Thursday, February 25, 2016
Is It Okay to Talk about Star Wars - The Force Awakens Now?
But if not, just in case: WARNING: HERE THERE BE STAR WARS - THE FORCE AWAKENS SPOILERS, SO IF YOU'VE BEEN TRAPPED IN THE BELLY OF THE ALMIGHTY SARLACC FOR THE PAST COUPLE OF MONTHS AND HAVE ONLY JUST ESCAPED AND YOUR FIRST PRIORITY IS TO WAVE THE FACT THAT YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE YET UNDER EVERYONE ELSE' NOSES, THEN YOU'D BETTER CLEAR OUT RATHER THAN BLAME ME FOR WHAT FOLLOWS.
Good enough? Or do I need to put that in flashing yellow neon with a dramatic voiceover playing in the background ('cause I know a couple of people who can do the voiceover bit if necessary)? Cool. Let's proceed.
So. Rise of the Jedi Wannabes.
On the whole (insert obligatory Austin Powers Preparation H joke - go on, I'll wait while you do it), The Force Awakens is good, but not great.
The Force Awakens certainly is successful in recreating the exhilarating drag-you-along-on-a-rollercoaster-ride feeling of the original trilogy, along with its casual clumping together of the human and the alien, the futuristic and the primitive, comfortably into settings that are familiar (forests, deserts, small towns, and bars) while being deeply strange. The fighter dogfights were cool, and the lightsaber duels were entertaining (yes, I'm okay with Kylo's laser quills). And Han and Chewie are back, baby!
I loved the desperate Millennium Falcon and TIE fighter chase through the old wrecks on Jakku, which was a wonderful homage to 'Empire's careening through the asteroid field (although I think this scene was done better in Battlestar Galactica - Blood & Chrome with the running battle between Adama's Raptor and the Cylon Raiders through the guts of the dead battlestar), except with the scene ending with the 'Falcon rising triumphant in its return. The field of downed Star Destroyers alone did a magnificent job of setting the tone for the movie, giving us an immediate, visceral sense of the magnitude of the battles of the past as the Empire fell, and how it's all just come to dust-covered, half-forgotten, and — for the Jakku residents — mostly irrelevant history of galactic conflict.
Since the movie came out, I've heard some people complain that Jakku was just another Tatooine, but I'm okay with that. The whole point of having a desert planet in the beginning was to give Rey a harsh place of origin (much like Luke, but, lacking caring relatives to raise her; or more like the Fremen or Sardaukar of Dune) to provide a quick, implied explanation of her toughness and capability and the likelihood that this has contributed to her natural development of talents with the Force (like Anakin — or Maz Kanata, for that matter — she is, in effect, like one of the Wildlings in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series), and it works. Sure, they could have planted her on a rocky world, or a lava world, or a snow world, or in a decaying urban skid-row world, or a hell-world where chocolate was never invented, but the galaxy's gotta be full of desert planets, and one wasteland is as good as another. Hell, if 2015's other desert movie, Mad Max - Fury Road, is any indication, sandy wastelands are in vogue right now. If anything, I think the problem with Jakku is the missed opportunity to make a comment on the cost of warfare... Wookieepedia indicates that the planet has always been a desert, but wouldn't it have been so much more meaningful if it hadn't? What if one of the characters threw in a quick line about how it used to be a nice, comfortable world (no need to go as far as to say "paradise")? Seeing all of those twisted metal leviathans piled around would have left the immediate implication that an orbital battle during the galactic civil war, and the multiple ensuing crashes (and probably power plant explosions), had devastated the planet's ecology (as huge masses of metal barrelling out of the sky at high speed certainly would have). I seem to recall a disaster of this sort being mentioned in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy (in the old, now discarded expanded universe) in connection with the species that served as the Grand Admiral's personal assassins. At any rate, that was the assumption I made when watching the movie for the first time, and I think if that would have been the case, it would have made Jakku — and the film itself — just a little more meaningful.
