The Revised kesseljunkie Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I seem to be in the process of reposting all my Disney®™©-era Star Wars reviews. With the build to Star Wars: Episode IX: Insert Title Here, I guess it makes sense.

If you want first crack at my reviews, I heartily recommend to link up over on the movie review network letterboxd. We’ll all be better for it!

Some Quick Notes Before You Read the Review

This review for The Force Awakens is a bit brief, especially compared to some of my others. I think it’s largely because I didn’t commit anything to writing until recently. The Force Awakens has been thoroughly discussed and weirdly become something of an afterthought, as well. So I guess this is another one for closing the barn door after the horses have run.

Of course, when the movie first came out, I was caught up in podcasting about it. I wanted to get my two cents in with everyone else who was enraptured with the Rebirth of the Thing We Thought Was Over.

I think I calculated the number of hours I talked on microphone about the movie to something in the neighborhood of 7 hours. One of those shows was 2 hours and 58 minutes long, longer than the movie itself.

More recently, after writing this brief review, I appeared on the Star Wars show I cohost for The Nerd Party, Aggressive Negotiations. The run time on that discussion is about 50 minutes, give or take. I also think it’s a good listen.

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a movie I struggled with mightily at first. My first viewing went poorly. If I remember correctly, I pronounced it “fan fiction” at the time. By “at the time” I mean “as soon as the credits started.”

I don’t entirely retract that sentiment. I got agitated about the number of callouts to the rest of the series on that first viewing; eventually I was able to live with it all in the context of a soft reboot. I’m still annoyed by the fact that it seems to ignore Return of the Jedi‘s core thematic element, though a fair bit less annoyed than how reliant The Last Jedi is on ignoring its importance.

“Relax,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, plays over this moment pretty well, if I’m honest. You’re welcome.

I did find the art in it, though. It is an extremely well-made movie with good characters and some strong performances. The meta-narrative with Han’s character, intended or not, is very interesting. It’s one of the things that I enjoy most about the movie.

Ultimately, while The Force Awakens is well-made, it’s a confection. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is, conversely, somewhat dour in its execution. Solo: A Star Wars Story is joyous in its execution, but then everyone knows that I feel that way. I’ll share my review of The Last Jedi soon, but until then, again, feel free to connect on letterboxd.

And despite all this preamble, I won’t be the least bit surprised if someone gets their knickers in a twist about something. For example, listen to how a dear friend reacted to my critical opinion on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story!

Anyway, this note is longer than the review below. Surprise! Told you it was brief.

My Review of Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Rewatched for a discussion on “Aggressive Negotiations” on The Nerd Party!

I really struggle with whether it’s 3.5 stars or 4 stars. There’s so much good going on here, and it builds up so much goodwill with the new characters, that I want to love this movie.

But there are myriad plot missteps, and the big arc with Starkiller Base is completely unnecessary to the story. You can tell it’s just inserted because “we need a superweapon.”

As a result, something that dominates the back half of the movie is maddeningly not even a real motivation for the characters’ actions – those remain and are strong. Starkiller Base is also a concept that would have been massively interesting developed over the course of several films, but then we’re splitting hairs.

There are some magnificently shot and choreographed moments and strong performances, and so…well, there you go.

I guess it’s 3.5 stars but I don’t want it to be.

An Unanswered Question from The Force Awakens

This is my first time wading into the sequel trilogy with my “unanswered questions” line of blogs, and so I wanted to put a question out there that I’ve honestly not encountered during my many debates about Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

I have to be honest, it might spur a whole string of these question blogs. It’s one of many questions I have about my least favorite element of The Force Awakens…Starkiller Base.

Starkiller Base Firing at Chuck Wendig's House
If it’s firing in Hyperspace, why can we see it? That’s not even my question this time!

What Powered the First Firing of Its Prime Weapon?

When we encounter Starkiller Base for the first time, it’s primed to fire and destroy Hosnian Prime, the quasi-Coruscant that gets a few brief moments in the film before being incinerated. Hosnian, we hardly knew ye.

General Hux gives a fun little psychopathic speech that’s an ode to maniacal dictators of Earth history, and then they fire for all the troops to see. It’s a neat sequence, even if the scene on Takodana (Takeout Diner?) with people witnessing Hosnian Prime’s destruction is a bit too reminiscent of Spock Prime’s witnessing of Vulcan’s destruction in Star Trek (Insert obligatory “2009”) which isn’t in the Star Trek Prime Timeline.

