A few years ago, shortly after JJ Abrams was announced as the director of Star Wars Episode VII, I wrote a lengthy essay predicting it would be terrible and explaining why.
Now that the film has been released and I've seen it (twice) and had time to think about it a bit, I wanted to write-up my thoughts on the film, as well as talk about what I got right and what I got wrong with my predictions.
First, I want to start out by saying that I liked the movie, and it wasn't a bad film. Despite the title of the other post, I never said I thought the movie would actually be a bad film. To self-indulgently quote myself a bit:
None of these things make Episode 7 bad and it's not going to be bad, per se, at least not technically. It's going to be forgettable, mediocre, bland, and safe. It's going to be better than the prequels in the mechanical sense and in terms of the technical quality of the filmmaking (and it will likely use real-live sets!), but it's ultimately going to be soulless like everything else J.J. Abrams has made. That's how it's going to suck.
I'd say this was pretty much dead on. Don't get me wrong, like I said I had a great time watching the movie, but I had a great time because the technical filmmaking aspects were so great (and because the movie engaged in nostalgia overload, more on that in a bit). But despite being better mechanically and technically, I do think the movie was very bland, safe, and forgettable. Mediocre is exactly the right word for it - it's better than all three of the prequels, but not as good as any of the three original trilogy films. It's squarely right in the middle, safe and inoffensive exactly as intended. No risks were taken so it was incapable of rivaling The Empire Strikes Back, but it was also impossible to sink to the level of The Phantom Menace.
Safety and Repetition
One thing I did not foresee was how incredibly safe the movie was going to be. I said that Abrams was chosen because he was such a safe bet - he consistently makes decent (but not great) movies, and Disney wanted something safe. They needed a way to get the fans to stay calm and not have a prequel-level freakout about the movie, while simultaneously pulling a new audience into the Star Wars universe to profit off them.
I knew he'd make a safe movie, but it did not occur to me that he'd actually play it so safe as to essentially recreate the original Star Wars (A New Hope) nearly beat for beat. I'm obviously not the first person to say this, even JJ Abrams himself basically admits that the movie "rips off" A New Hope but simply explains that it had to be done. Sure there are plenty of deviations from "the formula" but there's no denying that the movie is about a member of the rebellion hiding a critical piece of data in a droid, the droid luckily runs into a teenager on a desert planet who dreams of a bigger place in the galaxy and who has some kind of family connection to other important characters, this character and the droid meet up with an older character who helps the main character get involved with the larger galactic story, yadda yadda yadda. It's the same shit, really it is.
There are lots of people defending this on the internet, or arguing that A New Hope borrows heavily from The Hidden Fortress itself, but these arguments all reek of desperate fanboyism. You simply have to admit that The Force Awakens leans more heavily on the story beats from A New Hope far more than even George Lucas ever did when making the prequels, it's a fact.
Now, I actually don't mind most of this repetition, I think the vast majority of it is in line with the "it's like Poetry, it rhymes" theme that, like it or not, is now an integral part of the Star Wars tapestry. I think most of this is simply turning elements of A New Hope into tropes that are free to be repeated - I mean, if you're going to rip off Star Wars, the best movie to do that with is another Star Wars, is it not? Can you imagine if The Fifth Element ripped off Star Wars this much?
That said, I do indeed draw the line at Starkiller Base. The introduction of yet another Death Star is almost unforgivable. This is literally the weakest part of Return of the Jedi, that the Big Bad has simply built another functioning planet-destroying weapon and the rebellion has to blow it up from a weak spot. It feels completely rehashed and unoriginal, and the fact that JJ Abrams wheelbarrowed out another fucking Death Star is almost mind-boggling, I never in a million years could have predicted they'd do something so incredibly unoriginal and risk-averse. And no, having a character exclaim "it's another Death Star!" to lampshade the entire thing doesn't make it somehow okay. Starkiller Base is some straight-up bullshit.
One thing that's also surprising is the more subtle repetition: the locations. Yes, obviously we know Maz Kanata's castle is extremely reminiscent of the Mos Eisley Cantina, but there are more subtle similarities as well. Nearly every actual location, visually, reminds us of a location from the original, beloved trilogy. Say what you will about the prequels, but George Lucas was always trying to introduce new and different worlds in his movies.
In the prequels, we get a variety of locations that are completely different than anything we've seen in Star Wars previously. We see an entire underwater city for the Gungans, an enormous royal palace, and a vast landscape of open fields and waterfalls for most of the rest of Naboo. We see the entire city planet of Coruscant and the enormous senate. We're taken to Kamino, a planet covered in water and rain where the entire city is a bunch of connected floating buildings. We see cities that are built vertically as they descend underground (Utapau), the Wookiee planet where all of the homes are built into the trees (Kashyyk), and of course the infamous lava planet (Mustafar). We see the Jedi council and Jedi temple, a weird opera, a robotics factory, and even get a 50's diner. Even planets that are only in the movie for a few seconds as we see Order 66 executed are new and different, such as Mygeeto and Felucia.