Now let's talk rathtars. As Star Wars monsters go, these are some of the best. They accelerated what would have already been a fast-paced fight-and-escape scene to light speed with their blinding, tentacled, toothy havoc. And how can you not love something that's so reminiscent of a Dungeons & Dragons beholder dropped into the middle of the Star Wars franchise? (Yes, I know, some D&D fanatic out there is going to quibble with that comparison on the basis of real beholders being intelligent and having a big central eye and multiple secondary eyes on stalks/tentacles/antennae, rather than multiple eyes dotting its body surface, and beholders possessing the ability to shoot various types of magical beams out of their eyes. Fuck magical beams. The only magic beholders have is to make you laugh at how silly they look. These rathtars were so blindingly fast and lethal, there was no time for anything other than being swept up in Rey, Finn, Han and Chewie's "holy shit, we've gotta get out of here now" moment.)
I also enjoyed some of the little nods to the original trilogy scattered here and there throughout the film, one of the best taking place during Finn, Han and Chewie's "rescue" of Rey and infiltration of the Death Tomato (no, that was from Muppet Babies), or Death Planet, or Planet Killer Planet, or Enormous Pokemon Ball-Looking Thing, or Super Overcompensating Weapon, or whatever it was called (Starkiller, yeah, that's it; that's the ticket), when a group of stormtroopers clattered down a hall saying "We think they may be splitting up..."
Then there are the characters...
Rey is fantastic. As mentioned above, she's tough, capable, smart, and naturally developing some degree of proficiency with the Force on her own. She's kind when others are in need of help, but she doesn't take shit from anyone and will figure (or fight) her own way out of a scrape, thank you very much. In many ways, she's off to a better start than Luke was, as we're inevitably forced to draw parallels between the two. But for all that, she isn't a flat character or perfect. She suffers from anxiety over missing the possible return of a family who apparently abandoned her (a less annoying fault than Luke's propensity for whining, but one that causes her to nearly miss positive opportunities like Han's offer of work, or the initial chance to take Anakin's old lightsaber and embark upon the path to become a Jedi), demonstrating that despite her independence, she still desperately needs family. And, for all of her survival, tech, and piloting knowledge, she doesn't know much about the way the world works — she has to learn from Han (and even Finn). On a side note, isn't Daisy Ridley reminiscent of a young (albeit shorter) Sigourney Weaver?
And there's Finn, the likeable stormtrooper. Having lived solely within the narrow focus of the role of soldier for the First Order (occasionally on sanitation duty), Finn is really experiencing life for the first time when he jailbreaks Poe and goes AWOL. Everything out there in the wide galaxy is new to him, and, because of this, he's the perfect protagonist for the audience to go riding along with. Even for those of us who are familiar with the saga from all the way back to the days of the original run in theatres, the Star Wars universe has changed, and we are in a learn-as-you-go fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants situation similar to Finn's — except we're not being snagged by rathtars or sliced by some emo Sith wannabe. And John Boyega plays him perfectly, giving him believable fear, bravery, and exasperation all in the right places.
I also like Maz Kanata. With her mix of attitude, wisdom and humour, she was like an upgraded, bespectacled, alien version of Ackmena, without the singing (although Bea Arthur's number is a good one), but with an impressive degree of talent in the Force for a non-Jedi.
Most of all, I loved the return of Han and Leia, and their scenes together.
