You have been warned!
I was reading a review of “The Force Awakens” the other day and the author mentioned a simple but illuminating lens through which to critique movies (and really any type of story). He said that he always looks at setting, plot, and character. For him, the newest Star Wars movie excels in creating setting and character, but does not do so well with plot (especially towards the end). He’s right. I wish I remembered where I read his review. If I find it again I will link to it here.
I found this lens very helpful when trying to sort through my feelings about “The Force Awakens.”
The characters (especially the new ones) are endearing. Lots of people have mentioned how captivating Rey is and how one inevitably wants to root for her. Finn, although he is given some clumsy lines, is also very lovable and the idea of a stormtrooper going rogue is new and intriguing. Oscar Isaac makes Poe’s relatively short screen time feel important. And Kylo Ren is angsty and dangerous and interesting in the best way– the whole point is that he isn’t as cool as Darth Vader, and Adam Driver shows us his character’s weaknesses so well.
The setting feels like Star Wars. The practical effects Abrams promised us were great. Seeing old star destroyers and x-wings submerged in sand on Jakku was pretty moving. The cantina–er, Maz’s castle–was full of weird and quirky puppets. And the final lightsaber battle found a perfect backdrop in that creepy snowy forest.
But the plot… well, that’s where the movie falters. The plot works pretty well for the first half of the movie — the problem (finding Luke) is set up in the text crawl, new characters are rapidly introduced, we become invested in them as their paths cross and they seem to approach that original problem… but then all of a sudden finding Luke is sidelined. Halfway through the movie, we’re suddenly facing the planet-destroyer threat. It provides a convenient backdrop for Poe’s trench-run and Han’s death, but none of it feels earned. I understood why Abrams chose to model some of the events after Episode IV, (Rey on a desert planet, a droid with a mission, a reluctant hero, etc.) and I am okay with him repeating the the overall story arc–it’s the Hero’s Journey archetype, after all–but that bigger and more ridiculous death star that came out of nowhere was pretty annoying. It felt cheap. So did the sudden discovery of Anakin’s lightsaber in Maz’s castle. When Han rightly asks her, “How’d you get that?”, she (and Abrams) cop out. “That’s a story for another time.”
No, actually, it’s not. If this movie really was about finding Luke Skywalker, as the text-crawl originally suggested, then the time to tell (better, to witness) the story of that lightsaber is now.
There were choppy places–as if certain scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. Plot threads hinted at but never fully developed.
I love this meme, but on another level I think it explains movie’s weakness quite well:
I think The Force Awakens needed five more minutes (literally and figuratively speaking) to be the great movie it could have been. The second half of the movie felt rushed and haphazard, although there were some good moments. If the writers had spent more time — even five more minutes— on crafting a story that was all about finding Luke Skywalker, and actually explored the question Abrams has said made him want to make the movie in the first place—Who is Luke Skywalker?– we would have had a great movie.
But shifting gears halfway through to the stupid Starkiller Base introduced a competing, and inferior, problem for the heroes to solve. By the time Poe had his trench run, there wasn’t any time left to finish the real story arc introduced in the text crawl. So R2D2 miraculously “awakens” and somehow has the rest of BB8’s map in his system. Rey sails away on the Millenium Falcon in the last two minutes and finds Luke far too easily–because there was no time for anything else.
The movie ceased to be about Luke and the nature of the force or anything really compelling and instead became an inferior rehash of “A New Hope”. Oh no, there’s another planet-destroying weapon. We need to disable the shields and blow it up. Except that our main hero–Rey– does not blow it up or save the day, as Luke did in the original, because her character belongs to the original plot arc of the movie.
We are left with carefully crafted cliffhangers–what’s Luke been up to all this time? how will Leia deal with the loss of Han? what will Ren’s “further training” involve? who are Rey’s parents, anyway? — to ensure we will be eager to see the sequel. But even those made me feel a bit cheated–as if those questions were carefully placed to entice me to see the next movie, instead of being answered (or not answered) for the sake of this movie’s story. One worries if some of those questions will even be answered at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “The Force Awakens.” The setting and characters charmed and appeased me. Abrams hit a lot of the right notes.
But the faltering plot was disappointing, only because if Abrams had gotten that right–if he hadn’t taken the “quick and easy path”–we really would have had a compelling movie on par with the original trilogy.