SPOILERS (not big or important ones, but story details and allusions) FOLLOW: CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The weirdest moment in my evolution from movie fan to professional film critic (SHUT UP it is too a real job!) was when I realized that I had been both totally wrong and totally right about the STAR WARS prequels (SHUT UP *again!* – that era is now as over as it’s gonna get you got your way you can afford one more look back).
Viewed objectively, the prequels are “bad films” for the same reasons that plenty of other (substantially worse!) special-effects blockbusters are bad films: Poorly scripted, badly acted, tonally askew, etc. But as a young-ish fanboy back in the day, what really bugged me was that they didn’t “feel” STAR WARS enough, by which of course I mean that they didn’t remain slavishly devoted to the aesthetic and trappings I’d grown up obsessed with and didn’t throw out nearly enough references and callbacks and, well… “Star Wars” stuff. Whatever bad things you can say about THE PHANTOM MENACE, you can’t accuse George Lucas of pandering to the audience – that was ATTACK OF THE CLONES
My point is: I’ve long held a sneaky (and depressing) suspicion that if the prequels had been exactly as lacking on a technical filmmaking and storytelling level BUT had also been suitably packed to the gills with the requisite amount of fan-service, said fans would’ve largely overlooked those flaws and still be arguing their merits today.
And I’d been worried that I’d get a chance to test this hypothesis ever since it became clear that Disney and Lucasfilm were intent on selling THE FORCE AWAKENS based almost-exclusively around proving that they’d been listening to the last decade-plus of fanboy complaints; with a pre-release hype machine that ignored almost all discussion of story, themes or characters in favor of: “We’re using practical effects and models again!” “NO midichlorians!” “X-Wings and Tie-Fighters and Storm Troopers and The Falcon!” “Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie are all back!” Heck, they even went so far as to hire JJ Abrams – a remarkably UN-remarkable talent whose only skillset of genuine note is being an exceptional mimic of the style and feel of other peoples’ movies. If ever there was going to be a recipe to make O.G. STAR WARS fans spontaneously combust with joy *regardless* of whether or not the movie was actually any damn good, this was it.
BUT! My hypothesis will have to wait for another day. Because in spite of all that (and, if we’re being far, probably because of some of it) STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a pretty damn good movie. And since it in no way needed to be, I suppose that’s damn impressive in its own right.
Make no mistake though: What we’ve got here is effectively the world’s first $200 million STAR WARS fan-film – and I don’t use that designation to be flippant nor entirely critical. THE FORCE AWAKENS is scratching a nostalgia itch out of pure profit motive, but for good or ill the attachment generations of filmgoers have to the sights, sounds and characters of the original trilogy is a real, palpable thing that exists on a level above the base toy-salesmanship that grew to feed off of it. Yes, the narrative is pretty much a leisurely stroll down memory lane (with frequent detours onto Homage Avenue) but mostly feels organic and natural about it at least until you stop and start questioning the coincidences that have always been a big part of the series’ storytelling.
Which, it turns out, is equal parts amusing and frustrating: Abrams isn’t even half as clever a storyteller as he thinks he is… but he IS pretty darn clever, and his sleight of hand trick here is to make both the cyclical nature of the STAR WARS canon and a mad drive to re-live (and live-up-to) the events of the Original Trilogy part of the subtext and “meta”-text of the overall piece; in as much as our new bad guys (The First Order) appear largely to be a cult of Empire-revivalists while our heroes (and at least one villain) are consumed with finding and honoring the spirit of the exploits of Luke and company which, to them, are the stuff of (literal) legend.
This, depending on your point of view, either necessitates or allows for Abrams’ most naked stroke of “fan-film”-ism: That the actual surface-level story of THE FORCE AWAKENS is a deliberate, near blow-for-blow retread of the original STAR WARS; as we once again concern ourselves with a droid who crash-lands on a desert planet carrying top-secret information regarding an old Jedi Master, a newly-completed planet-destroying battlestation and a high-ranking villain in a black mask who’s more personally invested than they’re letting on.
The film (and filmmakers) aren’t simply playing with the original series’ vintage toys, they’re using them to re-enact their favorite parts with their own tweaks and revisions. To be honest, if you can picture a modernized remake of the first movie but where they actually knew the big revelations from EMPIRE and could allude to them ad-nauseum (plus an admirable diversity-boost to main cast), you’re a long way to knowing more-or-less what you’re getting from EPISODE VII; with Abrams clearly feeling comfortable enough in his term-limited position as Star Wars Fanboy King For A Day to also find room for his own versions of Mysterious Uber-Villains Meant To Be Explained Later, a character with a cool, instantly-iconic look who gets a ton of tangential build-up but ultimately doesn’t really do anything and an angry confrontation about paternity on an absurdly-unsafe catwalk.