That Han has gone back to his old smuggler ways made perfect sense to me. Even without the sense of guilt and failure that would have come with Ben/Kylo's betrayal of the Jedi, and the relationship problems that followed, it would seem natural that Solo would have found the formalized life of a general in the New Republic's military structure, or of being close to (or involved in) the drama of the politics of a newly-formed coalition government (and the New Republic's government would most certainly have been an unstable coalition of various factions frequently at odds with each other) to have been annoying at best, and more likely completely intolerable, driving him into the solace of old, familiar, and ultimately disreputable ways. All of which would have driven a wedge between him and his wife — even, as mentioned before, without the damn kid messing things up. And so, when he and Chewie reappear in the second act of The Force Awakens, Han is completely in his element, even as he takes on the role of the wizened guiding hand for the next generation. The only thing that wasn't believable was that he would have lost the 'Falcon for so long. Sure, I can accept that the old girl might have been stolen, or that Han might have lost her in a game of sabacc (like Lando did). But I can't accept that he would just give her up. Solo's the guy who shot Greedo first. If someone took the 'Falcon, you can bet he would have torn the galaxy apart to get her back. Especially after all the trouble with Ben/Kylo. If Han was hurting bad enough that he decided to de-invent himself and go back to his old ways, one of the integral parts of that would have been getting the 'Falcon back, at any cost. And if he could find her drifting in space in some obscure sector near Jakku, why couldn't he detect her sitting there, abandoned, in the middle of the desert?
For Leia, it also makes sense to see her resume a leadership role in the Rebellion — er, Resistance. Post Return of the Jedi, she would certainly have been a mover and shaker in the New Republic, but after Ben/Kylo's seduction by the Dark Side and defection to the First Order, you can bet that she'd want to hit back against the bad guys. Hard. And Carrie Fisher does a great job of portraying the older, wiser, burdened-by-hurt Leia who's fought this war before and is determined to win again.
When Han and Leia finally come together, this is when the movie really shines. Better than the wonderful background wreckage scenery on Jakku, better than the ravening monsters or atmospheric fighter dogfights or lightsaber duels, the subtle, adult moments between the reunited princess and smuggler, where far more is unsaid than said, are where the real moments of worth are centred. We get all of the nuances of regret, guilt, weariness, wariness, relief, comfort and love between these two coming through as clearly as any giant laser blast from a planet killer (or killer planet), but with so very little dialogue. It's a degree of subtlety in filmmaking that I didn't think JJ Abrams had, and I would be inclined to give the credit to Fisher, Ford and probably Lawrence Kasdan.
For all the good in The Force Awakens, there are also some elements that strike me as odd.
BB8 is one example. Abrams & co. didn't do enough to develop the robot into a human character. Yes, I know that sounds weird. Allow me to explain. The little metallic medicine ball is the obvious heir to R2D2's place in a Star Wars movie's character roster as the faithful robotic slave who carries secret information and runs along (or rolls along) with the human protagonists, helping them out of scrapes — or sometimes getting into trouble itself — and occasionally providing comic relief. But there's a crucial difference: R2's character always came off as human because you could understand what he was saying. Sure, you couldn't understand explicitly what the words were, but in spite of being limited to mechanical chatter, it was pretty easy to infer meaning based on his tone and the reactions of other characters — especially C3P0's responses. You don't get that with BB8. Sure, it tweets away sympathetically at its human masters and gives a flaming thumbs-up, but without a Threepio counterpart to carry on specific rolling conversations, there's no sense that the little round droid is actually speaking rather than simply emoting. Rather than coming off as human, like Artoo did, BB8 seemed to me to be more like a dog or friendly cat, responding with its own basic emotional vocalizations with simple meanings, but not really conveying any sense of sophisticated language. So BB8 is like a mechanical Benji. He's C.H.O.M.P.S. for the 21st Century in the Star Wars universe. Additionally, despite his R2 unit head design, BB8's compact round body reminded me more of V.I.N.CENT from Disney's The Black Hole, without the guns.
