Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a lesser film than all of the episodes in the original Star Wars trilogy because it spends far too much time trying to be like them. For all the problems that came with George Lucas’ underwhelming prequel trilogy, those films were at least unafraid to expand the Star Wars modus operandi as well as explore new territory of the galaxy that Lucas’ began to develop not so long ago, in this galaxy. There’s a strained effort to recapture what made the original trilogy so wonderful, and it saturates The Force Awakens. It never feels wonderful in its own right.
Part of this is because the narrative is modelled so heavily on A New Hope, much of which was already mimicked in Return of the Jedi. The last third of The Force Awakens borders on parody, so cautious is the storytelling. Director J.J. Abrams hits beats that have become synonymous with the Star Wars universe – there’s a bravado pilot, a Wookie, R2-D2, C-3PO, wisecracks, a new form of Death Star etc. – but there’s never a sense that consideration has been put into whether a new Star Wars trilogy ought to be hitting those beats. The Force Awakens is standing in the shadows of Star Wars and it emerges hollow and bromidic.
The plot and the dialogue are the two most glaring issues. On top of those elements, Abrams has always had problems with imbuing events in his films with any sort of significance. Things happen and then things happen and then things happen. Without wanting to spoil The Force Awakens too much, big things happen. And Abrams is manically onto the next event without pause for effect or deliberation. Remember the iconic scene in The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite in Cloud City? There was a real sense of pace to that moment, a real sense of monument. Abrams teters on creating moments as memorable as this, but never does. There’s another famous scene from the original trilogy, in A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker gazes out across his farm towards the binary sunset on the planet Tatooine. There’s a similar shot in The Force Awakens. Abrams goes wide for a couple of seconds before getting right back into the action, because giving weight to any of the events or characters isn’t part of his agenda. It may seem unfair to compare The Force Awakens to The Empire Strikes Back, perhaps the single greatest movie of it’s kind or even A New Hope, which is one of the most culturally monumental film releases of the 20th century. But it isn’t so unfair as all that. Abrams invites these comparisons perpetually and relentlessly and his film suffers for it.
Very little time or thought is given to the events that unfold. The new threat in the galaxy is the First Order, essentially a recapitulation of the Empire in the old trilogy. The drastic and sudden rise of the First Order is just one of a number of instances in which The Force Awakens diminishes the impact of the original trilogy. As poorly handled as they were, the prequel trilogy never manipulated the legacy of the classic Star wars films. There is such a degree of emulation in Abrams’ film that you could pinpoint who is standing in for Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, Boba Fett etc. The Force Awakens never pauses to convey exactly why the First Order has managed to build itself from the ashes of the Empire nor exactly why malevolence is their course of action. Star Wars has always had a pleasantly simple approach to the concepts of good and evil, but not this simple. It’s uninspired storytelling, especially considering Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan infamous declared the extended universe (the books, the comics etc.) void. The options for where they steered the saga was limitless and they ended up remaking A New Hope.
The film shines when it focuses on the younger cast. Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron are all gifted with the uncanny ability to make the Star Wars universe fresh and fun, even when burdened with unfortunate dialogue. Harrison Ford embodied that ability in the original trilogy. Nobody had it in the prequel trilogy. Adam Driver as the villainous Kylo Ren is wonderfully physical and menacing whenever the character has his mask on. When it’s off, the effect evaporates and his performance draws unfavourable comparisons to Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker in the prequels.
Abrams may superficially seem the right man for the job but consider his filmography. Mission: Impossible 3 was a film more memorable for being better than it should have been than for being good. Star Trek was a very entertaining movie that missed the ethos of Star Trek entirely (it’s sequel even more so). Super 8, like The Force Awakens, was after some form of filmic nostalgia through mimicry but beneath the shiny surface it was hollow, dull and had no life of its own. Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand directed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and you have probably never heard of them.
Including members of the cast of the original trilogy, particularly Han Solo (Harrison Ford) may have been a fan service but it does the film, and the original films, a disservice. It could be difficult from now on to watch The Empire Strikes Back without Han Solo as an old man coming to mind. Territory, perhaps, that was better left unexplored, though Ford does do an admirable job at trying to make an old Han Solo something more worthwhile than gimmick.
The team behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens may have been so occupied with making a Star Wars film that they forgot to make a good film. With the universe at their feet they exercised narrative caution and it could be the death knell of the Star Wars saga, for there are now more bad Star Wars films than good. The Force Awakens plays like a Best Of of the original trilogy (with a dash of Hayden Christensen thrown in for good measure). There’s a bewildering degree of apery that comes across as just that – apery, not filmmaking. And like a lot of great stories, it loses a lot in the retelling.
On a personal note, because I’m sure negative reviews of this movie will be met with criticism, I’m absolutely devastated regarding how I feel about The Force Awakens. I went in without any feelings of cynicism (perhaps with expectations too high, but I’ve seen it twice now and felt the same way about it second time round). It wouldn’t have taken much for me to be blinded by my irrational love of the Star Wars universe, but ultimately I feel as though Abrams’ efforts were lacklustre in almost every regard. Don’t be blinded by the lightsabers. For further material on this consideration, look no further.