Warning: major spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens ahead.
Last week, I wrote two pieces panning Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The first one went viral -- around 100,000 "likes" and more than 12,000 shares at last count -- while the second one, intended in part to clarify the first, was widely read, but less so.
The second article was necessary in part to explain how, despite finding The Force Awakens full of "plot holes," I nevertheless very much enjoyed it. As for the first article, it set off a firestorm of discussion over what a plot hole is (as explained here, it's simply a logical inconsistency in a narrative, whether critical to the plot or not) and polarized readers into two camps: those who saw not even one of the flaws I saw in the film, which largely accounted for the response on Facebook, and those who saw nearly every single flaw I called out, which was the dominant reaction on Twitter.
The division yet again confirmed, as if any confirmation were needed, that we live in artificially polarized times. Apparently, The Force Awakens can only be regarded as a great or appalling film, and nothing else.
In law school, they taught us to argue both sides of any issue with zeal and ferocity. When I left the law to focus on my poetry, I realized I was in even worse shape than most of my fellow law school graduates: Not only could I effectively, if all too often gratingly, argue both sides of an issue, but my penchant for passionate self-expression inclined me to take personally any side I happened to be advocating.
I now find myself, far too often, feeling strongly about both sides of a divisive issue. This may not be a cure for contemporary polarization, but it does mean that I'm more inclined than many to, having just made the case against J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, now with equal fervor and sincerity make the case that in fact the film has no plot holes at all and is every bit as good as -- indeed, even better than -- people have been saying.
So here are 10 reasons why irate critiques of The Force Awakens miss their mark:
1. You wouldn't watch the seventh film in a seven-film series without first watching its six predecessors, would you?
Or critique such a film via complaints that watching those six predecessors would have eliminated? Of course not. And yet that's what so many reviewers criticizing The Force Awakens have done.
So let's be clear, then: While according to Star Wars lore the Jedi have most often interpreted the idea of "bringing balance to the Force" as requiring the destruction of all Sith (users of the Dark side of the Force), George Lucas himself has repeatedly said otherwise, suggesting instead that "the overriding philosophy of the movies is the balance between good and evil."
Elsewhere he has remarked that the "issues of nature" he wanted to focus on in the Star Wars films included "the idea of positive and negative, a push and a pull, a yin and a yang." In 2002, he wrote that the "mythological footing" of the Star Wars films depends on the idea that "the Force has two sides, the good side, the evil side, and they both need to be there.
Most religions are built on that, whether it's called yin and yang, God and the devil -- everything is built on the push-pull tension created by the two sides of the equation" (emphasis added). And, much like those religious analogs, Lucas has allowed that the two sides of the Force are able to act upon humans every bit as much as through their direction.
What this means, in brief, is that in the galaxy of Star Wars the Force is a mystical, essentially divine energy whose sole purpose is to make sure that neither the good guys nor the bad guys ever pull out a permanent win. More specifically, the Force compels both the good guys and the bad guys of the Star Wars galaxy to play out the same plotlines over and over again, because only by repeating these plotlines can the Force ensure that neither the good guys nor the bad guys will permanently gain the upper hand.
Essentially, the Force is an invisible script, and as long as everyone stays on-script -- which the Force uses many subtle means, and many not-so-subtle vessels, to ensure -- the Force is preserved (or, if you like, it "wins"). All of this is clear from the original Star Wars trilogy and its prequels, and indeed it should be so obvious to moviegoers, whether or not it is to the Jedi, that it's rather astonishing that none of the critics of The Force Awakens seem to realize that, from a certain perspective, the actual "bad guy" of the Star Wars films is the Force itself.
It's the Force that pushes Force-sensitive young people toward the "Dark side" whenever the good guys have gotten too powerful, just as it's the Force that subtly compels the bad guys to make the kind of mistakes even a James Bond villain would blush at whenever they're getting too powerful. Stated even more simply, in the galaxy in which Star Wars takes place, free will is in substantial part an illusion; it's no coincidence that one of the more commonly used Force powers is mind control, and another (as we see Kylo Ren employ repeatedly in The Force Awakens) mind invasion.
The Star Wars version of a deity puts its thumb on the scales of war and justice routinely, and if it often seems as though that thumb is a benign one it's only because (a) the good guys are losing for most of the first six Star Wars films, and (b) we tend to attribute the successes of the bad guys in Star Wars to dastardly scheming, rather than a pinch of dastardly scheming and a whole heap of deus-ex-Force.
