Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A few weeks ago, someone on my twitter feed joked that soon, we'd be inundated with a million reviews and thinkpieces about The Force Awakens all starting the same way--with a recitation of the author's personal connection to Star Wars, how they first encountered the movies, what their emotional reaction to the prequels was, and what place the franchise holds in their heart.  This threw me, because it made me realize that I honestly have no idea how I feel about Star Wars.  I don't love it.  I don't hate it.  I can't be indifferent to it--no person who comments on pop culture, and particularly geek culture, can do that.  When I searched my heart for the feelings about Star Wars that were uniquely and untouchably my own, all I found was a big question mark.

So I went back--for the first time in at least a few years--and rewatched the original films (I didn't bother with the prequels, because I know perfectly well how I feel about them--they're awful, and pointless, and watching them once in the movie theater fifteen years ago was at least 0.5 times too many).  And honestly, that just left me feeling more uncertain.  Because the truth is, the original Star Wars films are fractally awful.  The closer you examine them, the more apparently fatal flaws you notice.  The story makes no sense.  The worldbuilding is laughable when it isn't offensive.  The dialogue is wooden.  The actors are even more so, and the only exception consistently makes acting choices that seem rooted mainly in orneriness.  The characters behave like dim children, and their reactions to calamity, either personal or global, are basically sociopathic.  The good guys only win because the bad guys are stupid and incompetent.  The central love story is creepy (and that's before you even get to the inadvertent incest).  And the philosophical conflict that underpins the entire series runs the gamut from hopelessly muddled to morally bankrupt.  The only thing the series has going for it are its visuals (which are on gorgeous display in the most recent, HD versions of the films, though Lucas's CGI embellishments from 1997 look a lot less convincing than the original footage from the 70s and 80s).  But even then, what starts out as genuinely artful in the first half hour of A New Hope devolves into self-cannibalism by the end of Return of the Jedi.

But having said all this, no, I still do not hate Star Wars.  I still, in fact, feel deeply for Luke and Han and Leia, even if I can't tell you why, and I still have a fond reaction to terms like lightsaber, Death Star, and the Force.  I think I like the idea of this story more than I like the reality of it, which is almost enough to get you to buy that Joseph Campbell claptrap that Lucas has been peddling for the better part of four decades.  Maybe the answer is simply that Star Wars is like chewing gum--fun and tasty at first, but the more you chew on it, the less flavor it has, until keeping at it feels more like a chore than a treat.  We've been chewing on this particular piece of gum for 38 years, so it's not surprising that my main reaction to the franchise at this stage is ennui.  It certainly doesn't help that Star Wars has been everywhere in 2015, that the new film's publicity machine has been utterly inescapable, that the internet has been occupied by hardly anything else for the last few weeks (though at least the obsession with avoiding spoilers has provided us with this handy comparison, throwing into sharp relief just how much the entitlement of fanboys is prioritized above the safety and wellbeing of women and people of color).  In the face of all that excitement, all that anxiety, how can someone like me, who at this point mainly finds Star Wars rather fatiguing, even know how she feels?

So probably the best compliment that I can pay J.J. Abrams's The Force Awakens is to say that it has largely swept away my fatigue with Star Wars.  This is not to say that it's a great, or even a very good, movie.  Like the original films, it has flaws that only loom larger the closer you examine it.  It's too long.  Its plot is basically a whole bunch of setup and scene-setting poured into the rough outline of A New Hope.  The mission that makes up its final set-piece was clearly arrived at because someone asked "what's cooler than a Death Star?" and the only answer they could come up with was "an even bigger Death Star!"  Its worldbuilding makes no sense within the film itself and, once it's explained to you, is really quite massively ethically dodgy.  But nevertheless, it's a hell of a lot of fun, with a plot that moves effortlessly, genuinely exciting action scenes, winning characters, and some interesting additions, especially on the visual front, to the series's universe.  All of this is enough so that while you're watching The Force Awakens, its problems seem a lot less important than its pleasures.  Now, possibly all this is just me saying that someone has handed me a fresh stick of chewing gum, but especially with the example of the prequels before us (or for that matter, Abrams's previous attempt to revitalize a moribund SF franchise), let's not pretend that this is an easy thing to do.

As noted, The Force Awakens largely recapitulates the beats of A New Hope, so the plot can be glossed over rather quickly.  Rey (Daisy Ridley), a plucky orphan on a backwater desert planet, finds a droid carrying information crucial to the rebellion against the empire (both "rebellion" and "empire" are being used here as stand-ins for the names the film gives these bodies, but this is effectively what they are; if you actually try to work out the film's geopolitics, you'll end up with either a headache or a burning rage; best not to, either way).  In her quest to return the droid to its owner, she's joined by renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and is taken under the wing of a mysterious old man, here played by Harrison Ford.  (The third member of of the film's trio of young heroes, Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron, is actually a lot less important to the story than the film's promotional material leads us to expect.  He disappears after the first act and never even interacts with Rey.  For most of the movie, the central trio are Rey, Finn, and Han).  The three of them (plus Chewie, of course) bounce around on the Millennium Falcon, facing various dangers, until they arrive at the rebellion headquarters and the film's final act, which revolves around destroying the Death Star (sorry, mega-Death Star).

There are really only two things that Abrams does in The Force Awakens that feel like his own additions to the story, and like setup for his own trilogy rather than a retelling of Lucas's.  The first is that the quest its heroes are set on is the search for the long-missing Luke Skywalker.  The second is that the villain of the piece, the Sith lord Kylo Ren, is Han and Leia's son (real name: Ben, which honestly makes no sense as a name that Han and Leia would give their child).  Technically, the fact that Finn is an ex-stormtrooper is also an original touch, but this is something the film does almost nothing with.  Finn's moral awakening and decision to leave the empire happen in all of a single scene, and as it turns out he never even committed any real atrocities.  We learn that he was essentially a janitor for most of his career, and he never fires his weapon in the battle that crystalizes his realization that he hates his job.

Luke's absence is something that hangs over the film but doesn't really shape it--he's more of a McGuffin who will probably have more of an effect in the next movie(s).  Kylo Ren, meanwhile, is the film's biggest problem, and the place where Abrams most struggles to escape the gravity well of Lucas's shoddy worldbuilding.  We get vague hints of his background--he's disappointed with his parents, especially Han; he was trained by Luke but seduced by the Dark Side; he's currently the apprentice of the new trilogy's Big Bad, the unfortunately-named Supreme Leader Snoke (a CGI puppet voiced by Andy Serkis).  He's also obsessed with his grandfather, and with recapturing what he sees as Vader's lost glory.  But the problem here is that the Star Wars films have never done a particularly good job of defining the light and dark sides of the Force, nor why anyone would be drawn to them.  When Luke supposedly struggles with the pull of the dark side at the end of Return of the Jedi, absolutely nothing shows up on screen, and we have no idea why becoming evil is suddenly so seductive.  There's a similar opacity when we're told that Kylo, though sworn to the dark side, is "tempted" by the light.

