(Note: this originally ran as a column on The Pop Break, which you can find here. It remains the longest, most comprehensive thing I've written for myself, and I'm quite proud of it, so I wanted to display it here as well.)
I loved Star Wars as a kid. I know that doesn't exactly make me special, but it's true. I watched all the movies over and over again. I built Lego figures of R2-D2, Darth Vader, and a massive AT-AT. I read up on all kinds of different Expanded Universe things online. My love even survived watching every prequel movie in theaters. My passion cooled over the years, but my love remained under the surface, always ready to bubble back up again. To this day I can throw on one of the original trilogy and sink right back into that world. I try to look at movies in a more critical way than I did back then, but even with that level of scrutiny I still find so much to love about Star Wars: its wonderful characters, its sharp plotting, its perfectly executed dramatic beats. And when Disney bought the rights to the property and announced that a new trilogy was coming out, I was thrilled. People cautioned that it could go bad, but I had faith that, with the prequels as a warning, Disney could craft the follow-up to the original trilogy we'd always wanted. As it got closer and closer, as more and more intriguing trailers were dropped in our laps, my excitement only grew. I bought a ticket for opening night, and I could barely contain myself when the day arrived. And when I sat in that theater, and the music blared, and the opening title rolled by, I had chills. I was so ready to love again.
This is my long-winded way of saying that, while I certainly intended to look at Episode VII with a critical eye, I was inclined towards leniency. I was not (and am not) trying to be a killjoy who sneers at the popular movie and looks down on you for liking it. Honestly, if you do like it I'm not even trying to convince you not to. But, as I'm sure you can guess by now, I did not like it. As it went on, my excited grin slipped further and further down my face. I kept hoping that it was just a rocky start, that the movie would soon straighten itself out and I'd have a grand old time, but it never did. Other than a handful of errant chuckles from some funny lines, I really had no fun at all watching The Force Awakens. So when I see people talk about how much they loved it and how much fun they had, I'm genuinely confused. I don't mean this in a condescending way either! I really want to love it the way they do. I want to understand what about it works so well for them. So consider the following not just as an extensive critique, but as the beginning of a dialogue, one in which I fully lay out my point of view so I can be prepared to hear others.
Now, I'd like to start things off by first explaining what my criticisms are not. There's two kinds of complaints I've seen tossed around before, so I want to make it clear that they do not compose the substance of my problems. First of all, like with nearly every movie ever made, there are people who complain about scientific or logical inconsistencies. You know, “Starkiller base doesn't make any sense,” “How did Rey beat a well-trained Sith lord,” stuff like that. Generally speaking, I don't care about that kind of thing. For scientific accuracy, Star Wars has never been a bastion of hard science fiction, and I don't see why we should start demanding that now. Even if it was, bending science in favor of a good story is perfectly fine by me. When it comes to logical inconsistencies, unless they're so egregious that they jump out at you and ruin a moment even when you're not looking for them, I don't think those really matter either. When you view a movie as a totally logical construction that should make complete sense from beginning to end, you're ignoring the functioning of the actual story in favor of something that's not as important. If a movie has logical faults but tells an amazing story, then it can easily be forgiven those faults. If a movie makes complete logical sense but also tells a bland, boring story, then that tight logic doesn't stop it from being a bad movie. Ideally every story will make perfect sense, but seeing as how most logical faults can be overlooked in a good movie, I don't find them at all useful in explaining why a movie is constructed poorly.
The other common complaint is a little trickier. Many professional critics, and even George Lucas himself, have expressed disappointment in The Force Awakens' lack of originality. There's certainly no denying that the movie relies heavily on reusing, remixing, and calling back to many elements of the original trilogy (and even a couple from the prequel trilogy). And I do think this approach causes its fair share of problems for it, as I'll describe later. Where I take issue, however, is in the idea that this is inherently a problem that weakens the movie regardless of how successfully the approach was executed. I get that fatigue with nostalgic properties that mine our fondness for old franchises is at an all time high. If anything, I feel that fatigue more strongly than most people I know, unless they're just not voicing it to me. But at the end of the day, building off nostalgia and older works is just an approach to making movies, and there's nothing inherently good or bad about it. And while there's been plenty of bad examples, last year alone we got two new entries in old franchises that took the ideas and beats of their predecessors and remixed them into something fresh and new (Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed, to be specific). So to me, complaints that the movie is not original and therefore lesser miss the point, as it's not the mere fact of using familiar beats that makes The Force Awakens a lesser movie.