On the rare occasions when Lucas places the story in environments that are familiar to audiences who watched the original trilogy, such as on the desert planets of Tattooine or Geonosis, he forcefully injects something new and different into the proceedings to mix things up. In the case of Tattooine, that's the point of the painfully long pod racing sequence. On Geonosis, it's the gladiator pit with monsters. The end result is often that the prequels feel all over the place and unfocused - I'm not sitting here arguing that they're good. My point is simply that the prequels, for all their faults, worked tirelessly to introduce audiences to new and different locations. The prequels tried to FEEL like Star Wars without always LOOKING like Star Wars.
Contrast this with The Force Awakens. We are on Jakku for a great deal of the film, which is extremely reminiscent of Tattooine. The strongest visual moments on Jakku are in the hollowed-out remains of fallen Imperial ships and vehicles, but those moments are very few, most of the time on Jakku is spent in a town very similar to Mos Eisley. Aside from this, we spend a lot of time on Star Destroyers or in Starkiller Base itself, which both look exactly like the old Star Destroyers and the Death Star in terms of visual design. We spend more time aboard The Millennium Falcon than we do in any previous film, a surprising feat given that it's simply a space car that's capable of traveling instantaneously between destinations. We eventually get to Maz Kanata's castle, which is new and different on the outside establishment shots only to be the Mos Eisley Cantina scene on the inside. And once you run far enough away from the castle, you find yourself in the very Endor-esque woods. Meanwhile Starkiller Base utilizes the power of the sun, destroying the closest heat source and turning the surface of the weaponized planet into Hoth.
The prequels failed to genuinely feel like Star Wars, but they were trying to do so despite visually introducing tons of new and different stuff. In other words, the prequels failed, but they played the game on Hard Mode. The Force Awakens is playing the same game on Easy Mode, so it's no surprise it won.
Again, I knew the film would play things extremely safe, but it didn't occur to me that they'd ONLY use locations that are either extremely visually evocative of original trilogy locations, or were in fact the same locations themselves. Keeping nearly every shot in the movie visually tied to the original trilogy by keeping nearly all backdrops something familiar and beloved was a level of subliminal nostalgia I was simply not expecting.
The Star Wars Universe has never felt as small as The Force Awakens makes it out to be. The prequels were guilty of this as well, with things like Anakin being the builder of C3PO, Boba Fett's dad being the template for the entire Clone Army, and Yoda working directly with Chewbacca to defend Kashyyk. The problem is that, while those coincidences are all kind of eyerolling and goofy cameos, the tininess of the universe in The Force Awakens directly works against its own story.
We are constantly shown how small things are in The Force Awakens. Poe Dameron is meeting with Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow's character) on Jakku. He hides the critical resistance data in BB-8, who by total coincidence runs into Rey. They are working with the entire surface of a desert planet here, and it comes upon this girl who happens to have some kind of family relationship to someone important (Luke, Leia, Obi-Wan? It remains to be seen). That's a pretty huge coincidence right away, within seconds of the movie starting. You could obviously make the "the same thing happens in A New Hope" argument or the "it's the will of the Force" argument of course, but that doesn't really do much to help ease the weird feeling that these kind of chance encounters mean that the galaxy is pretty small.
Then of course Finn crash-lands (uncontrolled, and he wasn't piloting anyway) within visual distance to the exact outpost Rey frequents, and BB-8 sees him and identifies his jacket, bringing them together. They happen to be walking distance away from the Millennium Falcon of all things, and as soon as they take off they're found by Han Solo and Chewbacca. There's a throwaway line about a tracking device, but once again, these kinds of justifications don't do much to eliminate the feeling of a very small, coincidence-driven galaxy.
It gets worse from there. They travel to Maz Kanata's castle, and of all the people in the entire galaxy she happens to have Luke Skywalker's old lightsaber in her basement. It's also not buried under thousands of boxes full of useless bullshit, it happens to be placed in a nice little carrying case exactly at a height reachable by Rey.
Starkiller Base charges up and manages to shoot a laser at 5 planets and blow them all up simultaneously. Now, the novelization apparently explains that this laser is a "hyperspace laser" and so the beam is actually traveling through a wormhole or something, and arriving just outside of the Hosnian system ready to blow them up. Yet, visually, what happens is that Starkiller base, frame right, shoots a laser to the left of the screen. We see the laser creep from right to left in front of Kylo Ren standing in front of Star Destroyer window, and then we cut to the Hosnian system where the laser enters from off frame on the right, continues traveling frame left and blows up all of the planets of the New Republic. If this "hyperspace laser" is a thing, how hard would it have been to simply show the red beam "vanishing" into some kind of blue portal, then emerging from a similar blue portal just outside of the Republic? While this is all happening, Han, Rey, and Finn all get to watch these planets all explode, which are close enough that they can be seen exploding in the daytime sky. Novelization or not, the visual sense you get from this scene is that Maz Kanata's Castle, the entire Hosnian system, and Starkiller base are all right next to each other.
Han, Finn, and Chewbacca travel to Starkiller base to rescue Rey and deactivate the power source for the weapon. They crashland on the surface of the entire planet at lightspeed and, handily, are within walking distance of the primary facility on the planet. How close are they to their target destination? Close enough they can reach it, on foot, in less time than it takes to charge the Starkiller weapon. Minutes. Ever met someone Han Solo's age that's capable of running a 5-minute mile? Once inside the base, our trio are able to locate someone who can deactivate the shields, Captain Phasma, within seconds, and they literally see Rey by complete luck.
