When it was first announced in October of 2012 that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion and that Star Wars Episode VII was on its way for 2015, I wrote the following:
Star Wars isn’t about the setting for me. Its power for me is the power of the mythic story and characters. With the original story arc complete and the back story told, I find it hard to get excited about something that will almost certainly wind up being derivative or if original, something that could have just as well been told outside of the Star Wars setting. It’s the difference between a story that is broken up and told episodically versus a story that gets an uncalled for sequel. I’m open to being proven wrong though.
Despite this initially reserved greeting to the announcement of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, I warmed up to the idea when early reports indicated that George Lucas had sold Disney story treatments for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX that would serve as a basis for the new films. If anyone had good ideas about how to continue the story in an authentic manner, it was him. My cautious optimism for the films gave over to mounting anticipation until by the time that the The Force Awaken‘s first teaser trailer arrived on Black Friday of 2014, my excitement soared, and I began counting down the days until the new film’s arrival.
However, as the end of 2015 drew near, I ran across reports that Disney had decided not to use the treatments from Lucas and that they had instead chosen to start from scratch (although the latest information seems to suggest that the basic idea for the character of Rey does come from Lucas’s story). This news disappointed and worried me, but nevertheless, I remained hopeful as everything that I had glimpsed of the new film from the trailers to the marketing materials struck me as exciting, fresh, and genuinely Star Wars in feeling.
I have now seen The Force Awakens three times: first at the end of a more than 17 hour theatrical marathon viewing of all seven films, a second time on opening night with several friends to celebrate my 39th birthday, and a third time for further reflection. Now that I have seen the finished product, I’m sad to say that I stand by much of my original concerns from 2012. While still an enjoyable piece of entertainment, The Force Awakens feels too often like big budget fan fiction rather than genuine Star Wars. The Star Wars films that George Lucas created were always fresh, original, mythic story telling. In contrast, The Force Awakens is a film whose writers failed to crack a new story within the deadlines that the Big Mouse assigned to them and instead lazily recycled the script’s skeleton from 1977’s Star Wars while padding things with heavy doses of nostalgic references and inauthentic usage of old characters. Still, the new material in the film does provide a promising basis for Episode VIII’s talented writer and director Rian Johnson to actually achieve something great and worthy of the Star Wars mantle.
The Force Awakens shines best when it focuses on its new characters. I especially thought that Rey and Kylo Ren have a lot of potential, and I am very excited to see what Rian Johnson will do with them. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver do terrific jobs bringing these characters to life, and I only wish we had had more time to spend with them in the film. Domnhall Gleeson’s calm and icy General Hux provides a nice counterpoint to Driver’s unhinged Kylo Ren. I enjoyed the chemistry between John Boyega and Oscar Isaac: I thought that they really sold the blossoming camaraderie between Finn and Poe Dameron in their scenes together. I absolutely adored BB-8 and think he nicely filled R2-D2’s shoes and then some.
The first part of the film starts off quite well by focusing on these new elements and even though we’re already seeing evidence of rehashed plot points (protagonist on a desert planet reluctantly accepting the call to adventure after crossing paths with a droid possessing a vital piece of information for a resistance group), it still feels fun and authentically Star Wars other than a few minor pieces of dialogue whose modern quippy feel will no doubt date the film in years to come. Even when the first bit of fan service enters with the reveal of the Millennium Falcon, it is a smooth and satisfying moment that feels earned and that neatly rolls into an exciting action sequence that really shows off the excellent developing dynamic between Rey and Finn.
For me, the precise point when the film starts to lose itself is when Han Solo and Chewbacca enter the picture. Not only does their entrance mark the beginning of a parade of lazy nostalgic references, not only is it punctuated with a scene involving rival space pirates and bad CGI monsters that feels like it came from some bad generic sci-fi rather than a Star Wars film, but it also rapidly introduces several plot contrivances that absolutely broke me out of the film. It is one thing for our heroes to stumble across the Millennium Falcon while traveling with a droid that contains the key piece of information needed to locate the apparently long lost Luke Skywalker – that scene at least was timed and executed so well that it simply put a big grin on my face. It is quite another to almost immediately then ask me to accept that Han Solo and Chewbacca happen to be cruising in the neighborhood and happen to detect the Millennium Falcon just in time to capture it after apparently years of fruitless search. The film’s weak implication several scenes later that they found it via a tracking device on the Falcon is too little, too late. Then, the film immediately asks us to accept that the Han Solo that we saw develop over three films from a self-centered mercenary into a self-sacrificing leader in the fight for a new Republic has apparently abandoned his wife/partner and his cause after his son has betrayed the family to become a murderous monster. Furthermore, after experiencing this horrific disintegration of his family, Han doesn’t seem worse for the wear, but instead seems rather happy-go-lucky in his sloppy, writer-assigned nostalgic role.
