Published on January 1st, 2016 | by Dan Gvozden0
Initial Reaction to Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Below I will be discussing my impressions of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This will be the motherload of all SPOILERS, so if you don’t want to know anything about the movie turn away now. You’ve been warned.
That said, I think this is a film that everyone should go see in theaters, even if I left the film a bit disappointed (as I will discuss below). Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more than just two hours of celluloid (rare enough as it is), but a cultural event and celebration of what generations of people have found valuable about the movie-going experience. My feelings about Star Wars: The Force Awakens are barely a penny thrown into a fountain and hopefully should only add to the experience, rather than detract, and generate a thoughtful discussion.
Continue for some of my thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Those of you who know me, know that the role that Star Wars plays in my life likely borders on unhealthy. However, I consider myself lucky, if only because so few people ever find such a direct and immediate source of inspiration so early in their lives as I did with George Lucas’ Star Wars. I will never forget my first experience with the original Star Wars film: watching it in pan-and-scan during a televised broadcast, a fire roaring, and my slow but inevitable march closer and closer to the screen, just to take in every detail.
My introduction to the rest of the series is a bit blurrier, and for much of my youth Star Wars (A New Hope) was the film to beat and my defining early cinematic experience. At the time I don’t think that I had any idea of the effect that it had on me, but looking back now it is unmistakeable. As a child I was fascinated by how the effects were made, story was created, and the people involved in the film. I bought behind-the-scenes journals, character histories, and really invested myself in the art of the filmmaking. This bled over into my life outside of Star Wars, going to the theater and marveling at the craft needed to make scene transitions work, effects fool the eye, and emotions leap forth from a writer’s pen.
Before VHS copies of the films were available, I used my TalkBoy to record the soundtrack onto cassette tape and I would put the portable device under my pillow and listen to John William’s score, Ben Burtt’s indelible sound effects and George Lucas’ dialogue before passing out. To this day, I can hear a section of the score and tell you exactly what is happening onscreen. On the playground at school my friends and I would talk Star Wars and quiz each other on who knew more about the series, how it was made, the expanded universe books, and an infinite number of other trivial details. Instead of schoolyard brawls, it was a constant Star Wars trivial pursuit game that only concluded when someone suggested we go play a game of Super Star Wars on our Nintendos.
Today my relationship with Star Wars is complicated, as it is with most fans. Yes, I continue to host Star Wars marathons parties (that’s how I started dating my lovely girlfriend), I dominate Star Wars trivia competitions (Paploo is the name of the Ewok who steals the speeder bike in Return of the Jedi), and I even made a Star Wars fan film as my senior thesis in college (check out AN OLD HOPE). But I’ve also watched the series become diminished in popular culture after the critical backlash against the prequels and the detrimental changes made to the original trilogy by Lucasfilm that threaten both our country and the artform’s cultural history.
So when Lucas, the perceived criminal behind the slow degradation of the series, unexpectedly sold the property to Disney, I know that everyone was cautiously excited about what the future held for the series. Perhaps we’d all get a beautiful rerelease of the original films as they were originally presented to audiences! Perhaps now the fans of the series, who fought over the ownership of the series with Lucas for years, would have their turn to prove that they could be the custodians of the new series and return it to its rightful place in pop-culture.
Was there a better choice for anyone to do this than director J.J. Abrams, who had essentially remade Star Wars in his first Star Trek film? Perhaps not. J.J., a directorial chameleon and self-professed fanboy, seemed to be the perfect choice for the job.
The trailers came out and looked stunning, featuring all the things we’d been missing from the series: beloved characters, mystery, practical effects, and blue milk… ok… no blue milk, but one can dream!
The anticipation boiled to a fever pitch, I locked myself in a bunker, and the day came that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released on a very suspecting public, with the weight of the world and likely the lives of Ewok doll-clutching fanboys on the line.
So what did I think of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? That’s a tough question to answer, especially after only one viewing of a film that will likely live in my mind for as long as I have one, a notion that is already in dispute amongst the many who know me. I was heavily invested in loving the new film, but also had seriously curbed my hype to a rational level and prepared myself to receive whatever the new film was.
