You’ve seen this before. A droid, carrying a secret message, avoids capture by an ominous black-cloaked figure (who is, in actuality, an enforcer for an even more ominous cloaked figure), and is stranded on a desert planet, where it meets up with a plucky young hero. After a series of adventures, the hero and the droid leave the desert planet on a ship called the Millennium Falcon. The hero finds a mentor, a wizened old crank, who tells them about an energy field called the force. Along the way, our heroes make their way through a rowdy bar filled with alien patrons, learn more about the force from a three-foot tall alien, and break into the secret base of an evil military organization to rescue a young girl. The movie’s climax features an attack on a planet-sized military base with a superweapon capable of destroying an entire planet. Two entire generations have grown up with that story. We’ve seen it played out, in variations, in dozens--hundreds, even--of other blockbuster franchises trying to recapture the vibrancy of the 1977 original, but it’s more than a little disappointing to find this first installment in the Disney era of Star Wars cribbing, yet again, from A New Hope.
The Force Awakens is the first Star Wars movie made by a fan who’s grown up with Star Wars as the inescapable pop culture juggernaut that it’s been for almost forty years now. That fan, the film’s director, J.J. Abrams, fills an odd space in our pop culture environment: he’s been tasked, several times over now, with distilling the bare essence of a popular brand into a new form. The results have been mixed. There’s the confident Abrams of the 2009 Star Trek and the first half of Super 8, and then there’s the gimmicky, choppy Abrams of Star Trek Into Darkness, and the second half of Super 8. And, for better and for worse, The Force Awakens is thoroughly a J. J. Abrams movie, filled with quick cuts, shiny surfaces, and people forever running running running while screaming over the explosions that fill every inch of the frame.
The early stretches of the film are great fun. That’s due, in large part, to the fantastic casting. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Oscar Isaac on screen before that he’s dashing as Poe Dameron, hotshot Rebel, oh, excuse me, Resistance pilot, but it’s surprising to find relative newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega so charming. This is, essentially, Ridley’s first movie, and as Rey, a scavenger waiting for her long-lost family on the desert planet of Jakku, she is poised to be the central character of this new trilogy. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure, but she pulls it off. Boyega is strong in his early scenes as Finn, a rookie stormtrooper overwhelmed with the violence he witnesses, but as the film becomes overstuffed with characters and creatures, he is reduced to the worst of that Abrams-style running and screaming.
Once Rey meets up with Finn, and they blast off of Jakku in the Millennium Falcon, the movie hits a lull, exactly at the point where the old nostalgia and emotion should kick in. It doesn’t help that our new characters are left to stare in breathless awe at the heroes of the original trilogy. In the decades since Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo have become legends. A great concept, in theory, but one that never pays off the way it should. Soon 70-year-old Harrison Ford is being chased by unconvincing CGI squid-creatures and Rey finds Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber (technically, Anakin Skywalker’s old lightsaber), which is locked, I shit you not, in a pirate’s treasure chest.
The story is a mess. This is likely due to the reshoots, first to accommodate a larger role for Harrison Ford than was initially planned, and then to work around his on-set injury. Whatever the reason, things feel disjointed, and too many story points are just setup for the next movies, a narrative style that’s worked for the Marvel movies, but has never been a part of how Star Wars operates. Even The Empire Strikes Back, the installment that most relied on its cliffhanger ending (and the film that this movie would desperately like to be), told a complete story. As it is, The Force Awakens sets up a mystery in the opening crawl that finds its payoff only at the very end of the movie. But what exactly that means we still don’t know as credits roll.
Another major problem with the movie is that none of the villains are menacing. Supreme Leader Snoke, the big baddie behind the First Order, the Nazi-esque remnants of the Galactic Empire, is hampered by poor CGI, and Kylo Ren, either masked or unmasked, is just not as menacing a figure as he needs to be. At one point in the film, Rey taunts him by telling him he’ll never be Darth Vader. Hell, the kid’s not even a Darth Maul.
Kylo is set up as an inversion, a favorite device of Abrams (what if Kirk died this time? wouldn’t that be clever?). Instead of a good man tempted by the dark side of the force, Kylo will be a bad man tempted by the light side of the force. Again, as with so many things in this movie, that’s a really cool concept. But in execution, Kylo just comes off as a whiny brat, an emo dickweed who seems no match for Rey’s emotions. This is not the fault of Adam Driver, a fine actor who’s exactly that here: fine. Driver really excels in a scene played across from one of the original cast members (the specific details of which get into spoiler territory). But just when the movie should be giving us some emotion, it’s sucked right out again by more numbing Abrams action.
It doesn’t help that so much of the climax of the film just looks ugly. Here we have to look at the track record of cinematographer Dan Mindel, who shot the equally muddy Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Into Darkness. This is what action movies look like in 2015: shiny, blurry, and dull. Hopefully Rian Johnson can bring some of the old Star Wars elegance to 2017’s Episode VIII.
It’s a shame that The Force Awakens doesn’t live up to its promise, or its pedigree. Rey, Finn, and Poe are strong characters, played by actors with tremendous charisma. There are seeds of an excellent trilogy in place, but everything is so safe. It’s fashionable to hate on the Star Wars prequels, but at the very least those movies took risks. The stakes feel shockingly low in The Force Awakens, especially for a movie that features so many moments which should be surprising, which should feel epic. It’s a better acted film than the prequels, there’s no question. But has it really been so long since Star Wars was entertaining that we can mistake competent for good?