It's impossible to watch a Star Wars movie without understanding that the entire series has the equivalent of a literary conceit. And like all conceits, the Force is not merely a rhetorical structure but a totalizing organizational principle. It's the Prime Directive in Star Trek and the MI6 in the James Bond films and the sequential manifestation of Doctors in Doctor Who all rolled into one. And yes, the Force has always been "meta-" inasmuch as the real "balancing" force in Star Wars is the desire of its writers to build drama and suspense in the films and thereby generate a massive and lucrative viewing audience.
The Force is a proxy, then, for the film's writers, which simply means that George Lucas and now J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan are more honest than most screenwriters, not more cynical. It means, too, that when a character acts oddly in Star Wars -- as they often do, with it often, and wrongly, being chalked up to bad writing -- it is in fact, in the world of the films, because that character is either (a) being manipulated by the Force, or (b) trying to combat the Force to re-assert his or her free will.
Never before has a film series so roundly played its own leads -- both protagonists and antagonists -- for fools, as the real power-broker of every Star Wars film is never shown on-screen. In a sense, what Star Wars does is offer viewers a meta-drama whose actual topic is fantastical narrative itself -- specifically, the way in which such narratives often seem like chaotic romps through the imagination when in fact they constitute humankind's attempt to micromanage and even police what any one imagination can conceive.
The good-versus-evil dynamic that has dominated literature and our collective imagination since antiquity is in fact an artificial overlay we devise to pretend that we are the final authors of our own existence; it is too terrifying to contemplate, perhaps, that Good could entirely vanquish Evil and win permanently, or vice versa, and that it's our own shortcomings that make the former impossible. This is why, over time, our narratives -- much like the Force -- always bring both the good guys and the bad guys back into the ring for another round. And ever since Joseph Campbell taught us about "monomyths," these "rounds" have looked a lot like, much like the Star Wars films themselves, the same story being told to us, by us, again and again and again.
2. In view of all the above, Rey is most definitely not a "Mary Sue," whatever Max Landis may say.
A "Mary Sue" character serves as both a wish-fulfillment fantasy and a proxy for the writer who writes her. A "Mary Sue" figure is a self-expressive ego-stroke; she therefore not only kicks butt -- usually beyond all plausibility -- but must also be witnessed by fictional bystanders, and repeatedly, kicking butt. I'm not very interested in or convinced by the term "Mary Sue" in the first instance, but much more importantly, none of this has anything to do with The Force Awakens. Indeed, the writers of The Force Awakens are at great pains to remind us throughout the film that Rey is not naturally as competent as she appears to be during the film's runtime. And the reason for her preternatural competence during the film's runtime is -- you guessed it -- the Force.
While it's true that Rey's remarkably smart, agile, and self-sufficient as The Force Awakens begins, it's entirely understandable that this should be so given that her origin story is similar to Luke Skywalker's only in its most general outline. Yes, Luke was a bit of an idiot early on in the original Star Wars trilogy, but that's because he was raised middle-class by two loving relatives. Sure, he was a crack shot and had an inquisitive mind, but if he often seemed, also, to be a bumbling farmhand, it's because that's by and large what he was. His very early years did not substantially harden him.
Rey's early years could not have been more different. Abandoned by her parents, she was not left in the care of loving relatives, but rather had to fend for herself on a planet every bit as inhospitable as Tatooine. She learned to dexterously make her way through dangerous space wreckage to salvage high-tech detritus; she learned how to defend herself against the (largely male) scavengers who likewise spent their days swarming over downed Empire spacecraft; she learned far more than just rudimentary piloting and repair skills because having these allowed her to do paid work for Jakku heavy Unkar Plutt, including the many months or even years of work she did for him on the Millennium Falcon -- one reason she knows it so well in the film, before she's ever flown it.
So yes, Rey is an exceedingly competent young woman when we first meet her, not because she's a "Mary Sue"-like stand-in for her writers' wish-fulfillment fantasies but because, with no family or friends to protect her, she would've been dead long before the events of The Force Awakens if she hadn't been.
