Star Wars is, and always has been, an unwieldy beast. So it makes perfect sense that Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams would have some hurdles to overcome on the maiden voyage of Star Wars 3.0. And while the fumbles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are understandable, they’re also glaringly obvious because they’re mistakes the franchise has never made before. Each of the six previous Star Wars films suffered from the same general shortcomings: weak characterization and clunky, awkward dialogue. The joy of the films was clearly never in the minutia of filmmaker, but rather in the broad-spectrum of what the series was able to achieve in scope and overarching themes.
The execution of individual plot beats in Star Wars has always come secondary to what those beats mean on the greater thematic level. It matters little that every iconic moment in the series is punctuated by someone screeching the word “Nooooo!!!” in a state of heated melodrama. What matters is the places the story takes it’s audience, the unique, special journey that only Star Wars could ever take us on.
Enter Star Wars: The Force Awakens, aka Episode VII, the first Star Wars film to ever fully grasp the concept of clever, snappy, witty dialogue. The first Star Wars film to ever conjure up fully-formed, multi-dimensional characters on the very first go. Unfortunately, what The Force Awakens can never really grasp is a grand scheme. A sense of timeless opera. A feeling of epic grandeur. Writer/director J.J. Abrams is clearly a lifelong fan of the franchise and puts in the work to painstakingly recreate a lot of the iconic sets and locales made iconic in the original trilogy of films, but in recreating them he somehow misses what made those original films so iconic in the first place: Star Wars was made great by ingenuity. By bringing an audience into the theater and blowing their minds with images and ideas and a story that they had never seen before.
Through cutting edge technology and an imagination the size of a galaxy, George Lucas did that with the original trilogy of films starting in 1977, and then again for a new generation with the prequel trilogy in 1999. Say what you will about Lucas as a filmmaker (and there are many critiques to make) but the man was never afraid of making bold choices that pushed the envelope and did things the big screen had never seen before.
The Force Awakens has no self-possessed vision. It’s an absolute blast of a blockbuster film; hilarious, engaging, just emotional enough. But it never feels like it escapes the looming shadow of what it’s predecessors did, except they did it out of boundary-pushing ingenuity, The Force Awakens does it because it’s so in awe of it’s own legacy that it can’t quite figure out what else it can do with itself. This becomes quite evident in how the film approaches design and visual effects. Up until this point, Star Wars has been a technically innovative series. Whether in practical or digital effects-work, Star Wars has been up on the frontline, changing the landscape of movie-making tech.
The Force Awakens, by contrast, seems content with simply replicating what had already been done. Nothing in The Force Awakens feels like a true cinematic step-forward. There’s nothing innovative or fresh or terribly exciting about the way the film constructs it’s own world. Abrams makes the mistake of of thinking the soul of Star Wars rests somewhere behind him, and if he can somehow return and replicate what those original films did, piece-by-piece, he’ll conjure some of the same magic. But what he misses is how the series’ spirit has always been defined by looking ahead, not fussing over how to reconstruct the past.
Speaking of the film’s world, for the first time since the very original Star Wars (which can be chalked up to budgetary reasons) the universe of The Force Awakens feels tiny, which is most likely due to the lack of thought put into the cultural and political landscape of the film. There are no cultures in The Force Awakens. There are no people with functioning, everyday lives milling along in the background. Every character who appears is either a grimy looking muppet, lounging around in deserts or bars, or they’re somebody wielding a blaster with violent intentions (or both). For all of the fuss about the “return to practical effects”, the universe in Force Awakens doesn’t feel lived in. It feels like a set.
And the cast of secondary characters that pop up throughout the film don’t feel like their own autonomous creatures with stories and lives, rather, they feel like amusing props paraded in for the purpose of plot-propulsion. In this regard, the film once again lacks that which was once the franchise’s strength: building a real, functioning, logically sound universe populated by complex cultures, political hierarchies and a genuine sense of sprawling life. Abrams goes the distance on the surface level: the creature and production design in the film is remarkable. But he forgets to do the leg work on the underlying structure of the thing, settling instead for the typical, superficial sort of world-building prevalent in your average sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster (see also: Guardians of the Galaxy).
That all said, while The Force Awakens isn’t quite up-to-snuff as a Star Wars film (it’s not quite the franchise low, but it ain’t toward the top either) it has many virtues of it’s own that make the experience, ultimately, a more-or-less satisfying one. As previously mentioned, the characters of the film are an absolute delight. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega play Rey and Finn, the film’s endlessly likable central pair. Ridley imbues Rey with a strength and spirit long absent in the Star Wars franchise’s history of whiny, limp heroes. Finn, by contrast is a sweetheart (another character type with Star Wars has practically never seen the likes of before). Boyega’s performance in the role is remarkable in it’s charisma and emotional resonance.
Finn may be the main source of comic relief in the film, but Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kazdan wisely never sideline him to the role of a wise-cracking sidekick. On the other side of the field is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, a unique addition to the pantheon of Star Wars villainy. In yet another smart move on the character front, Ren is not a stone-cold badass like his Dark Side-using predecessors were. In contrast, Ren is an insecure, unstable young man (the spitting image of Anakin Skywalker himself), fully aware of his legacy, and suffering a crippling inferiority complex because of it. Driver plays the role wonderfully, a confused young man practically sleepwalking through his journey into the darkness. It’s a surprisingly complex twist on familiar iconography, the sort of smart thinking which, had it characterized the rest of the film, could have elevated it from “good” to “great”.
John Williams returns to score the film and delivers a solid work, but not quite one of his best (with a few notable standouts). His use of pre-existing themes is deft, particularly the iconic “Force Theme” which makes more than one applause-inciting appearance in the film. On the new-material front, his work generally feels a tad over-familiar. Kylo Ren’s blaring theme is solid, but never put to terribly striking use. The new themes for the film’s leading factions, The First Order and The Resistance, are almost completely forgettable (a surprising shortcoming given Williams’ historical strength with anthem-type pieces). The score’s standout piece is, appropriately, Rey’s theme. A mysterious, magical assortment of wind instruments and music box-like chimes, a motif that draws more from Williams’ scores for the first three Harry Potter films than it does from Star Wars, and yet, it feels entirely appropriate for the character and the film. Overall (and this is true of the film in general), the score lays groundwork for what will, hopefully, flourish into something grand, emotionally substantial, and powerful in the coming films.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a great film. It is, however, a good film, and a decent Star Wars film. It creates enough of a foundation that writer/director Rian Johnson can potentially build something great upon in Episode VIII. As a first entry in a new trilogy, it does its job well enough. If nothing else, The Force Awakens is a fun time at the cinema, filled with enough laughs and spectacle to make an IMAX ticket-purchase worth the extra cash. Will it be remembered terribly well years down the line? Doubtful. It lacks the staying power the Lucas could so easily evoke. But for the time being, it’s plenty good fun.