The Force Awakens is a surprisingly dark new vision of Star Wars

Of all the interesting questions raised for Star Wars fans by the sequel trilogy and by The Force Awakens, the question that turns out to be the least interesting is: is it a good movie? Well sure, I guess in the sense that if you liked the original Star Wars (and really, if you didn’t, then why are you in a theater watching this one?), you’ll like this one. And the reason for that is The Force Awakens quite simply is A New Hope, right down to every significant plot element. It’s a virtual remake that doesn’t even try for an original story.

Let’s see: we have the scavenger on Jakku for the farm boy on Tatooine, the First Order for the Empire, the Resistance for the Rebellion, a secret map carried by a droid instead of stolen plans carried by an astromech droid, a new super-weapon for the Empire (I mean, First Order), a new fallen Darksider who dresses in black and has purged the Jedi, with family connections to the heroes as well. There’s also an Emperor-like character pulling the strings behind the Darksider in black, and an old Jedi now in hiding who had an apprentice who turned against him.

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J.J. Abrams essentially takes A New Hope and retells it thirty years later in-universe, with the effect of wiping out the narrative progress that was made by the original trilogy. The triumph of the Rebel Alliance turns out to be temporary, and easily reversible. The promise of Luke and Leia leading a new era of Jedi to preserve a New Republic based on justice and peace turns out to be an empty one. The result is a surprisingly dark vision of Star Wars, where the victory of the good guys in Return of the Jedi ends up being meaningless. Han and Chewie are back to where they were pre-A New Hope, as smugglers on their own, unconnected to a larger cause. Leia is where she was pre-A New Hope, leading the equivalent of the Rebel Alliance. And Luke and the Jedi order are in a worse place than they were before Return of the Jedi.

For all of the criticisms of what the prequel trilogy did to the backstory of the original trilogy, in terms of its effect on the character of Anakin as well as various continuity issues, it didn’t wipe away the accomplishments of the original trilogy in the way that The Force Awakens does. Not only does the new film feel like a retelling of Episode IV, but the ending of it seems to set up the next film to be a retelling of Empire Strikes Back. Rey is going to be trained by a reclusive Jedi master on a distant planet, much like Yoda trained Luke on Dagobah, while the First Order recovers from a defeat at the end of the film and “strikes back” against the Resistance.

The Force Awakens is a surprisingly dark new vision of Star Wars

I mostly avoided spoilers and plot details before seeing the new film, but I did read summaries of reviews after it came out, and remembered after watching the movie that there were references to the story being “familiar” or featuring riffs on the original trilogy, but I didn’t realize what an understatement that was. I felt like I was watching the beginning of a sequel trilogy of Back to the Future where we fast forward ten years after the original, and George McFly has gone back to being bullied by Biff, Doc Brown has built a new time machine (this time out of a PT Cruiser), and Marty has to go back to 1965 to help his mom and dad get back together after they broke up in the past after the events of the original. Oh, and Marty has to avoid the attentions of his mom again. Okay, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, so my overall take on the new Star Wars movie from a concept/writing perspective is that it was surprisingly cautious and unoriginal in approach, opting to give the audience exactly what it was familiar with rather than try for something new. With that out of the way, let me turn to more specific analyses of characters and plot elements.

Kylo Ren seems to dominate the movie with his presence, and the idea of a new Darksider who consciously models himself after Darth Vader is interesting. I thought his trait of being more hotheaded than Vader in his anger, and prone to temper tantrums and outbursts was a clever detail in addition to providing opportunities for comic relief.

The Force Awakens is a surprisingly dark new vision of Star Wars

The dialogue throughout the movie was generally solid, and a huge improvement over the prequels. I especially enjoyed the banter between Han and almost any other character he was onscreen with. The pacing of the movie was good as well, and the movie never dragged, nor did I as a viewer find myself checking my watch or noting the running time. Finn was probably the most original character in concept, as a stormtrooper who turns away from his training and indoctrination. He seemed like the only character not either already present in the original trilogy or just taken from a template from those films.

