Recently I read a film review written by Stephen Dalton from The Hollywood Reporter on the new Star Wars. Here's a link. I thought it was surprisingly unsound. Here are my reactions.
"For all their wooden dialogue and silliness, George Lucas' 'Star Wars' movies were works of intellectual and moral weight; the new J.J. Abrams film revitalizes the saga by infantilizing it — and us."
To me, this opener almost reads like satire - regarding Star Wars as a work of "intellectual and moral weight" and claiming that TFA has only now begun to "infantilize it". What a joke. Stephen begins his article by expecting the reader accept a notion that has been hotly debated since Star Wars' original release in '77 - that the film indeed carries intellectual or moral weight. Just check out this clip:
Siskel and Ebert don't even attempt to defend the 'intellectual' content in Star Wars. They simply convey that any film that evokes emotion and pulls the viewer into the experience can be considered well-made. I agree.
Star Wars does not have significant intellectual or moral depth, but it doesn't need it. Star Wars, and other well-crafted action movies, exhibit how the medium of film can be truly embraced. They show us how moving light and sound themselves can affect our emotions. At it's core, film isn't intellectual; it's emotional. That's why, In my view, the less dialogue there is in a film, the closer it is to embracing its own essence. Star Wars gloriously avoids intellectual depth, and TFA appropriately follows in its footsteps.
"Barely two weeks into its release, The Force Awakens is already a record-breaking, history-making, billion-dollar smash hit for director J.J. Abrams and his Disney paymasters. Old fans love it. New fans love it. Even movie critics love it too, mostly, and we are a notoriously sour bunch."
Here's the one point of view I can agree with - movie critics are a notoriously sour bunch.
"Does it matter that Abrams shamelessly recycles most of the key plot elements from Episode IV: A New Hope? To some critics, sure, but not me. Should we care that Kylo Ren is basically a petulant, bratty, emo-kid tribute act to Darth Vader? Not really, but he is certainly whinier than he is scary. Is it rude to point out that Starkiller Base is easily destroyed thanks to the same fundamentally stupid design flaw as the Death Star? Possibly, but the Empire/First Order might want to consider hiring architects with a basic grasp of safety regulations before building their next planet-sized superweapon. Just a suggestion."
Stephen calls out specific critiques of TFA and claims that they don't bother him. His tone says otherwise. Obviously, Stephen holds these critiques as somewhat sound or they wouldn't have found their way into his article.
So, how about the main point of contention with this film - the 'recycled' plot. Well, inferring this aspect of TFA to be anything other than the result of a heavily considered creative decision is simply foolish. Stephen "points out" reused elements here as if these parallels were the result of the writers' vacant minds being unable to conjure up any ideas of their own - as if they aren't the most centric and obvious thematic idea in the movie. Constructing TFA as a series reboot is a decision you can dislike, but it's certainly not the result of a lack of creativity. Having some time to reflect, I can't think of a better way to introduce Star Wars to a new generation.
And "should we care" about "petulant" Kylo Ren? What does Stephen even mean? Should we care that the writers dropped the ball with this character? Did they drop the ball? Stephen references this complaint without even stating why. So 'bratty' characters are universally known to make for unsatisfactory villains? I personally think that the Kylo-Vader contrast is what makes the character interesting. Actually, I would argue that Kylo is already a stronger character than Vader ever was. He expresses emotion, agonizes over conflicting temptations, and has inspired more discussions between viewers (arguably) than any other character. But yeah, apparently Stephen doesn't actually care about this. I don't really believe him.
Here's where Stephen really goes for the jugular.
"But my one serious beef with The Force Awakens is this: George Lucas was an innovator, and J.J. Abrams is an imitator. Lucas had depth, for all his faults as a filmmaker, while Abrams is a genius at flashy populist spectacle that evaporates into stardust almost as soon as you leave the theater. Star Wars created its own ever-expanding universe of myth, allegory and fairy tale; The Force Awakens is full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing."
Do I really have to point out the difference of position that 1977 Lucas and 2015 Abrams are sitting in? Really? Well, I shouldn't have to, but here I go. One created a series, one was asked to create a sequel to that series. I'd say it was Abrams' duty to be an imitator for this gig. This is almost like going to see a cover band perform and complaining that they didn't write any of their own music.
This statement in particular...
"Star Wars created its own ever-expanding universe of myth, allegory and fairy tale; The Force Awakens is full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing."
...is ludicrous. (And way to 'recycle' a bit of Shakespeare, Stephen)
Stephen constructs the statement as a direct comparison. Star Wars signified something; TFA signifies nothing. What Stephen means to say is 'Star Wars signified creativity; TFA signifies lack of creativity'.
I can't stress how unfitting it is to be drawing this type of comparison between Star Wars and TFA. The contexts in which both the films reside are wildly dissimilar. The principle difference being that Star Wars had no expectations to meet and TFA had every expectation in the universe to meet. The creator-audience relationship couldn't be more different. TFA needed to satiate a multitude of Star Wars disciples who's delicate psyches have been rattled by a long and troubled history of Ewoks and prequels. It also needed to make way for an onslaught of new films. The original Star Wars just needed to be a movie. TFA needed to be so much more. I don't blame Abrams and crew for constructing what they thought was the best way to ease everybody back into the world of Star Wars after so much time.
And as for TFA lacking the 'depth' of Lucas' original, I'm afraid that's a simply a case of Stephen lacking the insight to see it. We'll get to that.
Dalton goes on to outline a bit of Lucas' background and some of his influences. I guess all the name-dropping is supposed to both sound impressive and prove that Star Wars actually was some sort of scholarly masterwork. To me, this more-so displays the breadth of Star Wars, not it's depth. It's certainly doesn't convey that the film is 'smart' - it conveys that it had a lot of influences.