But the movie doesn't rely on this back-story to explain Rey's heroism in the film. Sure, she fights off Unkar's unskilled thugs using basic staff-fighting techniques; and sure, she fixes the Millennium Falcon twice, using knowledge she gained during the period she was its chief mechanic; but that doesn't explain why she's able to pilot the ship as well as she does, or shoot a blaster as well as she ultimately does, or wield a light saber as competently as she finally must in her nighttime, deep-forest battle with Kylo Ren.
What explains those competencies is not some beyond-the-film conspiracy theory but the fact that Rey herself is absolutely astonished by these events. When she pilots the Falcon like a pro, thereby saving her and Finn and BB-8, her excitement afterwards is mixed with bewilderment. She begins to tell Finn that she has no idea how she managed the feats she did, but her monologue is quickly interrupted by other events. After Han gives Rey a laser pistol and she begins mowing down stormtroopers with it, she stops and stares amazed at the gun -- unable to understand how she's so competent with it.
Her battle with the thrice-shot Kylo Ren, who doesn't use the Force on her because he's hoping to make her his pupil (an offer he formally extends during their duel) begins with her looking dogged but sloppy, repeatedly using the saber to thrust instead of slash, until she consciously focuses on the Force -- at which point the battle turns in her favor.
The point is clear, almost to the point of being heavy-handed: Rey is highly competent, but the only thing that allows her to be supernaturally competent is the supernatural energy known in the Star Wars galaxy as the Force. The Force, as these films have already well-established, not only makes one more competent, it also makes one better able to discern others' motives and intentions and, yes, even to be luckier than the average bear.
If you think Rey is just some amped-up Luke, you understand neither character; if you think Rey is some writer's fantasy of himself transplanted into the Star Wars pantheon, you've missed a boatload of obvious clues in the film itself telling you that Rey is entirely the product of in-world influences.
3. As a character, Kylo Ren is vastly superior to Darth Vader.
This is not a knock against Vader so much as it is an acknowledgment that (a) we get Vader's back-story in a trio of prequel films that are universally reviled, making it impossible to fully appreciate the complexity of his journey on the grounds that that journey was exceedingly poorly written and acted; and (b) in the original trilogy, Vader is thrilling largely because of his now-iconic aura of malice, not because his last-minute decision to save his own son from being murdered was a tear-jerking character evolution.
The history of last-minute conversions in literature is a long and storied one, and it's not at all clear that Vader's own turn was particularly subtle or even interesting in this longer view. Frankly, you can read plenty of interviews with Lucas in which he implies a degree of embarrassment over Vader's character, particularly as he was drawn early on in the original trilogy.
For the reasons above, Kylo Ren is a refreshingly blank slate. His back-story comes without baggage, and unlike Vader in the original trilogy, Ren does not begin this new trilogy as a textbook baddie. But it's more than that: Ren's role in this story is nothing like Vader's in Lucas' original trilogy, and indeed there is no character in those earlier films who resembles Ren whatsoever -- except, that is, for Luke after he begins seriously contemplating the power of the Dark Side.
The fact that Ren's closest analog is the protagonist from the original trilogy is what makes Ren a fascinating bad guy right off the bat; far from being merely a rehashing of an earlier narrative arc, Ren answers the question that arc has begged for decades: what if Luke had gone bad?
Ren, like Luke, is a young man born to someone powerful in the Force and someone else with many other admirable skill-sets. But where Leia, Han, Yoda, and Obi-Wan were able to keep Luke on the right side of the Light-Dark divide -- a line that Luke, like Ren, found himself astraddle -- Leia, Han, and Luke were quite evidently not able to do this for Ren. Quite understandably, Luke not only blames himself for this but (given the intervention he received during his own youth) feels it particularly acutely. The result of Ren rejecting his Jedi training so early is that he does not learn to master the Force to the degree that Luke does; as The Force Awakens begins, Ren is strong in the Force but also inconsistent in his usage of it. Indeed, as Snoke points out, Ren is only in the early stages of his training; and, as Han points out, one reason Snoke has not been training Ren with great attentiveness is that he is really just using him for his own purposes. Keeping him strong -- but always in desperate need of more training -- is part of that.
So Ren is strong enough in the Force that he can still fight Finn and Rey at the end of The Force Awakens despite having been wounded not just one but three times by a mix of bowcaster and light saber strikes; however, he is not so strong that when the Force intervenes to take Rey's side during her interrogation, he doesn't quickly meet his match Force-wise. So if, when we first met Vader in 1977, he had mastered the Force and seemed largely in control of himself, when we first meet Ren he is younger than Vader, has not yet mastered the Force, and is still in the midst of being "torn apart" by his own and the Force's Light and Dark sides.