The Force Awakens is a surprisingly dark new vision of Star Wars

Let me further delve into the surprising bleakness of this new Star Wars film. The ascendance of Kylo Ren and the First Order seems to indicate that the triumph of Palpatine in the prequels and subsequent purge wasn’t a unique event emerging partially from the complacence and stagnation of the prequel-era Jedi as well as the singular talents and deviousness of Palpatine. Instead, we’re expected to accept that the Jedi have been all but wiped out twice within two generations by a small handful of Darksiders. Really, what’s the point of restoring the Jedi Order when they seem destined to play the role of the Washington Generals to the Darksiders’ Harlem Globetrotters? Yoda may insist that the Dark Side isn’t stronger, but its followers do seem to have the edge in competence. On a serious note, that’s a further example of the surprisingly depressing backstory of this film. I don’t want to delve into spoiler territory too much, but a certain event near the end of the film seems to depend too much on our connection to the original trilogy, rather than being set up adequately in this film, since we don’t get enough of a backstory on Kylo Ren and certain other characters for the event to have earned its impact that way.

One of the central story elements here is the quest to find Luke Skywalker, who’s disappeared out of a sense of failure and remorse with a fallen apprentice. This is of course another plot element drawn from the original trilogy, as both of the prominent Jedi remaining from the Old Republic era, Yoda and Obi-Wan, had long been in hiding by the time of A New Hope. Yet, the reasons for that were supposed to be that the Jedi had been hunted down, and because of the sheer power of the Emperor. So there were concrete reasons for Obi-Wan and Yoda to bide their time, waiting for Luke to mature and become powerful enough to succeed where they had not. So what’s the reason for Luke to go hide in this new era? Surely he must be far more advanced in Force abilities than Kylo Ren, considering how we saw him fare against Rey, who hadn’t had that much training. Are we supposed to believe that it’s a regular Jedi practice to respond to failure by going into hiding? Somehow, “if at first you don’t succeed, go into hiding” doesn’t strike me as a Jedi concept. The idea that Luke, who could be very valuable in confronting Kylo Ren or the First Order, chooses to spend his time brooding on a distant planet instead, leaving others to face the danger of the First Order, is a puzzling and disappointing one to me.

I’ll close by comparing or contrasting this movie with a few other ones. The Force Awakens seems to me to be surprisingly like Superman Returns, another movie that picked up after a long gap in a series, and could have gone in a lot of interesting narrative directions, yet ended up sticking very close to what had already come before, brushing right up against the line of being more of a reboot or remake rather than a new story. In contrast, a movie like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which also picked up after a long gap in movies, really embraced the opportunities offered by moving the narrative forward, telling a story in a very different historical era, and it showed the changes in Indy’s life and family over a long period of time. It may have a similar plot structure to other Indiana Jones movies, but it doesn’t feel like it simply chose to either ignore or wipe out what might have come between Last Crusade and Kingdom.

Finally, I must inevitably return to the prequels when looking at this movie. For all of the problems of the prequels (though, I think that most of them are confined to Phantom Menace), the look, style, and story of those movies feel very different than the original trilogy. I feel like we got two original sagas that focused on very different things, and you could potentially enjoy them in different ways. It seems like the negative reception to the prequels influenced the new movie in a way that resulted in a (depending on your perspective) cautious, brilliant, or cynical strategy to give the fans and audience a nostalgic collection of recycled elements and moments from Episode IV. As a huge fan of that movie, that makes The Force Awakes an enjoyable experience. As a fan of sci-fi movies that take risks and tell original stories, that makes it a disappointing one.

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  • Gallen Dugall

    “who hadn’t had that much training”

    Correction “who hadn’t had ANY training” which is why her “mentor moment” was dumb.
    Rey could have easily been an unbearable Mary Sue character if not for the performance.

    • Hal_10000

      Considering that we do not yet know where she came from, I’d be a bit more circumspect in claiming she had *no* training, at least until VIII.

