Blah blah blah … 1977. Blah blah blah … most influential movie ever made. Blah blah blah … pop-culture phenomenon.
Seriously. What is there left to say about “Star Wars” that hasn’t already been said? Finally, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was released after a ridiculous amount of fanfare, and to record box-office numbers and a lot of reactions. The reviews thus far have been positive, and most fans seemed pretty pleased with their return trip to a “galaxy far, far away.”
Let me say this first: I like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It’s a very entertaining, fun, four-quadrant crowd-pleaser that does a lot right. It’s brisk, competent and is an engaging mix of the old and the new. However, it’s ridiculously derivative and stinks of wallowing in the cesspool that is gratuitous fan service. The plot is so recycled the movie should have been rated “green” for environmental compliance.
Reviewing a cultural phenomenon like “Star Wars” is an interesting experience because fans are forgiving to a fault. Applying actual criticism to a “Star Wars” movie is like trying to critique a time machine that transports people back to magical moments of their childhood. It’s like trying to Indian leg wrestle Terry Crews: You’re not going to win—and not just because Terry Crews doesn’t skip leg day.
Nostalgia is stronger than reason. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is pure, unfiltered, black-tar nostalgia. Director JJ Abrams has taken on the task of making a “Star Wars” movie that pleases everyone and damn-near succeeds. There is literally something in “The Force Awakens” for everyone. The film starts with a quick update to the plot (spoilers, ahoy):
Luke Skywalker is missing; everyone’s trying to find him. Then, the film turns to its newest characters, including super-dashing resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a morally conflicted Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)—who threatens to enslave the galaxy with his awesome force powers.
While the new characters are interesting and engaging, they are bogged down by a ludicrous amount of fan service. The movie’s plot is not just an homage to the original “Star Wars.” It’s practically a copy-and-paste of the original, down to story and structure. From the ashes of the Empire has risen the evil First Order and their plan to conquer the galaxy: Build another Death Star.
At this moment, my eyes rolled so hard I could see my brain—and it wasn’t happy. Another Death Star? Seriously? That’s the plot? There have been seven “Star Wars,” and three of them have featured giant planet-destroying bases that can be easily dispatched by a single spaceship. This plot is so insipid, it made me laugh out loud in the theater. Even Han Solo agreed with me at one point, as he said, “There’s always a way to blow these things up.”
Speaking of Han Solo, he and Chewbacca show up to give some guidance to our young heroes and provide some pathos for our new enemy. Harrison Ford brings a level of energy and charisma that had been missing since the late ‘90s. Han is the living, breathing representation of the fan service with which “The Force Awakens” is slathered. There are so many lines and references to earlier films just to make sure everyone feels attended to. That’s the greatest criticism I can lob against the film: It’s four quadrant ambitions.
Movies like “The Force Awakens” will never be great because they try too hard to please everyone. Great movies don’t pander to ages 8 to 88, but plenty of average ones do. What saves “The Force Awakens” from being merely an average film are the young actors who manage to breathe some life into the dusty, nostalgia-fueled relic. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren might be the first interesting (i.e. three dimensional) villain in the Star Wars Galaxy.
It’s amazing to see the same kind of cardboard-thin material from these films performed and directed well. Daisy Ridley feels like a breath of fresh air as the central hero of the story. John Boyega brings a combination of vulnerability and humor to the finished film. I’m hoping the next episode shakes off the cobwebs of the past and gives these new characters their own original paths to explore.
I might be the only one proudly declaring, “Out with the old, in with the new!” when it comes to “Star Wars,” but all the franchises spend too much time in the past. “The Force Awakens” is like a greatest hits cover album. Abrams and company strum the same notes and play the same chords, but I’m ready to start humming a new tune.