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Brian Nelson
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The Crimes of JJ Abrams
Why I Cried When Han Solo Was Frozen in Carbonite, but Not When He Died
Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
December, 2015        

Amazing visual effects that did not look computer generated.
Some great new characters, especially Finn (sorry China).
The fat X-wing pilot doesn’t die!

More remake than an original movie
Lame antagonist
Character development that is so weak that you don’t care about them

First let me say that I had fun while watching The Force Awakens, but I was ultimately disappointed. And I should not have been, because my expectations were rather low considering the blasphemies of Episodes I and II. I was having a great time at the beginning. I loved the new characters, Finn and Rey, they had the perfect balance of the old and new. Rey personifying the old—a smart variation on Luke Skywalker—and Finn the new—a defector, someone more emblematic of a more complex world than we had in 1977. Plus, Poe, the kick-ass X-wing pilot. Indeed, during that first half hour I felt some of the old magic I’d felt when, as a seven year old, I’d seen Episode IV in the theater in Oxford, OH. Then, unfortunately, Han Solo showed up. From then on, almost every scene with the old characters felt, well, “forced.” It’s a shame because everything was going so well.

But once they threw in Han and Chewie (and later Leia and C3-PO and R2-D2), the film lost its charm. Suddenly, I was pulled out of this fresh universe and into a world driven by marketers and unimaginative screen-writers. And this brings me to my first big problem with the movie: It was too much a remake and not its own film. There is a line between making a homage to Episode IV and creating derivative art that exposes the fact that you can’t come with an original story. Unfortunately The Force Awakens is the latter; something that it didn’t have to be—given its budget and talent— and something that is a great disservice to the new characters. From the droid with the secret plans, to the cantina, to the destruction of the “Death Star.”  The film could not break new ground. This is JJ Abrams first crime. This was actually the same way I felt watching Star Trek: Into Darkness. Which makes me wonder where this problem comes from. Is it that JJ Abrams can’t write an original screenplay or is it the marketing department at Disney saying, “In order to sell more toys we just want an updated version of the original Star Wars. We paid $4 billion for this thing, so we can’t take the risk of losing money on an original idea that doesn’t catch on”?  Which brings me to my greatest fear: That the next two films will also be copies of their respective counterparts—The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I can already see it. Episode VIII will have to be a training film for Rey and a time for the other characters (Finn and Poe) to get smacked around as a buildup for the last film. Sigh.

Again, the old characters (with the exception of Luke) weighed heavily on the film. While I think there was a place for them here, less would definitely have been more. Waiting to bring them in at the very end (as they did with Luke) or even waiting until the second and third film would have been much more impactful. It’s often better to give the audience a little less of what they want, make them earn it. Besides, if you really are updating the film for a new generation, you don’t need them.

A consequence of giving characters like Han Solo so much screen time is that it causes crowding. The new characters have less time to develop and their transitions are too fast or are glossed over completely. For example, there is an interesting moment when Finn is so afraid of the Empire that he wants to leave. But instead of creating a strong “character moment” where he has to consciously choose between his fears and his friends, he is simply forced into fighting by a First Order attack. He doesn’t make a conscious choice. As with other JJ Abrams films, I felt that whenever a character was becoming introspective or about to reach an important epiphany, it was always cut short. And I actually wonder if these scenes exist but end up on the cutting room floor because some executive comes in with a stopwatch and says, “Hey, it’s been almost 90 seconds since someone was shot or something blew up. Get back to the action!” Actually, I expect that it is Abrams himself who is unable to do the character building, the backstory, and the emotional transitions. He’s cheap, expecting the viewer to do it themselves.

Picture of Harrison Ford in The Force Awakens

With so many characters to follow and so much action filling the eye, we end up not knowing the characters well enough to care.

Which brings me to my second big gripe with the film: The death of Han Solo didn’t move me, and it certainly should have. When Spock died in Wrath of Kahn, when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, even when Darth Vader took of his helmet and asked for Luke’s forgiveness. All these scenes brought forth a fountain of emotion—sorrow, tragedy, longing (truth be told, when Spock died, I was in shock for weeks). But when Han Solo died? A shrug. (A lot like I felt when “Kirk” died in Into Darkness…who cares.) You might think that’s because I’m older, but not really. It doesn’t take much to make me cry. I’ll tear up three times watching UP with my kids. So it is much more about how it was done. For example, the audience should get some cues from the actors themselves—if we see them mourning, we mourn with them. But it seems that JJ Abrams was so worried about getting to the next action scene that there is no time for shock or introspection. Darth Vader had his funeral pyre and Scotty played Amazing Grace at Spock’s funeral, but Han Solo who saved the galaxy (twice), got nothing…unless you count that five second hug that Rey gave Leia (without tears!).

Another reason why his death didn’t move me was because I just didn’t believe Han Solo’s story. I just didn’t buy that after all his adventures—the arc of the first three films being how a selfish loner learns loyalty to “family”—that he would have a kid with Leia and then run off and become a smuggler again. He married a princess for Christ’s sake so he clearly didn’t need the money. I also didn’t believe that their kid would just randomly become a mass murderer. Why? I was the rich brat of a princess and a war hero. I had everything, but I decided it would be more fun to go around blowing up planets. This is when some backstory (even if given as dialogue) is necessary to make the characters believable.

And Kylo Ren was just not believable. Nor was he a good antagonist. (Just compare the towering menace of Darth Vader with all that aplomb malice to Kylo Ren…well, you can’t compare, because there is no comparison). Which brings me to another pattern I see in JJ Abrams movies. Adults acting like children. In the Star Trek reboots and now Star Wars we see people acting in juvenile ways, in ways that are much too immature and, ultimately, stupid for their roles and their ages. And when they act this way it breaks character; meaning you stop believing them. You also diminish a character like Kirk by making him too jejune; you undermine what all the other Star Trek writers worked so hard to create—the Captain, strong and dedicated and professional. Han Solo at his advanced age (and trust me, he looked terrible—one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel), acting like a 20-something smuggler, it’s just not credible.

In the case of Kylo Ren, I loved his voice in the mask, and I found him—initially—a pretty scary dude. But when he had a temper tantrum with his light saber, I began to worry. My fears were well founded, when he made mistakes, when he pleaded like a child in front of that giant Gollum dude, he lost his sense of menace. Okay, I understand that JJ Abrams wanted to show weakness in order to make it plausible that he would go to the light. But do it in a smarter way. Show him hesitate to kill someone, such as in the torture scene with Poe. But don’t take the easy way out and just make him young and dumb.

There is one final crime that JJ Abrams has committed here and it is the one that I take most personally. Not only did he fail to make an original film, but he ruined Return of the Jedi. I was thirteen when I saw that movie, at midnight on the day of its release. I had waited the three years from Star Wars to Empire Strikes Back, then three more to Return of the Jedi. And while I hated the ewoks, I loved everything else, especially the happy ending. It was a fitting and right for the characters that I had not only come to love, but avatars through which I had lived. As I thirteen-year-old boy, I WAS part Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewie, all of them. A test of my DNA would have proved it. And I had earned that happy ending, as if I had flown the Millenium Falcon myself, or fought Vader with my home-make light saber. I deserved my happily ever after.

But by making this film, JJ Abrams killed that happy ending.  Now no one lived happily ever after. Leia and Han got a divorce, after raising a psychopath mass murderer and Luke went into self-exile. What the fuck!  Abrams could have gotten around it so easily. You could have just made new bad guys with new backstories with dysfunctions with their parents. But no, you needed to bring in the old characters so you could make more money.

I will not forgive you.



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