      • Gallen Dugall

        JJ never answers questions. He’s from the same school of thought as Moffat where he excuses “plot holes” as “mystery” thus justifying never explaining them. Sure whoever comes next could retcon the story to make sense, but a film is that is not complete unto itself is not good storytelling; it’s lazy thoughtless storytelling of the sort JJ is famous for.

        • silverwheel

          Abrams can direct the hell out of a scene, but he still really struggles with the big picture. Leaving so many details unsaid or unclear just makes the movie feel empty.

          • Gallen Dugall

            It’s not that he can’t. He just doesn’t. The kind of audience he makes movies for doesn’t care which is why his action scenes are often interrupted by redundant exposition of what’s happening.

  • Rickard Zingmark

    This is the kind of Star Wars movie you get if Simon Pegg is your adviser.

    • Gallen Dugall

      JJ has a hard time concealing his hatred for GL.

      • Eventide81

        Wow J.J. Abrams is kind of a dick…

        • Gallen Dugall

          If you hang out with rabid haters like Pegg then that tends to twist your perceptions. I don’t think he’s a bad person, or even a bad director, but he drank the kool-aid of “George Lucas is TEH WORST EVAR!!!” which is simply not true. He really REALLY would have benefited from bringing Lucas in to consult. It did wonders for the animated series.

          • R.D.

            Nah, Lucas and Abrams are apparently on good terms–Lucas helped select Abrams for the job, after all, and the two have met from time to time. I think Pegg’s influence may have been overstated, in this case, it’s probably more a case of Abrams being a huge fanboy of A New Hope and Disney likely wanting to play it safe for re-introducing Star Wars.

            Rian Johnson seems less beholden to the OT, and TFA at least leaves room for different paths to be taken.

        • How?

  • silverwheel

    As much as I dislike Timothy Zahn’s post-ROTJ novels (entirely because of his Tom Clancy-esque writing style), at least they worked with a new scenario – the former Rebellion finds that building a new Republic is messier than overthrowing the Empire, and that people are fighting over the power vacuum. It seems like a story cheat for the First Order to be this built-up and organized – how do they have weaponry and resources beyond what the Empire had? The Empire had a galaxy’s worth of resources at their disposal because they controlled the entire galaxy. Does the First Order have rich benefactors? Support from lots of other systems? Having the good guys be the smaller underdogs against a much larger and more powerful enemy basically ignores the victories of Return Of The Jedi. I’d be willing to accept this scenario if there was some explanation given for why things are the way they are.

    Also, what exactly does the First Order want? They say they hate the Republic for supporting the Resistance, but that makes no sense. Why would the Resistance be a separate thing from the Republic? What’s the Republic doing wrong that the First Order thinks they’ll do better? If TFA had communicated that the new Republic isn’t going well and lots of systems are throwing their support behind the First Order, I’d be fine with everything. But the lack of any larger context for why this scenario is the way it is feels lazy to me.

    • Gallen Dugall

      I’d criticize Zahn for not thinking up decent endings for his stories beyond – and then inexplicable stuff I didn’t set up happens so that everything resolves. Even with that he’s still better than the vast majority of hacks that have churned out Star Wars books. With that said most of your concerns are – JJ Style – explained in additional content by people hired to make JJs script make sense. Yep, as with all JJ products it cannot stand on its own.

    • Premonition_45

      I had the suspicion that the real reason Disney reclassified the EU as “Legends” was so they wouldn’t have to pay royalties to Zahn or any other EU writer. Like how “Star Trek: Voyager” had “Tom Paris” rather than “Nick Locarno” from TNG’s “The First Duty”.

