[This review contains SPOILERS so please don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film].
I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Sunday, and really enjoyed the spectacle and the homecoming feeling of it, but reflecting on some of the things that niggled at me during the movie, I have decided now that it wasn’t a very good or indeed necessary addition to the series. There were many things to like about it: the first battle of the TIE fighters with the millenium falcon, much of what Kylo Ren does and his velvety Sithlord style, the spectacle of the space battles and the pace were all great. I must confess to nearly shedding a tear when Han Solo and Chewbacca emerged, and I thought it nicely reproduced the riotous colour and fantastical nature of the original series without overdoing CGI or grotesqueness. I thought all the main characters were great, really enjoyed Han and Leia’s gentle brokenness, and appreciated BB-8. I also appreciated the modernization and diversification of the cast, with a lot more women in positions of power and influence and a wider range of non-human races in the Republican forces, and I thought a lot of the dialogue hewed closer to the original spirit, without the heavy doom-laden pretentiousness (and humourless weakness) of the prequels.
In short, on a superficial level it was a great Star Wars movie and it seems to have earned great reviews (and a metric crapton of money) from a wide range of sources on that basis. But on reflection, there were a couple of major flaws with the movie that left me disappointed. Here I will present my main three criticisms of the movie, summarize a few more minor complaints with the content, and give my final feelings about this new series of three movies.
There was no narrative purpose.
Why was I in the cinema watching this thing? The prequels had an obvious purpose, which was to tell the story of the rise of the Empire and overthrow of the Republic, track Vader’s fall from grace and the destruction of the Jedi, etc. In a narrative sense it was necessary, though obviously once we had watched these crawling abominations we all agreed that from an artistic perspective these movies were not only a disaster, but risked wrecking the legacy of the originals. So in this new set of movies, we need a reason to be watching. But what is that reason? At the end of Return of the Jedi we are led to believe the Empire is broken, peace has been won, and the order restored, but at the beginning of this movie there is some sinister new evil force afoot that isn’t just a remnant of the old Empire – it is much more powerful. Our escaping stormtrooper makes it out to be some kind of panopticon in its powers, and it seems to be able to build a death star that dwarfs even the supposedly unprecedented engineering feat of the last one. It appears that in a short space of time everything that happened in the original movies has been not just undone but seriously stomped all over, and yet still this time there is a Republic (not a Rebellion) and the war is ongoing. We are given no reason to understand how this happened, or why we should be throwing in our lot again with the same crew of people who somehow allowed this to happen. Implicit in this collapse of the Republican peace is a big question – will this galactic war ever end? When we joined the original crew in A New Hope we did so on the assumption that somehow they would prevail, as good always does in these kinds of movies, and there would be an ending. But now that victory is not just under threat, it has been comprehensively undone. So why should we suffer through all this stuff again – just to see it fail again? What are we doing here …?
It feels like a family story
I hate the way the prequels decided to keep everything in the family, and even though they preceded the original movies they still managed to find ways to include people connected to those original movies – C3PO, Boba Fett’s dad for Christ’s sake – rather than finding a new cast and drawing them together into the story of Vader’s downfall and the rise of the Empire. It’s even worse in this new movie – we get the entire original cast back, Kylo Ren is Han Solo and Leia’s son, and the entire movie is structured around the quest for Luke Skywalker (who I bet turns out to be Rey’s dad). Also, Kylo Ren is a Vader fanboy, even though he is not related to him, which undermines his character by making him into some kind of pimply evil boy wannabe rather than a serious threat, but also reminds us that nobody in this story can be independent of the originals. Couldn’t we have an evil guy who didn’t give a toss about Vader, and who was not related to the original cast, so that those cast members could just do a cameo to anchor us to the previous stories before we go off on our new journey? There are stars without number in this galaxy, and more humans than grains of sand on Dune, yet somehow the same four people really count for the entire future of the galaxy? This risks turning the whole thing into a sitcom or soap opera, rather than a galaxy-spanning epic.