What little moral philosophy is laid out by Lucas in the original trilogy is barely worth scrutinizing.  Luke is apparently in danger of becoming evil because he feels anger and hatred towards Emperor Palpatine, a man who has subjugated the galaxy, ordered the murder of billions, and is about to kill Luke's friends.  The planet-destroying, child-murdering Darth Vader, meanwhile, becomes good by saving the life of his son, which is surely at least partly a selfish act.  Oddly enough, it's the prequels that actually come closest to explaining the allure of the dark side, with their story of an abused former slave who is unable to let go of the anxiety and rage bred in him by years of precarious living and the loss of his family, who turns to the dark side for a sense of control (to be clear, the prequels tell this story abominably--"from my point of view, the Jedi are evil," anyone?--but the bones of it are extremely compelling).  But even there, Lucas's ideas of good and evil are simplistic and even offensive.  The Jedi are right to tell Anakin that fear and anger are the path to the dark side.  But instead of teaching him to overcome those feelings (or, for that matter, doing anything for the people still languishing in slavery and oppression, the causes of Anakin's fear and anger), the Jedi tell him that he is a bad person for feeling them.  Unsurprisingly, this does not end well.

Kylo Ren, a child of privilege who was raised by loving parents, doesn't have Anakin's justification for feeling fear and anger.  Neither is he as fearsome as Darth Vader--his displays of anger feel more like tantrums.  He is, in short, an utterly pathetic, entitled, whiny excuse for a villain, made all the more unpalatable because he apparently feels stirrings of conscience but chooses to ignore them.  If The Force Awakens intended for us to recognize how unimpressive Kylo is and leave it at that, that would be one thing.  But to me it feels as if the film wants us to be interested in him, and even wish for his redemption.  Since "redemption," in this case, would mean Kylo getting over his unjustified self-pity and not hurting people for a second, I find myself utterly unsympathetic, and genuinely resentful of every second spent in his presence.  It's particularly annoying that most of the emotional weight of Han's presence in the film (and all of Leia's) is expended on his grief for his son and his desire to save him, when I have to believe that the real Han would have absolutely no patience for the self-pitying streak of piss he somehow managed to raise.

Happily, there's a lot less Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens than there is Finn and Rey, both of whom are delightful.  To be fair, the writing for both characters cuts corners--as I've already said, it isn't really believable that Finn was raised from a child to be a stormtrooper, or that he breaks free of his indoctrination so quickly and so easily.  As for Rey, there's been some criticism of her super-competence--she's a genius engineer, a hotshot pilot, and incredibly strong in the Force--and to be honest, I feel that there's some merit to these complaints.  The Star Wars films are full of preternaturally gifted characters, from Luke Skywalker himself, to Finn and Poe (who are, respectively, a gifted fighter who can pick up any weapon, including a lightsaber, and learn to use it within seconds, and an exceptional pilot who can fly anything).  But Rey's competence moves the plot and solves her problems a lot more often than they do for any other character in the series, and at some point it's hard not to roll your eyes at that.  For me, that point came in the scene in which Kylo Ren tries to interrogate Rey using the Force.  I can accept that Rey manages to turn Kylo's mind probe back on him, because she's been established as a character who can very quickly figure out how things work and use them to her advantage.  It makes less sense to me, however, that in the very next scene Rey uses the Jedi mind trick on a stromtrooper, even though she's never seen it used and, for all we know, doesn't even know that such a thing is possible.  By the end of the film, when Rey beats Kylo in a lightsaber duel despite never having wielded the weapon before, it's hard not to feel that her awesomeness is being layered on a bit thick.

None of this, however, makes Rey a bad character, because the more competent and powerful she becomes, the greater the challenges the film throws in her path.  There is, in addition, something deeply compelling, and quietly heroic, about the matter of fact attitude that Rey takes towards her own abilities, her obvious belief that she is always the person for the job because she's always been able to do it.  Early in the film, she announces that she is waiting for her family--for, it's strongly implied, years and even decades.  "They'll be back, though," she says simply.  The strength required to maintain that faith (and the toll that it nevertheless takes on Rey, whose constant motion is clearly an attempt to tamp down deep-seated anxiety) shines through her every action, and it's that same strength that powers Rey's incredible skill and competence.  It also helps that Rey sparks delightfully with Finn and Han, both of whom are able to keep up with her quick mind.  Some of the best scenes in the movie involve Rey and Finn or Rey and Han furiously discussing a problem and rushing towards a solution at a breakneck pace, quipping at each other all the way.  In the end, the reason that The Force Awakens works as well as it does is that it has Rey at its heart, and that her heart is so obviously pure and true.

A lot of the criticism of The Force Awakens has centered around how derivative it is of A New Hope, with critics decrying it as yet another example of Hollywood's wholesale surrender to nostalgia.  I don't think this is wrong, but I think the word missing from most of these discussions is also the one that most perfectly describes the film: fanfic.  I mean this not in the wide and commonly used sense in which any work set in a universe created by someone other than its current writer is fanfic, but in a very specific way.  Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, for example, are not fanfic of the original series, because they both take the foundation it built seriously, and add something new to it with its own flavor and purpose.  Abrams's own version of Star Trek, meanwhile, is not fanfic, because it lacks the crucial "fan" component, hollowing out the original Star Trek until all that's left is its exterior and filling it with something completely different.  The Force Awakens is fanfic because it is both deeply reverent of the original it builds on, and doesn't add much of its own flavor--though it must be said that this is at least partly Lucas's fault, for constructing a story so flimsy that very little substantial addition could be made to it without completely changing its nature (as we saw in the case of the prequels).  It is good fanfic, though, the kind that finds new notes that the creator never thought of--it's clear, for example, that Abrams has given some thought to the cool things you could do with the Force, as when Kylo Ren stops a blaster pulse in mid-air; and when Kylo and Finn fight with light sabers, they get scorched and cut, because that's what would happen if you fought with flaming swords.  And it's the kind of fanfic that gives more space to women and people of color than the original trilogy did.  That's definitely worth your time and money, and as I've said, it has reinvigorated my fondness for this series--without trying to make it something it isn't and could never be.  But to me, it also illustrates the limitations of this fictional world, and the reason why I will never feel as strongly about it as I do for others.

40 comments:

Richard Weiss said...

I thought there was a clear difference between Finn and Rey, which shaped Finn as the more dynamic and clear-cut protagonist of the movie.

Between Finn and Rey, Fin is the one who’s constantly exercising agency. In a very real way, it’s his actions that get the movie rolling - his decision to defect, his decision to free Poe, his decision to steal a TIE fighter, etc. When he gets to Jakku Village (or whatever) he runs into Rey and BB8, and then decides to pose as a Resistance fighter and join them. Then he leads the other characters in their flight from the TIE fighters. He decides to abandon everyone else on Takodana, and then, when he sees his friends threatened, he decides to re-join. When he gets to Resistance HQ, he decides that he’s going to lie to the Resistance about having a plan to disable the shields so they’ll get him to Starkiller base - all the while it’s his plan to just try and save Rey. At Starkiller Base, he’s even ordering Han and Chewie around. While Finn is never really more than competent, he’s always running around, always in motion, always trying to change his predicament. Finn is kinetic.

