The elements of The Force Awakens that we’ve described so far have been mostly about the writing, and almost all of them can be found in the script alone. However, that leaves us most of the actual interesting decisions about appearances, timing, and everything else that makes a movie different than a novel - what pretentious critics call “filmic” factors. Unfortunately there, TFA falls down.
As always, I don’t like saying a movie fails, so much as certain decisions which we may dislike, should cause us to interpret it differently. So please do not read this as complaints “Abrams isn’t as good as Lucas!”, but just a way of noting that the new Disney-branch of Star Wars is going.
How was Abrams work different than the previous six movies?
*We will not be talking about lens flares!* Really, I find that criticism of Abrams way overused.
The most obvious thing is the lack of new music. Star Wars has always benefited from a fantastic soundtrack, with new compositions by John Williams - Luke’s Theme, the Imperial March, these are things we hum to ourselves and also are great thematic backgrounds to portentous scenes. Even the most die-hard Prequel-hater will admit that “Duel of the Fates” is a very good song.
I, uh, didn’t notice any new music in this movie. Apparently Rey has a good theme, but I sure can’t remember it. And there’s little mixing of even old tracks into portentous scenes.
What else is different? Well, the dialogue is clearly written by JJ Abrams in the year 2015. It veers into the snarky and cynical quite often. From the very first scene, we get Kylo Ren dragging a prisoner to be interrogated… and Poe Dameron quips “So how do we do this? Do you talk first or do I?” I expected a laugh track at that line or something, and it was quite a way to cut-down this villain who was trying to be intimidating (fortunately that works, since the movie overall constantly is undercutting Kylo Ren). Poe continues to be the deliverer of several ironically detached lines.
POE: Why did you rescue me?
FINN: Because… it’s the right thing to do.
POE: You need a pilot.
FINN: I need a pilot.
Sigh. I mean it was funny, Oscar Isaac delivers these quips extremely well. But we’re left with what… a defanged villain, and a hugely moral choice that’s revealed to be selfish? It’s a trend we see in a lot of modern escapist movies, where the detached snarks allow the audience to feel “don’t worry, we aren’t taking this laser sword movie tooooo seriously” and that we aren’t being asked to watch characters who have true moral commitments. This isn’t good or bad in of itself, but contributes to the ideological message of the film. Are we being asked to take the characters and their beliefs seriously?
Of course, there’s the long tradition of the cynical comic relief who’s making these jokes only to mask their insecurity. It’s not clear that this applies to the ultra-competent Poe Dameron however. He’s fairly undeveloped as is though, so we will have to see how his character continues to grow and be revealed.
Question three: what was up with the settings? The first planet, Jakku, fake Tatooine, makes plenty of sense. And Star Wars has always had these ridiculously mono-climactic worlds… but after that? We get the vague forest world of Maz and he vague forest world of the Resistance HQ, which makes them look like basically the same place, despite being across the galaxy (though thematically we haven’t really moved at all, and it serves to link Maz with the Resistance. Note how the Resistance ships come in along the water, like they were nearby, but the Imperial ships came from the sky.)
Why is the new Death Star no longer a metallic hellworld, but instead some nordic mixture of icy mountains, snow covered forests, and entrances to the metallic hellworld? It looks like “the Resistance world without the sun”, but what does that mean?
And of course the big issue - light saber battles. We get two light saber fights. One with an untrained user swinging it around for the first time, and only having middling success. That seems par for a story about a rising Jedi (in this case, Finn). Rey’s fight on the other hand… there’s no ignoring it, Rey is badass. She handily defeats the major villain in light saber combat at the end of the movie.
The thing is, this never happens otherwise. Remember the key line of the Original Trilogy “Let the wookie win.” Good guys, at the climax, either lose to or throw away the duel against the bad guy. The Force is not about being more skilled in aggression, but about letting the wookie win. (In Episodes 1 and 2 of course, nominal good guys do win through aggression. That’s part of how we know they are bad Jedi.)
If Rey - who took to mind control like water, and who has stronger telekinesis than Kylo - kicked the dark side user’s butt all over the forest, does that mean she is darker than him?
Lastly, there’s a lot of things we’ve seen in the previous six movies that were missing here. Gentle interactions between robots and aliens. Lots o’ perspective lines (think the Death Star trench, the beams leaving the Death Star gun, and the scrolling text disappearing into the horizon.) Non-main characters working at their jobs in kitchens, factories, passenger ships, just being the lower class of the universe. I’m not sure what these features have been replaced with yet, and will be looking for them upon repeat viewings.