I really want to call this movie The Force Unleashed, and I’ve already fought subconscious urges to type out Unleashed instead of Awakens on multiple occasions. So if I start typing out TFU instead of TFA, that’s why.
It should go without saying, but there are going to be some spoilers. As in, all of them. Okay? Good.
Now then. Go ahead and read on -- because I have a couple of stories to tell.
I went and saw the movie with my brother and some friends; out of the entire party, I was the one on the rightmost end. That left two seats on my right -- and not surprisingly, a couple of dedicated Star Wars fans sat next to me. How did I know? One of them was well-versed in all of the information you could possibly have about TFA without seeing the movie. The other one was a woman who came decked out in full costume -- the cape, armor, and helmet of Captain Phasma. Without question, she was hyped for this movie, and to see this new Stormtrooper ace in action.
So I can only wonder how she reacted to TFA when all’s said and done. It’s a little too simplistic to assume that she only came to see the movie for Captain Phasma, but here’s the thing: Captain Phasma does nothing in the movie besides be there. She acts menacing every now and then, but her “defining” scenes have her getting punked by Finn, Han, and Chewie and forcing her to deactivate some force fields. And then she got thrown into a trash compactor off-screen. Because she’ll reportedly be more important in the next movie. And also references.
Okay, soooooooooooooooo…if Captain Phasma is important enough to get tied-in merchandise -- like a special cup and themed 3D glasses -- then why isn’t she important enough to have a presence in the movie? Like, why even grab Gwendoline Christie if you’re not going to do anything with her?
That’s kind of a metaphor for TFA at large, but it also kind of isn’t. Pared down to basics, I like the movie most when it’s offering up new stuff -- new characters, new events, new ideas, what have you. And despite my gripes, both in the previous post and in the words to follow, there IS new stuff in this movie. Naturally, that means I think the movie is at its worst when it’s constantly cribbing off the old stuff. References, allusions, plot threads, whatever; when a guy with virtually no connection to the mythos knows when things are being retread, that’s a problem.
With that said, there are more problems to TFA than just served-up references. And in a lot of ways, they’re why this isn’t a straight-up review of the movie; subjectivity is heavily at play here, so what bothers me isn’t necessarily going to bother you. That’s especially the case with this movie. I’m no expert on the works of J.J. Abrams and his crew(s), but having seen Super 8, I feel like the opinions I had of that movie carry over here, and thus tell me about the style behind his productions. Call me presumptuous, but if I had to guess, Abrams and his crew are about capturing, expressing, and drawing out emotions from the audience. That’s a good thing to focus on, for sure. The problem is that it’s at the expense of more airtight writing and framework. Put simply, he’s a guy who’s maxed out his pathos stat, but his logos stat suffers as a result.
Or, alternatively, J.J. Abrams is a grappler. That’s a metaphor I could get behind.
So here’s the setup. And of course, feel free to do your best impression of the famous curmudgeonly murderer, Mr. Plinkett.
NUMBER ONE: The Force Awakens (its Plot)
The movie’s opening text starts -- literally, in its first line -- with “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” It’s revealed later on that he went into self-exile after his stint as a Jedi mentor went awry, but the important thing is this: nobody knows where he is. That’s kind of a problem, because both the good guys -- the Resistance, allied with the Republic -- and the bad guys -- the First Order, the remnants of the Empire -- are trying to find Luke. Why? Well, the Resistance includes General Leia Organa, who wants to keep her brother safe…oh, and ensure the safety of the universe by tag-teaming with the swordsman of legend. Meanwhile, the First Order wants to wipe Luke out so that they can make sure there aren’t any Jedi and/or Jedi awakenings. I’m not 100% sure how that works, but whatever.
What’s important is that the map to Luke is found on the desert planet Jakku, and stored within the spherical droid BB-8. Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is tasked with carting his droid back to the Resistance, but he gets captured by the First Order -- and its black-clad Jedi ace, Kylo Ren -- and taken aboard their ship. Luckily, he’s bailed out by the Stormtrooper with a heart, FN-2187 (who Poe eventually dubs Finn); when Poe disappears from the crash site following their escape, Finn wanders the desert in search of salvation. He doesn't find it.
