A Non-Fan’s Spoiler-Free Guide to The Force Awakens

I’ve been fairly vocal about my lack of enthusiasm for The Force Awakens, so naturally I went to see it on opening day. The story is that we’re away all week, today was our day to rest between all-day outings, my son wanted to see it badly, and my daughter and I said “Sure, why not?” By the time we’d decided this, it was still possible to reserve tickets for the least popular showing (5:00 PM, not 3D), so we did. Assuming it would be crowded, we arrived 45 minutes ahead of time, to discover there was already a long line to get into the theater.

Pro-tip 1: Expect crowds.

The theater owners naturally assumed that we were SF movie fans, so the previews were heavily weighted towards that. There were not one, but two Marvel previews, the first of which apparently portrays superheroes in ancient Athens1, as well as a DC movie about Batman and Superman, and another about space aliens invading earth. All the trailers were accompanied by extremely loud, percussive (basically annoying as hell) music.

Pro-tip 2: Ignore the previews.

Finally, the movie itself began with the classic Star Wars title card and theme, which was enough to elicit audience applause. The fellow who usually does the score for J.J. Abrams films turned down this one, saying that everyone (including himself) would rather hear a John Williams score, and he was exactly right. We were introduced to a group of young actors we hadn’t seen before (at least in the Star Wars franchise; I recalled Oscar Isaac from the Coen Brothers’ About Llewyn Davis), all of whom were quite appealing. And they were all both capable of acting like actual people and allowed to do so. There was nothing even vaguely resembling making poor Natalie Portman wear a Victoria’s Secret bustier while telling Hayden Christensen that she wasn’t interested.

Pro-tip 3: George Lucas neither directing nor writing any dialog is a good thing.

There was a good mix of action scenes and character-building scenes, with, of course, an extended high-action scene as the climax. All the things I expected to see as tributes to the original films were there2, though I can’t think of any references specifically to the prequel trilogy.3 And the film as a whole was well constructed, introducing characters clearly, bringing them more or less naturally into the plot, and having a satisfying resolution while still leaving a few loose ends that will clearly be further developed in the next two films.

Pro-tip 4: See Pro-tip 3.

Overall grade 7/10, with a firm intention to see the next one when it comes out in 2017.Notes:

  1. At least judging by its title, X-Men Acropolis. []
  2. I had a good feeling about this. []
  3. There was one brief mention of clone armies, if that counts. []

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Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever. ...more →

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59 thoughts on “A Non-Fan’s Spoiler-Free Guide to The Force Awakens

  1. I saw the original trilogy when it was re-released back in the 90’s/00’s (whenever it was) and not since. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the prequels. Otherwise, I know little of this whole Star Wars thing. Given this background knowledge (or lack thereof) and as someone who enjoys sci-fi grounded in reality, despises most of the fantasy genre, and loves the “Fast and Furious” franchise… how likely am I to enjoy this simply as an action movie?

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        • Aw, I thought GoTG was a lot of fun. Lightweight, sure, and not all that ‘sci-fi’, big-idea-wise; but brisk and funny, a good mix of characters economically-drawn, and a neat visual aesthetic. I’d put it in the Firefly neighborhood.

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              • I didn’t see Ant-Man, but re: “bloated”, it appears to have been 117 minutes, to GoTG‘s 121. I assume that 4 minute difference can be put down to the increased number of characters and locations; not sure what made it “oppressive”, unless that’s a general comment about how LOUD and FRANTIC pretty much every movie is nowadays.

                I won’t say GoTG WASN’T that, but I thought it moved along nicely, I enjoyed spending time in that universe, and I would return to it.

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                • Bloated as in the kitchen-sink plot and number of characters and MacGuffins it wanted me to keep track of (and even care about.) Oppressive as in the number of pointless action scenes I had to sit through until something entertaining happened.

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                  • I think GotG’s problem was…it was a space opera movie in a universe no one knows.(1)

                    That’s a high bar to get over. A lot of explaining, which did make the movie bloated, and a lot of handwaving and hoping people go along with it to keep the movie from being *more* bloated.

                    All space operas, that aren’t set in an established universe, are going to feel like this. At least in the modern day…people actually demand to know what is going on.