I sat down in my seat at the beautiful main theater at LA Live! and watched whatever goddawful trailers were attached to the film. Then the intro video for the theater started, a space-bound roller-coaster ride that wound through concession stands and movie clips preying on nostalgia for the great movies come and gone. Looking back on the experience as a whole, that introductory advertisement was far more in line with my experience with Star Wars: The Force Awakens than I could have ever known.
There’s so much to say about the new film, something that is much to its benefit, both on the micro and macro level that I suspect the best way for me to discuss it is to ask myself questions and then answer them. So let’s start out with the most important one:
Was Star Wars: The Force Awakens successful at reenergizing the series and bringing back “Star Wars” as fans had wanted for years?
Despite my reservations, I think Star Wars: The Force Awakens is enormously successful in this regard. For me, the primary goal of this film was to invest us in the plight of new characters, establish a path forward for future films to build upon, and prove to fans that Star Wars could be fun again.
In almost all these ways I think that Star Wars: The Force Awakens accomplishes these things, especially for a broad audience. But I think it does no one thing better than welcome in the new and that begins with a cast of likeable characters, the core of what made Star Wars so beloved in the first place. Sure it was the effects that “wowed” us, but Return of the Jedi ended with our heroes posing for the camera, is if in a high school photo, and reminded us that these are the faces we came for. These faces and these relationships. For the most part, Star Wars: The Force Awakens promises that the series is headed back in that direction.
Not to mention that this film is incredibly beautiful to look at, is genuinely a great deal of fun, and is stuffed full of creativity and ideas in a way that only the original films were.
If you say that the film was successful at reinvigorating the series then why the disappointment you expressed earlier?
This is going to be a more difficult question to answer but a lot of it comes back to four core things that I was unsure about in this movie: lightning-fast pacing, chaotic visuals, an overreliance on nostalgia and unclear storytelling.
Firstly, I think the first hour of the film, up through the reveal of Han Solo, is some of the most fun, quicker-than-you-can-think
And yet, the film never lets up on this pacing. When you think back on the original series, these large moments of action were expertly spread throughout each film, and edited to perfection. This allowed for beautiful scenes of character interaction and growth; just because Han and crew were zipping their way through an asteroid field didn’t mean that the film couldn’t slow down for a tender scene between Han and Leia as they shared their first kiss.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has almost none of that, and instead blazes through scenes in a hail of action, without the slowdown necessary for the audience to recuperate. There is a moment onboard the Millenium Falcon, after Han has blasted the heroes into lightspace to escape a group of rampaging monsters, where the crew relaxes in the ship’s chess room, accidentally trigging the space chess game. The camera moves into a wide-shot for the first time in awhile, signaling a release of tension. I couldn’t wait for the film to slow down and allow me to get my bearings and learn about these character’s new relationships. And it almost does for a minute before cutting to the reveal of Supreme Leader Snoke, a holographic projection of a giant lizardish man, constructed from the same CGI that audiences rejected in the prequel trilogy.
The pacing of the film continues like this for most of its runtime, breezing through moments that should allow for audiences’ eyes to wander and explore the magic of the world they’ve been transported to. Every moment of the film is in a rush to get somewhere, when all I wanted to do was stay where we were and learn more. The most frustrating thing is getting a new cantina scene but not allowing me to see the aliens inhabiting it in any substantial way. Instead of colorful interactions with the locals, the cantina might as well have been a style of wallpapering.
This isn’t helped by the chaotic visuals of the film. J.J. Abrams definitely loves to move his camera, often to mimic the work of Steven Spielberg, and after the incredibly written opening crawl, audiences are treated to some of the best work in his career. The reveal of Rey and her world is wonderful to see, in sharp contrast with scenes like the cantina later in the film, and J.J. balances his moving camera with some truly stunning statuc shots featuring stunning compositions. The editing is slow and methodical, allowing the world to entrance viewers, even if Jakku feels like a weird retread of Tatooine.
A shot of Rey riding a piece of shrapnel down a sand dune captures everything that made the original Star Wars so masterful. What kid wouldn’t want to do exactly that? A locked image of Rey standing before a crashed Star Destroyer, a small speck before a sleeping giant, is full of potential adventure that will likely be mined by toy companies, video games, and novelists for years.