So what does make it a lesser movie? To answer that, let's first talk about A New Hope (I promise this is all important and I'll get to the point eventually). To some who come to Star Wars late in life, it can seem baffling that this is where it all began, as A New Hope is a very simple story. But that simplicity is, itself, one of its strengths. Its structure is essentially a blueprint to the classical Hero's Journey, echoing every familiar beat we've seen in countless movies, books, and shows before. Yet it doesn't feel unoriginal or boring, because it completely nails the execution of these beats. The opening scene alone conveys so much to us: the vast scale of this conflict, a scrappy Rebellion versus a massive Empire, the defiant Leia versus the menacing Darth Vader. It works in broad strokes, painting a grand struggle between good and evil, but it does so marvelously, making the good so heroic and likable and the evil so detestable and threatening that our attention is immediately grabbed and never let go. The characters, too, are pretty familiar archetypes: the everyman suddenly thrust into greatness, the charming rogue, the wise mentor, the determined princess. Nothing we haven't seen before, but these characters are immediately established to us as soon as they're introduced, and everything they do from that point forward comes from an identifiable place that we've seen and understand. So while A New Hope may be a simplistic movie on the face of it, it's so completely mastered the basics of storytelling and character that it turns this potential weakness into a great strength, creating a solidly entertaining story with hugely broad appeal. Which, at long last, brings us to the thesis of my argument: that, for all its gorgeous visuals, funny lines, and interesting ideas, The Force Awakens is utterly devoid of these basics that the original trilogy shows such mastery of.
Like most movies, character is at the heart of Star Wars. There are plenty of great movies that are exceptions, but generally speaking in a pop movie like this one you need strong character work in order to have a well-functioning story. And almost from moment one, The Force Awakens makes bizarre choices with its characters that really weaken its narrative. After all, we start the movie with Poe Dameron, one of the most egregious mismatches between marketing and actual presence in recent memory (though not even the worst example in this movie. Why hire Gwendoline Christie to do absolutely nothing?). We open with Poe meeting with an old member of the Rebel Alliance, and we get told he's the best pilot in the Resistance. Then he quips at Kylo Ren, and later instantly trusts Finn when they're escaping from the First Order ship. And...that's it. This meager grounding is all we have to go on for the rest of the movie, as he shortly vanishes for most of the remaining runtime. It's decent enough to start with, mind you. Leia made it through half of A New Hope based off little but spitting venom at Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. But it's something that needs to be built upon and reinforced through constant interactions with other characters and a deepening of the bonds between them. This is what Leia has that Poe lacks: her banter with Luke and Han, and the gradually warming relations between the three of them over the course of the second half of the movie, create a depth to her character that the initial half does not. Poe, on the other hand, disappears, doomed to only one more conversation in the entire rest of the movie. This vague, one-dimensional sketch is all he ever is, and it becomes very difficult to be invested in him or his role in the finale when his character and relationships are so nakedly superficial. I can't even demonstrate how poorly the movie creates consistent psychology with its characters because it doesn't even bother trying with Poe, despite acting like he is one of the main characters. To get a clearer look at how it handles this, we'll have to instead consider its treatment of Finn.
