Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

There’s a version of this review from December, 2015, back when I was still trying to put these out the week after a theatrical debut. If you want thoughtful, nuanced critiques of…basically anything…trying to post first, with the most, is the worst away to go about it. Even at the time, I worried that the rush to upload was turning me into a reactionary shithead.

I was definitely mad when I wrote that first draft, but I stopped myself before becoming Mad Online. It was the near-universal praise this film received out of the gate that ate at me. Whenever we critic speak with a near-singular voice it always creeps me right the fuck out. And, on the opposite side of the coin, there’s no worse feeling in the world than knowing it really is just you and Armond White out here, in the wilderness. So, looking for a dissenting voice I could agree with, I logged onto trusty old YouTube dot com and went looking to see if anyone else had a similar opinion…of this Star Wars film…

What I found drove me to drink even more than usual, and I’ve spent the intervening time trying to find a way to articulate my critiques of this film without becoming what I hate…or being mistake for what I hate by randos who don’t know me and have no reason to trust me. I mean, who am I? Just another nerd on the internet.

And plenty of reactionary shitheads got Mad Online about Star Wars in 2015. Not that very many of them cared about Star Wars per se, because the reactionary shithead does not really care about anything but himself. They’re like a semi-sentient cloud of evil that touches down wherever they think they’ve found a wedge issue, and that’s been their MO ever since Pat Buchanan declared the Culture War in 1992: recruit from the porous margins of other communities.

There aren’t that many left in America, but a lot of the remaining ones are fandoms, so whether we’re talking about punk music, genre films, or video games, the play’s always the same: attract new recruits from an always-there population of angry young men by attacking women (or whoever the scapegoat of the moment is) and anybody who talks about the shit they have to put up with, either in real life or as represented in our popular culture. When they’re being polite they call this “making a big deal” out of “issues.” When they’re Freudian-slipping they say we’re “shoving [insert noun here – “feminism,” “diversity,” “politics,” whatever] down [their] throats,” and I instantly know what kind of porn they watch. Both formulations have the same goal: to make any mention of any of this either a horrible imposition, or an instant punchline.

Plenty of YouTubers spent the early-2010s doing nothing but this, occasionally hiding behind their favorite magic words, like “logic,” and “reason,” though that gradually fell out of fashion as so many of them started pandering to audiences of smirking nihilists. For a long time, I avoided talking about them at all, because I’m the kind of fool who thought that if I ignored them, they’d go away. I thought if enough people heard the Good News about intersectionist, anarcho-commie, anti-capitalist film criticism, it might actually make a difference. Didn’t make a difference to the Almighty YouTube Algorithm, though. All it cares about is conflict. I should’ve confronted the shiteheads head-on, so I’m front loading this review with a thousand-word history lesson that stakes out my particular front in the Culture War. I had the privilege of silence…but silence is compliance to the reactionary, so I fucked up and I’m sorry. RIP my otherwise-immaculate comment section. I like to keep it chill around here, and I’d like that to continue…but it probably won’t, since (a) we’re talking about Star Wars and (b) we live in Hell.

So back in 2015, the people who spent 2014 ranting about how “the SJWs are coming for your video games” decided to get mad at Star Wars once it “made a big deal” out of casting a woman as the lead in their next Numbered Trilogy. And by “made a big deal” the reactionary shitheads meant, “hired them and sent them on the usual pre-release press junket.” That’s the kind of deeply reasonable, infinitely logical thinking that would eventually drive the reactionary shitheads of the world to hitch their star to a New York City real estate shithead. Some people wonder where the antagonists of this film, The First Order, came from, but I don’t. However they coalesced, it can’t be a dumber story than the one we’re living through right now, in this galaxy…Oh, there’s a tie-in novel all about it, you say? Explaining all the things this film does not? I’m spectacularly unsurprised.