  • RockyDmoney

    Again…What “training” did Luke have when he blew up the death star using the Force? He was just made aware of it. And trusted in his feelings and self belief. That was the point of the Force before it got hijacked by the video game mindset of “you have achieved Jedi level 5”

    • Gallen Dugall

      Luke had at least a few hours (possibly as much as days) on the Falcon with an actual Jedi Master doing actual training, he saw first hand the force being used to perform a Jedi mind trick, and most importantly he had Obi Wan’s spirit with him on the trench run talking him through the thing. That’s just the first movie. In ESB he has weeks or months with Yoda, another Jedi Master, and still gets his ass kicked by Vader who isn’t anywhere near as powerful as Kylo Ren is depicted in TFA. Then Luke goes back to complete his training, at least months possibly years and at this point he’s on par with Rey in TFA who had no training at all. She leapt fully formed from the sands of Jaku because she’s a textbook Mary Sue as the product of writers who want to skip the boring bits of character development and jump straight to the “kewl stuff”. Don’t take my word for it as the actors playing Fin and Rey have both expressed bafflement at the lack of character development in the film.

      • Diana R.

        Sure, she didn’t get much of actual Force training, but she’s clearly sensitive to it, and even the EU (which, okay, is non-canon) had untrained people like a young Luke using the Force without knowing, much like JK Rowling had witches and wizards unknowingly use magic. But don’t forget that aside from trying to block some light laser shots, Luke didn’t get combat training, whereas both Finn and Rey could fight due to their training and circumstances, respectively. Also, everyone seems to forget that Kylo had been injured by Chewie’s bowcaster, which had been shown to basically blow up anyone else. He wasn’t at his top ability at the time and was facing two fresh fighters, both of whom had their own fighting styles and abilities also honed through their whole life.

        • Gallen Dugall

          Upon further viewing the fact that at least three times in the film she “discovers” that she’s a highly trained expert on something she’s never done before, and she comments on it each time, indicates that she is intentionally a Mary Sue… it’s a repeating plot point… that doesn’t make it any better. She was clearly mind blanked (or something) after having become a full Jedi knight, if not a master. It’s still bad writing that this film is not a complete story unto itself.

  • Yonagonaf

    In the last paragraph of this review there is a grammatical error with the title of the
    movie that is being reviewed.

    The movie that is being reviewed is texted as the present tense verb “awakes” but should
    be texted as the transitive verb “awakens”.

  • Premonition_45

    I think TPTB were so scared of any tangential ties to the PT, and ultra-butthurt fanboys, that they forgot to give this film an identity of its own.

  • Gallen Dugall

    Again for the official record I like this movie, but it’s not great, it has flaws, serious flaws. Basically they took Jar Jar out from in front of the camera and put him behind it directing. So many plot holes are filled in by external material (just like he did for the nuTrek films) that there is no defense. That’s bad storytelling. Some great performances save the film.

  • Eventide81

    I felt like this was a very fair article. Let’s hope that the rest of the movies are a bit more original. Also, at least Zahn had the courage to explore different plot lines in his books; Luke turning to the dark side, the character of Mara Jade, giving Leia more dimension, etc.

  • JustMe

    I’ve got to agree. I was hoping for a slightly more interesting story… Actually a story about how hard it is to govern as opposed to the slightly easier role of rebels might have been interesting. As a matter of fact, that type of story was told in the game “Fable 3” and it WAS much more interesting.

    For what it was, this movie is not actively bad. It’s got decent acting, none of the characters were repulsive and it was fun enough. The problem was that it both wasn’t horrible in a laughable way and it wasn’t great in a star wars way. It was just middle of the road. And to be honest… that is the worst sin a movie can make. Middle of the road is bland and boring. Horribly bad or incredibly great are memorable.

    • Muthsarah

      The unfathomable badness of the Prequels ARE indeed the single best thing about them. They’re painful to sit through, but how long since, and fans are still talking about them.

      • Gallen Dugall

        The prequels aren’t “bad” as they are creative and the story is interesting, but they’re botched just enough to alienate the audience. In the first film there is the misuse of comedic relief defusing any building of tension. In the second film it was the chemistry free romance shoehorned in. In the final film it was the lack of character development (especially in terms of motivation) in the previous films. All of them suffer from pacing issues as well as excessive infodumping. Overall the problems are actually minor but they have a huge negative effect on the audience experience and it’s astounding these weren’t corrected before the final cut.

