Star Wars: The Force Awakens is already a cultural juggernaut that has made more money in three weeks than the economies of three random countries whose names you don’t know. It is one of the funnest, most thrilling, and enjoyable movies that I have seen all year. It is also a derivative, plot hole-riddled, illogical travesty. It is the Star Wars movie we all wanted following the Prequels, but it will end up being remembered as one of the least-satisfying and most aggravating movie in the entire saga.
The positive aspects of The Force Awakens are obvious to anyone who has seen it, or to anyone who has read one of the hundreds* of glowing reviews so far published. It is fun. It feels like the original Star Wars movies. It gives us a fun thrill-ride with interesting new characters and brings back Han Solo. The movie looks gorgeous and the action beats are fast but easy to follow. This is all completely true. I was on the edge of my seat as Rey piloted the Falcon for the first time. I had to hold back cheers when Poe Dameron and Finn made their escape. Honestly I had to hold back cheers whenever Poe Dameron was onscreen. He was excellent. Also, BB-8 is fucking adorable.
So why do I think that The Force Awakens will someday rank 4th or 5th in terms of quality? Because it does nothing new.
Anyone who has seen both A New Hope and The Force Awakens recognizes this fact. Ep 7 is basically a remake of Ep 4 with a lot more action thrown in and a bunch of Abrams’ trademark “mystery” added in. Abrams wanted to bring Star Wars back to the Original Trilogy setting so badly that he had to break it to make it happen.
The Prequels were disappointing, but at least they functioned in a universe where change and growth were allowed to occur. The Original Trilogy was recast by the Prequels as occurring not in a static universe, but as a broken, fallen, corrupted Galaxy suffering under Imperial rule. By showing us a vastly different Galaxy under the Old Republic we understood even more how damaging Imperial rule had been to the Galaxy. The Galaxy changed because of the Empire and everything was different between the eras.
In The Force Awakens the Galaxy looks, feels, and operates just the same as it did in A New Hope. This means that the overthrow of the Empire and establishment of a New Republic was meaningless and inconsequential. Abrams’ film argues that everything that occurred in the Original Trilogy was pointless. Luke might as well have burned with his adoptive family. Han should have stolen Ben’s money and dumped him out an airlock. Destroying the Death Stars, overthrowing the Emperor, and winning the war accomplished nothing for the Rebellion. The establishment of a New Republic improved nothing about the Galaxy. It might well have made things worse based on what we see of Jakku.
The story itself, while robbing so blazenly from past Star Wars films, is pretty bare. The plot moves forward inexorably with little need for the characters of the movie to make any decisions- and none of consequence. Rey tries to run away from her Jedi-potential for about ten minutes before embracing it. Han claims that Leia wants nothing to do with him but returns to a welcoming embrace. Leia herself is given nothing to do expect provide exposition (couldn’t they at least have let General Leia give the orders to attack Starkiller instead of Poe?). The appearance of Starkiller Base in Act II comes across without any sense of importance or consequence and its destruction is such a forgone conclusion that no one in the movie even stops to be worried.
Let’s talk some more about that because it is one of the worst aspects of the film. Starkiller Base. Death Star Extreme! Ok, so even using another planet-destroying giant station is lazy writing but couldn’t they at least have given it some actual impact? When the Death Star II is revealed in Return of the Jedi it is established as a clear threat to the Rebellion. It is ominous because of the way it is treated, because the characters react to the discovery with some measure of shock and fear. Because the film treats it as serious.
When Starkiller Base is revealed in The Force Awakens nobody bats an eye at it. They blow the Hosnian system (the where now?) and not a single person in the Resistance sheds one tear or regret! Should we (the viewers) care about this system? I’ve never heard of it before and I’ve lived Star Wars for as long as I can remember. We get a brief glimpse of some people on one of the planets (are these members of the New Republic Senate? Who knows. I know nobody cares) and then its gone. A bunch of planets blow up, presumably killing billions of New Republic (?) citizens. Leia doesn’t seem to mind. Also, this apparently destroys the entire New Republic fleet (which you would never know from watching the movie, you’d have to read the novelization) and leaves the Resistance as the only military force that can stand up to the First Order.
On that note… this movie really bends over backwards to force Star Wars back into a small scale while trying to convince you that it’s being bigger. Its not. It does not expand on the Star Wars Galaxy, it contracts it. The New Republic only had one fleet? To control an entire Galaxy? And it stored them all, what, within one of the Hosnian planets? Well that was stupid of them. The First Order only has, so far as I can tell, a single Star Destroyer and a couple dozen TIE Fighters to defend their new giant superweapon? That’s also pretty stupid. Abrams clearly wanted to recreate the attack on the Death Star in ANH by having a similar group of snubfighters going up against a giant installation. But we’ve already seen that. Both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi upped the stakes and gave us bigger and more exciting battles. TFA goes backwards, and it can only do that by forcing the viewer to accept that both the heroes and the villains in the Galaxy have become similarly smaller, less important, and weaker. So we get a Resistance that consists of about 20 X-Wings and maybe 50 support staff. We have a First Order of one Star Destroyer, a superweapon, and a handful of TIE Fighters. We don’t even get a throw-away line to indicate that there is more happening around the Galaxy. This is an all-or nothing assault for the Resistance. They’re throwing everything they have at Starkiller and it amounts to a pretty tiny amount. Hell, why do they have both a General and an Admiral to run this show? That’s the kind of operation that an Ensign could handle.
There were only two real emotional notes in the movie and one of them was ruined by the movie itself. The first is the revelation that Kylo Ren was Han and Leia’s child who had turned to the Dark Side. Man, that’s pretty good. I like that. But what a reveal it would have been to do that when Han finally confronts Kylo. Instead Han and Leia discuss it to death in some boring exposition. Han’s shout of “Ben” on the bridge when he sees Kylo could have been a powerful moment if it hadn’t already been spoiled. For once, Abrams’ love of “mystery” seems to have abandoned him. It was the one mystery that he should have held closer to his chest through the movie.
The second emotional moment was Rey finding Luke, and I don’t even know what that means yet.
This is another worry. I can’t really judge The Force Awakens on its own. It is so concerned with establishing new mysteries for the new Trilogy that it is not a complete movie on its own. I have no idea where TFA will fall in my personal ranking of Star Wars movies because it may become a much fuller, richer movie once all of the hundreds of questions it asks gets answered by subsequent movies. Never before have I watched a Star Wars movie and felt that it relied so much on movies that hadn’t yet been made. Again, at least the Prequels each stood as solid stories on their own. They were often poorly executed stories, but they worked on their own.
I don’t know where The Force Awakens will end up in terms of overall Star Wars ranking, but I have a strong feeling that the current glow surrounding it is going to fade. I think its flaws are being excused right now because of its ability to capture nostalgia at just the right moment. I certainly don’t think it is as good as any of the Original Trilogy. It is less its own movie than Revenge of the Sith and brings less new material to Star Wars than either The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones. It does not measure up to the Clone Wars animated series (either of them). It is not as well executed a movie as Abrams’ own Star Trek (though it is less stupid than Star Trek into Darkness).
I am thrilled by the success of The Force Awakens. I am excited by the revitalized promise of my favorite fictional universe. I cannot wait for Rogue One or Episode 8. My love of Star Wars has not been dulled by The Force Awakens. It is just disappointing to see Abrams take such a cowardly route with his chance at the helm.