When it comes to immediate establishment of who a character is, Finn is probably the best example in the movie. In his first scene, Finn is shocked and saddened to see that a Stormtrooper friend of his died in the attack on Jakku. He is subsequently horrified by the command to execute innocent civilians and quietly refuses to comply. This effectively establishes his respect for the sanctity of life and his conflicted feelings of camaraderie with his fellow Stormtroopers and disgust with the First Order's actions. Except that doesn't sound like Finn at all, does it? In his very next scene, he is happily blasting away at other Stormtroopers, feeling no conflict at all about fighting them. Now, Stormtroopers have always been rather disposable in Star Wars; its philosophical musings on the pointlessness of anger and aggression aside, even the original trilogy didn't spare a moment's thought for the plight of the Stormtroopers. The mere fact of Finn joining in on this gleeful disregard for these faceless drones is not a particularly egregious facet of the plot by itself. What makes it so baffling is how the movie calls special attention to the fact that he cares about other Stormtroopers. His very first scene is watching in horror as a Stormtrooper dies in front of him and leaves a streak of blood on his face. It is possible to view this as mere terror at the prospect of battle, and his refusal to harm innocents as similar fear at the brutality of the First Order. Certainly much later on the movie claims his only motivation throughout the plot has been fear. But this is not the initial impression created by his actions, and so it leaves Finn cloaked in a veil of confusion that makes it hard to know how to feel about him.
If the stated motivation is a possible, albeit non-obvious, interpretation of the events, however, is it really still a problem? It is presentation-wise, of course, as its clashing signals make charting Finn's arc difficult. But in the fundamentals of the script, does the existence of this serviceable interpretation lessen the problem? I might concede that it reduces it to solely a presentation one, like I said, were this all the movie has to say on Finn's arc. But instead it further muddies the issue, and turns this into a serious problem with Finn's character, through its half-hearted efforts to draw on his status as a former Stormtrooper. You all know the scene I'm talking about here: when a Stormtrooper confronts a lightsaber-wielding Finn and shouts “Traitor!” There are massive problems with this short little scene, but we need only concern ourselves with the traitor part of it. In having this Stormtrooper react to Finn with anger for betraying them, the movie ascribes both a humanity to the Stormtroopers (if they were merely faceless drones, such a betrayal wouldn't sting) and an emotional conflict to Finn having to fight his former brothers. But the movie backs neither of these up with anything else. Like I said before, the Stormtroopers are as disposable as ever, and Finn never once identifies with them. There are a few other times where Finn is branded a traitor, but no attempt is made to actually dramatize this accusation. Every time it's brought up, it hangs limply in the air, exposing how poorly realized Finn's character is. By trying to have its cake and eat it too, the movie takes what would just be a presentation problem and makes it a serious flaw in Finn's character that weakens him considerably. His underlying psychology is bizarre; his actions do not line up with his experiences or even the way people react to him in any meaningful way. Every conflict that comes up with him rings as hollow as that Stormtrooper's cry, improved only by being comparatively less blatant in its artificiality.
To demonstrate this, imagine the movie exactly as it is, but instead of the opening scene with Finn as a Stormtrooper, he's just some random guy scared of the First Order who finds Poe in the desert. Other than those perfunctory declarations of “traitor” and maybe a handwave or two about how they navigate Starkiller base, does anything change? Does it radically alter our understanding of Finn as a character? Is anything of value actually lost by ditching that entire angle? I can't think of anything, which raises the question of why do it at all if it's going to be entirely meaningless? The movie even goes out of its way to note that Finn has never been in combat before, so we don't have to imagine him actually doing anything bad or unheroic. To which I say, if you aren't going to touch on the idea of being a Stormtrooper in any way, whether that's through character or theme or philosophy or all of the above, then why is it even in the movie?
I've been harsh on Finn here, though not without reason. Still, of our two main characters, Finn is probably the better of them: his establishment is rather effective, even if it all gets thrown away, and you can chart something like an arc for him throughout the movie, as poorly realized and at odds with itself as it may be. This is more than can be said for Rey. Unlike Finn, Rey isn't merely confusing, she's an enigma. Her motivations and desires are almost entirely opaque to us for most of the movie, and by the time we finally learn them in an incoherent mess of sequel hinting, they're not really relevant anymore. It's difficult to follow Finn's arc due to its conflicting signals, but it's impossible to follow Rey's because it has no signals at all, and that makes it almost impossible to care about her.
