Movies such as Star Wars: The Farce Awakens make me angry.
It’s endemic of contemporary Hollywood: looks great, slickly directed, wonderful special effects, but thin on story, driven by contrivance and, hey, that’s okay apparently, because that’s the standard nowadays, and you should just accept that.
That’s no reason to give a movie – or any story – a pass mark.
I have a number of issues with The Farce Awakens, and yet this blog is by no means exhaustive. Every time I think I’m done with it, something else pops to mind. So, for now, this is it (and this’ll contain spoilers):
- Premise: Luke Skywalker has vanished.
This is the best the collective talents of Lawrence Kasdan, Mike Arndt, and JJ Abrams could come up with.
Luke Skywalker has vanished.
I can just picture the trio sitting around a table, and one of them (probably JJ) saying, ‘We need to grab everybody immediately. We need to shock them. How about we begin the story and Luke’s vanished?’
Dramatic, maybe. Intelligent?
Examine this premise in greater detail: so Luke’s trying to establish a new Jedi Order. Kylo Ren (who I shall now christen Darth Tantrum), falls to the Dark Side, and with the help of the First Order kills the Jedi (wow, original). Disconsolate, Luke vanishes.
So, the heroic Luke Skywalker decides that while the First Order is establishing itself as the new dark threat, as Darth Tantrum terrorises the masses, as planets are being destroyed and Luke’s friends are getting killed, Luke’s going to leave Rey (who looks as if she’ll be his daughter) on Jakku with that monster thing that was paying her for scraps (he’s the one Rey’s handed to in the flashback), and go on a search for the first Jedi temple (according to Han), because somehow this is what the galaxy needs right now (but at least it sounds mystical). Moreover, it’s somehow wiser to plant Rey on a planet open to First Order traffic, rather than take her with you, given nobody knows where you are. I know which I think is the better hiding place.
But wait, there’s more.
There’s going to be a map to Luke’s location which the Resistance and the First Order are fighting to get (why they don’t just look up the first Jedi temple is beyond me), and which is in the hands of Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), who Darth Tantrum slays, even though later he abducts Rey because she’s seen the map and he thinks he can draw it from her.
Then, when we get the map (I can’t make this stuff up), it’s like a jigsaw piece which fits in only one spot on a galactic map, and presumably you could just overlay on an existing map to see exactly where it is. (It’s probably not meant to be that simplistic, but that’s how it came across.)
This is what we’ve been waiting for.
Foundations are important to me in building a story, and this is not a strong foundation. Personally, I found the premise grossly insulting, and a contrivance to generate a story that’s not a logical evolution of the timeline from the original movies, but simply a way to try and shock and wow audiences from the get-go.
As an aside: In Return of the Jedi, Luke and Leia have a conversation about the Force, where Luke says, ‘You have that power, too. In time, you will learn to use it as I have.’
No, apparently Leia didn’t. You might argue she has and we just didn’t see it. Well, if she had, then she’d also be a target of the First Order, wouldn’t she? (Which really suggests that Leia should’ve been the target of Darth Tantrum, and not the powerless Han, and the movie might’ve made more sense. Of course, Harrison Ford wanted to be killed in Return of the Jedi, so now belatedly he’s gotten his wish. Watching this, I know how he felt.)
- Myth: In an interview, JJ Abrams explained his logic behind The Farce Awakens:
- ‘… the thing that struck me the hardest, which was the idea that doing a story that took place nearly 40 years after Jedi meant that there would be a generation for whom Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia would be as good as a myth.
‘They’d be as old and as mythic as the tale of King Arthur. They would be characters who they may have heard of, but maybe not. They’d be characters who they might believe existed, or just sounded like a fairy tale.’
This sits at the core of your story?
King Arthur (according to medieval histories) fought in the 5th and 6th centuries, so he’s had some time to cede into legend and myth. Luke fought the Empire thirty years ago, and he’s already a myth? In thirty years, he’s ‘as old and as mythic’ as a fifteen-hundred-year-old legend? Not to mention:
- For much of that interim, Luke (and his friends) have still been running around.
