This is my review that spoils no plot points. The closest to spoiling plot beyond the very basic things in commercials already is to note that a few things one might have hoped are in the film are simply missing or virtually missing. If you’d like to watch my video talking in spoiler-full terms about the film, it’s here.
The hype around The Force Awakens is that Disney and JJ Abrams were able to get George Lucas out of the way so he would stop ruining his own legacy and they could start returning the franchise to the basics that made the first two or three movies almost universally beloved. I am one of those who thinks that the prequels have some indisputably glaring flaws but loved them anyway and thought they captured the essence of what made Star Wars great. I have been able to watch them with considerable enjoyment (and occasional grimacing) countless times since they premiered, including about six viewings each in the theaters. With this movie, I was expecting to see a chastened Star Wars franchise, one freed from Lucas’s grip, adhering strictly to the formulas that made the original trilogy work so delightfully and showing the good taste to avoid giving us any more farting alien animals.
I figured that we would be spared Lucas’s stagey directing, moments of clunky dialogue, and shots so cluttered with digital imagery that they start to resemble cartoons. Plus we would have competent casting directors with actual resumés, selected for their talent at casting roles and not for their abilities to be yes-men to George Lucas. So, in short, we wouldn’t be stuck with another Hayden Christensen or Jar Jar Binks. And on the positive side, being an old-school Star Wars fan I was as charmed as anyone by the prospect of special effects that would feel viscerally real. Being a huge fan of Lawrence Kasdan’s contributions to Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi I had expectations that were through the roof that the execution of the story would forefront the personal elements in a way that would be affecting. So, all in all, I was extraordinarily excited to see the movie. I loved the prequels but wouldn’t miss their missteps and wanted to see the original trilogy’s distinctive virtues revived.
Most importantly, we had in this film the chance to continue the stories of three of the most beloved characters in film history: Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo. For thirty years I had wondered about where Luke, Leia, and Han went after taking down the emperor, Darth Vader, and the Death Star. I wanted to see how they transitioned from rebels to intergalactic leaders, with all the challenges that that involved. Could they stabilize the galaxy? Could Luke (and Leia?) create a new Jedi order that kept the Dark Side at bay? I wanted to see these characters develop and grow. As George RR Martin has articulated in talking about how he approaches Game of Thrones as opposed to how JRR Tolkien approached the Lord of the Rings, it’s all well and good when our heroes are able to dispatch with the terrible villain. But the real challenge is what comes after that? How does one actually rule effectively? And that was what the end of Return of the Jedi left as the obvious next stage for these characters. Their conflicts naturally should have flowed from their responsibilities having been triumphant war heroes and the founder of a new Jedi order.
But Episode VII just isn’t interested in ploughing new ground for these legendary characters. It is minimally interested in continuing their narrative. The film tells us in some extremely spotty backstory a few details about how their efforts went. And basically only finds Han interesting by resetting him back as a smuggler like we originally found him. You know, just one of those smuggler to general back to smuggler stories. Because essentially the filmmakers were little interested in picking up the threads of Luke, Leia, and Han. They wanted to just play around with the old school Han Solo being cranky, cynical, funny, and reluctant as he shepherds a couple young idealists, like in A New Hope. The only thing that the intervening thirty years has given him is a look of exhaustion. Han’s antics are indeed charming as ever. But we didn’t wait thirty years for just a handful of new funny Han Solo quips and comebacks to quote. There’s an attempt at giving the character an important storyline with some pathos but it’s basically a rehash of an Obi-Wan storyline when you really think about it (you’ll know what I mean when you see it or if you’ve seen it). And ultimately a large portion of this climactic scene depends on a relationship between Han and another newer character that has never been established. These two characters appear on screen once together and are supposed to reach an emotional climax in their relationship. It’s utterly unearned. (I explain what I mean by all of this in my full Han post that contains spoilers.)
As for General Leia Organa? She shows nothing of thirty years experience as a leader. She has barely anything to do but to be a maudlin and sappy mother figure and to plan a military operation that is wholesale lifted from previous films. She hasn’t developed her Jedi powers at all. They’re completely wasted! The rebel alliance has now become the resistance. And nothing has changed but the names. The filmmakers basically said, “We’ve got nothing. There was a period where it wasn’t the rebellion anymore and there was a republic again, but we don’t know how to write that shit so we are setting the story after the republic has mostly fallen again and the good guys are rebels again. Because why actually write something new?” Nothing’s new about the “resistance” beyond the new name. Not their ships, not their tactics, not even the nature of the threat from the evil government that they’re opposing. So they just do the same things. It was already redundant when George Lucas rehashed the attack on the Death Star storyline again in Return of the Jedi. I won’t spoil what the threat is here but I’ll just say that it’s another utterly unimaginative copy of a major plot device from the original trilogy. It was extraordinarily lazy to the point of insulting cowardice.
