Roundtable: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Part 1

Part 1: Our Thoughts on the Awakening

First Impressions

Anton: Well, the Three Brothers, and a good portion of the global population, have all seen The Force Awakens now. I’ve actually seen it three times. How many times have you guys each seen it?

Anders: I’ve seen it twice.

Aren: Four times. I’m sure I’ll sneak in a few more screenings, too, in the midst of January catch-up. It’s just too much fun. Too much of an event, which is rare for movies nowadays.

Anton: I’m struck by how omnipresent discussion of the film was over the holidays. Usually these days, when I’m casually chatting with people about pop culture, they want to talk about the TV shows they’re watching rather than the movies they’ve seen. It seems like a long time since regular people (read: not film buffs) were starting conversations about a movie with me. Most people I talked to over the holidays had either seen it, or were planning. So, yes, it’s definitely an event.

Now, as cinephiles and very big Star Wars fans—Aren and I busted out the old Star Wars Customizable Card Game over the Christmas break—let’s talk about our first impressions.

I had a blast at the preview screening I saw on the Thursday night, the 17th. It was a lot of fun! I enjoyed seeing the familiar faces and I was surprised by how much I liked the new characters. But I also felt some bewilderment—the same mental dissonance I’ve actually experienced after seeing each new Star Wars film. With each of the prequels as well as with Episode VII, I’ve been so familiar with the existing films that seeing a new one is both pleasurable and a mental effort to reconcile the newness with the intense familiarity. Overall, I really liked The Force Awakens the first time, but I ended up liking it a bit more after the second viewing.

Coming home after the first showing, I felt very similar to after seeing The Fellowship of the Ring. I was a huge Tolkien fan going into that film, and I enjoyed that movie the first time, but I also couldn’t help thinking about how it could have been done differently. You know, how I had envisioned it.

Aren: I think the comparison to that first viewing of The Lord of the Rings is apt, because even though The Force Awakens is recognizably a Star Wars film, it’s not a George Lucas Star Wars film. Peter Jackson’s films have aged remarkably well, but I remember right after seeing them for the first time, I was more struck by how the films differed from the images of The Lord of the Rings in my head. Once I came to peace with the fact that that trilogy isn’t J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but instead Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, I could set aside any quibbles and embrace them as I have any other great movies.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a J.J. Abrams Star Wars movie—or a Disney Star Wars movie—not a George Lucas Star Wars movie. It needs some time to age. I need some time to adjust to the idea that this franchise is never going to be quite the same as it was during the first six movies. Or that it will never look like the long-imagined sequel trilogy that Lucas planned right after making Return of the Jedi.

But after even just four viewings—

Anton:Just four? Poor you.

Aren: —I’m confident that a lot of things went right with The Force Awakens. This movie is excellent, and it captures much of the spirit of the original series, even if it doesn’t expand the storyworld in quite the way I’d like.

Anton: I just want to go on the record and say that Aren and I had discussed the idea of a seventh Star Wars movie years before the sale to Disney, and back then we also thought about the idea of an old Luke who has retreated from the world. But I imagined a Tennyson’s “Ulysses”-style Luke, eager to return to adventure. So I definitely had this idea of how I would do things.

Anders: As Aren says, this isn’t a George Lucas film. In fact, one of the first things I said after the screening to the friend I saw it with on opening night was that this was pretty much exactly what I expected a Star Wars film not directed by George Lucas to be like, for good and ill. I’ll get more into what exactly I mean by that and how The Force Awakens benefits and suffers for it later on, but I will say now that I also experienced that feeling you each describe of deep cognitive dissonance between what I would have wanted to see in a new Star Wars film and what J.J. and Disney did with it. Though perhaps the more pressing issue for me isn’t whether they did what I wanted—wishing which is, as Aren notes, a fool’s errand of criticism we don’t want to be drawn into—but whether I wanted anyone to continue this series at all. Whether you like the film or not, the fundamental notion of what constitutes the Star Wars saga, or now series really, has been fundamentally changed by the existence of The Force Awakens.

So, basically, change is hard, even if it’s a net good. On a second watch this film felt much more like a Star Wars film, as I relaxed into its different rhythms and a deeper realization of how much this film does well.