(Honestly, at this point, I feel stuck in a feedback loop where I have to keep using the word Prime at any opportunity. Thanks, Abrams.)

It also creates its own set of questions about witnessing the event from a distance unless Hosnian Prime is in a very close/neighboring system to Takodana. It’s dramatic onscreen, so it’s fine. It’s fine.

Back to the question at hand, later in the film we see Starkiller Base prime for firing. It sucks a nearby star of its energy, plunging all into darkness. It’s a neat sequence, even if I prefer the book’s version of things where the base collects dark energy from the space around it. I think it’s neater and more thematically meaningful if this weapon is drawing literal darkness to power it for its dark deeds. It would also have alleviate the question I have.

If It Needs a Star to Power Its Prime Weapon, How Did Starkiller Base Get the Power to Destroy Hosnian Prime?

This is tougher to answer than I’d like. The “jazzier” visual choice to drain a star onscreen later in the film is what creates the issue.

That’s because obviously, Starkiller Base is lit by a star. There is a light source. It’s close enough that they can siphon its energy quickly and without destabilizing it enough to go nova. I know that Star Wars stretches physical laws – I’m not an idiot – but there is a baseline question about how it all works here, that I’m trying to answer.

It’s tempting to say that one solution is, Starkiller Base moved. It was at Point A, charged up its weapon, and moved. Even though Snoke specifically says in the film, “Prepare the weapon for firing,” he could simply be indicating that the weapon’s been charged and they’re ready to fire off when the command is given.

However, Starkiller Base moving carries its own complications. If it can, and it can hold a charge for an indeterminate amount of time, then it removes their reason not to travel to the general system area of their intended target and fire.

The advantage of Starkiller Base is supposed to be that it can fire through Hyperspace. I’m tabling the question why you’d even be able to see the beam then, but whatever.

Heck, I’m being generous and not asking, if it can target through hyperspace, why not target the star where your desired planet it, and hit that, causing it to go nova and destroy the whole system?

However, if it’s locked into a stationary position, it still opens it to attack. A hyperspace beam is truly advantageous if it can be fired from an indeterminate location; if you’re locked in one place then you can fire the weapon once and you’re done.

Starkiller Base from Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens
I had an alternate interpretation as to how it was constructed, that was cooler than what they’ve established, to be honest.

Back to the Question of a Second Charging Source

Which brings us back to the question at hand. We have no indication that Starkiller Base moved. Given the consistency of lighting and position, it decidedly looks like it didn’t.

The star it drains at the climax of the movie is possibly the second of a binary system. If that’s the case, the First Order planned to fire the weapon all of twice. That seems like an awful lot of effort for two shots.

Perhaps that was enough. Given the fact that The Last Jedi establishes they conquered the entire galaxy about 48 hours after the destruction of Hosnian Prime, I guess maybe that was all they cared about. It still seems like effort disproportionate to the result, and doesn’t account for the idea that any piece of the armed forces were deployed…anywhere…but there you go.

The final option is they were in a star cluster, but nothing visually indicates that as a possibility.

None of these answers are particularly satisfying. But if I’m honest, just about nothing having to do with the Starkiller Base, outside of the design, is.

Zing!

I have plenty of other questions about Starkiller Base that I can answer as authoritatively as any YouTuber. I’ll get to those in enough time.

Draining a Star in Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens with Starkiller Base
I mean, honestly, with how close it is…why was it still cold?

My Repeating Hope: Killing the Expanded Universe (EU)!

OK, that headline is a little bit of an attention-getter on purpose. Maybe I really just want the wounding of the Expanded Universe since there is some stuff worth retaining, like the Thrawn books and a lot of the Prequel Era stuff I’ve read.

I won’t spoil anything, but the recently-unveiled Season Six of Star Wars: The Clone Wars had a final story arc that completely blew up an accepted fact from other sources of “Expanded Universe.” People not very steeped in non-film Star Wars lore likely won’t even catch onto it, but I literally giggled when the simple twist of a name erased a footnote to the “history” of the EU.

Like I said, I won’t spoil anything. But it was a gleeful moment for me that signaled again the willingness on the part of Lucasfilm (and now Disney/Marvel, buying back the comic license) to destroy even a tiny piece of the complex arcana that has been constructed over the last couple of decades.

How much they’ll destroy remains a question. Some sources indicate that it will steer clear of what has happened to allow fans who like the EU to reconcile the new films with the extra materials. This is something I still contend is an issue some fans had with the Prequels; they contradicted EU materials blatantly and willingly. If a fan held those materials dear, there’s undoubtedly a sense of “betrayal” that is felt.

