Now that The Force Awakens has been released for home viewing and people have moved on to excitement over the trailers for Rogue One, it becomes necessary to look back at Episode 7 with some distance between us and the hype & excitement surrounding it.
As I discussed recently on Geek Cred, the movie is not perfect -- despite what some people (reviewers included) might want to say. In fact, it has some pretty major issues that are getting heavily glossed over as the hype-train chugs along passing out rose-tinted glasses and nostalgia-goggles to anyone that might want to take a deeper look. With that in mind, let's take a look at 7 (since this is Episode VII!) real problems with The Force Awakens as I make a case to support my B- rating of the movie.
Needless to say: SPOILERS! (but COME ON! You should have seen it already!)
7. Stories are often defined by their bad guys and the Force Awakens has bad "bad guys"
Hell, Darth Vader is a cultural icon because of what an amazing villain he is. Arguably, in A New Hope Grand Moff Tarkin, as amazingly portrayed by the late, great Peter Cushing, is an even more compelling, though less striking, villain than Vader himself. Force Awakens though? The villains are jokes. Admiral Hux lacks any real presence on screen and is, unfortunately, given very little to do. We know nothing about him or his motivations and, most disappointingly, we don't even know what drives him. With Vader and Tarkin, we could see their fanaticism and their desire for military dominance that drove them. With Hux we have nothing other than him being upset with the New Republic leading to a Hitler-esque speech that really communicates very little.
Kylo Ren fairs little better. Despite having an impressive first scene, Ren is repeatedly undercut through the movie and his menace & presence erodes rapidly. Of course, he is a different villain from Vader despite them both being users of the Dark Side but he is still a black-clad, masked villain that is literally a wannabe-Vader but with none of the gravitas needed for that. The worst part is that Kylo could have really capitalized on just how much potential he had since, in many ways, he feels like a better version of prequel-Anakin. That potential is never realized in the film, however, because we don't understand Kylo or his journey. Vader was successful because he was enough of a cipher to just maintain a faceless, intimidating threat through the film. Kylo, on the other hand, was created as a character that we could delve into as viewers but the lack of history regarding Kylo leaves us hearing about his depth but never actually experiencing it. And you know what also helps undercut the villains...?
6. Inappropriate humor!
Look, I won't lie; I did laugh quite a bit at moments in Force Awakens but those moments were actually counter-productive to the film. Now, this isn't an argument against humor in a film since I love the style of humor in this movie when it's used in Marvel productions and the like. However, it simply doesn't work in a world of operatic space fantasy like Star Wars because it undermines what is supposed to be going on. For example, during the very opening scene we are treated to a rather horrific scene of a village being raided by the First Order as Resistance fighters and, presumably, innocent Jakku villagers are gunned down mercilessly. The Resistance ally played by the criminally underused Max Von Sydow is executed and Poe is captured and brought before Kylo Ren.
Then Poe starts mouthing off and making jokes in front of Kylo which elicits laughter from the audience. Immediately the weight of the actions being perpetrated by the villains is undercut and it evaporates. You just can't do that in a film. Similarly, the first time we see Kylo Ren totally freak out and hack apart a console with his lightsaber it is jarring because of how different he is from the frighteningly calm rage of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes back but, later in the film when Kylo is consumed by rage again it is turned into a joke when two Stormtroopers turn and walk in the opposite direction to avoid the situation. Instead of a mentally disturbed, rage-fueled maniac, Kylo is framed as a petulant child that the other members of the first order simply wish to avoid. This bizarre use of humor is related to another major problem...
4. The story-telling and pacing in the movie is sloppy as hell
Seriously, think of how many weird coincidences happen in the movie. How many things have to be chalked up to the "will of the Force"? BB-8 happens to be near Rey, who has a mysterious past. Rey just happens to be near the Millenium Falcon. When Poe and Finn crash in a planet they just happen to crash within walking distance of Rey. Han & Chewbacca are seconds away from Jakku when the Millenium Falcon is taken by Rey & Finn. The first place Han thinks to go, Maz's castle, just happens to have Anakin Skywalker's lightsaber in its basement. Rey just happens to be right near Finn and Han Solo on a base the size of a planet! A gorge opens up between Rey and Kylo just in time to save Kylo. R2-D2 just happens to wake up after all the action is over. Seriously, this is all somehow acceptable? No, this is contrived and weak writing. If this were in ANY other movie it would rightfully be called out for being such but, for this film, a bunch of people just want to say "the Force did it!" but, as we already know (and to quote Han Solo) "the Force doesn't work that way!"
Since the movie moves through its events so rapidly, however, racing from scene to scene, you don't really have time to digest just how ridiculous some of this stuff is. A decision that, I think, is purposeful since both J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies suffered from the same issue. More than the story itself struggles with issues like this though because...
3. Some of the characters make no sense!
The crux of the movie (supposedly) hinges on the fact that Luke Skywalker has disappeared. So you want me to believe that the brave, selfless and courageous Luke Skywalker from Return of the Jedi that was willing to die to save his father from the Dark Side left all his friends, family and allies because his nephew had a fit and killed his students? Really? Luke Skywalker is letting batshit insane Kylo Ren run around murdering people and blowing up planets while he searches Ireland? That is incredibly weak. Even the new character of Finn doesn't make a lot of sense.
Though John Boyega is very enjoyable in the role, Finn acts nothing like a young man that's been indoctrinated since birth to be an emotionless Stormtrooper. He simply doesn't. He acts cowardly, casual and eager-to-befriend, all things that would be pretty damned foreign to a lifelong soldier. Beyond that, Finn's defining characteristic at the beginning of the movie is that he doesn't want to just kill people. 2 minutes later he's mercilessly gunning down Stormtroopers that were formerly his friends. That...doesn't make any sense. You see, you can't humanize Stormtroopers in one scene by developing Finn (a Stormtrooper) as a fully realized character and then have that same character treat Stormtroopers as disposable fodder.