Supreme Leader Snoke is another example. No, I don't care about his name — the franchise has a history of silly names, so we can let this one pass without significant comment. When he makes his first appearance, Snoke appears as a giant enthroned in a cavernous space, rumbling directives at his subordinates in the field. It's not until he disappears at the end of the conversation that the audience realizes he's not there in person, merely telepresent via holographic projection, and that the Star Wars universe's holo technology has advanced to overcome the flicker and transparency we're all familiar with. But until he hangs up on that first holo call, especially with his title being Supreme Leader, all I could think of when I saw that big, bald sucker was "Hey, it's Supreme Commander Dolza from Robotech!" I half expected him to start raving about recovering the stolen Protoculture and Zor's battlefortress. With all of Disney's considerable special effects and casting resources at their disposal, did they really have to go with the kind of tired cliche of the big bald guy as the source of menace? He may as well have been trying to shake down Humphrey Bogart for the Maltese Falcon, or kicking Daredevil's ass. This didn't ruin the movie for me by any means, but it did stick out. And it made me want to start chewing Protoculture leaves.
From the odd, we move onto the downright bad. And, as much as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, there were places where Abrams and his staff really dropped the ball.
One of the most obvious was the Starkiller. Turning an entire planet into a big ass gun is not something I have a problem with. After all, that's basically what the Death Star was: a moon-sized gun with some point defence weapons and ship-servicing capabilities. Scaling-up to something as big as an Earth-type world is unnecessary when the Death Star design is sufficiently powerful to blow up planets, but if you're the Supreme Leader of the First Order and you're trying to swing pork to intimidate the New Republic and any other potential rival empires out there, showing them your military and industrial capabilities, then sure. Why not? But designing said planet weapon to be powered by its parent star — and not just passively sucking normally-emitted radiation, but actively draining the star of its energy until it disappears (which I guess justifies its name, since it doesn't actually kill stars with its gun) — is just stupid. That means you've spent all that time and effort converting a planet into a one-shot gun. Okay, you've sucked your sun dry and just blasted a couple of enemy planets to smithereens. Now what? You've got no sun left, so you don't get another chance to finish the job. You're just stuck with a rogue planet drifting aimlessly in what's now interstellar space with nothing to power your weapon, relegating it to strategic irrelevance. At no point do I recall any dialogue from the movie mentioning anything about this thing possessing its own means of propulsion (beyond its natural orbit) and plans to move on to another star system/energy source. Obviously the old Empire had the ability to build gigantic self-contained reactors that could power Death Stars — with sufficient capability (by Return of the Jedi, anyway) for multiple shots within a short period of time — so why would the First Order go in a completely different direction and choose solar vampirism (which apparently takes hours or days to draw a charge) over an existing technology that had proven completely effective? Was Snoke bribed by an alternate vendor? You wanna turn a planet into a weapon? Fine. But install a larger Death Star-type reactor that'll power the gun with a little left over to move the planet to its next target. And Starkiller has one hell of a gun too — it fires a beam across interstellar space in the span of a minute or so, and one that splits into several independently targeting secondary beams to take out multiple planets at once. Star Wars, as science fantasy, has always asked audiences to suspend disbelief, but there's a limit, and this was it.
What was also unbelievable was the fate of the New Republic in relation to the Starkiller attack. From what we see in reactions from the Resistance headquarters staff, it looks like the entire Republic is knocked down after losing just 3 or 4 planets. How could that be? Even with the galaxy split between the Republic and the First Order (and probably some non-aligned areas), the Republic would still be composed of hundreds, perhaps thousands of worlds, and (even 30 years after the downsizing of the Empire) likely a sizeable fleet of military ships. Losing a couple of worlds in a single attack would be a significant blow, but by no means would it knock the Republic out of the fight. Whatever the pre-existing political situation was (and, with nothing explained in the movie, my assumption was that the Republic and First Order were sitting in some kind of formal cease-fire position, with the Republic operating the Resistance under the the table within First Order and non-aligned territory as a means of fighting unofficial proxy wars against the FO to destabilize it) you'd figure an attack like this would result in a massive retaliation of formal Republic forces against the First Order, specifically targeting the Starkiller. With starships that can cross the galaxy in a matter of hours, and a recharge time of hours or days for the Starkiller, it would be pretty much a given that Admiral Ackbar or his successors would be able to draw off their forces from whatever engagements they were currently in, or dispatch their reserves, and send a fleet of cruisers to overwhelm the Starkiller's shields and reduce the planet to an asteroid field before General Hux had time to schedule another pissing match with Kylo Ren. Instead, we're treated to Resistance handwringing like the Republic has been effectively annihilated or at least as though it has no military forces to exact revenge.
