I recently saw the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens (“TFA”) and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers). It should be noted that I am a big fan of the Star Wars franchise and comic books, and have been so since I was very young. Indeed, I was introduced to the franchise when I saw Return of the Jedi at the movie theater when I was six years old in 1983. I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way.
This movie is the first in the franchise not to have its creator, George Lucas, at the helm; instead, J. J. Abrams has now taken over. Abrams is a consummate fanboy and many fans love him for it and, therefore, assume everything he touches is gold. So, when he took over the Star Wars franchise, fans the world over thought he would right the Star Wars ship that had, allegedly, gone off course with the Prequel Trilogy. I think TFA reveals both the great positives of Abrams’ approach, but also its enormous detriments.
For the record, I am a big fan of the Prequel Trilogy (admittedly this is an unpopular position to take). Yes, the acting was bad, baby Vader and Jar Jar Binks were super annoying, and the CGI was overwhelming. In saying that, I think people forget that the Original Trilogy did not have great acting, had its share of annoying characters and, well, okay, no CGI, you have me there. The problem is that people loved the Original Trilogy so much, they overlook its obvious problems and flaws, and expected anything else coming after it to basically duplicate it. The Prequels offered an entirely new and creative take on the Star Wars universe. It did not center on a fun and likable small band of people who were clearly good with a very clear bad guy to fight, but, instead, focused on an entire galaxy of people where, ultimately, everyone fights for the bad guy (and the bad guy wins!). Instead of a clear good guy / bad guy conflict through a series of well-crafted action sequences, like in the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy offered fairly complex (for this sort of film) political issues and emotional and personal traumas and developments from childhood to adulthood, which even addressed such big philosophical topics like politics, parenthood, death, life, and love. So, needless to say, the Prequels did not offer what the audience expected, and the response, therefore, was predictably negative, and, where they gave the Originals a pass on some negatives, they hammered hard on those same negatives in the Prequels. In my opinion, if the Originals are the “gold standard” of good ideas which are well executed, the Prequels are good ideas which could have been executed a little better.
This leads me to the TFA, which is the first film of the Sequel Trilogy. Taken in order, the Prequel Trilogy is the story of how the child Anakin Skywalker develops into a Jedi as an adult and turns to evil as Darth Vader. The Original Trilogy is the story of the redemption and death of Darth Vader and, in his place, the rise of his son Luke Skywalker. TFA features Darth Vader’s grandson Ben Solo / Kylo Ren as a Dark Jedi (or perhaps Sith Lord, the movie is unclear) and Luke as the wizened old Jedi (and a mysterious woman called Rey who exhibits Force sensitivity and an attraction to the Skywalker lightsaber. I assume she will be revealed as Luke’s daughter in the next movie, though this is only a guess.). Of course, as a backdrop, the Prequels feature the fall of the Galactic Republic and the rise of the Galactic Empire, the Originals feature the Rebellion’s succeeding in toppling the Empire, and TFA finds, out of the Empire, a New Republic has been formed which is opposed by the First Order that faces a Resistance that is tacitly supported by the New Republic (the relationship of these three is very unclear in the film).
Where the Prequels attempted to offer an entirely new and fresh take on Star Wars, Abrams elected to go the incredibly safe route and offer exactly what he thought the fans wanted to see, offering very little that is new, innovative, or interesting. As a result, my thoughts and feelings about this movie are extremely schizophrenic. On one hand I absolutely loved this movie and I cannot wait to own it and watch it a dozen times because it truly summons all the feelings of the Original Trilogy. On the other hand, as a discerning fan, this movie offered me nothing more than that. To put it another way, it is almost as if Abrams got a bingo board of everything a fan would want to see in a Star Wars movie and made sure he got them all into it, except he forgot originality and really anything new. This movie is the greatest piece of fan service I have ever seen in my life.
It’s not that Abrams was deferential or reverential to the franchise. If that is all it was, I would have no complaints. Indeed, that sort of thing is something I truly appreciate. No, instead he basically duplicated another film in the franchise almost plot point by plot point. As an illustration of Abrams’ total lack of imagination in this film, consider the following: what movie am I describing?