Eventually, he runs into BB-8, along with his impromptu caretaker, Rey (no relation to Mysterio, unfortunately). She’s a scavenger that’s down on her luck, forced to pull parts from downed spacecraft to earn meager food portions -- which at the very least gives her something to do while she waits for her family to come back for her (maybe). But she has no choice but to leave her home when the First Order comes knocking, and she gets caught in the crossfire.
Fortunately, she gets to go on her journey alongside Finn and BB-8. The three of them hijack an old ship and take to the skies (and eventually, the stars) to outrun the First Order. But even then, they can’t escape from either their problems or their pursuers. So as these things tend to go, they begin their quest to transport BB-8, help the Resistance, find Luke, and thwart the plans of the First Order before they can use their new Death Star -- Starkiller Base, a big dumb murder ball that doubles as a planet -- to wipe their enemies off the map.
So, where to start? I say we go with the characters -- because you can’t spell “characters” without “care”.
NUMBER TWO: Poe is the Best Character in Star Wars -- aaaaaaaaaaand He’s Gone
I can’t imagine how Stormtrooper Lady must have felt; she had to walk out of the theater with the knowledge that she’d have to wait until the next movie for Captain Phasma to do anything besides exist (she doesn’t even get to take off her helmet!). But I can kind of sympathize, because now I feel the same way about Poe. If he had more screen time, then I’m almost positive that he’d be my favorite character in the movie. He’s overflowing with charm and charisma, and lands plenty of good jokes. He has some real roguishness to him, but he’s a bang-up guy -- someone who’s thankful for Finn’s rescue, efforts, and even presence despite the Stormtrooper baggage.
In fact, one of the things that helps give TFA some juice is how entertaining it is to have these cast members interact. Like I said last time, there’s some strong synergy between them, and that’s proven by the exchanges between Poe and Finn. Within seconds of the two of them coming together, I was about ready to call them space bros (and seconds after that, I wanted the entire movie to focus on them). The comedy’s a given, but the encouragement and physical touches sell just how good these characters are, even within such a short time frame.
But here’s the problem: Poe disappears for a big chunk of the movie.
He and Finn escape on a hijacked TIE fighter and, after taking a direct hit, crash-land on Jakku. How Finn survives is…up for debate, since the movie does a scene change to avoid showing the actual crash, but he seemed to at least hit eject and escape via parachute. (Good thing he didn’t hit eject in space, because man, his face would have been red!) But Poe? There’s nothing left of him except his Resistance jacket. He made it out, though -- somehow -- and the next time we see him, he’s on a verdant planet and getting ready for an assault on Starkiller Base. It’s hurriedly explained that he fell in a different location, but it still makes my brain itch.
The important thing is that TFA takes away one of its strongest tools by keeping its new character away from the action. Granted it pretty much has to -- in accordance with the story we’re told -- so that the ace pilot can go be an ace pilot and bomb Starkiller Base. And indeed, it’s a testament to the movie’s strong points when I’m crying about how much I want to see more of this guy. But it’s still frustrating, and a misstep that could’ve been avoided with some changes under the hood. If we’re going solely by what we’ve got instead of what we wish we’ve got, then there are substitutes. In the absence of Poe, we’ve still got Finn. And…yeah, he takes on the role of Best Character as a result.
NUMBER THREE: And Finn the Human
Finn is interesting, because he’s a very flawed character. Not “flawed” in the sense that “this doesn’t work” or “this makes no sense”. I mean he’s flawed in the good way; there are negative aspects about him that add layers of depth. When we’re introduced to him (in full costume), he’s unwilling to gun down innocent civilians like the rest of the Stormtroopers; prior to that, he freaked out at the sight of seeing one of his comrades dying, and swiping blood across his helmet. Even though he’s reportedly been conditioned for service since he was born -- or at the very least, pulled away from his family -- Finn doesn’t have what it takes to kill.
