Does the Force Awaken or Hit the Snooze Bar?

After over 30 years of waiting, at last there is a sequel to Return of the Jedi. Finally, we have a movie that will drive out the bad taste of all those prequels that we endured, right? Well, not so fast. The following is my brief review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

There was a lot riding on this one. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was supposed to be the movie that not only made fists-full of cash (which it is doing quite well), but also served as a springboard for an entire new Star Wars cinematic universe that would include a whole slew of money-making side films complementing  the primary films of Episode VII, Episode VIII, etc.  If such a strategy was successful, it would justify all of the billions of dollars invested by Disney in order to acquire Lucasfilm in the first place. But perhaps more importantly (at least to the movie-going public), SWTFA was going to be a magical film that would thrill millions of fans and bring us all back to a simpler period where we experienced Star Wars for the first time. But let’s be honest, there’s no going home. There are no nostalgia-goggles big enough to recreate the almost perfect circumstance of uniqueness in the cinematic market, the original creative approach to the material, and a Jimmy Carter depression climate (although B.O. is trying) that all add up to equal the same youthful escapism at the theater that we found in watching the original Star Wars. Unrealistic expectations aside, SWTFA is a pretty good film. It’s nice to see the old characters and familiar elements again, the new characters seem O.K. and at least have humanity to them, and the film has pretty good moments of humor. On top of that,  SWTFA has excellent production values, a reluctance to be too political in an overtly and trendy way (I wonder how long that will last?), and quite a few schmaltzy moments that make you remember an earlier age where you lost yourself in a tale of a farm-boy with dreams of adventure.

Now, it’s time for gripes, and I have a few krayt dragon bones to pick with this film in which I will be revealing a few mild, general spoilers. I won’t talk about anything major that will ruin the film for you, but if you want to be completely surprised, you might want to skip to the last paragraph.  I will begin with my biggest issue in that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in many ways, felt like a reboot/remake of the original Star Wars. That is not to say that there wasn’t any original material in it, there was, but what you had was not just another Star Wars movie, but an almost retelling of that same story of a callow youth from a remote world who goes on a dire mission, and together with new friends, defeats the bad-guys and their planet-destroying thing, all while discovering the power within. Now, some might say that’s just because Star Wars is part of the quest trope, and Joseph Campbell, and blah, blah, blah, and that maybe right, but it was a little disappointing.

Another issue that I had with SWTFA is in its approach to the death of some of its characters. Sometimes a character, played by a distinguished actor, will be introduced only to be abruptly eliminated soon after that introduction, leaving you scratching your head as to why they wasted such talent. I’m reminded of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where they had to introduce us to new-old-friends for Indy because the original actors had passed on the project or had passed away. In Indy, it didn’t really work, for lack of a good script, but in the case of SWTFA, these new-old-friends were killed off in short order before we had any time to assess if they added to the story or not. Additionally, the film pretends to kill off some of its characters, only to reveal a little later that they hadn’t perished at all. I’m not a fan of “I’m still alive, bro (high-five)!” type storytelling, especially when the death of the characters might have given some graver meaning to the future perils awaiting them. Please understand that I’m not trying to have it both ways (e.g. if you kill them, I’m unhappy, but if you don’t kill them, I’m unhappy). What I believe is that in drama, the death of a character, or the surprise return of a character, should have meaning. Kill them or don’t, but don’t needlessly off them or bring them back in such a way that doesn’t add anything to the story more than offering an easy road to plot complication C.

Furthermore, I got the impression that the script was a bit lazy and predictable. Character development occasionally happened because it was necessary to advance the plot, but didn’t feel very motivated. This is especially true where the force is concerned, with one of the characters discovering their powers because it was required to get them out of a sticky point, but made little sense for it to happen like it did. Additionally, a big deal is made out of the inclusion of a new female enemy, but in the end the character and their gender serve little purpose in the story. That character could have been anyone under that armor; nothing they did was so important that any nameless Stormtrooper couldn’t have done as well. Although the villain looked cool and appeared like she could do some serious damage if given half a chance, ultimately she did almost nothing to justify her existence, nor her unique look. The dramatist A. P. Chekhov observed, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” * I think this female villain was a needlessly-hung pistol. And lest I forget to mention, in a bit of a disappointment, the emotional climax of the whole movie, that part that everyone’s going to talk about, could have been seen from miles away. And while it may have been fated to happen because of story reasons and actor’s wishes, I really think more of an effort should have been made to make it more of a surprise.

So, that’s my take on what is likely to be the first of many, many films set in the Star Wars universe. Of all the possible measures you can use in determining the value of it, the one real testament of whether a movie of this sort (episodic) is good or not is inherent in the question: “Would you see another one?” As for me, I’m ready for Episode Eight. While in the case of the prequels, I was looking forward to the next one knowing that I was likely to be disappointed, in this case I measuredly foresee good things. My previous gripes notwithstanding, the story of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was pretty good, containing a good amount of warmth, wonder, and excitement. It wasn’t a perfect movie, nor one that sold my childhood back to me in a bottle, but it was well done. Bravo, J. J. Abrams. I rate it a three out of five.

 

-Ryan Thorson

 

 

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun

 

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