Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

starwars3After years of anticipation and months of slowly revealing trailers, junkets, and theories, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has finally arrived as the cinematic event of your lifetime, at least according to Disney and their marketeers (yes, that misspelling is intentional). The rabid fans of this beloved franchise—who teeter between the reservedly patriotic to the annoyingly jingoistic—have been desperate for a redemptive continuation of George Lucas’ original space opera mythology ever since their hearts broke in shocked disappointment witnessing the dreaded prequels. Not even the most avid of fans could really defend with earnestness the cartoonish atrocity of The Phantom Menace (1999), the inconsequential bore that was Attack of the Clones (2002), or the tolerable deformity that ended it all in Revenge of the Sith (2005). Any new continuation’s success would have to reconcile that unquenched yearning for more adventures “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and Disney seemed intent on doing what they do best: rigorously pander to the expectations of fans while simultaneously taking advantage of their demoralized standard of quality. And what The Force Awakens indeed does is deliver a well-crafted, mildly entertaining, though suspiciously familiar product that defines safe, aspiring to only indulge the fan’s nostalgia and never once risking to defy the impending uniformity that will leave the franchise creatively inert. For some, that embrace of mythological reiteration—the constant cyclical battle between dark versus light or the Force’s need to be rebalanced generation after generation—might be enough, especially for those still reeling from prequel disappointment. But for others, this is a lethargic retreat into formula that appeases rather than challenges, stilts rather than grows, and is incredibly sad for those willing to give it much of a thought beyond their initial euphoric pleasure. George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and its subsequent chapters became mythic through creative reinvention, taking creative influences, borrowed myths, and familiar archetypes into a world that ignited the imagination for something different, something greater. Unfortunately, The Force Awakens is merely a manufactured clone, an occasionally thrilling yet thoroughly empty echo from the past that delivers the basest of pleasures and nothing imaginative or more.

It’s rather no surprise that J.J. Abrams would be the perfect apprentice to rebuild Disney’s new line of Star Wars products, mostly because he’s already made a similar vision through his two space opera auditions: Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). Though relatively entertaining, Abrams’ Star Trek franchise simply took the familiar characters, plot conventions, and visual touches to build an endearing tribute to Gene Rodenberry’s cerebral science-fiction adventures without really understanding the ethos that defined the original series. Abrams is a cinematic mimic who doesn’t possess a directorial voice of his own, whether he’s creating synthetic nostalgia driven sentiment for the altar of Spielberg’s Amblin years with the likes of Super 8 (2011) or retooling the familiarity of Mission Impossible III (2006) to satisfy audience’s basic expectations. And so with The Force Awakens, just like with his Star Trek (2009), Abrams has chosen to rewind the franchise and deliver a story that’s an underwhelming imitation, this time of Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) with hasty additions from Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The script—written by Abrams and his screenwriting team of Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Oblivion) and the legendary Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Big Chill)—has been stripped down to a shallow facsimile: there’s a droid with secret plans abandoned on a desert planet; there’s an orphan with latent and unrealized abilities; there’s an outcast being chased by his past who originally wants to be free of it, but finds acceptance in a new place; there’s a masked villain with a secret familial connection and a spherical space station that can destroy planets (or solar systems in this case); and there’s a Resistance (Rebellion) embattling an encroaching First Order (Empire) in one of the most incoherent Galactic political setups the series has ever had. This all might be difficult to miss on the first couple of viewings because the film’s erratic pace distracts and its humor can be infectious, which makes for an undeniable fun theme park attraction but nothing beyond it. Also, merely having the skeletal structure of a film brings disadvantages in development, and The Force Awakens doesn’t have graceful lulls or revelatory pauses of the original trilogy that inevitably gave its characters their depth and their powerful presence in our hearts. A reprisal of core narrative components, themes, and character archetypes might generate superficial pacification, but unraveling this glossy fan remake will only reveal a hollow center.

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Synthetic copies can be discovered as false representations when you begin to unravel their lack of depth, and that’s distinctly what happens when analyzing The Force Awakens. On the surface, J.J. Abrams has created a film that looks, feels, and sounds like Star Wars through a graceful visual palette from Dan Mindel’s textured 35mm camera, physical sets that feel organically muted yet exotically stunning in its low-tech production design, a suitable blend of old-fashioned puppetry, detailed models, and the modern reliance on CGI, and, of course, the always prominent and evocative score from the prestigious John Williams. A return to the unholy showdown of light versus dark through rough and tumble lightsaber dueling is a rather welcomed touch after the overly choreographed fights from the prequels. But simply invoking a similar visual feel with a comforting tone doesn’t necessarily make the film as part of something great, and Abrams’ clumsy direction only befits a technician trying to keep the well-oiled franchise machine in gear. His action sequences are only mildly thrilling—with iconic X-Wings and TIE Fighters swiftly battling without any real sense of human consequence—and his dismal handling of the plot’s Shakespearean twist of a beloved mentor’s end is delivered with graceless execution, diminishing the emotional impact through sheer obviousness. And that’s why The Force Awakens adds up to something far less than the summation of its charming parts and nostalgic recreations, because it only sets out to create an experience we’ve already had before without any consideration to the original’s character depth, mythic inventions, and emotional surprises. The original Star Wars (1977) was a simulacrum of complicated influences: a narrative template from Flash Gordon serials, sweeping epic westerns, and poetic samurai quests, most notably Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958); a creation of its own spiritual identity by merging together the Western source of Christian myth with the Eastern identity of Buddhist philosophy; and it was culturally astute, mirroring the political turmoil of the time and place that surrounded its creator and audience. But The Force Awakens is trapped in a self-contained, self-referential bubble that builds without context and without consideration of its story’s greater tradition: to expand on its allegorical importance, venture deeper into its invented mysticism, and provide at least some minor commentary on our political climate.