If this preposterous character progression for Han Solo wasn’t enough, the film next asks us to accept that the Luke Skywalker who we saw mature into a heroic and wise Jedi over the course of three films and who in his crowning moments in Return of the Jedi grows into the true Jedi ideal would run away and abandon his family, friends, and the new Republic to Snoke and the New Order after his nephew turns to the Dark Side and murders the new Jedi padawans that Luke had been training. As we do not actually see Luke Skywalker in this film until briefly at the end and as one can come up with rationalizations why Luke might disappear that do not involve him simply hiding in failure (the film itself suggests through exposition delivered by Han that Luke might be seeking out the first Jedi temple – although that alone doesn’t provide enough justification for such a radical character arc), this particular story point isn’t quite as bad a piece of writing, but it is still problematic and jarring because at face value it demands too much narrative justification to simply be dropped in as the new state of affairs or as something to wonder about and wait for later films to explain. Mysteries for further development are fine. Unexplained character progressions that completely defy existing backstory and personality traits are not. It would have been far better to make Luke’s disappearance a complete mystery. Additionally, the idea that Luke left some set of clues to create a map to his location is such a tired cliche and feels unbelievable and completely out of place in a Star Wars film.
Having already provided us with a Han and Luke acting in baffling ways counter to their established characters, the film seals the deal and introduces us to a General Leia Organa who seems completely unaffected by the betrayal and loss of her son, the cowardly regression of her ex-husband/partner, the breakdown of her marriage/relationship, and the abandonment by her brother. Instead, she and Han have a comfortable nostalgic vibe (that is the aim at least – but I thought it felt inauthentic other than the single hug scene) going in their few scenes together where any logical writing would have placed a tension and a pervading sense of sadness, anger, and loss. Not only did I find Leia’s character progression and her relationship with Han Solo unbelievable, but I thought that Carrie Fischer’s performance was flat. I don’t know if it is indicative of Fischer not wanting to be there and simply dialing in her performance or if it was simply the best that she could do with the illogical script that Abrams and Kasdan handed her, but she never really felt like Leia to me whereas at least Harrison Ford was definitely channeling Han Solo in all of his scenes.
Finally, we come to what I found to be the weakest part of the film. Abrams and Kasdan decided to redo the Death Star (only *bigger* and more *powerful*) as if Return of the Jedi redoing the Death Star wasn’t enough. With Jedi at least, there was an artistic reason rather than a poverty of creativity behind *that* particular revisit as Lucas uses several parallels in the film with earlier episodes to achieve a symbolic commentary on the story. Not so with this film. Abrams serves up pure imitation with a rescue/escape of our heroine from the planet destroying space station, a fatal “long awaited” confrontation between the mentor hero and the villain during the rescue where the villain senses the hero’s presence through the Force – complete with horrified reaction from the other heroes and blasting at storm troopers in the aftermath, and a final desperate spacecraft assault on the space station that destroys the giant weapon and saves the heroes at the last minute while the key villains escape. Adding insult to injury, Abrams and Kasdan feel the need to include a scene where they explicitly point out that they are redoing the Death Star with Starkiller Base and then make a bad joke about the disrespectful absurdity bordering on parody that is being created when Han says “Oh, there’s always a way to blow up these things”.