                    Which, oddly, brings this back to Star Wars and the fact a lot of fans are somewhat confused about what is going on in The Force Awakens, because Star Wars *didn’t* explain the situation…despite the fact people were perfectly happy to have *no clue* what was happening back when A New Hope came out. And Star Wars isn’t even a new universe…we just had a 30 year gap.

                    Modern audiences want large, intricate world-building, so GotG has to slow down to explain that there was a war with the Kree, and there’s a treaty now, and this rogue guy is attacking, and the Kree won’t do anything, etc, etc. Instead of just ‘This guy is a villain.’.

                    1) Okay, it’s *technically* in the Marvel universe and people know-ish about that on earth, but you have to be a fairly dedicated comic fan to know anything about *space* there. Fun fact: From what I understand, where the Kree and the Nova corps are, in the comics, are a *different* galaxy than ours. So they are, in fact, Guardians of Some Other Galaxy.

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                • The consensus I’ve heard is that it turned out much better than anyone was expecting, after the departure of Edgar Wright (it’s usually not a good sign when the director who’s been working on it forever is not the one who actually directs the film on-set).

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  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but have friends that have, and I’ve read a whole gamut of reviews (and haven’t avoided spoilers, so I know what happens).

    There was a comment on Slacktivist that captures the zeitgeist of the online commentary:

    TFA is a really, really good … tribute band.

    It has real talent going for it, and although it has a loving familiarity with the material, it seems shackled in some ways by having to tick off all the boxes on the set list. And you have a great time, but somehow end up wondering if the reason you loved the best parts was because those were the parts you loved all along.

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    • That’s a good way to put it.

      HOWEVER. I realize that my comparison for the movie was not to the first three from my childhood but to the last three.

      I was thinking that it was nice that someone was making a Star Wars movie like the ones I remembered from when I was a kid.

      They were a bit post-modern due to the sheer number of callbacks to the original three (and the “wait, was that a callback?” little touches) but they were in service to making the audience happy.

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      • The second and third were full of callbacks to the first one too. How many times did someone have a bad feeling about this? (Not a rhetorical question: I’m betting at least one of you can quote every one of them.) The third one had a “blowing up the deathstar” climax too. And Lando Calrissian, the guy who was just out for himself until his conscience made him thrown in with the heroes: does he remind you of anyone?

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  3. It’s definitely hamstrung by its fealty to the original. At times it almost feels like pastiche, even. It’s an OK-to-good action flick trapped in a fan fiction body. I wasn’t bored, but it didn’t leave me dying for more.

    I’ll add this, especial for people with young children whom they’re thinking about taking to see it: its violence is that of a war movie.

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      • It’s instructive to recall the initial joyous reaction to The Phantom Menace as well. Hype is a strange beast. It was about a year IIRC until popular sentiment against TPM curdled irrevocably.

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        • As much as people seem to be enjoying this movie, my son included, I hope that opinion of it doesn’t take a TPM-like turn. It’s not TPM-bad, but TPM was historically bad (and its two sequels even worse). This movie is more Twilight-bad than The Phantom Menace-bad, except it’s clearly fan fiction, so it might be more appropriate to say that it’s Fifty Shades of Grey-bad.

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        • Anecdata:

          1.We had a work outing to go see it. Everybody (even me) was excited to go, and afterward there was near-unanimous disappointment, and for the obvious reasons (Jar-jar, midichlorians, the virgin fishing birth, Jake Lloyd.)

          2. rec.arts.sf.written was also near-unanimously disappointed. There were long threads in which some dufus insisted that its numbers meant it was objectively a success, regardless of the fact that none of the posters liked it.

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      • “Sucks” seems a bit harsh.

        It was an apology that tried too hard but was made so expertly by so many people who were good at this sort of thing that you couldn’t tell how hard it was trying until you were walking back out to the car.

        There seems to have been an active decision to be safe (which, given the prequels, makes sense). They had an apology to make. They made it.

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        • I think it’s precisely on the level of Twilight. Whether “sucks” is an accurate adjective for a Twilight (or perhaps one of its sequels), or a movie on its level is the sort of thing that discussion is unlikely to resolve.