But at least I can believe that the new films won’t feel restricted to follow only the stories that have been put in novels and games up to this point. This gives it all a real chance to feel as fresh and original as the first six, and that’s sure to please me as much as an all-you-can-eat buffet would please Jabba.

And in the end, isn’t the new trilogy just about making me happy?

I think we can agree that it is.

Also, every time I write “EU” I imagine that Vladimir Putin is nodding, saying, “I hate it too!” And then getting really disappointed when I tell him we’re not talking about the same thing.

The Vague Racism of a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Many of the most devoted Star Wars fans obsess over the strangest minutiae while ignoring the more sublime and abstract themes. I take them to task for this on Words With Nerds occasionally, the fine podcast featuring Craig Sorrell and myself.

I tend to go down strange roads when considering the series. I don’t say this to elevate myself, but to qualify that I don’t entertain the usual thoughts about George Lucas’ epic saga.

However, this blog was triggered by how much attention R2–D2 has gotten as the hype machine slowly comes to life for Episode VII: The Fanbase Fractures Further™.

R2–D2 and C–3P0

Every character has their own trajectory in the saga.

We all love R2–D2. As children, few of us noticed the trick (and some complained about as older children) that R2 always had the perfect solution housed somewhere in his metal casing. Regardless, he goes from a simple ship’s mechanic to constant aide of two legendary Jedi.

Threepio goes from “…not very good at telling stories” to a yarn–spinner whose tale gains the necessary help to overthrow the Empire.

Treatment

However, I want to focus on the demeaning treatment that Artoo, Threepio and all ’droids™ received in the Star Wars films, and our blindness to its deeply uncomfortable implications.

To make clear, I don’t mean just the treatment from the Empire or Wuher the bartender (replaced by Bea Arthur after running a meth lab under the Cantina), but the arguably racist treatment they received from the main characters themselves.

Second–Class Sentients

First, of course, let’s establish the treatment of ’droids™ as a whole.

’Droids™ are the Galactic Servants of the Living. Races that don’t wish to risk their own lives build Battle ’Droids™ to fight wars for them, though even those ’droids™ are later given autonomy and display personality.

Setting aside the changing nature of Battle ’Droids™, other ’droids™ act with awareness of danger, act out of self–preservation and display camaraderie and animosity.

Additionally, while ’droids™ demonstrate free will pursuant to consciousness, they are allowed to exercise it only when their master allows.

While Luke seems so “progressive” in the first film at insisting Threepio not use the honorific “sir,” he certainly slides happily into a dominant role later.

They are sent into hazardous conditions without regard for their own well–being. During the escape from Naboo, it’s not human lives on the line but ’droids™ that are thrown out to space to repair the ship under horrifically dangerous conditions.

They run dangerous errands like delivering the Death Star plans. Their safety is at best a secondary concern when Luke sends them into Jabba’s lair, where an actual torture chamber for ’droids™ exists.

This is significant because the series had established by that point that the ’droids™ can feel pain. Threepio exclaims “Ow” quite clearly when Chewie is banging his head while boarding the Millenium Falcon™ in The Empire Strikes Back, and Artoo screams when he’s fried in the original Star Wars (now Star Wars: A New Hope).

Luke sends them anyway, which in this light is nearly inexcusable.

An Inconvenient Truth

Some fans may try to wriggle out of the coming conclusion by telling themselves that our beloved Threepio and Artoo are treated better than other ’droids™. I concede they are treated better.

Restraining bolts are removed. Artoo accompanies Luke to the most secret places without having his memory erased.

But the threat of a memory wipe is there still; one of the first things that Uncle Owen wanted to do in the 1977 film was erase the ’droids™’ memory.

One of the last acts ordered in Revenge of the Sith is Bail Organa’s command to wipe Threepio’s mind. Not just memory, but the entire thing. In other words, he has Threepio lobotomized rather than risk him talking about the Skywalkers.

What sentient being does that to another?

Conclusion

Further, how have we overlooked so plainly in these films that ’droids™ as a whole are basically slaves, aware of their second–class status?

How have we overlooked how tragic it is that Threepio, even when given the choice, insists on calling Luke “Master”?

C–3P0 and R2–D2 are little more than House Servants. Treated more kindly, but with the same condescension as Prissy.

We as fans should be ashamed for not picketing these films and demanding that the next three films show a more evolved way of thinking about sentients! Because if a machine can learn the value of life, maybe we can too.