Let me begin with a confession: I don’t hate the Star Wars Prequels. They’re not great movies, even the third one I can’t call more than decent, but they’re not the plague the internet has made them to be. Even the second one, which has become the franchise punching bag amongst Star Wars hipsters, is a serviceably bad movie. So when it was announced that J.J. Abrams, director behind the recent Star Trek reboots, would be returning to “franchise roots” following, I wanted to scream. “Good Lord,” I thought, “why do we always keep pretending that older is better?”
Finally, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hit theatres. As expected, the reviews are stellar, despite the initial whining that “Disney was killing the franchise”. But I was skeptical. Excited to see another Star Wars movie, but also skeptical. I knew what this film was doing, and I wasn’t gonna be a sucker to hype. Still, I kept an open mind; after all, if it was getting stellar reviews, then clearly it was worthwhile.
(By the way, minor spoilers)
The movie begins with the traditional opening crawl. Luke Skywalker, the hero from the original films, has gone missing, and in his place a new order has arisen from the ashes of the empire, a Sith Lord has replaced Darth Vader and the rebellion, now the new republic, is at it once more. Amidst the conflict, a lone pilot, Poe Dameron, has retrieved the map to Luke’s location and hidden it with his droid, BB-88, for safe-keeping. He’s kidnapped by the order, but not before escaping with a rogue Stormtrooper and landing on Jakku, where we meet a smuggler named Rey. From here, it’s a race to find Luke and stop the new order, all the while meeting old faces that plan to take down the new Sith, Kylo Ren, once and for all.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens establishes almost immediately that it’s not the prequels: the sets are real, the effects are mostly practical and little to no mentions of Episodes I-III are present. This movie’s a “true” Star Wars movie, one aiming to please long-time fans. Unfortunately, it also means that new ideas are almost non-existent, preferring to ape the formula of the original films from a slightly different angle. The movie hits all the checkpoints, from the plans the big baddie wants for themselves, to the nobody who embarks on the hero’s journey, to the villain and the attempt at redemption.
And it’s obnoxious. I get it, people weren’t happy with the prequels and want to forget they exist. These new movies are doing that. But when your basic plot structure repeats Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope and parts of its sequel beat-for-beat, except with a new coat of paint, I can’t help but call it “lazy”. It doesn’t matter that the story of Star Wars itself isn’t original anyway, that’s no excuse for lack of inventiveness.
This is doubly annoying because the movie is 135-minutes of shameless lip-service. Every scene, right down to the carefully crafted dialogue, is such an homage that I can’t help but groan inside; yes, it’s nice to see characters X, Y and Z again. Yes, that one song from that one scene is a nice callback to that one song from that other scene. And yes, it was cool to see this movie’s update to The Death Star. But I don’t consider that clever. Homage is best when it’s subtle and doesn’t detract from change. That's why the Daniel Craig James Bonds were so appealing to me, why Abrams’s take on Star Trek in 2009 hooked me and why the new Ghostbusters movie looks so enticing.
I’m also mad because there isn’t a single nod to the prequels. Or, rather, there’s a single nod to the prequels. And it’s a throwaway line the movie feels isn’t important. I don’t understand why this movie’s so allergic to those films, especially when they introduced an important concept about the Sith. Considering how this movie’s supposed to “tie Star Wars together”, why isn’t it doing that? There are fans of the prequels watching this movie too, give them some credit!
The last complaint, ignoring any obvious conveniences, is John William’s score. Williams is my favourite film composer, and when I heard he’d be returning I was pumped; after all, he’d composed the previous films, and his work was excellent! Sadly, he’s criminally under-utilized, such that nothing that isn’t a rehash of previous tunes is inspired. And I’d be fine if it were a lesser composer, but this is John Williams!
Perhaps I’m being too critical. After all, Star Wars is a touchy franchise, and it’s clear its high points have influenced the action and science fiction genres. Add in that the original movies will be held fondly because of what they did, and it’s clear that a movie trying to get back old, disenfranchised fans will play to that. So I shouldn’t be too critical, since what works almost compensates for my frustrations. Almost.
One of the strengths is its collaborative effort. Unlike the prequels, which were almost exclusively driven by one person, Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks and feels like a team-effort. The effects are crafted with care, being a happy medium of practical and CGI, and the acting is the best the franchise has ever had. It also looks and feels like the worlds are lived in and grimy, something the cleaned-up prequels never boasted. And while it’s frustrating to see how much pandering is in this movie, most of it’s brilliantly-done.
Perhaps its biggest credit was making one of the most-predictable moments, which I won’t spoil, feel earned and shocking. Earned because it’s fitting, and shocking because of how well-executed it is. A predictable plot-point is only worthless if not done well, and this is definitely not that. So while you can call it from a mile away, you’re still not prepared for when it happens.
Not to mention, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is funny. Not every joke works, but most that do are effective because of their meta-references to older moments. Combine that with one of the best lightsaber fights in franchise history, and you’re left with an impressive end-result. Not fantastic, or even mind-blowing, but impressive. That alone warrants an admission ticket, personal gripes aside. I only hope the next movie actually does something different.
May the force be with you!