Disclaimer: My strongest complaints against the movie are couched purely in terms that demand spoilers. I will be creating a separate post for discussion of The Force Awakens as a literary endeavor some time in the near future. This review should be read to be praising the moviemaking but questioning its place in Star Wars canon. Diagnosis and prescription for the storyteller will be shared in the later post.
JJ Abrams is an avowed Star Wars geek and, conveniently, the second most prolific science-fiction writer/director of the modern age behind Joss Whedon. From Forever Young to Armageddon to Mission: Impossible to Cloverfield, Abrams has spent the last twenty years on a march toward more and more grandiose science fiction, and many cite his foray into the Star Trek universe to be a thinly veiled audition for the keys to the house George Lucas built.
To be sure, Abrams’ film is a rolicking homage to the franchise. There’s a storytelling approach that understands, to quote George Lucas, Star Wars “rhymes” with itself, an internal structure that constantly recapitulates Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey archetype toward tragedy or comedy depending on the particular iteration. Characters and scenes echo A New Hope, and Easter eggs scattered throughout give visual references for longtime fans.
Abrams seems to have a deep understanding of Lucas’ own approach to storytelling as demonstrated by his 2007 TED talk. Every piece of the narrative exists as the next level of a matryoshka doll, a box to be opened to reveal another layer of mystery. Unfortunately, an understanding of a tool doesn’t necessarily translate to using it (or at the very least, using it properly). Indeed, some of the mysteries are revealed long before the boxes are actually opened, and events not foreshadowed so much as telegraphed.
George Lucas is not a great character writer, as anyone who’s suffered through his dialog can attest, but he is a creative storyteller. He has fun in taking familiar stories and twisting them into fresh material. Abrams lacks that sense of whimsy, opting instead to graft levity onto the story’s superstructure by dint of physical humor and action.
And it’s in those moments that The Force Awakens is unmistakably Abrams’ endeavor. Gone are static camera angles and faked extended shots fueled by computer imagery. There’s no power of plot convenient devices given to R2-D2. The cute soccer ball droid BB-8 does its own stunts flowing naturally from his design. As the Millennium Falcon turns on its side and barrel rolls through a dog fight, the spherical droid rolls up and around the molding of the ship’s circular hallways. It’s a ton of fun to watch until BB-8 suspends himself with grappling cables, which just fuels a further joke as the ship levels off and the droid is left suspended in midair for the other characters to discover. Chase sequences with fantastic monsters echo the fun of a moment from the Trek parody/hoage Galaxy Quest as well as Abrams’ own Star Trek. But these gimmicks are not part of Star Wars, which is fueled less by devices and more by universe and ideas.
So this is Abrams’ filmmaking approach glossed on top of a beloved franchise. And that’s where it ultimately suffered. Birthed from the approach of a TV producer – Alias, Fringe, Lost, Six Degrees and Undercovers appear on Abrams’ impressive resume – The Force Awakens felt like one of his great pilots: it sets up characters to be followed across a long narrative arc, establishes the conditions in which they will be operating, and suggests various plot threads to be resolved at a later date. Because of this, it lacks the emotional satisfaction of a standalone movie, whether the down ending of Empire Strikes Back that nonetheless encapsulated the hope of finding Han – we as viewers believed Lando when he said “we’ll find Han” – or the celebration at the end of A New Hope.
Maybe JJ Abrams is afraid of emotion, to let a franchise widely loved to be kicked off on such a dark note. The evil of the First Order is established, but their actions have no spillover to the happy-go-lucky cinematic mood of the Resistance and our heroes. It completely lacks emotional risk or investment. I mentioned earlier that George Lucas’ creative twists could have helped the story standout instead of being an echo of the past, and the largest part of that is an inability to get the audience to buy in to this particular movie. It wants you to buy into the franchise, but not this particular moment in it. It wants you to come back but not linger.
The Force Awakens will take viewers on a very familiar journey, and it will be a ton of fun for new moviegoers invited into a universe they may not know. The nostalgic references to the original trilogy will be enough to grip Star Wars aficionados as well. But what’s really missing is a bridge between these two generations. There’s a literal bridge (a cat walk) that brings the new generation and old generation face-to-face, yes, and new characters, but how does this connect to the previous span? Long pauses for exposition at the speed of dialog give breathers between action sequences and serve as a backstory, but not as character motivation or explanation.
And all this dialog takes place between characters that lack strong identities. Rather, we appear to be watching cookiecutters. Yes, I know, the theme of echoing and rhyming is the crux of the Star Wars universe and the praise of this review. But staring at a mirror gets incredibly boring. We need a funhouse to distort the image rather than show us the same thing, new interpretations and warps in the frame.
The Force Awakens is a good movie. But is it enough to be a good movie in a universe populated with mediocre ones? As a Star Wars fan, I don’t care for great moviemaking. I care for great storytelling. And Abrams missed the opportunity to transcend mere levity to joy or mere apprehension to fear.
Grade on its own merit: B+
Grade as a Star Wars movie: C+