- So Luke helped overthrow the Empire … which transitioned directly into the First Order. How exactly would you become a legend when your victory was redundant?
- Rey thinks Luke Skywalker is a myth, but hasn’t heard of Princess Leia or Han Solo, yet has heard of Han Solo the smuggler? Um, sure.
Does anybody else think this premise is just a little bit insane?
You might suggest that the First Order have just been established under the auspices of the Supreme Leader Smeagol.
The First Order conscript kids from an early age, then brainwashes them into serving the First Order as Stormtroopers. We see there’s tons of Stormtroopers. Tons. And if Finn’s in his twenties, they must be, too (although Finn says this is his first mission, so there’d have to be Stormtroopers who are older). So this practice has been going on a while.
In Rey’s flashback, she’s a little girl when Darth Tantrum attacks, so at least ten years have elapsed since that memory and events that the movie’s text-crawl establishes (so, back to the original point, I can only guess Luke’s been vanished about ten years, and Darth Tantrum’s been in training that long).
And the First Order has, as a whole, had the time to build a Starkiller weapon. We never see the Republic, but we see the First Order is as magnificent and dreadful as the Empire, so this is the only sense of proportion we get.
Which begs the question …
What the hell was the point of the original movies if circumstances are just the same? What the hell was the point of Luke Skywalker confronting Darth Vader and the Emperor, and the assault on various Death Stars, and celebrations on multiple planets at the end of Return of the Jedi, if everyone and everything is largely just still in the same position at the beginning of Farce?
It invalidates everything the first three movies are about, which is grossly insulting. Of course, JJ Abrams is good at that. In his Star Trek reboot, he wiped out ten movies and five series so he could launch Star Drek and insult a fanbase that has been building for fifty years.
We don’t see anything new in Farce. It’s not like the First Order is an evolution of the Empire, or is some perverted schism, or that it’s a completely different threat (as posed).
It’s just the same Empire, repackaged.
Which leads to …
It’s the plot from A New Hope.
And it’s also the plot from Farce, which entirely recycles A New Hope, just with a few different turns.
There are even greater derivatives throughout: the antagonist is related (Darth Vader/Darth Tantrum), we’re setting up a familial battle (Vader-Luke/Tantrum-Rey), the lone Jedi begins the story in self-imposed exile (Obi Wan/Luke), etc.
These aren’t homages. A homage is Finn accidentally triggering the chess game on the Millennium Falcon. Then we all think, Oh, how cute, the chess set from the first movie. That’s a homage. These are narrative choices designed to manipulate you into thinking they’ve tapped into the Star Wars universe the prequels missed. In reality? It’s just glorified recycling, reminiscent of any bad Hollywood sequel which’ll rehash the events of its predecessor.
It left the story feeing flat, stale, and trodden.
As an aside: after losing two Death Stars, the Empire is apparently still building weapons replete with vulnerabilities so they can be destroyed.
I can just imagine the First Order’s hierarchy conversation with their engineers:
Engineer: ‘We’ve just finished our new weapon, sir!’
General Hux: ‘What’s it do?’
Engineer: ‘It harnesses the power of a sun so that we can destroy a planet, or even multiple planets, sir.’
General Hux: ‘Excellent! Any vulnerabilities?’
Engineer: ‘No, sir. We learned from the assaults on the two Death Stars.’
General Hux: ‘That won’t do at all.’
Engineer: ‘No, sir?’
General Hux: ‘No, not at all. Go back and implement a vulnerability.’
General Hux: ‘Our enemies must have a chance, however slim, of destroying our weapon.’
Engineer: ‘But, sir …!’
General Hux: ‘Now!’
Engineer: ‘Yes, sir.’