That’s because the Star Wars (*cough*) Saga first continued past Return of the Jedi in 1991, but it made the mistake of continuing in novels and comic books – formats which require active participation from an engaged audience, also known as “reading.” So even though some of them were New York Times best-sellers, they never really penetrated the mainstream-that-was, before the internet.

Nevertheless, some of us enjoyed the hell out of what we once called “the Expanded Universe” and now have to call “Legends,” so people know what we’re talking about. Particularly the novels of Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole and Kathy Tyers. For twenty years, these and small army of other mid-shelf sci-fi authors supplied we fans with the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie & the ‘droids, eventually plotting out over 40 years worth of these character’s post-Jedi lives. And it was fine, for awhile. So fine, we took it for granted, sure that it would always be there.

Then came 2012, when George Lucas sold out for $4 billion in Disney stock. And Star Wars’ new owners declared, “We’re pressing the cosmic reset button so hard, it’ll cancel the Clone Wars TV series. Yes, right at the point where it started becoming consistently good.” This left Star Wars fans in basically the same position comic book fans were thirty years prior, after the Crisis On Infinite Earths wiped the previous forty years of DC Comics continuity out of existence. Some embraced the New with open arms, glad the old was finally over (or so they thought at the time). Others were left adrift, made susceptible to the siren call of reactionary bullshit. The rest of us closed ranks around Star Wars, because it was Star Wars, and the pre-release hype cycle made sure we all knew they were not doing what the prequels did. “It’s ok,” they said, assuaging our obvious fears, “we’re gonna use real-ass puppet, haul everyone outside to film in the occasional real-ass location, and there will be no eleventh hour, pseudo-scientific justifications for the Force now that George isn’t around to get annoyed at hardcore sci-fi nerds calling his creation ‘science fantasy.’”

And just like back in the 1980s, bits and pieces of the old continuity are still floating around, like the debris field of a sunken ship. No matter what universe he calls home, or what his first name might be, it seems like the Son of Solo and Organa will always turn to the Dark Side. And the The First Order (nee “Imperial Remnant”) are forever doomed to double-down on Emperor Palpatine’s “gun that destroys whole planets” plan by building a gun that destroys whole solar systems. A “sun crusher” in all but name, since using that name would probably require Disney pay the author who came up with it – former “Chancellor of Star Wars University” Kevin J. Anderson – some royalties. The guy who wrote Toy Story 3 and Catching Fire obviously needed it more. As did J.J. Abrams. And Disney as a whole. So it’s the “Starkiller.” Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time…and I don’t even know of the last character who wore it still exists.

Fun fact: there were originally two Death Stars in an early draft of Return of the Jedi…but George Lucas noticed (or was convinced by someone close to him who noticed) that would’ve been entirely redundant.

Speaking of which, peep this plot synopsis: A seemingly ordinary nobody (with massive, latent Force powers) from a backwater, desert planet is thrust into the center of galactic conflict after a droid with super-secret, plot-crucial information drops, almost literally, right into their laps. They unite with a habitual liar and escape said backwater via the Millennium Falcon, hook up with a rag-tag band of rebels, and use their plot-crucial info to destroy the space fascists’ plus-sized battle station. Complete with a death-defying starfighter strafing run through said battle station’s stygian bowls. Say what you want about The Phantom Menace (and some people have said far too much), but I’d have to work way harder than I just did to lay its plot over-top of A New Hope. And even if I succeeded, I’d still be able to see daylight through all the differences. With this, though…? It’s the ultimate expression of Not Doing What the Prequels Did. As if everyone involved tried so hard not to make another Phantom Menace that they went and made a stealth remake of A New Hope instead. I’m going to call this my Star Wars Horseshoe Theory.