Rey is almost the exact opposite. For all that Rey is a Mary Sue/Supremely Capable Badass - she’s a remarkably passive character. When we first meet her, she’s in an almost literal purgatory, which she shows no interest of leaving. She sits on a desert planet, as far away from the action as possible, eking out a (literal) subsistence living scavenging for parts. Not quite a slave, not quite free, she has the know-how to expertly fly and maintain a spaceship she has never been inside but no interest in doing so. She’s an expert mechanic, has the ability to beat up anyone she comes across, but never does more with her talents than continue her subsistence life at the edge of the settlement. Every night, she sits and waits, staring, waiting. If Finn is kinetic, Rey is all potential. Rey is also interia. After they leave Jakku, Finn wants to just get somewhere else so he can restart his life, but Rey just wants to get back to Jakku so she can continue waiting. Rey has an almost John from Cincinnati-like ability to come up with whatever is necessary to overcome any obstacle, but she has to be pushed into those obstacles by other characters, mostly Finn.

There’s a nicely illustrative scene where Finn and Rey are running from the TIE airstrike on Jakku. Finn keeps grabbing Rey’s hand when he starts to run, while Rey keeps grimacing and tearing her hand away while she’s running. The straight up read on this is that Rey is a badass and doesn’t need Finn to help her run. But note that Finn is always the first to run and that he’s literally pulling Rey around.

I wonder if this contrast between Finn and Rey is intentional on the part of the writers, or it’s the result of a bunch of male writers getting together and trying to create a Strong Female Protagonist by making her perfect but neglecting to give her any agency. I think it’s way too heavy handed to be the latter.

Brett said...

I'm hoping Ren doesn't get "redeemed", either, but I think his pathetic, unimpressive nature is interesting. I could totally see that character being tempted into the dark side out of a sense of inadequacy and entitlement - inadequacy because he's not as strong in the Force as his uncle, mother, or grandfather, entitlement because he feels like he should have that strength and is justified in doing whatever it takes to get it.

I'm kind of hoping they go down that road in the future sequels, and don't simply rehash Empire Strikes Back for the next one. Fortunately, it's not Abrams directing it, so we might have some hope.

(to be clear, the prequels tell this story abominably--"from my point of view, the Jedi are evil," anyone?--but the bones of it are extremely compelling).

The Revenge of the Sith novelization sells this very well, unlike the movie.

. . . I think that's what bothers me about this film, the more and more I think about it. The Prequels, despite being deeply flawed, terrible movies (but surprisingly good novelizations!), at least felt like they were reaching for something - trying to show how the Republic turned into the Empire, how the Jedi effectively destroyed themselves, why Anakin turned to the dark side and became Vader. This movie, though . . . it's got good characters and character beats aside from what you mentioned about Finn, but I just can't imagine ever watching it again. There's just not much there there.

I don't know. Star Wars was never "the" nostalgic property that colored my childhood. That was a combination of Jurassic Park and Ninja Turtles, which is undoubtedly why I despised both of their recent big-budget adaptations more than this.

ibmiller said...

Very well said. I particularly agree that the film, for no apparent reason shown in the story itself, wants us to desire Ren's redemption, but at no point (other than the possible factor of Adam Driver's whiny face) does it do anything to indicate that we actually should do so. The contradiction of narrative railroading and moral revulsion didn't sit well.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Richard:

There are different ways for a character to be dynamic and central to the story. Finn, as you say, has a strong sense of what he wants (or at least, what he doesn't want) and no idea how to achieve it - he always needs someone, Poe or Rey or Leia or Han, to help him get what he wants. Rey is great at solving the immediate problem before her, but is also stuck in an emotional moment and unable to move on with her life. The film is about both of them overcoming their difficulties - about Finn finding his competence, and Rey finding a reason to move on with her life. But I would still argue that Rey's story is much more central, and not just because the film so clearly signposts her importance in a way that it doesn't with Finn. Finn may know what he wants, but for most of the movie that is to find a way out of the story. He only gives up on that goal when Rey is captured. Rey, on the other hand, keeps pushing her way towards the center of the story, and even when what she finds there - Luke and Anakin's lightsaber - scares her, she's told that she needs to embrace it.

Also, surely Rey isn't any more passive than Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, who spent his days dreaming of adventure but did nothing about it until a random old man told him "I'm going off to save the galaxy, and you're coming with me"?

Brett:

I suppose in principle Kylo is an interesting character, but it just feels as if I've seen too many iterations on the whiny, entitled privileged white guy lately, and I don't think either the writing for Kylo or Driver's performance do enough to justify yet another one, even if the point of it is purely to demonstrate how unjustified and revolting his behavior is.

That said, IMDb reports that Lee Pace was considered for the part of Kylo, and just imagining him in the role makes the character seem ten times more interesting than he was in the movie. Earlier this year, on the second season of Halt and Catch Fire, Pace played a character who was a destructive, self-justifying, and narcissistic, and did a great job of conveying just how irredeemable he was, but also how miserable it was to be such a person. I also think it might have helped to have cast Kylo with an older actor (Pace is only four years older than Driver, but Driver was made to look much younger than his actual age in the movie), thus stressing the fact that the only person responsible for his terrible choices is himself.

The Prequels, despite being deeply flawed, terrible movies (but surprisingly good novelizations!), at least felt like they were reaching for something

I think that's true. But I think the problem with that is not just that Lucas wrote them badly - though clearly he did - but that the world he created in the original trilogy simply couldn't support that kind of more realistic, morally complex storytelling. You're probably right that The Force Awakens doesn't have much staying power (except as an installment in this series), but that still feels truer to what Star Wars is than the prequels.

ibmiller:

I think the only way to avoid a redemption story for Kylo Ren is if the uproar over his behavior in this movie is so loud that Abrams and his writers scotch the plans they clearly have to redeem him. And you know, it's not that I think a story like that would inevitably be terrible. But first, we already had a redemption story for one terrible mass-murderer in this series, and second, I genuinely resent the time we'd spend on that story instead of with Finn and Rey.

Richard Weiss said...

With regards to Rey v. Luke re passivity: As A New Hope opens on Luke, Luke is chomping at the bit to get off Tattooine and never look back. He wants a life of adventure. He wants to sign up for the Imperial Academy! His actually present family is literally holding him back. Uncle Owen refuses to let him leave because they need him on the moisture farm. (What exactly a farmhand does on a moisture farm is a mystery for another day.) As soon as the storm troopers take care of his family for him, Luke is (embarrassingly) eager to set off on an adventure with Ben. He very actively wants to train as a Jedi, to save a princess in distress, to fly an X-wing into the Death Star and blow it up. Luke, like Finn, is constantly screwing up, constantly getting into trouble, but constantly moving.