The story begins with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) clearly being established as the hero of the piece, but is then shunted off to Finn (John Boyega), which then interchanges with Rey (Daisy Ridley), although they’re countered by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), until Han Solo (Harrison Ford) arrives, and then it becomes about him. Let me throw in BB8 (BB8) also, who plays an important role in the first two acts, and then disappears for the third. (At least R2D2, who begins A New Hope, is right there until the end, and is referenced during the assault on the Death Star.)
Farce lacks focus, flitting between characters, trying to develop them equally, and never letting you know through whose eyes you’re meant to be seeing this galaxy and living these events. Even if the story was meant to be a transitional piece from the original characters to the new characters, we still needed to be following somebody through it all.
You might argue that it’s an ensemble piece, like Avengers. The difference in Avengers (as an example) is that all the primary characters are equally weighted, and have equally important stuff to do, and equally contribute to the victory.
Throughout Farce, we see hints it’s meant to be Rey’s story, yet Farce still tries to ally with this ensemble philosophy, which often leaves the narrative feeling unbalanced.
As an aside: The characters felt orchestrated to fill niches (e.g. dashing, hopeful, idealistic), but (and some may disagree) were bland outside of those characteristics. Look at it this way:
- Poe: fast-talking, defiant, brave
- Finn: afraid, good-hearted
- Rey: clever, yearning.
And they just played to these types throughout, with no real dimension outside of these characteristics.
The antagonists weren’t much better. Supreme Leader Snoke was just big and evil and Voldermorty. General Hux was a waste of Domhnall Gleeson. Adam Driver tried, but never really got out of emo mode. Also, given the age breakdown of two of the antagonists (and the third being a hologram), it just felt like we were at some Youth Empire Rally, with no real credible weight behind this threat. The original movies might’ve used a succession of little-known actors in those command-positions for the Empire, but at least they had presence and gravity.
The best (new) character was BB8, a great addition to Star Wars pantheon of droids (although he was something of a rip-off of Wall-E with the expressive face). However, I’m unsure of the practicality behind a rolling metal ball. Sure, it’d work great on soft surfaces. But what happens when BB8 has to roll on concrete or metal? Besides being noisy, it’d be damaging to his body. Some might consider this a nitpick, but if you’re going to create a universe like this, it has to have some internal consistency as to how it works, and whether it would work. This just wouldn’t work.
Then look at the close: Finn, who has practical experience with the First Order, takes Han and Chewbacca down to the Starkiller, claiming he can deactivate the shield. He can’t. It was just a ruse to get down here so he could try rescue Rey. Finn says when he was stationed here it was in sanitation, which is great, because he’s been wallowing in shit for about one hundred minutes up to this point. Problem, though? No. Han, Chewbacca, and Finn just happen to run into the Cylon, Captain Phasma (seriously?) who just happens to have the authority to deactivate the shield (you’d think it would be a little better safeguarded than that), and then they go to look for Rey – who the WHOLE base is looking for – and she just happens to be climbing a wall right behind them (and then, somehow, they end up on the other side of her, although a trench separates them), and even though Darth Tantrum senses Han Solo on the base, Tantrum just happens to walk right past him, so they can just happen to have an excruciatingly, painfully predictable confrontation on the bridge, and then when everybody returns to the Resistance base, R2D2 just happens to wake up, right then, to give them the information they need to continue the trilogy.
Whilst some convenience has always driven the Star Wars universe (and it gets worse as the series goes on and they try to tie everything together), this is just lazy.
There’s simply very little causality in the way JJ Abrams develops his stories (his two Star Trek movies overflowed with coincidences to drive the plot). Tom Clancy said, ‘The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.’
Farce doesn’t even try to make sense.
As an aside: So Han Solo volunteers to deactivate the shield around the Starkiller by jumping through the shield at light speed and getting to the shield controls? Um, excuse me? If you can just jump through the shield at light speed, WHY DO YOU NEED A MISSION TO DEACTIVATE THE SHIELD? Why doesn’t everybody just jump through the shield at light speed? Why don’t they get a big bomb, put it on a big ship, jump it through the shield at light speed and target the oscillator? In fact, since Han and Chewbacca blow up part of the oscillator with their munitions, why not launch a ground assault?