…Is what I would like to say. But throughout the movie, Finn regularly shows that he’s got no problems pulling the trigger. To wit: he uses a TIE fighter’s blasters to lay waste to a Star Destroyer’s hangar, blows up a couple of fighters during a dogfight on Jakku, stabs a Stormtrooper with a lightsaber (and would’ve killed another if he didn’t lose a fight against some inexplicably-placed trooper with a huge-ass electro-tonfa), and shoots several more with a blaster. So the problem isn’t that Finn’s a pacifist who shies away from war; the problem is that Finn’s a pragmatic, blatant coward who wants to run away from all of his problems. You know, as heroes would.
Finn’s insubordination on Jakku means he’ll have to face stiff consequences with the top brass -- so between that and the promise of more murder, he decides to bail out and save himself, even if it means killing his comrades. In order to protect himself, one of the first things he does when he meets Rey is lie about being a member of the Resistance. And when the going gets tough, and people are expecting him to be the big hero, he decides to run away to another corner of the galaxy and ride out the First Order’s search. It’s only thanks to Rey’s capture by Kylo Ren that he decides to saddle up -- which even then is a pretty selfish act, in the sense that saving her means ensuring his happiness. As an ex-Stormtrooper, he knows what the First Order can do (and do to him), so it’s no small wonder that he wants an out.
Thanks to the magic of character development, Finn goes from a coward looking for his escape route to a hero who can stand side-by-side with the canon’s big names. In that sense, he kind of reminds me of the sort of character you’d see in a Disney movie, or something like it. (Aladdin and A Bug’s Life come to mind, but let’s not forget Dreamworks productions like Chicken Run.) He’s a guy who lies to get what he wants, or to change his lot in life -- but eventually, the lie gets exposed and he has to sort the movie’s troubles out shortly after. Being a liar doesn’t exactly have that big of an impact on the plot -- which makes me wonder why Finn felt like he needed to lie in the first place -- but he mentions later on that he used it as a way to run from his identity. So even in the conceptual sense, he’s a coward.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a bad guy, though. Finn does some sketchy things throughout the movie, but he’s a guy who cares deeply for those that care for him. His bromance with Poe is a key example of this, but there’s an extremely good moment early on. He and Rey are getting chased by enemy fighters on Jakku, and they have to run for their lives while explosions rage all around them.
One of those explosions rocks them so hard that Finn gets blown off his feet and effectively knocked unconscious; Rey rushes to his side in a panic, and thankfully the ex-trooper is okay. But the first words out of Finn’s mouth -- and words that end up touching Rey’s heart, no question -- are “Are you all right?” It’s quick and easy to lose track off with the action going on, but it’s a great way to establish his character.
The takeaway from Finn -- and by extension, what gives him plenty of potential in the inevitable sequel -- is that he’s a guy that doesn’t quite understand how to do the right thing. Well, that’s the case at first, but it’s entirely justified; if he’s been conditioned to become some faceless soldier in the army, then it’s only natural that certain concepts are lost on him.
The thing he understands most is the First Order’s might, and wants to escape from that. But when he does, he’s forced to reconsider what sort of person he wants to be, and by extension come to terms with his feelings now that no one’s making him hide them behind a big stuffy helmet. It’s a safe bet that he’ll still be a coward and he’ll opt for self-preservation, but now that he’s experienced friendship, loss, strength, joy, and (possibly) love, he’s on his way towards securing his identity.
So yeah, best character in the movie. At least part of that is owed to the overall acting in TFA (which extends to Poe, naturally). I know that they were on a desert planet and all, but John Boyega is really good at being sweaty. It’s either that, or the makeup crew’s got their perspiration tech on lock-down.
Yep. Definitely on lock-down.
