CAUTION: This article will contain major story spoilers.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a two hour YouTube fan video masquerading as a feature film.
This isn’t to say that the film is a complete amateur production or is entirely incompetent. It just means that it is more focused on distracting, pleasing, and pandering to fans than it is on telling a good story.
The very first shot of The Force Awakens encapsulates the film in so many ways. Seeing the silhouette of a Star Destroyer passing over the screen, slowly shrouding the bright light of a moon in complete darkness, intentionally reminds old fans of how A New Hope began. Just as the original film used the perspective to imply not only the extensive reach of the Empire, but the oppressive size in comparison to the Rebellion, this shot establishes the First Order as a dark shadow that is slowly, patiently, smothering the light.
Though perhaps more importantly, the shot acts as a prophecy for Kylo Ren’s motivations in this film. He is seeking to embrace the Dark Side, but is struggling with what he perceives as the Light. The opening thus presents three ideas visually that will ultimately prove true.
This third part is what I take umbrage with, and it begins with Kylo Ren. This is the most fascinating character in the film to me. Unlike Luke—whose struggle was to refuse to give in to the hate and anger of the Dark Side—Kylo Ren is fighting to resist the Light and embrace the Dark. In some ways I view it as a failure that we never learn why, though I at least understand that we’ll likely find out in a future episode. What matters is we have a core character that acts as a mirror to Luke in every way. Rather than fighting to be like Anakin, Kylo Ren willingly embraces such heritage and strives to be Darth Vader. While Luke had to learn to remain calm and refute his anger, Kylo embraces it and lashes out when furious (consequently, this can also be viewed as imitating the petulant Anakin from the prequels).
We now have an opportunity for the Sith, for the Dark Side, to be a willfully chosen philosophy beyond the shallow depth of Megatron or Cobra Commander. Up until Darth Vader said “Luke, I am your father”, we only knew him as the big awesome villain. We loved how evil he was because he was a bad ass. We only hoped for his redemption for Luke’s sake, and until he tossed Palpatine into the pit of the Death Star he was pure Dark Side. Kylo is our opportunity to see why someone would embrace the Dark Side outside of selfish greed and ambition (or George Lucas’ complete inability to write even a half-decent Soap Opera).
Finn, the Storm Trooper deserter, could be a fascinating character as he thematically represents the opposite struggle as Kylo Ren without retreading Luke’s story arc. He has theoretically been trained and indoctrinated to be a loyal soldier to the First Order. Taken from his home as a child and raised with nothing but a number to provide any sense of identity, he has theoretically been programmed to view himself as part of a whole, yet rejects the Dark Side inspired First Order and theoretically seeks the Light.
I keep saying theoretically because the film often contradicts itself or undermines these characters to such an extent as to irreparably harm them. In the case of Finn, it’s in his betrayal to the First Order being way too convenient. If he truly has been indoctrinated, then how come he’s so visibly shaken in his first mission? This should have been his third or fourth, going from small community to small community, watching his friends die and forced to slay innocent people with little to show for it. We need the indoctrination to wear off.
That he responds in such a manner means the indoctrination is pretty ineffective, which begs the question of what the point is? Or, of course, why no other Storm Trooper is similarly questioning and deserting? Let’s just hand wave this away for now.
Finn has a problem with killing innocents, or perhaps even killing at all. Alright, we can work with this. He is Light Side, after all. So if he has a problem with killing, how come he so readily, and excitedly, kills his fellow Storm Troopers? Why does he hoot and holler upon blowing several of his former comrades up? Why doesn’t Po have to convince him he needs to kill or be killed? If Finn was so visibly shaken to see a fellow soldier die, why is he so readily blowing them up now?
Let’s hand wave just once more, because it turns out Finn’s real arc is that he’s a coward. He pretty much says so in Cantina 2.0, which means his character arc is to gain the bravery to fight for a good cause.
