The thing about Star Wars, is that for most fans, it has a very special place in our hearts. A lot of us have fond memories of watching the movie with parents or loved ones for the first time and growing up watching them together for years and years. I’m talking specifically about the original trilogy, which by now probably needs a more definitive title than that. When the prequel trilogy came around, it was so different from what we were used to with episodes 4-6, that we didn’t know how to accept it. It traded in the organic things, like real characters as aliens and sets, for a batch of movies more CGI than real at times. The acting wasn’t particularily great either, but the core story behind all of those was very great. What is the point I’m trying to make here? Well, Star Wars resonates with fans with what it did right the first time, and that’s what Disney and J.J. Abrams focused on for this new movie. If you’re a fan of the original trilogy, you’ll notice a lot of similarities going in. My review does contain spoilers, so you have been warned.
There was undoubtedly a lot of pressure for Disney to put a new coat of paint on Star Wars and get people to love it all over again. There was a huge amount of hatred towards the prequel trilogy towards George Lucas, which ultimately discouraged the man enough to basically give up on public movie making altogether. So Disney had to really sit down and figure out what people liked, and what they didn’t like, and ultimately make the safest movie they could to get people excited about Star Wars again.
The one thing that bothers me the most about The Force Awakens is how similar everything is. It almost feels like, to make a Star Wars movie, you absolutely have to have a few elements. In A New Hope, you have a desert kid who leaves the planet for a higher purpose, realizes he has a connection to the Force, joins a resistance group and helps blow up a giant spaceship. In The Phantom Menace, you have another kid from a desert planet who leaves for a higher purpose, others realize his connection to the force, and then he helps blow up a giant space ship. Now, no surprise here, but with some subtle changes to that formula, we have a desert girl who leaves the planet for a higher purpose, has connections to the Force, and joins a resistance group, and she and her resistance friends help blow up a giant spaceship. There are different ways in which those core story elements are told, sure, but they definitely feel a bit too similar.
From The Phantom Menace up until Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine plotted a way to get everyone to turn on each other and create a system of chaos so he could rule the galaxy with his Galactic Empire. It was from then, that he ruled for about maybe 25 years, I get that number from estimates of Luke’s age, as the empire started the day he was born basically. So for 25 years, Palpatine was evil and conquered star systems, built two Death Stars and was a pretty big deal. Luke and the Rebels took down the Emperor, blew up both Death Stars and showed the Empire they couldn’t stand up to galactic freedom. It was a great ending that was built over the course of those six movies. So now, in The Force Awakens, we’re expected to believe that enough strong supporters of the Empire got together and created “The First Order”, which is basically the new version of the Empire. Did all of the rebels just kind of quit after Return of the Jedi or something? Wouldn’t they proceed to send groups out to finish these guys off? But either way, the First Order is the new Empire, and they have all of the stuff that the original had. Conveniently, they have a Dark Side Jedi in the form of Kylo Ren, a new Emperor look-alike/monster in Supreme Leader Snoke, and then a tightly wound leader in General Hux. The First Order even built their own version of the Death Star, but this time, it’s built into a planet and it kills five planets at a time, versus the previous model’s one. The Emperor would be proud that somehow his legacy has lived on longer than the amount of time he got to be in charge.
For our desert protagonist, Rey, to reach the new Death Star, named the Starkiller Base (I think it’s name holds two meanings, as Starkiller was the first draft name of Skywalker, and also it was the name of the main character in a great Star Wars game, The Force Unleashed) she has to meet a few new friends. She meets an ex-Storm Trooper, Finn, eager to show the world he’s not evil like the rest of the First Order, a hot-shot pilot, Poe, who has a weird bro-mance with said ex-trooper, and then her new friends that we’re already familiar with, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Together, they are all searching for Luke Skywalker, who went into self-exile after his attempts at being a Jedi teacher failed and Han and Leia’s child, Ben Solo, became the evil Kylo Ren and basically did the same thing Anakin Skywalker did in the prequels. Apparently, only Luke is able to defeat the First Order like how he did with the Galactic Empire, except this time he’s missing. So in a nutshell, we have our new old bad guys and our underdog good guys with their soon to be Jedi. This sounds a lot like the premise for A New Hope right?
