Warning: This is a no-holds-barred spoiler-filled review
Just about anyone who wasn’t already an adult in 1977 probably brings a certain amount of baggage to anything related to the international phenomenon that is the Star Wars brand. When I was a kid I was certainly nuts for Star Wars. I thought they were pretty much the best movies ever, I read a bunch of the Star Wars books, I played a bunch of Star Wars video games, and I even subscribed to a damn Star Wars fan magazine. I also really liked the prequels, which started coming out when I was eleven and was right in that target market that Lucas was aiming for. Over time I certainly started to see the many flaws that bring those movies down but I don’t think they’re worthless and given their place in my childhood I can’t really get too mad at them. Hell, I don’t even get too animated with rage by George Lucas’ Special Edition silliness. If I’ve gotten disillusioned at all by the franchise it really has nothing to do with anything that Lucas ever did everything to do with the fact that I just sort of grew up and moved on to other better things. I certainly still like the old Star Wars movies but that’s all they are to me: movies. They’re well well-oiled entertainments with characters and elements that have rightly become iconic but at the end of the day they’re simplistic action movies for twelve year olds. There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s an accomplishment that needs to be kept in perspective. That outlook has pretty much informed who I’ve reacted to the news that Star Wars was coming back sans-Lucas. I haven’t been expecting greatness from them but maybe they’ll make for some cool action movies.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which does have the “Episode VII” moniker in its opening scroll, appears to be set thirty years after the end of the original trilogy and the state of the galaxy suggests that the hard won victory at the end of the original trilogy didn’t lead to the intergalactic happy ending we all thought it did. A new evil army calling themselves The First Order have emerged styling themselves after the Empire from the original trilogy and are apparently being led by an elusive Palpatine-like figure calling himself Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who has taken a sith apprentice named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). As the film begins this First Order is searching for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has begun living in Yoda-like seclusion in the wake of some failed attempts to restore the Jedi order. The First Order wants to find him and kill him but their enemies, The Resistance, are hoping that if they find him he could help them bring an end to The First Order’s reign of terror. That search leads them to the desert planet Jakku where a pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) has found a map to Skywalker and hidden it in a droid called BB-8. He soon exists and the movie is taken over by Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience and decides to betray the First Order and deliver the map to the Reistance. Along the way he encounters a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) on Jakku who helps him escape. Soon enough they meet a certain smuggler (Harrison Ford) and his furry companion (Peter Mayhew) and before long they are embroiled in intergalactic strife.
It is a bit disheartening to know that the hard won victory at the end of Return of the Jedi didn’t really last but that is perhaps a fitting state of affairs for the times we live in. If the Obama years have taught us anything it’s that it takes more than one victory to make hope and change happen, it’s something that requires unending vigilance and dogged defending. But let’s be honest, the real reason that the galaxy has been thrown back into a civil war between a Rebel like “resistance” taking on an Empire-like “First Order” is because this movie really wants re-capture the original trilogy whether or not the reasons make sense. Not only are the factions echoes of the old movies but most of the characters are too. Finn is a wisecracking leather jacket wearing rogue who is plainly supposed to be a Han Solo stand-in despite having a background that would not seem to create such a personality. Rey is a young person who grew up on a desert planet but finds herself reluctantly embroiled in a civil war because of force powers that were more than likely given to her because she is more than likely the spawn of a famous Jedi: clearly she’s the new trilogy’s Luke Skywalker. And then the film’s villain is a dark Jedi who walks around in black, has a helmet which gives him a distorted voice, and takes orders from a mysterious cloaked schemer who’s in charge of the faction he’s a pawn for. It’s a little shameless. Say what you will about the prequels but there’s no denying that they tried a lot harder to expand this universe and do new things rather than simply polish the old movies up for a new generation of special effects.