        • PhysUnknown

          Gallen – that might the best, most succinct explanation for what went wrong in the prequels. They had so much potential.

          • Gallen Dugall

            Lucas isn’t a bad film maker. He is not “Mr Blockbuster” like Spielberg or Abrams. He’s a quirky experimental filmmaker who had one film blow up into a huge phenomena.

        • Michael Micucci

          Add in a plot an 8-year-old could have written, an easily transparent manipulation that wasn’t discovered by any of the heroes, a consequence free “war” that was being led by incompetent fools with no impact on any part of the story other than to add in worthless scenes and nostalgia throwbacks, and a turn to the “Dark side” that was so forced and unrealistic for any character (seriously is Anakin total dumbass enough to fall for Palpatine’s childishly obvious manipulation?), complete with a “let’s murder a bunch of children to show he’s EEEEVIL” moment, without any thought to the fact that such an action makes one irredeemable, and the whole point of the original trilogy was Darth Vader’s eventual redemption (which is now impossible because he’s a literal baby-killer).

          These aren’t “minor” problems IMHO. This is flawed storytelling at its root, without even factoring in the horrible dialog, the failed romance arc, the misuse of various actors, the insane number of canon-breaking nostalgic callbacks just for the sake of nostalgia, the over-reliance on CGI which made everything look fake, or the problematic A-camera, B-camera, over the shoulder directing during human-on-human interactions.

          Basically, Lucas is an incompetent story writer and a lazy director with an ego as big as his ranch who sees his movies as purely a vehicle to sell toys and merchandising rights. He is good with special effects, and can come up with some cool, creative ways to get a scene on film, provided a) someone else writes the scene for him and b) someone else is holding him to a directorial style.

          • Gallen Dugall

            Hyperbole. I should really save a copy of my response since you are aping the “meme truth” about the prequels. I hate meme-truth. It gives people what sound like reasonable arguments that everyone agrees on and yet are utterly unfounded. Truth by way of popular stereotype.
            Your initial criticisms are that a children’s movie isn’t mature enough. The inevitable counter argument to this fact is that “it isn’t a children’s movie” is based on the inane modern standards that children’s movies must be completely inoffensive. Children’s stories used to be fairly dark with lots of murder and death before the hyper protective generation sanitized them.
            The second bit is your opinion of serial stylistic filming. It’s also why zero effort is made to make the baddies motives make sense. Serials play by their own rules. These same criticisms are echoed in criticisms about the Star Trek Voyager episodes that explored serials. In short “I don’t like that” is not a valid critique.
            The last bit is flatly wrong. Lucas conceived the prequels to finance the development of new special effects technology. Unavoidably he didn’t make these because he had a story he wanted to tell, but this wasn’t a “get richester” scheme. The marketing was something he fell into having walked away with the rights and then reacted to the flood of terrible unauthorized cash-in products. Most of the people who complain about this are too young to remember how bad it was after Star Wars first came out. Lucas set up the Lucasfilm licensing department AFTER Star Wars came out and with one goal, not to determine if a product should be made and sure as hell not to have products made, but to determine if a product was properly made and not deceptive. You have to go to Lucasfilm to get a license – they don’t go to you. Even F*ing Hasbro had to go to them repeatedly to get and renew their license. Very much the existence of bloated Star Wars merchandise is driven entirely by non-Lucasfilm companies cashing in on irrational consumerism. It’s hardly Lucas’ problem that people can’t stop buying stuff when he didn’t start it, all he did was set some minimum standards. Surely Disney is far more valid a target as they have been far more indiscriminate about what they have licensed.
            And since we’re talking Disney TFA has the simple plot of “find Luke Skywalker” which consumes less than fifteen minutes of screen time in a film with no character development and the rest of the runtime padded out with reference, mostly to A New Hope, but pretty much everything fandom including HGttG and especially KotOR. TFA makes no effort to tell a complete story. By comparison to the original trilogy it ends at the point where Obi-Wan rescues Luke on Tatooine and before they say a word to each other. So many plot holes are filled in by external material (just like he did for the nuTrek films) that there is no defense. It is not a story because it is not complete. Some great performances save the film. It’s a vacuous non-story that makes the Prequels look like well crafted works of genius.
            The prequels aren’t well crafted works of genius but they are complete stories. They’re okay.
            TFA has astoundingly good performances and decent special effects. It’s okay.
            The original trilogy has a lot of problems as well, but they were innovative enough to be considered must-see in order to understand how modern filmmaking got to be the way it is.
            Lastly I’ll point out that people frequently mistake Lucas for Mr Blockbuster since he did much to create the modern Blockbuster, but he’s not. The vast majority of discontent that people have with the prequels is that they are not modern movies. They aren’t. The only reason the original trilogy seem like modern movies is because they are the template from which the concept of modern movies was created. Lucas makes quirky weird films. Howard the Duck & Twice Upon A Time are typical. Star Wars failed upward into pop sensation but none of them are great movies. I can and have picked the problems with ESB to death – it’s not a “nearly perfect film” as fanboys claim.