NUMBER FOUR: Booyaka, Booyaka! 619
You know, Rey could have been an absolutely terrible character. It would’ve been way too easy for Abrams and crew to serve up a generic strong female character instead of a good one -- and it probably would’ve worked, at least for the undiscerning masses. But they didn’t. Rey is a good character for all the right reasons…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut she also exposes some of the movie’s overall problems. But I’ll get to that.
So in case it wasn’t obvious, I -- like a lot of other people -- feel like the phrase “strong female character” has a lot of baggage. The intent behind it is good, for sure, but even the noblest intentions can lead to some pretty nasty results…like, say, trying to make a cool heroine but botching it so badly you end up making a complete psychopath. I’ve argued before that a “strong female character” needs to have more than fighting prowess or some shallow perception of strength, and she shouldn’t have to sacrifice basic elements of her character -- like a personality -- just to curry favor. Again, a bad example might be enough to win over most; if you do it right, though, you’ll have the truest loyalty and respect you could ever know.
What makes Rey cool, then? Arguably, she’s not that far-removed from Finn. Though she’s not that big of a coward. Though she still kind of is.
What’s interesting right off the bat is that based on appearances, it’s hard to divorce Rey from her big mecha-stick (it’s on the friggin’ poster, after all). She’s got it with her throughout most of her Jakku adventures; with memories of Darth Maul still fresh in the public consciousness, the assumption is that she’s a stalwart warrior who’s good with a bo staff. But guess what? She barely gets to use it. In fact, her first physical scuffle shows her getting overwhelmed fairly quickly by two thugs -- pinned from behind, and forced to struggle clumsily in their grip until she can get in a clean blow. She doesn’t use her staff to instantly win the fight with superhuman skill; she uses it to land the finishing blow, and only after she’s regained her balance with good hits and quick thinking.
It’s not as if those details (or Finn’s details, or anyone’s details) are revolutionary. They’re just appreciable. Simple, but appreciable. It’s established that Rey can fight, but she’s far from invincible. Further, she’s more of a technician than a fighter -- which makes sense, because she spends all of her time working with junked machines. Well, it makes sense to an extent, because I’d imagine pulling parts from busted-up machines is different from working directly on spaceships and systems, but whatever. The point is that we learn where Rey’s specialties lie, and they characterize her more than just “she’s a badass who can beat anyone”.
Remember this for later.
What’s really nice is that Rey has a personality besides being hardened by life on the desert. True, she’s pretty gruff at the movie’s outset, but think about her circumstances: she’s overworked, underfed, has no one she can count on, and lives in a desert. She should hate everything and everyone. Once Finn crash-lands into her life, she’s got her first friend in who knows how many years -- and now that the pressure’s off, she can do more. Be more.
She can get all giddy after pulling off a sick loop in an old spaceship. She can shed tears of fear and despair when her insecurities get dragged into the open. She can give Finn a hug when she’s reunited with her new closest friend. And do I even need to explain that she gets plenty of opportunities to be a brave hero worthy of the poster?
Then again, there’s a little alien woman on the poster who does little but play oracle -- without actually telling the future -- so the bar’s as easy to clear as a bump in a sidewalk.
Rey’s character flaws aren’t as overt as Finn’s, at least for the majority of the movie. But she does have them; ostensibly, they make her out to be a hypocrite. The journey to drop BB-8 in the hands of the Resistance is one that fell into her lap one day, and was wrought with danger from second one; she has the inherent nobility needed to soldier on and do what’s right, but there’s a catch. Sure, she’s willing to press on and be a hero when Finn (rightfully) wants to bail, but paradoxically, she ends up doing some running of her own mere minutes later. Figuratively and literally.
Rey ends up hearing the call of Luke’s lightsaber from the depths of the little alien woman’s cellar, tucked away in a treasure chest like it’s from a Legend of Zelda game. Touching it shows her visions of the past, present, and future, and she’s understandably freaked out about it -- so instead of accepting it as her “fate” demands, she runs the hell out of there and into the forest. It’s not exactly a shocking moment when you remember that, metaphorically, Rey has been running away for years. She probably could have left Jakku at any moment, but didn’t because she hoped -- however futilely -- that her family would come back to pick her up. You can give her props for being so patient and trusting, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking that she’s delusional.
