris’s reasons, but my biggest problem in theaters is that I’ve reached that unfortunate point in life when the sound level needed to understand has gone up, and the sound level that causes discomfort has come down. The lower bound gets challenged by the background noise that seems to have become more common. Sound limiters for the high end are uncomfortable when worn that long. The wife and I will no doubt watch the Blu-Ray or DVD when it comes out, but with the audio run through some form of dynamic range limiter.

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      • Copyright protection, sadly. They have the volume cranked because they want everyone to take the fucking hearing aids out (as pirates were taping bootlegs using them).

        The moviemakers know that the volume is too high, but they really don’t give a crap.

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  4. Everyone is entitled to their feelings, and nobody is required to like anything at all.

    That said, I saw all the things you did, and I loved most of them.

    Ok, Starkiller Base was just a bit too much of a muchness. We need to top a planet killing space station? Well, let’s make an entire planet into a killer weapon, let it drain its star for energy and the shoot multiple planet killer beams through interstellar space at faster-than light speed – but which everyone can watch. Ok, that’s a bit much. But SW has always been about making things really, really big and exaggerated.

    And the fact that they managed to work a trench run in again was a kind of eye-roller. But most of the other stuff you complain about had me going “yeah”. If you’re doing a genre formula, you have to just kind of embrace the formula and ask, “Well, what can they do with the formula”.

    Some nits to pick:

    You say, “at one point in both movies the Millennium Falcon escapes pursuit by diving into the belly of a beast” This is very much a repetition, but not a repetition of ANH. That didn’t happen in ANH, it happened with a beast in ESB, and with girders and structure and stuff (the Death Star) in ROJ

    The weird-ass space monsters were a source of delight to us, and showed us some clever problem solving on the part of Rey (rescuing Finn as damsel in distress!). The point of all that was to put everyone back on the Falcon, a choice that Han would not have made on his own – not with a cargo and a bigger, better ship. It also releases Han from any obligation to deliver his cargo, and he can instead head off to Maz’s place. So yes, it definitely DOES have a function in the plot.

    Finally I love the idea of the “call of the light side”. It is experienced both by Finn and by Kylo, but only Finn answers it. I have never seen an insecure Sith Lord before, and I am very, very happy to see this idea developed.

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    • you’d think that after the second time they would learn not to build Death Stars.

      It’s funny, because you would be surprised how many times this comes up as something that gets, like, presented as an actual idea. Seriously, you can pretty much bank on someone different floating this idea every six months or so. It always goes like this, we all get called into briefing, well, not all of us, typically just Red Team because we’re kicking a lot of ass lately, especially that whole thing in the Balkans. Which was mostly luck, to be honest, Cully says he knew what he was doing, but, like, he’s a pretty good friend of mine, and I’m telling you it was pretty lucky that he was able to turn that reactor off, but whatever, they’re like, it’s all about results.

      Anyway, they call us all into briefing, and there’s some big fat guy from the Department of Defense or something, and he’s like, all serious, “I want you all to know that Washington appreciates the hard work of the Mensa Tactical Ops Division, you are very important to our nation’s security, blah blah blah”, and we’re like, Uh-huh, guess where this is going, because we’re not idiots, we’re Mensa, we know where this is going, particularly because there’s usually this big globe thing with a cloth over it. And he pulls off the cloth and wow, there’s this little model Death Star, usually with a big fucking U.S. flag painted on, like, the side.

      And he’s like, “Your country needs your help in creating the single most valuable component of our defense system that th-” And usually somebody interrupts him right there and is like, “Can’t be done.” And he’s like, “Well, you don’t even know what it does,” but then someone else goes, “Yeah, we do, it’s the Death Star.” Like we haven’t seen Star Wars before, duh, I’ve seen that movie like eighty times. And there’s a little bit of back and forth until somebody asks point-blank, y’know, is this or is this not a Death Star? Y’know? Is this not what you’re trying to build? And he’s like, “Well, yeah.” And then we go, “Okay. Can’t be done.” Which we, like, told him at the beginning.

      So he usually gets pissed off and leaves all pissed off, and then Jenkins comes back in and is like, “You need to treat him with more respect, that man handles our budget!” And we’re like, whatever. If he handles the budget, how ’bout he fixes the hand driers in the bathroom, or the stealth gliders in Covert Research. Those things were fucking awesome and they’ve all been broken for like a year. And I’ve been here longer than a year and I don’t think the hand driers have ever worked.

      So anyway, you can’t make a Death Star. A couple of the think-tank guys basically locked themselves in Deep Eight, which is like, the nerd division of the Mensa HQ. Which tells you something right there, because we’re all a little nerdy here, but these guys are like, whoa. Anyway, apparently a little while after 9/11, someone was like, “If we had a Death Star, that wouldn’t have happened”, which is a pretty good point. But someone else said, y’know, can’t be done. And we were all a little high-strung at that point, because Mensa was actually taking some heat over 9/11, like why didn’t we predict the attack. Which is the most retarded thing ever, I mean, we can’t predict the future. Half of us were handling this arms bazaar thing in Algeria anyway. I wasn’t even in the country when it happened, so how was I to know, and even if I had been, I still wouldn’t have known. So that’s just stupid.

