Word around the galaxy is that The Force Awakens, episode VII in the Star Wars saga, is not as good as episodes IV through VI (could anything be?), but a step above the later films or so called prequels, episodes I through III. If you don’t know much about the Star Wars universe, the preceding sentence will likely confuse you. Unfortunately, confused frequently I was (get the joke?) by The Force Awakens, and I would have to rank it alongside the prequels in terms of ham-handedness and disappointment.Star_Wars_Episode_VII_The_Force_Awakens

Long, long before I was confused, I was troubled—in fact, from the very outset of the movie. The opening crawl of text in The Force Awakens tells us that we are picking up some thirty years after The Return of the Jedi and Luke Skywalker has gone missing. The bad guys, known as The First Order, are trying to track him down to kill him, while the good guys—the Resistance— need him more than ever.

This got me to thinking about history, American history specifically. Imagine if after defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Harry S. Truman had gone back to haberdashery. So much was invested in seeing the dark side defeated and the Empire crushed, to open with the notion that Luke, perhaps the greatest hero in movie history, has packed it in after some frustrating times felt like the worst possible way to begin the next chapter. The rest of the movie’s plot I’ll leave to the nerds to dissect. In brief, the dialogue and the exposition are clunky and the characters are unapproachable, even those resurrected from the original films. It’s not even good enough anymore to say “weak story, but it looked great.” In the CGI age, all films look great. It’s a sign of the times that we are surprised by a strong story in a tent pole film. Alas, The Force Awakens does not excite either visually or with content.

Now, on second thought, allow me to geek out about a few plot points. Many people have wondered how Rey, the film’s heroine, having virtually no fighting experience, is able to best the villain Kylo Ren in the film’s climactic light saber battle. Ren is highly trained in the ways of the force and sword play and one of the most feared beings in the galaxy, and Rey, a novice in almost every sense, somehow out duels him. There have been various theories about how this is possible, but I look at it like this: Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player who ever lived, yet he couldn’t hit over .200 in minor league baseball. You can have great natural talent in one area but it won’t apply automatically in another.

That goes for piloting ships, which is a problem in just about every blockbuster film these days. Because a person can pilot one craft it is assumed he or she cannot only pilot any other craft instantly but also do it better than people who have trained and operated those vessels for years. I’m not sure when this meme started, but clearly it’s worked itself into the codes and conventions of movies so deeply that writers, directors, and producers no longer stop to think it might be illogical.

On the subject of logic, there is a scene in The Force Awakens when a First Order commander gives a speech prior to unveiling a new death star type of weapon (yes, yet a third death star has been built). The speech is intended to look like a Nazi-style Nuremberg rally with thousands of storm troopers huzzahing the commander’s ravings. But earlier in the film, we are told that storm troopers are kidnapped by the First Order as children and systematically programmed to become mindless killers. Why then, give them a buck up speech? What do they care? The Germans at the Nuremberg rallies most assuredly cared and had not been kidnapped from other countries to create an army. It struck me as a completely unnecessary scene with an internal contradiction the filmmakers did not realize.

Why am I harping on this scene? Because the one truly interesting thing about The Force Awakens is the character Finn. He’s a storm trooper who rejects the life he has been impressed into and flees the First Order. To this point in the Star Wars story, storm troopers have always been presented as faceless automatons who blast everything in sight. They have no character, no soul, nothing. But of the millions of storm troopers out there, why has Finn rejected this destiny? Are there others, perhaps in the rally, like Finn? Pretending to be for the cause but secretly doubting? Assuredly, Finn will be explored in later episodes, but in The Force Awakens any interest about his character that builds is generally derailed by silly dialogue and inexplicable plot turns.

And this brings us to the ‘force’ behind the future of the Star Wars series, J.J. Abrams. George Lucas famously sold all rights to the Star Wars franchise to Disney, who brought in Abrams to carry the torch. There was much trepidation among the Star Wars faithful that the story would be Disney-fied. In truth, Star Wars had been commoditized since its debut in 1977, but I would argue that Disney has not done much to it. It pretty much remains in the same place it was when the prequels were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and Abrams is the perfect standard bearer for these kinds of films because he is a showman extraordinaire. I say showman as opposed to filmmaker because I’ve never been impressed by Abrams’s writing. From Lost to Super 8 to Star Trek, Abrams is more Michael Bay than Steven Spielberg. He’s big and bold and can put butts in the seat, but he is not a convincing storyteller.

In fact, I fear there may be no such folks remaining in Hollywood, at least at the blockbuster level. Part of the hubbub surrounding The Force Awakens was the return of writer Lawrence Kasdan to the Star Wars mix. Kasdan wrote the script for episode V, The Empire Strikes Back (among other great scripts), which is universally recognized as the best chapter in Star Wars. Kasdan, it was said, would return the Star Wars series to respectability with his storytelling skills. Alas, it is not so, as the script bears the mark of Abrams far more than Kasdan, and the jedi-order that once brought peace and justice and good writing to the galaxy is all but extinct.