Rey shows no apparent interest in even getting off Jakku. She escapes in the Millennium Falcon, but prefers to lose the TIE fighter within the atmosphere then leave the planet. Once off Jakku, she doesn't even put the ship in hyperspace, which is how they get boarded by Han. She doesn't want to help Finn and BB8 get to the Resistance because she needs to get back to Jakku. She refuses Han's job offer because she needs to get back to Jakku. Oh, I'm sure she would like to leave Jakku once her family magically shows up, but the fact is, she sits on a desert planet and waits, and resists every effort to get her into the adventure.

You describe Rey as constantly pushing towards the center of the adventure, but I think it's more accurate to say she is constantly being pushed towards the center. Rey isn't on Starkiller Base for any reason other than she was knocked out, captured, and brought there. Her goal, until she meets up again with the other characters, is just to get escape her cell and get off the station.

I'm probably overthinking it but that's how it seems to me.

Brett said...

You know what I want to see in the future installments, if they can get Carrie Fisher back? Leia actually using the Force, and maybe a lightsaber. We know the Force runs strong in her and Luke, and it seems strange that once they both know, Luke wouldn't try and train her in it during some of her spare time.

scipiosmith said...

The thing that struck me most about Kylo Ren was how much he reminded me of Loki, although that might just have been the hair. But it wouldn't surprise me too much if someone looked at Loki's popularity and decided that that kind of villain was in vogue right now.

Brett: considering that Leia has a pretty full life as a political and military leader (and spent at least some time having a family with Han) it wouldn't surprise me if she just didn't have time or inclination to train in the force on top of everything else.

Daniel Grijalva said...

Rey had far more agency in TFU than Luke did ANH, Luke was bored with life as a moisture farmer and whined about how unfair it was that his uncle wouldn't let him leave. When Obi Wan told him that he should come to Alderaan, Luke said no. It wasn't until Luke couldn't go home that he agreed to come along. He argued that he, Han, and Chewbacca should rescue Leia only after being told that she was nearby, but once out of her cell, Leia led her own rescue - Luke was just along for the ride. He didn't want to leave the Death Star after Obi Wan died, but did so after Obi Wan's ghost told him to do it. Next, he helped Han shoot the TIE Fighters while they escaped because Han told him to do it. He didn't lead the attack on the Death Star, but was a decent enough pilot to avoid dying and then destroyed the Death Star with his eyes closed (targeting computer off).

To recap, Luke was a bored farmboy living with relatives who grudgingly got taken along on an adventure, learned (after he was told) that he had magical powers, and defeated the bad guys with his eyes closed (figuratively), and was loved by everyone.

I find it really hard to believe that criticisms of Rey as a Mary Sue don't stem from the "unbelievability" that a female character can be the main character in a story, especially since her accomplishments and arc are similar (or near identical) to male characters in the same franchise.

S Johnson said...

Structurally, Rey is Luke; Fin is Han; Han is Obi-Wan; Snoke is Darth Vader, more or less. Like Han, Fin is a rogue who falls in love with the heroine and turns into a good guy. I think this is actually moderately well done. It's actually an improvement I think on Han. But then, I've always found the adoration of Han to be inexplicable.

Despite being assigned Luke's role, though, Rey is given a Reluctant Hero personality. This is so extreme that Vader's light saber has to reach out and grab her by the scruff of the neck (psychically of course.) She started promisingly enough, saving BB8 from being brutalized. Admittedly the scene suffered from it not being clear how you brutalize a machine, but still. And then she didn't sell him, realizing the reward meant there really was a secret mission. Alas, that was pretty much the end of her desire to do good. Even worse, the notion that she couldn't leave a forwarding address, messages with friends, signs, rock carvings. I suppose starships are easier technically than these things? This trivializes her reluctance. As a Reluctant Hero, there is no journey for her. Quite aside from how instantaneously learning the Force rather diminishes her discovery, especially since it was forced out of her, she loses nothing. Whether you like Joseph Campbell or not, Luke's journey was at the heart of the original trilogy. Thus, this movie is a repeat with the core removed.

Han's character begins by being undone from what he was in Return of the Jedi. Then his Reluctant Hero (a redundancy given Rey,) is restored to Hero. Then he is restored to being Leia's lover. Then, inexplicably, he becomes Obi-Wan Kenobi. Go figure.

Kylo Ren at first appears to be Darth Vader, but Darth Vader actually is a threat. Kylo Ren is not. Vader was the master, Kylo Ren is an apprentice. It's true that Kylo Ren slays Obi-Wan Kenobi, but that is strictly a visual image bereft of any meaning in the plot. Han does not ascend to guide anyone in the final struggle, achieving victory. I'm not sure how anyone got "loving parents" from seeing Han and Leia in the previous movies. They seemed to me very much the kind of people who were too busy to spend much time loving children at home. And considering how hard a rebel's life is, I'm not sure where "privilege" comes from either. It is true that the attractions of the light side and dark side are unknown, though.

Fin's defection is the most interesting thing about the character. Since he is there to be Han, though, this is not developed in the movie, being of no interest to Abrams, who imagines he is remaking Star Wars with talent. It is to laugh. The dialogue is better, which may be Michael Arndt's doing.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Scipiosmith:

I definitely see similarities between Kylo Ren and Loki, and I agree that this style of hero has been showing up a lot lately (I might add Jessica Jones's Kilgrave to the list as a recent example). I'm sort of torn over whether this is a good thing, though. On the one hand, I like that pop culture is stressing the fact that being a villain often has its roots in the very mundane flaws of entitlement, self-absorption, and a lack of empathy. Especially given that these characters are often white men, and that the heroes opposing them are often women or (less frequently) people of color, that feels like a powerful political statement.

On the other hand, I often feel as if stories featuring these characters expect me to be a lot more interested in their samey backstory than it actually deserves, and to desire their redemption (as I've said, that seems almost inevitable in Kylo's case). Loki is a particularly egregious example because he's one of the MCU's best villains (the best period if you're only counting the movies), and often upstages the heroic characters. Thankfully, Kylo Ren hasn't gone this far, but it still feels as if the movie expects me to be a lot more invested in him than I actually am.

Daniel:

I was reading Todd Alcott's analysis of the three main characters in TFA, and he makes a point that had slipped by me in my recent rewatch of A New Hope: Luke's original plan to get away from his boring life on Tatooine is to go to the Imperial academy and (presumably) become a stormtrooper. That's the hero the movie expects us to root for, a guy who was all set to become a space-Nazi just because he thought his life was boring. Whatever Rey's issues are (and as I've already written, for the most part they strike me as thoroughly understandable character flaws, of the kind that you'd want a well-rounded character to have, and which do not in any way undercut her heroism) she at least had a reasonable sense of who the good guys and bad guys in her neck of the woods were.

