Review of The Force Awakens (Star Wars Episode VII)
Disclaimer: The majority of the text was written around New Year’s as unconnected draft-level pieces, shortly after I watched the movie. The later combination into a whole and polishing up, together with some minor extensions, took place in the last few days, when my memory of the details had often faded. There quite likely are things that I wanted to write, but have since forgotten. Equally, there might be parts of the later changes that do not exactly reflect what I would have written back then.
Remark: I will refer to the Star-Wars movies by designations such as “Episode VII” (for “The Force Awakens”). For those with a superficial knowledge of the franchise, note that the episode numbers correspond to the in-universe chronology, but that the order is IV–VI, I–III, VII in terms of release history. Specifically, “the” Star-Wars movie is Episode IV (AKA “New Hope”). “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels” (that are briefly mentioned in the text) are animated TV series.
By and large, I found Episode VII to be disappointing and more a case of interesting fan fiction than a serious continuation of the franchise. (It shares many problems with the new Star-Trek movies, by the same director, J.J. Abrams, but these were more entertaining and struck me as better made.) The result is not even close to Episodes I–III*; Episodes IV–VI would have been indisputably better, except for the enormous difference in special effects; and I would even favor parts of “The Clone Wars”. In addition, the in-universe fit is comparatively poor and there are some decisions made that make me personally consider it (and the new Star-Trek movies…) non-canonical—if not, the events of the earlier movies, especially the happy endings to various sub-plots in Episode VI, become tainted and my enjoyment of the older movies diminished. Needless to say, when a sequel negatively affects the earlier installments, something has gone wrong—cf. “Highlander” for an absolutely disastrous example.
*Episodes I–III were very negatively received by many fans of Episodes IV–VI. I would, on the contrary, rate them as better, and strongly suspect that the problem was more one of expectations than quality: The two trilogies are very different in style and contents. (Since I have repeatedly seen the same phenomenon with myself, e.g. when a presumed action movie turns out to be a comedy or vice versa, I took very great care to watch Episode VII with an open mind.) Continuity issues were also criticized, but were not unacceptably common—and Episodes I–III resolved more problems than they caused, cf. below. In addition, many objected to mystic elements around the Jedi suddenly being given a more scientific/rational explanation; however, this is compatible to the respective settings in my eyes: In one case, we move on the edge of civilization and mostly on the lower levels of society, while the Jedi are virtually extinct. In the other, significant parts of the movies play in the capital of the Republic (and other “civilized” areas), the main characters are highly trained Jedi, senators, royalty, whatnot—and the Jedi abound. Some problems are present, e.g. the unfortunate Jar-Jar character and the third instant-victory-by-blowing-up-a-spherical-enemy-ship in Episode I (after similar events in Episodes IV and VI).
Even if we drop the comparison with the older Star-Wars movies and instead compare with other recent movies* of a sufficiently similar genre and target group**, I am not that impressed. “Ant-Man” (also in the extended sci-fi genre) is an example of a very recent better movie; the heavily criticized “Jupiter Rising” (more closely related sci-fi) is roughly equal. Episodes IV–VI (1977–1983) where exclamation marks with just a handful of (even) candidates for a comparison over the history of film up to their respective releases. Episodes I–III (1999–2005) had heavier competition (including the “The Mummy”, “Matrix”, and “Star Trek” franchises), but still managed to reach the highest levels and set new standards for special effects. However, with “Pirates of the Caribbean”; the film versions of “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, and number of other book series; various super-hero movies; …; we may actually have seen several movies better than Episode VII and another several roughly on the same level per year since then. In addition, there are even rare TV-based franchises that produced/s at least some episodes more enjoyable, despite a fraction of the budget, notably “Doctor Who”.
*An obvious comparison would be the latest “Jurassic Park” installment: A similarly successful franchise and the number two in last year’s box office, trailing only Episode VII, and actually breaking a similar number of box-office records. However, I only visit the cinema in exceptional cases nowadays and I have not yet had the opportunity to see it through other channels.
**Dropping the genre and target group criteria, Episode VII would be in big trouble.
Among the problems I see:
- As I feared, too little space is given to the old characters, excepting Solo/Chewbacca. Their involvement is also too much of a coincidence* to be plausible. Luke’s appearance is even just a cameo, without a single line, at the very end of the movie. (But, to be fair, it is arguably the best scene of the movie, through the fondness of reunion and the satisfaction of closure.)