I had a bad feeling before this came out, but I realized afterward that I was thinking too small. I never imagined this would be the kind of sequel Return of the Jedi‘s detractors accused it of being for years. Exactly the kind of sequel everyone praised Empire for not being. “Just like the first movie – but bigger!” Anderson’s sun crusher was just a tiny ship with loads of special torpedoes on board, establishing a contrast with the Death Star without trying to hilariously one-up it. The old Death Star really does look like a small moon next to this new, fully-armed and operational battle station. Reminds me of the Jaws sequels, and how, each time a new shark rose from the depths to terrorize the Brody family, it always somehow managed to be five feet larger than the last.

Ah, well. Everybody knows the middle film’s the Best in the Trilogy anyway…right? Well, some of us like Jedi more than Empire. Regardless, it’s high time we stopped using Star Wars as the Gold Standard by which we measure Every Trilogy Ever, anyway. Those films are the way they are because of historical circumstance, accident, and the collective talents of all involved, same as every movie. Trying to re-create them with some kind of formula is as foolish as trying to enrich uranium by staring at it real hard. You might succeed eventually but, in the intervening tens of millions of years, the rest of us will have to play your waiting game. With nothing but stealth remakes to keep us entertained.

At least performances are across-the-board better than anything in the prequels, and that’s not nothing. Even Harrison Ford showed up to work for the first time since…what? 2008? Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a far less whinny and far more competent a desert-dweller than Luke Skywalker was at this point his trilogy. Seems a bit more human, too… in fits and starts…well, not Terran-human, know what I mean, right? Here’s what I mean: when she finally gets to a planet that’s not just one big Dune and gawks at the first body of water she sees, my jaw almost hit the floor. “Is this a bit of actual science fiction characterization?” I wondered. “In a Star Wars film?” It’s not much more than a small lake, but it’s probably more standing water than she’s ever seen in her entire life and, praise the Force, it was instantly relatable, because it’s pretty much the same look I give deserts.

There’s less to Fin than there is to Rey, but that’s what I’d expect from someone brainwashed to be a stormtrooper since their pre-pubescent kidnapping. That’s an interesting parallel to the Old Jedi, now that I think about it. Both organizations get ’em while they were young specifically because children are easier to indoctrinate than grow-ass adults…or even nine-year-old tech geniuses. This isn’t the peek inside Stormtrooper Academy I always wanted, but the TV series Rebels provided that in its first season. Instead, Force Awakens provides something else I’ve always dreamed of: a storm trooper having a total traumatic stress breakdown as all his colleagues march into into the jaws of death…or are the jaws of someone else’s death, as is the case. That is also more relatable than a thousand monologues about sand or love or the will of the Force. The weird, emotionless protagonists of the Old Republic have been swept away. At least this crop know how to speak above a monotone and believably react to their surroundings.

On the same track, I like how everyone (except Kylo) is afraid of lightsabers again…or at least respectfully weary. Fin, Mr. Professional Soldier, is stiff and awkward with the damn thing, as you’d expect from someone hyperconscious about swinging around an arc of condensed plasma. Rey is all raw power with no style, in contrast to Kylo, who’s all style and no substance – very much his grandfather’s grandson. Rey only gains enough poise to win her climactic battle by remembering the Force exists, which is why I have no truck with any of the assholes calling her a Mary Sue. For one thing, that’s a term from Star Trek fandom, and all you Warmongers need to keep it out of your mouths. For another, don’t talk to me about Mary Sues in Star Wars – I’ve walked several miles in the boots of Galen Marek, the last “Starkiller,” and together we pulled Star Destroyers out of orbit with our bare hands.

So sincere kudos for all those little touches, filmmakers. You did good. By which I mean, you did better than nothing when it comes to our new heroes. Our villains are shit, which is a sad thing to see in a Star Wars film…and also, by now, sadly typical. The Expanded Universe That Was is littered with the corpses of wanna-be Emperors and pseudo-Vaders. Not characterized enough to be interesting, but characterized far too much to be the blank slates they need to be before idiots will consider them “cool.” The way they considered Vader cool before they knew anything about him…and still considered him kinda cool until they learned far, far, far too much about him.

