*THIS REVIEW CONTAINS HEAVY SPOILERS*
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (it’s Episode VII, but the title doesn’t often contain that distinction; it’ll heretofore be called TFA) certainly LOOKS like a “Star Wars” film. After three prequels which were mired in green screen sets and characters, seeing actual sets and a decent amount of animatronics in alien characters is a breath of fresh air, and the new film certainly feels more like the original trilogy than the prequels ever did. In fact, I have almost no issues with the technical aspects of this film. The visuals are occasionally stunning (a lightsaber fight in the snow), and even director J. J. Abrams much parodied love of lens flares are kept to a minimum. I counted two obvious usage of lens flares, and one of them, as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) looks out a window into space at a red light, is so aesthetically pleasing that I forgave it. We also get the usual wipe-transitions from scene to scene and the camerawork all feels like part of the original trilogy. The score, while not having any new memorable themes (even “Phantom Menace” had that beautiful “Duel of the Fates” number) is suitably Star Wars-ian. The acting is all up to par or better (no Hayden Christensen to mess things up here). The CGI, when used, is of a high caliber and appropriate. No, the nuts and bolts of this film are fairly flawless. My only problem, then, is with the script.
In 2006, Richard Kelly made a film called “Southland Tales”, and he had a weird idea when making it. The film itself was meant to tell 3 episodes of a story, 4-6, but the first 3 episodes were not contained in the film, but rather in comic book prequels. The audiences who saw the film without reading the comics were, well, lost and confused as to what the hell was going on. Kelly later, in an interview, said he had misjudged how important reading the comics was to the experience of not just enjoying, but simply understanding the film. I feel like the makers of TFA have made the same mistake. Look, this is the 7th film in a series, so no one in their right mind should expect the movie to operate in a self-contained manner. We’ve seen the other 6 films, and we know there are at least two more direct sequels to follow. However, the filmmakers have misjudged how almost necessary it is to delve into canon outside of the film to get enough of grasp as to what is going on.
For instance, 30 years after the fall of the empire we seem to have 3 major political groups in the galaxy. There is a New Republic, which is a democratic government, and there is the First Order, a fascist organization that seems to have the technology, aesthetics, records, and basic ideology of the old Empire. But then there is the Resistance, which seems to be somewhat unofficially tied to the New Republic and is fighting the First Order. Quite frankly, by just watching the film and not exploring any of the new expanded universe, it’s difficult to know why the Resistance is a separate body from the New Republic, and exactly what the relation is between the First Order and the New Republic. Are they in a full scale war, or merely a cold war? Does the Resistance have the full support of the Republic, or are they merely a rogue organization with allegiance to the Republic but working outside of their government and chain of command? Why isn’t the Republic fighting the First Order directly? The film makes no attempts to answer these questions in the body of the film.
The movie also suffers from what we have colloquially come to call “Iron Man 2” syndrome. “Iron Man 2” was a sloppily written film that felt less like a movie and more like a commercial for another movie yet to come (in that case, “The Avengers”) because it contained set ups for a different film and dangling plot threads that would be picked up later. As such, “Iron Man 2” never felt like a movie in and of itself, and audiences felt cheated for having paid to get a movie that was building up for a later, better movie that we wish they had just gone ahead and made instead of the one we just watched. TFA has so many dangling plot threads and set ups that at times I just wished they’d stop dicking around and tell me a good story, rather than set me up for what promises to be a far better film and story in Episode VIII. This is one of the negative side effects of these long running blockbuster film franchises where an expansive universe is continued in film after film in order to extract more and more box office sales money and merchandising profits. Superhero fatigue is starting to set in because of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the Star Wars universe is still ripe for over-saturation.
Also, the fact of the matter remains that this film is stuck telling a story we didn’t really want told. By waiting 30 years to continue the story of Luke, Leia, and Han, we cannot make a story about the immediate fallout of the events of “Return of the Jedi” without recasting those roles. Since no one wants to see those roles played by anyone other than Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford (except in a prequel), we have to tell a story that takes place far later than we’d like. We also, by necessity, have to completely do away with the Expanded Universe which developed after the release of ROTJ, wherein novels and comic books and video games continued the story of these characters because Lucas was not interested in doing so on film. Fans had gotten quite attached to that EU, especially characters like Mara Jade and storylines like Han and Leia having Jedi twins, and now that’s all rendered non-canon so that Disney can have the original actors reprise their roles. However, since the actors aren’t getting any younger, and Harrison Ford doesn’t want to play Han Solo anymore, they have to create new, younger characters and try to make audiences care about them at least as much as they care about characters they have known and loved since the late 1970s (plus, they want this franchise to go on beyond the lifespan of those actors). The result, based on these practical issues, is a film that can never be what we really want. For that, we’d have to go back in time and make Episode VII in 1988 or something.
