A second look at "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (spoilers)

We've decided that it's impossible for Generation Xers to dispassionately review the new Star Wars movie.  There's too much emotional baggage.  Star Wars is an essential strand in our shared pop culture fabric.  Just as the first three movies electrified our imaginations and the three prequels delivered a devastating let-down bordering on betrayal, this new movie is more than a movie.  It connects to all of us on some weird primal level.  

Critics have been mostly positive in reviewing Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Many Generation Xers, however, have been less generous, crossing their arms, looking for fault in every frame, shaking their head in disappointment.  You can find entire articles on the internet full of snarky nitpicking that examines the movie with the kind of ruthless scrutiny no film could withstand.  We're not entirely sure of the motivation here because it's not just honest film criticism - some of these people have taken the movie's shortcomings personally somehow.  It's like that guy in the back of the class who makes fun of successful, popular bands to make himself look cooler and hipper by contrast. 

Let the record show that we hated the prequels.  We know a bad Star Wars movie when we see one.  The prequels were pointless and George Lucas' obsession with new technology (and lack of interest and/or ability in directing actors) gave the movies a sterile, flat quality.  We understand the fan outrage.

But The Force Awakens is not a bad movie.  It has flaws, yes.  But it's passionate and tactile and fun and surprising in ways a Star Wars movie hasn't been since 1983.  It may not be a great movie.  But it's certainly a good one.  And one that's very well made.

We liked it the first time we saw it, but had reservations.  To paraphrase a colleague, we spent most of the first hour of The Force Awakens on edge, waiting for it be terrible.  Not the best way to see a movie.

So we decided to go see it again.

Upon further review, we hereby stipulate that The Force Awakens has three genuine problems:

1. Lack of context for Han Solo's death.  In one of the more overt parallels to A New Hope, a Dark Side villain proves his evil bona-fides by killing a beloved mentor right in front of his youthful mentee.  Just as Luke saw Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan, here Rey watches helplessly as Kylo Ren kills Han Solo.  That's a great idea.  The problem is that the moment lacks sufficient set-up.  It's not completely "earned," as they say in Hollywood script meetings.  It's a big moment, but it could have been an even bigger moment.  Remember, we'd spent almost all of A New Hope with Luke and Obi-Wan.  His death mattered.  It packed a punch.  But we don't get to see much of Rey and Han Solo's relationship outside of the nice scene where he offers her a job.  So while we get the sense that she's an orphan who just found a scruffy nerf-herder father figure, further development to clarify that angle would have helped audiences appreciate what she lost.  The movie probably should have gotten Han and Rey together sooner, in other words, so we could get an idea of a future together that Kylo destroyed.

And then there's the extra delicious layer of patricide.  Kylo Ren is killing his father with that lightsaber.  Dude.  That's about as dramatic and Shakespearean as it gets, but did the movie undermine that moment by giving such short shrift to the Han-Leia-Kylo backstory?  We get a few lines of dialogue between Han and Leia about their lost son and that great moment when Kylo tells Rey his father was a disappointment, but that's it.  We would argue that - as with the Rey-Han relationship - the movie could have gone further to expand this subplot.  There are plenty of opportunities for this.  Give Leia a monologue about that one time when she tried to go grab Kylo and her strike team all died - even better, let the sole survivor of that strike team talk to Han or Rey about it.  Let Han wax on a little to Rey about his lost son and his feelings.  Give Kylo a scene with Admiral Hux about Han Solo and Resistance.  Or maybe even give Han a beat where it looks like he's not going to go after Kylo when he sees him to show Han's uncertainty.  Small moments like that could have added up to something more.

That said, it's worth noting how effective that catwalk scene is.  Even without much set-up, Harrison Ford and Adam Driver sell the hell out of that moment.  Yes, yes, we figured it was curtains for Han as soon as he walked out there on that catwalk.  But for a moment, we thought maybe it was going to work.  Didn't you?  Kylo Ren says he knows what he has to do, but isn't sure he has the strength to do it.  Driver certainly looks confused and lost.  We assumed (hoped?) maybe he wanted to reject the Dark Side.  To the filmmakers' credit, those lines of dialogue are ambiguous enough to work both ways.  Indeed, it's soon clear what Kylo really meant: he knew he had to kill his father but didn't know if he could do it.  The point is, even hamstrung by a lack of narrative context that mutes the drama, it's still one of the biggest moments in the movie.