I realize that this seems nitpicky, and you may not have even noticed the insane number of coincidences and tiny-universe moments while watching the movie. The problem is, even if you weren't consciously aware of them, you were subconsciously. One of the strengths of the Star Wars franchise, since the start, has been the worldbuilding, the ability to drop in so many different creatures and references to past events that it makes the galaxy seem enormous, vast, and historic. All of these contrivances and conveniences serve to make the universe seem much, much smaller - smaller than even the goofy prequel cameos did.
This is not a nerdy gripe, a friend pointed out that this actually matters to the story. Why? Because the whole fucking point of the plot is that the galaxy is huge.
Think about this for a second. What is everyone after in the movie? What's the big MacGuffin? A part of a map to Luke Skywalker. The First Order has a map of the entire galaxy, except there's a chunk missing, and that's the part Luke is in. Meanwhile, the Resistance now has the missing piece, a map directly to Luke Skywalker, but it lacks the larger galactic map to know where to place their chunk.
If you're the First Order, couldn't you simply go to the area on the map that's missing and explore it for a bit? Or if you're the Resistance, won't someone recognize one of the planets detailed in the small chunk and just use it as an anchor point to find Luke? The answer is no, these are both impossible tasks, because the Star Wars galaxy is too monstrous in size to navigate to Luke with a huge chunk of the map missing, and there's enough uncharted space that nobody will be able to make any use of the small map chunk alone. Both sides need what the other has, and the reason for this is that the galaxy is huge.
So constantly reminding the audience subconsciously that the galaxy is extremely small and rife with coincidental run-ins serves work completely against the very story thread of the film.
A New Audience
Looking back with some hindsight, I'm a bit surprised by my own thickheadedness in my original prediction post. I detailed, at length, all of the reasons that Disney bought LucasFilm and why they'd want to own Star Wars. I then used that lens to make a series of predictions about the film. But something was glaringly obvious in my own writing, and I missed it until the film was released. Here are some things I said:
You see, the core IPs like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are no longer popular or important, so a huge portion of your revenue comes from your films, which you've parlayed into a cash-printing machine with the "Disney Princesses" brand. Your "Disney Stores" in malls across the country are absolutely filled wall-to-wall with pink Disney princess crap, fake wands, dolls, clothes...Stand outside a Disney Store for a little while and you'll watch every little girl pull her parents into the store. But you know what you won't see? Boys.
Disney's purchase of Pixar was about one thing and one thing only: it allowed them to market to boys. And in that way, it has been a wild success.
In 2009, Disney tried to further its reach over the young male demographic by purchasing Marvel Entertainment. This happened immediately after Iron Man was released to great commercial success.
So now that we've established Disney's M.O., we can get a better picture of why they purchased LucasFilm. Star Wars is one of the most successfully marketed IPs of all-time, with action figures and video games and toys and fucking Angry Goddamn Birds and anything else you can think of. It has a recognizability that can't be matched, so it's no surprise that Disney wanted it to shore up the Boy Market.
Looking back, something obvious is staring me right in the face and I didn't even pick up on it, even as I correctly cataloged the marketing reasons for Disney's purchase of Pixar and Marvel.
To go through this a bit slower, what I claimed was that:
- Disney's core brand, "Disney Princesses", is a huge hit with young girls
- Disney purchased Pixar to, successfully, market to young boys
- Disney purchased Marvel to, successfully, market to teen boys.
Then I followed this up with a claim that Disney purchased LucasFilm to "shore up" the boy market, where they've historically been weak. This is where I completely missed the obvious truth staring me in the face. What key demographic is missing from the above list? Yep, teen girls.
Had I managed to connect the dots better, I'd have made a pretty different set of predictions. Here's the thing that almost nobody is talking about, I presume because maybe it seems sexist to discuss: The Force Awakens is for Teenage Girls.
Now, don't get me wrong. Boys love Star Wars and likely always will, there's some stuff that's innate to the series that boys of all ages just find appealing - swords, guns, ships, all that shit. But The Force Awakens was designed specifically to pull teenage girls into the Disney fold in a way that was as aggressive as possible without alienating the boy market. This is, ultimately, what JJ Abrams was tasked with: making a movie for teenage girls that was steeped in Intellectual Property largely "belonging" to boys, without being so obvious as to lose the boy audience.
Let's start with the most obvious byproduct of that goal: Rey. Rey has been accused of being a Mary Sue by others, and while many are simply arguing that Max Landis is being sexist with this criticism, there's simply no denying that Rey is a more capable hero than any one character has been in Star Wars history.