Honestly I can’t blame the movie too much for wanting to recreate the superficial aspects of what worked before and for the most part the new characters work quite well despite their unoriginality. What I can’t forgive so easily is the way that the film heavily echoes the basic story structure and series of events of A New Hope to the point where it almost feels like a remake. Both movies begin with a droid carrying a secret macguffin landing on a backwater desert planet to escape evil pursuers, being found by a local who happens to be strong in the force who opts to take that droid to the good guys while being escorted by an older guide and after running into complications along the way they end up re-uniting with the good guys just in time to save them from a big planet destroying super weapon after witnessing their older guide being murdered in dramatic fashion. It’s pretty shameless and frankly it kind of reminded me of J.J. Abrams’ misguided decision to recreate entire scenes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in his Star Trek Into Darkness. This not only feels odd and lazy but also kind of robs the film of some suspense. For instance, that tense scene where Han Solo faces off with Kylo Ren is really undercut because you know exactly where its going once you piece together that it’s basically going to be an echo of Obi-Wan’s faceoff against Darth Vader in the original movie. I suppose we’re supposed to assume that “the force” has been interceding in events and repeating cycles of conflict and I suppose that’s also supposed to be the explanation for the various wild coincidences that set the movie into motion, but there are limits to how much the audience can accept that and this movie get perilously close to going over that line.
There are other gripes I have with the movie like a handful of questionable lines, the way it plays into certain moments of fan-service, and the way certain characters suddenly become lightsaber savants without any training, but I fear that if I spend too much time outlining my various nitpicks I would mistakenly give off the impression that I really dislike this movie, which I very decidedly do not so let’s shift to the positive. This movie’s biggest asset is actually probably its cast. Star Wars characters have never really been particularly rich, they’re more like personalities than truly fleshed out characters and the fact that the performances in the prequels were so wooden were a big part of why those movies fell so flat. Take the new Finn character. On the page there really isn’t a lot there. The fact that he’s a former stormtrooper who chose to go against the training that had been ingrained in him from birth is an idea that had a lot of potential but the movie doesn’t do much with it. It’s never made clear how someone raised in that environment could develop a conscience and the movie quickly forgets that he as this dark backstory and just makes him a generic rogue. And yet, because John Boyega is so damn charming it just works and you don’t really think about any of that. Then there’s the Rey character, who’s a complete cipher seemingly without a past and without a ton of personality traits besides toughness and independence, but Daisy Ridley does make it work onscreen through sheer chutzpa. My favorite new character though is probably the villain Kylo Ren and not just because he looks really cool in that black getup. The idea of making this villain the estranged son of Han and Leia was both interesting on its face and also a clever way to explain why Han and Leia aren’t living happily in domestic tranquility. I also thought that Adam Driver was a really inspired casting decision both because his vocal sylings work great in that Vader tone of voice and also because it emphasized that beneath the mask this was a confused young man rather than some kind of intrinsically evil monster.
You’ll notice that for as long as I’ve been talking about this I’ve hardly said anything about the film’s action, visual effects, or spectacle. That is in part because that isn’t really the focus of the film and in part because they aren’t necessarily as remarkable as you might think. That’s not to say that the special effects here are bad at all, quite the contrary, no expense was spared and this looks as good as any blockbuster should in 2015 but it doesn’t necessarily push the envelope in that regard. The original Star War was like nothing audiences had seen before, it was a huge leap forward and it shaped the way movies were made. For all its creative failures people forget that The Phantom Menace was also a huge leap forward in the realm of special effects, possibly too much of one. It could be argued that part of the problem with that prequel trilogy was that it was trying so hard to blow people’s minds with all the CGI that it lost track of everything else. In making this new film J.J. Abrams seems to have intentionally gone in the other direction and focused entirely on a human level while keeping the effects par for the course. Given one or the other I certainly would like plot and story rather than technical prowess of course but maybe it would have been cool if we could get both?
Honestly though, maybe it was inevitable that this was never going to wow audiences in the same way that the older movies did. In the thirty eight years since Star Wars hit theaters damn near every summer blockbuster has been trying to be “the next Star Wars” with varying degrees of success. When that becomes the norm it is maybe inevitable that when the real McCoy comes along it’s going to seem less like an earth shattering event and more like an above average example of the kind of effects spectacle that Hollywood has been giving us pretty regularly and that’s kind of where I am on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A lot of people are coming out of it saying things like “oh my god it made me feel like I was a kid again” but I’m just not feeling it and I suspect that once a lot of people get over the thrill of seeing all the stuff from their favorite series presented with modern visual effects they’re also going to sort of come back down to Earth on this one. This is a good movie, it really is and if anything it exceeded the rather reasonable expectations I went into it with but at the end of the day it’s just a popcorn flick and not necessarily an amazing one.
***1/2 out of Four