Bottom line: Star Wars: The Force Awakens does an admirable job of resetting the franchise, while suffering at times from its unswerving devotion to the original formula.
Honestly, given all the hype leading up to this movie, I wasn’t sure it could deliver. It did. It sounds like Star Wars. It looks like Star Wars. It feels like Star Wars. Aside from a few more noticeable CGI elements, the movie is a 2-hour cornucopia of practical effects, puppetry, large-scale sets, exotic locales, and ingenious props and costumes. It has the kind of adventure, humor, heart, and optimism sorely lacking from the digitally mechanical prequels George Lucas used in his attempted murder of the Star Wars universe. I saw The Force Awakens last night, and I already want to see it again. It’s huge loads of thrilling nostalgic fun. But the franchise has a major potential problem.
[SPOILERS FOLLOW! Don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen the movie.]
Episode VII follows Episode IV’s blueprint to a painfully obvious degree. No, really. It’s actually painful at times how heavy-handed the echoes are. The best criticism I have heard of Force Awakens is that it rhymes too hard with the original trilogy. One twitter reviewer (Devin Faraci) wrote: “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is ok. I know it’s poetry, I know it rhymes, but does every line have to rhyme with the last poem?”
I read that tweet before I had seen the movie, and wondered what he meant by it. I get it now. Faraci expanded on the problem in his full review:
“It’s another Death Star,” says an X-Wing pilot at a briefing, talking about Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Starkiller Base. He’s immediately told it’s not — this thing is 17 times bigger than the Death Star, and it’s not a space station, it’s a whole planet. This sort of functions as a metaphor for the entire movie, which is kind of a reboot of A New Hope, but bigger and more sprawling . . . The Force Awakens is the Star Wars movie for remix and remake culture. . . .
The desert planet of Jakku is Tatooine in all but name. The Resistance base isn’t on Yavin IV, but you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Space pirate/Yoda figure Maz Kanata lives in the jungle temple this time, and Starkiller Base itself is kinda Hoth-y. There’s a cantina and a bad guy base with deep trenches and no guardrails. While The Force Awakens feels like the Original Trilogy in design and spirit it misses one of the things that made the OT magical in the moment—a sense of discovery from film to film, a universe that constantly showed us new weird things. The Force Awakens contains little that’s original, just familiar elements slightly remixed.
I can forgive J. J. Abrams for doing this because it was the safest way to reset the franchise on sure footing. You have to understand what was at stake for Abrams and Disney if The Force Awakens had been too original. Disney did the safe thing. And honestly, they wrote the story (quite brilliantly) so that the safe thing also felt like the right thing most of the time. The new characters are constantly comparing themselves to the legacy and mythos of the heroes and villains that preceded them. For instance, Darth Vader’s grandson wants to grow up to be a bigger, badder version of his grandfather, complete with a bigger, badder Death Star. He’s afraid he might not measure up, so he copies. The Force Awakens does the same thing, and for the same reason. And mostly, it works. It allows for a natural, basically shameless, recapitulation of the original trilogy.
That said, I will be judging this movie retroactively based on what they do with Episode VIII. If Episode VIII follows Empire Strikes Back to the same degree Force Awakens follows A New Hope, I’ll be sorely disappointed at such wasted potential. And there are some warning signs that the ham-fisted rhyming with the original trilogy will continue. For one, the recently found Luke (who, like Yoda, went into hiding after a promising apprentice went to the Dark Side) will probably be completing Rey’s training while Kylo Ren completes his training with Snoke. This certainly smells a lot like the ESB Dagobah scenario—just bigger, badder, and with a twist. That worries me.
And if Rey turns out to be Luke’s daughter … Ugh. One of the problems with the franchise (even originally) is the fact that the Skywalker family seems to be the most important family in the whole galaxy. The Force apparently has an exclusive relationship with them or something. Which, when you think about it, is really lame. If the Force is the power that holds all of life together, it would kind of suck if the only people in the entire galaxy who were able to utilize the Force came from a single, human family. Talk about an elitist aristocracy.
For now, I’ll give Force Awakens a pass on the rehashed story because it gets so much else right. I hope they are able to utilize the good will they have gained from this movie (and their now basically unlimited budget) to expand these new stories and characters into unfamiliar territory. Lucas himself copied the Hero’s Journey formula, forever hobbling the future of screen narrative through his wild success. I don’t expect that the new writers at the helm of the Star Wars universe will be allowed to abandon that formula altogether. But there’s a whole lot of narrative potential in a whole galaxy, and Star Wars now has some new, intriguing characters (played by very capable actors) to work with. There’s no reason why the Star Wars franchise can’t grow outside the shadow of the original trilogy now that Disney has firmly established that they can capture the look and spirit of Star Wars better than its creator could.
All in all, the best thing that ever could have happened to Star Wars was for it to escape George Lucas’s creative control. Here’s hoping they complete that liberation in the next movie.