      But anyway, these few guys get all into the Death Star debate, and it gets pretty hardcore, like, nerd, and there’s a chalk fight, and the next thing we know, there’s a lockdown in Deep Eight. Which is what happens when Mensa, like, buckles down to figure something out. It’s like, not to be a dick, but it’s like solitary confinement for nerds. You get sandwiches piped down through these tubes, and there’s no TV or internet, other than research sites and stuff. Every once in a while someone will go in there thinking Hey, I’ll just surf for a couple of days. They don’t let you do that, all you can do is read and work.

      So they’re down there for at least a week, locked in this classroom lab place. You basically can’t get out unless you solve the problem or like, cut off your arm or something. Me and Cully snuck down there, which you’re not supposed to do, and we peeked in, and the lab is fucking thrashed, and everybody’s sitting on the floor. It looked like they’d tried to build one out of, like, clay, which is pretty stupid, but whatever, I don’t know what that was all about. Anyway, they’re at this point drawing this big circle on the floor in the lab, and they’re drawing all over it with numbers and shit. We’re like, Jesus Christ, what the fuck are they doing. And they all look like shit, like they haven’t been eating or sleeping or nothing. But at the same time, they look happy, I mean, they’re working.

      Anyway, like a week later, they came up. We’re having breakfast and they come trudging in, and we’re like, “Whoa! Hey, you guys! So can it be done?” And Ernie, who’s pretty much the smartest guy I know, he’s like, “No.” And of course, Masterson, who coincidentally is pretty much the dumbest guy I know, is like, “Well, how do you know? Did you try using a phase array on th-”

      And Ernie looks at him, all dirty and bedraggled and pissed off with chalk all over his face and, like, a little bit of sandwich in his beard, and he’s like, “It. Can’t. Be. Done.” All wound up, like he’s about ready to go gangster on Masterson. And we’re like, “…….Oh. OK then.” So that was about the end of that. And ever since then, any time somebody asks about building one, we’re like, go talk to Ernie, man, go talk to Ernie.

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  5. The funny thing is that while I agree with your assessment of the elements of the movie, I disagree with your overall assessment.

    The thing that I find most encouraging about The Force Awakens is that the good parts of it were the original parts. The same cannot be said of the Prequel Trilogy, where the original elements were often the least compelling parts of those movies. That to me leaves the possible for Episode VIII to be truly great, though I have to admit there is also a possibility that they will stay on the plot treadmill, which would lead to bad results.

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    • I actually think Abrams and the writers have pretty much blocked off a straight retread of Episode V, given the direction they went with Finn and Rey and the rest of the cast. Finn is at least as much of a viewpoint character as Rey, and Rey herself is significantly less interested in training and being part of the conflict than Luke was when he went to Yoda. Luke himself is no Yoda, either. If anything, I almost expect him to be the opposite, in terms of his feeling about training Rey – he didn’t disappear for nothing. If he rejects her, it’d be because he’s not ready to train her, not because she’s not ready to train. Not to mention they fused their references to Mos Eisley and Cloud City, so I don’t see how they could copy that bit from Empire.

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  6. Yeah I just came back and you are right. My big issue with the villain was the casting. Mainly because I think of Adam Driver as being a kind of goofy looking and acting guy. It was a bit hard for me to see him as a bad guy.

    But yeah, millions of fans paid billions of dollars to see a redux of Star Wars part IV and they probably loved every minute of it.

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    • That’s how I felt. Worse than that, though, by making it so original they waste anything good about the main characters.

      Coincidentally, the teenager and I watched John Boyega (Finn from The Force Awakens) in Attack the Block last night. I’d seen it before, but I’d forgotten that it reveals just how talented he is. Also, Attack the Block is a significantly more entertaining movie than The Force Awakens, made with a fraction of the budget and a bunch of teenage actors that, at the time at least, no one had ever heard of, who were speaking in accents that Americans can barely understand, while involved in a story built around South London and English council estate culture. In other words, it has a plethora of barriers to enjoyment for Americans, and still manages to be wildly entertaining in a way that The Force Awakens fails to be.

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  7. I saw the movie last night, and while I largely agree with the criticism, I enjoyed it.

    Despite what any number of #hottakes and SlatePitches try to claim, the prequels were garbage. They took just about everything that people loved about the first three and dumped all over it. Abrams played it safe and made a piece of fan fiction. Sure, it could have been a lot better, but it also could have been much much worse.

    This movie feels like a single to me. Abrams was hitting in the lead off spot and decided that getting safely on base was more important than swinging for the fences and striking out. We will see whether this team is able to score some runs with the next two movies or they end up leaving runners stranded. I will reserve my final judgment until I see how this plays out.

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