I’ll allow that for anyone this chapter would have been difficult to write. If Disney did indeed mandate bringing back characters from the original trilogy any writer or director would have a challenge almost too hard to take on. The Star Wars prequels of the late 1990s and early 2000s, in large part, told the story of the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. There were other characters naturally, but the focus was on a persona that had already been created in the first three films. Unfortunately, the opportunity to do something terrific with Anakin, who eventually becomes Darth Vader, was flubbed.

So we might feel more charitable toward Abrams and company who have been tasked with not only reviving storylines for characters such as Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker, but also creating new threads for Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren. But the result is cacophony not synergy, and I’m not even sure Yoda could write his way out of this Dagobah –esque swamp.

Therefore, in my opinion, episode VII can be dumped into the stew of I-III and forgotten. The Force Awakens might set many box office records, so in a business sense it is a success, and maybe that is all that matters. What surely does not matter –which may be impossible—is recapturing the magic of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi.  With each successive addition to the Star Wars story –and there is likely to be one new film every two years or so—the series creeps closer to the dark side and ever farther away from the light unto which it was born.

[rating:2/4]

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridely, John Boyega, Adam Driver

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 minutes

About The Author

Randy Steinberg is a Blast Film Critic. He has a Master’s Degree in Film/Screenwriting from Boston University. He taught screenwriting at BU from 1999-2010 and continues to write screenplays and other fiction. Randy can be contacted at steinbrc@msn.com

9 Responses

  1. shane

    Ive followed star wars since empire in 1980 And i rate episode 3 the 3rd best behind empire and jedi and ahead of new hope easily.
    My point is that you original trilogy purists are a pack of wingers that will never be happy with whats served up.
    Ive followed star wars since 8 years old and i agree that force awakens isnt perfect but a director named james cameron recently applauded the now critically rubbished terminator genisys too.
    And he created that franchise!!!
    And dont tell me he needed the money.
    Maybe the perfect critic aint so perfect after all

    Reply
    • Randy Steinberg

      Thanks for the comment and your thoughts. We’ll have to agree to disagree on where all the films rank. I don’t think that’s being a purist or a winger, only opinion, which you are free to take or leave. Clearly, you differ, and that’s fine, but it is undeniable that without A New Hope striking a chord with movie-goers there is nothing else. If it had been a flop or only mildly interesting there would not have been other films–and certainly not six more! I’m not sure what Cameron’s thoughts on the most recent Terminator prove or disprove. George Lucas made some very negative comments about The Force Awakens, but even so one director’s opinion on a franchise, whether his own or not, does not convince me that it should validate the quality of a movie. And being a critic is not about perfection. It’s about offering an informed point of view that others might want to hear. And my point of view is that The Force Awakens does not stand out much from episodes I-III, but that’s less because of this particular film than a trend in blockbuster filmmaking which values spectacle and CGI and marketing over quality writing. But in one sense, I’ll agree with you. It doesn’t matter what I think. Audiences keep going, and as long as they accept what is being served there will be no impetus to change.

      Reply
      • shane

        Some valid points and i do appologise if this post seemed personal it wasnt intended to.
        I guess my frustration stems these days from an apparent negative attitude towards many if not most new films.
        Now dont get me wrong im not suggesting a flawed movie should be not be called for what it is, but how many really descent but flawed movies are being absolutely trashed by critics.
        These directors pour there hearts and souls into these descent films only to be treated like garbage because it has some flaws.
        And more often than not general consensus is a hang judge.
        Anyway im glad you replied and again my post wasnt personal even if it sounded like it.

      • Randy Steinberg

        No worries. Did not take anything personally. People often get passionate when discussing movies they love, and if someone criticizes it they can get offended. I understand, and I admit I can be a bit of a crank, but I’m a writer myself (and have a degree in screenwriting and used to teach the subject), so it’s distressing to see so much poor writing at the blockbuster level when just 20-30 years ago the level of writing was far stronger. I think there are many reasons for this, and that is the subject for another article, but that’s mainly where I’m coming from. I don’t set out to trash something, but I expect a lot from a $200 million dollar production, and I don’t believe because someone worked hard on it they should be immune to criticism–or that I should hold my fire because of that. JJ Abrams is making out just fine, so I don’t think anyone should feel too badly, but there will always be critics and at least in my case I don’t feel I have some agenda to trash a movie. I loved District 9, though that was not a Hollywood movie per se. And go over to the comments section at IMDB on The Force Awakens. There you will see many non-critics being much harsher than myself. It’s not just me. Thanks again for the comments. I take it all in good faith.

      • shane

        Thanks again and as i said i agree some critisism is not a bad thing when needed.
        Im just against movies recieving a rubbish tag because of being a little flawed but i understand you werent doing that.
        Anyway all good thanks for your replies.

      • Randy Steinberg

        It’s all good. Hope you will check out future reviews, so we can discuss those as well.

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