*In fairness, it is possible that this will be explained reasonably later on. Episode IV had a similar problem, with the droids just happening to find Leia’s twin brother, as well as the twins being the children of Vader; however, this is somewhat reasonably ret-conned through the events of Episode III, especially if we assume that Yoda was pulling strings in the background.
- The lack of progress of the galaxy and its situation is depressing and diminishes the happiness of the Episode VI ending. Ditto the failure of Luke and his training academy, the unromantic state of Han’s and Leia’s marriage, and the development of their son (i.e. Kylo). (But oddly the new incarnation of the Death Star was absurdly more powerful than the old ones, despite their construction being a central part of the emperor’s plans.)
- Like so many sequels, it commits the error of just escalating what its predecessors did, instead of trying to improve the quality or adding something new, and often while forgetting what actually made the predecessor(s) great. If a successful horror film had four victims and used two buckets of blood, the sequel has eight victims and four buckets. If the action film had big explosions, the sequel has bigger explosions. Etc. (While this is not necessarily bad, the things that formed the success of the originals might have been the soundtrack, good casting, interesting character dynamics, an original story line, … If these factors are forgotten while more buckets of blood and bigger explosions are added, the result will be inferior.) In contrast, Episodes I–III added tons of new things and improved the quality of many aspects considerably, compared to Episodes IV–VI; indeed, even the individual episodes of both trilogies fared well in these regards. (Many parallels and the
aforementioned threefold instant-victory-by-blowing-up-a-spherical-enemy-ship notwithstanding.)
- Dialog (often attributed to Lucas, himself) and acting* were possible never the greatest point of the franchise, but Episode VII is no improvement. The dialog without Lucas was on the same level as with him. Acting-wise there might have been fewer duds, but there were also no Alec Guinness.
*While there were a number of strong performances in the earlier movies, there were also a surprising number of weak ones. It can also be argued that neither Mark Hamill nor Hayden Christiansen brought much to the table acting-wise, but that their characters worked merely because they managed to hit the exact right tone for the almost allegorical character and story framework chosen by Lucas. Natalie Portman was a surprising disappointment, considering what she has done since, as well as her promising work in “Leon” at an even earlier a
Disclaimer: This item was added when polishing up before publication. Here I go by the memory of my impressions from months earlier and could be off.
- Most (possibly all) of the other Episodes had at least some new piece of music or theme, often several, that impressed me out of the ordinary. This was not the case with Episode VII. (At least not on the first watching and possibly there is something to be found on further watchings; however, film music tends to hit me on the first watching or not at all.) It is noteworthy that most of John Williams’ scores outside of Star Wars, in my opinion, have been bland and generic, albeit technically skilled. For the other Episodes he pulled out every stop, making him as important to the franchise as Bernard Hermann was to “Vertigo”; here he appears to have made one of those generic efforts, at least with regard to the new parts of the music.
- The female hero (Rey) was relatively disappointing, a thin patch on Ahsoka Tano (Anakin’s female side-kick in “The Clone Wars” and possibly my favorite character of the entire franchise), and too close to the hero in “Star Wars Rebels” both with regard to character and introduction (and both follow the hero-unexpectedly-leaves-home-for-adventure pattern already used for both Luke and Anakin). I also strongly suspect that the “female” part is an artificial attempt to either broaden the (previously mostly male) audience or to pacify the feminists*. If not, it would actually have made more sense to just pick the (male) hero from “Rebels”.**
*I have repeatedly seen the complaint that the older episodes would have too weak and helpless heroines—which makes me wonder if the complainers have actually seen these movies…
**Correction: Fact checking, I find that he would be closer to Luke’s age than Rey’s at the time of the events of Episode VII. I found “Rebels”, too, disappointing, paid too little attention, and forgot where it fit in the timeline.
- Her growth in and use of the Force is not realistic*: Others needed considerable training to achieve the same. (The assumption that she simply was naturally stronger does not hold, seeing that several of the earlier Jedi rated extremely highly, Anakin arguably topping off the scale of the theoretically achievable in terms of natural ability, being conceived to a virgin mother through manipulation of the Force.)
The scene were she escapes through Force Conviction was a gross error of judgment. Keeping it at the initial failed attempt would have been better, remaining realistic and adding a dash of humor.
She should have died very quickly when fighting Kylo Ren (the main antagonist) the first time. (As should Luke the first time he fought Vader—except that Vader had secret reasons to keep him alive. There are several other instances of events in the earlier movies that seem unrealistic, but have a reasonable explanation, whereas corresponding instances in Episode VII do not. A slight alleviation can be found by assuming, consistent with the pre-story, that Kylo Ren too was at a comparatively early stage of his training—but he would still be far more advanced.)
