A darkness is rising. Or so they say.
It should first be said of me that I am not the most avid of Star Wars fans. I’ve always felt that they lacked a bit of something. Since it is often hard to describe one’s feelings in words, I will instead illustrate a space film I do enjoy immensely. ALIEN. So now you, whomever you may be, know what I like in a space movie.
This Post will contain spoilers, some theories, and like most who cannot make, do: criticisms and critiques.
This will be a rehashing of the entire movie from somewhat vague memory: it often fails me.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins with a scrawl of top down golden print exposition which tells of the galactic problems that have arisen following the destruction of the Empire and Sith Lord, Darth Sidious. And once the gold letters have disappeared we watch an elderly man distribute a small, trinket like piece of technology to the greatest pilot of the resistance. What this piece has inside it: a holographic section of a map which leads to the undisclosed and unknown location of the great Luke Skywalker, who has excommunicated himself from the Resistance. Luke is the main plot point of the whole movie and seemingly of the whole series. The Resistance needs to find him, I suppose so they can tear down the Empire (now dubbed the New Order); and the New Order wants to find him to eradicate him? So that they may continue on (as they have for many years now) without righteous impedance. The real mystery of it is why Luke, a man sworn to holy goodness, would allow the galaxy to succumb to the horrors of the New Order. It’s strange, but that is seemingly our basic plot.
The New Order has caught wind of this map exchange and subsequently lands on the planet just as the holographic map piece has changed hands. At the behest of the old man, the pilot runs back to the X-Wing, a charming white and orange droid rolling through the sand at his heels. Storm troopers disable the X-Wing with a few well- placed bolts from their laser rifles and the pilot hops out and hands over the holographic map to the droid and instructs that little white and orange fellow to roll as fast as he can into and across the desert. He’ll be back for him, he tells the poor thing. Such a lonely place, that desert.
A rather ominous looking ship lands and the hatch door articulates down and buries into the ancient sand and from the shadows there emerges Kylo Ren. I quite like the look of Kylo Ren. In fact, I’d say I like his character design much more than Vader’s. This is to be expected, of course, as today’s artists and effects teams are quite advanced when compared to where they were in 1976. Nevertheless, he looks the part. A heavy black perforated cloak with a hood and smooth, black leather chest piece lend him menace, and a black face shield made from some heavy, metal like material conceals his visage and muffles his voice disturbingly so. He is owner of perhaps the second most intriguing saber in Star Wars cannon as well, behind Darth Maul. A cross guard of red laser and long red beam extending up from the hilt which seems to pulse and flame a bit more than others. Almost like swinging an inverted cross set ablaze. I have a feeling this was their intent. The problem is, he does not swing well. In fact, he’s quite awful at bearing that cross. But more on that later.
Kylo-Ren lays siege on the village with the newfangled Storm Troopers and assassinates the old man who gifted the map to the pilot. The pilot watches this from a nearby dune and gets upset and advances on Kylo but the dark Jedi pauses the man with the force. He takes Poe, the magnificent fighter pilot, aboard his ship and goes back to the stars. A storm trooper at the massacre did not act like the other storm troopers, choosing instead not to fire on the villagers. This if FN-numbers numbers numbers. AKA Finn.
Poe is subsequently interrogated by Kylo and with Kylo holding his hand before Poe’s face we hear a gruesome scream and then information. “The map is in a droid,” says Kylo, voice a nightmare. It would seem Kylo is quite strong with the force—strong enough to tear down a strong minded resistance fighter without ever touching him.
FN-numbers numbers numbers, slowly becoming Finn, still rattled from the slayings, devises a plan to get Poe out so that he too may escape the terrors of the New Order. He does, and they fly away in a Tie Fighter and crash land on the planet they’d only just been on.
Somewhere in there we may have met Ray: an attractive female who is a parts scavenger. Her day’s findings she brings back to some standing hippopotamus thing and exchanges them for meager portions of food. At one point she watches an old lady do the same job she so does now. A grim, uninspiring look into her potential future, but still she chooses to live in the inner workings of a downed AT-At walker on the planet Jakku. Waiting for someone she does not know or remember (or maybe she does) to come back. Each day a thin line etched into her wall, a patchwork of lines which represents the days passed never to return again.
But soon she will be on an adventure in the stars. While at the AT-AT she hears some commotion and runs into the charming little orange and white droid and makes friends. The next morning she brings more parts back to the standing hippo, droid at her side, and earns another small portion of food. Here, she gets into an altercation with some folks who try to claim the droid, all the while Finn watches from afar. He makes move to help, but Rey is a big girl and highly capable, laying quick waste to the advancers. The droid recognizes the jacket Finn has pulled from the downed Tie Fighter which he now wears—the jacket belonging to the believed to be dead Poe. Rey chases Finn down and words are exchanged. Storm Troopers arrive and gunfire breaks out. Rey, Finn, and the charming rolling droid are forced to hop in a pile-of-junk space craft. The Millennium Falcon. Round of applause! (This happened at the theater when I went on Christmas.)