And speaking of Kylo and Hux, while I enjoyed the tension between the two, the story should have done a lot more to put some weight behind their differences and tell the audience why we should care about the stakes. The plot and dialogue needed to say more about how this was a fundamental contest of factions to decide whether the First Order would be run as a kind of Force-driven theocracy dominated by a few differently-abled elites, or whether the future of the new empire would belong to regular people harnessing the power of technology. Instead, we're treated to what amounts to a high school feud between the captain of the basketball team and the football quarterback over which sport is cooler and brings the most honour to the school. Well, okay, with these two it's more like a feud between the captain of the chess team and the president of the goth film appreciation club, but you get my point. There's a little bit of jostling via "I'm going to use the Dark Side to catch the good guys" and "No, my Stormtroopers will get the job done", but we don't get any sense of why their rivalry matters — at least, nothing beyond "When I succeed and you fail, Snoke will love me more."
While we're talking about weak treatment of characters, let's talk about Poe. The fact that he opens the movie, first getting the map data from Max von Sydow's throwaway character, then teams up with Finn to break out of the Star Destroyer, would lead you to believe that he's a major character in this film, and most likely in the upcoming trilogy. After all, the original trilogy was built upon a trinity of protagonists: Luke, Leia, and Han, right? Poe's basically like Han this time around, right? The cool, slightly older guy who knows his way around the galaxy and is there for the kids every step of the way? Wrong. After the crash on Jakku, Poe disappears for a long, long time. He pops up briefly during the rescue from the wreckage of Maz Kanata's bar, more-or-less bows out again, then comes back for the fighter attack on the Starkiller at the end, and really, that's it. A supporting role. He's this generation's Wedge Antilles. Not as trivial as Biggs, but certainly nothing more than Wedge. Nowhere near Lando country, never mind Han. Let's hope Poe becomes relevant in Episode VIII.
And speaking of characters who fail to meet expectations, why is Leia not a Jedi? The original trilogy makes it quite clear that Leia has the Force and will someday become a Jedi, and yet here she is, 30 years later, with the Republic needing all the Jedis it can get its hands on, and she's failed to launch. What. The. Hell. The most we get out of her in this respect is a psychic punch-to-the-gut cutaway reaction scene when Han is killed by Kylo, and that just doesn't cut it. The excuse is probably that she's been busy since the Battle of Endor with the formation of the New Republic and its government, and the continued war against the collapsing remnants of the Empire; and with forming the Resistance and managing its guerrilla efforts to undermine the First Order within its territory; and with having a child and — sharing equal blame with Han — making whatever parenting mistakes were made that contributed to said child growing into a tantrum-prone, Force-wielding, emo murderer and traitor. And yet, you'd think after the Battle of Endor, with the Empire's forces in disarray, somebody in a senior position (maybe Mon Motha, maybe Ackbar, or Madine or Rykien, or one of those old dudes with the big bushy beards and moustaches from the Yavin base command centre) would have taken a look at the situation and said:
"Ya know, Princess, Luke's the only Jedi left, and we nearly lost him to Palpatine, so we really need to hedge our bets on this whole Force thing. Build some more capacity in the hocus-pocus department. Sounds like you might have a natural affinity for this kinda thing. Why don't you take a little time off, you know, a study break, to get certified in the Force or whatever it is that you do? I think we've got a little money in the budget to cover your tuition. Call it a sabbatical. We'll keep your job open for you for when you get back."
