Defending The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens logoSo, it turns out plenty of people have some problems with The Force Awakens, including some friends of mine.1

A lot of the complaints about the movie seem to boil down to “It was just a retread of the first one!” So rather than argue the point with each person who bothers me about it, I figured I would rebut the most common points here and now. Then I can just point to this post when someone brings it up and sleep the sleep of the just.

Starkiller Base = Death Star

The biggest complaint tends to revolve around the similarity between TFA‘s Starkiller Base and the original movie’s Death Star. And, yes, I will cop to a moment of “This? Again?” when I first bespied Starkiller Base in all its IMAX glory.

But…

I concede that the elements are the same — big ol’ space station with planet-destroying gun has to be blown up via derring-do piloting acrobatics, etc. — but…so what?

How many action movies hinge on stopping a nuke of some sort? Are they all retreads of each other?

Look, in the Star Wars universe, clearly “Build a planet-sized weapon to blow up other planets” is a thing. It’s their version of a nuclear build-up. One time, you could say it’s a fluke, but this is the third time we’ve seen this kind of weapon. Obviously, it’s What They Do. Just like we stockpile enough nukes to eradicate life on Earth ten times over.

So, the mere existence of Starkiller Base does not make TFA a retread.

Furthermore, Starkiller Base is not the plot-driver of the movie. In the original Star Wars, the Death Star is the prime motivator for everything that happens in the movie, from start to finish. Right from the very beginning, the Tantive IV is captured by Vader’s Star Destroyer because Leia is onboard with the plans. She uploads the plans to Artoo and we’re off to the races.

Every single thing that happens in Star Wars proceeds from the existence of the Death Star, from the opening moments to the medal ceremony at the end.

Not so in TFA. Starkiller Base isn’t named or given a purpose until something like halfway through the movie. The prime motivator of the movie is the search for Luke Skywalker — blowing up Starkiller Base is just something that has to be done along the way, just as deactivating the tractor beam in Star Wars was necessary in order to keep going.

Is Starkiller Base a callback? A wink to the fans? Sure. But it’s not evidence that there’s no originality in the movie, and it’s not proof that it’s just a retread.

BB-8 Has the Plans!

This one’s just silly, but I’ll bite: Apparently, the fact that BB-8 is given part of the secret Jedi map is too similar for some people to Artoo being given the Death Star plans by Leia.

Really?

Guys… Droids are nothing more than mobile, artificially intelligent PCs. You put data on them. It’s what you do. Complaining about this is like watching a spy thriller and saying, “Hey, I saw another spy movie once where a guy put files on a flash drive! This is just a rip-off!”

Please.

Maz’s Bar is Just Like the Cantina

And I bet every time you watch a movie where someone goes to a bar, you think it’s ripping off…well, any other movie where someone goes into a bar.

Seriously, this is just ridiculous. People go to bars. To scummy criminal dive bars, too. Especially when they’re poor and desperate (as in Star Wars) or looking for information from criminals (as in Attack of the Clones). If we’ve decided that “going to a bar” is somehow sacred territory and impermissible for future Star Wars filmmakers…then, well, I don’t even know what we’re talking about.

“But it had goofy aliens just like the cantina!

Yeah. And just like the night club in Attack of the Clones. And just like the entertainment room in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. And just like most of the other public venues in the Star Wars universe because it’s a universe populated by aliens.

Sheesh.

Han Dies, Just like Obi-Wan Did!

So what?

No, seriously — so what?

Because Ben Kenobi valiantly allowed himself to be struck down as an object lesson to Luke Skywalker,2 no one in a Star Wars movie can ever die in a similar fashion? I’m not even sure it is a similar fashion. Ben knew Luke was watching. Ben knew he would be able to continue communicating with Luke after death because he knows the Force-ghost trick. So Ben stood there and let Vader cut him down.

But Han didn’t know Rey or Finn were watching. He wasn’t in a fight against a former pupil and decided, “Hey, if I die, I can become more powerful!” Han doesn’t know jack about Force-ghosting. He was a father, in pain, trying to connect with his son, in pain. On some level, the old smuggler probably knew how this would turn out…but the father won out, and he tried to reach out to someone not interested in a helping hand.

Plus, when Obi-Wan died, we’d known him for an hour. He was a crazy old man who maybe wasn’t so crazy and then he died. We’ve known Han for three movies and many decades. Big difference in the impact.

Rey is Just like Luke. How Boring!

Well, I guess if you define “just like Luke” as “strong in the Force, lives on a desert planet, and looks good in neutral tones,” then, yeah, sure.

