As I think about the new Star Wars, I think about Mad Max: Fury Road.
Like The Force Awakens, Fury Road was an entry in a franchise that was virtually dead. Both come from franchises that were hugely influential on the generation of filmmakers that grew up watching them. (Although, unquestionably, Star Wars had the bigger impact.) And both films had an enormous hype surrounding their respective releases, with a new era of nostalgia driven audiences waiting in anticipation for the respective films.
Fury Road was a massive artistic success, but that franchise didn’t suffer the hiccups Star Wars did. I remember the same sort of anticipation surrounding the prequels that surrounded The Force Awakens. Two of those films were complete artistic failures while Revenge of the Sith (which I still like) suffered from huge flaws that are impossible to ignore.
I treated The Force Awakens with some interest, but remained skeptical, especially when I learned JJ Abrams was directing it. I hated Star Trek: Into Darkness and viewed it as an extended bout of fan service rather than an actual film. The entire script was set up to make cheap references to the Star Trek films that had come before, even when it made no sense and took all tension out of the flimsy plot.
The last thing I wanted to see was the same fate befall Star Wars. This is a franchise that needs to look forward and not focus on its past successes. So, does J.J. Abrams take that vital approach?
Well…not really. He does introduce some great new elements, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that The Force Awakens is content to recycle a lot of the same beats as the original trilogy.
This sounds like I’m going to pan The Force Awakens and that’s far from the truth. We’ve seen how bad this franchise can be and The Force Awakens is much better than a lot of what’s come before. I loved the great new protagonists (who outshine the returning vets), the wonderful action scenes (particularly the climatic lightsaber fight), and the fantastic new visuals that stir the imagination. But I can’t help feeling like I’ve seen most of what The Force Awakens has to offer me.
Now, in the interest of preventing any spoilers from getting out (even though I’m late reviewing this movie), I’d like to warn everyone that this review will get into specific plot points. Just know that my review is basically going to conclude with “Go see it, it’s leagues better than the prequels and addresses all their narrative shortcomings. But it doesn’t do anything new, which is going to cause problems down the line for the franchise, especially as Disney fast tracks production of the sequels. They have the potential to get very lazy with the material.”
I’m serious. If you don’t want spoilers, turn back now. Here is a funny image from Darth Vader and Son to break the page.
Star Wars is probably the most examined and discussed film series of all time. Everyone has an opinion on what works and what doesn’t work about all six of the films. It’s also a series that has run the gamut of narrative successes and failures. As Red Letter Media pointed out, the prequels did not have a protagonist and told us about the relationships the characters had rather than showed us.
It means that The Force Awakens has an easy way to succeed. Luckily, it does by introducing us to not one but two engaging protagonists. The first is Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger stuck on the planet Jakku who dreams of seeing her family again. We’re with her throughout the film and learn about her goals and see her transformation into a potential Jedi. The second is Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper who doesn’t want to kill.
These characters meet as they are trying to reinvent themselves. Finn tries to impress Rey, but what’s great is that this is not some sort of romantic quest. Both people realize that they are in a place they don’t understand, but understand its importance. It’s satisfying to see them go through their quest.
Already, based on a very simple start, we have two characters we care about. Their arcs are clearly defined but still present a challenge for them. And best of all, these arcs are the most important component of the film and not rendered a subplot as the were in the prequels.
But even that background political structure in the film makes sense, even if it’s not given a prominent place in the film. Even though Emperor Palpatine died in Return of the Jedi, this film has a subsect of the Empire that’s still standing. This works because we see the impact the Empire has on the normal denizens of the world as they massacre a village.
Finally, we have Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is the new Darth Vader, but we see his humanity early. Unlike the stoic Vader, Kylo Ren is an emotional person. He gets angry, he slices up computer consoles with his lightsaber, and he takes his frustration out on his subordinates. It makes him a far more frightening villain because we don’t know what he will do. We also see him struggle as he wonders why he’s committing these evil acts and wondering if he’s making a mistake.
Every Star Wars film has the climatic lightsaber fight, but the one in The Force Awakens is among the best in the franchise. That’s because Kylo Ren and Rey don’t know what they’re doing and are fighting for survival as much as anything. There’s none of the acrobatics from the prequels and both parties land blows on each other. There is an emotional heft to the scene and the result is far more thrilling than that Darth Maul fight.
So, we have characters we care about, clearly defined and complex villains, and exciting moments as all the characters interact with each other.
Yet, even with its successes, there is a huge problem with the film. I’ll describe the major plot points of The Force Awakens to illustrate.
The film opens with a droid, BB-8, having data uploaded into his memory that is important to a resistance group. Sound familiar?
The droid finds a human stuck on a desert planet. They dream of doing something more with their life. Sound familiar?
The two characters get off the planet via the Millennium Falcon and are assisted by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who is in debt to some dangerous characters. Sound familiar?
The protagonist meets a diminutive alien (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) who offers to impart knowledge on the protagonist about the ways of the Force. Sound familiar?
The giant government organization they are fighting destroys a planet that is important to the resistance with a giant battle station. Sound familiar?
The Rebels stage a counteroffensive to destroy said weapon. Sound familiar?
The main villain turns out to be a relative of a major character and the two characters confront each other in a climatic fight. Sound familiar?
All of the film’s biggest moments and plot points come from the original trilogy. The characters, locations, and emotional moments are all derived from some part of the original trilogy. Even the characters seem aware of this as they speak about Luke Skywalker in hushed tones and are in awe to see Han Solo. I expected this – after all, those individuals were involved in a major event that would have touched generations across the galaxy. But after a while, it becomes a hindrance to the film as characters from the original films are reintroduced to the narrative and plot points are hit with no reaction.
The destruction of the Senate is one prominent example for me. It’s meant to mirror the destruction of Alderaan from the first film. But the Alderaan scene had an appropriate emotional weight to it. We see Leia begging for it to be saved and saw Obi-wan’s reaction to feeling all of those people die.
We get none of that in The Force Awakens. Yes, it’s a scene with much better effects as we see the laser beam destroy the planet, but there’s no emotional heft to the scene. Everyone forgets that it happened, almost as if the event was just a check box for the fans rather than the characters.
What’s strange is that The Force Awakens is at its best when it focuses on the new characters rather than the returning vets. Besides Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, who is barely in the movie), none of the other characters needed to come back. The new characters have a much better connection with the audience and their climatic battle is one of the best moments in the film. We feel for them and know this is what the film has been building to. I didn’t need Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) showing up to distract me from these new characters I want to see.
The Force Awakens is an effective movie that knows why people fell in love with Star Wars almost two generations ago. But it also doesn’t really move the franchise forward. There is potential here and I am looking forward to the next film. Still, Star Wars can’t keep hitting the same emotional beats and expecting audiences to respond positively. Besides, there’s nothing left after The Force Awkanes borrowed everything from the original trilogy. Perhaps this means that we’ll focus more on the great new characters in the future films.