Generational Conflict? J.J. versus Lucas

Anton: While J.J. Abrams shows a command of his visuals, there are definite differences between his style of direction, and even production, than Lucas.

Aren: Abrams is a child of digital filmmaking, which makes it somewhat ironic that he chose to shoot The Force Awakens in 35mm film. I commend the decision as it lends a visual continuity with the original trilogy—a continuity Disney was hugely banking on with these new films. However, Abrams’ style, with his excessive camera motion and close-ups, are the outcropping of the over-coverage inherent to digital filmmaking. The Force Awakens clarified for me that aside from his adherence to the “Mystery Box,” Abrams’ defining trait as a filmmaker is his momentum—both visually and narratively. He races forward at every moment. The camera is often moving perpendicular to the action, as when Finn (John Boyega) is holding Poe (Oscar Isaac) prisoner and moving him through the halls of the Finalizer. Most of our character moments are provided in the middle of action scenes. Only on the Millennium Falcon do things actually slow down to allow characters the chance to breathe and deliver some much-needed exposition (not enough for many viewers, it seems).

Anders: Yes, this was something I was worried about from the get go when they announced these films, that they would only show continuity in sets and plot and forgo the kind of formal considerations that make the original trilogy what it it is. Glad that I saw at least one wipe used as a transition in the film. In the final consideration, The Force Awakens shows a greater stylistic continuity with the series as a whole than I was worried it would, so that’s good.

But you’re right about its obvious differences. If you showed me a sequence from Awakens alongside a sequence from the previous six (assuming each film were somehow the same in shot content and story), there’s no way I wouldn’t be able to tell which one was J.J.’s.

Aren: Still, I think Abrams is a good chameleon. Just like he aped Steven Spielberg’s classicism in Super 8, he’s done an even better job here of approximating the broad strokes of Lucas’s style. The Force Awakens looks like a Star Wars movie. Thank God it didn’t end up being shot like the Marvel movies, a combination of indistinct CGI and whirling camera movements, with TV-level visual distinction.

Anton: I am missing the wide and medium wide shots that Lucas loves, though, as well as Lucas’s command of clean and elegant cross-cutting (I think Lucas’s former wife, Marcia, brought a lot to the editing of the original films too). On subsequent viewings of Awakens, I did notice how many establishing shots Abrams adds in, which I like. And Abrams’ film is also incredibly easy to follow.

A lot of people rag on Lucas for not moving his camera, but his approach was actually rooted in cinema history. He was imitating the look of Kurosawa’s samurai movies, which in turn took a lot from American Westerns.

Abram’s momentum certainly adds a lot of energy to the proceedings, and I think connects better to what filmgoers today expect in a film, but it is significant to notice the visual contrast between this film and the original trilogy, despite the film’s efforts to look “retro.”

Anders: Exactly, everyone loves the film and is going on and on about how much it reminds them of the original, but there’s no mistaking that this is a contemporary film and actually significantly visually different from the original in a number of ways.

I will grant the film this, though: there are a couple of moments of genuine beauty and awe. One of my favourites is the shot of Kylo Ren standing on the bridge of the Star Destroyer as the blast from the Starkiller goes by. It’s a striking moment, used to great effect in the film’s main trailer, and is one of the moments in the film that seems to show a visual poetry that J.J. doesn’t reach for very often.

Anton: Yup, I think that’s a standout visual moment in the film, and one that’s uniquely Abrams, perhaps his most beautiful use of light to date.

I also adore the super wide shot of Rey’s speeder (again, highlighted in the trailer) as a tiny speck racing in front of the giant ruins of a Star Destroyer, a crashed X-wing lodged in the sand in the left foreground. It’s a fascinating image—the new heroine literally crossing the ruins of the old trilogy. Or the shot of the desert at sunset with figures silhouetted alongside moisture vaporators. The image recalls Tatooine, of course, but it’s not. It’s Jakku. Images like these remind me of the Star Wars imaginings of my youth, often while looking at the concept art of Ralph McQuarrie or others.

The trailers were very good at selecting the most potent images, particularly ones that place familiar elements in new contexts. I’m thinking of the X-wings racing across the lake. And that, for me, is Abrams’ greatest strength in this film. He is very capable at realizing the potential, whether visually or narratively or for comedic effect, of elements from the original trilogy.

