Review: The Force Awakens

On the whole, I’m ambivalent about Star Wars. I only properly watched the original films and prequel series as an adult, so it was never something formative for me. I basically agree with the general consensus around these movies: that the originals were good and the prequels were not.

From the latest movie, I can tell that JJ Abrams1 and co obviously share this view. In order to make a new Star Wars movie that they knew the fans would like, they really just made a modern version of the very first movie, with a few things tweaked here and there, and plenty of fanservice – why else bring back the entire original cast?

This review is going to spoil the whole movie, so, if you care about that sort of thing, it’d be a good idea to bail out after the snarky tweet below.

Whatever bad things you can say about the Star Wars prequels, they had a story to tell about the fall of the Republic and Anakin Skywalker. The galaxy in the prequels felt different from that in the originals, in a believable, logical way: here’s the galaxy under the Republic and with a full Jedi order, and here’s how everything slowly went wrong.

But in the new movie, everything is the same. The Empire is back with a different name and led by a Gollum-lookalike who may or may not be a giant, the Rebels are still La Résistance, and there’s still like one Jedi in the entire universe, who may or may not be made up. The plot goes like this:

  1. Established good guy places important message on a droid before capture by bad guys.
  • Droid with message found by orphan on desert planet.
  • Orphan mentored by older person from chronologically previous trilogy.
  • Orphan teams up with action hero guy.
  • Orphan discovers they have force powers.
  • Orphan initially doesn’t want to accept destiny but then a bunch of people die, which puts a new spin on things.
  • Bad guys blow up good guy planet(s) with giant laser weapon.
  • Rebels destroy giant laser weapon using inside info.
  • Main bad force guy is apprentice to Empire leader, turns out to be related to good guy.2
  • Old mentor killed by main bad force guy.3
  • Orphan goes to backwoods planet to train in the Force under reclusive last remaining Jedi master.4

(The joke I’m making here is you could use the same bullet points if you were describing the plot of Episode IV plus the start of Episode V.)

There are a couple of gender and age swaps (“I am your s/father/son!”) and one slightly interesting character variation – new Han is a defecting Storm Trooper from the not-clones regiment rather than a smuggler. Both new Han and new Luke initially refuse the call to adventure like old Han and old Luke before them, because as we know the Hero’s Journey was intended as a writing blueprint. There’s even a bit where they tease killing Leia 2 (established good guy who initially plants the message on the droid) in a spaceship crash, but it’s pretty obvious he didn’t because we never see the body. No surprise when he reappears, no doubt to have many future adventures with Luke 2 and Han 2.

It’s quite plain that in order to make a Star Wars movie everyone would like, they just remade the first Star Wars movie that everyone liked (with a bit of Empire Strikes Back for good measure). And it appears to have worked.

The problem with prequels is that you already know what’s going to happen at the end. Remakes generally have the same problem. But a rehash, well, that’s even worse, because you know what’s going to happen and have zero reason to care. This is not a new story set in an established universe that grows organically from what’s come before and presents something fresh and different, strengthened and deepened by what’s come before. It’s the same old thing with a new coat of paint. The Force Awakens feels like nothing so much as a cynical, unnecessary method for parting Star Wars fans with the contents of their wallets.

So I didn’t really care for this one. Not an awful movie by any means, but time better spent rewatching the old ones.

  1. I bring this up every time, but man, why do we have the same person directing new Star Trek and new Star Wars films? Are there really that few directors willing to work on nerd franchises? Evidently not, or we wouldn’t have so many superhero movies. ↩︎

  2. Well done to Abrams for not keeping this in the mystery box. ↩︎

  3. Killing off Han Solo was probably a good call: he already stole the original trilogy from its designated protagonist. But also it means no more Harrison Ford, i.e. best actor in Star Wars and best part of Episode VII↩︎

  4. What bothered me the most about this was how the location of this planet, a huge mystery for most of the movie, was revealed right near the end after R2-D2 conveniently reactivated and conveniently revealed that he conveniently had the missing piece of the puzzle in his memory banks the whole time and was just waiting for the bit in the script where the mystery needed to be solved and the plot needed to move forward. ↩︎

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