By Marc Gushue (Ottawa, Canada)


In 1977, my father took me to see Star Wars. It was the first movie I saw in a theatre and it would change my life. I spent the rest of my youth reliving Star Wars battles, as both hero and as villain. I pleaded for Star Wars toys every birthday and Christmas. On those occasions when parents or Santa failed to deliver a requested starship, I would build it with Lego. Growing up in a small coastal community, I spent countless hours combing the shore for blaster-shaped driftwood.

Today, I still regard the original trilogy (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) as the masterpiece of science fiction cinema. Conversely, I regard the prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith) as an unwatchable abomination.

Predictably, The Force Awakens falls between those two extremes.

The strength of the film lies in its recapturing of the overall look and feel of the original trilogy. As an old school Star Wars aficionado, I feel at home in the presence of Star Destroyers and the Millennium Falcon, and this latest chapter returns me to that comfort zone. While the film was shot in a different style and some familiar elements redesigned, the changes are mostly subtle and generally welcome. I particularly enjoyed the starship debris that created striking backdrops in several scenes, inspiring wonder and connecting this new story to its legendary past.

The final scene was especially powerful, with the appearance of Luke Skywalker as an aged hermit. In this monastic setting, Abrams succeeds in rekindling the mystery and awe of the contemplative and reclusive Jedi master – the aura that had been tarnished by the prequels’ uninspired characters and lightsaber overindulgence.

While the film does succeed in breathing life back into the Star Wars saga (having been frozen in carbonite since the detestable prequels), when viewed in the context of the original trilogy, The Force Awakens is subpar. It is spoiled, in particular, by three major flaws.

1. Rey’s rushed awakening:
This is the central defect of The Force Awakens, which should more accurately be named The Force Jumps out of Bed, Ready to Go. Rey’s story arc is rushed to the point of absurdity. In the cantina, her experiences are too convenient. In captivity, she easily mind tricks the guard. Worst of all, she defeats Kylo Ren, a powerful Sith warrior. We expect Jedi mastery to be a long journey, involving diligent training, so her short trajectory from urchin to superpower cheapens the process. Had the audience been shown her awakening more gradually, we would have become a part of her journey and would have shared in her triumphs and failures. Regrettably, because her powers are gained so quickly and effortlessly, it is difficult to feel anything. We know from our own lives that hard-won achievements make us feel good, and that easy victories are less fulfilling. Everything came easily to Rey, which left me feeling empty.

Rey’s rushed storyline is a by-product of another problem: it takes too long to figure out who the protagonist is. Poe and Finn confuse the audience when the story opens. We do not know which character is the protagonist, so we try to get attached to both, only to learn much later that the protagonist is actually Rey. The Force Awakens should have been the story of Rey. It would have provided the audience with a character to connect with emotionally and given Abrams the time needed to explore Rey’s awakening fulsomely.

2. Unimaginative plot:
I expected Episode VII to be a new story. Instead, it is essentially a repetition of the story told in Episode IV: find the droid with the missing piece of information that will allow the good guys to exploit a weakness in the bad guys’ orb of destruction. This lack of creativity made me feel bored and disconnected. Rather than feeling immersed in the story, I kept thinking “But we’ve seen this already.”

When I watch Star Wars, I feel elated. When I watch The Empire Strikes Back, I feel defeated. When I watch Return of the Jedi, I feel triumphant. The story and characters of The Force Awakens failed to evoke any feeling in me. I never felt connected to any storyline, never felt sad or angry, and never found myself cheering for anyone. All too often, I just did not care about what was happening.

3. The ruin of Kylo Ren:
Kylo Ren is super cool! The design of his armored costume, his deep, modulated voice, and his sinister lightsaber make this villain a worthy successor to Darth Vader. In the opening scene, he effortlessly stops a blaster shot, and we know instantly that he is powerful beyond imagination. He is the type of character I loved as a child.

Sadly, JJ Abrams ruined his greatest creation. Abrams ruined Kylo Ren by having him remove his mask (twice!), thereby spoiling the mystery of the character, not to mention diminishing the tension in each of those scenes. More egregiously, Abrams ruined the character by having him lose the duel with Rey, an untrained would-be Jedi with no lightsaber experience, and whose knowledge of the Force was in its infancy. In other words, Kylo Ren is transformed from galactic badass to loser, in the span of one film. What a waste.

In addition to these major flaws, there is a laundry list of minor issues that hurt the film. Three examples:

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) – The original trilogy was realistic because it was shot using plastic models of starships and handmade Muppet-style creatures that came to life on screen. The Force Awakens relies too often on CGI and it always looks fake. I disconnect whenever I see it, and it is everywhere. Science fiction films depend (even more than other films) on the audience suspending disbelief. CGI reminds me that I am watching a movie, when I should be lost in the movie.

Nostalgia – One or two allusions to “the good old days” were to be expected, and there is nothing wrong with occasional comic relief. However, there is just too much of it in The Force Awakens, particularly in Han Solo’s scenes. These frequent references make his character (and the film) seem unserious. Once again, this takes me out of the film and into my theatre seat, reminding me that I am a Star Wars fan watching a Star Wars movie, when I want instead to be lost in a story.

Snoke – Are we supposed to be scared of this guy? His name is Snoke! I find it difficult to even take him seriously, let alone be afraid of him.

At the end of the day, and despite all of its shortcomings, The Force Awakens injects desperately needed life into the franchise. If nothing else, Abrams has provided us with a palate cleanser to remove the aftertaste of the prequels. Those who praise The Force Awakens seem to approach it from this context, bringing a positive, glass-half-full perspective:

“The classic feel of the characters and settings return the franchise to glory. Despite a flawed plot and a laundry list of minor annoyances, the film is a worthy addition to the original trilogy.”

I prefer to approach it from a negative, glass-half-empty perspective:

“The flawed plot and a laundry list of minor annoyances spoil the franchise’s return to glory. Despite the classic feel of the characters and settings, the film is an unworthy addition to the original trilogy.”

Even as a kid, I liked the Dark Side better.



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