More bizarre yet somewhat unimportant events unfold, and soon Han and Chewy are aboard the Millennium Falcon. Home. After a brief altercation with a couple clans who want Han’s head, the foursome departs for some planet of water and green. Here they interact with a rasta like lady with big goggles. Finn looks to escape to the outer rim, so as to avoid the brutalities of the New Order, while the rest of the crew plots on how to get the pleasant white and orange droid to the Resistance. Finn departs with a crew headed for the outer rim. Rey hears some shrieks and wails and goes into the basement of this bar they have been talking in and there she has a vision upon seeing a lightsaber. A lightsaber which glows blue. Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and his father’s before him.
Now, how in the flying eff did they recover that lightsaber? It was the one Luke used when he got his hand chopped clean off in Bespin. It dropped way and way down from that floating city in the clouds. But someone found it. Worse, it doesn’t look any worse for wear. It doesn’t glow weakly. It has no burs on the handle. Polished, smooth metal, as if it never fell from the sky. What teee effff.
Rey, frightened by the visions she saw of a man with a robotic hand followed by Kylo standing before a group of knights in the pouring rain, refuses to take up the lightsaber and flees into the old growth woods behind the bar. Thanks to a tip from a bizarre alien woman inside the bar, the New Order descends upon the planet and another fire fight breaks out, Finn taking up the blue saber and doing okay with it at best. In fact, he was defeated by a storm trooper swordsman. That’s okay. We must be realistic about his experience with a lightsaber. I like that he lost. Kylo pursues Rey into the woods and stops her dead in her tracks with the force, just as he did to Poe the pilot. We will call these Poe Problems. Poe Money. Poe Problems.
In the meantime, thanks to a tip from a talking radio inside the bar, the Resistance arrives and an incredible pilot saves the lives of Han, Chewy, Finn, and all the other drunkards. Man, that guy can really fly! It’s Poe! He’s returned.
Back in the woods, Kylo forces (see what I did there?) Rey to pass out and carries her aboard his cool spaceship, Han watching this unfold from afar with a despairing look on his face. Finn shouts and screams but to no avail.
Finn, Han and Chewy take the Millennium Falcon back to Resistance base and here we get some awful dialogue between Han and Leia. Truly bad. I saw our son. Ben. Yes, Ben. Ben is now Kylo. Leia said it often, as though we kept forgetting. Ben was Kylo. Ben is Kylo but he’s more Ben than Kylo. It was Snoke (the Sith Lord in command of the New Order) who seduced our son to the Darkside. Drop the exposition. Would have been much better to have her say:
“It was Snoke.” Boom. Done. I think the writer must have thought: “It was Snoke who seduced our son to the darkside,” was an amazing line. As if seduced had never been used before in that manner of sentence. Worse, that line came at the end of dialogue exchange in which it had already been established two times prior that Kylo was Ben and Ben was their son. She was little more than an expository character with sub-par line delivery. It was brutal. Onward.
The astute reader may be wondering why I have left out the New Order’s Death Planet and what it had done to four other planets, counting it as a major plot point, but it was done with purpose, for it did not seem the director even cared this had been done. We, the viewing audience, cared not at all that those planets had been turned to galactic dust. We knew nobody from them. The violence came so quickly and totally that we did not have a moment to grieve. No character’s mother was on that planet. A sibling. Nothing. Nothing that added emotional impact to any of the characters we may have been attached to. Poor, poor writing on that, I believe. There is a certain magic that lies in the great writer, hard to pinpoint and harder yet to replicate, but it invites the reader/viewer to feel and doubt, even if they know the ultimate outcome; it allows them to doubt for a moment that such an outcome might not come to be after all. Again, the reader/ viewer knows better than to doubt, but still they may for just a moment. This is what makes a storyteller great: being able to keep suspense despite all odds. And this is where Star Wars failed. We never doubted Rey. Never doubted Finn. We did not care that four planets stuffed full of people were lost: it was glazed over. Do something creative to make us care. It’s often hard to say what, but the greats do make us care. We should have felt immense sorrow that billons of lives had been lost. We should have feared what our heroes were up against. But we, at least I, did not. The death planet inspired no fear. It did not wound anyone important in our story. It was just a demonstration of power by an object—it is not the blade we fear, but the man who bears it.
Back at Resistance base, the leaders devise a plan to blow up the Death Planet as it has its sights aimed on the planet upon which they reside. Finn and Han and Chewey fly the Falcon up to the planet, intending not only to disable the shields but rescue Rey from Kylo Ren.
But Rey does not need rescuing. Kylo godsmacks her head and wars with her mind but is denied like a drunkard by a classy lady. Also in this scene, he unmasked himself. Horrible decision, in my opinion. It instantly humanized him and made him much less a monster. And up until that point, it was the only redeeming quality of the movie: that Kylo was an ambiguity. Something to keep us guessing. Who is the tormented man behind that mask who has a certain affinity for destroying instrumentation with his fiery cross. But he removed his mask and looked perpetually on the verge of tears. No longer frightening. Bummer. We see he is torn and destined to fail.
