Like everyone else, I watched it. Twice. Unlike everyone else I was crushingly, painfully disappointed. I feel like this is enough of a contrarian opinion to fulfill the mandate of this blog, which I guess is “write the stuff no one else will write.” And even if it doesn’t, what the hell. It’s like I always say, I make the rules, I break the rules. So here we go.
Psych! Nope. I’m going to go go off on a couple of maddening tangents. You know what’s a pet peeve of mine? You want to know what really get’s my goat? Who am I kidding, of course you do.
So I’ll tell you. It’s people who say something like, “you can’t complain that this fantasy movie with orcs and elves and magic is unrealistic. All that stuff is already unrealistic!” I hear this a lot. And you know who are the most annoying people? People who say this. Of course I can complain about this stuff. I can and I will. Now here’s why I’m right and they’re wrong.
A film or a book or whatever can have as many fantastical elements as it wants, and that’s completely fine. Mostly. Within some limits obviously. Some things are harder to swallow than others. If it’s something really tenuous like a dictatorial government successfully subduing it’s citizens by publicly killing randomly selected children once a year, I might have some difficulty accepting that this actually works year after year. So there are limits, but usually this can be fine. Give me your elves and your werewolves and monsters and what have you, and I’ll be down with it. Usually I’ll be more than down. I’ll be up, even. I love that stuff! I love it so much that I have blog devoted to nothing more than analyzing the shit out of that stuff. But here’s the thing. For it to work, it has to stay internally consistent. It has to follow it’s own rules. A work of fiction can have as many fantasy elements as it wants, as long as it clearly follows its own rules. It’s when it stops doing this that I – rightfully! Angrily! Furiously! – begin to complain.
Say your world is one in which there are vampires – that’s fine. Say they sparkle – well that’s a bit silly, but sure, it’s your world, you can do what you want. Say they all have their special powers – now your starting to veer into randomly made up on the spot territory, but as long as you’re consistent you’re still mostly fine. But now say that one of your vampires, who has the power to read all minds suddenly stumbles across a person whose mind they can’t read, well now you’re starting to break your own rules. This isn’t just unrealistic, it’s unrealistic within the boundaries you’ve set for yourself. If you give a reason for why this vampire can’t read this person’s mind, it could be ok, but if you shrug it off as just one of those things, like the power of love, then you are breaking you’re own rules in a major way. This is not ok. This makes your universe as a whole less cohesive and believable, and if any random thing can happen, why does anything matter? Yes, I’m making an allusion to the Twilight books. Yes, there are a lot of other reasons why they don’t work. Yes, I have read the first book, but only the first book. No, I didn’t super enjoy it, but no, I think the level of hate it gets is out of proportion to how bad it is. Side-track over. So, anything can be unrealistic, but if it breaks its own ruleset, it’s internally inconsistent, and this is the worst thing for creating a believable alternative universe.
Now that said, obviously, no work can be completely consistent. If everything about your movie is super cool, and otherwise completely works, we might forgive that in a world where water is super scare, your main antagonist would literally just dump millions of liters of water literally onto the sand.
And this is fine! Building a coherent world is hard. No one can ever make everything completley consistent. But the best get close. This is why, to me, the world of Westeros is so compelling. It builds a world with clear rules and then uncompomisingly sets out to follow those rules. Where many authors go through plot contortions to save characters from deaths or gruesome fates, George Martin follows through on the logical consequences of his characters actions. Mostly. Obviously, good characters, dialogue and a whole bunch of other stuff are important too, but if you create a plot in which literally many things that happen is predicated on breaking the fundamental established rules of your universe, then you have a problem. So let’s talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
And, yes, maybe I’m the odd one out here. And I will happily admit the film has a lot of things going for it. It has charm. The characters, especially the new characters, are mostly well-written, pretty well-acted, well-cast and it has some amazing visual set-pieces. And yet, and yet and yet. I can’t love it.
Let’s back up a bit. Again. Let’s talk about what makes Star Wars great. To me, one of the best things about the Star Wars universe was how real the galaxy felt. It felt real because it had a sense of scale. It had a sense of rawness and grubbiness and character. You don’t know what all those guys in Mos Eisly are up to, but they all feel like they could have their own stories, their own crazy adventures. The galaxy felt lived in, by real people. Sure, the details weren’t filled in, but they didn’t need to be. The subsequent films in the series expanded on the galaxy, always hinting at worlds beyond what we saw. The prequels, for all their faults, really work when their adding new places, suggesting new characters. One of the big reason they mostly don’t work is that they then undermine this sense of scale by adding needless connections to the sequels and unnecessary links between characters that didn’t need to be linked. C-3PO is build by Darth Vader. Obi-Wan killed Boba Fett’s father. Chewbacca fought with Yoda. These connections make the universe feel small, answering questions no one was asking, filling in details that didn’t need to be filled in. Breaking the number one rule: the universe is vast and varied. The prequels make it feel small and homogenous and are, thus, within the rules of the work, unrealistic
Ok, but let’s for real, talk about The Force Awakens. I’m going to be the curmudgeon here, but I’m not even going to complain. I’ll just literally tick off the plot and let you form your own conclusions. Then I’ll tell you what those conclusions should have been. By the way, spoilers I guess, though by now, everyone and their grandma has seen the film.