We can better understand how strange Ren's positioning is in the plot of The Force Awakens if we consider that both Snoke and Hux are substantially less conflicted than Ren is about their reasons for doing what they're doing. Snoke has been largely underestimating the Resistance, perhaps because they are a tiny force -- much smaller than the Rebel force of the original trilogy, it appears -- and it is Hux who pushes to destroy several planets simply to punish the Republic for secretly providing financial assistance to an outfit which is, in his Nazi-like view, a detestable congregation of disorderly, mixed-race rabble. Watch the film again and you will see that Snoke seems oddly removed from the current strategies being employed by the First Order -- as though he has bigger fish to fry, namely Skywalker -- and that Hux is contemptuous of Ren's (at least by comparison) immature angst. Which, of course, is the point.
When Ren screams at Rey that Vader's old light saber is "mine," it is not merely the rage of a petulant child we hear, though there is that, but also of a young man whose only anchor, having rejected the pieties of his parents, is a belief that his birthright comes, instead, from his grandfather. Ren at once worships Vader and needs to believe he was destined to be like him, even though, as a teacher, Snoke is no Palpatine and therefore Ren's chances are, as he senses and Han confirms, rather slim.
If Rey was a self-sufficient orphan and Luke a much-loved one, Ren is of an entirely different breed. Ren is a young man who grew up in a time of relative peace, raised by parents who only knew how to be a soldier-politician (Leia) or a space smuggler (Han) and who now have, in retrospect, come to realize that they never had any parenting skills.
In Ren's mind, his parents' sin was to have outlived their greatness -- a mistake his grandfather didn't make. Inasmuch as The Force Awakens is in large part about what happens when lifelong warriors like Luke, Leia, and Han become exhausted or drift outside their element in peacetime, Ren's rebelliousness underscores that there is always a price to be paid for thinking that the time for battling is over -- and perhaps, too, that upper middle-class boys always fruitlessly dream of "greatness" in times of peace.
Therefore, to compare Ren to either Luke or Anakin Skywalker is a grave disservice to the distinctness of his character, back story, and likely character arc. Just so, reading Ren as the clearly designated disciple of Snoke, rather than a seriously confused disciple of his own deceased relative Vader, is a grave error.
4. Finn is the character Star Wars fans have waited a lifetime for.
Never before has a franchise as lucrative as Star Wars provided such robust fan service as is epitomized by the character of Finn. In the cult-classic Clerks, Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) opines that the Rebels killed thousands of innocents when they destroyed the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. His reasoning is that, because the second Death Star wasn't completed when it was destroyed, there were untold thousands of independent contractors still on board when it was blown up.
It's a silly -- if oddly rational -- argument, but it also underscores moviegoers' collective sense that at least a few of the Empire's goons must have been undeserving of mass murder. After all, the Stormtroopers of the original trilogy were brainwashed clones, just as the Stormtroopers of The Force Awakens are brainwashed kidnapping victims. How much moral responsibility does a minion or paid employee really have, when and where he -- be he clone or abductee -- has either been brainwashed or simply put into a no-win, wrong place-and-wrong time situation? Randal asked that question back in 1994, and, in a stunningly direct reply, J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have now answered by confirming this key fan theory as correct: in other words, no, not all those stuck on a Death Star-like super-weapon are evil. In another film, this sort of fan service would have been a three-second gag; in The Force Awakens, fans' query about the moral standing of low-level grunts in the Empire is given answer at the level of a top-line protagonist.
While there's still much we don't know about Finn, including his parentage, we do know that the male lead in this next Star Wars trilogy is a janitor -- not a princess, an alien creature, a swaggering space pirate, or a wide-eyed farmhand-with-a-dream. It's the stuff of fan fiction, not big-budget Hollywood screenwriting, and it's remarkable that thus far critics of the film have given The Force Awakens so little credit for it. While Luke Skywalker was, in a sense, a proxy for the wide-eyed moviegoers of 1977, who'd never before seen a science-fictional narrative on this scale, Finn is a stand-in for the clear-eyed and somewhat cynical moviegoer of this century -- who always wonders what she might say or do were she transplanted into a somewhat ridiculous fictional universe.