  • trustno173 .

    I loved Finn, but even his story isn’t that original. There’s a story from the Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures comics called Pathways where a Battle Droid realizes the monotony of its life (go out and fight, get destroyed, get rebuilt, rinse and repeat) and tries to escape from the Separatists, only to be branded a traitor and chased after by a superior officer.

    I enjoyed the hell out of the Force Awakens, but I liked RotS, RotJ, and ESB better. The music was easily the weakest of the saga, the worlds felt so earthly and lifeless, characters just appear and disappear (Maz, Phasma) and some of the puppets looked pathetic. From what I’ve read a lot of the film’s faults were explained in the original script but were cut out by JJ Abrams, which seems to be a recurring fault with him. Other than those grievances I loved Force Awakens and am very excited to see Episode VIII

    • Gallen Dugall

      I felt the score was good but it was used… wrongish. JJ used it to underscore the emotion of a scene which is how scores are generally used in modern film. Lucas used the score to identify characters as part of a scene’s setup which is how music was used in the old serials – often fading out after the establishing shot so the actors could be heard clearly with the primitive audio technology of the era.

  • Steambelle

    I just saw the movie at home, and while it does recycle a lot from A New Hope, it does so for a very good reason: repetition, or ring theory, is what keeps Star Wars timeless for fans. J.J. Abrams brings Star Wars full circle, and his new beginning allows the filmmakers of the upcoming entries a great deal of freedom without shifting what Star Wars is about in the first place: a hero’s journey, and a great hero’s fall and redemption.

    Too much time passed between the making of Return of the Jedi and when Lucas sold his company to Disney for the “missing trilogy” to be made, and the prequels were Lucas’ first priority. The missing trilogy is the stuff that happened to get us where we are at The Force Awakens, e.g. the creation of the First Order and Resistance, Ben’s betrayal of his parents, and Luke’s failure to train a new generation of Jedi and exile, etc. Also, a sequel to the 1977 film wasn’t a given, so Lucas had to make it self-contained with a happy ending that provides closure. The sequel trilogy was all greenlit in advance, so Abrams had more freedom to tell a darker and more mysterious story with elements that aren’t resolved.

    The missing trilogy would have had the happier, uplifting tone you wanted out of The Force Awakens, at least until the final film. The heros were really in a good place after Return of the Jedi. If the ring theory about Star Wars is continued, we are in for a very happy ending in Episode 9. And maybe the missing trilogy will be told in another format. But, in my opinion, The Force Awakens had to be dark for it to be a continuation of what makes Star Wars so timeless. And the many unexplored vistas of plot and character in The Force Awakens gives Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow a lot of freedom to get us to that happy ending.