At its core that’s the cardinal sin of the movie. It’s more rehashing and derivativeness. If you don’t mind spoilers, I’ve collected twenty of the most egregiously derivative aspects of the movie into a post called Top 20 Plot Copy/Pastes in The Force Awakens. People complained about George Lucas’s obsession with recurring themes that made him constantly repeat patterns from the original trilogy in the prequels. But the vast majority of the time I got a sense Lucas knew what he was doing there and I often found the recurrences resonant as foreshadows told in reverse. I felt like there was a cohesiveness to the six movies’ thematic arcs. But with Episode VII I thought the whole point was supposed to be breaking free and exploring new territory. Not getting bogged down the way the prequels inevitably did with what we already knew but to show how it’s done when it comes to surprises and character development. No nostalgia for a crutch, this was supposed to be about the basics of great story telling and character development without all the CGI characters and predetermined plot hemming everything in. We were supposed to be freed of Lucas’s tendency to be stuck obsessing about the same ideas he had in the ’70s and not thinking outside the box.
But instead we got a soup to nuts derivative movie that’s charms are largely supposed to be in its bittersweet nostalgia. At least insofar as the returning cast is concerned, this movie really should have been called Star Wars: The Expendables. Watch the spry young icons of your youth do their gray haired reunion! None of this is serious, it’s just about seeing the geezers in their costumes and on the Millenium Falcon one more time. And even when it comes to that aspect of the film, they didn’t have the basic decency to give Luke Skywalker any significant screen time. They sold this movie to fans on the premise that the original cast would return. But as far as I can tell Carrie Fisher could have shot her scenes in a couple weeks, maximum, and Mark Hamill in a day. So, I don’t think it’s a spoiler but truth in advertising to say that the marketing of The Force Awakens with the promise of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker was about as dishonest and disappointing as the marketing of Revenge of the Sith with the promise of Darth Vader in his suit again. In fact, I’d say it’s even worse this time. I think that’s just a classic JJ Abrams style tease-with-no-payoff of the worst order.
I get that Hamill, Fisher, and Ford are too old to make them the future of the franchise now. Inevitably, having wasted thirty years not making movies developing the ripe potential for their characters, this trilogy was going to have to pass the torch on from them to a new generation of leads. But that didn’t have to be done by aggressively pushing them aside as was done in this movie. This was Episode VII of a story where these were the lead characters for the previous three episodes and these characters were ripe with potential, we should have been allowed to pick up their threads as our focus again and let the next generation characters emerge and prove to us they’re ready to take the mantle.
Instead our focus goes straight back to square one with a round of fresh faced younger versions of the beloved main cast from the original trilogy. Kylo Ren is the next generation’s Darth Vader. Rey, Finn, and Poe mix up different aspects of Luke, Leia, and Han. The three heroes are not developed much beyond the boiler character description “extremely likable, plucky, morally squeaky clean, naturally gifted young people who are called by a destiny they’re too insecure to immediately grasp onto”. That’s basically it. These characters have no more unique definition than the archetypes they’re supposed to fulfill. The young actors are extremely charming though and so one hopes that once this obligatory exercise in quasi-rebooting Star Wars is over the characters will move on to more novel adventures that will define them in more distinctive ways. For the meantime, Abrams shoved aside Luke and Leia to give us Han and Chewie shepherding around “generic good young people”. The Star Wars we deserved after a thirty years wait was one where the characters who were already broken in would continue to grow and the next generation wouldn’t have the whole weight of narrative interest on their shoulders yet but would have time to grow into being deserving leads with distinctive personalities. Instead, it’s just back to the old saw about the young person of destiny who doesn’t know if he (or this time she) really should go fulfill it.
So much in the film weighed on Kylo Ren’s thinking and yet it never was clear. The whole storyline functioned like an under-executed thought experiment in inverting Luke’s story thematically and getting a new Vader character and it didn’t justify itself much more than that. Ultimately my worst fears were realized when I started to think of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren as the same character Driver plays in Girls. A privileged, petulant, destructive brat. Basically a Hayden Christensen for a new generation, but at least one that can deliver his lines. The cumulative force of Episodes II and VII is to make the case that the dreaded Dark Side of the Force which held such mythically powerful romantic appeal to viewers of the original trilogy is really just the temptations of teen angst. (Fortunately Episode III gave a much more compelling and logical sense for what could turn someone to the Dark Side–in a nutshell, the terror that holding back one’s powers in a moral way could cost you the ones you love. Now that has seriousness and resonance to it.)
There was tons of buzz about Supreme Leader Snoke and Maz Kanata being kept under wraps. They’re total disappointments. Snoke’s look is a derivative mash up of Lord Voldemort and Gollum. His deep gravelly voice seems like another lazy variation of Vader and Kylo Ren and nothing new and iconic or particularly imaginative. Maz Kanata was to be a one thousand year old space pirate who looked into people’s eyes and saw the eyes of others. That sounded neat. A new, more female, Yoda equivalent. But in the film she has no gravitas to speak of. Her character design is no more interesting than that of a slightly larger and oranger minion. Her lines are about as deep as your average astrologist hitting on you in a bar. Her bar is an obligatory homage to the cantina from the original Star Wars. And Abrams seems to rush through the whole chore of doing another cantina style scene because it’s only there as a matter of checklist ticking anyway.