What do I mean by this, though? Let's compare Luke's first few scenes with Rey's first few scenes to get to the heart of my complaint. The first time we see Luke, he's helping his uncle on their moisture farm. Luke chafes against the drudgery and isolation of their work and longs for something bigger. He complains that Tatooine is the furthest planet from “the bright center of the galaxy” and begs his uncle to let him enroll in the academy. And when he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi and hears that the father he never knew was an ace pilot and Jedi knight, he's inspired to follow in his footsteps. This is all pretty simple stuff, but it paints a clear picture of who Luke is. He's a guy who feels trapped by the doldrums of life as a moisture farmer, impatient to go off on his own and who wants to live up to the ideal of his father that Obi-Wan gave him. And every decision he makes from this point forward follows logically from this portrait of his character. This is what is meant by character psychology: that there is a consistent set of beliefs, desires, and flaws driving a character that explain their actions. This is one of those basic story things that A New Hope excels at, and Luke is just one of many examples.
In contrast, let's look at Rey's introduction. She's scraping out a harsh existence as a scavenger on Jakku. She's gruff but not unkind to BB-8. She won't sell BB-8 for...some reason (kindness? Mistrust? A misguided attempt to have a “save the cat” moment without any justification? It's very unclear). She's tough and can take care of herself. And she's very resourceful and good with machines. This is all pretty good texture for a character, the stuff you put on top of a solid core to make them seem more real and fleshed out. But what is the core of Rey's character? What drives her and motivates her? The movie doesn't really tell us. For these first few scenes, Rey is purely reactive: she reacts to BB-8, she reacts to the goons that trader sends after her, she reacts to the First Order attack, she reacts to meeting Han Solo, she reacts to those gangs attacking the ship. Doing nothing but running away from threats leaves little room for establishing any psychology, and the movie doesn't even try with Rey. The only crumb we're really given is that Rey wants to go back to Jakku, but the movie doesn't explain why she feels that way, preferring to leave that in mystery. And without any sense of why she wants to do something so contradictory, we can't figure out how we feel about that.
Preferring to leave things in mystery is a huge problem in The Force Awakens. In what I can only surmise is an attempt to recapture the magic of Vader's famous reveal at the end of Empire Strikes Back, it constantly withholds key information from us so that it can later dramatically reveal it. But in none of these cases is this actually the most effective way to convey this information. In fact, much of it is crucial to understanding the characters, and the story suffers quite significantly from the decision not to tell it to us. And no one suffers more than Rey. It's not until two-thirds of the way into the movie that we learn Rey was abandoned on Jakku and she's been waiting for her family to come back. This information is absolutely critical to understanding who Rey is, and we don't learn it until the movie is almost over! It informs every decision she makes and colors her perception of everything around her (I'll touch on this more in a bit, but her worship of Han makes no sense at all until we know how desperately she wants some kind of family figure in her life, but we don't know that until after every single scene where they interact is already over!). What's worse, that hot mess of a flashback scene hints at further mysteries about Rey that it doesn't even bother to explain, instead leaving them as sequel hooks. This is so totally contrary to what the movie needs that it's baffling.
In an age of cinematic universes, this is not an uncommon problem. And certainly it is not inherently bad to leave mysteries or potential avenues for sequels in your movie (I was right there cheering at Thanos in the Avengers post-credits scene. No other post-credits has come close to that high). The problem is when you have mysteries about characters that impede our understanding of them. Take the famous Vader reveal, for example. That was a huge shift in what we thought we knew that laid a ton of ground for the conclusion to the trilogy, but, and this is crucial, it didn't change our understanding of Luke before that point, it only informed how he changed after that point. Before that scene, we had a complete understanding of Luke as a character. Finding out Vader is his father radically altered his backstory and what he understood about himself, but it didn't change anything about how he got to that point. Even with Vader himself, though the reveal does change everything about our understanding of him, there existed an alternate interpretation (that of an Imperial strongman who wants to convert Luke to their side because he's powerful) that we had no reason to doubt. Meanwhile with Rey, we have no idea how she got to where she is or how that might have affected her, and we have no real sense of who she is without that. This information might illuminate that, but we're not allowed to know it yet. Or it might end up being like Luke, where the only direct consequence was she was left on Jakku so we already know everything we need to about how it affected her. But even in that case, the decision to hint at and then withhold backstory on a character we already know so little about is bizarre. It doesn't help the movie in any way, it only highlights how thin our understanding of Rey is.