S Johnson:

The Alcott essays I link to above do a good job of highlighting how each of TFA's three young leads (by which he means Rey, Finn, and Kylo) mirror the original films' trilogies. Rey is Luke in some scenes, Leia in others, and Han in others still, and this is true of the other two. I wouldn't go quite so far as to call this clever (which I think Alcott thinks it is) - it strikes me as yet another example of Abrams's ventriloquism - but I do appreciate that on this level, at least, the film is not a straight-up retelling of A New Hope.

I'm not sure how anyone got "loving parents" from seeing Han and Leia in the previous movies. They seemed to me very much the kind of people who were too busy to spend much time loving children at home.

I don't doubt that growing up with parents who are busy politicians and war leaders isn't easy and will probably mess you up in some ways. But it isn't abusive, and we do absolutely see that Han and Leia love their son. Kylo has no justification or excuse for growing up to have so little compassion for anyone other than himself. Certainly not in a movie that also includes Rey and Finn, two people who grew up in the kind of hardship next to which, yes, Kylo was incredibly privileged, and still managed to hold on their humanity and empathy.

S Johnson said...

The Alcott essays rely far too much on nonsense. For example, the local power on Tatooine was Jabba the Hutt. Trying to impute malice to Luke (the equivalent of a high school graduate) for not getting that the Empire could be even worse or that tolerating the Hutt could be policy is absurd. He dislikes the character I suppose, but I doubt he has any insight into why. Too much of his analysis depends up on BS like this. The guy even goes so far as to re-write A New Hope in his head: In his version, Luke destroys the Death Star single-handed!

Poe's feckless lies, aimed to be self-serving yet entirely unmalicious, is Han from A New Hope. Alcott tries to reframe Poe's dissimilarities to Luke as deliberate inversions, but really, Luke without the Force?

According to the Revenge of the Sith, succumbing to the Dark Side meant you were then under the control of the Dark Side and its current master. Vader turning on Palpatine in Return of the Jedi was breaking from the Dark Side. In this movie, the Light Side is depicted as adjusting Rey's attitude. I have no idea whether the Dark Side didn't do the same for Kylo Ren. I can't help but be less impressed by Rey's goodness after the light saber made her change her mind. By the same token, I'm less impress by Ren's badness since it seems so likely that the Dark Side did the same to him. I'm not even sure that it matters though, since the movie announces that Kylo Ren is undergoing a character renovation (aka completing his training.)

But it's equally true that the movie gives no reason to want to see Kyo Ren redeemed. The audience wanting to redeem him is irrelvant though. What we are supposed to want is to see Han Solo redeemed as a father, because of our nostalgic love for him. Also, in the end I think the real aim of the scene was to repeat the visual of the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope, because that's what Abrams is doing.

Jo Lindsay Walton said...

I feel you on the ill-defined Dark vs. Light. Maybe it's weird that one of the things I want the film to do is give a sharp simplistic dichotomy between Good and Evil, but I kind of do. Adam Roberts made the suggestion that Kylo Ren's problem is that sons aren't as scary as fathers, which seems right (although creepy children are so a thing, so maybe it's more that Abrams didn't tap into that particular thing). They do a massacre in the first scene, they use genocidal superweapons, so why doesn't the Dark feel more evil? I actually kind of liked the "tempted by the Light" bit because at least it felt a bit diabolic. Hmmm.

Like the Star Wars / Star Trek fanfic distinction. And/or: Force Awakens is a sequel that is also a reboot?

Chris said...

I rolled my eyes when I saw the "Mary Sue" reviews coming in at first, because in the old (now decanonized) Star Wars novelverse, this was a complaint routinely thrown at major new characters, and one of the things I found most unbearable about the fandom towards the end. God forbid there ever be a time when Luke, Han and Leia aren't the prettiest kids in the room.

Now that I've actually seen the movie, I understand the complaint better in this particular case, and I actually agreed with it in the exact same spots that you did (Jedi mind trick, and lightsaber skills). But I also didn't find it to be a fatal flaw, so... yeah.

The other thing is, if I understand Mary Sue complaints correctly, it's not just an unrealistically awesome character, but basically a self-insert into a fictional world who manages to keep pace with and win the approval of the original characters, maybe even outshine them (Rey impressing Han so much at his own game with his own ship that he offers her a job, in this case, would be one of the more blatant examples).

Well... I realize that it's supposed to be a bad thing, but if Abrams was trying to revive Star Wars in this day and age, I have to say a "Mary Sue" is a pretty good way to do it. Because half the people who got sucked into the Star Wars craze when they were kids have had this exact fantasy. Even if they're all grown up now, "hey, remember when you were a kid and you too wanted to fly the Millennium Falcon and have Jedi powers and basically be awesome in that universe?" is a pretty good way to hook them. Like so many movies today, TFA is pretty blatantly trading in childhood nostalgia; this just makes it more explicit.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Jo:

I don't think the issue is so much wanting a simplistic good vs. evil dichotomy, as wanting the films to define their own terms. Kylo Ren clearly isn't some grand evil. He is clearly just a whiny kid so caught up in his own issues that he's failed to notice the literal planets being blown up by the people he's sided with. This does not, obviously, make him any less evil, but it's still a different kind of evil than Darth Vader or even Snoke in this movie, and the fact that the difference isn't acknowledged makes the whole thing hard to accept.

Sons aren't as scary as fathers: I think, on a basic level, this is true, but I also think it has a lot to do with age and time of life. Luke is young when Darth Vader reveals himself to him as his father - young enough to be vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. As I've said already in the comments, I think Kylo Ren, and maybe the film as a whole, would have been a lot more successful if an older actor had been cast (or if Driver hadn't been made up to look ten years younger than he actually is). Then, instead of a story of a concerned father trying to rescue his messed-up kid, you'd have a story about a man in his prime discarding his aging father, which would probably have been more scary.

By the way, for those who haven't read it yet, Adam Roberts's review of TFA is here, and predictably worth reading.

Chris:

Mary Sue is a pretty fraught term all around, and I think at this point its usage is inescapably sexist. As you say, the original Mary Sue was a self-insert character, but as so many people have pointed out, so is Luke Skywalker, to the extent that he's probably named after his creator. On the other hand, if we're to read Rey as a self-insert for J.J. Abrams (and given how much he likes to write about kickass women, that might actually be the case) then there's clearly something more complex going on than the Lucas/Luke connection. And either way, as you say, what's important is how the audience sees themselves in the character, and after a generation of boys imagining themselves as Luke, there's nothing wrong with letting girls imagine themselves as Rey (and hell, maybe some of the boys will want to do that as well).

So I think it's far more useful to discuss the character's competence in terms of how it works or doesn't work in the story, and how the character as a whole interacts with their competence. Someone on twitter made a comparison between Rey and Abrams's Jim Kirk, which I think is instructive. Kirk is a good example of when a Mary Sue-ish character really doesn't work, first because his competence is almost completely informed - he's actually a really bad captain, and the other characters' loyalty to him makes very little sense - and second because he's such an annoying, arrogant ass. That's not to say that arrogant characters can't work, but Kirk is clearly intended to be heroic because of his arrogance, because he's aware that he's the designated hero and doesn't feel that he needs to do anything more to earn that. Rey, on the other hand, is aware that she's the hero and that that means she needs to constantly save the day. Her heroism is quietly confident where Kirk's is full of bluster, and unsurprisingly that makes her a lot more enjoyable as a protagonist.