She’s been keeping track of the time she’s spent on Jakku with hundreds, if not thousands, of tally marks in a busted AT-AT. She just might have lost it -- which would explain why she wrote out every line instead of slashing across them to separate them into groups of five. Come on, girl. Show some practicality.
Naturally, Rey ends up accepting that there’s no future or salvation for her on Jakku, and in some ways she doesn’t need it. With her talent, she could make a name and a life for herself anywhere in the universe -- and while she ultimately settles with meeting Luke for some one-on-one face time, she’s still taking steps forward instead of waiting for a miracle to happen. That’s actually kind of a strange thing to consider, what with Disney holding the rights to Star Wars; one of the movie’s main men is a direct continuation of some animated heroes, while one of the leading ladies is practically a refutation of the stereotypical Disney princess (Cinderella’s the obvious parallel). Coincidence? Who knows? But what’s important is that Rey has an arc, and it works…for the most part.
Here’s where the problems start cropping up. A lot of people have started crying out that Rey’s a Mary Sue, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see their point (to an extent). She’s an incredible technician! She may or may not be related to some of the canon’s biggest names! She may have come from nowhere, but she’s overflowing with Force powers! She gets strong enough to use those Force powers by movie’s end, making her “more badass” than ever! She’s good enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats, and earns their respect in minutes! She becomes one of the most important people in the story, just ‘cause!
I don’t think she’s as grievously bad as others do. The fact that she has a personality and flaws goes a long way, after all. Plus, it’s not as if she succeeds perfectly at everything she does; she came very close to losing that fight on Jakku, and even if she’s a tech expert, she nearly got everyone killed by messing with the wrong fuses (and unleashing some deadly aliens). She can’t do jack crap to Kylo Ren during their first encounter -- and beyond that, she barely even knew how to work a blaster at the outset. So it’s not like she glides through the movie effortlessly.
Here’s the thing, though. Remember what I said earlier about J.J. Abrams being a grappler? Well, let’s spin that in a different direction.
NUMBER FIVE: Rey is Broken and Needs to be Nerfed in a Day-One Patch
Characters in a fighting game are well-known for having their strengths and weaknesses. Only the best of the best have access to all of the strongest tools in their most ideal forms; everyone else has to pick and choose, while forgoing some traits for the sake of competitive balance. Setting Abrams and crew aside for now, let’s think about what that means for the characters in TFA. What are the new challengers best at doing? There’s some variability, but that’s exactly the point. You want characters that don’t all do the same thing, because different people prefer different archetypes. Some people like rushdown. Some people like zoning. Some people like grapplers. And a good product provides that variability.
What’s Poe’s defining skill in this movie? What archetype does he have, and would put to even greater use if he was a part of the team more than not at all? TFA says it flat-out: he’s the best pilot in the Resistance, so you expect him to do some fancy flying and land shots that would be impossible for others to make. And he does. What’s Finn’s defining skill in this movie? Stigma aside, as a Stormtrooper he’s received plenty of battlefield training, and shows that off every time he’s allowed to control something that makes with the pew-pew-pew. So he’s a gunman.
What’s Rey’s defining skill in this movie? She has a commanding knowledge of technology, and uses that instead of head-on confrontation. With quick thinking and resourcefulness, she uses machines to 1) very nearly poison incoming threats, 2) drop a bulkhead to sever alien tentacles and save Finn, 3) keep their junkyard of a ship flying, and 4) avoid detection from Stormtroopers while deep inside Starkiller Base. That’s our understanding of Rey, and it’s something that works for her -- as an extension of her character, and the movie’s verisimilitude.