Some theorize that Kylo and Snoke are deliberately lame in order to convey the abject lameness of fascism. How it fetishizes clinging to a glorious past that never really existed in the first place in order to justify how shitty the present is…and will continue to be for everyone who isn’t a fascist. That is, after all, fascism’s entire deal, whether on Earth or in a galaxy far, far away where Earthling lookalikes still comprise the vast majority of the ruling class. Was there a better way to articulate this than going, “Hey, look, Star Wars fanboys – it’s you! Impotently raging at the loss of a legacy that was never yours in the first place!” for months? Probably. Renegade Cut just took a good stab at it, and he’s gone a long way toward convincing me. Of course they call themselves The First Order. If they didn’t, they’d have to admit they’re a new thing, which is exactly what fascism cannot do if it wants to claim decent from some glorious old thing. Of course they build another Death Star. Palpatine didn’t seem to have any other back-up plans. The Empire cannot fail, after all – it can only be failed.

All empires everywhere think this, whether they call themselves “governments” or “corporations.” Mussolini once said fascism was really “the merger of state and corporate power,” and there’s certainly a lot of that going on these days, as there was back in the 1970s. So I’m not really all that surprised a new Star Wars has arisen, or that it bears startling similarities to the old.

The difference is, Star Wars used to be the vision of one Californian weirdo whose weird idea about mashing up Buck Rogers and samurai flicks eventually took over Hollywood. Problem with that being, as time went on, said weirdo’s vision became as cold, detached, and mechanistic as his apparently-favorite character, a cross between Calivinist predestination and authorial tautology. “The Force decides who wins and who loses because that’s the way I wrote it.” Great, George – glad to know I shouldn’t actually care about any of this. Disney famously tossed Lucas’ script for this Episode in the trash as soon as he turned it over, but I ended my first viewing of this film with the sneaking suspicion that they’d kept his overriding ethos. A bad feeling that we’re all really just trapped in another chess game, being played out by the largest media monopoly on Earth. Pawns watching other pawns go through their predetermined motions at the behest of a corporate boardroom so spectacularly out of touch, they thought Marvel and Star Wars were “boy franchises” before they bought them. Their words, not mine.

“But Dave, it’s Star Wars!” Yeah, thanks – the years of hype and all the tie-in merchandise sure helped me notice. I get it. Hell, I’m not made of stone. Whenever the main theme starts up, I always find myself humming along under my breath, as if by reflex. If I ever got a lightsaber in hand, I’d probably ruin a few takes by making the noises with my mouth, too. And any time I want to antagonize the haters I use this picture of Fin in the snow, telling Kylo to “Come get it.” I wish we lived in a world where I didn’t have to defend a corporate cash-in stealth remake, or gatekeep a fandom I’m barely a part of from the reactionary shitheads of the world…but like I said, we live in Hell.

I think we can all agree the first part of a trilogy’s always the worst one, anyway. No, I know we can’t, but bear with me for a second. Back when Phantom Menace dropped, George Lucas got almost defensive – even in his own behind-the-scenes interviews – about how it was the first act of a three-act structure, where all the set-ups are set up so the next two films can hit the ground running. That fits here far more than it did back then, so here’s my final word on Force Awakens: it’s a competently made forgone conclusion of a set-up film, now out of the way so we can get to the Good Part. And the shelf-full of tie-in novels and comic book miniseries.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this is still a J.J. Abrams joint, and he already pulled a stunt like this six years prior, with Star Trek 11, which even at the time some of us correctly pegged as his audition for role of Star Wars director. So congratulations, J.J.: you made a better movie than the fourth-worst Star Trek film. Enjoy your Christmas bonuses. Everyone else, meet back here next time and enjoy my continuing mission to explore modern Star Wars. But I want to keep the Trilogy format, which means the middle part has to be the real fucking downer. So I guess I finally have an excuse to watch Solo.


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