I’d be lying if I said that this level of reliance on mythic reference for gravity and scope doesn’t start to wear thin at the seams – Abrams is putting way more of his weight on Lucas than Lucas himself *ever* leaned on Joseph Campbell – but it eventually holds together and proves (mostly) able to stand up as its own thing thanks to the one Original Trilogy lesson it seems to have commited most of all to heart: That a lot can be forgiven with compelling characters and a sense of humor. Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron are all fun, engaging characters whose future exploits I’m already looking forward to; and despite all the homage and allusion the plot puts them through there is indeed a lot more to each of them than simply “the Luke” or “the Han” from scene to scene.
Boyega in particular essays a great likable everyman caught way above his head by his own good intentions, Ridley is compelling and strong even while saddled with the unfortunate duty of having every word spoken by or about her coming branded with a footnote reading: “THIS WILL MEAN SOMETHING IN EPISODE EIGHT!” But it’s Isaac who pretty-much walks away with every scene he’s in – making probably the biggest and most instantaneous turn from “Good actor you’ve seen around” to “HOLY SHIT this kid is a born movie star!!!” since… well, yeah. And speaking of which, while they occasionally get right up the line of it, the returning Hall of Famers acquit themselves admirably and largely avoid overstaying their welcome.
Possibly most interesting of all is Adam Driver as Kylo-Ren, ostensibly the “new” wannabe Darth. I say possibly both because his storyline is another one that’s clearly being left half-realized so as to be a “to be continued” for the next movie, and also because it’s not fully possible to talk about him without getting into a series of huge spoilers. Suffice it to say I was profoundly intrigued to see Abrams and company introduce a character whose (no exaggeration) entire being feels conceived as a pre-emptive “fuck off” to whiny, entitled, backwards-looking, legacy-obsessed, easily-enraged fanboy culture itself (think Superboy Prime) only to say: “Y’know what? This will work better if we’re subtle about it.” Of all the characters new or old, his is the story I’m most interested to see play out further.
If there’s a weak link, it’s in the writing. Not necessarily in the overall storytelling – the story they’ve got is fine even if you can hear the gears turning a little too loudly as they attempt to reverse-engineer Lucas’ original “think up a giant epic, then tell one small part of it” approach – although it does do a fine job of using the fallout from a casually-revealed, seemingly “major” plot detail that at first feels like it should have been a huge twist as a narrative smoke-screen to conceal a much bigger twist *almost* well enough that you’ll be irritated with yourself during the credits when you start thinking: “Wait a minute, that might be one astronomically massive coincidence too many.”
The problem, rather, comes in the dialogue – where too often a character’s already perfectly-clear reaction to something goes on several beats longer than it should while they lay out the emotional-exposition for said reaction to a third party. There isn’t too much of this, but there’s enough that you start wondering if there’s a joke being told that you don’t have the proper context for.
Ultimately, I’m not sure that it’s possible to give a fair and complete overview of THE FORCE AWAKENS that will stand the test of time – much like the Prequels, it feels structured around a sense of pre-planned inevitability in a way that frustratingly obscures which moments of under-writing or “plot-holes” are “bugs” of clunky screenwriting and which ones are “features” of setting up the next two movies: for example, DON’T go in expecting to find out WHY the First Order formed, HOW it’s buildup was accomplished or WHAT they’re grand scheme or unifying ideology is all about just yet.
For now, what I can safely say as a film critic is that – if the stated goal here was to emulate the original 1977 STAR WARS? Mission accomplished: Both films are energetic, hugely enjoyable, visually-spectacular space-adventure romps from imaginative filmmakers who are perhaps better as technicians than auteurs that are immensely fun to watch and contain intriguing glimpses of a bigger world and more substantive story just beyond the frame. And if this commitment to emulation continues, then here’s hoping next time we once again get the deeper, richer, more narratively-satisfying continuation made by a better director (they’ve already got that second part pretty-much locked-in.)
And as a STAR WARS fan? …yup, it’s pretty goddamn awesome. In the end my objectivity and detachment were no match for just how satisfying it is to see all The Good Stuff polished up like new and our Old Friends stepping back up to take their well-deserved bows; and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience visceral, powerful emotional response to a handful of big payoffs – even when you can see them coming from miles (or years away.) THE FORCE AWAKENS has practically been *genetically engineered* in the vast Disney manufacturing collective to make long-time STAR WARS fans shrug off the weight of Prequel Disappointment, get all misty and gratefully declare “Star Wars is back.” And… yeah, so be it, I’ll say it, you guys win:
STAR WARS is back.
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