So if you ask me? One of the biggest mistakes the movie makes is that it jettisons Rey’s technical wizardry for plot wizardry. She taps into the Force so thoroughly that -- even before movie’s end -- she’s able to make every possible conflict she could face into a joke. Once she used Jedi mind tricks to make a Stormtrooper free her from imprisonment, I immediately thought “Well, that’s it. She’s unbeatable now.” And she pretty much was. She goes on to pull Luke’s lightsaber from the snow into her hand, take on Ren (albeit an injured one) equally, and then overpower Ren in a matter of minutes. To the movie’s credit, she was at least awakening to the Force over the course of the movie, but it still feels like way too far of a leap over such a short period.
But my problem isn’t so much that Rey gained so much power so quickly. It’s that the Abrams cadre broke the archetype. We all know the basic suite of Force powers by now thanks to cultural osmosis, as well as the marks of a Jedi. Mind tricks, telekinesis, superhuman feats, lightsabers, et cetera, et cetera. Those things end up replacing Rey’s technological skills as her defining trait, or at least her most useful one.
I mean, think about it. If she’s so technically inclined, then wouldn’t it be cool if her Force powers enhanced her technical skills to an insane degree? Imagine if she could hack restraints to break loose instead of raw brainwashing. Or if she could sense the inner workings of machines, and throw a wrench into the works with only a touch (or better yet, talk with them as she would Finn). Axe her telekinesis, but extend her Force-tech to lightsabers; give her the power to make Ren’s already-unstable lightsaber go haywire, and let Rey overclock her lightsaber so that it turns into a glowing Buster Sword.
I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have gotten more powers (because I remember the movie’s subtitle), but she has to get powers that are true to, and an extension of, the character. Failing to do that with a big-budget production feels like such a rookie mistake. But there are more problems with the movie than that. And to borrow from Mr. Plinkett once again, there’s a question that’s been on my mind for a while.
NUMBER SIX: Who is the Main Character of This Movie?
It’s obviously not Poe. And I’m pretty sure we can rule out BB-8, because he’s a MacGuffin transporter (with an absurd number of cuts to him, in case every scene needed to have a BB-8 reaction shot). So does that mean it’s Finn? He gets the plot going, sure, but he feels like he gets slotted into the sidekick role pretty regularly, especially once Rey comes along.
Sooooooooooooooo…Rey’s the main character then, right? Yes, except no. It’s a good while before she’s introduced, what with Finn and Poe, the Space Bros. And while she also has importance to the plot (and resolves the final one-on-one battle, as leads tend to do), she also feels like a side player.
So I guess that means the main character is Han Solo.
Makes sense, right? He’s one of the most popular characters around, to the point where people cry at the sight of his confirmed return. And the best way to reward that hype is to have as much Han (and to a lesser extent, Chewbacca) as possible. So once he makes his appearance in the movie, the plot screeches to a halt so that we can have him and Chewie in the middle of a soured deal between space crooks.
He’s in a number of action scenes, he’s the locus of plenty of jokes, he’s dead-center in some of the movie’s most emotional exchanges, and he’s the focal point of the biggest scene TFA has to offer. But all the while, he’s sharing the screen with people like Finn and Rey, and their burgeoning arcs. Furthermore, he doesn't show up until a ways into the movie and the plot at large. And more importantly, Han ends up dying and removed from TFA well before the climax. Yet the movie goes on regardless. Sooooooooooooooo if he’s not the main character, then who is?
I have one possible answer. The main character of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is…Star Wars.
What do I mean by that? Well, I’ll explain…next time. And then I’ll be able to do what I wanted to do and explain Kylo Ren. But I can’t here, because I’m dumb and think too much. Also, I suspect some people want me to do lots of pissy nitpicking, and I’ll go ahead and assume that it’s gonna happen.
Sigh. Seven thousand, two hundred down. Two thousand, eight hundred to go. Even though I’ll probably go well over that, but whatever. It’s fine. Besides, I’ve still got more stories to tell.