Star Wars: Episode VII--The Force Awakens (4/5)
For many Star Wars fans, they have been waiting thirty-two years for The Force Awakens, both because the film continues the story of Han, Leia, and Luke and because they don’t consider the prequels a worthy follow up to the original trilogy. Disney, the new corporate stewards of Star Wars, seem to be acutely aware of fan reaction, and they have crafted Episode VIII with these disgruntled fans in mind. In order to do so, they brought in J.J. Abrams who has garnered a reputation as a fixer when it comes to franchises run astray. He directed an installment of Mission Impossible after Tom Cruise’s star had fallen, and then he helmed the rebooted Star Trek as well as its unsuccessful sequel. From his first announcement as director, I was disappointed to see J.J. Abrams in charge, largely because it seemed like such an unimaginative choice. Without a doubt, The Force Awakens is the best outcome we can expect from someone like J.J. Abrams (which I know is both something of a compliment and an insult).
I’ll try to make this review relatively spoiler free, but if you want to go in without knowing anything beyond what you may have gleaned from the trailers, then you might want to skip the review until you’ve actually seen the film.
In a knowing nod to the audience, the new generation of characters are themselves immersed in the tales of Star Wars. They’ve heard of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, and the Rebellion, but to them these stories are little more than myths. You can read this as cynical audience manipulation if you like, but the four new characters--ace pilot Poe Dameron, reformed Stormtrooper Finn, orphaned scavenger Fey, and Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren--all earn their place in the Star Wars galaxy. They’re genuinely interesting characters who have their own conflicts and arcs over the course of the film, and the actors turn in great performances, something that has long been missing from Star Wars.
But those of us who first fell in love with the original trilogy probably aren’t coming to The Force Awakens primarily for the new characters. We’re showing up for our old favorites whether we want to admit it or not. I was skeptical of the plan to bring back the big three from the original trilogy. Why reuse characters whose stories have already been told, I reasoned. But when Harrison Ford finally arrives decked out as Han Solo, I’ll admit to becoming a little giddy. Not only was it exciting for Han to show up but for Ford to show up as well, since he has seemed completely absent for his last several performances. I’m not sure what Abrams did--perhaps slip some whisky into Ford’s morning coffee?--but Ford is by turns funny, charming, and gruff. And when he finally rendezvous with Carrie Fisher as General Leia, I may have become a little verklempt.
Most moviegoers will get a vague wiff of deja vu for most of the proceedings, and that’s because the film cribs heavily from the original trilogy. In fact, The Force Awakens largely plays out like a mix and match A New Hope. There’s a desert planet, a character with a greater destiny, an older mentor, and a giant superweapon (we’ll get to that soon). In fact, The Force Awakens feels like a reboot in multiple ways. First, the film isn’t too far off from being a remake of A New Hope. Second, the film’s goal appears to be resetting the series after the poorly received prequels. From the recycled plot to the smaller focus to the use of practical effects, The Force Awakens aims to go back to basics. Still, it's clear the film was made with genuine affection and reverence (but perhaps too much of the latter).
How much enjoyment you can ring out of the film’s retread of old favorites depends on what you expect from a Star Wars movie. Personally, I went back and forth on the issue. The one retread that genuinely bothered me was the return of yet another Death Star superweapon. Learning that they were bringing back a version of the Death Star gave me terrible flashbacks to all of those awful superweapons from the 1990s Star Wars novels. At one point Han Solo voices my feelings, saying that this new planet sized weapon is just like the Death Star, to which another character swats away such concerns, basically saying, “Naw, dude. This isn’t anything like the Death Star. It’s, like, much, much bigger.” (I’m kind of paraphrasing here). But unlike in A New Hope, where the Death Star plans drive the plot forward, the new superweapon seems mostly incidental.
I’ll admit to both enjoying The Force Awakens and feeling somewhat ambivalent. For all their faults, the prequels strove for something new. George Lucas didn’t have to answer to anyone, and he gave us something that was weird, unique, and, yes, sometimes terrible. What he didn’t do is repeat himself. Disney won’t let that happen again, you can be sure. And according to fan reaction, the public has largely welcomed our new corporate overlords. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to hope for something unique and exciting from big budgeted entertainment. At the same time, that’s exactly what George Lucas gave us with A New Hope, a postmodern bricolage of cowboys, samurai, myth, WWII, and experimental cinema. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see something like that in the Star Wars universe, but we will get a string of some pretty good movies. I guess for now that’s good enough.