It's entirely possible that those other Stormtroopers are just as unsure of their role as Finn but we're supposed to cheer when they get blasted. We're also told that the Stormtroopers are now being kidnapped as children and indoctrinated...so...uh...yeah, these guys are basically as innocent as Finn in that they're essentially brainwashed. You can't create sympathy for an entire kind of character and then treat them like common mooks. That's wildly inconsistent.
Similarly, the immediate, rapid friendship between Poe and Finn makes little sense with their camaraderie just accepted at face value without ever being earned through the film. They have literally about 8 minutes together on film and are acting more chummy than Han and Luke at the end of A New Hope after they've been together virtually the entire movie saving each others lives and fighting enemies together. Honestly watch the movie and pay attention to how much time Finn & Poe spend around each other and then watch their interaction towards the beginning of the 3rd act. Is that earned? At all? Hell no. They didn't just run around the Death Star for the better part of the movie and save each other multiple times. They were briefly together for a clumsy escape. That is IT! It's beyond forced. Their characters are rushed.
One character in particular, however, has so many problems that she becomes her own entry on this list...
2. Rey! Rey is a terrible character
For all the fanfare surrounding Rey as a "strong, fully-realized female lead" she is really only half of those things. In reality, Rey is a flat character with no real progression throughout the film. With no real character arc other than learning she has the Force, Rey actually has less develoment across the first movie than Anakin Skywalker in Phantom Menace. With Anakin, despite the questionable child acting and poor writing, we at least know what makes him tick. We see his skillset and how it plays into his situation. We also see his hopes and dreams and how that leads him to certain decisions in the movie like the decision to leave home. And if we were to compare Rey to Luke in A New Hope? PFFFT! Not even close! With Rey we know she wants to stay on Jakku because her family is supposed to come back. Then she leaves Jakku and soon that entire desire is tossed aside. Rey is multilingual, a competent fighter able to best Kylo in a lightsaber battle (again, the Force does NOT work that way), an amazing pilot, a mechanic that knows the Millennium Falcon better than its multi-decade owner, and a Force-savant superior to "the chosen one" Anakin Skywalker. It's...all a bit much for a character that shows little real emotion and about whom we actually know very little.
People have accused critics of Rey of not liking her because she's a woman but, on the contrary, I strongly believe Rey has been given a lot of passes for her flaws as a character for that exact reason. Because she is a female lead character in a Star Wars film it seems like she's supposed to be criticism-proof. Well, sorry but that isn't really fair. After all, am I dismissing the fact that she could develop later? Hell no! Daisy Ridley is a solid actor and Rey has the groundwork for what could be an awesome character. It just doesn't manifest in this film much in the same way that Kylo's potential doesn't realize. Don't worry though it could happen later right? Because... after all...
1. It'll all be explained later
And here we are at the biggest issue I have with the entire movie: J.J. Abrams lazy-ass excuse for narrative momentum known as "the mystery box". You see, J.J. has a penchant for writing stories around mysteries that are not answered until much later on (if ever at all) in the narrative. Why? Not because it's integral to the plot but because it strings viewers along and creates manufactured curiosity rather than general interest while also managing to minimize criticism since plot-holes and questionable events can be chalked up to "it'll be explained later". It passes the buck and punts important parts of the story to later episodes. Guess what? That's bullcrap.
What is Rey's history? No idea. Those questions the movie raises both directly and indirectly about who Rey is, who her parents are, why she is where she is and how she can do what she can do? Never answered. Despite her being the main character whose motivations should be clear and known, it'll all be explained later.
What is up with wtf Luke is doing? I dunno. Though the search for Luke is as integral to the events happening in the film as the Death Star plans in A New Hope, there's 0 pay-off or illumination of the relevance of Luke's location in the movie itself. Where-as the Death Star plans are used at the end of the movie in the climax to destroy the Death Star, Luke doesn't even get any lines. His journey? It'll all be explained later.
What is Snoke's deal? Oh that evil darkside guy that appears by hologram? Whose actions are vaguely referenced but are incredibly relevant to the entire journey of Kylo Ren? The guy whose very existence seems to invalidate much of the previous 6 movies? Yeah we know nothing about him. Nothing. It'll all be explained later.
How about some basics? What is the First Order? What is the deal with the New Republic? How about the Resistance? How did the setting basically get reset to how it was during the previous trilogy? No answers for any of these things are forthcoming in the movie itself.
Will much of this be answered later? Yes, probably. However, a movie is not an episode of a television series. Nor should it be treated as such. A movie needs to be able to stand on its own regardless of whether or not it's part of a series and, simply put, The Force Awakens does not stand well on its own at all. I actually made this #1 because I think it undermines the movie the most because, otherwise, the other issues could actually be mitigated by the strong performances of pretty much everyone involved, the impressive visuals & action and the strong dialogue throughout. The mystery box format, however, cannot be mitigated by any of this though because those qualities that draw you in to the story actually MAGNIFY the problem of not adequately developing the story.
Simply put, The Force Awakens is an A+ movie dragged down to a B- because of some notable but forgivable flaws combined with the lazy, disingenuous methodology too often employed by story-tellers that don't have enough faith in their story. Sadly, The Force Awakens didn't need these mystery boxes and they only serve to undercut the talent & skill otherwise present.
BONUS! It's A New Hope!
Search your feelings. You know it to be true. The movie is just a remake of "A New Hope".