The irony about the obsession with a spoiler-free review of “The Force Awakens” is that you’ve already seen the movie. This is probably literally true given the movie’s opening weekend box office records, and figuratively true given The Force’s reliance on recreating images and story lines from the previous six films.
At its worst, “The Force Awakens” is derivative. A recreation of “A New Hope” stuffed to the brim full of fan service.
That’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable picture. It’s a flat-out good film. It just happens to be one that tells the same Star Wars story you’ve already heard with the same Star Wars shots you’ve already seen.
You’ve probably heard reviews that tout “The Force Awakens” as a brilliant return to the things that made Star Wars great. J.J. Abrams’ picture can be seen as either a loving homage to the original classic or as a lackluster script that copies and pastes scenes from the original. It can probably be seen a bunch of other ways, too. Things don’t always fit neatly into boxes.
The Force opens with a long shot of a Star Destroyer a la “A New Hope.” This pattern continues throughout the movie.
The Force: Storm troopers rush out of a ship and into a village, taking out villagers before Kylo Ren appears. Ren walks calmly through the ship’s doors while storm troopers flank him in ready position.
A New Hope: Storm troopers rush into a rebel ship and take out rebel soldiers before Darth Vader appears from the ship. Vader walks calmly through the ship’s doors while storm troopers flank him in ready position.
The Force: Poe Dameron desperately gives a map to BB-8 to bring to the resistance before he’s capture by Kylo Ren.
A New Hope: Princess Leia desperately gives a message to R2-D2 to bring to Obi-Wan Kenobi before she’s capture by Darth Vader.
The Force: Dameron escapes a First Order ship in a TIE fighter with Finn manning the guns.
A New Hope: Han Solo and company escape the Death Star in the Millennium Falcon with Luke manning the guns.
This could go on and on. We haven’t even mentioned the scene where they plot their attack on the Death Star in front of a hologram in a makeshift war room. You might be saying to yourself right now “hey stupid, they don’t call it a Death Star in this movie.” And to that I say: How do you know which movie I was talking about in the previous sentence? It’s the same scene in both.
There’s also the stop at Maz Kanata’s place that feels a lot like the Mos Eisley cantina. A death scene where an important character falls down an endless shaft (for more examples of this see every other Star Wars movie). Jakku looks like Tatooine. And the climax once again involves blowing up a Death Star. I know they don’t call it a Death Star and I don’t care; it’s the same climax. Why are we still blowing up Death Stars for the third time? Shouldn’t the Empire/First Order move onto a different strategy by now?
It all starts to feel more like a reboot or remake and less like a sequel. You might say it rhymes with the original movies, as George Lucas once said about the prequels. (Reminder: The prequels were HORRIBLE.)
Again, it’s not that “The Force Awakens” is bad. But back in 1977 Star Wars was praised for being an original sci-fi film that broke the mold of other serious sci-fi pictures such as “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It just seems like the sequel deserves to be, well, original.
It’s not all Dark Side. There’s plenty to like.
At its best, “The Force Awakens” is a character movie and the new characters are genuinely worthy of your care. In fact, the new characters are better developed and more intriguing than those from the original.
Kylo Ren: The film’s villain is a wanna-be Darth Vader. He’s strong with the force, but not exactly great at wielding it, which is what makes him such an intriguing character. He’s a brat who has fits when he doesn’t get his way. His light saber is kind of sketchy and improperly made. He can easily beat up simpletons but has trouble when he crosses anyone else who knows the force.
Finn: FN-2187 is brave and loyal, risking his life to rescue Rey, who in turn rescues him. There’s something appealing about a man who’s willing to pick up a light saber and wield it even if he’s obviously overmatched.
Rey: Daisy Ridley’s soon-to-be Jedi is the most likable and interesting character. The Force ends with the audience eager to learn more about Rey’s backstory and see her become the Jedi we all know she’s capable of being.
BB-8: The new R2-D2 manages to provide a few genuine smiles without the over-the-top goofiness of Jar Jar Binks or the annoying idiosyncrasies of C3PO, the robot who was inexplicably programmed to be nervous and pestering.
Poe Dameron: There’s not much to Poe, yet. So he ranks after BB-8 in the new characters list. He’s tough and loyal and a good pilot. Let’s see what happens in the next flick.
Abrams also deserves credit for not over-relying on light sabers the way the prequels did. Abrams was wise to use light sabers sparingly, which makes each scene where the light saber is wielded that much more intense. The only downside is that this film ascribes some weird mythical power where a light saber can “call out” to its rightful owner. It’s another example of the rules of the Force changing from movie to movie.
And finally, although we’ll likely talk more in depth on the podcast, the movie looks fantastic. The mix of special and practical effects ground scenes in reality without sacrificing the high-speed, awe-inspiring space chases. No longer are characters simply standing in front of green screens and interacting with with dots on a wall (looking your way, prequels). The Force really is the best looking Star Wars yet.
While “The Force Awakens” may be little more than a reboot of “A New Hope” for a new generation, it has laid a great foundation for follow-up films with stunning visuals and characters we care about.