Just to make sure I really got the full experience, I’ve seen this film twice. And this review will be largely spoiler free, and made upon my own careful reflection of the film.
I’m probably going to get trouble with this one. But here it is: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a great movie. It barely qualifies as a good one. Is it better than the prequels? Yes…and no. From a movie-making perspective, including directing, acting, and writing, yes, it’s light years better. From a storytelling perspective it’s a dud.
The storytelling failure of this one is in what it fails to do. The primary purpose of the canonical and eventual nine movies that are “Star Wars” is to tell the story of the Skywalker clan. (I’m leaving the forthcoming “Anthology” movies out of this.) Lucas started with chapter four in 1977 because it was the only story he thought he could get made at the time. And because he was unsure if he would make another, the original Star Wars (now called A New Hope) was a complete story arc unto itself. With its unprecedented success, Lucas was able to make the next two movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. These three movies completed the storyline of a young Luke Skywalker and his attempt at redeeming his fallen father. They closed the loop on that segment of the Skywalker clan storyline.
The prequels were an attempt, sixteen years later, to tell the first part of the story of the Skywalkers, the impressive rise and spectacular fall of Anakin Skywalker. Yes, the execution was clumsy, to say the least. Who, after all, finds a dispute of trade routes and intergalactic bureaucratic red tape interesting? Lucas does, as do legions of Star Wars fans who are fully immersed in the world and cannot see past the world to the failings of the movies. I can’t help but think that, were the prequels only books and not movies, they might have been compelling reads. Compelling books do not always translate into compelling movies, as book narratives and cinematic narratives often require different components to work. The Lord Of the Rings is a perfect example of this.
The Force Awakens does virtually nothing to move the next story arc of the Skywalker clan forward. Luke Skywalker, in this film, is really nothing more than a MacGuffin. This movie is less about moving the canonical story to the Skywalker clan forward, and more about crafting a multi-million dollar love letter to the most famous franchise is modern history. The result is a film that borders on pastiche, a fan-film made with high-priced camera equipment, yet with the same super 8 mindset. The plot is a rehash of earlier plots, the characters are recycled from old parts, and the story is stale as a result. There are plot holes in this movie big enough to choke a space slug.
To a degree, it feels as though JJ Abram and Lawrence Kasdan are trying too hard to make a movie that atones for the prequels. This is a noble idea, but the road to the Dark Side is paved with good intentions. I’m reading a lot of reviews that say it’s the best Star Wars movie since Empire, and that the order of movies, from best to worst, now goes 5, 7, 4, 3, and then the prequels, which are all mostly equally bad. I would disagree. I think this movie sits solidly between Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, with Jedi, for its problems with teddy bears, exceeding this one easily in quality.
It’s not for lack of trying on the part of the filmmakers. JJ Abrams does what he does best, which is to create a film of ridiculous kinetic energy, with the crazy skin-of-their-teeth escapes and near misses that you might find in the last two Star Trek movies. There is a scene with monsters that escape from the cargo containers on a freighter that reminded my of Chris Pine being chased across a snowscape by beasts you can’t quite fathom. The high-octane nature of this movie is too much, and the JJ Abrams influence cannot be ignored. Stormtroopers do not fall down when hit by a blaster blot, they fly backwards as hit with a 400 pounds steel bar. Settings do not explode under blaster fire without bodies sailing end over end to accentuate the destruction. People are not cut down by lightsabers, they are impaled mercilessly and left to die. And for the first time since the original ’77 movie, we see blood. And it’s not Walrusman blood, it’s human.
There is a decided lack of newness to this movie that is sorely missed. With each new Star Wars film, the viewer could count on new ships, new aliens, new settings, new equipment. The Force Awakens skips most of that, with only a handful of new items, including a mean-as-cat-shit looking lightsaber and a beachball droid. The ships are largely as they were in previous films. You have X-Wings, TIE Fighters, a Star Destroyer, and a transport with wings that fold upward upon landing.
Not to seem that I hated the movie, it does have some shining moments. It has the best flight sequence for the Millennium Falcon of any of the movies, as well as the best droid of any of the movies. BB-8 may very well be the best new character period. And as lightsabers go, none are sacrier than Kylo Ren’s, with its laser crossguard.
In the end, however, the return of origin characters and a rehash of older plots does not make a great movie. It makes one hell of an homage, and with inside jokes such as Rey saying, “This ship made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs,” and Han replying testily, “It was twelve.”, the movie feels like a fanboi’s daydream, and little else.