You'd think that Luke might have taken her aside at one point, maybe between plates of chicken, ribs, and barbecued Stormtrooper at the Ewok victory celebration and said:
"Hey, Sis, I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I nearly got my ass handed to me up there by the Emperor today. If it wasn't for old Dad, well... Anyway, I think we need to get you into Jedi training right away. I'm really going to have my work cut out for me getting a new Jedi academy up and running, and if you're already trained when we get the first batch of padawans in, well, that'll help. Besides, Artoo told me all about what you did to Jabba on the sail barge, and, you know, Dad always had a knack for strangulation, so you're already a chip off the old block, and I think you'll fit into the family business perfectly. See? Look, Dad's right over there, beside Yoda and Ben, and he agrees!"
Or something to that effect. At any rate, Leia's always been portrayed as a smart character who's able to grasp the big picture, and I just can't believe that she'd pass up an opportunity to develop her own abilities in a way that could make the New Republic (and later the Resistance) stronger. Let's also not forget that Leia will jump right in and kick ass if the situation calls for it. Han's not the only goodguy in Episode IV who shot first. Remember the battle aboard Tantive IV? I simply can't imagine any scenario where Ben/Kylo would be seduced to the Dark Side, and Leia wouldn't be out for a mother's revenge ("Revenge isn't a Jedi concept" be damned), grabbing a lightsaber and slicing and Force-choking her way through Snoke, the Knights of Ren, and any other baddie she deemed responsible. And yet here we are, at a time when having another Jedi (and, at this point, she should be a Jedi master) around would be helpful, and there's no sign of a lightsaber hanging from her belt, and, worst of all, no explanation in the plot for this absence. It's one thing for the new movie to forget to include or address smaller elements from the original trilogy, but this is a story oversight that's so big you could fly a Star Destroyer through it.
On the subject of the film's weakness in its hints about Luke's failed new Jedi order, let's talk about that failure. In the original trilogy, Luke learns that the Jedi were betrayed and hunted down by one of their own members — his father — and with his ability to hold regular conference calls with Obi-Wan (and, later, presumably Yoda and Anakin), he would have been able to get specific details about the massacre of Order 66 and the ensuing hunt. Moreover, he has personally felt the tempting pull of the Dark Side during his battle with Darth Vader aboard Death Star II. So you'd think he'd be fully aware of the risks involved in training young people (with teenagers in any galaxy being notoriously unstable at the best of times) to use the Force, and would have created plans to deal with more lethal than normal high school drama. That's not even factoring in the precognitive powers of the Force — which Luke has used before — which should have given him a warning that something was up, and that he might want to nip it in the bud before it got ugly, or, at the very least, that he should put contingency plans into place and separate the students and faculty of his Jedi academy into different locations so that they couldn't be wiped-out in a single temper tantrum. Never mind the fact that Ben/Kylo was Luke's nephew, and he should have known the kid well enough to know that something was up and that he should intervene. Really, if he could sense the conflict within Vader/Anakin between the Dark Side and the Light, he should have been able to see what was happening with his nephie and talk (or smack) some sense into him — or find the source of the problem (Snoke) and put it down. Even if we assume that Luke couldn't bring himself to do anything about Ben/Kylo's slide into evil, he should have been able to make preparations to protect his academy and other pupils accordingly. I'm hoping that abandoning Rey with a bunch of thugs on Jakku (there's nothing in the movie to indicate that Rey is Luke's kid, but there's plenty of speculation to that effect out there), or stashing Anakin's sword in Maz Kanata's bar is not Abrams' idea of Luke making preparations, because that's pretty lame (and horrific when we consider how Rey had to grow up neglected and at risk) and simply doesn't fit the profile of Luke as the former Rebel officer who could coordinate fighter defences and prioritize equipment evacuation during a retreat from an Imperial assault. Unless Abrams is going to make some revelation in Episode VIII about how Luke has stashed away and trained a bunch of other Jedi (while sitting on his hands and letting Snoke, Kylo, the other Knights of Ren, and the First Order legions ride roughshod over the galaxy), then this is a pretty significant problem with the story.