It copied too much from the original
Sometimes it’s a good idea to copy the plot for a sequel from the previous movie. The best example of this is Terminator 2, which is an excellent movie that basically precisely follows the plot of the original movie, with The T-800 in the role of Kyle Rees. Even attacks on police stations and overturning trucks occur in the exact same sequence – you’re watching the same movie, but loving its freshness and brilliance anyway. But this doesn’t work in The Force Awakens, somehow. It has a lot of similar scenes and the key details are the same. For example: A droid lost on a desert planet brings a plea for help to a young dreamer desperate to escape; they escape from the desert world in the Millenium Falcon, chased past star destroyers by TIE fighters; everyone is looking for a lost, old Jedi who is hiding from responsibility in shame at his failed pupil; Han Solo and his young supplicants make their plans in a pan-galactic bar; there is an attack on a death star, including x-wings flying down a tunnel to put precision ordnance on a weak spot; a major planet is destroyed by that star destroyer simply to send a message; while the young idealist looks on, her elderly hero is killed in a sacrificial scene by an evil sith lord. The only thing JJ Abrams really did was change the faces, and move the elements around a bit. But while the power of the scenes copied for Terminator 2 was in their visual impact and style, the power of many of these scenes in A New Hope is in their emotional impact and freshness. We don’t get that same impact the second time round, because they aren’t fresh anymore. Sure Solo’s death is pretty shocking, and the lead up is visually cool, but the rest of these moments don’t hold the same power the second time.
How this is all going to go wrong…
None of these aspects of the movie would be a problem in isolation – they might even be good points – but in total they give the impression of a movie that has been made more so that we can wallow in the past glories of the original series, rather than that we can carry that series forward. It’s a homage to the joys of the original more than anything new, and worryingly it is in its newest elements that it is weakest. Of course I’m happy to see a well-constructed homage to the original series, but there were many aspects of this new movie that weren’t well done. For example, in the original Millenium Falcon traveling at light speed takes time – long enough for a game of chess and a bit of Jedi training – but in this movie people zip about the galaxy as if they were popping out to the shops; in the original Vader was an indestructible, intense and unstoppable force for evil who cut his own son’s hand off, but in this one Ren can be taken on by some random stormtrooper who picked up a sword. In the original the Empire can make a death star that is capable of destroying planets but is vulnerable to a carefully-placed proton torpedo; in this one the death star is the size of a planet and actually channels the raw power of suns, but is just as vulnerable as the original; in the original the Millenium Falcon is picked up by a Star Destroyer because it was on its way to Alderaan, but in this one it is nabbed by Han Solo’s freighter because even though it had been lost for 10 years he got an alarm as soon as the engine turned on and was able to instantly get to the right place at the right time to find it. We overlook these weak points because they’re being blasted at us at a million miles an hour by JJ Abrams’ tight-paced directing, but there are a whole series of major flaws in the story that bode ill for the future of this series. In combination with the nostalgic turn through memory lane and the dependence on scenes and tropes from the original, it makes me think that this movie is more a series of set-pieces tied together by a weak plot than a legendary adventure. If so, once Abrams’s homage shtick starts to wear thin, I fear things will unravel badly. Remember, this is the JJ Abrams who made the absolutely terrible Star Trek reboot with the flamingly bad time travel story; if you doubt that his directing is weak, you can check out the long list of problems with the new Star Wars movie here. This doesn’t bode well for the next two movies.
My hope is that for the next two movies we will follow a dark and bitter story in which Skywalker’s anger at Solo’s death leads him on a path of ruin into the dark side and out again, perhaps redeeming himself and uniting dark and light side at the end. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though: I think JJ Abrams is going to come unstuck once he runs out of nostalgia to back him up, and is going to make two increasingly woeful and hole-filled movies that betray the original three movies just as surely as the prequels did. Of course I’ll watch them anyway (or at least, the next one); but I wonder if perhaps it might have been better to take this series out the back and put it down long before now.