"...the young director simply incorporated elements from this classic pulp sci-fi series into his own self-penned space epic alongside audience-nudging quotes from Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, John Ford's The Searchers, Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will and Fritz Lang's Metropolis — plus Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, The Dam Busters and more.
In building the Star Wars universe, Lucas drew on Jean-Luc Godard and Sergio Leone, Frank Herbert's epic Dune fantasy novels, the hallucinatory writings of hippie cult favorite Carlos Castenada, and Joseph Campbell's seminal 1949 book on mythic archetypes, Hero with a Thousand Faces. He also included lightly disguised references to President Nixon, America's then-recent disastrous defeat in Vietnam and his own Skywalker-esque childhood in Modesto, Calif."
He then gets a little carried away:
"On top of this, he layered Wagner and Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Freud, Nordic sagas and Greek tragedy, Arthurian legend and Biblical allegory. A deep, dense, heady mix, indeed."
Is this guy talking about the same Star Wars that I've seen? Star Wars is indeed an homage to many things but a 'deep, dense, heady mix" it is not. More of a shallow, fluffy, fun mix. The inspiration behind the world of Star Wars is a child-like imagination, a child-like desire for adventure, and a child-like dismissal of responsibility and real world consequences. After all, isn't Luke's life so much better after his shackles of responsibility are removed (i.e. his family is killed) and he can go fly spaceships and swing laser swords at one dimensional Space-Nazis?
Sure, Star Wars contains philosophical musings, but they are succinct and surface-level.
"For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."
-Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back.
So we know that Yoda could adequately teach a few basics of ancient Greek and Hindu philosophy. That's about it. Star Wars isn't intellectually profound, but again, it doesn't need to be to be an incredible movie. Citing literary, social, religious, and philosophical references as the value behind Star Wars is ridiculous. Star Wars doesn't ignite debates on ethics or morality. It doesn't ignite intellect. It ignites a universal sense of child-like wonder. That's where it's value lies.
"Yes, The Force Awakens is a terrific reboot of a stagnant franchise. But it is also pure sensory spectacle, devoid of substance or subtext."
This is one of the more laughable statements in the article, because TFA pretty much has more subtext than all previous Star Wars movies combined. Just the title itself (The Force Awakens) has subtext! This isn't only the awakening of a fictional omnipresent life-force, it's the awakening of a dormant film series. I mean, c'mon. If you're going to claim that something lacks 'subtext', at least think about it for a second.
The film begins with striking images of derelict Imperial walkers and a forgotten Star Destroyer. These weren't created just because they look cool. They represent shadows of the past that continue to loom over the new order, both in TFA's fiction and in our real world. Everything about the movie is staged so that we can feel the parallel movement of time between our universe and the Star Wars universe. Not even the Millennium Falcon has been well utilized in decades. It’s triumphant return to the skies is another direct parallel to the film itself. The writers have constructed a reunion of the beloved ship with it’s most beloved companions - Star Wars fans - I mean, Han and Chewie. You see, of course Han Solo had to lose the Falcon and find it again, because this movie is all about awakening old relationships. Even Han and Leia’s relationship fell apart while we were gone and needed to be revisited. The notion that TFA is devoid of subtext is preposterous.
So how about the substance. Well, unlike Stephen, I don't believe that substance was ever Star Wars' strong suite, so using that as a metric for determining value in the new movie is a little silly.
You see, the original Star Wars is a simple universe where empires are evil because they're empires, rebels are good because they're rebels, space samurai are cool because they have laser swords and space cowboys are cool because they shoot first. War is treated as an exciting adventure devoid of horrors. Evil men will destroy the life of an entire planet and not lose a wink of sleep over it. The good guys will then do the same thing. And have a party. Twice. Wait, now three times.
Don't get me wrong, there's messaging I like in the original trilogy. I like that Luke's ultimate victory starts with him throwing his lightsaber to the ground - choosing not to fight. But this act still happens in the midst of an incredible amount of the same old cartoony war violence happening out the window.
TFA actually depicts a character recognizing some of the consequences of his actions - causing him to question his allegiance. The villain even demonstrates a struggle in determining what's right and wrong. And it's no accident that Rey's story involves breaking free of the past (waiting for her family to return) and embracing a new future and purpose. I think this is what the new film trilogy itself is doing. (Well, if Ep. 8 turns out to be another pastiche then I'm wrong, but I don't think it will be.) Episode 7 looks to the past (A New Hope) and breaks free of it - making way for a new destiny (Episodes 8 and 9). Surely, there's plenty to chew on in TFA.
With all this discussion over the ways in which TFA's story 'copies' Star Wars, it's worth mentioning what it actually does do that's new - chiefly, the characters. And isn't it really the characters that matter most? Aren't characters what make stories fun and worthwhile? There was nobody quite like Finn in Star Wars, nobody quite like Rey, and nobody like Kylo Ren. TFA's character lineup is the strongest in Star Wars history - performances are good, motivations are more interesting, and backgrounds are more diverse.
Back to Dalton:
"In his prime, George Lucas dramatized complex adult ideas for kids. J.J. Abrams has made a children's film for adults."
An adult film for kids - a kids film for adults. Making that distinction is dumb - it can mean whatever you want it to mean. I could say that Lucas diluted complex ideas for kids and Abrams' infused depth into child-like ideas for adults. The comparison means nothing.
"Behind its dazzling visual wizardry, The Force Awakens is essentially Harry Potter in space. As a commercial brand, Star Wars has never been stronger. But the original concept — visionary, experimental, morally challenging, imperfect but wildly ambitious — has been exiled forever to a galaxy far, far away."
So Harry Potter has no substance? Ok, whatever.