Her closest character analogue is Luke Skywalker, but when we meet Luke, he is a whiny teenager living with his Aunt and Uncle. He is given a lightsaber by Obi-Wan Kenobi, which he doesn't use again for the rest of the movie aside from his training sequence on the Falcon. His training, by the way, consists of working with a little laser-shooting ball, from which he barely manages to deflect the final few blasts. At the end of the film, with almost no Force Training otherwise other than the laser ball, he attacks the Death Star with the rest of the Rebel fleet. One of the rebels discovers the targeting computers are failing to correctly bomb the Death Star exhaust port, and Luke is the Rebellion's last chance. Luckily, we already know that Luke has tackled a similar challenge, as he specifically states that he used to bulls-eye Womp Rats with his T-16 back home, which are about the same size as the exhaust port. We the audience know that Luke's only chance to save the galaxy is to trust his own skills rather than the incorrectly calibrated targeting computer, but Luke doesn't. Then, the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi is heard in Luke's ear: "use the Force". In context, this is as simple as Obi-Wan (or even, possibly Luke's projection of Obi-Wan) telling him to trust his own instincts. Like switches off his targeting computer and blows the Death Star to pieces, relying on his own intuition instead of technology to save the day.
Compare Luke's story to Rey's for a second. Rey starts the film not as a whiny teenager with overprotective parental figures, but as a lone survivor and scavenger, performing death-defying acrobatics to acquire scrap that she can sell to eat. She finds a droid and fixes his bent antenna, then holds her own in a fight against not one, but two muggers using nothing but her staff. Finn tries to position himself to "save" Rey, only to have her reject his attempts to grab her hand; they make their way to the Millennium Falcon, which Rey manages to successfully pilot after a few moments of learning. Mere minutes after smashing buildings in the Jakku outpost, she's performing acrobatics with the Falcon that Han Solo never did after years with the ship, including flying through the dangerous internals of a fallen Star Destroyer, performing extremely precise high-speed 90-degree banks, and flipping the ship into a position where Finn's stuck gun can fire upon an attacking ship that she cannot even see. She does all of this while flying the ship with no copilot, something Han Solo has never done.
When the Falcon is tractor-beamed into another ship, she instantly finds the same hiding spot that Solo used decades earlier and hatches a plan to use the unfamiliar ship's air system to flood the place with poison gas. She meets up with Han and deboards, only for Finn to get attacked by Rathgar monsters. She is once again effortlessly able to figure out the camera and door system of the larger, unfamiliar ship and time her actions to close a door on the tentacle around Finn. When it's time to leave, she points out to Han Solo that he must press the "compressor" button to travel into lightspeed, and then she alone figures out how to "bypass the compressor" to keep the ship intact while traveling, to which Han responds with a surprised "Huh."
After another explicit mention of how Rey can "take care of herself", she is given a blaster. She seems to never have used one, and dialogue is specifically included to inform the audience that she's "got a lot to learn" about them. Remember, when Han hands her the blaster, the dialogue could have just as easily been him asking "You know how to use one of those?" and she simply says "yes" but instead there are two extra lines included specifically to indicate that she's overly cocky about her skills, and that Han thinks she won't be good with the blaster (this is visually reinforced with him pushing her arm down while she holds it). Yet minutes later she winds up firing exactly one shot that misses before becoming a crack shot. We are meant to notice that she picks up this skill almost instantaneously.
This all happens before she's kidnapped by Kylo Ren and subject to his interrogation, which she manages to resist and in fact reverse, reading Ren's mind instead. This is when she realizes for the first time that she's Force Sensitive, and after only two failed attempts is able to Force Trick a highly trained elite Stormtrooper as well as Obi-Wan ever could (and better than Qui-Gon). Shortly after, she summons a lightsaber to her hand (it took Luke until Empire Strikes Back to do this) and holds her own in a duel with the trained force adept Kylo Ren, who moments prior effortlessly dispatched an ex-Stormtrooper with extensive combat training. Moments later, she is able to "use the force" and defeat Ren.
Now, I've heard people say Rey is good with the Force because she might be the child or grandchild of Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, Palpatine, Vader, or whatever. Perhaps she was trained as part of Luke's new academy, but her memories have been wiped. Perhaps she's a child of the force like Anakin was, conceived by Plaugueis or Snoke or what have you. And of course, there's the notion that, if she were male, nobody would have any issue with the fact that she's a great scavenger, mechanic, pilot, smuggler, and Jedi. These are good explanations or defenses for why she's good at everything, but the point here is that Rey is insanely good at everything and we're supposed to notice.
I'm not repeating this as a criticism of the movie. I have no problem with Rey being awesome at everything. In fact, I love that Rey is awesome at everything, I think she kicks ass and she's easily my favorite new character. My point is simply that the reason Rey is so preposterously awesome is that she is meant to be an audience surrogate character, because The Force Awakens was made for girls.
Bear in mind, Rey is not the Action Girl trope - she wasn't written as a masculine character and then just changed to female (a la Ridley from Alien). She was designed from the start as a female character. She doesn't have any kind of super "man strength" or anything like that, and she's not an aggressive badass chick that picks fights with people to show how tough she is - she only ever fights in self defense and is never the aggressor. In other words, Rey is not a man's idea of a female hero, she's a woman's idea of a female hero. A man's idea of a female hero is more like Princess Leia, beautiful and capable with a blaster but ultimately needing to be saved by the boys, and also maybe she could be in a metal bikini at some point.
