How do you review Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Nobody will read this review to judge whether it’s worth a look. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading this, you’re either a Star Wars fan or my mother. So by what metric do we measure this film, carrying the legacy of arguably the most beloved films of American culture and representative of a $4 billion dollar investment by Disney? You keep it simple. Is it good? Yes, it is good.
Adding nuance is when we get to the heart of The Force Awakens‘ problems. This film – and the five more already in production or planned – are a direct reaction, creatively speaking, to the prequel trilogy’s failure to satisfy fans. As a result, writer/director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy studiously picked everything commonly loved about the original trilogy – from the original characters to the practical aesthetic to the intense family drama. Much care was made to elicit the childhood feelings in fans that lay dormant during the prequels. In that regard, they succeed brilliantly. They just forgot to innovate while paving this nostalgia-worn road.
The plot is essentially a thin remix, bordering on remake, of A New Hope, with dashes of the sequels Empire and Jedi thrown in. In the 30 years since the second Death Star blew up and the Emperor killed, the First Order has stepped up as an even more fascistic version of the fallen Galactic Empire and seeks to outdo its predecessor in every way – beginning by building a bigger, better Death Star with a biggerer, betterer name of Starkiller Base. The Rebel Alliance meanwhile has become the Resistance, fighting once again for the democratic values of the Republic.
Seriously, you could replace a few words and it’d be the old films but I digress.
The story begins with a simple hook: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, absent from all marketing materials) has vanished, along with all Jedi knowledge in the galaxy, and both the First Order and the Resistance want to track him down. A world-weary General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) a leads the Resistance while estranged from Han Solo (a game Harrison Ford) after a family tragedy. Of three original actors, Ford is given the most to do and effortlessly shoulders much of the weight of nostalgia and gravitas, which gives the benefit to the newcomers to make happy first impressions.
Where the film truly succeeds is in its characters and its casting, which is where Abrams’ remix approach yields the greatest returns. All the familiar roles are filled but with mild twists. The new trilogy’s power trio include Rey (incredible newcomer Daisy Ridley), a desert-dwelling scavenger left behind by her family, Finn (a charming John Boyega), an ex-Stormtrooper who deserts the First Order and Poe Dameron (an underutilized Oscar Isaac), the top pilot of the Resistance. At the midpoint in the film, we’re also introduced to Maz Kanata (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o under digital makeup), a kind of quasi-Yoda-as-a-space-pirate.
Having the new Han, Luke and Leia be a white girl, a black man and Latino man speaks volumes about Abrams’ diversified approach to this new Star Wars universe. It’s the right move and the strength of his casting decisions alone make him a worthy successor to Lucas and Spielberg.
Not to be outdone, the Dark Side is stacked with not one, not two, but four new villains. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the Big Bad here, an young and unstable Darth Vader impersonator obsessed with the deceased Sith Lord (a biting commentary if ever there was one). General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is the military commander of the First Order and a sneer come to life. Captain Phasma (Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie) is the first female Stormtrooper of the series and already a fan-favorite that’s being compared to Boba Fett. Finally, there’s Supreme Leader Snoke (a motion-captured being played by Andy Serkis) who, if the name didn’t give it away, is the First Order’s Emperor figure and Kylo Ren’s even eviler master.
What is interesting is the meta-approach the film takes to its own fandom. In the context of a galaxy far, far away, Rey and Finn grew up hearing stories about Luke, Han and Leia’s fight against the Empire and of the mystical Force but never knew any of it to be true. The same is true of heroes and villains as Kylo obsesses over Darth Vader’s legacy but knows none of the truth behind Anakin’s tragedy. They were legends, to them. Its an effective way to introduce the new leads while giving our previous players something to do.
The downside is Abrams and co. essentially reboot the whole property. There’s a sense of running in place to the film, despite its frantic pace and bouncy tone. Yet again, the Jedi are endangered. Yet again, we have a Darth Vader look-alike dominating the frame. Yet again, we have this this and that. We’re right back where we started.
At a certain point, the echoes become predictable and the contours of what makes a Star Wars film become rote, making it impossible to surprise the audience unless the storyteller takes a risk and breaks a rule, like what happened with the series’ best film, The Empire Strikes Back. Even when the film finally does reach its twists, the spoilers kept expertly hidden prior to release, they’re not so much twists so much as reassurances that we, the viewers, are watching what is quintessentially the Star Wars fan film.
Like another recent seventh entry in a venerable ’70s franchise, the film is next-level fan fiction of the tallest order, obsessively crafted not only to launch a decade of Star Wars films but to erase the stain the George Lucas-curated prequels that left fans cold with its sterile CGI use and emotionally-stunted characters and story. But unlike Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not an instant classic.
That said, the original 1977 film would be judged far differently in an individual context if it had never been sequelized. We’re talking about the seventh installment in a saga so it’s understandably why Abrams and co. would play it safe with setup and coy with answers. Good news: the next installment begins filming in early 2016 under acclaimed indie helmer Rian Johnson, most famous for his sci-fi actioner Looper which successfully balanced headache-inducing time travel with the moral implications of killing, whether for good or bad.
It’s a bright sign that the series is on the right track with filmmakers like Abrams and Johnson who can balance the goofy sci-fi people expect with the heady philosophical underpinnings, the paradoxical dichotomy at the heart of the Star Wars phenomenon and at the heart of all of us. This is the approach that worked 40 years ago and, with a new paint job and plenty of modern updates, it works again today.