Finn's well-intended but chauvinistic impulse to take Rey's hand whenever they're running together is the charming emulation of a boy who's read one too many mass-market sword-and-sorcery paperbacks; his trash-talking of Captain Phasma at Starkiller Base is the sort of schoolground hijinks many of us like to believe we'd bring to our own interstellar adventures. In short, Finn is reminiscent of Justin Long's character in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), an imperfect film that nevertheless can be credited with helping to bring the action film into the Age of the Fanboy. Some are understandably irked by that term and all it connotes, but those who see Star Wars: The Force Awakens as merely a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope have some explaining to do when it comes to Finn's character, as no one in the latter film resembles him. The closest we might come, in fact, is C3PO -- and yet, the idea of elevating an empathetic, C3PO-like figure to a first-order protagonist (no pun intended) is itself an example of risk-taking in a film not yet heralded for that quality.
5. Han's death was hard-earned, not cynical or contractual.
As The Force Awakens begins, Han Solo is separated from his wife and engaging in the same shenanigans he had already become infamous for four decades earlier. That might look like fun to us, but to Han it surely was misery -- and indeed, Han doesn't seem at all happy in The Force Awakens. Instead, he seems tired. And he should be; I can tell you that as I approach forty, nothing in the world sounds worse to me than repeating the behaviors of my youth. Nor do the interactions Han has with Leia in The Force Awakens offer any hope that the two will get back together; rather, they merely confirm that while the former couple will always care for one another, the time in their lives when that caring could express itself in the form of a romantic relationship has ended.
So Han will never again be a father, never again be a husband, and, as he knows perfectly well, will never again find being a rakish smuggler in any sense satisfying. He's a walking dead man: no purpose, no hope, no anchor. He can assist the Resistance in their fight against the First Order, but does anyone know better than Han that that fight will in fact be never-ending? Does anyone think that Han can be the eternal happy warrior, at least of the sort Leia became after Ren turned to the Dark Side? ("Happy warrior" here means only that you need the purpose fighting brings, not that you are actually happy.)
No, what Han wants, oddly enough, is exactly what Harrison Ford, the actor playing him all these years, has always said Han would want: a noble death. Han wants out of the cycle the Force has created, but he wants out on his own terms. Specifically, he wants to make his exit while engaging in a singular act of the very sort the cyclical, balance-oriented Force is not supposed to permit. He wants to give two fingers to the Force, ultimately, whether he thinks of it in those terms or not. And how better to do that than to contest directly with the Force at its very epicenter -- that place it is waging total war for control of a single soul? When Han meets Ren on that catwalk in Starkiller Base he is speaking at once to both the Force and to his son; the words he offers are for his son, but the real offering he has brought -- his body -- is for what passes for a god in the Star Wars galaxy, the Force.
The look on Han's face before he leaves for Starkiller Base tells us that he has made the decision to die. What we do not realize until the last moment of Han's life is that he has cagily created a situation in which he can spit in the eye of the gambler's fallacy: either his very human appeal to his son turns his son toward the Light and thereby unbalances the Force (against its "will") in favor of the Light, or else he compels the Force to do directly and openly what it usually does subtly and in the way that causes maximum surprise and anguish to all participants and onlookers. In short, Han authors his own death in such a way that if he survives, he has broken the Force's hegemony, and if he dies, he has done the very same thing.
6. The First Order of The Force Awakens isn't stupid, it's merely caught in the same cyclical, Campbellian "monomyth" that Han and Leia are.
Yes, from one perspective, it's bewildering to watch the First Order construct what is basically a third Death Star; from another, it seems things couldn't have been any other way -- as being caught in a myth-cycle underwritten by an unstoppable divine force (er, the Force) means (a) having to retread the same steps your predecessors trod, but also (b) always feeling tantalizingly close to breaking the mold. It's no coincidence that the First Order believes it can "fix" what the Empire did wrong merely by doing something similar a little bit better.
After all, that's been the story of our species from the start, as we say each time "this war will make things better in a way all the other wars did not," or "this invention will solve our problems in a way all our other creations did not," or "this political leader will be effective in a way no other has ever been." It's all rubbish, of course; the only way to break a cycle is to break the very wheel upon which that cycle depends. But just as we humans are more inclined to (as we see it) perfect the wheel than destroy it, so too is the First Order.
