In 2013, after feeling let down by his Star Trek Into Darkness, I expressed wariness over J.J. Abrams’ involvement with what would come to be called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the long-awaited seventh episode of the Star Wars saga. “If he can compromise the integrity of one beloved franchise,” I wrote at the time, “there’s no telling what he can do to the other.” I felt and still feel that it was a legitimate concern, despite some naysayers who believed otherwise and were happy to tell me so.
Leaving The Force Awakens, I was pleased that I had seen something that was competent, decently cast, visually stunning (as would be expected in IMAX 3D), and generally very entertaining. But I was also disappointed that not all of my fears were put to rest. Setting aside the fun I had, the film simply wasn’t everything it could have been.
Part of the problem is that, in much the same way as his Star Trek films, Abrams puts too much effort into creating a nostalgic atmosphere for diehard fans and not enough into telling a satisfying story. One of the film’s many marketing draws have been a series of pre-release cast and crew interviews, all of which claim in one form or another that it harkens back to the style of the 1977 Star Wars film, now subtitled Episode IV – A New Hope. This is, as it turns out, true to a fault; despite new characters and new locations, much of The Force Awakens is so narratively and visually similar to George Lucas’ original film that it’s really more of an unimaginative rehash than a respectful homage. Consider that it begins with a droid in possession of secret material, and that the droid’s mission is to find a covert contact on a desert planet that isn’t Tatooine but somehow looks exactly like it.
Despite this, the film has been deemed in some circles as the best entry since A New Hope, if not the best entry to date. Given this assessment, I’m forced to conclude that the fans have been clamoring for a remake rather than a true follow-up. Many fans have been vocal and steadfast in their disappointment – in some cases, hatred – over Lucas’ prequel trilogy, released between 1999 and 2005. I never really understood the animosity, and now I understand it even less; regardless of what you may think of the performances, the screenplays, the characterizations, and the reliance on special effects, let it not be said that the first three episodes were tethered to the stylistic sensibilities of the last three. In that regard, each trilogy was allowed to stand on its own, and each film contained genuine surprises.
Disney, the film’s distributor, has kept a tight lid on the plot of The Force Awakens. They were so determined to keep its secrets safe that members of the press, myself included, weren’t invited to see it in advance. Any critic worth his or her salt would know not to include spoilers in their reviews, but never mind; I will play by Disney’s rules and describe the film as vaguely as possible. Set around thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, we find a toughened scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a reformed Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) joining forces to keep a beeping and booping droid named BB-8 away from the clutches The First Order, an evil organization more fascist and Nazi-like than the fallen Galactic Empire.
On their journey, they will cross paths with several characters, some old, some new. There’s Kylo Wren (Adam Driver), a Vader-esque warrior working for The First Order. There’s a grizzled Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his wookie pal Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who, through Rey and Finn, once again get to pilot the Millennium Falcon. There’s Han’s former lover, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who has physically and emotionally grown very weary. And then there’s an X-Wing pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who surprisingly isn’t given all that much to do besides characteristically model himself after Han Solo. As for Mark Hamill, it’s no secret that he has been cast in this film, but I’m afraid his character’s significance to the story is nothing but secrets. You’ll just have to see the film for yourself – which I’m quite sure will happen.
Looking back on this review, I now realize how contradictory it seems. Only at the beginning do I state how entertaining this film is, and even then only in passing; the rest is a basically a list of complaints and indeterminate tidbits of information. Yes, I am recommending Star Wars: The Force Awakens, simply because it’s a fun movie. However, I’d be lying if I said it was equal to or better than any of the previous episode installments. It doesn’t have that extra special something, nor does it give us anything we haven’t already seen. But then again, I’m speaking as someone that (a) enjoyed The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith and (b) had no issues with the special editions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. So maybe you should be reading someone else’s review.