A little movie opened over the weekend, name of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Probably you’ve already seen it eight times. If you haven’t seen it at all, you shouldn’t read further than this paragraph. For you, a short review: J. J. Abrams and the Disney Corporation have remade the original Star Wars with enough panache to keep you amused, but, should things like plot, story, and originality be important to you, your brain may experience unpleasant sensations such as aching, bulging, and/or exploding. You have been warned.
I knew nothing about The Force Awakens going in. I realize the total lack of original ideas shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was disappointing. I had no idea this was just a remake of the first Star Wars, with bits thrown in from Empire and Jedi to make sure nothing anyone liked from the original trilogy wasn’t in some way repurposed. J. J. Abrams has proven himself to be a great imitator. He has no recognizable style of his own. He’s directed a Mission Impossible movie, two Star Trek movies, and now one Star Wars. His lone original film, Super 8, he made to resemble as much as possible Steven Spielberg’s ‘80s films. Who is J. J. Abrams the artist? There’s no way of knowing. If he has anything to say in the medium of film, he has yet to say it.
With The Force Awakens, he’s saying he really loves the original Star Wars trilogy, and wants you to remember it with him, so much so that he simply retells the same story. It begins with a classic Star Wars crawl, but one that doesn’t make much sense. The remnants of the Empire remain in a group called The First Order, which wishes to topple the Republic, and then also there’s the Resistance, which is actually just the Republic? I guess? Why does the power ruling the galaxy have within it a Resistance fighting the bad guys out to destroy the Republic? Wouldn’t that just be the Republic? I guess everyone wants to be the underdog. But so anyway, the First Order is in search of the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, who has vanished. His sister, Leia, also wants to find him. Personal reasons, presumably. And how to find him? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but there’s a map hidden inside a cute droid lost on a desert planet…
Following the crawl, The Force Awakens is pretty fun and engaging for something like a third of its running time. Its true nature as a retread isn’t obvious yet, there’s some swell visuals, and the new characters are compelling, if not exactly deep or original. They are stormtrooper-with-a-heart, Finn (John Boyega), lonely desert orphan woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley), big-hearted fighter pilot, Poe (Oscar Isaac), adorable droid, BB-8 (genuinely neato physical prop), and Darth Vader wanna-be, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren, whom we meet massacring Max von Sydow’s desert village, sports a scary black mask, talks like an evil robot, and stops laser gun bolts mid-air with his command of the Force. Seems appropriately evil.
Rey is a scavenger. The most evocative shots in the movie are those of her amid the ruins of Star Destroyers, X-Wings, and, in my favorite single shot in the movie, sitting at the foot of a fallen AT-AT half buried in the sand. One disappointing element is how all of these vehicles (save the AT-AT) show up, alive and well. Abrams even opens the movie with a shot of a Star Destroyer. It’s a nice shot, but, aside from its blatant use as as call-back to the opening shot of Star Wars, it lessens the impact of seeing the dead ships in the desert. Are the events of the original trilogy supposed to be feel long ago, or current? The Force Awakens wants to have it all. When Finn mentions Skywalker to Rey, she says she thought he was a myth. Cute idea, but it’s only been thirty years, and apparently Star Destroyers and Storm Troopers are rife, so the “myth” conceit rings false.
Finn is introduced as a Storm Trooper not at all keen on killing folks. First chance he gets, he busts captured Resistance fighter Poe out of Ren’s clutches in a stolen TIE Fighter, only to crash back on Tatooi—er, Jakku, where lickety-split he comes upon Poe’s droid, BB-8, and Rey, in possession of it. They bond over being shot at by attacking First Order troops, and steal a crappy spaceship. Only hey wait! That ain’t no crappy spaceship! No. It is the Millenium Falcon, the coolest ship ever, so okay, I’m still totally with this movie.
They go on a flashy chase over desert mountains, TIE Fighters in pursuit, and finally make it off the planet, where they are immediately grabbed by a big-ass space-brick containing Han and Chewie.
Now, I’m the sort of person who at this point is thinking, why do Han and Chewie happen to be hauling squid monsters past this exact planet at the exact moment their lost spaceship is flying away from it? However, I’m also fascinated by Harrison Ford’s refusal to act, and Chewie’s all “MMWRRRRAGHH” and stuff, so okay, why not, and those squid monsters? Rathtars, they’re called. I like them. Big balls of teeth and tentacles. They eat up some bad guys rather conveniently, but entertainingly.
It’s when Han flies them to a pleasant garden planet that the movie began to lose me. Because what’s on the garden planet but—a remake of the cantina scene. There’s not even an attempt to mask it. It’s just the same thing again. Worse yet is that in the basement of the cantina is Luke’s lightsaber. No expanation given, not even a lame one. The weird alien lady who runs the bar, Maz Kanata (Lupito Nyong’o), just has it, and hey presto, it’s calling to Rey.
A big battle sequence later and I began to question what was passing for a plot. The plot is just, find Luke? And do what with him? Kill him, if you’re the bad guys, but for Leia? Han? Talk about old times? Pretty thin thread to hang your movie on. But then no sooner did I think that than the movie forgets finding Luke altogether. Suddenly there’s a new Death Star—but, you know, BIGGER—and it’s powering up, and let’s get the Reb—er, the Resistance together.
Poor Carrie Fisher. All she does is stand around a battle map and give orders. Just like in the old movies. She also has a scene meeting Han again. To call this scene “stiff” would be to insult sheets of plywood. They have a son, these two: Kylo Ren. Onetime trainee of Luke in the ways of the Force, now eager to be like granddad. I liked Ren at the start of the movie. When he takes off his mask—a mere fashion choice, unlike Vader’s—I liked him less. Although then again, Adam Driver does a nice job with the character. He plays a petulant teenager with depth, more depth than anyone else plays anything in here. But he’s a petulant teenager, not a very threatening antagonist. Plus he’s there to mirror his grandfather’s petulant teenager from Lucas’s dreaded prequels. Abrams truly leaves no Star Wars stone unturned. I’m surprised we didn’t get at least one Gungan flopping around somewhere in the background.
