There are plenty of places that have given Episode VII high praise. When I left the theater, though, all I could think about was how much better the film could have been, considering the myriad of issues I had with it.
A couple of days ago I was finally able to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney denies rumours that it also has Episode VII in the title). It was a pretty good time and I had a lot of fun watching the movie, especially the opening section where Poe and Finn escape to Jakku. It’s an energetic film that has strong momentum, great humour and immersive action scenes that capture the spirit of the Star Wars we remember most fondly, and places like IGN, Kinda Funny and Tested found very few bones to pick, if at all.
I’m a bit different, though; for me there were many problems that I had, most of which I had right after the movie ended and I was on the way home, and about some pretty basic storytelling issues. That should never be when you want your audience to see the problems; if at all, it should be like a week later whilst getting the chicken out of the icebox (also known as Fridge Logic). It took a week for most people to realize Episode I was hot trash, and while I’m not saying that VII is as horrid as I (it’s better than VI), I didn’t take it as a good sign.
Considering the scarcity of criticism I’ve seen for the movie, I decided to write this up as a counterpoint. For me the problems boil down into five general categories: Pacing, Vagueness, Tie-Ins, Wastes and plain ol’ Nonsensicals. A lot of these comparisons will be towards the original trilogy, in particular A New Hope since Episode VII is so heavily based on it. Let’s get into it so y’all can get mad at me!
***Obviously, there are huge, major spoilers for The Force Awakens here***
The earliest problem I had was with the film was its pacing, specifically on Jakku in the first act. We spend a fair amount of time getting to know Finn and who he is, but I felt that Rey’s portions were hurried along too quickly through the desert. I never felt like I was able to settle in and really get to know her because we’re very quickly jumping from scene to scene where she does a thing and then moves on because we have to get the story going.
To compare, in Episode VI we spent a good amount of time with Luke and seeing what his life on the farm was like, knowing what his ambitions are, and his personal frustrations with his predicament. With Rey I felt like I hardly got to know her, and to be honest I still don’t feel like I know much about her, the main character. She’s strong and able to take care of herself, obviously, but who does she want to be? Who is she, internally?
The Force Awakens had the unenviable task of being both a sequel to a well-explored universe and also the introduction into a new era of said universe after an absence of 40 years. As such I felt that it had to introduce the new status quo but also explain how things have changed since Return of the Jedi. Unfortunately Episode VII didn’t appear to have any intention of doing so.
As such most of the information we get are vague references and one-line explanations that only hint at what occurred. We only get a vague idea of what happened between Han and Leia, for example, but nothing concrete. What did they split up over? Lifestyle direction? A bad smuggling deal? A heated toilet seat argument? Your guess is as good as mine!
We also have no information as to what the political and military situation is. The Empire is defeated at the end of Episode VI and the Rebellion is victorious, but we are given absolutely no explanation about where The First Order came from aside from the fact that they came “from the ashes” of the Empire. Are they only tangentially related, or is it just the Empire re-branded? How exactly were the Rebellion able to come out on top after their victory at Endor and yet allow the First Order to exert just as much control over the galaxy as The Empire?
In fact, how much control over the galaxy does The First Order even have? Are they in hiding? Do they have control over only a few systems? How is the Republic itself involved in all of this? If The First Order is new, how’d they get the resources for Starkiller Base without a galactic economy to mooch off of like the Empire did?
The backstory of Kylo Ren is also inadequately explained in the same way as Han and Leia’s falling out. We’re kinda-sorta told about what happened with Luke’s Jedi school, that Kylo was seduced by CGI Palpatine Replacement, but it never felt very adequate to me for a character with such a strong connection to the established characters. This ruins the impact of a big scene in the movie in which Kylo kills Han because we have a very thinly-established emotional connection between the two, so it felt less like the son murdering the father and more like the bad man killing off the old smuggler.
There’s more, too! Where did Poe Dameron’s associate get the map to Luke Skywalker in the first place? Was it entrusted to him? Did he find it under the mat? Did he ask Siri where he was and encode her answer to a holodisc? What actually happened with Rey that got her onto the planet? Abandoned? Bad poker bet? Wrong taxi?
Which leads me to what I suspect is the cause here, which is Tie-Ins. A lot of the questions above feel like they were either going to be explained in either the sequel or a comic/novel that came out before the movie (such as this one). This is a problem that hampered the storytelling of the prequels back in the day, which is why I’m rather surprised that nobody is calling out Episode VII for doing exactly the same thing.
