I have a bit of a weird relationship with the Star Wars franchise. I watched the prequels first, and then watched the original trilogy. It was only with The Force Awakens when I marathon’d the whole thing that I really started to enjoy it with any passion. That leaves me in a place where I enjoy the films, but i’m not defensive about it. This Thursday was the first time I’ve wanted to see a Star Wars film the night it came out, and imagining a sort of cultural magic to seeing ‘the new Star Wars film’ on it’s first day, I decided I was going to do so. Walking out, that magic had dissipated though. This was a good, fun film, with some excellent premises, but not one that did a lot with them.
One thing that has untied all reviews, both good and bad, is that this movie has somehow taken Star Wars in a ‘bold, new direction’ is one that baffles me. It’s more light vs dark, Empire vs Resistance, and people being tempted or knocked to either the light or the dark. An eternal struggle indeed, and well-suited to a franchise knocking out a movie per year. I think what people are referring to is Luke not being a babyface hero and Kylo being conflicted in his darkness. Maybe it feels different, but I didn’t see anything materially different about the fabric of this film when compared to the others. The battle between good and evil is not something I am upset about, and is important to my favourite parts of the film, but depending on what happens in the third film, I think they pulled back from some interesting genuine development to the universe in favour of essentially keeping the whole thing ticking over til the next movie.
I don’t know how cynical I am about that. I completely understand that Disney will want to milk this cash cow for a much as it’s worth, and longevity in that sense is achieved by making the least appreciable progress possible with each film. At the same time though, it’s clear that a lot of love and attention go in to these films, and that the production of them aren’t purely mechanical. I don’t think they would be successful if they were made with that mindset.
That all said, there were aspects of this film that I loved, aspects I didn’t really like or understand, and aspects I liked but feel left some great moments on the table, depending on what happens in the next installment. Of course, i’ll talk about them now.
I’m going to first discuss, in the interest of positivity, my favourite part of the film based on a really well-realised premise, and that is the conflict and relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. It’s so hard to create a heroic character with really well-defined motivations, and in Rey, someone who was essentially orphaned through negligent parents who has found a purpose in this intergalactic moral war though she is still at a fragile place within it. I could buy both that she would choose the light, but the film does a great job in making it believable that she could find meeting in this somehow kindred spirit of Kylo Ren and go dark. Kylo was similarly let down by a mentor figure and so it’s easy, as it always is with villains, to see how they became as they are.
One of the best established conceits in the film was this connection fostered between the two, both wanting to bring the other to ‘their side’, both predicting they would do so, and both apparently demonstrably doing it, only for the whole thing to fall apart because neither had really changed. There was a red herring of an almost clichéd heroic coming together devastatingly undermined by a logical crashing to earth. I believed Kylo was turning good, imagined how great and different it would be if Rey went dark (more on that later), and was genuinely shocked by the revelation that their intentions had mirrored each other enough to fight together for a short time, only to realise that they weren’t, indeed, on the same side, all flirtation and hope dissipated.
Spectacular. That, to me, was the crucial conceit of the film. Not the only good thing about it, but the bit that made it work at it’s best.
Another aspect of the film I liked was more thematic, and it seems a subtle theme in that I haven’t really heard anyone talk about it much, and that is nihilism in the face of this universe. The best avatar for this is a character I liked a lot – DJ. Before getting to his ‘place in all this’, I would just like to say, not that it’s important, that I was of the opinion that he was the character they were looking for and he just lost his distinctive pin in some sort of gambling caper. Regardless, they found DJ, and his approach to the whole thing interested me. From the get go, he realised how the battles of light and dark would never end and that for some people who aren’t somehow a fated protaganist/antagonist of the battle, you just have to make the best of it. For him, his approach is that he’ll risk his life to help you as long as it suits him. He isn’t two-dimensional, he’s touched enough by the meaning of Rose’s trinket to give it back to her, especially seen as he gets to loot a ship anyway, but ultimately, he puts himself first because he realises that his actions won’t really affect anything. He knows that the war is between a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side, but that both weren’t as clear-cut as we may seem, as was shown through his revelation about both sides buying weapons from arms-traders. His betrayal hurt and was certainly a surprise in the moment, but at the same time, he just looked after himself. They were caught anyway and so he cut himself a deal. He’s a heel for doing it and he knows it, but he doesn’t believe that anything can change, so ultimately, he doesn’t care. Maybe it’s just me, but I completely understood and to an extent, admired what he did. I didn’t need quite such a pronounced stutter though.
Luke Skywalker had some matching sentiments too, at least in the early going. In the original films, I basically thought Luke was a well-meaning milquetoast hero but here, with the benefit of actually experiencing the ups and downs of war, Luke wanted no part of it and realised how flawed the Jedi were. Ultimately, he will always side with light over dark, but he too has realised that the dark will never be stopped, and dejected, he took himself out of the fight. Even when he came back to fight on the side of the Resistance, it’s not that he’s changed his opinion about the Jedi, but more because he decides it’s the right thing to do based partly on his own history. There is a realism to this thematic approach which otherwise gets lost within the size and weight of the general Star Wars universe by the end of the movie, but it was one of my main takeaways coming out of it, and something I want to see more of going forward.