He’s not a visionary, like Lucas, someone whose imagination is able to create things we’ve never seen before. Awakens lacks the abundance of new imagination on display in the prequels. But Abrams is a master of playing with those imaginings, at realizing the potential of the fruits of Lucas’s imagination. We see J.J.’s love of tentacled creatures, his fondness for the tactile retro aesthetic of the original trilogy, and his knack for kinetic action, but most of this is a matter of what he emphasizes, not creates from scratch. He didn’t make Star Wars entirely his own, which I appreciate. But he plays with it his own way.  

In terms of storytelling, I think Abrams doesn’t have the same command of myth as Lucas, and the screenplay offers little nuance about the Force or politics comparable to the prequels. The Force Awakens generally replicates—but doesn’t surpass—the bold archetypes and narrative lines of the first movie.

There’s not much wonderfully new in this film. The primary pleasure of The Force Awakens comes from seeing something we love again, and in a slightly different light.

Aren: Abrams isn’t expanding the world beyond what we’re already familiar with. Instead, he’s refocusing that world on things he (and presumably many audience members) loved about the world as it already exists. It’s not new. It’s old done well. Or, put another way, at its best moments, The Force Awakens can be as good as the classic Star Wars films but not better. It’s limited by their definitions and contours, instead of being able to boldly and originally expand beyond them. A New Hope is an original work of imagination. The Force Awakens is not. Perhaps we’ll get more fresh vision in Episode VIII, but we’ll have to wait until May 2017 to see.

Anders: One of the main complaints that I and others have voiced is that the film not only refocuses on the things that people love, but actually narrows the range of things on display. J.J. isn’t a world builder. So, even working within the established world, we are given only X-wings, no other ships like Y-wings, B-wings, or A-wings in the Resistance for instance. Each additional film that Lucas made pushed the Star Wars universe outwards, but I feel like in many ways The Force Awakens pulls it back in, like a cozy blanket of classic ideas that it wraps itself in.

I have some hope from what I’ve read that Rian Johnson is going to push the world of Star Wars into new directions. J.J.’s job was to rekindle general cultural interest in Star Wars and for most people that means A New Hope, so he stuck to that template. And he can consider his task accomplished.

Related to this notion is the fact that the driving emotion of The Force Awakens is nostalgia, both in the film and in the audience. Characters repeat the events of the original films in the same mythic breath that fans do. It’s about return, repetition. The driving emotion of the original film was wonder, a call to adventure, to a new cinematic world that no one had ever seen before even if it did recall many classic films. Which sums up the jokey criticism that many have made of this film: in making Star Wars Lucas drew on world mythology, science fiction serials, Kurosawa, David Lean, and more; in making The Force Awakens J.J. Abrams drew on Lucas.

The Light Side: What Really Worked

Aren: The new characters are fabulous. As he did in his Star Trek reboot and Super 8, Abrams has fashioned characters that feel familiar, that provide us with characteristics and traits that we want in adventures, but that also strike out in bold new directions. If much of The Force Awakens is a remix of A New Hope, revisiting its plot and images, the characters are where he does something subtly new.

Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren are not just a new Luke, Han, Leia, and Darth Vader. They break some new territory and exist beyond the shadows of the characters that inspired them.

For instance, I think there’s something quietly radical about having Finn be a former Stormtrooper. It’s as if Abrams and company have always pondered what the Stormtroopers in the previous films are thinking during the many battle scenes, wondering whether they have a conscience and what would happen if one of them decided to take off the helmet and disappear from a life of servitude. Having such a grunt be one of the central heroes in a mythic adventure isn’t conventional. Perhaps the way that Finn is a creation of a viewer pondering the world of the old films lends the character a whiff of fan fiction, but The Force Awakens inevitably is dealing with this notion as a whole. I mean, it is a Star Wars film made by a lifelong fan. It kind of is a fan film, but we’re now living in a creative climate where the fan can inherit the creator and play in the very sandbox the creator built.

Anton: I definitely think that the main characters are the most original addition to the series, even if they do, in broad strokes, resemble previous characters. They feel vibrant and real and have wonderful chemistry with each other.

There is a fan fiction element to the film though. One critic noted how many of the impressive visuals evoke that sort of fan calendar art, such as the tie fighters silhouetted against the sunset.