*There is an unrealistic gap between the first and second trilogies too, which is not sufficiently explained by the often used ret-con that Episode IV–VI characters were untrained, old, or half-machine. For instance, Count Dooku was considerably older than the Episode IV version of Obi-Wan—yet far, far more impressive. However, these increases in ability were consistent over all characters, unlike the Rey-specific increase in Episode VII.
- The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless. It is true that the Episode I–III Jedi were superior to almost anything they encountered, but the keyword is “almost”—and they had plenty of tough fights even against inferior opponents. Look at the main fights of these movies: In Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan together barely manage to defeat one Sith, at the cost of Quigong’s life and with a bit of trickery and luck on the part of the out-gunned Obi-Wan. In Episode II, Anakin and Obi-Wan are both soundly defeated by Dooku and only with the intervention of Yoda victory (if he allows the word) is achieved. In Episode III, Yoda is defeated by the Emperor, while Obi-Wan only defeats (the now evil) Anakin when the latter’s arrogance makes him commit a crucial and easily avoidable mistake. In Episodes IV–VI the heroes were underdogs almost everywhere.
- Generally, there is too much duplication in terms of characters and events with the originals (especially Episode IV), which already had a dangerous amount of duplication between them. (That duplication, however, could mostly be defended on grounds of parallelism and symbolism, in that Luke and Anakin went through similar stations and situations. With Abrams, looking at the Star-Trek movies, it appears to be a systematic problem of imitation and “fan fictioning”.) An additional similarity in parts with “Rebels” has already been mentioned. A few examples:
Yet another variation on the Death Star theme is hackneyed, nay ridiculous: Too many variations was one of the weaknesses of the earlier movies and repeating it once again is idiotic.
Han is killed off in a scene far too closely paralleling the death of Obi-Wan. (Even to the point that Obi-Wan was the closest thing to a father that the pre-Sith Anakin had.) As with several other of these parallels, it was also too predictable: As soon as Han initiated their meeting, the conclusion seemed pre-determined—Kylo’s speech in no way misleading the viewer, but merely re-inforcing the impression. In addition, this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken.
Kylo Ren is too derivative of Darth Vader*. Making him the grand son of Darth Vader is just unimaginative, bordering on the silly, considering the many existing implausible family ties.
*With the in-story continuity that he deliberate tries to emulate Vader.
- The parts of the story that are not just imitating the other Episodes are thin and lack innovation. (In all fairness, it is harder to do something new today than in the past.)
- The story line is not compatible with the (traditionally lower-in-canon) books that pre-date it. This is not necessarily a big deal to me (having never read any of the books) and certainly not to most viewers. However, there will be many hard-core fans who see their established view of the events post Episode VI turned upside down and could understandably be very upset about this. If in doubt, I would tend to view the books as having a greater degree of canonicity, seeing that Episode VII is not from Lucas’ feather, that I see Episode VII mostly as fan fiction, and that the books were published earlier.
On the positive side there is not that much that spring too mind, outside of special effects; however, the rebellious storm trooper was a nice touch. A positive surprise was that the “Disney-fication” was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated, although the Disney/Pixar look of e.g. the new droid annoyed me.
For the future, I just hope that there will be no absurd surprises like Rey being Kylo’s long lost sister or the daughter of Luke (hackneyed beyond belief), Rey being the true “chosen one” (invalidating the previous movies entirely), Kylo’s master actually being Luke using some form of projection, or similar. If any of that happens, well, then the film makers should simply be lined up against a wall and shot for criminal incompetence.
As an aside, while Episode VII has been extraordinarily successful at the box office, this is to a large part due to the extreme-by-historical-standards numbers posted by today’s movies, which distort comparisons immensely. (And to a large part due to the cult around of the franchise; as opposed to e.g. “Avatar”, “E.T.”, and Episode IV, which all started from scratch.) According to Boxoffice Mojo, it is (at the time of writing) the 11th most successful movie in the U.S. after correcting for inflation, as opposed to a clear number one by unadjusted numbers. (Episode IV is the second best on the adjusted list.) It would almost certainly rate lower using global adjusted numbers, seeing that it followed the Star-Wars tradition of doing considerably better per capita in the U.S. than in the rest of the world (number three globally, unadjusted). I suspect that further adjustment for factors other than ordinary inflation would bring it even lower, considering how ridiculously dominated the all-time lists are by movies from the last few years. See also the unadjusted global numbers and U.S. numbers from the same website.