Rey's "save the cat" moment is literally showing tenderness -- a typically feminine trait -- to a droid that responds by actually purring at her (go back and watch again, it purrs). Remember that both of our male heroes in the original trilogy mostly treat droids like dirt, or at least as nonsentient property. When C3P0 introduces R2D2 to Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, Luke responds by greeting R2 sarcastically. Meanwhile, here's Rey, exhibiting one of the most positive of female stereotypes: compassion. She nurtures BB-8 and takes care of it despite the fact that the only thing that makes BB-8 valuable is literally removable and fits in a pocket.
When Han and Luke first meet, the two of them do nothing but bristle up against each other, and only become friendly over the duration of the entire movie. Han calls Obi-Wan an old fossil and insults his religion, Leia even calls Luke short. In A New Hope, the characters have to learn to like each other. But not a single character that meets Rey dislikes her. Finn instantly develops a crush on her, Maz Kanata takes a strong liking to her and tries to give her Luke's lightsaber, Han Solo offers her a job, and Leia hugs her despite presumably having no idea who she is (or does she?). So Rey also has another trait that, generally, teen girls value, which is universal likability.
If a committee of marketers and writers were to get together and brainstorm the character design for a new female character meant to pull teenage girls into a marketing strategy, while simultaneously not turning away the male demographics, I don't imagine you could possibly do better than Rey. Make her pretty without being threateningly so and avoid sexualizing her with costuming and I'd say you pretty much nailed it. The only thing missing is having her be "adorkably" clumsy.
Rey isn't the only aspect of The Force Awakens that shows how girl-targeted the film is.
Kathleen Kennedy, the Disney-appointed new female head of LucasFilm, referred to the droid BB-8 as "she".
Maz Kanata, the Yoda-like character in the film who is tiny and speaks in wise vagaries about the Force, is of course female.
Leia has been promoted to General, and appears to be singlehandedly leading the entire Resistance effort. by the end of the film, Solo is dead and she remains in charge. Her belly-baring slave costume is now a relic that will receive no marketing attention from Disney.
Captain Phasma never removes any part of her shiny chrome Stormtrooper uniform, so we never see any human aspect of that character. But rest assured, the human inside is female. Despite having Boba Fett levels of spoken lines in the film, she was an incredibly heavy part of the marketing, and received tons of toys prior to the film's release.
Steven Colbert did an entire bit making fun of the Star Wars marketing machine, specifically highlighting the fact that CoverGirl released a Star Wars makeup line. The joke was that the Star Wars marketing was so out of control and random that even makeup was being pulled into the Star Wars umbrella. Nah bro, that shit was way, way targeted.
JJ Abrams has even referred to The Force Awakens as "a movie that mothers could take their daughters to"
None of these are complaints, I actually quite like that Star Wars is expanding to be more inclusive and interesting to girls, and I think it's hilarious to see how much more effective this film is as accomplishing that goal than George Lucas's similar extremely male-minded attempt in the prequels ("We'll give Amidala lots of outfits and hairdos, girls like that stuff!").
It's worth mentioning that, to whatever extent Episode VII is subtle with its marketing, Episode VIII will probably not be. Disney is likely watching merchandise sales and demographic data very closely to see if the film "sticks" to the teen girl demographic. If it does, the next movie will double down on teen girls, and the film will be far more obvious about its target audience than VII was. If girls don't take to Star Wars the way Disney is hoping, it will course correct hard, becoming the "boyest" Star Wars film ever released. When Rian Johnson does script rewrites what that actually probably means is he's developing two versions of the script for these two possibilities, and then filming will start on the pieces that are common. Disney will want to be able to adjust late, possibly even during editing.
Please also note that, at this point, all of the casting news for Episode VII is about two more female roles and this is the first (at present, only) image released for the upcoming Rogue One (notice who is front and center of frame):
As the immortal alien father of an immortal alien daughter, I'm very cool with all of this. I'm just pointing it out to reiterate how strongly The Force Awakens is focused on targeting the teenage girl demographic[^1], and admitting I should have realized that but did not. Pretty much every prediction I made that wound up being incorrect was wrong because of this mistake.
Alright, so how did I do with my predictions? Like I said, my overall prediction that the movie would be extremely safe and bland was correct, as was my claim that it would be perfectly mediocre despite being technically superior to most of the other films in the series. But I also attempted to use my understanding of the Disney acquisition to make very specific predictions about what would happen in the film, and I need to go through and see how I did.
For what it's worth, I also claimed that Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers Phase 2 would be garbage, and I was way off there. Though I do think Age of Ultron sucked pretty bad, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy remain my absolute favorite entries in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, Nostradamus I am not.