Niall said...

I'd be interested to see some feedback on how twelve-year-olds react to Kylo Ren. I agree with Adam that Darth Vader's effectiveness for twelve-year-olds back in the day is to do with his role as a father. And I agree with Abigail that as an adult I'd find Ren much scarier if he was my age, rather than younger than me. But it seems to me that Ren isn't intended to be scary to adults, nor intended to be scary to twelve-year-olds in the way that Vader was. I think that if I was twelve, what I might find scary about Ren is *recognising myself in him* -- I'd want to be Rey, or Finn, or Poe, but I'd be terrified that I might turn out to be Ren, that adolescence might make me *lose control*, become a different kind of person. (In that sense I agree with whoever it was first said that Ren looks like an attempt to do Anakin right.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't know how much twelve-year-olds really worry about becoming the bad guy in the story (it is, after all, something that adults tend to struggle with). And I also think it's something of a mug's game to try to read these movies as if they were intended for children, because clearly they're intended for some imaginary child version of their creator who doesn't have much to do with what actual children are like (remember all those desperate defenses of The Phantom Menace that tried to argue that eight-year-olds would love it because they would want to be Anakin and win pod races?). I agree that in principle, offering up Rey, Finn, and Kylo as examples of how one could grow up to be either good or evil is a good story to tell to children, but given the history of this franchise it's not one that I trust very much - Kylo's badness, let's recall, extends to being complicit in the destruction of planets, and this is a franchise with a history of just wiping that sort of thing away. I also don't see how you can describe Kylo's descent into darkness as "losing control." On the contrary, it seems to me that he has made conscious, deliberate choices to do the wrong thing, driven mainly by unearned self-pity. Again, it's worthwhile to show kids that this is a bad thing to do, but given that the film has already given Kylo a potential out by blaming his turn to the dark side on Snoke's corruption of him, I think the message is watered down.

As for doing Anakin right, I guess that depends on what you think the point of Anakin's story is? To me, it was the twin tragedies of an abuse victim not getting the help he needed to overcome his history, and an organization so trapped in its institutional flaws that it failed to recognize how it was destroying and making monsters out of the children it claimed to be saving. In general, I'd like pop culture to spend more time examining how institutions corrupt their members, and how toxic masculinity and entitlement are rarely an individual failing (for example, something that I really wanted Agents of SHIELD to do was recognize how Ward is a product and reflection of SHIELD's failures - of both oversight and policy - but instead the show seems to have relegated him to the role of boogeyman, without examining the organization's role in creating him). But I don't see Star Wars doing that - especially not if it would mean criticizing Luke - and more importantly, I don't see how Kylo Ren fits either of these story beats. I think part of the point of the movie is that as much as Kylo wants to be Anakin/Vader, he isn't at all like him, and that includes not having his justifications for turning to the dark side.

Perhaps this whole story would have worked a lot better if the characters of Kylo and Finn had been combined - if Finn had been more complicit in the First Order's atrocities (but not on the level of destroying planets, and thus not as irredeemable as Kylo is at this point if you actually take the story seriously), and if the film had spent more time on his moral awakening and choice to leave the order. It would also have the added advantage of, for once, telling this sort of story with someone who is not a white man at its center.

Martin said...

The Star Wars films are full of preternaturally gifted characters, from Luke Skywalker himself, to Finn and Poe (who are, respectively, a gifted fighter who can pick up any weapon, including a lightsaber, and learn to use it within seconds, and an exceptional pilot who can fly anything).

I'd argue that neither Poe or Finn are preternaturally gifted. Poe is a professional pilot in an elite military force who has presumably spent his whole life flying. Finn (though it is easy to forget it) is a professional soldier who has trained in combat since he was a very young child. Even Rey's mechanical abilities are not preternatural, they are the result of years of unguided training. They are, for wont of a better phrase, normally exceptional in the way fictional characters so often are.

But the Force is genuinely preternatural - it is divine magic. So this gave me a pretty powerful hovercraft of disbelief since Rey is clearly a once in a generation Jedi of unimaginable power. It didn't really even bump over the "these aren't the droids you're looking for moment" as it seemed more like the Force acting through her than her inventing from first principles. She is shown at several points in the film to be in communion with the Force and I prefer this more internalised depiction to Lucas's ghost of dead Jedis approach. This is what she uses to win the final duel (although it also wouldn't surprise me if Ren was crap at sword-fighting given his lack of any opponents or sparring partners; he's probably never fought anyone who also has a lightsabre until Forceless Finn moments) so she's a sort of warrior-saint and Ridley is very good at that.

Ren's casting is a funny one. I'm surprised to learning Driver is 32 since he looks so much younger and even more surprised to learn that Pace (who is older than me) was considered. That single casting decision would have radically changed the film and Niall's point about the view of teens is an interesting one.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Martin:

The way in which the film shows us Rey in communion with the Force, as you put it, strikes me as making a virtue out of a necessity, and really lucking out. Derek Jacobi's death means that he can't appear as a force ghost even if you could get around the issue that Rey has no history with him (and I assume that nobody wanted to bring Hayden Christensen back to play Anakin's ghost). So instead we get the scene in which Rey finds Luke's lightsaber and is overwhelmed by images of the past, which is probably the first moment in seven movies in which the Force felt to me like, well, a force. But I didn't feel that that extended to scenes like Rey using the Jedi mind trick or winning the lightsaber duel - I think I would have liked more scenes in which we see her learning to feel the Force, not just use it. (I take your point that it's likely that Kylo isn't a very good duelist, but in that case I might have expected Finn to have an easier time with him.)

If you look at promotional pictures of Driver, or other performances, he looks every bit his age. The film clearly works hard with both lighting and makeup to make him look a lot younger than he is.

S Johnson said...

A question? Wasn't it Vader's light saber?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It was Anakin's, and then Obi-Wan gets it after his transformation into Vader (I don't think Vader ever uses the blue lightsaber, but I'm not rewatching the prequels to make sure). He passes it on to Luke, who uses it until the end of Empire, where he loses it when Vader lops his hand off (in Jedi we're told that Luke built himself a new lightsaber, with a green blade). How it then came to Maz Kanata is still an open question.

Chris said...

About Kylo Ren, I do understand them wanting to make him Darth Vader 2.0 (scary wizard in a black mask). What I just don't get is why they decided to make him Anakin Skywalker 2.0 (whiny entitled teenager prone to temper tantrums). Especially since the movie otherwise seems to have gone out of its way to mimick the originals and forget the prequels ever happened. I mean, wasn't that one of the more common complaints about the second trilogy? "They ruined Vader, now he's just a whiny loser!"