Another character I really enjoyed was Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo. This was perhaps one of the film’s best set-ups of a journey for the viewer. I think I was probably in the majority watching her apparently bring the whole Resistance drifting slowly to a whimpering end with frustration and wanting Poe, who was the only person with the plan it seemed, to take over. There are fair questions about why she couldn’t just tell him what they were doing, etc, but I think it was worth ironing over that for the power of the reveal that she was indeed sacrificing herself and her reputation for the ultimate safety and future of the resistance. By the time she had smashed herself at light-speed through Snoke’s ship, the most successful 180-turn of a character in such a short amount of time was complete. The quiet, slow-moving scenes of her actions were met with a palpable awe in the audience and were some of the most engaging and arresting in the whole film.
Speaking of arresting scenes, I would be remiss to not mention how beautiful some of this film was. I’ve seen a lot of people praising the battle/fight scenes. To me, if i’m honest, a lot of the battle scenes in Star Wars merge together for me. It’s all impressive, but nothing ever stands out. There were some beautiful parts in this film though, and i’ll highlight the two that stuck with me most. First, Rey in the dark side cave, reflected in a an endless time-lag. It was like a purgatory, and the sort of place that you can well imagine would make someone question themselves and their existence. A cool scene that genuinely seemed like it was happening in a unique, significant place. Secondly, the aesthetics of the planet Crait were stunning, even if it was just so other-worldly and different. Red dust shooting up over a white surface was a beautiful combination and I can say no more or less than I just loved who it looked.
The final positive point I will talk about is the Force and Luke’s explanation of it. His begrudged training of Rey was cool, but it was his expanation of what the Force actually is that appealed to me. Until now, it’s been hard to define – it seemed like something you could inherit in someway, a kind of honed skill which only few can wield. In some ways, that is true, but this film goes a long way to democratizing it. Yes it’s mainly an elite who get the chance to use it, but ultimately, it is just an element within life, keeping order, as real and invisible as gravity, but something that can be tapped in to and utilised if someone has patience and training enough, and something which really brings a balance to the universe. It is neither for good or bad, in fact, it almost ensures balance between the two. In that context, it is even more clear that no one side – the light or the dark – will ultimately ‘win’, but the explanation of it was a really satisfying one to help understand the universe. This isn’t always something Star Wars bothers with.
Now to start piling on the negative i’m afraid – speaking of the Force, that is where things also started going downhill. I don’t particularly care about the lore of the Force and certainly don’t have a problem with writers adding to that at times. There are two instances in this film that stand out as … not great though. The innocuous one is the already infamous ‘flying Leia’ scene. We know Jedis and people who are tuned in to the force can defy gravity somewhat and she’s in zero gravity anyway so who knows anyway; the problem was how ridiculous it looked. The explanation of the force as this democratic force of nature that can be tapped in to with great patience, skill, and concentration was a little undermined by the way this was shot, which reduced it to look more like a shitty Superman/Mary Poppins scene. What I felt was genuinely a bit of a leap though was the new feature of being able to see people before you through the Force. To be fair, this was central to two fairly important conceits of the film: Rey and Kylo’s Skype-like conversations, and Luke’s tricking of Kylo during the end battle. So I must admit, I don’t know how you achieve these key moments without the feature, but it doesn’t change the fact that it kinda stuck out to me as a convenient shoe in – more a fix of convenience than a tweak. I think to boil down why it stuck out so much, I thought a few times while watching: “Why has no-one ever done this before in a film?” The problem is the feature is so fundamental to the lore of the Force that it seems weird that the likes of Darth Vader or Luke (until now) or Yoda or Obi Wan (i.e. some of the real masters of the Force) wouldn’t use it if they had it. The Force is the equivalent of nano-machines in Metal Gear Solid, it can be used to fill in holes of logic or storytelling. When someone is needed to do something new, the Force can do it. That’s OK in itself, but I suppose here, this deployment of it seemed more nakedly utilitarian than other times.
The real driver of this conceit was Snoke, and that brings me to the next point, one that seems to be shared by many. A disclaimer here: I don’t have any particular love for Snoke so i’m not sad he’s dead or anything. That said, in The Force Awakens, there is no doubt he was set up as significant to the whole universe at that point. What he turned out to be – a stepping stone for Kylo to coup détatch his top half from his bottom – was again, useful overall, but it did seem to leave something on the table. I don’t have a problem with Kylo killing Snoke, but it happened after we had seen Snoke only briefly and in a much less powerful light than in T.F.A. To use wrestling terms, even if Snoke is there to put Kylo over, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell his story. The more powerful he is, the more it adds to the perception of Kylo’s power when he kills him, and while his pre-death moments are impressive, I feel everything would have benefited from more work being shown with regards to Snoke – what did he want, where did he come from, how did he choose Kylo etc; I don’t even need loads of depth, just enough to make it a more meaningful shock than just a shock. If I had my druthers, this would happen in the next film. I know this may have been asking a lot, but just more of this and less of, say … side-quests that don’t really affect much.