I claimed the movie would be extremely friendly to kids, focusing on a much younger group of characters. I said these characters would likely be the focus of the film or, if not the focus, that they'd be taking over in Episode VIII. I originally thought that perhaps the story would focus on a group of new padawans or something, without realizing that Abrams would want to distance himself so thoroughly from the prequels that a word like "padawan" would not be used. For the most part though, I think I got this right - the whole purpose of this movie seems to be to introduce the new, younger cast. Note that I made this prediction eleven months before the cast was announced
BB-8 is about as kid-friendly as you could get in a droid, with higher-pitched beeps and a general "cuteness" that includes actual animal noises. I also claimed the movie would be similar to Iron Man 3 by having "irritatingly jokey dialogue" and I'd say I nailed that one to the cross. I've seen this movie called "the funniest Star Wars" multiple times like that's some kind of compliment. The first line of dialogue between two main characters is "so who talks first? You talk first, I talk first?". Finn soon asks if Rey has a "Boyfriend? Cute boyfriend?" and it just goes on from there.
Tons and tons of jokey dialogue, and I'm comfortable saying it reached irritating levels. Dialogue is even jokey when we can't understand it - Chewbacca nodding along with the idea that Han hasn't delivered before, talking to the patronizing nurse about how brave he is, even though it's in Wookiee it's all played for laughs. "I know, that's why I'm giving it to you," "that's not how the Force works," "I like this thing" - it's all mercilessly jokey. Even when the stakes are established and five planets have been destroyed, just after watching the entire Republic be obliterated, Leia makes a crack about Han's jacket. The dialogue is Whedon-esque, I wouldn't be surprised if it eventually comes to light that Joss Whedon was brought in to ghostwrite a dialogue punch-up.
Overall, yeah, the movie is kid friendly in exactly the way I predicted - not the Jar-Jar type of kid friendly, but a story focused on very young characters that joke constantly. Score: A.
Overabundance of New Characters
I thought Disney would maximize the toy potential by introducing an absolute fuckton of new characters into the mix and boy was that right. In addition to the gigantic number of new aliens present in population-dense locations like the Jakku outpost or the Maz Kanata Cantina, The Force Awakens wastes no time in introducing new speaking characters.
While A New Hope established the bad guy as Darth Vader alone and didn't introduce the Emperor until the sequel, Kylo Ren already reports directly to Supreme Leader Snoke. There's also a Tarkin-esque character, Hux. Finally, one of the Stormtroopers is chrome and given a distinctly different voice so you know she's a different action figure.
How I imagine the planning meetings went:
While we're at it, let's give the Stormtroopers themselves a little backstory as individuals and start referring to them directly by their designations. We'll even give them some unique moments and lines, such as TR-8R aka FN-2199 aka "Nines". This way, kids will buy more than one Stormtrooper like they usually do, they'll buy at least 3. And while we're at it, let's change the Stormtrooper outfit just slightly and feature as many different types of troopers as possible, give one of them a flamethrower and give a few more ugg boots.
There's a rebel base as well, so the film can feature more aliens and give JJ Abrams's buddies from Lost and Heroes a single line of dialogue and a distinctive look. Now, there's going to be a lot of old characters into this film as well, for geek cred. But they can't have kids playing with the action figures they already bought, they need to buy new ones. Here's the marketing strategy:
- Have Leia in a new outfit with a new haircut. Specifically mention the hair being different in a line of dialogue.
- Have Han wear a new jacket. Specifically mention the new jacket in a line of dialogue.
- C3P0 is difficult since he's a robot, so give him a red arm for no reason. Specifically mention the arm in dialogue.
- Rename "rebels" to "resistance" and "empire" to "first order" and change all their insignias so that new X-Wings and TIE Fighters have to be purchased. Change the colors slightly.
And of course, the new young main characters will go through a handful of different outfits and remove functionally useless masks if applicable.
Overall, the entire purpose of The Force Awakens is to introduce us to these new characters - this is a handoff movie. So the film tells the exact same story as A New Hope so that it's familiar, but all the characters are totally new and different so that the franchise can be built off them. Score: A-.
JJ's Mystery Box
Yeah. Everything that happens with Rey, all the secrets around her full name and family history, Kylo Ren being Han and Leia's kid. Who is Max Von Sydow's Character? Who is Snoke? What's Finn's background? What's Luke been doing? What happened in Rey's flashback? Who are the Knights of Ren?
The entire central plot of the movie was a big mystery box, "Where is Luke?" - at least it was until the movie suddenly veered off course and did a third Death Star.
This was a no-brainer given JJ's style, but nonetheless, Score: A.
The Cool Guy
I predicted that every character was going to be cool like Han Solo, and that character interactions would mostly consist of giving each other shit, like Tony Stark.
This prediction was way off. As I said in the prediction, "Everyone is going to be witty and snarky and clever, because boys like Han Solo more than they like Luke, so everyone is going to be Han Solo".
This prediction was fueled by my incorrect assessment that this movie would be heavily targeting young and teenage boys. If I had realized it was going to be marketed around teenage girls, I'd have completely altered this. Girls, as a demographic, don't actually like snarky dialogue - they tend to respond better to friendliness (ever notice how much little girls like My Little Pony, a virtually conflict-free property?). Girls like when people get along, which is why in The Force Awakens all of the good guys are pretty much friends instantly. It's true that teenage girls in particular do enjoy watching conflict and drama (think trashy reality shows), but only when carried out by people they can look down on. In other words, the bad guys can bicker endlessly, but the good guys need to all be friends. Poe and Finn become BFFs so quickly that Tumblr thinks they're gay. Think about when Rey and Finn finish escaping from the TIE Fighters on Jakku, and they run out of their rooms on the Falcon and talk over each other gushing about how great the other one is. That's girl stuff.