In this view, the Empire's failure in the original Star Wars trilogy was not a series of faulty design plans for a "Death Star" but the decision to be less vicious than it might have been from the start. After all, Palpatine originally built the Empire via years of political shenanigans, whereas Hux wants to fire his "Starkiller" weapon and destroy the Republic the very moment Starkiller Base is completed. That that weapon would, like the Death Star(s), be one that can destroy planets in a single shot is sensible because, really, what's the First Order's other option? Use conventional warfare? It's reasonable for Hux to think that the mistake made by his predecessors was not that their weapons were too powerful but that their resolve was too plodding.
Meanwhile, Snoke has no particular reason to improve on Palpatine's kill-all-the-Jedi strategy, as by the rules of the Force this is, in fact, the only way for his side of the Force to win: by eliminating the "balancing" function of the Force. For this aim to be achieved, anyone the Force could ever use as a "balancing" vessel must be killed. Seen from this standpoint, the First Order both knows itself to be recreating history and also has just enough reason to believe it isn't -- which is exactly what the Force requires, and why, in a sense, the Force is the real bad guy in these films.
If, in most films, we learn that "crime doesn't pay," in Star Wars we learn that nothing pays -- at least not for very long. For the Galaxy in which all these events take place to be truly free from the overbearing hand of divine interference, the Force would need to be vanquished permanently -- as only then could wars end "for good," whensoever they did end, or peace be eternally abiding, when it's finally forged. Until then, yes, the bad guys will delude themselves and the good guys be recipients of unusual luck; or, at other times, the good guys will delude themselves (e.g., Leia and Han after the original trilogy but before The Force Awakens) and the bad guys be the recipients of unusual Luck (e.g., the New Republic's inexplicable underestimation of the First Order until it's too late to reverse course).
7. Luke is not immaterial to The Force Awakens; rather, he's central to it.
Many have made much ado about the fact that Luke appears in The Force Awakens only at the very end; in fact, his presence is deeply felt throughout, an impressive bit of film-making when one considers that the nominal protagonist of the entire Star Wars universe is only on-screen in J.J. Abrams' new film for less than sixty seconds.
Luke recognizes, like Han, that he is caught in a myth-cycle. He feels this most acutely when the Knights of Ren kill his gaggle of padawans in the same fashion Anakin Skywalker once killed a roomful of younglings. So he flees -- not out of cowardice, but in an attempt to remove himself from a divinely authored narrative, much like Jonah does in the Bible. His hope is that his absence from the Force Narrative will compel that narrative's destruction, perhaps through the arrival of a new Force-user better able than he is to combat the Dark side. And of course he turns out to be correct: his absence from the Narrative soon enough compels an "awakening" (Snoke's term), specifically the Force's "decision" (as it were) to activate Rey, against her will, as a consequential Force-user. So Luke is in fact the author of the events of The Force Awakens, despite his absence for almost the entirety of the film.
Meanwhile, his decision to disengage from the Narrative presents, as a matter of screenwriting, a nice contrast to the decisions made by the other two main protagonists from the original trilogy: Leia returns to dutifully playing her role in the Narrative, and finds there only misery and continued struggle; meanwhile, Han returns to dutifully pretending that he can remain outside the Narrative, and finds, in time, that doing so is impossible. It is only Luke who deduces that for him to truly escape the Narrative he must actually do nothing at all. But to successfully do nothing, he must go where no one can follow him until such time as the Narrative has been compelled to respond to him, rather than vice versa. It's a sign that Luke is indeed, as the films have posited, a master of the Force -- literally.
No one could credibly see -- in any of this -- bad writing. Instead, it's as ingenious and courageous a use of a main protagonist as a blockbuster Hollywood film has dared in many decades. Can anyone else name a big-budget studio film whose most influential protagonist isn't really in the movie at all?
8. The Force Awakens has no plot holes; it's just in the uneviable position of having to continue telling one of the longest and most complex stories ever rendered on film, and having to do so within a two-hour runtime.
Most of the things that confuse you about this movie the first time around are explained via throwaway lines, as you realize when or as you see the film a second time. It's not an elegant solution to the problem of the big-screen epic, but it does mean that, plot-wise, everything actually does come together in The Force Awakens.
How did Poe survive the TIE Fighter crash but not come across Finn afterward? He ejected from the TIE fighter before impact, as did Finn, but was knocked unconscious until many hours afterward; when he awoke, it was nighttime and there was no sign of Finn, who'd long since left the scene of the accident. This is all explained in the film.