Again, people might suggest this is a nitpick. But you know what the beauty of A New Hope is? The mission is clear. Fly down this trench and fire a missile down this port, and it’ll start a chain reaction. Totally straightforward. Similarly in Return of the Jedi: fly into the Death Star and hit the reactors. Here, though, it’s fire at the oscillator, and hope you can damage it enough to cause a chain reaction – which then only occurs after Han and Chewbacca have used their munitions, and then Poe’s flown inside it and shot the hell out of it. You never get a sense of scale, of what’s required, as occurs in A New Hope. It’s more like The Phantom Menace when Anakin accidentally launches himself into space, joins the fray, does some spinning (because that’s a good trick), and then blows up the Control Ship, which deactivates the drone armies. Er, what does what now?
And furthermore: Luke, Jedi Master, turns around and expresses shock when Rey arrives and offers his lightsabre. I guess a Jedi in hiding wouldn’t sense a big ship holding somebody strong in the Force landing on his planet seemingly only a short distance away?
- Finn decides he can’t participate in the slaughter of the villagers (and even though Darth Tantrum sees this, does nothing about it), but later when Finn’s escaping with Poe and manning the guns of the TIE-fighter, he merrily blows up Stormtroopers, officers, and an assortment of other people. Fine, he might be defending himself, he might be fighting for his freedom, but it seems an amazingly easy transition for him.
- Rey thinks Luke Skywalker is a myth, hasn’t heard of Han Solo the Rebellion General, but has heard of Han Solo the smuggler, has heard of the Millennium Falcon, yet doesn’t know she’s on the Millennium Falcon. In all the years the ship’s sat on Jakku, its name has never been mentioned. Or she doesn’t know what it looks like, since ‘Han Solo the smuggler’ is such a legend? Okay.
- This one is a little offbeat but you set up a world where Rey has to scrounge for rations. She has flour, which she dumps into a tray, and then inflates into bread. I did notice when Rey was making her bread, a fleck of flour missed the tray (and hit the counter instead). In the grand scheme of things it mightn’t mean much, but if you want me to believe the circumstances of the world, characters can’t be so careless with such hard-won rations.
- Rathtars (big space monsters) get loose on Han Solo’s freighter. They eat everybody the moment they encounter them. So this is the rule that’s been set up: Rathtars eat somebody the moment they encounter them. Until one picks up Finn and drags him through several corridors, giving Rey time to rescue him. Seriously, how stupid is that? Yet, again, it might seem a nitpick, but in establishing the rules of a fictional world, you’re telling us how that world behaves. You can’t then change it later to suit you. That is just dumb and lazy.
- Or how about Rey defeating Darth Tantrum in a lightsabre battle? Sure, we saw Rey swing her pike and incapacitate a couple of thieves trying to steal BB8, but Tantrum has been training in the Force, and has presumably trained with a lightsabre. For that matter, even Finn took it to him. How can he be so weak?
- And on this, how strong is Rey? I can understand the Force flows through her. Fine. But it not only flows through her, but she exhibits very specific talents, e.g. the Jedi mind trick she uses to persuade the Stormtrooper (James Bond‘s Daniel Craig) to let her go. What’s the best Luke did without instruction? Levitate his lightsabre from the snow? Rey does that (overwhelming Darth Tantrum in the process), focuses so she’s infused with the Force and can overcome Tantrum, and the aforementioned Jedi mind trick – all without any sort of instruction.
- Or how about the embarrassing silliness of Han Solo enjoying shooting Chewbacca’s bowcaster – haha, that must be funny, right? Right? Just like so many other one-liners and witticisms they tried.