Of course, none of this addresses another nagging problem with the scene - the fate of the Resistance hangs in the balance with time running out, and these two are having a father-son moment.  Sigh.  We get it, but sometimes you have to go with the flow.

2. The coincidence that brings Rey to Maz's basement.  The second half of the movie is all about Rey connecting with the Force, kicked off when Anakin's lightsaber beckons to her at Maz's castle.  This is good.  Rey is a fantastic character.  But the only reason she's in that basement was because Han figured Maz could help.  So... if Rey doesn't meet Han and if Han doesn't think to go to Maz, Rey doesn't get the lightsaber.  Hitchcock said that audiences could swallow at least one coincidence early on, but we have a hard time with this one.  You could explain it away with mumbo-jumbo about fate, but we prefer clearer cause-and-effect logic.  The filmmakers could have closed this loophole with something as simple as suggesting that Han heard Maz was one of the last people to see Luke, which would maybe more clearly motivate his need to get Rey and Finn and BB8 to Maz (and might also explain why Maz has the lightsaber in the first place).

3. The repeated callbacks to A New Hope This is the big one.  We want to say it's lazy writing.  But it seems completely intentional.  Disney - the new keepers of the Star Wars kingdom - seemed interested in both stoking the fires of nostalgia with this sequel for the older audiences and resetting from scratch the Star Wars universe for the younger audiences.  And so, in essence, they remade A New Hope.  So we get another planet-detsroying machine, another droid on the run, another loner on a desert planet destined for something more.  There's archetypal "call to action" hero myths... and then there's needless retreading.  Alongside so much in the movie that's exciting and new (the stormtrooper defector, the petulant adolescent villian, the TIE fighter theft, the bad-ass female hero, a lightsaber fight in the snow), the repeated callbacks to A New Hope are a big disappointment.  Why couldn't Rey live on a grassland world to avoid the Luke-Tattooine references?  Why not think of some other sinister machine the First Order's using to control the galaxy so we don't have a fleet of X-wings yet again trying to blow up a little vent? 

These aren't small problems.  The filmmakers could have done better.  They should have done better.  Even so, we remain surprised by many other complaints and petty fanboy bickering about the film's smaller plot points.  Why doesn't R2D2 wake up sooner to provide his piece of the map?  Why is this the first time Finn decides to defect?  Why doesn't Chewbacca get more angry when Han dies?  Where did the First Order come from?  Who is this Snoke person?  Why is Rey so much quicker at learning the Force than Luke?  Why did Leia hug Rey at the end of the movie, someone she hadn't met until that moment?  To us, these are interesting narrative questions worth discussing, not ironclad exhibits to prove that The Force Awakens sucks.  Every movie has "ellipses"  where audiences are asked to fill in the gaps.  You can't have every little detail spoonfed, lest the movie turn into an unending series of expositional monologues and speeches.  A balance must be struck - keep the audience engaged (and not stepping back and saying "huh?) but keep the story moving.

But about all of those narrative threads left dangling...  If any movie was guaranteed to be a part of a trilogy, it's this one.  Should the filmmakers thus be allowed some latitude?  Should audiences be more patient and wait to see what the next two films bring before arguing about plot holes and unanswered questions?  The old-school film geek in us says no.  If audiences are distracted by plot holes and unanswered questions, then the story doesn't work.  Audiences need to know what they need to know.   But then again... as serialization grows more common in television and in movies (see also: Marvel's Cinematic Universe) and as they become more integrated with comic books and games and novels and websites to tell these larger interconnected stories, are we seeing the emergence of a new paradigm where titles are no longer bound to tell complete, logical stories within their own medium's boundaries?  Okay, we're getting way out there, but you get the point.  Messy narratives with more loose ends may be where we're headed.  How media delivers stories may be slowly evolving, whether us Generation Xers like it or not.

And surely even the most angry Force Awakens detractor would have to admit, when Kylo Ren freezes that blaster bolt with the Force... that's pretty bad ass.