Anders: I agree. The best thing about this film is the new characters. Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren are massive successes in terms of characterization, casting, performance, and visualization. They are the main reason that despite any reservations I’m very excited to see the next film.

Aren: I also love Rey. Like, boy, do I love Rey. She’s a great new character, one of those mythic heroes that every viewer can both root for and see themselves in, played with spectacular verve by Daisy Ridley.

Anton: Yes, Daisy Ridley’s Rey is certainly a welcome addition to the series. She’s the kind of capable female character we need more of. She not just a “strong female” in that clichéd sense. She’s allowed vulnerabilities too, like real human beings, but those vulnerabilities don’t mean that she is weak because she is a woman. And I like that, in spite of the clear intentions to make a young heroine with agency, the characterization and storytelling doesn’t feel forced, like it’s conforming to a theoretical ideal. Rey feels natural.

Anders: I really, really liked Kylo Ren and Adam Driver’s performance as well. Based on the trailers and my initial reaction to the casting of Driver in the role, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But he’s pretty great. Some have complained that he’s not menacing enough, that he’s not Darth Vader. But that’s the whole point, and the film notes this. He’s not the big bad guy. In fact, he’s not really a villain but a dark protagonist, something that the reveal of his true identity as Ben Solo makes clear.

In fact, I also liked how they treated the reveal of Kylo Ren as Ben. It’s not some huge mystery or secret in the world. Everyone knows that he is Han and Leia’s boy. I’m hoping, counting even, on part of the series focusing on the possibility of his redemption. I also think that Driver does a great job in the role. His temper tantrums mark a great contrast to Vader’s cool choking of subordinates. Driver even consciously apes aspects of Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin in bringing Kylo Ren to life. He’s a great mash up of Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker. He also sells the most important scene in the film, his large watery eyes convincing you that he’s conflicted even as he tries to destroy the light inside himself.

And the Dark: What Didn’t Work

Anton: I’m not big on the “Supreme Leader.” And Snoke is a plain bad name. It’s awkward to pronounce and devoid of any rich connotations for a villainous leader, unless they’re trying to hint that he’s “sneaky” or that he’s more pathetic than he appears.

Aren: I don’t like how Supreme Leader Snoke looks. For all the talk of The Force Awakens being a tactile film, with practical special effects replacing the “misguided” CGI of the prequels, Snoke is obviously and distractingly CGI. Even compared to Maz Kanata, he looks a bit off.

Anders: If I was being generous I’d say he’s supposed to be a hologram, so he looks more fake. But Snoke is just such an uninspired design, even setting the question of special effects aside.

Anton: He’s a hologram, but they go out of their way to show how the hologram of Snoke morphs from old-school hologram blue to a more realistic image. Why not just have a blue hologram only, the way Lucas did with Sidious? If this film is supposed to be so retro, why not let the main hologram in the film look like one in the old movies? This sort of pick-and-choose what will look retro is one of my main annoyances with the film.

Along these lines, can people stop talking about how much they love the “practical effects” in the film? For a lot of people, I just don’t even believe it. They don’t even know what that means. It’s just something that J.J. smartly mentioned so many times in the build up to the film, that people start parroting it. I mean, you have two main characters who are CGI, and one of them is pretty blatant, early-2000s-ish, let’s-keep-him-in-the-shadows CGI. There’s probably a lot more pure CGI in the spaceship scenes than in those in ThePhantom Menace. Go and watch the kick-ass scene with the Falcon flying around the crashed Star Destroyers and honestly tell me that that resembles the practical effects of Han’s “a few maneuvers” in A New Hope (which in retrospect ain’t so great). This is probably my biggest annoyance with the reaction to the film. It’s not really the film itself, it’s more the response to it that grates with me.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, the film has great special effects. But they really aren’t overwhelmingly “practical,” “honest,” or “tactile.” Abrams smartly sold the line in the promotion of the film—savvy product differentiation from the prequels—and then he added some puppets and used more costumes and traditional sets. Using more actual sets is probably the biggest difference from the prequels, and I think you can see it in the acting. Do I like the use of more practical special effects? Yes. Is this film a return to 80s special effects? No.