- How do friendships work in this story? On the Resistance base, Finn and Poe encounter one another and hug like they’re the fondest of friends – the way Luke and Han do in A New Hope after they’ve blown up the Death Star. Poe and Finn aren’t fond friends to the extent that they should be having an exchange of this depth (even if the movie is trying to tell us otherwise). Then, later, after Han dies, the Millennium Falcon returns to the Resistance base and Han’s oldest friend, Chewbacca, walks past Han’s wife, Leia, leaving Leia to mourn Han’s passing with … Rey? What the hell …? Nobody thought maybe Leia and Chewbacca should express a moment of mourning?
- And what’s with this magnificent Starkiller weapon? The beauty of the Death Stars is that they were just space stations – effectively, they’re the equivalent of big spaceships. The Starkiller is built into a planet and can fire through hyperspace to gather energy from a sun. It can’t fire until it’s gathered all the energy. Why? Depending which sun it targeted (its size, its age, etc.) wouldn’t each sun have a different yield? Does it really matter if you fired the weapon half-loaded? Wouldn’t that do sufficient damage? Also, if you could gather the energy from a sun, that’s a weapon in itself. Target a Republic system, shoot the sun until it goes nova, and that destroys the system. But the Starkiller then fires the energy back through hyperspace to destroy planets. And whilst the New Order were building this weapon ON A STATIONERY PLANET, nobody got wind of it, despite the Republic being aware of the New Order threat. And, for the hell of it, let’s again mention that the New Order build a fatal vulnerability into the Starkiller. This whole Starkiller debacle smacked to me of somebody who decided they had a great visual for a weapon, and they reverse-engineered it into the story, whether it was going to be work or not because, hey, the visual is so damn great!
I need to stop there because, as I said, I could just go on and on, and there’s not enough space on the internet.
If your defence of Farce is …
- It’s better than the prequels …
- A movie’s quality isn’t measured on a scale. It’s either good, or it isn’t. Being better than something else doesn’t make it good in its own right. People said this about Jurassic World: ‘It’s the best of the sequels.’ Yeah, but it’s still terrible, dumbly plotted, with shallow characters, and bereft of logic.
- They’re setting up the universe …
- A New Hope set up the universe and told a rollicking good story in the progress. Farce has six movies that’ve set up the universe. This movie didn’t need to be feeling its way. Even though the prequels hurt the franchise, the filmmakers could afford to show some daring.
- They played it safe.
- This is what a lot of people have said to me:They played it safe. By mimicking the arc from the original movies? That’s not safe. That’s hackneyed. Moreover, it seems their premise will be that Rey trains in the Force, Tantrum (who’ll return with bits of body armour) will officially get anointed a Sith Lord, they’ll fight, and Rey will redeem Tantrum. This isn’t original. The Star Wars expanded universe books (the books written to follow events after the original movies) involved a plot where Han and Leia had twins, they trained in the Force, one turned to the Dark Side, yada yada. In setting up this new trilogy, the filmmakers said they were abandoning the canon from the books. Yeah. Right. Rey and Tantrum mightn’t be twins, but they will be some sort of family (allegedly cousins, as one of the new Star Wars games had dialogue where Tantrum called Rey ‘cousin’). Now maybe they’ll shock us. Maybe Tantrum will be possessed by the Force spirit of Emperor Palpatine. Or maybe Tantrum and Rey will flip sides throughout the next movie. Or maybe we’ll learn that Luke planned much of the contrived events we witnessed (e.g. the Millennium Falcon being there on Jakku, his lightsabre waiting for Rey, etc.). But right now, the events of Farce are playing out the arc of the original movies.
- As an aside: You know what else the filmmakers could’ve done? They could’ve forgotten ‘safe’ and simply written a strong story. That would’ve hooked people. Write and film something that people want to see because the story engages them, rather than playing on the marquee to draw them in. This is why I respect Marvel. They’re arguably the only studio putting real thought behind their blockbusters and infusing them with strong plotting and valid motivation. And how well have Marvel done? It’s shocking that Hollywood isn’t following their lead.