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          • Lucy Stag described it thusly:

            Prequels: flavorless meat with broken glass sprinkled in. The Force Awakens: the right spice, but too much of it, and is this just tofu?— Lucy Steigerwald (@LucyStag) December 21, 2015

            Well, I imagine that JJ Abrams and his staff said “okay, we’re returning to the Monomyth and we’re going to explore the corners that the first trilogy left out… and the big one was “refusal of the call”. We saw two of the three reflections of the heroes refuse the call. They refused the heck out of it. Now, “refusal of the call” is probably the least fun part of the Monomyth. Let’s face it, it’s not why we bought a ticket.

            But in service to exploring the Monomyth, and apologizing for the last three movies, and telling a new story that directly ties into the old story, and subverting tropes along the way, there probably are too many masters. The failings of this movie deal with how many masters it has to serve. But, for my part, I’m glad the audience is one of the masters this time.

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              • Since there are already more than enough front-page reviews, I’ll put my draft review here, mostly blacked-out because of spoilers:

                Let me begin by saying that, while my super-fan son had something to do with it, it is telling that I went to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens on its opening weekend. I haven’t seen a movie on its opening weekend, that I recall, since Attack of the Clones more than a decade ago. I generally hate seeing movies in crowded theaters*, so the fact that I went to see one of the most anticipated movies of my lifetime on its record-setting opening weekend is, then, a pretty good indication of just how excited I was to see it. I am not a Star Wars fan on the level of some of the people I saw this weekend, the people who stood in line for hours dressed in Star Wars gear or costumes to see the film on opening night, for example, but the movies and toys were a big part of my childhood, and I will always love them for that reason.

                Knowing that, you will understand how disappointed I am to have to tell you that it is not a good movie. It is at most a mindlessly entertaining action blockbuster in the Independence Day or Armegeddon vein. At worst, it is a poorly-constructed and confused mixture of fan fiction and science fiction clichés.

                Perhaps what disappoints the most is that it did not have to be as bad as it is. The story is built around two characters with a great deal of potential: a strong, self-sufficient, but emotionally damaged young woman who was abandoned by her parents as a young child in a stark, violent desert town, and a conflicted young man whose adolescent rebellion has led him into the arms of a charismatic cult leader. Their fates are intertwined by their connections to a mysterious and powerful force, the Force, connections which will result in their internal and external struggles impacting events on a scale far beyond their ability to comprehend, much less foresee. This, it seems to me at least, is the foundation for a really interesting story, one that could easily fill three films. Alas, if the first film is any indication, the story built upon this foundation will be so convoluted and unnecessarily adorned with references to the earlier films that it will never come close to reaching its potential.

                To see what I mean, consider that would not be an exaggeration to call The Force Awakens a shameless pastiche of Episode IV. The basic plot-structure and many of the elements are virtually identical: a cute, spunky droid is given a secret that must be delivered to the Rebels/Resistance. After being captured to be traded (perhaps for scraps), the droid, which is hunted by an evil power (the Empire or The First Order) led by a masked, seemingly magical, masked figure who is desperate to obtain the secret, is rescued by a teenager on a desert planet, who thereby becomes a target of the evil power. In their initial meeting, the masked Empirical/First Order leader recognizes that there is something special about the teenager, something that only those initiated in the magical world from which he draws his power could recognize, which makes her as important a target as the secret-carrying droid.

                In both films the teens escape the desert planet in the same damn ship, The Millennium Falcon; in both films they are ultimately aided by the same damn person, Han Solo, who in both films uses his knowledge of the galaxy’s underworld to help them. In both cases, while they’re hanging among his underworld associates things go horribly wrong and they are nearly killed.

                There are more superficial similarities as well: at one point in both movies the Millennium Falcon escapes pursuit by diving into the belly of a beast (though in The Force Awakens, the beast is figurative: a fallen Imperial destroyer). Hell, even the opening shot, with a large Imperial First Order warship passing us, is an imitation of the opening shot of Episode IV.

                Finally, as if an identical beginning and middle weren’t enough, both movies end with Rebels/The Resistance blowing up a planet-sized, planet-destroying weapons system with an X-Wing fighter attack that exploits a small, easily-recognized but poorly defended weakness in the system.

                Add to the pastiche some outright silliness on the level of the prequels, e.g., the surprisingly giant, surprisingly agile tentacled-beasts that actually save Han, Finn, and Rey from two groups of loan sharks out to kill Han, in an utterly unnecessarily part of the film that is little more than a nod to Han’s trouble with bounty hunters in the first two films and plays no real role in the plot, and some nonsensical plot elements, e.g., the First Order foot soldier and former janitor who understands an incredibly complex, planet-sized weapon system well enough to know precisely where its weakness lies, and you’ve got a hugely disappointing film clearly produced more out of fear of failure and fan anger than of a desire to tell an interesting story.