In fairness to myself, I predicted that "everyone was going to be Han Solo" without really considering that Han Solo himself was going to be Han Solo for the entirety of the movie. I'd have to check, but I'm pretty confident that Solo gets more screen time than any one character in the film, possibly even including Rey. And yeah, he's all snarky and quippy.
The Dark One
I thought that Episode 7 was going to be so kid friendly that it risked turning away teenage boys, and that Episode 8 was going to try to be the Empire Strikes Back of the new trilogy and be "the dark one".
They tried to shoehorn in a lot of the Empire-esque darkness into the third act of The Force Awakens, but I still think there's a lot remaining.
For what it's worth, if the female teen demographic responds to this film as well as Disney is hoping, I think Episode VIII will double down on that market and this prediction likely won't come to pass.
In any case, I can't really call this one until Episode VIII is released, so Score: TBD.
Complete and Total Market Saturation
This was an easy one but yeah, holy shit.
I was way off on this one. I thought that, to keep hold of that male demographic we'd get some Princess Leia in the Gold Bikini style moments. Like Carol Marcus stripping to her underwear in JJ's Star Trek Into Darkness or Pepper Potts stripping to her underwear in Disney's Iron Man 3, I was sure that there'd be some family-friendly sex appeal in the flick.
Again, this was informed by my off-base failure to realize that The Force Awakens was going to be Star Wars for Girls, and was thus completely wrong. The Force Awakens is an utterly sexless universe, despite the main bad guy seemingly being the result of sex between two other main characters. Rey is pretty but she is never sexualized at all, and even subtle attempts to make her explicitly feminine are swatted away immediately.
I thought maybe there'd be some female actresses showing skin but painted blue or green so that they're "alien" and could thus get away with showing a bit more without crossing a line, something we've seen in other Star Wars films including Return of the Jedi.
But no. Way off here. Score: F.
I predicted that there would be excessive amounts of violence but no blood, lots of explosions and ships blowing up, Stormtroopers getting shot, etc.
I specifically predicted:
Expect a surprisingly large number of unimportant characters, probably with masks or helmets, to get killed or shoved off things to fall to their deaths. There's a good chance it will be rated PG-13 for "sci-fi action and violence" the way that Super 8, Star Trek, Star Trek 2, Mission Impossible III, and Iron Man 3 are rated PG-13. It won't enough to piss off moms, but it might get the PG-13.
Nailed that one. Five entire planets worth of people get blown up instead of just one, Maz's castle is razed, ships explode, an entire village of Jakku residents is killed and burned, Stormtroopers are shot all to hell, and so on.
There's not a single drop of blood that I can remember, and sure enough the film became only the second of eight theatrically released Star Wars films to be rated PG-13.
Black and White Morality
I knew that Anakin being a good guy that murders kids made children confused, and that you can't have the levels of violence needed to earn a PG-13 unless the bad guys are absolutely bad and the good guys are absolutely good.
And, well, the bad guys are literally Space Nazis now.
One thing that did surprise me though was that the main bad guy, Kylo Ren, is conflicted. In fact, I'd argue that he's basically the inverse of Anakin, a bad character struggling with temptation toward the light side, rather than a good character struggling with (and succumbing to) the dark side. In a lot of ways, Ren is what Anakin would have been with a defter director. I actually really liked that Kylo Ren wasn't just a pure bad guy, there was no way he could compete with the cool badness of Vader, so instead he's this tortured whiny pussy of a character. I think Kylo Ren is probably one of the most complex and interesting characters in the whole of the Star Wars universe, and it surprised me how gray he was... uh, up until he murdered his own father.
I also found myself surprised by the fact that Finn explicitly tells Poe that most of the Stormtroopers are just children that were abducted and brainwashed to fight for the Empire/First Order. The Force Awakens then introduces a huge amount of gray area into the entire Stormtrooper army, even going back to the original trilogy. In Clerks, Dante and Randall point out how fucked up it was to blow up the Death Star since a bunch of innocent construction workers were killed, and this ambiguity bothered George Lucas enough that he specifically introduced the Geonosians so that you knew the people building the Death Star were bad. But here comes The Force Awakens, telling me that when we see Stormtroopers fly through the air to their deaths, those are just brainwashed orphans, more victims of the Empire. Geeze.
In fact, the thing that triggers Finn to stop the killing is seeing another Stormtrooper that he was friends with killed. The Force Awakens is the first and only film in the entire series to actually humanize Stormtroopers, even working against the prequels' attempts to dehumanize them as soulless clones of an evil bounty hunter. But then when Finn and Poe escape the Star Destroyer, Finn murders like fifty of them without batting an eyelash. Weird.
Anyway, Score: B+.
Tons of winking nods to original trilogy
I specifically said this wouldn't be "it'll rhyme" stuff but more like little cute in-jokes for fans. And oh my god, it was incessant. Finn finding Luke's training ball and pausing with it center frame was just over the top, and it almost never let up for the entire film.