How did Han and Chewie find the Millennium Falcon so quickly after Rey began piloting it, when they hadn't been able to find it for years prior to that? Han explains that the Falcon puts off a unique signal that is activated only when the ship's engines are on; when Rey turns the Falcon on, Han and Chewie, who had been looking for that signal for years, pick it up on their computers immediately -- indeed, so quickly that they feel compelled to warn Rey that the same trick could readily be used by the First Order (who likewise know the Falcon's signature, from prior encounters with it).
How did the First Order get hold of the "map" that tracks the first 90% of Luke Skywalker's flight from the public eye? As Ren explains, the "archives of the Empire" contain that information because the remnants of the Empire had tracked Luke up to a certain point in the galaxy -- about 90% of the path of his "flight" from civilization. Luke subsequently manipulated R2D2 in such a way that R2D2 would immediately generate the remaining 10% of the map if a large enough convocation of Light-side Force-users were to occur -- which then did occur at the very moment Leia and Rey meet and hug. That's why R2D2 wakes up at exactly that point. This was fairly clear, if only imperfectly made explicit, in the film: we see Luke instructing R2D2; we see R2D2 wake up at the moment Leia meets Rey; we see Luke's Force-charged light saber seek out Rey to hasten her meeting with Leia; and so on. It's all in the film.
Why does Finn suddenly gain a conscience? Well, he's been brainwashed from birth to believe that the First Order are the good guys and the Resistance the bad guys, and nothing in his many years of janitorial service gave him any cause to doubt that, as the details of First Order military operations were not available to him; once he is given military training, however -- including instruction in blaster use and the basic handling of the taser-/saber-like weapons used by the First Order -- he is sent out into the field, and on his very first mission sees that the First Order is willing to kill unarmed to innocents for no reason whatsoever, so he defects. Why does he choose to defect so quickly? Because Captain Phasma observed his refusal to kill innocents; ordered him to surrender his weapon to her Division Command; found that the weapon had not been fired, despite her orders for all Stormtroopers to fire upon the Jakku civilians, and thereupon ordered him to be sent to "re-education."
Finn, knowing he was mere hours away from a years-long punishment that might successfully indoctrinate him as a killer, chooses to use a Resistance pilot as his getaway driver. Because, during his escape, Finn and Poe destroy more than a dozen First Order aircraft and kill scores of First Order soldiers -- including a number of high-ranking officers -- Finn understandably believes that he is the first name on the First Order's hit-list once they finish their work blowing up the New Republic's home planets (work which Finn knows will take only a day or so). All of this is in the movie.
Other easily missed items are readily recovered on a second viewing of the film. Does Maz Kanata really leave Luke's light saber in an unlocked basement room? No, the extremely secure blast door guarding that particular treasure opens immediately when Rey approaches it, because the Force is exerting itself. Doesn't anyone think it's strange that Kanata has the light saber? Yes, Han and Rey both do, but there's no time for Kanata to explain herself because the First Order attacks. Why does Leia choose Rey to retrieve Luke? Because by then she knows that the saber has "chosen" Rey, and besides which, she has an army to run.
Why does Finn know how Starkiller Base works? Because he was a janitor there, and the film is making the very obvious point that menial workers at the Base's main location would be far more likely to have walked all its corridors than those officers who only use the mess, the control room, and their own bedrooms. How does Rey speak Wookiee? Well, Jakku is a waystation for all sorts of creatures, and perhaps she learned it there -- or, perhaps the Force is putting its thumb on the scale again, causing Rey to not fully appreciate that she really shouldn't be able to understand Chewie.
Why does Poe say that the Starkiller weapon will go off as soon as the light disappears? It's not because Starkiller Base can only operate if it steals 100% of the power of a sun thousands of times its size, rather than merely 98.9% -- that would be a little silly -- but because the weapon has never been tried before, and has no mechanism to "shut off" its draining of the sun that powers it, and therefore the sun must be fully extinguished before the Starkiller weapon is ready to be used. Why does the greedy Teedo just give Rey BB-8? Because BB-8 is fighting back against the net Teedo has thrown on him, making him far too much trouble for the merely opportunistic Teedo to deal with. And so on. It's all in the film.