                My only hope for the next two films is that they’ve gotten all of the fan fiction out of their system and can start telling the interesting story of how the conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren shapes events on a galactic scale.

                *Turns out the theater, the same one in which I saw the rerelease of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and two of the three prequels (I didn’t see Revenge of the Sith in a theater), wasn’t even half full.

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                • Chris: Since there are already more than enough front-page reviews

                  What part of “palooza” is unclear to you, sir? Get thee to the post-editor like a good OG!

                  Seriously: I urge you to make it an independent post, multi-block spoilerated as you see fit. Otherwise, you’ll just be making work for your overworked editors posting it for you (or dragged into a should-we/shouldn’t-we?). If I manage to get to the movie, whenever, I’ll maybe-possibly-probably want to post on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if several other OGs will want to say their says.

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                • My only hope for the next two films is that they’ve gotten all of the fan fiction out of their system and can start telling the interesting story of how the conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren shapes events on a galactic scale.

                  For what it’s worth, I hope this too.

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                    • On behalf of the Editorial Empire, I thank you! If you want to learn how to add the Reveal All button and do multi-block (de-)spoilerization, read this: http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/developing/2015/08/spoiling-you-some-more/

                      If you don’t care to learn… then I can do it for you if you provide indications, but it’s not hard – and you may find yourself wanting to do it in the future.

                      Connecting up to the palooza happens automagically if you add the same tags that the others are using (Star Wars, StarWarsVII)

                      No need really to delete the above comment, but anyone preparing to agree or disagree with you violently ought to know there’s a bun in the oven even as we speak. If you link back to this post or the particular comment, there’ll at least be a pingback for those keeping score.

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                • It is at most a mindlessly entertaining action blockbuster in the Independence Day or Armegeddon vein.

                  Or the A New Hope (nee Star Wars) vein. Perhaps that’s the difference between fans and non-fans; I neither expected nor would have desired anything else. If I want a profound meditation on the nature of good and evil, I’ll look somewhere besides an Abrams-Lucas collaboration.

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                  • Yeah. I’m a guy who can take or leave Star Wars.

                    Star Wars is more important for *what it did* and when it did it than the actual movies, which are…good movies, I guess.

                    The dialog sucks, the second and third movies retcon the hell out of the first by making the wise mentor into a near pathological liar. The third movie spends half of its time trying to undo the end of the second movie. The villains are almost cardboard cutouts of evil.

                    But there’s plenty of good. The locations are pretty interesting. The look of a *used* ‘future’ was an important addition to sci-fi.

                    And it’s right up there with Lord of the Rings movies showing movie studies that you *can* produce certain types of movies that were previously thought to be really bad ideas. Without Star Wars, we’d never even have had a Star Trek movie, so there goes that franchise too. No Blade Runner. No Terminator. (And without Terminator, we don’t get Aliens, either.)

                    We probably would not have serious genre stuff *at all*, or had to wait for one of those movies to somehow get made *anyway*. Our 80s sci-fi would be stuff like Real Genius and Weird Science. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we still get Back to the Future and Ghostbusters.

                    And the problem is, Star Wars is almost impossible to talk about objectively, because it was such a huge cultural milestone. (I remember the strange ‘Fandom Über Alles’ assertion that *The Avengers*, of all things, was being held up as some sort of pinnacle of movies and no one can say anything bad about it, which is nonsense, no it’s not. Star Wars, OTOH, really sometimes *is* that.)

                    Having watched The Force Awakens, I have to say…it’s pretty much exactly the same the original trilogy, and, hell, there are some notable improvements. (The dialog sounds like actual real dialog, for example.)

                    I think Disney gave people exactly what they wanted, even if now they think they wanted something else. We already *tried* something different under the Star Wars name, and, uh, everyone hated the prequels.

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  4. Completely OT:

    I think your music pick is absolutely wonderful.
    Not really familiar with Liszt, though I’ve heard a few of his pieces before.
    Thank you for introducing me to this piece.

    Perhaps The Force Awakens would have benefited from a Liszt score.
    (That ought to tie it in well enough)

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