A small droid on a desert planet contains secret vital information. This droid comes into the possession of a lonely desert dweller who suddenly becomes embroiled in a intergalactic conflict. The lead female character is befriended by swashbuckling guy in a leather jacket with his own agenda, and they develop an awkward romance with quirky flirtatious comments. They all find themselves on the Millennium Falcon (which consistently malfunctions) while escaping from some bad guys who are led by a guy in a black mask and computerized voice and a British guy in basically a Nazi uniform. After a visit to a bar of ill-repute, they discover that the bad guys have a planet-sized ultimate weapon, and it must be destroyed to save the day. Plans are developed at a secret meeting of pilots (the meeting is led by a prominent woman), and a hologram of the weapon is revealed. A part of those plans require an old guy to stealthily enter and sabotage the weapon from the inside in order to ensure its shields are shut down to allow for an assault by X-Wing fighters. After sabotaging the weapon, the old guy seeks out and confronts, and is then killed by, the man in the black mask. The sabotage allows an X-Wing to fly into a small hole in the weapon’s surface in order to destroy a small section of it, which serves to destroy all of it. The good guys are successful, and, while that is happening, the lonely desert dweller discovers force sensitivity.
See? The problem with this movie is that we have all seen it before when it was called A New Hope. It is nearly the exact same movie. Sure, some pieces are shifted around a little differently, genders or races may be changed, and locales may look different, but when it comes down to it, it is the same, and that is what makes this movie so frustrating. I loved being transported back to the Star Wars I knew and loved. The problem is that that Star Wars already exists, and I was hoping for TFA to provide a new adventure to take me to new places. So, if I do not think about it much, I love TFA, but when I think a little harder, I get disappointed. Where the Prequels were good ideas poorly executed, this movie was very well executed recycled ideas. Whether TFA survives the test of time will be determined by what happens in parts VIII and IX. If those movies basically follow the plot and flow of the Original Trilogy, then these movies will be a waste of time. If TFA is a way to mildly “right the ship” before taking off into new directions, the complete lack of originality in TFA could be forgiven.
As an aside, the special effects in TFA are the best of any of the films. Abrams’ use of practical effects, as opposed to constant CGI, was a welcome change, and makes this movie more immersive and realistic than any before it.
Finally, I have to get a little controversial and comment on the casting. Every actor was good and, in fact, this movie probably has the best acting of the franchise (though Carrie Fisher was never that good of an actress), and it was great to see Harrison Ford back in the saddle (though his acting was a bit on the caricature side honestly, which is to say it was often like Han Solo playing Han Solo if that makes sense). Anthony Daniels looks like he put on weight, but who noticed that? If Rey is the daughter of Luke (and I think she is), then the casting of Daisy Ridley (as Rey) is brilliant because I think Rey clearly looks like she could be related to her grandmother (Natalie Portman‘s Padme Amidala), her aunt (Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia Organa), and her grandmother’s body double (Keira Knightley in The Phantom Menace).
My only issue with the casting was that it was so incredibly and blatantly pandering. When I first learned that a new set of Star Wars movies was in the works, I told anyone who would listen that the featured Jedi would be a woman and the leading man would be black, and my prediction sadly came true. Now, I have no problem with female or black characters at all. What I have a problem with is pandering. If Abrams wrote a story that happened to include a female Jedi or a black leading man, so be it, I would have no objection. It is the fact that his decision to do so was so obvious, so telegraphed, and so predictable from so many years out from the premier of the movie, that it simply reveals that it lacked any sort of basis in storytelling or objective casting decisions, but, instead, smacks of pandering and some sort of “politically correct” agenda. If there is one thing that pervades this movie, it is pandering: just like his decision to basically make TFA duplicate another movie, his casting decisions, too, lack any sort of actual creativity and are completely predicable. The fan-service-bingo-like formula of the film panders to the fans, and the casting decisions panders to politically correct expectations. He even doubled down on politically correct casting by also being sure to shoehorn the current Hollywood darling, and African actress, Lupita Nyong’o (as Maz Kanata) into the film for no apparent reason as well (Maz Kanata is, at best, a side character). In fact, he notably (to me) never addresses Leia as “Princess” anywhere in the film, but only as “General” (as, of course, princesses are considered a negative thing for girls among the politically correct crowd). How disappointing that, even with the casting of the film, Abrams was completely predicable, pandering, and without creativity.
Now, in saying all that, Abrams actually does cast really good actors, so his pandering is thankfully mitigated by great performances by Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn) and, quite honestly, by mid-way into the film my annoyance at seeing my prediction of cast pandering fulfilled became tempered, and by the end I totally forgot about it as Ridley and Boyega totally transcend the pandering that led to their casting, and they offered great performances and became fantastic new characters in their own right. My complaint about pandering will, as a result, not translate into the next films (that is, unless, Abrams continues to do it).
So, to conclude, this movie is a fan’s dream in that it truly captures the Star Wars feelings, but it offers no reason for it to exist as it, basically, duplicates a prior film. As stated above, how history will ultimately view this film depends on its sequels.