So the film we get is, well, kind of weird rip-off of “A New Hope” (aka the original “Star Wars”) with various character traits of our original three main characters mixed and matched across three new characters. We also get a character that has traits of the Anakin Skywalker we saw in the prequels, but played by a better actor (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren) and portrayed in a far less annoying and far more successful manner. It’s a good 40 minutes or so before one of the original main characters, in this case Han, shows up. Another main character, Luke, shows up in the last two minutes and has no lines of dialogue. Leia, meanwhile, is relegated to standing around looking worried, or standing around looking sad. None of her character’s old personality gets to shine through.
None of this would be an issue if our new characters were as compelling, or close to as compelling, as our old main characters, but they are not. We get Finn (John Boyega) as a stormtrooper with a conscience who abandons the First Order. The film never lets us know why they stopped using clones as troopers, and why kidnapping and brainwashing children is easier and more efficient and successful, but whatever. Finn is good for some comic relief, but for the most part he’s a one dimensional character who is either scared or crushing on a girl. That girl is another new character, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey is an orphan on a desert planet who is good with fixing things and flying ships (so, Luke), and she’s likable enough, but her character isn’t infused with much personality beyond the things she’s good at doing. Later we see her able to use the Force rather well, so she’s a character with talents, but no personality behind the talents. Our last main character is Kylo Ren, who is Han and Leia’s son, strong with the Force, and attempting to emulate his grandfather, Darth Vader, by wearing a mask and voice modulator and tapping into the Dark Side of the Force. He has many of the personality traits young Anakin has in the prequels: he’s torn between light and dark, has issues with his dad (Anakin’s surrogate dad was Obi-Wan, even if he had no biological father), is prone to fits of whiny anger and violent lashings out, and despite being an object of fear and power is really just a whiny wuss. The new character is a little on-the-nose, and also one dimensional, but he’s performed by a better actor than Anakin was, and the character has room to grow into someone more multi-layered in future films. Plus, his look is rather cool, even if he’s no Darth Vader.
In fact, TFA is to “Star Wars” what Kylo Ren is to Darth Vader: it’s not as good as the older thing it desperately wants to be, its weaknesses are very obvious, but the potential for improvement is there. We also have new characters like Poe (Oscar Isaacs) and the droid BB-8 who are pretty all around successful and work really well in the limited capacity we see them in here. Still, so much of this film feels like a pale imitator of what came before. We get yet another Death Star, more or less (this was groan inducing in ROTJ and now it’s just sad that the Empire keeps trying the same stupid idea over and over again), and this film is about crucial information held in a plucky droid that has to get somewhere important thanks to a ragtag group of people. People are kidnapped and tortured, there’s a backwater desert planet, and there’s some awkward dialogue and blatant exposition abounding at every turn. None of the dialogue is as awful as what we heard in “Attack of the Clones”, but this isn’t a film that will be quoted all that often.
The film is a lot of fun. It’s well-paced and structured, the action scenes are done well, Harrison Ford recaptures the role of Han Solo as if he never left it, and you will have a heck of a good time watching this thing. Story-wise, the prequels were a bit more inventive because they tried something new. Mostly they failed, but I liked the attempts to explore the politics of the Star Wars universe more and some expanding of the mythology was welcome. Plus, I’m a sucker for Palpatine, and the increased role for him in the prequels was welcome for me. TFA is a better film not because it does many things better than the prequels, but simply because it doesn’t do anything as bad as the prequels did. There’s no Jar-Jar, no Hayden Christensen, no horribly written love story with no chemistry, no overuse of CGI for CGI’s sake.
I’m not qualified to talk much about the Expanded Universe, but my guess is hardcore fans are not going to prefer the story of this film to the EU stories we’ve gotten. TFA feels lighter, more surface, and just doesn’t have as much meat on the bones. When a main character dies, we don’t feel anything because the film hasn’t made us care about the relationship between murderer and victim, but merely relies on what we’ve brought to the film from the earlier ones. If taken on its own, this film is lighter than air in the story department. It almost makes you wish they at least kept the EU’s backstory and made a new story within that, or used some of that Benjamin Button CGI to de-age the actors and tell a famous EU story. TFA is a fun film, but I’d rather see Luke fight Palpatine’s clones over the story TFA gives us on any day.
The thing is, it’s highly possible given the pieces of this film that Episode VIII will be excellent. Now that set-up and (some) exposition are out of the way, the next film can actually build character personalities and give us a reason to care about the new characters for reasons other than that they populate a Star Wars movie. They also need to break their own ground and not just re-tell the old movies in new ways, make each film an entertainment experience that doesn’t require exploration to ancillary media to fully understand and appreciate, and the dialogue and exposition need to be punched up and handled less awkwardly. Look, this is a good, fun film and we’re all very happy to have a new Star Wars movie with actual sets and puppeteering and the old characters we know and love. But if you step back from your fanboy excitement a bit, you have to know this film is severely lacking on the basic level of plot and story. Search your feelings, you know this to be true. B.