Starring Daisey Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver and Carrie Fisher
PG-13, 136 minutes
Is this all we have to look forward to?
This sad, if not overly dramatic, thought occurs to me once the credits begin to roll, ending the new Star Wars movie. This is truly the best Hollywood is capable of producing, with all the money and a world class marketing campaign at their disposal?
To be fair, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a bad movie. The action set-pieces are pulled off in a technically competent and coherent manner. The performances are all serviceable for what kind of movie this is. In fact, the movie accomplishes almost everything it sets out to. But, in doing so, it reveals a troubling lack of ambition about itself that can’t be considered anything but disappointing.
To sum up the basic plot of the movie, if that’s even necessary at this point, the story kicks into motion when a member of a resistance group (called The Resistance) stores sensitive information inside a droid. The droid is able to get away while that person is captured. Wandering the desert, the droid is saved from capture by a desert-dweller in a gauzy-looking beige outfit who becomes our protagonist. While the enemy scrambles to locate the missing droid and extract the information within, our protagonist meets up with a friend looking to run away and an old, battle-hardened mentor figure. Everything leads up to an attack on the enemy’s secret weapon, a large ray gun capable of destroying whole planets in one fell swoop.
Does this sound familiar? That’s because what The Force Awakens is doing is remaking the original Star Wars film. The similarities can’t simply be chalked up to a new interpretation of the hero’s journey, either. The hero’s journey, what George Lucas used as a tool in writing the original Star Wars and has been a guiding force in structuring adventures like this for decades, didn’t have a Death Star in it (or, excuse me, a Starkiller Base). Fact of the matter is, save for a protracted ending, beat for beat, this is the same movie.
Retreads are fairly common in the movie business. A marketable and popular film series will get revived for another adventure and end up covering the same ground as a cherished predecessor (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Superman Returns, to name a couple), happens all the time. For a movie like this, re-introducing the Star Wars iconography to generations old and new after a decade-long absence, it’s, in the minds of those in charge, the safest way of ensuring a return on investment. And, for a movie they spent four billion for the rights and two-hundred million to actually make, safe is the way to go.
Or, is it? Considering the immense hype, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the months leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, you could’ve put out anything and this movie would’ve been a hit. Hell, judging by the Force Awakens costumes and t-shirts I saw in the theater lobby going to see the movie on opening weekend, you probably could’ve pulled the world’s biggest prank and not release a movie at all and still made good on the merchandising alone. Star Wars sells itself. This isn’t Jurassic World, where you’re more or less pinned into one basic premise.
Now, to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that the movie isn’t worthwhile as a cultural event simply because it rehashes an older movie. Bringing Superman Returns back into this, that film retreads over a lot of material found in Richard Donner’s original Superman movie, but, despite all the hate it gets, there’s something going on from a thematic standpoint, with characters and a movie struggling to find its place in a changing American culture, to justify those decisions. What is The Force Awakens doing?
Well, like most rehashes, it’s telling the same story, just not as well.
Here, I’m going to draw comparisons to the original Star Wars to illustrate where The Force Awakens pales in comparison. And before it seems like I’m unfairly criticizing a new movie against a classic cornerstone of American culture, rest assured. Star Wars, as a standalone film, is fine. It has many positives, and quite a few negatives, mainly the hokey, stilted acting and dialogue. It’s a good movie, but not perfect by any means.
So, with The Force Awakens, the problems begin early. This time, the information being stored in a droid this time has to do with a map that’ll lead to the missing location of Luke Skywalker, who has vanished. Right off the bat, there isn’t much urgency to this and, once the reasoning behind Luke’s disappearance is revealed, it’s hard to understand why so much resources are spent trying to find the guy, even if he is a Jedi. Compare this to the original Star Wars, where the information in the droid will reveal a weakness in the Death Star, the enemy’s secret weapon. Then, in a clear causal chain of events, our heroes become involved in trying to get the droid back to the Rebel Alliance so they can blow up the giant ray gun before it blows them up. It’s all simple, neat and concise. In contrast, by the time The Force Awakens reveals its ultimate endgame, that it’s just been building us up to another scheme to blow up a giant ray gun, with minimal relevance to the aforementioned map to Luke Skywalker, it feels like it’s been a fairly convoluted ride.
Perhaps most fatal, however, there’s nothing too exciting going on in the action department. Outside of a fun early chase in the Millennium Falcon, it’s hard to get too giddy over the workman-like choreography to the ending lightsaber duel and the “all too easy” manner in which the big bad weapon is destroyed.
It leaves you with an anti-climactic feeling, especially considering there isn’t much to the the protagonist’s journey. Rey’s moment of triumph, deciding to fight back against Kylo Ren after she’s already decided to fight back, doesn’t hit properly on an emotional level. Her biggest flaws, from what I could gather, is that she wants to go home to wait for her family and resisting the call to action when Luke’s old lightsaber “calls to her” (which reeks of shlock – I’m sorry, there’s only so many times you can say “the force” or “it’s destiny” before it’s just sloppy writing). Never does it feel like she’s actually risking anything or growing as a person. Compare her to Luke. He starts off as a whiny farm kid who yearns for something more out of life and gets it when his guardians are dead and he realizes he might be in possession of a kind of magic. He finds himself embroiled in intergalactic intrigue and, eventually, must use everything he’s learned from his mentor to “let go” and allow his burgeoning powers to save the day. Rey is so far removed from everything that’s going on in the last third and doesn’t have much of a hand in the actual climax beyond winning the lightsaber fight, which settles nothing.
The original Star Wars, while, yes, a work drawing heavily from other sources, came from a place of genuine inspiration. A young filmmaker’s wish to make something in the vein of the swashbuckling science fiction serials he enjoyed as a child. In the process, it took on a life of its own. The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is too reverential to the franchise it’s continuing to become anything new. It’s crippled by the risk-averse nature of its conception, a need to please everyone preventing it from taking off and becoming an adventure in its own right. It’s just another Star Wars movie. The most common of Christmas presents, somewhat enjoyable and easily forgettable. What blockbuster movies have become in the last several years. How can mainstream entertainment have a lasting impact when its biggest titles are products meant to be easily discarded in a month or two, only to make way for the next one?
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