And speaking of Luke, couldn't they have given him just a little more presence in the film? I mean, hanging out at an Irish monastery to get his head together is fine, and moping with Artoo by a campfire is okay (although didn't Yoda say that depression was part of the Dark Side?), but some dialogue would have been appropriate. It was something of a waste to cart Mark Hamill out on a location shoot just to have him say... nothing. Minimizing his role in order to prevent Luke's character from overshadowing the next generation would be one thing, but this was too much of a sidelining. The writers could have given him a little more to do — at least something like a holo message projected by Artoo after the goodguys had finally completed the map, saying something like "Ye intruders beware: crushing death and grief soaked with blood of the trespassing thief." or "You've found the map to me Lucky Charms!" or, well, pretty much anything. Because you know what's better than nothing? Anything!
And on the subject of nothing, why is there nothing between Chewie and Leia when the assault team returns from destroying the Starkiller? The walking carpet just leaves the 'Falcon and moseys right by her and joins the victory party without even a look — after coming back from an attack where his best friend and her husband was killed, and where he seriously wounded her son. Never mind the question about why Chewie, in his rage, didn't pump a couple of more rounds into the little brat to make sure he was finished off, you really have to wonder why the big guy didn't rush right over to the princess and give her a big hug so they could mutually mourn Han. Or, if we make the assumption that Chewie felt in some way guilty about shooting Ben/Kylo and leaving him to die (at least in his mind) on the Starkiller, and therefore that he didn't feel comfortable about going over to Leia to comfort her on the loss of both her husband and son, then Abrams could have at least taken just a second or two to have them exchange some kind of knowing look. That would have been real, adult drama on the level of the earlier moments between Han and Leia. But it's a missed opportunity, and we, as the audience are left sitting there thinking "These two friends have just lost one of the most important people in their lives, and not only do they fail to acknowledge each other, they don't even make a point of deliberately not acknowledging each other. They're just deployed by the director like they're not even in the same scene." It's unforgivably clumsy writing and directing at play here.
Han's impending death was also painfully obvious right from the point where he takes Rey and Finn under his wing. It's a fundamental law written into the fabric of the Star Wars universe that teachers/fathers/stand-in father figures must die. Qui-Gon Jinn, Owen Lars, Bail Organa, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Anakin — even Palpatine (and we might even include Dooku, since he was Qui-Gon's master) — all kicked the bucket. Now add Han to the list. If you're a teacher or father figure, you've got a target painted on your back. Look out, Luke & Snoke: your numbers will be up soon too. But because the death of fathers is so standard by this point, and because we all know Ben/Kylo is a traitorous little emo snake who wants to emulate his grandfather's Darth Vader incarnation rather than his true nature as Anakin, Han's demise lacks the emotional punch that it really should have. Kylo runs Han through, and we're left sitting in the audience going "Yup, cross that one off the list of things that had to happen to fit the chosen plot formula." If they had to stick to the dead daddies rule, couldn't Abrams and his writers have come up with something surprising with some real emotional punch? I guess not.
But this seems to be the case for the whole movie: the plot manages to move us from point A to point B, but overall, the writing's on thin ice in too many places. The Force Awakens is clearly a retelling of A New Hope, but too often the writers have focussed on building nostalgia and in-universe authenticity at the expense of creating a solid story that is able to stand on its own as a self-contained movie. Where A New Hope had a story arc that included loss, it also had triumph and a sense of closure. Sure the war with the Empire was still ongoing after the Death Star was destroyed, but the Rebels had won a victory, saved other planets from being completely annihilated, and came out of that battle stronger and with the possibility of a positive future ahead of them. Luke had completed his hero's journey too. The Force Awakens takes us on a similar rollercoaster of heroes coming together from diverse backgrounds, rediscovering an ancient, mystical power that can help the forces of good, taking-on the badguys, losing a teacher in the process, then pulling off a big military win, but there's no real sense of victory at the end. Yeah, the Starkiller is gone, but this story gives the impression that most of the New Republic is too, and that the Resistance, despite its win, has been reduced to a rag-tag guerrilla band out on its own against a First Order that still has most of its power base intact. Kylo's been hurt, but you know he's going to be coming back even tougher — and with his gang of Ren thugs behind him to boot.
