[Warning: Major spoilers follow for the new Star Wars film. If you haven’t seen the film… you’re probably the only one. It’s made over $1.5 billion already!]
Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens any good? I mean, if the box office take is any indicator, a lot of you liked it and saw it repeatedly. But objectively speaking, does it work as a narrative? I don’t think it does. In too many spots storytelling shortcuts are taken, impossibilities are glossed over, storylines are left purposely vague, and it’s filled with contrivances that make no logical sense. Here are a few that stuck out to me.
- Why did Leia give Rey, someone she’d never met, such a meaningful hug?
- If the First Order is on the fringe of the galaxy, how did they find the resources and income to convert a planet into Starkiller Base? If Starkiller Base recharges by sucking up the energy from the nearest star, does the First Order realize that once they kill the star, they effectively just killed themselves?
- Why would the Republic keep its entire fleet in one system? That would be like the U.S. housing every destroyer and aircraft carrier in one port.
- How were people able to witness the destruction of the Hosnian System with the naked eye? That’s not how space works.
- Why was Rey able to pick up her Jedi powers so quickly without any training?
- How did Finn, Han, and Chewbacca catch up with Rey five seconds after spotting her across a 200 foot cavern they couldn’t possible have crossed?
- If Luke didn’t want to be found, why would he leave a map to his location?
- If Kylo Ren wasn’t fully trained, why would Snoke send him on missions?
- How did an injured Ren catch up with Finn and Rey?
- Why was R2-D2 asleep for the entire film until the end? Why was it necessary for C-3PO to tell BB-8 about R2 being in low power mode? BB-8 is with the Resistance and clearly knew R2. He would’ve known.
To a certain extent, I get why these things happened. This particular film had a long and difficult development process - sometimes publicly so - and dozens of storylines were jettisoned or tinkered with during production and post. The result is a film that weaves in ideas and plots from different versions, but that don’t make cohesive sense when combined. You end up having to backwards engineer the narrative to make them fit together.
Gotta reduce the Resistance to an underdog? You destroy the Republic and its entire fleet of ships, even though no military power would ever keep all their resources in one place.
You need Kylo Ren to have a lightsaber duel with Finn and Rey, but he’s too far away to catch up? You conveniently forget how physics works and just have him catch up anyway.
On top of the narrative disarray, J.J. Abrams had to introduce new characters, reintroduce old ones, juggle the mystery surrounding Luke Skywalker's whereabouts, Kylo Ren’s turn from the light side, and Rey’s origin, and set up the sequels while answering questions about what happened since Return of the Jedi. It's a tall order for any filmmaker, no matter how talented. Part of the problem is that Abrams has never met a script he thought was too silly or stupid. I firmly believe that he wouldn’t know a good script if it hit him in the face, and if he did get one, he’d probably fuck it up. Abrams is an astonishing visual filmmaker (maybe one of the 2 or 3 best in Hollywood), but he makes choices based solely on whether something is cinematically effective rather than whether it makes narrative sense. The result is a film that plays well in the moment, but collapses under the weight of its own dopiness once you start analyzing it.
Basically, the whole thing is a mess... but I loved it anyway.
In an ideal world, the movies I love best would also be specimens of cinematic perfection. And certainly there are films that meet both criteria. The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark are perfect films - the artistic choices make sense, there’s no extraneous nonsense, and there’s a clear sense of purpose and narrative drive - and they’re highly entertaining to boot. But more often than not, my favorite films aren’t great. In fact, they’re my favorites BECAUSE of their shaggy dog qualities. The imperfections, bizarre creative decisions, and plot holes make them interesting and engaging.
Look, taste and quality don’t always align: I may like a film even if it’s not great, and I may dislike a film even if it is. Apocalypse Now is undoubtedly great, but I find watching it to be a wholly unpleasant and grueling ordeal. Dumb and Dumber is ridiculous all the way around, but I can watch it every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is entertaining, funny, visually exciting, and filled with good actors giving good performances. It also looks and feels like Star Wars in a way the prequels never did. But those are superficial reasons. The real reason I liked The Force Awakens? It rings emotionally true.
When I judge a film, I look at two qualities more than anything else. First, is the film succeeding at what it wants to do (rather than meeting the arbitrary desires of the audience)? Second, does it feel emotionally honest? I know that emotional honesty is a hard thing to quantify, but I do it by asking:
- Can I empathize with the character and understand his/her motivations?
- Does the film allow the character to evolve organically rather than based on the needs of the plot?
- Are the character’s choices consistent and based on who he/she is?
In other words, does the character resemble an actual person instead of plot machinery? With The Force Awakens, the answer is yes to all of these questions. Rey’s journey is interesting because hers is a classic “refuse the call, answer the call” journey, not unlike Luke’s in A New Hope. Because Rey is the main protagonist, her journey is critical to get right because the film's success hangs on her character arc. Thankfully, Abrams nails it.
Throughout the film, Rey’s only desire is to return to Jakku so she can await the arrival of the family that abandoned her there as a child. Although she agrees to help Finn return BB-8 to the Resistance, her mind is fixed on going back. For this reason, she refuses Han’s job offer (though she considers it) and runs away in tears after Maz Kanata tells her to take up Luke’s old lightsaber and train in the ways of The Force. All of her choices are consistent with this desire.
But late in The Force Awakens Rey has an experience that irrevocably changes her path. As she tries to escape from Starkiller Base, she runs into Finn, Han, and Chewie, who are there to rescue her. Running into these three she realizes, “here’s the family I’ve always wanted.” This discovery, which Daisy Ridley plays with a touching bit of disbelief and gratitude, allows her to finally accept that Jakku is behind her. She can commit to her destiny. So when she decides to engage Kylo Ren in a fierce lightsaber duel during the finale, her emotional path feels earned, even if the plot mechanics allowing her to do it feel like cheating.
Each decision she makes is consistent with what we know about her and is a logical emotional progression for her character. She’s not the only one either. Each decision Finn makes comes from his fear of the First Order and his desire to get away. Each choice Kylo Ren makes is filtered through his conflicted feelings about his own nature and his desire to fulfill Darth Vader’s destiny. Everything Han does is about coming to terms with the choices he’s made as a father and the loss he suffered as a result (although I felt like his return to smuggling was a false step. Harrison Ford does his damnedest to sell it, but I never bought it. His interactions with Leia though are phenomenally acted and emotionally stirring).
Ultimately, if a film feels emotionally truthful, I’m willing to forgive its narrative failings. I believe that The Force Awakens is emotionally honest even though the plot kind of sucks. The characters feel like real people dealing with real issues, and they act accordingly. That's why I enjoyed it and that's why I'll be anxiously awaiting Episode VIII.