The more I reflect on this movie, the more and more I think this is perhaps Disney’s way to make a “perfect” Star Wars movie. What do I mean by perfect? Well, I feel like The Force Awakens is the culmination of everything that made Star Wars great and the removal of everything that made it bad.
The only angsty character is Kylo Ren, who is basically a giant man child who takes bad news like a four year old being told to go to bed. I seriously can’t believe how kind people have been to his character. The way he becomes a “better Vader” is he doesn’t have the emotional restraint the older, wiser Vader had. Despite his tantrums, he’s an incredibly well thought out character, which is great, since I suspect he’ll be the villain all the way up to the end of Episode 9, turn good, then be a main hero for the rest of the franchise so long as Disney keeps making these movies. There’s a level of emotional depth that the actor brings to the role that both makes him both like-able and unlike-able. You get a sense of his inner conflict regarding choosing a side of the Force, it just doesn’t help that he acts like a stubborn child, or what most would assume a young Darth Vader would act like, fresh out of the lava.
The inclusion of Han Solo and Chewbacca felt like an easy way to sell this new movie to die-hard fans who maybe weren’t going to get on board with Kylo Ren. Their personalities feel like a combination of everything they went through from Episodes 4-6. Han has reverted back to being a smuggler and Chewie has stuck with him through the last 30 years. The anti-hero Han was definitely the one people seemed to like the most it seems, so it was safest to revert Han back to that part of his career. You spend a large fraction of the movie with Han and then he’s killed off. It made me feel like I was watching A New Hope, and then you’ve got this subplot that is trying to be a backdoor pilot for another movie to be perfectly honest. For instance, Han’s dead, so let’s just keep this thing going with these new guys. Hell, Han’s death was there to sell the motives for his son, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. His death wasn’t a sacrifice for the Resistance, it was a sacrifice for the franchise.
Why does this work? It works the same way that an ad does when a company is selling you something. They play at your emotions to convince you that what you’re seeing is something you need. In this instance, they’re using the heavy nostalgia-fused story to tell their new tale and sell the viewers on the new version of Star Wars. You’ve got every typical character that can be conceived in this movie to recreate the Lucasfilm brand of Star Wars with this new version. There isn’t anything pulling this movie down except for the heavy need for nostalgia to keep it moving. Everything feels replaced and re-imagined but with a glossier coat of paint. J.J. Abrams takes this trailer-movie and makes it look awesome in the same way he revitalized Star Trek. It’s the best looking movie of the bunch with a great blend of practical effects and CGI. In no way do I want to say this movie is bad, nor do I want to say it’s movie of the year, but it’s just too safe of a movie to be either. This movie found the balance between good and bad within the franchise and produced something that is an amazingly fun jumping on point for new fans and a fun trip down memory lane for existing fans. Personally, I wanted to see a riskier movie where things don’t feel as familiar as they do, but instead we got new characters and stories wearing the skin of old ones. I think that Episode 8 has the potential to be the first diverse movie out of this reboot of the Disney Star Wars and that they’ll not need to rely so heavily on existing characters to sell the world on the franchise anymore.
This movie isn’t terrible, but it definitely doesn’t seem to be the best movie ever. It is exactly what it is, the strongest points of all Star Wars movies mixed into one. If you were new to Star Wars, then this is the best summary you could hope for. For existing fans, sure everything is fun, but all in all it’s just way too familiar for me to get on board 100% just yet. Pretty much all of the new characters with the exception of the poster kids (Kylo Ren, Fin and Rey) got a backseat to let the veteran characters carry the weight of the story. I’d like to see the poster characters get the same amount of time, but spend less time on nostalgic crutches and start to develop the existing cast further.