And there's a difference between the death of Obi-Wan and the loss of Han: Kenobi was really, really old and had been living in seclusion as a consequence of being more-or-less completely beaten a long time ago. Sure he'd hurt Vader badly, but Kenobi's whole world had essentially been destroyed by the slaughter of the Jedi and the rise of the Empire, which he was unable to prevent. Old Ben was a failure until he found the kid in the gulley. His role was to bring Luke into the fight against evil, and start him down the path of the Force. And he succeeded in that. So when Obi-Wan dies, it's a little sad, but it's appropriate. His job is done. His time is up. He has succeeded and redeemed himself. With Han, it's a different story. You get the feeling that there's a lot more Han could do. He's old, but you don't get the sense that he's on his last legs like Kenobi was. Han's a guy coming off of a legacy of big wins: he's played a key role in several key military victories that have reduced the Empire's power ("defeated" would be the wrong word — the Empire clearly has held on to enough territory and infrastructure to evolve into the First Order), and if his world has been destroyed, it's been in a more deeply personal way — estrangement from his wife and son, and the disappearance of a good friend. Because of that, there's the sense that Han has fallen farther than Kenobi, but also that there's more he can do to rise again before reaching his end. But Han is denied fulfillment; he's murdered by his own son before he can get a chance to really make things right again. He dies a failure. And so Han's death is infinitely more tragic than Obi-Wan's, and it robs The Force Awakens of any real sense of victory. The Starkiller is gone, but our heroes' reward is a pervasive sense of loss.
Even the rediscovery of Luke lends the heroes (and audience) no comfort. He's far away, isolated, and literally has nothing to say. He has no words of hope for us, no reassurance that it was all worth while, no "The Force will be with you. Always." like Obi-Wan left him with, because he has no words at all!
But because we're left with the impression that Luke is about to say something, the movie can't work as tragedy because a successful tragedy would have a sense of ending. There's no sense of finality here at all — what we "end" with is a scene cut off abruptly in the middle. A New Hope had an ending, even though it was clear there was more going on and more that could be told about the wider universe, because its story, the story about a young hero rising to gain new knowledge and save the day, ended. Luke did it. He learned about the Force and saved the galaxy from the Death Star. The end. Where's the end to The Force Awakens? Rey has developed some talent for using the Force and has driven-off an evil enemy, but she's clearly not finished because she still has to find Luke to learn more about the Force — she's still in a kind of educational wasteland, and actually has to go flying off into the galactic wasteland to try and get a better handle on things. If the story is about defeating the big galactic enemy, it doesn't really succeed there either: the destruction of the Starkiller is entirely undercut by the Starkiller's apparent destruction of the New Republic (only 3 or 4 planets in one shot, but remember the reaction at the Resistance headquarters? As though the entire free galaxy was suddenly gone?) and the First Order still has a lot of strength out there. Kylo's clearly coming back, and even if he wasn't, Snoke and the other Knights of Ren are still skulking around somewhere, so if the story was about the quest to redeem or destroy Kylo and the Sith-lite club, it hasn't come to an end either. It's one thing for a movie to be made as part of a larger trilogy, but for the movie to be successful in and of itself, it has to be self-contained to a certain extent.
For all of its weaknesses, I still enjoyed The Force Awakens. I just hope the audience is given something a little better with the return of the Jedi wannabes in Episode VIII.