About Rey versus Kirk - I think one of my favorite moments in the movie comes when they're being chased by monsters on Han's ship, one of them grabs a hold of Finn with its tentacles, and she gets to a control station and shuts a door at exactly the right moment to cut him loose. Finn: "Did you see that? It closed at exactly the right moment!" And instead of correcting him or rolling her eyes, she just blabs something like "wow, wasn't that lucky?" and then moves on. Compare and contrast Abrams-Kirk's obsession with getting Spock to say "thank you..."

Rav said...

I'd be interested to see some feedback on how twelve-year-olds react to Kylo Ren...But it seems to me that Ren isn't intended to be scary to adults, nor intended to be scary to twelve-year-olds in the way that Vader was.

For what it's worth, I asked my eleven-year old student why Kylo was his favourite character, and his response was: "I like his lightsaber. I like his helmet." I couldn't get much more out of him than that, so I get the feeling that he (and a lot of other young viewers) simply latch onto the aesthetics they define as cool.

Andries du Toit said...

Thanks for this thoughtful and useful review. For me, it reminded me that one of my big questions about the Star Wars franchise is: why so much fuss & passion expended about such thin material? It has long seemed to me that one of the big selling points about the Star Wars movies (especially the first three) was that they were not so much science fiction as *about* science fiction: they were a knowing, tongue-in-cheek but nostalgic recapitulation of an earlier generation of American SF schlock (Flash Gordon, Star Trek). The pleasure of the movies was partly in their narrative and visual pizzazz and flair, but partly also in the self indulgent pleasure of reliving the lost age of boyhood innocence evoked by those movies. That's why the thin plot and the awful world-building do not matter, for the pleasure is not so much in their own internal consistency as in the bygone pleasures that they evoke. A lot of the dialogue in Episode IV is terrible ("I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board") because it is *purposefully* terrible - a lot of the pleasure of the movie is in the knowingness with which it evokes a generation of schlocky science fiction B movies.

Part of the problem of the god-awful prequels is that they had all the simplicity but none of the tongue in cheek lightness, with Lucas's pompous moral sensibility removing much of the interest from the characters (e.g. changing the bar scene so that the alien, not Han Solo, shoots first). The sequel's chief virtue is, as you say, is in its faithfulness to the spirit and the tone of the original movie. (Solo even regains his amoral edge, I think, with that 'let's just say I used to have a bigger crew). I was just waiting for someone to say that BB8 is (or is not) the droid we are looking for...

But in the end, that's also the problem. The biggest movie of the summer is essentially a nostalgic remake of a film that was a nostalgic remake to begin with. Fanfic about fanfic. It's come to this.



Janet Nussbaum said...

OK, you guys made me do it: I've just rewatched the original three Star Wars movies.
[First, allow me to note that I saw them all in theaters when they first were released in '77, '80; and '83]

1. Abigail, I'm sorry, dear, but you are wrong: Luke does NOT say he plans to go to the Imperial Academy to become a storm trooper. He says that he wants to leave the farm for 'the academy." He wants to leave his old life . . . there's no hint what, if anything, he plans to do with the new one.

2. As for the Leia/Han interaction: she gives as good as she gets.

The original film was a space western with good guys and bad guys [only the bad guys wore both the black and the white hats] and no depth. Fun to watch; the good guys won and, in the end, everyone rides off into the sunset . . . nothing that would stand up to any depth of analysis. My crowd loved it because we were all geeks and dreamed to going to the stars.

What everyone has to say here is interesting, but, guys, it's a 99-story edifice built on no foundation. The more you analyse and try to make sense of it, the more it loses it's charm.
-- the three prequels are a wash-out. They take themselves too seriously. I enjoyed Natalie Portman and her clothes and that's about it.
-- as for number 7, not even any interesting clothes.

Abigail's Mom

Daniel Grijalva said...

"The Academy" is the Imperial Academy. This was established in a deleted scene where his friend Biggs is home on leave from the Imperial Academy and Luke talks about joining him there. Luke is more desperate to get away from Tatooine than he is to not party with the Empire.

Andries du Toit said...

I think Janet nailed it.

Janet Nussbaum said...

OK, Daniel, but Biggs joins the rebel Alliance after he leaves the Academy . . . why wouldn't wee assume that Luke would do the same.

Chris said...

""The Academy" is the Imperial Academy. This was established in a deleted scene where his friend Biggs is home on leave from the Imperial Academy and Luke talks about joining him there. Luke is more desperate to get away from Tatooine than he is to not party with the Empire."

Yes, but in that same deleted scene both Luke and Biggs say in no uncertain terms that they have no intention of waiting for the Imperial Starfleet to "draft" them. So it's not the Imperial Academy or at least not a military academy, more likely a generic institution that trains spaceship personnel.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think we're bumping up against the limitations of Lucas's shoddy worldbuilding, but there certainly doesn't seem to be any question that Luke was willing to work for the Empire in some capacity if it got him off Tattooine. And, you know, that's hardly shocking. He wants to make more of himself than his aunt and uncle, and given that the Empire has been the only ruling power he's ever known, it stands to reason that he will do as many disadvantaged people living under an oppressive regime do and join their military. But that's not very heroic behavior, especially when you contrast it with Rey's immediate identification with the rebellion.

Janet Nussbaum said...

Help, I'm being dragged into a serious conversation based on films I consider ultra-light entertainments, but here it goes.

Abigail, this is a conversation I've had many times with your Aunt L.
It is totally inappropriate using our outside-looking-in clear-eyed vision to expect people caught in the midst of a foggy situation to react "correctly."
Luke is a teenage farm boy who knows next to nothing about his history and the galactic events that surround him. He wants to get out into the world and make something of himself. This is neither heroic or non-heroic; it's a boy growing into a man.
Rey, on the other hand, doesn't have Luke's grounding and comforts. She had to grow up much, much too early and lives on the fringes of society. Rebellion is her natural course. Her choice not to sell BB8 to the junk dealer is the gut reaction of an outsider not wanting to do what The Man expects of her.
Rey's heroism is forced on her just as Luke's was. Only, she takes to it much more naturally and with considerable more grace.

Daniel Grijalva said...

In the scene in question, Biggs tells Luke that he's basically deserting on his way back to the academy to join the Rebellion, Luke is shocked, and both are sad that they might never see each other again, so the plan was never that they'd both go to the academy and then join the rebellion once done.

As for not wanting to get drafted, people joined the National Guard to avoid being drafted into the infantry during Vietnam, so why wouldn't people living under the Empire join the Imperial Academy to avoid being drafted into the Imperial Infantry (or whatever the stormtroopers were in)?

At the start of the movie, Luke has 3 main priorities:

1) Get off of Tattooine
2) Get out of his aunt and uncle's home
3) Stop living with his aunt and uncle on Tattooine.

He's already found his way out in the form of getting into the Imperial Academy and as Abigail points out, "many disadvantaged people living under an oppressive regime do and join their military" as a way out of the hardships and situations they're in. I think people are too wedded to the idea that Luke was some perfect do-gooder who would never do anything like join the Empire to consider the fact that it was established that he was going to do it.