Or perhaps the reality is that Finn merely acts as the script needs him to in that moment so that he can move the plot forward. Finn’s cowardice could work, but the manner in which that opening fight is shot suggests a philosophical conflict, a struggle with his own conscience, rather than cowardice. Firing upon his own suggests the philosophical conflict does not exist. Yet his excitement over killing others suggest he is no coward, or got over that problem awfully fast.
No, Finn is just the writer’s tool. The opening scene lets us know he’s a good guy, his hooting and hollering let’s us know it’s okay to smile and laugh at the violence on screen, and his cowardice presents a conflict so the writers can pretend to give him an arc.
So the film opens up with a shot of a Star Destroyer smothering the light, a reflection of Kylo Ren’s growth. Finn is clearly not tied into Kylo Ren’s arc, be it narratively or thematically. So what purpose does Finn have? Theoretically, it is to get Rey involved in the story.
Now, there’s been some discussion about Rey being a Mary Sue. I’ve seen a few headlines regarding the matter. Now, whether it’s Mary Sue or Gary Stu, I don’t care. However, let me answer the question of “Is Rey a Mary Sue?” with questions of my own:
Well, if the answer to all of these things is “yes”, she might just be a Mary Sue.
In the original trilogy, only C-3PO could understand R2-D2. R2-D2 was necessary for hacking the Empire’s computers. Han Solo and Chewbacca were necessary for piloting the Millennium Falcon. By time Luke was becoming stronger in the Force—in other words, by time he was strong enough to make the other characters seem comparatively weaker or useless—the story was splitting him off to fight his own conflicts separate from the main group (and in the fights that he shared, the other characters were still given specialties or things to do, such as Han taking out Boba Fett). Luke never piloted the Millennium Falcon, he never gained the ability to hack machines, and while he spoke with R2-D2, we never get the sense that he actually comprehends the droid’s mechanical language.
Rey is a prodigy that is naturally good in everything she does, including using the Force—which she wasn’t even sure was real at the start of the film.
The only reason she needs Finn is so that she is persuaded to finally leave Jakku. Maybe. The funny thing is, Po, the pilot that owned the droid BB-8, could have served the same purpose. While it’s clear Po is a bit more of a Wedge Antilles role here, he could have easily found Rey with his droid and needed Rey’s help to leave Jakku. The only reason we effectively have Finn is so Po has a way to escape the Star Destroyer.
If I could describe Finn as anything, it is the new C-3PO, only instead of speaking multiple languages he can actually fight. He’s more comic relief than anything, a token love interest for Rey, a misdirection for who the new Jedi is here (well, in terms of marketing, at least), and the occasional convenient plot device. To add insult to injury, the second major colored character in Star Wars—and first that’s a core character—used to work in sanitation. Yes, Finn was a black janitor on the Star Killer, and all so J.J. Abrams could get a cheap laugh from the audience.
This means the film hinges on Rey to provide a convincing character arc, to be the true heart of the film, and to at least be as competent as a Marvel film like Iron Man and represent a thematic mirror to Kylo Ren. All that the film has to offer, however, is that Rey was abandoned as a child and insists on remaining on Jakku “just in case”. So theoretically, she and Finn could have mirroring arcs. Each of them refusing the call to adventure for fear of what it could mean. Unfortunately, the film is not framed this way, or not effectively so. I’ve already discussed the issue with Finn, but Rey actually shows too many signs of displeasure with life on Jakku. We saw she was abandoned, but we so no indication that she has any reason to expect those that abandoned her to return. Small signs such as the stitched doll of a Rebel pilot indicate her yearning for a greater life, and she excitedly hops on board the Millennium Falcon to fly it away, but she insists on returning to Jakku. Why? Because it’s convenient and part of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey.
You could argue that her journey to becoming a Jedi is her “arc”, but there’s no actual “arc” to be had. We’ve already seen her start out as a multi-talented bad ass, capable of fighting, translating droid speak, piloting, and hacking. Now the plot conveniently calls her to Luke’s lightsaber, conveniently makes her adept enough in the Force to just see into Kylo Ren’s mind, conveniently aware of what a Jedi Mind Trick is and how it works—even though, based on her conversation with Han Solo, she wasn’t even sure if the Force was real at all—and when she’s losing a fight to Kylo Ren, conveniently be reminded by Tuxedo Mask that the Force was within her all along and she can win.