This self-aware, shameless rehashing of the second half of the original Star Wars is sad, safe and lazy film making; worse, Abrams fails to competently execute the blueprint he is following. The original Death Star would have been enormously costly, but it was believable as the product of a powerful, galactic Empire. That a mere shadow of the defeated Empire could build the vastly more powerful Starkiller Base (let alone keep it a secret) while being threatened by the powerful Republic and its proxy guerrilla Resistance movement staggers all credibility. When the Death Star threatens and then destroys Alderaan, Lucas wisely connects us to the doomed planet via Princess Leia to heighten the emotional impact. In The Force Awakens, Abrams doesn’t even make it clear which planets we are seeing destroyed and how they relate to the political situation or characters. If you are not paying close attention, you might even miss the line from General Hux that seems to suggest that in one ludicrously easy move, the First Order has managed to effectively destroy the Republic by eliminating its core planets. Incredibly, after this horrific act of destruction, the Resistance fighters seem almost bored when planning their attack against the monstrous battle station. This lack of tension continues into the actual assault on the base itself. In Star Wars, Lucas carefully juxtaposes images of the X-Wings running the trench, the TIE fighters in pursuit, the nervous pilots – including our hero and emotional center Luke – in their cockpits, the worried Rebel commanders watching from their command center, and the Death Star moving slowly into range all to create a palpable tension that works every time. Combine it with John Williams’s brilliant score, and it is pure cinema magic. In contrast, Abrams doesn’t provide any real focus to his shots of the X-Wings attacking the Starkiller base, none of the pilots stand out other than Poe whose absence from most of the film robs him of emotional resonance, none of the pilots or commanders seem particularly worried, and inexplicably, there is no music during the attack runs to feed the drama. It all makes for a fairly tepid excuse for a climactic space battle.
Intercut with the space battle is a thread where Han, Finn, and Chewie enter Starkiller station to rescue Rey in a sequence clearly modeled on Luke, Han, Chewie, and Obi-Wan rescuing Leia in the original Star Wars where Han fills the Obi-Wan mentor role and confronts the villain. During the rescue on the Death Star, Lucas puts enough variety in both the sets and action to truly give us a sense that we are on a massive battle station and gives us R2-D2’s access to the station’s maps as a plausible reason why our heroes manage to navigate themselves around what we have been told amounts to a base the size of a small moon. Abrams instead allows his heroes to find their way around the planet-sized Starkiller base wherever the plot requires them to go with virtually zero justification. The Starkiller base sets lacked enough variety and scale-establishing shots and so wind up feeling small. We have no close encounters with storm troopers, no difficult situations to escape, and in general, no real sense that they are ever in any danger until after the encounter between Han and Kylo Ren. Instead of R2 locating the shields and Obi-Wan having to sneak around storm troopers and use mind tricks to get close enough to then disable the shields, we have our heroes somehow find Captain Phasma, quietly capture her, and then force her to lower the shields at blasterpoint when it seems more likely that she would simply refuse to cooperate. After all, the same film shows us multiple occasions where our heroes refuse cooperation with the First Order while undergoing torture, and we have every reason to believe that Captain Phasma would be fanatically loyal to her side.
While I have spent much of my time here focusing on what I saw as the main shortcomings of The Force Awakens, I do want to stress that I found watching the film an enjoyable experience despite being ripped out of my suspension of disbelief at a few points around the time that Han entered the picture. Once things moved past that part and I settled back in, I was able to enjoy the rest of the film despite being conscious of the various problems that I have been describing. I am happy to say that the climax of the film did deliver one of my favorite scenes: an excellent and fresh lightsaber battle in the best of the Star Wars tradition. I was very pleased with both the drama, the cinematography, and the choreography in this scene. Abrams honors the Star Wars practice of making each lightsaber battle a unique piece of visual commentary on the story rather than simply an action sequence. I thought the setting of the snow covered forest with the snow falling around the combatants lent a really nice, eerie atmosphere to the scene. I loved the close up shots of Kylo Ren’s sweat covered face, the choice to have Kylo Ren pounding his own injury to stay focused or channel anger, and the visually striking shots of lightsaber blades hitting snow.
The Force Awakens remains a mixed package for me. While it entertained me and allowed me some of the thrills of visiting a galaxy far far away, its reliance upon nostalgia and sloppy rehashing of a superior film left me disappointed and missing the fresh wonders, the creativity, and the substance that George Lucas always brought to each new Star Wars film. Still, I remain thankful for the parts that worked as well as for the promise of an Episode VIII from Rian Johnson that just might deliver a fully authentic Star Wars experience again. May the Force be with him!