Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has opened in theaters, and everyone has an opinion. This is mine. Director J.J. Abrams is at the helm of the seventh installment to the Star Wars saga, taking up the challenge for Disney, with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark) to bring us all back to a galaxy far, far away. We’re in the Millennium Falcon, yes. But the hyperdrive is damaged, and we ain’t going to lightspeed. Only minor spoilers below.
Certain emotional beats are imitated in look, but the feeling is far from there. Abrams and Kasdan have created a movie that safely courses through familiar Star Wars territory, something that flies closer to the original trilogy of ’77, ’80, and ’83. The script relies too often on the question, “What happened in the original trilogy, and how do we get out characters to do the same?” instead of offering anything really fresh. Most of the movie takes its queues from Episode IV: A New Hope, but the script is a fast-forward through Star Wars’ greatest hits. It’s a nostalgia trip, and some of it is fun, but it leaves you waiting for something else to happen to give itself a standalone personality. There’s a hero on a desert planet, information stored in an adorable droid, a masked villain all in black, a wisecracking, hotshot pilot, a new battle station (Death Star 3.0), dogfights between X-Wing and Tie-Fighters, and a dark master pulling the strings in the background. This all sounds exciting, but unfortunately the movie never slows down long enough to give any of it meaning. Everything from a lightsaber battle to attacks on a third Death Star seem tacked on for the sake of reference, or a lazy feeling of this is what people expect from a Star Wars film without knowing in the first place the heart on why those things exist in this iconic, cinematic universe.
Dialog is mostly exposition, and it never feels as natural as the original trilogy’s, Obi-Wan Kenobi explaining the history of the Jedi, the Force, and old wars long passed; Princess Leia pleading for a venerable warrior’s help; or Han Solo trying to make a sale of his skills, only impressing himself. Dialog is spoken with hokey delivery, bordering on parody, or sometimes it’s outright comedy. This is most apparent with conversations between General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Darth Vader knockoff (almost admittedly so by the movie itself) Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The film’s pace seems more like a Star Wars made for television than a big-budget blockbuster from a director who constantly boasted about fixing the perceived flaws of the last three installments. Events happen only as a gag to give a nod and wink to the original trilogy, never really to continue the series’ bigger story, or make you believe there’s any more to tell. The search for Luke Skywalker is the ultimate driving force and end goal, a meta-nod as the search for the hero of our youth…because, after all, Lucas ‘violated’ our youth.
Newcomer Daisy Ridley and John Boyega (Attack the Block) are here to bring diversity and freshness to the Star Wars series; the only real bold risk a young woman and a black character the focus and leads. Boyega’s character Finn had the biggest potential to add something entirely new to the Star Wars universe as a defector of the First Order, which is the new threat to the galaxy, risen from the ashes of (and patterned after) the galactic Empire. It was good to see someone go from being on the wrong side of politics to turning good at the beginning of the trilogy rather than redeemed of their actions by the end. But his character often looks cowardly than remorseful, and when he enters safe territory, the script boxes him into a bumbling sidekick role who specializes in comic relief that seems a little too modern and Earthly for a galaxy far, far away. His marketing too came with a bit of misdirection to make people perceive him as a potential Jedi, showing him with lightsaber in hand. But he was merely a curtain to cover the real hero of the story, Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. Her story mirrors Luke Skywalker on speed. She meets both her Obi Wan and Yoda-like mentors, loses one, has crazy dreams that gives clues to the future (ala trial at the cave in Empire Strikes Back), learns the Force and all its tricks, and goes head-to-head with the evil man in black in a lightsaber duel. We get to know a little of her backstory, but most is kept in the dark to set up for future installments, a motif the movie relies too heavy on to be a real standalone. Oscar Issac (Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year) as Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is woefully underused, and when he is, again it’s fast spoken exposition to get to the next event. He disappears fairly quickly in the beginning of the film, and it seems as if cuts back to his character’s progress before just popping up toward the end of the second act were lost somewhere in editing. Adam Driver (Girls) plays the new dark villain Kylo Ren, an emotionally unstable character with father issues that throws fits of rage that play for laughs. Much like the film, he emulates the history before him, strives and struggles to connect as to why he isn’t like what comes before him, an when he steps outside of that emulation and shows his own personality, there are flickers of brilliance that are ultimately stifled by weak dialog. To actors’ credits, they do their best with what they’re given, but much is still to be desired.
Original trilogy heroes Han Solo, Leia Organa (now a general for the galactic Republic’s Resistance) and Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, whom the film spends its entirety searching for, make their return, again played by Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamil. It brings a warm feeling to see these characters at first sight, but that feeling doesn’t last. The largest role goes to Harrison’s charismatic, galactic rogue Han Solo. Ford doesn’t always look comfortable in the iconic role that launched his career, but when he does hit the notes right, you understand why he gave the character such life in the first place. Carrie Fisher sounds and looks exhausted in every scene she’s in, and her acting feels forced. There’s not enough of Hamil to decide, but it was a nice touch to see Luke Skywalker again.
For all of J.J.’s touting of practical effects, they didn’t make more of an impact than the much-derided CGI of the prequels. The truth is the prequels had more practical effects than is often given credit for. And despite many people’s negativity toward the last three Star Wars films, they ultimately filled in the blanks to the only story worth telling in the Star Wars universe: the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. J.J. Abrams is getting a few lumps with just rehashing the stories of the original trilogy, but really, what other stories could anyone tell in a galaxy far, far away without getting attacked by the fans? Even the literature extending after Return of the Jedi did a rinse and repeat on the rise, fall, and redemption of someone with Imperial remnants lingering as a threat. Lucas’ talk of a possible 12-part series was often just an excited young artist thinking out loud on possibilities to where to take his story. From what I’ve read, parts of what was Lucas’ Episode’s 7, 8, and 9 were put into Return of the Jedi. Originally Lucas planned for Luke to bring his father back to the good side, but the Emperor to escape defeat, pursued by Luke and his sister (not Leia at the time of outlining) across the next three films. But who knows what all that talk was about.
For all my ranting, the movie is still a fun outing. It’s Star Wars after all. But it’s also proof that sometimes fans aren’t the best choice to make a film. Paying homage does not a plot make. It’s still a shaky start to a new beginning in the Star Wars saga. For me personally the story concluded, and I take these next films with a grain of salt. Disney, make your money back on that $4 billion purchase. We’ll all be in line for Episode VIII no matter what you shovel at us. After all, for all the fan-raged anger generated at the prequels, we all stood in line every three years to see them. And we saw those films more than once in the theater.
For all my ranting, the movie is still fun. It’s Star Wars after all. But it’s also proof that sometimes fans aren’t the best choice to make a film. Paying homage does not a plot make. It’s still a shaky start to a new beginning in the Star Wars saga.