I didn't predict that this would go so far as to lift most of the story and frequently specific shots directly from the original trilogy, but I'm not going to penalize myself for failing to predict that it would be even worse than I imagined.
Boba Fett Returns
I really thought Boba Fett should show up in this movie, and I was indeed dead wrong.
However, the newly canon Star Wars: Aftermath seems to possibly hint that Fett survived.
In the book, characters search the rubble of Jabba the Hutt's destruction on Tattooine, and discover an in-tact set of Mandalorian battle armor. If this is Fett's armor as is strongly implied, it stands to reason that since it wasn't recovered in a digested state, that Fett might still be out there somewhere.
Not counting this one out yet, mark my words, Boba Fett will be back. Score: TBA.
So how did I do? If I ignore the TBD's, here's my report card:
- A (kid friendly)
- A- (too many new characters)
- A (mysteries)
- D (cool guy)
- A+ (market saturation)
- F (sex)
- A (violence)
- B+ (black and white morality)
- A+ (in-jokes)
Final grade: B. Not bad.
Episode VII is a deeply, deeply flawed film, but it is far more watchable and enjoyable than any of the prequels. This is what the movie is designed exactly to be, so this is no surprise. The movie needed to hit a sweet spot of mediocrity that would assuage fears of Star Wars fanatics while simultaneously inviting a whole new audience into the Star Wars fold.
Could the movie have been as good as Empire Strikes Back? Sure, but then where could it go from there? Disney has learned from the Marvel series that a consistent level of mid-grade quality is more profitable long-term than an uneven series of great and terrible films. If the films are all connected, fans will happily sit through any franchise entry that's not outright terrible (Thor 2, anyone?). If The Force Awakens had rivaled Empire Strikes Back, then the next film would be a disappointment and the entire expensive acquisition would come off the rails.
Instead, it's better to make a decent but not great film, and take as few risks as possible. Always leave the audience thinking that the next movie might be even better.
Indeed, that's exactly how I feel. Episode VII laid a lot of groundwork for the franchise. It introduced a variety of new and interesting characters -- Finn, Rey, and Kylo are genuinely unlike any previous Star Wars characters -- but introduced them in a familiar story so as to not heap too much change on audiences all at once. The movie also got a LOT of fanservice out of the way, and put audiences into a mental state where they'd be looking forward to more Star Wars films instead of nervously dreading their release.
If you were planning on making a whole series of risky, interesting films set in the Star Wars universe, The Force Awakens is exactly the kind of movie you'd want to kick that off. Localize all the originality in the characters themselves, then use those characters as a springboard for original stories later. The Force Awakens may be something of a Trojan hourse, cleverly delivering originality in the form of characters while appearing to be something familiar and safe to get past the guards.
The fact that Rian Johnson -- writer and director of the flawed but very original Looper -- is writing and directing the next film gives me some hope that indeed this is Disney's plan and that Episode VIII will be riskier and more original.
At the same time, the other way this whole series could go is to keep repeating the tropes of the original trilogy. In the same way that The Force Awakens was a retread of A New Hope, the next film might be a retread of Empire Strikes Back, with the final entry (before another trilogy is announced) mirroring Return of the Jedi.
The fact that Colin Trevorrow -- writer and director of the abysmal fanwank garbage Jurassic World -- is writing and directing Episode IX gives me some serious pause that this might be the direction things are going.
The Force Awakens was what it needed to be, but Episode VIII is really going to be the film that determines what kind of trilogy this "new trilogy" is going to be. If at any point during that film it turns out that yet another Death Star has been built, I swear I'll stand up and leave the theater. Don't worry, I won't make a bunch of noise and ruin the festering bowl of garbage the rest of audience is happily slurping up, but I'd officially be done with Star Wars at that point.
In any case, the basic gist is that The Force Awakens was exactly as good as it needed to be, and no better. I enjoyed the movie and saw it twice in theaters, but I don't think I'd pop it in the Blu-ray player and just watch it for fun unless I was doing some kind of Star Wars marathon with other people. I certainly won't be buying it on physical media until it's part of a larger box set of some kind, it's simply incomplete until the other films are released. Besides, I'm simply not that eager to rewatch it again, it's certainly no Star Wars (A New Hope) or The Empire Strikes Back. But it's also no Attack of the Clones, which is really all I could have hoped for.
[^1]: Some might argue that the controversy about the lack of toys for the female characters, including the lead, works against the notion that the movie is made mostly to target girls. This post is already too long to get into a lengthy discussion of why this is not contradictory, but I think I'll just summarize by saying that the marketing of the film is playing the long game with regard to demographics, and the marketing of the toys is playing a short game. It's also worth saying that the tinfoil-hat-wearer in me thinks it's possible that this was done intentionally to both generate free publicity around Star Wars merchandise, as well as drum up additional sales for when they "fix" the issue (within a month, despite toys taking months to design and manufacture). In any case, Episode VIII will have tons of female toys as long as Disney determines the marketing attempts of this film have been successful. Plus, at the end of the day, both boys and girls buy movie tickets but boys buy more toys than girls - girls buy clothes. #sexist #misogyny #microaggressions