Now, The Force Awakens is a movie in a franchise, and that means it isn't meant to entirely stand on its own. It's free to use the building blocks provided by the previous movies as part of its construction. And the most significant block it utilizes is Han Solo, the fan-favorite smuggler from the original trilogy. He serves as the Obi-Wan in this movie, mentoring our heroes and facing down the villain before tragically meeting his end. On its own, this is a fine decision. It reinforces much of the cyclical nature of the franchise and helps root our interest in the drama by using a character we already know and love. But the thought process behind Han's inclusion seems to have ended there. For most of the movie his character coasts on the good will of the original trilogy, not bothering to develop his relationships or justify the attachment other characters have to him. For a character like, say, Leia or C-3PO, this is honestly a completely acceptable approach. They're present for the events and have some influence on the plot, but they're not important characters in the way that Rey and Finn are, so simply utilizing the existing character is a good way to add some depth to an otherwise sparse role. But this is not true of Han. He is deeply integrated into the movie's main character relationships, so more effort is needed to justify this connection.
It must be said that the relationship between Luke and Obi-Wan, which the Han-Rey relationship is meant to mirror, is somewhat sparse in terms of meaningful interaction. But it makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. The first time the two really talk to each other, Obi-Wan becomes the first person to tell Luke what his father was really like, giving him a connection to his past and a new ideal to live up to. Later, Obi-Wan explains the philosophical underpinnings of the Force and gives Luke the training he needs to start down the path of becoming a Jedi knight. Sure, in the end Luke only knew him for a couple days and they didn't really talk that much, but these are pretty big things that have a meaningful effect on Luke and the person he becomes. Watching the movie, you completely understand why Luke feels such an attachment to him. The same cannot be said for Han and Rey.
When Finn and Rey first meet Han, they express a kind of incredulous adoration: this is Han Solo, the legendary galactic hero! This is pretty obviously meant to mirror our own feelings about Han, which is fine enough. But this adoration never fades and remains the entire underpinning of their relationship, despite how little he does to earn it. In the entire time we see Rey and Han interact, what does he actually do that would inspire the love and respect we are meant to believe that she has for him? Bungle his way through a hostile encounter with some gangs? Fail to compliment her on fixing the ship? Having him screw up and be unfriendly isn't a problem, mind you. Conflict between characters is key! The problem is that the movie doesn't treat this as a conflict. As soon as they get to Maz Kanata's, the movie just pretends they had the kind of bonding that Luke and Obi-Wan did despite never showing it. The anti-social recluse offers a job to a person he barely knows and showed little regard for until this moment, and she is delighted that her hero who has done nothing for her and shown her nothing but indifference would make the offer. Considering what we later learn about Rey's past, one could possibly justify her reaction based on her desire for family (although this certainly doesn't paint a flattering picture of Rey), but I can think of no such justification for Han's complete reversal. Our own love for Han and (assumed) love for Rey cannot by itself justify their love for each other.
This isn't just a minor problem, either. The relationship between Rey and Han (and to a lesser extent, Finn and Han) is the entire crux of the movie's climax. The pain and loss of Han's death is meant to fuel their actions in their flight from Starkiller base and their confrontation with Kylo Ren. But that pain and loss doesn't feel right, because they haven't laid any of the groundwork for these characters to have those feelings. The only people in that scene having any grounded character reactions are Kylo Ren (sort of, I'll get to that in a minute) and Chewbacca. And yes, we love Han from previous movies and are sad to see him go, but our sadness doesn't automatically justify the characters being sad. This is something A New Hope understood when it came to its equivalent scene. When Vader kills Obi-Wan, the only character to have an intense emotional reaction to it is Luke. Sure, Han and Leia and the others are probably sad that he died, but the movie knows that the only really developed and meaningful character relationship Obi-Wan had was with Luke, so he's the one who actually expresses that grief. That makes the scene all the more powerful because Luke isn't just mirroring our own reaction, he's suffering from a real loss that deeply affects his character. By not developing the same key relationship in its own plot, The Force Awakens makes its entire finale ring false.