Yet, as the action scenes wear on and the film heads into its third act, J.J. untethers his camera and zips and zags it at every moment possible. This is combined with rapid lens changes, GoPro-esque attachment shots, and spinning cameras, the likes that have never been included in a Star Wars picture. All of these shots are incredibly inventive and really raise the energy of the picture but they rob the audiences of the ability to marvel at the images on the screen and invest themselves in the drama. Instead of leaning forward, we lean back to try and take it all in in the brief time we’re given to do so. By the halfway point of the film I was completely disengaged by the action and just praying for a calm moment to latch onto.
A lot of these visuals manage to skirt by on the fact that we’ve seen so many of them before, as much of this film trades on our nostalgia of the series. I certainly don’t begrudge the film for doing so; nostalgia is the reason most of the audience showed up in the first place. To be honest, I enjoy the poetry of the series returning to familiar themes while placing characters in new roles. To see Han Solo return to fulfill the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi as mentor and eventual sacrifice was a really neat idea that does a great job reflecting on the growth of the character throughout the previous trilogy, from non-believer and scoundrel to believer and general.
However, in many other ways leaning on this nostalgia only hurts the film by comparison, especially when Star Wars: The Force Awakens goes so far out of its way to make sure you notice, often times having characters directly point it out: “Haven’t we done this before?”
One of the greatest sequences of editing and tension is the Death Star trench run from the original Star Wars; the cross-cutting editing that led Luke to the edge of the needle, as John Williams’ music built, still causes me to grip the edges of my chair today. Here we get another Death Star, although not in name, except it is twelve times bigger and instead of a thermal exhaust port we’ve got some kind of oscillator. Make no mistake, it is still a thermal exhaust port, I don’t care what they call it.
Now, instead of enjoying the new sequence I can’t help but compare it to what I’ve seen before and boy does this new trench run fall short.
My last major issue with the film is how its story is told, particularly in regards to who everyone is, what the stakes are, and how information is revealed. Some of my issues I’ll discuss when I get to talking about the characters in the film.
Star Wars has always featured complicated political landscapes, even more so as the prequels came out and spent a whole film detailing a trade dispute (remember, these films are for kids!). However, I cannot even begin to piece together the political landscape of this new film. Remember the black and white politics of the Rebels vs. The Empire? Now we’ve got the Republic, which we never see, the Resistance, The First Order, and the Knights of Ren. Starkiller Base seemingly destroys the Republic, after it absorbs the sun (which you think would destroy those planets anyway), which is portrayed in the most forgettable of fashions, particularly because we aren’t made to care about it.
Remember when Leia fought to free herself from Vader’s clutches when Tarkin announced the imminent destruction of her home world of Alderaan? Sure, we never saw Alderaan (R.I.P.) but her reaction told us all we needed to know. Here, the hard-fought progress from the original trilogy is wiped away in one fell-swoop and I cared not one bit.
Like most Abrams films there is a real emphasis on mystery in this new film, but often at the expense of narrative clarity. The story throws us into the middle of characters’ stories and expects us to invest in them even without a background on who they are, what they want, and why that matters.
Sure it is shocking that Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s child and Darth Vader’s grandson, but I have no sense of why he is evil, what it means that he’s being tempted by the light side, how he came to fight against Luke, how long ago that occurred, etc. The same is true of Snoke, whose introduction falls like a led hammer, especially as he reveals Kylo Ren’s lineage as if he were reading it off the back of a baseball card.
Maz Kanata and just about everyone in this story must have been sent copies of the Star Wars Blu-Ray set, because they all have an intense working knowledge of the original films, even down to Han’s record on the Kessel Run. Maz especially, knows that she has Luke’s old lightsaber, despite his rare use of it and loss of it during his battle in Cloud City. And yet, there it is kept perfectly safe in a little box, with little to no explanation of how it got there and how everyone knows everything about it.
There is so much of this type of storytelling that is meant to invoke mystery but instead creates confusion that waters down important narrative and character beats. To go through them all would take more time than I have and more space than any of you would care to read.
But didn’t the first Star Wars film start in media res, and require audiences to piece the information together for themselves?