When you go to watch A New Hope, it is generally is able to stand on its own as an individual story. There are nods to past events, but they aren’t important to the immediate story as the story is trying to establish what this world is like. I don’t have to read an entire library’s worth of material to get the most out of the film. I felt like there were big holes in the world-building that weren’t addressed by Episode VII, the re-introduction to a new age of Star Wars.
The tie-in that got to me the most is the treatment of the Luke storyline. The opening crawl talks only about the search for him, and the entirety of the first half of the movie is dedicated to finding out where he is. But then the plot chucks the search for Luke out the window for a rehash of the end of Return of the Jedi. All of a sudden nobody seems to give a mynok’s right buttock where Luke is and it isn’t visited again until literally the end of the movie. Which gets us to the part that really ground my gears.
Near the end of the picture we’re shown R2-D2 (found by BB-8 for no reason other than nostalgia) in a powered-down state, and C-3PO says that he hasn’t activated for any reason since Luke disappeared. Then, after Starkiller Base is destroyed, R2-D2 re-activates for no given reason and has the map that goes right to Luke, which leads to the literal end of the movie where Rey finds him, and then... movie ends. R2-D2 basically gives you a holographic tease for Episode VIII. It felt incredibly insulting as a movie-watcher to see that you’re basically roped into seeing the next movie just to see something you were expecting from the one you just watched.
A notable aspect that folks are fortunately noticing is the wasted characters. For me the two prime examples happen to be the secondary female characters, Leia and Captain Phasma, both of whom have assumed leadership but exert very little of it. Leia is in no way the commanding figure that she was in IV and V, and spends most of her time looking over holoscreens and hugging Han. Phasma has some authority early on in the movie against Finn, but the next time we encounter her she is captured, off-screen, and is treated like a common mook. It felt particularly baffling for Phasma given that she was shown off in multiple trailers; you may as well have shown the food trader guy for all the involvement she had.
I also was extremely disappointed that Luke only showed up at the very, very end of the movie. It would have made more sense to me if there was an extra urgency to find Luke to help with the Starkiller Base assault so that he could have a participatory role for the third act of the movie (sure would have been a good motivation for R2 to come back online). Instead, he’s relegated to a hermit that acts as the reason for you to go see Episode VIII.
The plot I also felt was a bit of a waste for being extremely similar to A New Hope, when I would have liked a film that struck its own direction whilst keeping the same spirit. As it stands, Episode VII opens with important information being stored into a droid, who then wanders a desert and bumps into the young hero character that has no hope, and they leave on the Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile the villains (an evil Force-user and an military leader who is technically above him) show their power by firing their planet-destroying laser from their gargantuan, spherical base. The droid and the hero make their way to the Rebel base on a forest planet with stone ruins, and a last-ditch attempt is made to destroy the spherical base before it destroys them. The heroes win by way of a talented X-Wing pilot. So apparently Lucasfilm has a photocopier.
The last category of my ranting charade is a collection of miscellaneous, nonsensical elements of the movie that, in smaller quantaties, wouldn’t be so bad, but were annoying in their frequency. How is Rey able to use the Force so quickly without any actual explanation on what the Force is and how to use it? How does she know how to do the force-pull stuff and mind-tricks when she has no idea how to use them?
If Rey doesn’t care about BB-8, why does she rescue it from the scrap guy near her home? Why does she decide not to sell BB-8 to the food trader guy when she has been given absolutely no reason to care about him (she doesn’t know about his importance at all at that point in the story)? With Luke in A New Hope he had the motivation that R2 was helping out on the farm and Uncle Owen was going to be rather angry, but Rey has nothing.
And then there’s Snoke. Aside from the name, I really didn’t like that he was basically a huge CGI thing that acted as a poor, certainly not intimidating copy of Emperor Palpatine that had no reason to be done in CG, at least for all he did in this movie. He sat on a chair, tried to be scary, and did absolutely nothing for the entire picture, even as the sith hit the fan and they could really have done with his help. And why is he giant? If he isn’t giant, why is his hologram? Why are we basically rehashing the exact same villain setup as the last six movies? He is easily the worst part of the story, and again is another freaking tease for the next film so that we might actually see him something.
So yeah, that concludes my rant. I wanted to get that out there and talk about it because most places I’ve seen think it is an excellent movie. Obviously I disagree on that; it isn’t a terrible movie, certainly better than the prequels and Return of the Jedi, but for me it’s far below Empire and A New Hope. An enjoyable but frustrating and sometimes rather dumb movie, even for Star Wars.