There is, all in all, a depressing paucity of new alien creatures or worlds that don’t just resemble Earth. Where the prequels were ambitious to a fault in vividly fulfilling the promise of a Star Wars universe crammed with imaginative aliens and worlds, this movie in its counter-corrective zeal only throws in aliens as a half-hearted matter of necessity. It’s not interested in world building but world pruning after the prequels, and while that gives many a prequel hater what they say they want it risks sacrificing something that is extremely special about Star Wars. I have always contended with the prequels that I’m glad Lucas erred in the direction of too much light saber action and too many aliens because there’s a paucity of these Star Wars distinctives, done as well as Star Wars does them, everywhere else in media and I would rather Star Wars try to play to its distinctive strengths and fail, than be less ambitious and more ordinary in its choices. People mock Lucas for overflowing his movies with aliens that do less for the plot than for toy sales but as a kid having those toys was the gateway for me to expand the universe in my own mind and play with the stories and internalize them and make them so viscerally and passionately my own. To blame Lucas because he made money doing this or to accuse him of compromising the stories for the toy sales is unfair to him. I have watched the three year old I’ve been living with the last couple months cling to her toys as she watches the characters they represent on the screen. It’s an immersive, interactive way to connect with stories. And it’s probably not just for kids, but something deep in human nature to want to connect our stories with totems of them. Religions have mined this connection between the icons and idols and the myths about them for all of human civilization. There was a point to Lucas’s approach. He didn’t just stumble as luckily into greatness as people assume. My fear is that the backlash against the flawed prequels leads’ excesses leads to a limited imagination.
In the lack of imagination department, there is a sequence involving the storm troopers and a government leader that amounted to a cringeworthy Hitler impression, replete with contrived German accent. I thought Lucas’s treatment of the Nazi parallels showed quite more grasp of the need to work in the realm of metaphorical transformation rather than clunky copying.
I do give the filmmakers credit for forefronting the villains to an extent. One of the problems of the prequels was that the tantalizing Darth Maul, Count Dooku, and Darth Sidious were usually off-screen for the entire first two movies, which woefully squandered the potential for Maul and Dooku. Lucas didn’t help the audience along with lots of upfront menace. This was ironic given that in the original trilogy, Darth Vader was one of those inimitably great villains who threatened to completely upstage the heroes. The Force Awakens is big on villain service (except Captain Phasma who was excitingly cast to be played by the spectacular Gwendolyn Christie from Game of Thrones, but who turned out to be a basically useless dud in this movie). One of the biggest strengths of the film is, for example, Kylo Ren’s light saber, whose blade looks much less clean and crisp than traditional light sabers, but feels jagged and electric in a startlingly scary way. And he wields it to excellent effect. The light saber duels are satisfying in a way that should make the champions of the less is more school of thought with respect to light sabers feel vindicated.
Finally, I think lazy storytelling means that there are a number of contrivances that pile up to get all the characters into position to meet each other and then to get the story resolved satisfyingly enough to have something of an ending. And at the end instead of giving us any sense of resolution–at least temporary since of course these are serials, the film ends asking us essentially to wait until the next film for most of the major questions of this film to be answered. This is asking for a ton of trust given Abrams’s poor track record in serial storytelling of actually having a satisfying payoff to his intriguing mysteries. I am ticked that we couldn’t even get one film that re-earned our trust and proved that people with narrative chops, people who can deliver on promise, are in charge of the film and that they can wrap up their stories. No, I don’t want to have to wait for the second and third installments of this trilogy to have even basic questions answered. I don’t trust that you even have answers in mind, JJ. I don’t think you should be entitled to punt to the next director to demonstrate that the series will actually go satisfying places narratively. The undisputed best film in the series, Empire Strikes Back, may have been a cliffhanger but you have to prove you can make a Return of the Jedi, A New Hope, or a Revenge of the Sith first before I trust you actually know how to finish a serial story and can trust you to end one in a way that makes the journey worth it.
On the upside, while I feel like this film was a disguised, unofficial reboot (one wholly unwelcome as far as I was concerned since all it did was multiply the redundancies in a series that already has traversed similar ground enough), at least the next movies won’t feel the need to retread the same old origin stories and if there’s a newfound boldness in storytelling there’s nothing stopping these characters from proving enjoyable or their adventures engrossing. So I’m still eager for Episodes VIII and IX, and only wish they were already on hand, since they’re the only hope to justify Episode VII.
All these criticisms aren’t to say that I found the movie worthless. It was briskly entertaining and lightly fun for a while. My sickening feelings started kicking in when I started to realize that that was all that was to be on offer. Some brisk entertainment utterly void of risky ambitions and uninterested in probing any genuinely new territory with the characters I waited thirty years to hear more from. The more I searched for themes, the more I found half-baked quasi-rebooting of themes already worn out from the first six movies’ exhaustive treatments of them. Rewatching all six this past week I was so impressed at how much each movie had unique to it at its core, amidst the recurrences of themes and characters. Watching The Force Awakens, by contrast, I just felt a lot of “oh no, not this again, please tell me there’s something new”.
So, that’s all I can say without giving away the plot.
My spoiler-filled Star Wars: The Force Awakens analyses which color in this review are below:
For my video with Lex in which we talk about The Force Awakens with full spoilers, see below: