‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’: Seventh verse, same as the first

Editor’s note: Hey guys! Ryan and some friends started a site specifically to talk about all the different Star Wars movies and TV shows, in timeline chronological order! Check out Starwarstcs.com for plenty of writing about the saga, including multiple take on “The Force Awakens” very soon!

Imagine, if you will, a charming, beeping robot stranded on a desert planet. He runs into a plucky orphan with abilities he (or in this case, she) is only beginning to understand. The orphan and the robot, with the help of some new companions, escapes the desert planet to bring the droid and the vital information it carries back to a group of freedom fighters who are working against impossible odds to blow up a giant spherical battle station operated by an evil force of galactic domination. Along the way, there’s a scene in an alien cantina, one member of the group gets stuck on the battle station and needs to be rescued, the old generation faces off against its progeny, and it’s revealed that the only way to blow up the spherical battle station is to fly a bunch of snub fighters down a trench.

Does this sound familiar? To me, it sounds an awful lot like the plot of the very first “Star Wars,” now called “A New Hope,” released way back in 1977. Imagine my surprise to go to the theater this week and see the exact same thing on screen, this time masquerading under the brand new moniker of “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”

Rey and not-R2-D2 take a stroll on not-Tatooine.

Rey and not-R2-D2 take a stroll on not-Tatooine.

Plenty of review outlets this week are offering “spoiler-free” reviews of the new movie, providing curious fans no plot details while doling out hints about the quality of the latest Star Wars film – the first to be made by Disney, rather than in-house by series creator George Lucas. Anyone concerned about spoilers, however, need not have been worried: plot-wise, this is almost literally the exact same film as “A New Hope,” peppered here and there with additional CGI, a less memorable and more modern film technique, and bits and pieces of the plot of “A New Hope’s” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back.” Watching “The Force Awakens” for the first time is like sitting in a movie theater with an annoying man who has created the most lavish fan fiction film of all time; every few minutes, he elbows you in the ribs and says, “Remember Star Wars? This is like Star Wars.”

When Lucas made the original “Star Wars” (and, to a lesser extent, the next five movies in the saga), he was creating something different, synthesizing the film and TV influences of his youth into a groundbreaking world of high action and new worlds. He created new characters and new settings, and even when he made a second Death Star, the way he blew it up was different. “The Force Awakens” and director J.J. Abrams, on the other hand, wish only to pander to fans with a remixed version of the Star Wars they already like. New ideas are replaced with rehashed story and awkward callbacks to previous films (at one point, a character picks up Luke Skywalker’s old floating training droid from the first movie and holds it in frame for literally no reason; you half expect him to look into the camera and wink).

Finn and Poe prepare for an assault on the not-Death Star.

Finn and Poe prepare for an assault on the not-Death Star.

Onto this rehashed “New Hope” are grafted this generation of new Star Wars leads: gifted orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley), defecting stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), ace pilot Poe Dameron (a criminally underused Oscar Isaac) and new antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). All four of these characters are interesting to varying degrees; Boyega utterly steals the movie with unwitting charm and humor, Isaac makes you want more (a daring caper he undertakes with Finn at the film’s beginning is by far the best scene), Ridley’s performance is competent but not amazing, and Driver, oddly enough, seems to be purposefully channeling Hayden Christensen’s mincing petulance from Episodes II and III. These four leads could be an excellent anchor for a different Star Wars movie, and I look forward to seeing them in future films; in this movie, they are overwhelmed by nostalgia-baiting and extended cameos by General Leia (Carrie Fischer), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and others.

Those cameos, by the way, don’t help the movie. Ford tries, but at this point he’s fully locked in to the “slightly harried” phase of his career, more suited to making additional Indiana Jones movies than reprising his role of smirking space smuggler. Fischer also gives it her best shot, but screenwriters Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (the latter of whom wrote “Empire Strikes Back”) don’t give her dialogue that is remotely Leia-esque, which combines with her now-gravelly voice to create the effect of an entirely different character who only looks like the Leia we once knew.

In other words, “The Force Awakens” evokes previous Star Wars elements when it shouldn’t and doesn’t do it when it should. Along with the lackluster returns of Ford and Fischer, the promotional promise of increased practical effects rings false. There’s plenty of CGI in this movie, and while it may technically look better than the maligned, computer-animation-heavy Star Wars prequels, it’s not used to create anything exciting or memorable. No one will be listing the rathtars, new monsters created for the “Force Awakens,” as among the canon’s most memorable creatures. Even “Attack of the Clones,” Star Wars’ very worst outing in terms of plot and character, has more visual flair and creative design than this. What’s more, though Abrams tries to tamp down his directorial impulses in service of something more epic, there’s enough of his quick cuts and constantly swooshing camera to make it hard to focus on the action. The final space battle at the not-Death Star suffers from this particularly; it’s visually incoherent and lacks the tension of “New Hope” and “Jedi.”

But at least there's a CGI not-Yoda!

But at least there’s a CGI not-Yoda!

There are bright spots. When Abrams does use practical effects, it’s a breath of fresh air, and a few ruins on the desert planet of Jakku have a unique visual sensibility that’s lacking from most of the movie. The new cast is talented, and for all of its flaws, the film does appear to set up some interesting directions for the franchise in future movies, as the final seconds deliver the payoff to an ill-defined subplot regarding the search for a conspicuously absent MacGuffin.

As a whole, however, “The Force Awakens” fails not only to be a good movie; it fails to be an interesting one. Say what you will about the justly-maligned Star Wars prequels, but they brought new ideas to the table and shot for the stars (often unsuccessfully) to create a unique aesthetic and a new story. Episode VII might be more competent, but it’s a creative vacuum, a purposeless fanboy shouting references into the void.

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3 thoughts on “‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’: Seventh verse, same as the first

  1. I didn’t leave the film thinking that it was a remake but I see many of your points. But I say, if so, then, why not? Why not take what works in a popular movie and tweak it?

    And if you think about it, how much could it change? There has to be the “The Force” and there has to be the “Dark Side”. The characters are already developed from episodes IV-Vi so that won’t change. For the plot to change would involve different villians with different powers or motives. The motives of the villians in the super hero movies differ, allowing the plots to differ.

    I think Leia and Han’s roles were more than “extended cameos”. Both roles were rather critical within the plot. For Han; they needed some adult supervision for Finn and Rey to invade the enemy territory. Also, his fatherly role in this movie was a central theme, not what you would see in a cameo performance.

    Leia’s motherly comfort of Rey was nice. Who else could do that in this movie, and it seemed like something that should be done under the circumstances. Additionally, being the active leader of the resistance is no cameo role, as was being the mother of the main villian’s understudy.

    Agreed on the Rathtars being unmemorable. Also, the drama on the “not-Death Star” wasn’t as good as the first movie. Also agreed that Kylo Ren’s struggle between the dark side and the good side of the Force reminded me, unfortunately, of Anakin in Episode II.

    I left the film liking the characters (Finn, Rey particularly) more than I did the original cast. What’s not to like about orphans discovering more about themselves and succeeding? That formula worked well in the New Hope but I found myself rooting for these characters more so than for Luke. He always seemed so conflicted to me for me to like him that much.

    I also liked the way they ended this film more than all the others. What I remember of the others was pagentry at the end of each movie that was unsatisfying and unbelievable. The celebration of the victory in this movie and send off of Chewy and Leia was more muted and believable than the parades, dancing and award ceremonies or the other movies.

  2. Pingback: 2016 Year in Review | Matinee Culture

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