S Johnson said...

All that Luke really knows about the Academy is it gets him off the farm and out from under Uncle Ben's thumb. I suppose if you wish you can insist that means he's evil, but then you have the problem of explaining why he sticks with the rebellion.

Rey does not commit to the Resistance, and she explicitly rejects continuing with it, in favor of waiting at home like a dutiful daughter. Events force her to continue. And when the pace slackens, the light saber forces her to go on by inflicting horrific hallucinations on her. That's why at the end she is holding the light saber before her, silently pleading for Luke to take the burden away from her. Maybe there's a subtext of women being purer beings who are above petty masculine power trips, instead of a standard Reluctant Hero refitted with breasts? That seems doubtful, I saw Rey as Reluctant Hero after her rescue of BB8.

Daniel Grijalva said...

I think that it's important to remember that in TFA, the Empire has been gone for nearly 30 years and The Resistance isn't at all the same as the Rebel Alliance. The Empire and New Republic signed a peace treaty after the Battle of Jakku and the Imperial Remnant left to go hide. An analogy to the First Order and Resistance is if, seeing Nazi Germany preparing for war, England and France agreed to send advisors to Slovakia to wage a proxy war against Germany.

There isn't really any in-story reason why Rey would see any reason to join them right away. The New Republic has been in power for her entire life and the Resistance is fighting a preemptive war on behalf of the New Republic against the First Order. Contrast with Luke, who's lived under the Empire his whole life and is fascinated by a growing rebellion against it. Admittedly, it's hard to keep that in mind since TFA is made to be very much like ANH, but if we're looking at character motivation, we can't forget the context that character lives in.

Is anyone arguing that Luke's plan to use the Imperial Academy to get away from Tatooine shows that he's evil?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Daniel:

I'm pretty sure we're meant to understand that Jakku is in First Order-controlled space. After all, the First Order does land there and slaughter the inhabitants with no fear of retaliation. But there, again, we're bumping up against the thinness and shoddiness of this series's worldbuilding. The fact that no one can work out the geopolitics of the movie just from watching it is proving to be a much bigger problem than I initially thought.

S Johnson:

As Daniel says, no one here has claimed that Luke is evil, and I personally have said several times that I find his behavior understandable, if not particularly admirable.

What I have said is that calling Luke heroic for wanting to get off Tattooine (while ignoring the things he was willing to do to achieve that), and calling Rey unheroic for wanting to go back to Jakku (while ignoring her complex family situation) is simplistic. Both characters have heroic and unheroice qualities. Both are also, if you compare TFA to ANH, at the very beginning of their story.

Personally, I find Rey more compelling and admirable, and her need to believe that her family are coming back resonates with me a lot more than Luke's ability to just shrug off the murder of his family (and later his mentor). You can disagree, but may I suggest, if you're planning to comment here again, that you take a long, hard look at the tone of your previous comments, and modulate it? I have no desire to host a flame war on my blog, and certainly not on a topic that is, as my mother so rightly points out, so very silly and trivial.

S Johnson said...

Alcott does imply Luke was evil, in a rank and file imperialist kind of way. My apologies for getting confused and thinking that was relevant.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

And with that I think you might want to bow out of this thread.

Z said...

I truck with pretty much everything you said, save the implication that Kylo Ren isn't scary as hell.

Vader's menace is essentially professional. Sure, I don't want him after me, what with the pilot skills and the saber skills and the choking and the torture, but all those are strategically deployed to get business done as a fixer at large for the Emperor, and the man himself otherwise seems monkish in his self control. If you're not between him and a Rebel fortress, either as a Rebel yourself or just an underperforming member of the Imperial flag ranks, he might be unsettling to share an elevator with, but his personal whims and anguish are probably going to leave you unscathed. I suppose the amoral warrior monk might apply to some teetotalling super lawyer for some questionable industry, but it's an archetype that I don't necessarily think is well represented in the pantheon of people who have, or who I think might, do bad stuff to me.

Ren, though, just reminds me of all the people I've met in the course of my life who shortage of impulse control made me genuinely worried. He's shallow enough that reading the shallow in-universe dark side Nietzsche might be taken up as a personal crusade to do shallow violent things, to expunge personal hangups whose magnitude he overestimates relative to his peers. Anakin had some business, that, as you say, might make him prone to the deep end, but Ren, lusting after the spiritual purity of long dead generations, is nakedly a fascist in a way that wasn't ever real clear in the manifested Vader, prequel backstory or no. I got whiffs of Beer Hall-era Hitler and school shooter and all the co-workers you've had whose descriptions of the magnitude of their self-interest over a drink made you uneasy- in short, of actual unpleasant people, instead of some synthetic Terminator conflation of implacability and evil.

I understand how you might feel otherwise- Kylo Ren, trashing his room with his saber, is undoubtedly childish, except for that saber part. I didn't get so much toddler tantrum as the same toddler plus twenty or thirty years, drunk, with a bat, getting served divorce papers, and fit from doing curls while reciting 'Invictus.' Pathetic, right up until he caves your head in.

And maybe I'm naive, but I'm not so certain that the setup for redemption is as strong as you hold. Establishing Rey as a worthy surrogate child for Leia and Han, and as a committed and powerful pupil for Luke kinda obviates the need for Ren to come home to pad out any relationships, and I thought that a Ren who possessed some pangs of love for his family was essentially seeking out a ritualistically bad thing to do to place him securely on one side of the fence. Granted, if future installments ape the OT as religiously as this one did, including the rather strange notion that confronting the bad guys somehow can't include any violent, offensive notions, then yeah, Ren is coming back two minutes before he dies. But I really do feel okay about hoping otherwise- that Ren is offed by a Rey or a Luke confident in their powers and unafraid to exercise them.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Z:

I think what you're saying about Kylo connects to my observation that I would have found the character more effective if he had been played by an older actor (or if Driver had been allowed to look his age). As you say, there's a difference between the violence of an entitled teenager, and how it looks when that teenager has grown into a thirty-year-old man.

I hope you're right that there's no plan to give Kylo a redemption story, but I'll believe it when I see it. Right now, everything about his depiction in this movie seems designed to anticipate that, even before you start taking into account this franchise's history.

Z said...

Maybe it's just that I read Ren as old enough. I got a thirty vibe from him, kinda figured he'd been born in part to turn over a new leaf in the afterglow of Rebel victory, that sort of thing. Any attempts to sell him as younger, especially with his parents notably weathered, sailed right on past me.

MadScientist said...

OK, about Rey. She thought Luke was a mythical character, but she'd heard the stories, which may well have included descriptions of the Jedi mind trick.

She's survived as a lone woman for many years with her staff as a weapon, which is a lot more melee experience than Luke had going into his duels. In her duel with Kylo Ren he was wounded before the scene ever started, and then had already fought one duel with Finn. I don't think it's at all unreasonable that she can beat him given those advantages.

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