In all this failure to develop characters and their relationships, is there anything that could be considered even a relative success? As I alluded to earlier, yes. In many ways, Kylo Ren is actually a shockingly fully-formed character. He's petulant and angry, brimming with the kind of adolescent rage that made prequel Anakin seem ridiculous but strangely works here. Desperately trying to live up to his half-formed idea of the grandfather he's never met, Kylo projects Vader's cold menace but loses his cool as soon as anything goes wrong. And inside he's so messed up and emotionally confused he doesn't really know what he wants, lead down a dark path by a mentor figure who clearly doesn't have his best interests at heart. Sure, it's a bit thin and archetypal, but so is just about everything in Star Wars. The key is that everything Kylo does, even before we learn all this information, is consistent with this picture of him, and we're given everything we need to understand where he's coming from. It's almost unbelievable how successful the movie is with him given how abysmal everyone else is.
And yet the movie's handling of Kylo Ren is still far from perfect. So desperate is it to have constant homages and references to the original trilogy that Kylo is often inserted into a Vader role. In some ways, this actually works. We are introduced to Kylo in such a scene, leading us to feel like we understand him (“Oh, he's the new Vader.”) Then as the tantrums start, we realize that there's more to him than we initially assumed. I'm somewhat unsure of how I feel about this, given the confusion it creates in a movie already so filled with confusion about character motivations, but in a better constructed movie I think it would be a really interesting bait and switch. But then other times, this shoehorning into the Vader role just makes scenes feel bizarre and out of place. There's no better example of this than when we find out that he's Han and Leia's son. On the one hand, this is clearly meant to reflect the famous Vader reveal: the dramatic way Snoke drops the information suggests Vader's delivery, and his parentage has been strategically hidden from us until then to maximize the drama of the moment. And yet there is no drama in the moment. Snoke and Kylo, the only two people in the scene, already know it, so of course they don't react, but that lack of reaction makes the reveal limp at best. Not even a swell of music is there to signify that we've just learned something important. The whole presentation is so weird, so contrary to its own goals, that it falls totally flat. Moments like this mar Kylo's character throughout the movie, so that despite his relative successes, he still often feels like a failed attempt.
I've spent a huge amount of time here talking about the characters and their myriad failures, because character has always been the soul of Star Wars. But The Force Awakens' problems run deeper than just bad character work. There is very little in this movie that actually means much of anything. That might sound like a pretentious complaint about the banality of a big Hollywood movie versus some obscure indie film or an Oscar-baiting prestige picture, but that's not what I'm talking about. Most things mean something, regardless of the relative complexity of those meanings. The simple lessons in confidence and self-control in Back to the Future are no less meaningful than the complicated musings on life in Synecdoche, New York. The two simply have different goals, and neither is inherently better than the other. No, when I say that much of The Force Awakens doesn't actually mean anything, I mean there is really nothing to the story beyond artifice and referencing the original trilogy.
Think of the breakneck pace of action scene after action scene after action scene in the first half of the movie. Things progress so rapidly, escaping from First Order troops on Jakku one second, avoiding weird alien creatures on Han's ship the next, that we never get a moment to just calm down and let our characters interact and grow together. But that's not just it. In A New Hope, most of the time Luke, Han, and Leia spend together is during the extended action sequence of escaping from the Death Star. It's better paced, going from quiet moment to action scene to quiet moment instead of the pure adrenaline of The Force Awakens, but it's still roughly the same idea. The difference is, in those scenes, the three are constantly bickering or insulting each other or working together or trying to come up with a plan. You can see how going through this stressful situation takes these three strangers and binds them together. There is no equivalent point to the scenes in The Force Awakens. Finn and Rey pretty much instantly like each other, and they're both instantly awed by Han. Even if these scenes bothered to try and showcase the bonds between the characters, which they do not, I'm not sure what there would be to show.