Yes it did! And for parts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens this wonderful type of storytelling is happening, specifically during Rey’s introduction. However, so many of the other storytelling beats are seemingly left out awaiting future installments to provide clarity.
There are also a lot of incredible vagaries that are used to buffer the script to welcome in coincidence. Surely, R2-D2’s awakening and Finn’s decision to leave the group are both wonderfully and coincidentally timed.
So, what did you think of all the characters in this film?
I’ll offer a few brief thoughts on each, because I could write a novel about my thoughts on this. So let’s go down the list real quick:
Daisy Ridley is the find of the century and a real superstar. Her character Rey is instantly likeable, has clear motivations and desires, and constantly subverts everything we expect about her as based on the previous films. Rey would never let herself become a damsel in distress, knows how to pilot just about anything, ends up revealing herself to be Force sensitive, and is just plain fun to watch. Combine Luke and Han and switch the gender and you’ve got the smart-aleck, kick-ass warrior that is Rey.
To me, she is the biggest success of this film and the reason I am very excited to return to this franchise, besides the obvious investment I’ve already made to keep with the series through good or ill and for Rian Johnson as director.
And yet, just like all the other things that bother me about this movie, in the third act she suddenly discovers that she’s Force sensitive and begins doing Jedi mind tricks in a way that only seriously trained Jedis have been able to before. But even then, Daisy’s performance is so wonderful that she manages to sell the sequence, if only to bring back that acting beat for a powerful moment of calm during the final lightsaber battle.
I have some problems with the characterization of Finn and John Boyega’s performance. Yes, Boyega is super charming and Finn is funny and an interesting twist on what we know about Stormtroopers. However, the film doesn’t really give audiences enough to piece together who this guy is and what motivates him.
In his first scene we see him struggle with his role as a Stormtrooper and when blood is smeared on his helmet a line has clearly been crossed that he can’t stand for. It’s a quick and visually unclear moment and one that is never really fully addressed by the film, specifically why this one moment is different for him from all the other raids he’s been a part of.
This is a minor problem when compared to the fact that when Boyega ditches his role as a Stormtrooper he seems just like any other guy you might meet in this universe. He has witty dialogue, quick jokes, and a real independent streak. When we find out that he was stolen away from his family, stripped of his name, and put through a Stormtrooper academy, I was shocked. Here was a character that, to me, seemed to have no problem reintegrating back into society, showed no signs of his time as a soldier, and was shockingly casual for a lifelong tool in someone else’s army, even if it was as a result of some mind control that wore off.
I love this guy. I don’t think Star Wars has ever had such a straightforward, do-gooder, especially not one as handsome as Oscar Isaac. There’s a moral clarity to Poe that I find refreshing and his bold costume design makes him look like he’s straight out of the Flash Gordon serials that inspired Star Wars in the first place.
I can’t imagine how difficult of a task the designers on this film had in creating a suitable replacement for Darth Vader’s iconic costume. I think they pretty much nailed it with this character, specifically in going back to the samurai roots to Darth Vader’s design and really infusing Ren’s mask with some of those ideas.
Visuals aside, I think the idea behind Kylo Ren is pretty brilliant. Whereas Luke struggled to stay on the light side of the force while facing some truly horrible situations for him and his friends, ultimately rejecting it in the key moment that he could have struck down his father, Kylo wants to embrace the dark side but finds himself drawn towards the light. It is a great flip of the script that could be interesting to follow.
The problem is that I have no idea what that means. What does it mean to be seduced by the light? I’m also unsure of how and why Ben Solo became Kylo Ren and therefore have a very difficult time truly investing in that internal struggle for the character. This confusion doesn’t just hurt my understanding of the character and his motivations, it undermines what is meant to be the most powerful scene in the movie: Han Solo’s death. When I don’t know what is on the line and why Kylo is struggling so much, I don’t know how to track the emotions and complications of the scene where the two face off.
Also, by introducing the character as inherently conflicted and so flawed, it removes a great deal of the threat that the character poses. After he fails to read the minds of two of his captives and almost gets beaten in battle by a first-time lightsaber user, I had a real hard time being terrified by this guy in the way I was with Vader. Snoke is clearly manipulating him, and even Kylo seems to acknowledge this and it even further deflates the threat he presents.