Never before has it been seen as a "flaw" for a film to require multiple viewings for viewers to fully appreciate and understand its complexities. And that trend shouldn't be bucked simply because some people resent giving more money to the Disney Corporation via subsequent trips to the theater to (re-)see The Force Awakens.
9. J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan faced a much harder screenwriting task than George Lucas ever did.
In 1977, there were no expectations placed on Lucas, and his science-fantasy space opera succeeded in part because America had not seen anything quite like it -- a credit to Lucas, of course, but also a confirmation that there was ample room for artistic failure. When Abrams and Kasdan began writing The Force Awakens, yes, they had the advantage of knowing that the film would make money even if no one came to see it -- due to prior merchandising agreements -- but also knew that this historic film series was coming off a decade of embarrassing critical failures. In other words, fan angst was high, but so were fan expectations -- a terrible combination.
Moreover, Abrams and Kasdan were faced with advancing by thirty years a story so complex that explaining all that had occurred in the intervening decades would be literally impossible. Their solution, and it wasn't at all an unreasonable one, was to write a movie that makes full sense if one merely sees it twice, while nevertheless implicitly promising that many more unanswered questions will be addressed in future installments. Abrams and Kasdan were saddled with decades of bad writing from George Lucas, and a mythic structure that almost demanded a cloying repetitiveness, and yet they managed to hit a home run with nearly every original addition they made to the Star Wars universe.
Consider: as noted here, Rey is exceedingly different from Luke Skywalker, and frankly in a way that makes Luke seem a little wooden; Kylo Ren is an infinitely more interesting and dynamic figure than Darth Vader, especially comparing the two at the end of the first third of their respective trilogies; Finn is an entirely original addition to the Star Wars universe; Hux is more homicidal and zealous than Tarkin, in a way that ups the ante in these films substantially; Snoke is more mysterious and less committed to his apprentice than Palpatine, and of course Ren does not yet appear to be a Sith, making the Snoke-Ren relationship less predictable and more ambiguous than the Emperor's with Vader; BB-8 may not be an improvement on R2D2, but he is thankfully more mobile and, as it were, even "younger-seeming" than R2D2 was in the original trilogy, giving him more opportunities for dynamism; the Resistance is smaller and less powerful than the Rebellion -- by far -- which makes it more interesting and its broader strategic positioning more dire; and the First Order is, frankly, less well-organized and competent than the Empire (cf. Phasma) which opens opportunities for greater rather than less dynamism on their side of the conflict.
Finally, more broadly, this new trilogy has, of course, the advantage of the largest stock of back-story in the history of Star Wars, which (a) enriches the writing options available for Abrams and Kasdan, (b) limits the amount of data-dumping and bland explication these films will require, and (c) enables viewers to more clearly appreciate every echo and deviation these new films will indulge. And of course, technology having advanced as it has, these new films will enjoy much better CGI than any of their predecessors -- and far less of the ham-fisted dialogue that George Lucas became rightly infamous for. It's the richest viewing experience the Star Wars galaxy has permitted us thus far, and we should be damn glad for it.
10. The Force Awakens comes to us at one of the most fraught moments in the history of Hollywood, and it's exactly the right movie for these times.
Television is overtaking film as the richest medium for multimedia entertainment; sequels, prequels, and re-boots that do not substantially challenge their predecessors are now the order of the day among big-budget blockbusters; VR entertainment in on the horizon, raising the question of how much connection we want or need to traditional Hollywood fare and storylines; Generation X is entering its "nostalgia sweet-spot," in which it ages just enough to realize that technology is moving more quickly than it can track, and now threatens to erase its happy memories of earlier times' relative simplicity; our collective sense of being at once tethered to the past and hurtling through an uncertain future is greater than ever before, and leaves us wondering whether or how our popular entertainments can capture this emerging metamodern cultural philosophy. The Force Awakens responds to each of these phenomena in different ways, but it responds to all in a way no other entry in a longstanding film franchise has. It is all well and good to say that the film offers us rip-roaring entertainment and a dollop of nostalgia-laden escapism -- as so many reviewers of the film have averred, and as is self-evidently true -- but it is quite another thing to acknowledge the historically unique challenges and achievements of the film, all of which permit it to be called the best in the Star Wars franchise thus far.
Seth Abramson is Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing and an Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire. His most recent book is Metamericana (BlazeVOX, 2015).