Not only does Rey war off Kylo mentally, she enslaves a gullible storm trooper, commanding him to let her free and leave the door open, and quickly, she adds, leave the blaster. The trooper, Daniel Craig, obliges. Again, no reason to worry for her safety. She has it all covered. Make us worry. Make us doubt they can overcome. Make us fear that she might may not persevere, she may succumb, even though we know that she will win. This is what makes a great story. Onward.
Finn, Han and Chewy enter the Death Planet and disable the shields and rendezvous with Rey. Chewy and Han stay behind to charge the inner walls of the planet with explosives. A furious Kylo finds Rey has escaped and stalks the fortress. Han confronts him on a long narrow bridge and exchanges words with him. You’re Ben. I’m Kylo. You’re my son. Your son is dead. More exposition. Kylo stabs him and down he falls into the abyss of the warhead planet. For a moment, based on the remarkable recovery of the blue lightsaber, I thought Han may still live, but in the next ten or so minutes the whole planet implodes thanks to X Wing pilot great, Poe. Gone Han. Han Gone.
But before all that we have some lightsaber duels. Kylo confronts Rey and Finn in the snow bitten woods, burning cross before him. Face wounded and frightened. We know he won’t win. We have nothing to fear. Rey, who’d only just out-FORCED Kylo, gets blown back into a tree and knocked unconscious. Rather than do the same to Finn, Kylo elects to engage in a saber fight. Strange decision. But Finn, who’d only just been whooped by a Stormtrooper swordsman, somewhat holds his own with the Sith trained Kylo, landing a strike to his shoulder which sends Kylo reeling. Another exchange transpires, and this time Kylo bests Finn, gashing him along the back. The blue saber plunges into the snow. Kylo extends his arm, ready to draw it near him, but a now awoken (see what I did there) Rey is feeling more FORCEful and pulls it past his grip and into her own from afar. Round two. Sabers swing and make great noise. Trees fall from missed strokes. And then Rey defeats Kylo. A hole in the ground opens as the planet is pulling itself apart from implosion, creating a chasm between Rey and the down but not out Kylo. Rey retreats to the Falcon with Chewy, an unconscious Finn curled over his shoulder.
Kylo is also saved and a holographic Snoke declares that there is more training for him as well–this should go unsaid. Obviously he requires much more training. He was just wounded by a Storm trooper who got his mask handed to him by another Storm trooper swordsman. He failed to extract information from a girl who didn’t even know what the force was. Yet he has the strength to stop people dead in their tracks. Stop laser bolts in midair. Make people lose consciousness. He seemed very force strong. Then he gets whooped. Was he sand bagging? Is his ultimate mission really to get close to Snoke and tear him down? I can only hope so, because he was a gravely unprepared saber specialist against amateurs.
The movie ends with Rey climbing a mountain, atop which she has an awkward and long stare down with Luke Skywalker. Roll golden colored credits.
As I said above, I have numerous issues with the story. Namely, the viewer did not ever have any reason to doubt the outcome, even for a moment. Rey was too powerful from the onset. Kylo Ren too weak emotionally and lacking skill. The major plot points which were supposed to make us fearful instead fell flat: IE, we did not quiver in the face of the Death Planet. The destruction of the four planets was little more than a distant red flash in the sky. Perhaps a better thing to have done would have been blowing up the green and water planet upon which the Kylo abducted Rey, after the main characters had departed. We’d at least known some of the characters on the doomed planet. We’d have known the beauty of the planet. It would have hit closer to home.
Another bothersome detail: they kept speaking of the horrors perpetuated by the Nazi-esque New Order, yet they were easy to defeat and lacked menace. Finn was afraid to go back, where he’d merely, it seems, be re-conditioned into taking up the Storm Trooper white.
Perhaps the movie should have started off with a trooper who’d defected, sitting in anemic interrogation room. Screaming. Pleading for life and mercy. Kylo Ren standing in the shadows watching calmly, reminding him of his powers and how if he wanted anything from the man he merely had but invade his mind. He only chose to torture him because he traded in agony. Perhaps this would have made us fear for Finn’s safety, for what happened to defectors. Perhaps it would have made us fear Kylo as someone who enjoys tortures and agonies; someone who is soulless and truly lost their humanity. Instead we were TOLD that we should fear them. Show, don’t tell, as they say.
This is, and will be, the main problem I have with Star Wars and its future installments. Its ends will never be exacting and brutal enough. In a galaxy perpetually under war there is never any torment or agony close to home. Billions of lives are lost yet it is glazed over. It doesn’t want to hurt us. To wound us. And for this it suffers. It lacks the brutality of war. Its treacheries and barbarisms. We are instead told how they are savage. How they are bad. How evil is rising and this should not go unchecked. But we do not get to see any of it. And with this as its code, its lows will never be low enough, and in turn its highs will never be high enough.
Snoke is a little evil guy, not dissimilar in size and movement from Yoda.
As a potential interesting plot point: Rey seemed a rather violent and angry saber duelist. Her emotion may prove bad for her. Finn, however, seemed a nigh unwavering source of goodness. He had a brief selfish moment but forsook all personal desires in a heartbeat. He may just be the main hero in this whole thing.
All that being said, I still don’t find the movie horrible. It could just be so much more, if the stakes and atmosphere aligned. But it won’t, and I understand that.