Could this guy have been left a mystery for a bit longer? What was up with his design and the totally unnecessary use of cartoonish CGI? His appearance stood out to me as the first moment in the film where I noticed that the film was beginning to not work for me.
We get very little Imperial political maneuverings in this film or time spent with various figures in that army. When we do, the camera quickly zooms through ships and leaves us with only General Hux to cling to. I feel like I don’t know enough about this character to say much about him or that he left an impression on me in any way. He’s no Admiral Piet for sure and feels more like a tease for future stories in a movie already overstuffed with them.
Captain who? Oh, you mean the chrome Stormtrooper clearly only included so they could sell toys of her? Yeah, totally forgettable and again, another character that could have been excised from the script.
Another example of a bizarre use of CGI for a character that stands out because of the use of wonderful practical effects in other parts of the film. Maz’s history with the characters is truly baffling to me and the time spent with her is the film’s lowest point.
This is the first time Harrison Ford has shown up for a film in a long time. The minute he steps back onto the screen it is clear that this isn’t just a watered down Han Solo, it is the real deal. I enjoyed nearly every moment he was on the screen, except for a scene with Leia I will get to and his death scene, which I found emotionally vague.
I hate to admit this, but after he died I flicked off the screen and said “Fuck you,” loudly. Not because I was upset that he died, I expected it given how vocal Ford has been about his dislike for his role in the series, but because one of my favorite characters in all of cinema was killed in such a cowardly fashion, doing an act so out of character for him, and I didn’t feel emotional about it at all. Again, this is mostly contributed to by the hyperactive visuals, the obviousness of the setting, and the lack of emotional and character clarity involved in the drama that instigates his death.
LEIA ORGANA SKYWALKER
Criminally underused and forced to read poorly written expositional lines, that we already know about, especially in a cringe-worthy sequence between her and Han Solo. I know Carrie Fisher is up to the task of doing some wonderful drama because it’s all there when she learns of her ex-husband’s death, as a brief moment of heartbreak crosses her face.
I hadn’t realized it until the final moments of this film that this was the first Star Wars without a Jedi in it. Sure, there were people using the Force, but no master to guide the younger characters or to serve as a wise figure of calm. The appearance of Mark Hamill as Luke has me sold on the next film. His design looks great and I expect Hamill to bring another rock solid performance to this series; I’m one of the few that really thinks Hamill delivers in the original trilogy.
Still, I have to admit that I found it a bit goofy that he’s just standing there at the end especially as a helicopter camera spins around him and Rey as they stand frozen in place. It’s a strangely staged final image, even though it is full of promise for an upcoming film.
While I’m talking about Luke, I must admit that I found the “map to Luke Skywalker” to be a thoroughly uninteresting MacGuffin for this film. The idea that there is a map to him brings up more questions than answers, though I do like the visual concept that it’s only through the combination of the characters new (BB-8) and old (R2-D2) that the journey is completed.
Can you summarize this entirely too long post about Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
I can try.
Thanks for reading this far and know that I can’t wait to see the film again to challenge my initial reactions. In the two days since seeing the film I’ve cooled a bit on my intensely negative reactions and have been thinking, despite my feelings about the mixed quality of storytelling and visual direction, about all the fun moments that made me cheer and smile in the theater.
Mostly, I’m just happy that Star Wars is back in good graces with people around the world and we can all celebrate our love of these characters and stories together again. There are so many other things that I would love to talk about in this film and would encourage you to challenge me on both the ideas presented here and anything you think I’ve gotten wrong. I’ve thought about this film a lot and will continue to do so.
Many of you asked for clarification of my thoughts on the film and I hope I have been able to elaborate on them in a way you find satisfying. I hope that I can watch the film again and get over many of these hurdles; I’ve heard from several friends that they enjoyed it more on a second viewing.
That said, during my first viewing I felt myself constantly questioning the film’s choices and how they just weren’t working for me. As time went on I felt more and more distant from the narrative of the film to the point of almost total lack of interest in continuing to watch. Perhaps it is the critic in me that I can never turn off that has prevented me from fully embracing the movie, but I suspect I am not alone.