Speaking of which, I cared so little about the Finn and Rose side-quest to find a hacker to open a door which neither succeeded or mattered. I don’t mind setting up expectations and then subverting them but this didn’t even really add any value to the film while taking up quite the chunk of running time. I mentioned before how I liked what DJ had to add and I like the idea of exploring Finn as more of a mercenary with himself and Rey in mind (even if that’s not the endgame) but that was lost among the weird buddy/love story between Finn and Rose. Rose wasn’t badly played and I am glad to see an Asian-American actress in such a role. I just had so little interest in the role itself that it kinda ruined it. Finn and Rey are always asking after each other but Rose is kinda inserted in to it all and not for the better. The one moment Finn is going to do anything of consequence (martyring himself to big battering canon) she stops him in a way that doesn’t make sense for her established character. She wouldn’t let him leave because her sister died for the Resistance but when he’s about to do something to help it, she stops him because she suddenly loves him. We’ll see if he even reciprocates, I guess, but after all of that, we see him and Rey just once together. I’m not necessarily ‘shipping’ them for chrissakes, characters are more than that, but they obviously care very much about each other and their reunion didn’t feel that impactful, undermined instead by a character I personally could have done without from a story I could have done without.
I’ve talked about what I could have done without, but here’s something I could have done with. The trailer seemed to hint at Rey being truly tempted to the dark side, and to be fair, the film does play lip service to this at times, but as soon as Kylo shows his true (dark) colours and she outright rejects it, and it’s clear that there her understandable questions about her ‘place in all this’ were never the same as a true temptation to the dark side. I’d heard a lot beforehand of ‘grey Jedi’ and it sounded like a great direction for the movies to go in at some point. As I mentioned, I loved the scene where they briefly fight together only to realise they are still on different sides; and while I never believed Rey was going dark, I did like they idea that their new-found connection led to some sort of new grey faction within the overall fight. I’m not sure exactly how that would look like – perhaps an anti Empire/Jedi Council/Princess faction who reject elitist ways and take a genuinely populist stance. That is something a better writer more knowledgeable about the universe could come up with. I was extremely excited when I saw the possibility of something like that because, to be honest, the fight has gotten a bit stale. This plays in to the ultimate impression I had of the film too, but the battle between light and dark doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, quite literally at this point. It’s like a big long argument where you can’t even remember why you’re fighting – you just are. To go back to wrestling terms, it’s 50/50 booking: sometimes the Empire is dominant, sometimes the Resistance seems to be turning the tables, but I never really buy in to any jeopardy for either side. I enjoy this battle, but maybe adding some genuinely differently-motivated actors to the story/universe wouldn’t hurt at all and would more likely prolong the franchise further in a positive direction.
The franchise, but especially this film, is really lazy about defining what the fight is actually about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious that the Empire and Sith are evil – we’ve seen them blowing up planets and killing innocents, but mostly the film relies on us more or less just knowing that the bad guys are bad just because. It is a battle largely between elites and we rarely see how ordinary people are affected, and in this film we didn’t even have any state atrocities or anything, it was just team red vs team blue and we like team blue because they seem nicer and we know them. Going back to the nihilism, DJ is the closest thing to a common person without bias we meet, and he ultimately supports the Resistance, but he knows the morality of it all isn’t black and white. It would be nice to see a bit more of that rather than wondering about it as a viewer. This is where the Grey Jedi could come in I suppose. Basically, I genuinely support the Resistance and it’s clear I should do so. I just don’t really know what i’m supporting. Maybe a few films down the line the Resistance could overcome the Empire, take over, and we could see what they would do with it. That could be interesting.
I have a feeling it wouldn’t be likely though. Despite the second half of this article, the first half rings true. I did enjoy much of this film, and had a good time seeing the action and the effects and the characters we like, and that is worth something. If you asked me how it moved the overall plot along though, i’d be hard pushed to take up a lot of your time. The plot of the film is almost comically spinning its’ wheels. The Resistance are ‘on a string’, running, being caught, running again, being caught again, running, being caught again, and escaping. We lost Luke (though you’re never really lost in Star Wars), Snoke died but what did he ever do anyway, and the same for Captain Phasma, Holdo died but we never really knew her anyway. If JJ Abrams so wished, he could recycle the first scenes of this film almost exactly in the next film and it would make sense. That betrays a lack of story development. It’s clear why this is the case too. Disney want to milk every drop of money out of this as possible and so they need to make as many films as possible, and so they need to progress the overall story as little as possible. That is what happened here.
This to me was good, but also just kind of another Star Wars film. It promised a bold new direction, but pulled back from most of it to give people what they like and are used to, though with some wonderful scenes in for sure. This isn’t some unforgivable sin, but it will always have a limited impact on me, personally. That is basically all I can say. Lots of people love the film and I am happy to see that, but for me, as fun as it is, it is in danger of diminishing returns.