The original idea behind this post was to review the force awakens with two years of perspective. I think most people would agree that hype can often skew opinions one way or another. However, I think it’s impossible to talk about one without talking about the other.
The Force Awakens
The first thing I think of when it comes to the Force Awakens is character. Characters like Finn, Rey and Kylo Ren are immediately recognizable and easily memorable. They have complex motivations and they constantly evolve from the beginning of the film to the end. Finn is entirely self motivated out of fear at the beginning of the film. By the end, he overcomes his fear of the First Order. Rey evolves from desperately clinging to the notion of returning parents to letting go of the past and finding purpose with her life. Kylo Ren begins as an angsty teenager desperately trying to prove himself worthy of Darth Vader’s mantle. Yet, rather than the largely controlled coolness of Vader as he chokes unworthy underlings, he throws a fit and slices his room to fits. By the end of the movie, he hesitantly kills his own father and essentially proves himself worthy of the Vader mantle.
The returning characters are handled with similar sophistication and added complexity. The main trio all had simple motivations but excellent character arcs throughout the trilogy. The whiny brat Luke moaning about power converters bears practically no relation to the calm, collected Jedi master who infiltrates Jabba’s palace and defeats Darth Vader in combat. Han evolves from a selfish rogue to a kindhearted leader. Leia as a character largely stays the same, but I think this works to the original trilogy’s benefit. She’s already an admiral character in episode 4 and works as an ideal for Han and Luke to strive towards.
Episode 7 adds complexity and further evolution. Han, Luke and Leia feel like they’re elderly when it would have been very easy to present them as still the same swashbuckling action heroes they were. Han is way in over his head and going through a bad mid-life crisis. Leia’s still the same great leader she was, but she’s stuck in a war room giving orders. The single shot of Luke in episode 7 demonstrates excellent acting from Mark Hamill. The look on his face tells you all you need to know about a man who was broken by his failures.
I think the single failure as far as character is Poe Dameron. He seems shoehorned in. A catalyst for the plot that seems to have been plucked out of a sandpit on the cutting room floor because he tested well with focus groups. He’s likable, but his motivations are simple and he’s the same exact character from the beginning to the end of this movie. He’s marketed and presented as an important secondary character, but he feels like an afterthought.
Most of the Force Awaken’s failures are largely around the plot. It feels heavily recycled. A droid in the desert has valuable information, they take the millennium falcon to the rebellion and then they blow up the death star. They go into totally not the mos eisley cantina. Han Solo suffers a similar fate to Obi Wan. The storm-troopers look sleeker but in the end are the same boring, hapless goons they were in the original star wars trilogy. The silver one whose name escapes me (which tells you all you need to know about the character) is just there to look cool and sell toys. The plot in combination with the similar visual style removes most of the tension. This is most egregious in the third act, where the destruction of Death Star 3 feels inevitable and Han Solo’s death as the old mentor is obvious a mile away. The latter is a real shame, because Adam Driver and Harrison Ford perform the scene spectacularly, and the cinematography with the dying sun is incredible. The plot isn’t entirely without merit. The scene where Rey successfully resists Kylo Ren’s interrogation is an incredible character moment and it sets up excitement for the next film excellently as well as having some immediate payoff in the final shot of the film which is the island Kylo describes. The lightsaber fight at the end of the movie is brilliant. The stakes are high and every hit feels brutal and powerful. When Finn gets slashed in the back, it’s the one point in the movie you really worry one of the main characters might die.
The camera work in this movie is spectacular. Shots like when Finn’s dying comrade marks his helmet with blood work great both emotionally and technically. It makes the audience sympathize with him and also makes him easily recognizable for the rest of the scene. I could go on, but it’s full of great moments like the x wings expanding just above the water, the sweeping camera as the rebellion arrives just in time to fend off the first order at the not Mos Eisley cantina.
I can’t remember any of the characters names from Rogue One. I rewatched the movie yesterday for this article. That’s not a good sign.
The main problem is that Jyn Erso (the main character, botton center right) has no agency. After the prologue, she starts of as a prisoner. Someone frees her and tells her what to do. She does it. She runs into an old friend (bottom right, can’t remember his name). He dies. Someone tells her what to do again. They find her father. Her father fulfills his plot requirement of telling them how to get the death star plans and dies. The team, which you’re supposed to care for as characters at this point, all die after fulfilling their duties to the plot.
I think there is one successful development of character, and that’s Cassian Andor (bottom right center). At the beginning of the film, you see him murder an ally so that he can live to fight another day and help the rebellion. He’s conflicted with the decision to assassinate Jyn’s father. He decides not to because he realizes that the rebellion will never succeed if they continue to kill anyone who gets in their way with reckless abandon. What this movie should have done is made Cassian the main character. His evolution could parallel that of the evolution of the rebellion. The movie starts off on about 30 (I counted!) different planets, which is normally a horrible idea but really communicates well how thin and psread out the rebellion is and how they’re unable to communicate with or trust one another. This evolution of the rebellion as a whole should have been mirrored with a movie centered around Cassian’s personal evolution. The decision for the rebellion to arrive and deliver the death star plans when they originally weren’t going to reflects the earlier decision of Cassian not to assassinate Jyn’s father.
There’s certainly things to like about Rogue One. Like Force Awakens, the cinematography is spectacular. The guns feel powerful and dangerous thanks to excellent gun designs. The third act in particular is just incredible visual spectacle. Almost every situation feels real and dangerous.
The other thing Rogue One does excellently is further building on the star wars universe, which is why I feel like it has to be talked about when talking about The Force Awakens. In the Force Awakens, all the characters, creatures, and locations look exactly like modern versions of what we had previously seen before. The Force Awakens makes the star wars universe feel small and contained, rather than vast and full of mystery. George Lucas himself said as much when he explained why he didn’t like The Force Awakens.
To me that’s the most interesting wrinkle in all of this. George Lucas is a unique creator because he prioritizes world building over all other things. He’s the modern day version of J.R Tolkein. The very first draft of Star Wars mentioned things such as Mace Windu and the Clone Wars, which would later be realized in the actual prequels. Every Jedi on the council in the prequels was specifically named and had a distinct look when most other movie scripts would have Ki Adi Mundi listed as “Jedi Master 3.” Like Tolkein’s later works, Lucas’s got caught up too much in the world building and strayed away from character. The prequels may have had inconsistent at best acting and a lot of bad characters, but no one can deny the incredible additions they added to the star wars universe. Even small things like the variety of battle droids used by The Seperatists and the distinct and varied alien races make the prequels feel completely unique from the original trilogy. The original trilogy had great characters and great plot largely by a combination of coincidence and the talented writers and directors surrounding Lucas. When George got complete control for his prequels, he built an incredible world with characters that often terribly realized.
Rogue One is the version of Star Wars that George would make. It shows a wide variety of new storm troopers despite being immediately before the original movies. It may not be a great movie from the aspects of how we’ve traditionally judged movies, but it’s an A+ as far as Star Wars’s creator is concerned.
If there’s one mistake I think Disney has made with its acquisition with Star Wars, it’s pushing George Lucas out the door. He might not be the man you want behind the wheel, but you sure as hell want a creative genius like him in the passenger seat.