If you're a human living on Earth, you are going to fight the madding crowd this weekend to see the new Star War that Disney is releasing. Early notices for the film are overwhelmingly positive, which should no doubt be encouraging for fans of the franchise or the work of director Rian Johnson. As a fan more of the latter than the former, I am feeling good about attending. So to do his work justice, I decided to brush up on the other Star War of this modern dispensation, The Force Awakens. And I had some thoughts I wanted to share.
Basically, it's really not that good.
To qualify that: there are good (or at least cool) parts throughout The Force Awakens. First to mind is the overall design of the film. It does an incredible job of marrying practical on-set creatures and effects with digital creations and manipulations. (But let's please agree that the one horrifying exception to this standard is the Jakku junk dealer.) The universe feels very real, something the first trilogy always succeeded at. Taken in isolation, there are also a lot of cool parts. The opening sequence with Poe on Jakku is arresting and well-paced. There are some cool "wow" moments in various dogfight situations. The film really has a lot going for it on a design and technical level, which should be expected if you spend infinity dollars making a film.
Unfortunately, very few of those infinity dollars went toward creating a story that worked on its own or was made of mature components. Two examples particularly stuck out to me on this viewing: 1) there is an incredible amount of narrative string-pulling, and 2) there is a baffling amount of expositional dialog. Let's look at these a little closer.
Narrative string-pulling is what I'm calling the phenomenon, rife throughout this entire film, of a force outside the film (i.e., the storytellers) propelling action forward in an arbitrary or at least unearned way.
Expositional dialog takes many forms, but is always used to inform the audience of important material. It isn't inherently bad, but it is often awkward or at least obvious, and detracts from any realism that may have been desired. Basically it is a lazy way for a storyteller to directly communicate with the audience. For my tastes, I think good films jettison expositional dialog almost entirely, instead using other, subtler devices to portray the film's world to the viewer.
The expositional dialog in The Force Awakens takes one of its worst forms: two characters talking about things they both know as if they don't. And it takes it often. A prime example is basically everything Han and Leia say to each other. You know our son, the bad guy who split us up? As you remember, it caused us to split up. It's too bad we had to deal with that in our own way by falling back on what we were best at. But it's good we still kinda like each other too. And so on.
But there are other forms for the fan of expositional dialog to feast on. There is plenty of "This is what I'm thinking" and "Remember, our plan is to do these things" and "Those are bad guys" and "Those are good guys" peppered around. Taken together, there are very few conversations which don't amount to explicitly clueing in the audience to new material or reminding them of or referencing old material, instead of revealing layers of character. Watched muted, the experience would be largely the same.
I bring all this up because I think that fans of franchises, especially franchises that have the resources to achieve anything they want, deserve films with complexity and depth. And The Force Awakens is a fundamentally depthless movie. Fun, yes, particularly on first viewing, but depthless. I brought up some specific storytelling issues here, but there is also the thing taken as a whole: Nothing new is really explored in terms of the Force or characters' relationships or even the geo-political situation of this fantasy universe. There are suggestions, yes, but so much has to happen that we get only a handful of non-expositional moments between anybody, which means we end up not really knowing (or caring) much about anybody. The characters themselves are hollow: either caricatures of themselves if they are old ones, or thinly painted in broad strokes if new. Indeed, the film has many of the symptoms of overstuffed contemporary blockbuster filmmaking, above all placing supposed spectacle over characters and conflicts that mean anything outside of the brand.
Again, I think that fans of franchises should hold what they love to a higher standard. Massive franchise movies can be fun and also really good--that's the whole reason you got into Star Wars in the first place. As a fan of Rian Johnson's other work, I really hope The Last Jedi has more going for it than a great-looking exterior, and I know he can deliver. I guess we'll see this weekend.
by Chase Harrison