But even if the action set-pieces seem similar, the narrative dilemmas seem copied, and revealing hidden connections come off rather forced (revealing a Galactic gene pool that is only mildly less inbred than Back to the Future’s Hill Valley), there’s a great amount of charm ingrained in the manufactured product. If nothing else, Abrams—a self-proclaimed fan and pop culture savant of sorts—carries a genuine affection for the Star Wars universe and gives equal consideration to his characters. It doesn’t hurt that the acting prowess of the substituted new blood of heroes and villains ignites the screen with noticeable presence. Relative silver screen newcomer Daisy Ridley as the plucky scavenger Rey has the proper grit and dramatic skill to make the series’ first female-centered protagonist something of an inspiration. Just like most of the other characters she’s rather underdeveloped—a modernized imitation of the original’s Luke Skywalker—but her confident demeanor and believability give the character some fresh emotional resonance. Her Han comes in the form of ex-Stormtrooper Finn played by the great John Boyega (for those who haven’t seen Attack the Block (2011) you should remedy that quickly), and though there are minor complications to humanizing the Empire’s faceless enemy, he makes for an intriguing character of anxious energy and reluctant spirit. Unfortunately, the villains are a tad underwritten, including the overpromised threat of Gwendoline Christie’s thoroughly disappointing Captain Phasma as well as Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux—a neutered version of Peter Cushing’s iniquitous Grand Moff Tarkin—who doesn’t necessarily match the intimidating symbolism of the red-and-black Nazi iconography that’s behind him. Luckily Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren—a Darth Vader fanboy whose enthusiasm for a masked getup approaches the edge of meta—possesses physical intensity and invokes a threatening impulsiveness in his immature tantrums. And for those who can’t have Star Wars without their familiar faces there are plenty to be seen throughout The Force Awakens (even some odd ones we didn’t know we wanted, like Nien Nunb), and their emergence always feels adoringly friendly and not completely exploitative. But having the older characters amongst the fresh brood of new faces in this mild expansion of the universe definitely makes the new feel less distinct; they’re simply archetypal copies of the olden faces, which becomes more apparent with each passing scene they all possess together (which might explain the actual limited screen time the classic characters do receive).

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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has been created to service the damaged sensibilities of its beloved fans, and in an attempt to earnestly meet those expectations Disney, J.J. Abrams, and the rest of the company have made a serviceable continuing chapter in the franchise. But is serviceable enough for Star Wars? The prequels, flawed as they were and in desperate need of rewrites, attempted something new to deepen the franchise, and Lucas’ ideas at least contained an understanding of the universe’s mystical identity and defined an understandable Galactic political structure (minus that whole midi-chlorian nonsense). In almost the same flawed approach to his ethos stricken Star Trek (2009), Abrams’ Star Wars doesn’t possess the philosophical understanding of its own galaxy, never attempting to expand on the original’s conceptual, spiritual, or political details. And why should they? Fans don’t necessarily relish in questions towards the emergence of evil, or whether it’s an essential element to actually rebalancing the Force (a revelation perhaps Luke might possess in the coming chapters). They want X-Wing and TIE Fighter dogfights, lightsaber duels, colorful characters with an abnormal delivery of comic relief, the occasional new character amongst the familiar who look aesthetically pleasing to cosplay, and perhaps just an overall tone of fun. And most of that is there in The Force Awakens, though it all never approaches the quality that existed in the original trilogy. Perhaps the franchise will eventually take this shaky foundation and actually explore some unmarked corners within this galaxy far, far away. But there’s worrisome hints that they won’t, because to do so would invite the intangible variable of risk. There’s absolutely no risk taken within The Force Awakens, and while the retreat into the comforting arms of familiar tropes and safety might be reassuring, it also begins the slow death of creativity and the inevitable birth of mediocrity. This should be especially sad for those fans who pondered these chapters with years of previously recognized and democratically created Star Wars canon, before Disney’s newly forming Empire declared it null-and-void (almost as if millions of voices cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced). But all of this will inevitably be forgotten, now that we have an artificial creation that will satisfy its fans enough to blindly return and invite more general audiences back into the galaxy. This sleek recreation of Star Wars will fulfill its minimal requirements to entertain through swift pacing, occasionally whimsical dialogue, and theme park ride action, but ultimately it’s a well-crafted Jedi mind trick that declares, “this is the film you’re looking for.”

Grade: C+

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Comments
2 Responses to “Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)”
  1. Stewart says:

    Nicely done. I totally agree with you!

  2. I could not agree with you more. I saw it Saturday and I liked it. Sunday I liked it less and Monday I liked it even less that day. Too many holes in the movie. It’s a “Saltine” Cracker to those who have starved long and hard for anything that contains the two words “Star Wars”. I think of this movie as a really good “Diet Coke”. Tastes good going down but then there is that awful after taste.

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