(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
I find, in my advanced age of 33, that I am frequently alone in my opinions. A couple nights ago I saw the new Star Wars movie, and just about everybody seemed to love it. Tomatometer.com records almost perfect rave status. How weird, and isolating, then, to have found it mostly boring. I wonder if anyone else out there agrees with me...
For me, the appeal of Star Wars was never really the story, or the characters, or the dialog - it was the world. Star Wars created a gritty, expansive universe governed by its own internally consistent rules that made it feel like it could be a real place. It had incredible fantasy - lightsaber duels, X-Wing battles, force powers - tied to a very grounded world of farm boys and sand-crusted machines - the most effective combination. (Harry Potter did something similar.) The appeal of Luke Skywalker was not that his character was particularly interesting as a character, but that in his slightly gawky awkwardness, in his ordinariness, he was basically a stand-in for all the slightly gawky, awkward kids in the audience - Luke Skywalker was you.
Just like the silent protagonist of Chrono Trigger or a million video games, Luke represented the audience - when he got to explore and discover this awesome universe, we got to explore and discover it along with him. When Yoda trained him on the force and twisted his brain, we got trained and twisted right along with him. When he yearned for an adventure out beyond the two suns of Tatooine, so did we. When he stared out over the smoking corpses of his family and wanted revenge, so did we. Just as we could easily imagine ourselves being Harry Potter or Hermione Granger, we could easily imagine ourselves being Luke Skywalker - an ordinary kid who gets to do extraordinary things.
Well, what about "The Force Awakens?" For me, it was... a movie. Not a bad movie, really. A lot of stuff happened. None of that stuff was awful (well, maybe some of the lame, unfunny attempts at one-liners were awful), none of it was as bad as the prequels, but it didn't hit that Star Wars sweet spot either. Why not? It was the same world, wasn't it? Didn't J.J. Abrams go to immense trouble to recreate the feel of the original films? Isn't it still gritty and grounded? Isn't there still awesome in the form of light sabers and X-Wings and the force? Yeah, but instead of feeling like I'm seeing this awesome world afresh, I felt like I was just seeing it again. And I already have "A New Hope" on Blu-ray.
Why? Why so weak? Why did the action sequences just make me want to check my watch repeatedly? Why did the movie drag so much after the first third or so? Why did the stakes feel so low when they should've felt maximally high? I think the answer is simple - no Luke Skywalker.
By that I do NOT mean "no Mark Hamill' (although I would have liked to have seen more of him personally). I mean there was no character who let us see the world afresh. I've been to Disney World many many times, but I got to see it and experience it anew when we took my 3-year-old nephew along with us the last time. I got to experience Disney afresh by seeing and experiencing his reactions. When he loved Dumbo, I got to love Dumbo, too. I needed something similar in "The Force Awakens."
They tried, though. Kind of. The movie introduces three young people to become the Luke, Leia, and Han of the next generation - Rey, Finn, and Poe. Could any of these have been the Luke of the movie? Poe is barely present in the movie, so not him. What about Finn? Of the three new guys, Finn had the most relatable emotions - he had actual flaws and an actual personality. He definitely could've been the Luke of the movie - but the movie didn't seem that interested in him. His emotional journey as an AWOL Stormtrooper is basically wrapped up in the first ten minutes of the film, and the rest of his arc is consumed in a weird, ambiguous, and totally uninteresting crush on Rey. We get a few moments of Finn learning to shoot from a laser turret, but his whoops and hollers of "This is so cool!" felt strangely fake and unearned, like something he was supposed to feel rather than something he actually felt. Maybe they happened too fast, or seemed too out of place for someone who ought to have been scared for his life, but the moments didn't work at all. I needed something like watching Grant and Ellie stare up in awe at the brachiosaurus at the top of "Jurassic Park," but instead got something weird and fake. Finn never got to learn anything about himself or explore his powers, like Luke did - he just got to be there a lot. (I wish they had made HIM the incipient Jedi...)