- And furthermore: ‘Safe’ doesn’t mean good. If you check the dictionary, ‘safe’ isn’t a synonym for ‘good’.
- We needed a soft reboot after the debacle of the prequels.
- No, we didn’t. The prequels made a ton of movie. Arguably, Star Wars would be the strongest brand in (film) existence. Film a rock for two hours, brand it Star Wars, and it’ll be a blockbuster. Also, let’s not forget the chronology of the stories: the prequels come before the original movies. The original movies are much beloved. You’re following the events of the original movies. Hence, it’s unnecessary to soft reboot. You would only really need to do that if the events of Farce followed the prequels. This argument is a cop-out, a way to justify Farce‘s many issues.
- This is the best Harrison Ford’s been in decades!
- Good for Harrison Ford. It doesn’t mean the movie is good.
- What do you know? It rates 88% on Rotten Tomatoes!
In discussing various movies with people, they’ve countered my arguments by pointing at internet ratings. This, as far as I’m concerned, is the biggest admission of defeat you could make. If you can’t articulate specifically why a story is good, then there’s a great chance you’ve fallen into the slipstream of fanaticism (or fanboyaticism), which is to love things unquestioningly, and defend them through a mindless hive mind.
- You still don’t know anything. It’s making heaps of money!
- Again, how strong is this brand? In today’s movie-going, you don’t necessarily have to be good, just popular.
- It’s setting up events for the next two movies – it’ll do its own thing then.
- Yet again, how? They’ve set up a familial conflict between two people strong in the Force. Does that sound familiar? Where do you think they’ll take that? Remember: foundations. We know what these foundations build. I hope they surprise me.
- It’s just a movie. Why’re you so critical?
- Everybody has a bullshit meter, a point they switch off and can no longer accept the events in a story. People have become a lot more tolerant because of the way movies have evolved. That doesn’t mean you need to forgive things that look good but are bad.
- You’re a bastard and I hope you get eaten by a rathtar!
- It would probably try to carry me away first.
The Farce Awakens just isn’t very good. Arguably, it feels less like a Star Wars movie (and the Star Wars universe) than the prequels. But (some say) people were wounded by the prequels, their faith in there ever being a good Star Wars movie left on life support. And here comes Farce, using the original characters, seeming to hit the right beats, and instead of questioning it critically, analytically, their relief has mislead them into thinking it’s good.
It really isn’t.
Look around the net. Look on YouTube. Now that the enthusiasm and hype surrounding Farce‘s arrival is gone, people are starting to deride the film as thinly-plotted, driven by convenience, with shallow characters, and a derivative storyline.
JJ Abrams makes beautiful films. When I watched Star Trek in an advanced screening, I marvelled at how he’d reimagined The Original Series. He’d even made those silly colourful tunics they originally wore look classy. But as that movie went on, convenience drove the plot. It felt like an assemblage of scenes with no logical evolution, contrived to connect through sheer coincidence and absolute chance. The Farce Awakens is no different (if not worse). Things happen because JJ needs them to happen, rather than through any causality and/or logical evolution. And it gets offensive, it really does.
The original trilogy was the vision of one man. Sure, he had people around him who challenged him, or who later helped him articulate his vision, but it was George Lucas’s story. (I’ve always asserted this is why the prequels struggled: nobody challenged Lucas, nobody forced him to go away and rethink and hone his ideas, the way they did when he was a nobody making A New Hope.)
Farce felt like a movie made by committee, a mishmash of ideas perfumed with nostalgia and which’ll try to carry you away into thinking it’s a good movie, or its weaknesses should be forgiven because it’s well-intentioned, it’s not as offensive as the prequels, and it promises so much for the future.
I wanted to like this going in. I wanted to love it.
But my reality is it’s not a very good story, and that story isn’t very well told.
Postscript: I have to apologise for the length of this blog. It would be longer if I gave myself more time. Every time I thought I was finished, something else would pop into my head. But I think you get the idea!