All of these characters, all of these scenes, they’re all taken from the earlier movies. Some are literally remade. Some are flipped around in the same way Abrams flipped them in his loathesome Star Trek Into Darkness. Take iconic moments from an earlier, beloved movie, and redo them with different characters, thus stripping them of emotional resonance. So Han, father of Ren, meets Ren on a catwalk over a vast abyss, and tries to talk him down. But Ren, just short of crying, “NOOOOO!”, whacks dad with his lightsaber, and Han plummets to his death. It’s less an homage to Empire than a poke in its eye.
Han can’t die this way. It’s a terrible choice, played terribly. Nothing emotional has been created between this father and his son. Not for a second do they feel related. Han has to die in these new movies, but he has to sacrifice himself for a greater good. That’s his character arc. It couldn’t be more obvious. To just dispense with him? Just kick him out of the way, because, hey, that’ll be a shocker? It’s insulting to the character. Even worse, no one is allowed to react. Leia looks sad. Chewie goes on a brief shooting rampage, and that’s it. Not even a funeral. Nothing. Next thing we know, Chewie and Rey are flying the Falcon, and Han is nothing but a myth.
More than anything, the death of Han shows Abrams’s total disconnect from the emotional lives of his characters. Visually, he’s learned to be a skillful imitator, but in movie after movie, he proves to have no grasp on how characters drive stories and how we in the audience relate to them.
The lightsaber fights in the snow are a visual highlight. Finn fighting Ren even feels emotionally right, and of course Ren, with his command of the Force, can kick the ass of a mere Storm Trooper. What continues looking great but doesn’t make any sense at all is Rey fighting Ren. She’s imbued with the Force? Her blood aswim with Midi-chlorians? A Jedi to be? Great. Has to be. But Abrams wants it all. He wants to imitate Star Wars, but he wants to have his big fight scene too. Luke can barely beat a ‘bot his first try with a lightsaber. Even after training with Yoda, he still can’t defeat Vader. But Rey, having fifteen minutes earlier first noticed the Force, is a master duellist the second she touches a lightsaber. I know I’m not supposed to think when I watch a movie like this, but there’s such a thing as logic and character truth, and Abrams throws them out the window.
Midway through the snowy fight sequence we cut back to the battle for the new Death Star. Was I still supposed to be interested in that? The scene where the Resistance studies a hologram of it in search of weak spots might be the worst in the movie, so tired is it, so knowingly a retread of not one but two prior Star Wars movies. The characters try to deliver their trite lines with gusto, but it’s painful to watch.
The actual destruction of the Death Star is no better. It’s rote. An afterthought. A fulfillment of contractural obligations. And then the movie’s over. But wait. It’s not over, because wasn’t there something about Luke?
If the lazy, unoriginal string of coincidences hasn’t driven you mad by this point in the movie, it has to piss you off now. R2D2, said to have shut down since Luke vanished, powers up. Why now? Why not when BB-8 shows up with the missing chunk of map? Because there is laziness, and then there is laziness, and then there is Abrams. That’s why.
Off we go to find Luke, and they can’t even give him a nice mountain cave to be drinking warm tea in? He spends his days standing on a craggy cliff? Rey holds out his lightsaber. Cut to the funniest bit in the movie, a world-spinning-around-our-heroes shot straight out of a Michael Bay movie, meant to invoke EPIC SERIOUS MEANING, YOU GUYS. In case you didn’t know this moment was important.
Mark Hamill looks groovy with his cowl and his beard. Let’s hope he’s given a good movie to star in the next time out.
Speaking of which, among the many disappointments of The Force Awakens is how little thought is given to a larger story. All we have is more Storm Troopers and a CGI Supreme Leader ported in from a Harry Potter deleted scene. And Ren, who will surely become more and more Vader-like as this new trilogy progresses. It’s a criminally lazy movie, its story, characters, and visuals all borrowed, and its writers, Abrams, Michael Arndt, and Lawrence Kasdan don’t even bother setting up a through-line for the sequels. It’s just Star Wars again. Bad guys beaten but not dead. New kid primed to be a Jedi. I can already see what goes down in part 3: the Empire builds a Death Star soooo big, nobody will blow it up!
Boyega and Ridley both give credible performances, but their characters are merely sketched. Abrams pulls one of his inevitable switcheroos by having Rey, exactly unlike Luke, not want to leave home, but what does that give us? Her psychology is that she’s scared and wants to stay put, but all of her actions suggest the opposite. Luke makes sense. The desire to leave home, to experience the world, to do something important. Everyone relates. He’s an archetype. Rey isn’t anything but a scriptwriter’s creation. She might grow into a character in the coming movies, but she’s nothing yet.
Finn isn’t much better. He’s basically a scaredy-cat Han Solo, out for his own survival. But only for about half a scene. Then he’s back to being heroic, only not really because he’s just a regular guy. Sort of. It’s another twist on an archetype that kills the archetype.
Nerding out on the look and feel of the Star Wars world carried me through about a third of The Force Awakens. After that, the coincidences, the laziness, the lack of any original ideas, all combined to bore and, by the end, annoy me. I’d say I liked The Force Awakens better when it was called Return of The Jedi, but if we’re being honest, that remake sucked too. Star Wars, the first one, was goofy and fun. Can’t we just leave it alone and make a new movie in the same universe?