This sort of thing happens over and over again throughout the movie. Consider the reveal of Starkiller base, as it blows up what is apparently the capital planet of the Republic (a fact bafflingly kept out of the movie). I'm sure everyone understood the intentional parallel to the destruction of Alderaan in the first movie, a powerful moment meant to convey the Empire's strength and depth of evil. The problem is that, from a storytelling perspective, this scene doesn't make any sense. First of all, unlike the Death Star, which was a key feature of the plot from the very beginning of the movie, Starkiller has absolutely nothing to do with anything that preceded it beyond being the obligatory setting for the finale. The destruction of Alderaan is a demonstration of the grave threat the movie implied the Death Star represented; the destruction of all those other planets is a non-sequitur, the equivalent of the movie nudging you in the side and going “Hey, remember Alderaan? That was pretty cool, right?”
What's more, the act means nothing to any of our characters either. Yes, billions die, unimaginable horror, et cetera, et cetera, but this is a movie. You can't just tell us a bunch of people died and expect us to be horrified or sad. You have to demonstrate the impact this action has within your universe. In A New Hope, this is accomplished through Leia: the tough princess, who has weathered every threat and torture she's been subjected to without ever ceasing her constant string of insults towards her captors, finally folds when Tarkin threatens to destroy her beloved homeworld. And when he goes through with it anyway despite her acquiescence, she begs and pleads with him and then looks on in horror as her home is destroyed. Much like Luke with Obi-Wan's death, the drama of the moment is enhanced by getting us to identify with Leia's reaction to the tragedy, rather than just relying on our own feelings about it. But with Starkiller, we don't know anyone on any of those planets, and more importantly, neither do any of the characters we've spent the rest of the movie with. Sure, they're horrified in the abstract, but there's no real sense of grief or loss from any of them. Some people are critical of A New Hope for quickly moving past what amounts to a staggering mass murder, but at least that movie allowed us to feel the horror of that act in the moment. In The Force Awakens, it amounts to little more than The Bad Thing The Bad Guys Do So We Can Have a Finale.
And yet, despite all this, I don't think it is any of the characters nor the function of its action scenes that suffer the worst from The Force Awakens' problems. Ironically, the movie saves its worst offenses for its own title concept: the Force. Now, the Force was always a nebulous concept in the original trilogy; exactly what it did and how it worked were very unclear and often varied significantly according to the demands of the plot. There's even a little moment in The Force Awakens that pokes fun at this tendency. After Rey has been kidnapped by Kylo Ren, Finn excitedly suggests they can track her down using the Force, only to be shut down by Han: “That's not how the Force works.” It's a funny moment, and it does correctly identify something in the original trilogy worthy of some affectionate mockery. But the existence of that rebuke naturally leads one to question: how does the Force work? What is it? What does it represent? And these are questions The Force Awakens simply has no interest in grappling with.
The original trilogy may have never quite answered how the Force works, but it was deeply interested in what it was and what it meant. In that trilogy, it wasn't just a cool power Luke had or a useful plot device, although it certainly was those things. It was a philosophy, one that Luke had to master before he could complete his journey. Obi-Wan spoke to him of how the Force surrounds us, how it guides our actions at the same time as we control it. It was something Luke had to learn to trust, to let go and believe in. Yoda spoke of the inter-connectedness of all life, of patience and foresight, of letting go of our attachments, our fears, our aggressions. And Luke took all of this and, along with a deep compassion and love for his father, used it to overcome the Emperor's manipulations (and his own inner failings) and finally save Vader from the Dark Side of the Force. As philosophical concepts go, these are fairly basic, a grab-bag of surface level teachings. But it provides a thematic significance to the Force that resonates with Luke's struggles. And it also has a deep personal meaning to Luke himself. After all, he first learns about the Force from his mentor, Obi-Wan, and his desire to be a Jedi stems from the stories Obi-Wan tells him of his father. In that climactic scene in A New Hope, when Luke uses the Force to blow up the Death Star, he is following through on his teachings and his character growth while also forging an emotional connection to his dead mentor and the father he never knew. It is thematically and emotionally resonant, a climactic moment that draws on every element of Luke's story and his character.