So what about Rey? Is Rey the new Luke? It feels like she's supposed to be. She starts off all sandy and dirty on a desert planet, finds a droid with a map in it, and gets swept off into an adventure. She gets to find out that she has special force powers. So she should be the Luke of the movie. And yet, Rey is a total non-character from start to finish. Well, that's not completely fair - we do get a few fleeting moments of real emotion when she sees green for the first time, and when she's hungry as a lonely scavenger. I liked those moments. But mostly, she's just a movie character - smart, capable, knowledgeable, and thoroughly, utterly boring. Are we supposed to believe that this kid grew up on a desert wasteland fighting for every morsel of food? She ought to be Eliza Doolittle or the Artful Dodger - a foul-mouthed, scrappy, cynical, hardened, low-class, uncouth sort of character, not a high-class Keira Knightley figure wandering a desert with no friends or relationships for any discernable reason. Her character feels false from top to bottom. Luke and Harry may not have been interesting as characters, but they were at least authentic and realistic portrayals of ordinary kids. Finn gets to be an authentic person, but bland Rey gets to be the central protagonist.
What's more, Rey is the one who learns she has Jedi powers. Never mind that she doesn't seem to have to go through an emotional journey like Luke did with Yoda, learning about aggression and the nature of the force, which is bad enough. (Rey's powers are more like Peter Parker's spider bite - she just starts having them.) No, the real problem is that the movie skimps on letting us feel Rey's journey as she discovers her power. We get a brief interrogation scene played for laughs where she learns she can control minds, and then she runs off into the station to learn about her powers unseen by us. Movies like "Spider Man" and "The Incredibles" got awesome mileage out of showing the fear and ultimate exhilaration of learning you have superpowers. Dash learning he can run over water is maybe my favorite film moment of all time. "The Force Awakens" should have done something similar with Rey, but that key emotional connection is given frustratingly short shrift. What would it be like to learn you have cool force powers? Rey doesn't get to answer that question for us very much.
Instead, we get lots and lots of boring action sequences, punctuated by fake-feeling, unfunny one-liners and a whole whole lot of winking, fourth-wall breaking fan service. (The entire shootout/chase sequence on the freighter with Han Solo should've been cut early on) It all felt like typical movie stuff, not like Star Wars. Maybe if I liked typical movie stuff more I'd be less bothered, but I find most typical movies boring beyond belief. Star Wars I liked.
Moreover, you want to hear something heretical? I think "The Force Awakens" desperately needed George Lucas. Not to write a line of dialog, of course, or to direct, but to imagine something crazy, goofy, and surprising. "The Phantom Menace" did a lot of terrible things, but it was new and different. It was wacky and unpredictable and took us somewhere we'd never been. It had new awesome - pod racers and Darth Maul's double light saber and "Duel of the Fates" (ok, that's John Williams more than George Lucas but I still love it). It was outrageous and inventive. Nobody saw "The Phantom Menace" coming. "The Force Awakens" felt predictable beat by beat.
Other sins the movie committed? There's plenty for everyone:
- The villain, Kylo Ren, starts out awesome and menacing but gets WEAKER as the movie progresses - threat should INCREASE as the movie continues.
- We get brief hints of an actually interesting story that happened BETWEEN Return of the Jedi and this movie, just enough to frustrate us that there's a better movie they could've made out of this material
- The world doesn't make any sense - what is the nature of the Republic and the First Order? Why is Luke's lightsaber where they found it? Why does everyone want to find Luke so bad? What is happening at any given moment in the film? Yeah, ok, Lucas bored us to tears with politics and world-building and exposition in the prequels, but the answer isn't to get rid of it entirely. I like understanding what's going on sometimes!
- Nothing grotesque, dark, or shocking - not a single bloody severed arm or smoking corpse - everything felt very safe and pablum.
- Even after doing so much to avoid the sins of the prequels, Abrams STILL gives us two fake-looking cartoon characters in key positions.
- No new John Williams music that's worth anything.
When I came out of "The Phantom Menace," I actually thought to myself, "That was HORRIFYINGLY AWFUL. But against my better judgment, I know I'm going to see the next one in the theaters." When I came out of "The Force Awakens," I thought, "That was... a movie, I guess? When the next one comes out, I think I'll wait for the home theater release."