So, one of the first things that happens is that BB-8 sets off in a random direction. On a planet. Planets are big.
Literally, the second person it encounters is the one other person with a connection to the Skywalkers. But ok, maybe the old guy was living near Rey on purpose. Whatever. Moving on. Meanwhile, in space Dameron is escorted to execution by the one stormtrooper having moral doubts, and equally unlikely, the one stormtrooper having moral doubts suddenly finds himself escorting one of the best pilots in the universe. But ok, maybe Finn somehow engineered it so that he was the one to get that mission. They crash, on the planet, which, remember, is big, and literally the first place Finn encounters after walking in an entirely random direction is the settlement where Rey and BB-8 are.
But ok, maybe the TIE fighter was already pre-programmed to fly in the direction of von Sydow’s camp. But do you see wha’t happening here? I’m having to make excuses for the plot. I shouldn’t have to do this. So, getting back to the plot, the next thing that happens is that Finn and Rey need a ship, and literally the first ship they encounter is the Millennium Falcon. No wait, that’s not right. It’s literally the second ship. My bad. They escape into space and literally the first ship they encounter – within minutes – is piloted by Chewbacca and Han. Are you seeing a pattern here? Because I’m seeing a pattern here.
I’m going to stop here, but the entire rest of the film is like this. Actually no. I’m not. I just want to bring up how monumentally unlikely it is that Han and Finn would randomly stumble upon both captain Phasma and an escaped Rey all on a battle-station that is several orders of magnitude larger than the Death Star.
My point is this, a description of all the unlikely coincidences in the film is basically just a description of the film itself. And this is breaking the fundamental rule of the universe. That it’s big. These kind of coincidences don’t happen in a big universe. Now, don’t give me that “you can’t expect realism in a universe where there are lightsabers and the force and spaceships that go pew pew!” baloney. Yes I can! I went to great pains to describe earlier on why I can. All that stuff is fine, but these crazy coincidences are fundamentally incompatible with the many rules of the galaxy.
“So what?” you say. “It’s unrealistic, but you’re being a pedantic nerd. Just turn off your brain and enjoy the spectacle,” you say. Well, grr, that is also one of my pet peeves, but I’m going to get onto that one in another post. The point is that because all these moments are so unrealistic, that robs them of their emotional resonance. Stumbling onto the Millennium falcon, meeting Han and Chewie should be strong, powerful moments, but they aren’t, because they’re not earned. Instead of careful plotting, it’s like the creators of the film just decided Rey and Finn meeting Han and Chewie would be a cool moment, so it happens. Yes, all fiction is like this, but good plotting is there to disguise the fact that this is a made up story and everything happens because the author thought it would be a cool moment.
Let’s look at an example that really does work. For this, I’m going to go back to Game of Thrones. When Ned Stark gets his head chopped off (six year old spoiler!) you can perfectly trace the reason why this happened. He had been going about, bungling his way through some pretty damning secrets of some pretty powerful people. People with access to money, power, very few scruples and some pretty sharp axes. So the logical thing for them to do is chop his head off (or well, imprison him and put his life in the hands of an inbred psychpath but now we’re splitting hairs). Obviously, the number one reason Ned loses his head is because George Martin thought it would be a cool moment. But because he has taken the care to root the head-chopping in a logical sequence of events, we as an audience don’t think very hard about this fact. Now compare this to when Rey and Finn find the Millennium Falcon. It would be cool if our main characters find the Millenium for a good reason. But here it just happens. There’s no attempt to create a logical sequence of events, it’s just a dumb coincidence. It happens because screw you, don’t ask stupid questions. Thus, it is completely unrealistic and we (and like, really, only, I) can’t ignore the fact that it only happens because JJ thought it would be cool if this happens. I can’t ignore this fact. And now, neither can you. You’re welcome.
So, ultimately, the reason the Force Awakens Fails to completely engage me, is because there is no logical connection between events. Essentially, the film is just a series of really cool set-pieces, and great character moments linked together by a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences. Taken on their own, the moments are pretty awesome. Together, because they defy the basic rules of the universe and are inherently unrealistic, they add up to an incoherent mess. This is why I’m baffled by the overwhelming critical reception.
Loved Rogue One to bits though. Like, I actually cried when I walked out of the cinema because it was so good. At least it tried.
Correction: an earlier version of this post featured fewer pictures of goats. This serious shortcoming has now been amended.
Correction 2: I’m vaguely aware that I probably mischaracterized the Twilight films. I know this isn’t technically a correction, is actually kind an unrepentant anti-correction but just… don’t send me angry emails about it. Or do! I would love some indication that people actually read this blog. I’d be thrilled. So there’s the correction. Correction: I would love to receive angry emails.