Luke: Lives with Aunt and Uncle who care for him. They’re overprotective, but there’s a good reason for that. “He has too much of his father in him.” — Yikes! Has a group of friends. Has plenty to eat. Isn’t desperate. Wants to leave home badly.

Rey: Lives alone in the burnt-out husk of a downed starship. Has no one to protect her or look after her. No friends. Relies on the “kindness” of local business-scum for her daily bread. Has to risk her life scavenging in order to survive. Doesn’t even have the luxury of dreaming of leaving home because she has to wait for her parents (who she knows, deep down, will never come.)

When Obi-Wan whisks Luke away on a magical journey to Alderaan and points beyond, Luke can just go. Rey, when offered a similar choice by Han, wants to go, but can’t. Her familial obligation pulls too hard.

I think their similarities are very superficial. Two very, very different characters. Luke had a level of safety and privilege (both unrecognized by him, as he was every inch the callow youth) that Rey would die for.

Kylo Ren is Too Much Like Darth Vader

Are you kidding me? Other than a penchant for black cloaks and masks, these two dudes are nowhere near alike. Vader was a supremely confident master of the Force with decades of experience. Kylo Ren is a terrified kid trying to project bad-assery as a way of masking his own fears of inadequacy. They are nothing alike, which makes Ren’s Vader-aspirations all the more fascinating.

So, yeah. I don’t think any of these hold water as proof of a retread or lack of creativity on the part of the makers of The Force Awakens.

Two more very common complaints:

Rey Learned the Force Too Quickly

I’m on the edge of conceding this one, but I’m not sure I care. I don’t know what “too quickly” means when it comes to the Force. Truthfully, if we go by the other movies, it seems as though the biggest, hardest, most crucial step in “learning the Force” is just believing in it in the first place.

Consider that in Star Wars, Luke has maybe twenty minutes of Force-related chatter with Ben Kenobi…and then is blocking blaster bolts while blindfolded on the Millennium Falcon…with a lightsaber, a weapon he’d never even seen before, much less held.

Then, with no further training and nothing more than the ghost of Ben Kenobi in his ears, Luke makes a “one in a million” shot and blows up the Death Star.

The next time we see Luke, in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s been a few years, but he’s had no formal training at all. And yet he still manages to telekinetically summon his lightsaber while in the Wampa’s den. Who taught him that trick? How did he even know it was possible?

So, yeah, Rey learns quickly. Maybe too quickly. But it doesn’t seem out of bounds compared to what we’ve seen Luke do. The more I think about it, the more it seems that Jedi training is less about “here’s how you use the Force” and more about teaching the Jedi-approved way to use the Force.3

There are just too many camera angles and shots stolen from the first movie

Of course, “too many” is in the eye of the beholder, but still: That’s not ripping off or retreading — it’s homage. And if you think the fact that Abrams decided to frame some of his shots just like Lucas’s somehow obviates his own creativity, let me point out that — cinematographically — he moves the damn camera more in the first ten minutes of the movie than Lucas did in the whole of Star Wars. He’s got chops.



  1. The fact that we are still friends despite disagreeing about something so monumental speaks to our maturity…or maybe to our mutual fear of having to go out and find new friends.
  2. So that’s where Zack Snyder got the idea!
  3. Hmm — here’s some Expanded Universe fodder: What if the Jedi training is actually designed to slow down your acquisition of Force abilities under the guise of teaching them so that no one ever becomes too powerful?

Comments

  1. On the subject of Rey’s learning–I think it actually makes sense. We see her as a mechanic and pilot first. She’s capable of taking complex things apart and putting them back together and seeing how everything works, yes? Yes.

    Every time she does a new force trick it is only after seeing someone else–often–Kylo Ren do it first. He reaches into her mind to try and learn things, she is able to mind-trick a stormtrooper, and so on. She sees it done and figures out how to recreate it–I thought it fit in with her established skill set.

  2. Han’s death was not the same as Obiwan Kenobi’s. When Han’s son chose to run him through with the lightsaber, one of my favorite moments of the movie was Han’s purposeful last moment with his son: gently stroking his cheek. Despite Kylo Ren’s insistance that his father never loved him, Han’s tender gesture in the moment he is dying, is the last unspoken thing he says, permanently underscoring his love for his son. That moment slayed me.

    Compare Padme, Leia, and Rey. They look VERY similar, and there is definite chatter that Rey could be Luke’s daughter. Another clue about how/why her force powers were so easily acquired. it’s genetic people. At least for those who care to argue this point. Plus, she’s put her scavanging and isolation to use by learning all about ships, flying, repairs, especially the Millenium Falcon. So badass when she flips the MF and blows up the Tie Fighter in hot pursuit through the crashed Star Destroyer.

    Thanks for posting this, Barry. We’re still friends.

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