Anders: J.J. is selling nostalgia, and a big part of the nostalgia is seeing the making of documentaries and the puppets and all that. So, this film gives you that, even if the final product on the screen looks more like a contemporary blockbuster than an 80s one. There’s an increasingly big disconnect between the public’s knowledge of special effects filmmaking and the actual process. J.J. just took advantage of that in the selling.

Anton: And kudos to his showmanship! The PR was probably half the battle for him.

Aren: I actually hate the term “practical effects" in general. No filmmakers use that term in a production sense. Special effects are things that happen in camera on the day of filming. Visual effects are things that are added later in post-production. But this is a quibble alongside my dislike of the word “shot” to describe a single frame of a film, or how people use the term “tracking shot” to describe any sustained moving camera, even if there is no track it is moving on.

But I digress. Back to Snoke, I was kind of annoyed by how the film refuses to explicate anything about him during its run time. But now after all the conversations I’ve had about who he might be, like whether he’s a physical representation of the Dark Side in metaphysical form, or the first Sith Lord, or whether he’s Darth Plagueis, I believe that Abrams and Kasdan were deliberate in how vague they are about him. Whether Snoke works or not will be dependent on the revelations we get about his character in subsequent films. Here he’s just the shadow villain pulling the strings—much like Palpatine in both The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back. He could turn out to link all these films together—prequel, original, and sequel trilogies—in a satisfying manner.

Anders: Here’s hoping. I was pretty down on Snoke on my first viewing, but after reading the speculation I have great hopes for how he could tie it together.

I think part of the vagueness you note is that Johnson has asked Abrams to leave a lot of key information for him to develop in different ways in the next film. But that’s a general criticism I have of this film as a whole. It’s one thing to have a cliffhanger that leads into the next film, but J.J. treats The Force Awakens like the pilot episode for the series. There is actually too much backstory for a film that is supposed to follow on Return of the Jedi’s footsteps. I feel like there’s an entire prequel trilogy to be made between this film and the original. And also too many unanswered questions. While I understand they are J.J.’s infamous “Mystery Box” in action, leading to that propulsive aspect Aren described, the effect was less intriguing and more off-putting to me. It feels a bit like the “Marvelization” of the Star Wars universe, like in the MCU films where resolution is constantly delayed and put off stoking anticipation for the next film and then you realize nothing much happened.

Anton: Snoke could tie things together. But it also feels too much like they’re leaving things open for the other films. If the prequels were about sewing things together, a lot of this film is undoing things, which leads into my main complaint, which other fans have echoed.

Luke, Leia, and Han no longer get their happy ending. I know it makes sense if you want to create a whole new run of films, but it tarnishes the joy of the Return of the Jedi’s ending.

Anders: I think Anton hints at the bittersweetness of this film. It’s no longer the Star Wars “saga”; it’s the Star Wars “series”, and it will continue as long as it remains profitable for Disney. It’s exciting to see more films, but it does lose part of its mythic closure and resonance.

Aren: Yes and no. Does the death of a spouse tarnish the memory of a happy marriage? Does every mythic tale need a happy ending? I love Return of the Jedi. It’s my favourite movie ever, largely because of the sheer optimism of its ending. I still like to think everything was happy and peaceful after our heroes partied on Endor. But the mere existence of The Force Awakens with its continuation of this story world doesn’t remove the joy that ending contains, even if it says there is a chapter that takes place after that ending and that things don’t end peacefully for our heroes. I refuse to think that there’s anything a sequel, remake, adaptation, or reenvisioning can do to tarnish the power of an original artwork, short of physically destroying all copies of that original and wiping the memory of it from all of our minds.

And besides, The Force Awakens is a great movie. It doesn’t tarnish anything, even if it’s not as good as the stuff that came before it.

Anton: Fine, tarnish might be overstating things. And yes, I think it’s a very fine film, the most entertaining one I’ve watched in years.

I’m not saying Jedi is ruined. But they have gone and made that ending into just a fleeting moment of joy before a whole bunch of new darkness. And maybe that’s life. The generational conflict never ends, the dark side is always fighting the light. But I’m sad that Luke and Han and Leia’s hard fought victories and sacrifices in the original trilogy only lead to more of the same in the end. I’m sad to miss the happily ever after.

Of course, you can’t make sequels to “happily ever after.”

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015/USA)

Directed by J.J. Abrams; written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas; starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Max von Sydow.