In fact, let me digress a moment. I’ve seen the justification about Kylo’s wound from Chewie’s crossbow. I’ve seen the rationalization that he is still “bad ass” and a threat because he was able to take a powerful explosive to the midsection and continue to fight. There’s several problems with this, aside from being rationalization. People don’t have hit points. The only possible explanation that he could survive such a hit was because he “used the Force” to reduce the impact of it. This is also unacceptable because there would be no evidence within the film that he used the Force in such a manner. In addition, he would need to have been aware of the blow coming. If he was aware, then what’s to stop him from freezing it like the blaster bolt at the start of the film?
Which then begs the question of why, if he was so injured, didn’t he use other Force abilities to fight Rey? If he is able to freeze a blaster bolt in place and keep it suspended, then theoretically he should be able to use other tricks that Rey isn’t even aware of or prepared for, just as he had when he captured her.
Except if we follow the rules established by the film, anything Kylo can do, Rey can do better. She’s naturally adept at reading his mind and, despite having never done it before herself, she is able to draw Luke’s lightsaber to herself. So even if Kylo did use other Force powers, based on what we’ve seen thus far, what’s to stop her from simply imitating and beating his Force capabilities?
Even Neo needed to be shown how to manipulate the Matrix. Even when he is told what the Matrix is, he has to fail several times before he learns how to fight in it. He’s adept, but it simply comes off as catching on really quickly. Rey, in contrast, is a more broken version of Neo, a version where Neo only needed to know that the Matrix was a thing and he could suddenly leap over tall buildings.
This is why I refer to Rey as a Mary Sue, and not for reasons surrounding the trite gender politics debate going on. This has nothing to do with Rey being a strong female character or not. It’s about her issues as a character, period. Rey is a fan’s personal wish-fulfillment. To be so good a pilot that Han offers them a job. To be such a bad ass Jedi as to be more naturally adept at it than the Darth Vader wannabe that was trained in it. Finally, let’s examine that Luke’s lightsaber was calling to Rey. Let’s just get the head canon out of the way and speculate that—through the power of the Force—the lightsaber came to Rey as much as she called it forth. That the film ends with Rey being the one to find Luke, holding his own lightsaber out to him.
Rey is Luke’s daughter. A fact that wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the fact that she is so clearly over-powered and was even offered a job by Han. Perhaps he recognized her, knew her heritage, but if that were the case you don’t offer the person a damn job. “Oh, hey, you’re my best friend’s long lost child. Want a job?”
Rey needed flaws. Rey needed to struggle during some fights, and she needed to struggle with an aspect of herself. If she was abandoned as a child, give her trust and abandonment issues. Allow her to yell at Finn and get angry with him when he decides to flee. Let her do more than reject a lightsaber because the Campbellian Hero’s Journey dictates it so. Give her a much more interesting relationship with Kylo Ren.
And if Han Solo is this film’s Obi-Wan, then God dammit, allow her to actually learn something from him. If anything, Han learns something from her about his own damn ship.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hints of substance that could be built into a greater film. There are a lot of excellent shots, some great examples of cinematography here. There’s room for interesting characters with interesting arcs without retreading the journeys of the predecessors. Unfortunately, the film insists on hitting too many of the same story beats. We didn’t need a new, hilariously stupid version of the Death Star. We didn’t need to see a planet and its moons blow up to convince us it’s bad. We didn’t need to see it destroyed. These are only there because they were in A New Hope, and it leads me to expect Luke saying “I am your father” to someone in Episode VIII.
More than that, it is complete fan wish-fulfillment. It’s an over-budget fan-fiction on par with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children in regards to pandering. While Rian Johnson, director of the much better films Brick and Looper, is heading the next episode, it may not be good enough to bring me back. The scripts are already written, and I have no interest in seeing Star Wars: Reloaded.