Compare that to when Rey first learns to use the Force. Trapped in Starkiller base, having just resisted Kylo Ren's attempts to pry the information he needs from her brain, she makes repeated attempts to force a nearby Stormtrooper to let her go until it finally works. It's a pretty slick scene, but what does it mean to her? Other than some awe at the stories about the fall of the Empire when she first meets Han, Rey never really spends any time talking about the Force or what it might mean to her. Unlike Luke, it provides her no connection to her mentor figure or her missing family, as no connection between them and the Force is ever drawn (whatever theories there may be about her past and parentage, the fact remains the movie contains none of this information, and therefore such a connection is not actually dramatized within the movie). And, perhaps scared by the negative reception of the garbled philosophies attached to the Force in the prequels, any thematic or philosophical meaning it might have has been thoroughly scrubbed clean from the movie. It merely exists, a concept everyone is already familiar with and feels no need to question, let alone explore. Ironically, that decision may mean that this is the one area where the abysmal prequels are better than The Force Awakens. Because in that moment, and in every moment, the Force is a cool power Rey has, and a useful plot device, but it is nothing else. One of the most interesting aspects of the Star Wars universe, the story representation of its core philosophies and themes, has been rendered as meaningless as everything else in the movie. And more than any other part of this, I think that's a shame.
Of course, regardless of all these problems, The Force Awakens was obviously a huge success. It delighted most audiences, made tons of money, and even sits at an astonishing 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. How could this be when it is so deeply flawed, when its story functions so incredibly poorly? Honestly, I think it's pretty simple: the movie's really good at being fun. I know I said at the beginning that I had no fun at all watching it and I didn't understand why people liked it, and those both remain true. These story problems were so glaring to me that I couldn't enjoy it, and I don't understand how people can look past them. But I do know that, if you can look past them, The Force Awakens is a very fun, slickly made movie. The visuals are gorgeous, the dialogue is sharp, there's just the right touch of humor thrown in without being distracting. But it's all a sweet candy coating over a rotten core. And The Force Awakens is far from the only big Hollywood movie with this problem. In fact, studios have gotten adept at making movies that feel and sound fun and give the appearance of having all the right story beats, all while not actually doing the work to have a well-written story. The result may be enjoyable, but it's also insubstantial, something that is less than the sum of its parts, that will never bring a greater joy than the momentary smile while watching it.
Maybe I'm just crazy to care this much about the story choices in what is ultimately a lighthearted family sci-fi movie. Maybe Star Wars doesn't need to be emotionally resonant or grounded in great character work. Maybe it just needs to be fun and make money. And there's no denying it did both of those things in spades. But I truly think that we're missing out on something when we get another big Hollywood blockbuster that coasts by on nostalgia and empty spectacle. That's enough to be successful in the moment, but nobody remembers the movie that was meaningless fun years down the line. If A New Hope had the same problems as The Force Awakens, we wouldn't have a new trilogy, or a prequel trilogy, or even an original trilogy. Star Wars is a merchandising empire, a juggernaut that reaches kids and adults across multiple decades, precisely because it has the weight behind it to remain resonant long past when it was originally made. There is greatness in A New Hope, and Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, that can inspire and entertain no matter how far into the future we go, in the same way that people still read Shakespeare (yes, I did really just compare Star Wars to Shakespeare. Pretentious and hyperbolic? Maybe. But it's a perfect demonstration that a great story told well will always be popular). The Force Awakens doesn't have that greatness. We'll always remember it because it's Star Wars, the same way the prequels will always be remembered because of their attachment to the property, but without that connection, it would never stand on its own. At the end of the day, that really just makes me sad.