I hate to say it, but…
…the new Star Wars movie kinda sucks. I know that in saying this I am pushing against an overwhelming tide of positive reviews (95% on Rotten Tomatoes!), and will likely convince no one who already loves it, but I came out of the film sad and disappointed, and my sense of disappointment has only grown as I have digested it over the last couple days.
Let me begin by saying that, while my super-fan son had something to do with it, it is telling that I went to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens on its opening weekend. I haven’t seen a movie on its opening weekend, that I recall, since Attack of the Clones more than a decade ago, because I generally hate seeing movies in crowded theaters*. So the fact that I went to see one of the most anticipated movies of my lifetime on its record-setting opening weekend is a pretty good indicator of just how excited I was to see it. While I may not be a Star Wars fan on the level of some of the fans I saw this weekend, the folks who stood in line for hours dressed in Star Wars gear to see the film on opening night, for example, the movies and toys were a big part of my childhood, and I will always love them for that reason.
Knowing that, I hope you’ll understand how saddened I am to tell you it is not a good movie. It is at most a mindlessly entertaining action blockbuster in the Independence Day or Armageddon vein. At worst, it is a poorly constructed, confused mixture of fan fiction and science fiction clichés. I will try to explain, with many spoilers, in the blacked-out text below.
Perhaps what disappoints me the most is that it did not have to be as bad as it is. The story is built around two characters with a great deal of potential as protagonist and antagonist. The former is a strong, self-sufficient, but emotionally damaged young woman who was abandoned by her parents as a young child in a stark, violent desert town, and the latter a conflicted young man whose adolescent rebellion has led him into the arms of a charismatic cult leader. Their fates are intertwined by their connections to a mysterious and powerful force, the Force, connections which will result in their internal and external struggles impacting events on a scale far beyond their ability to comprehend, much less foresee. This, it seems to me at least, is the foundation for a really interesting story, one that could easily fill three films. Alas, if the first film is any indication, the story built upon this foundation will be so convoluted and unnecessarily adorned with references to the earlier films that it will never come close to reaching its potential.
It is in fact so weighed-down by references that it would not be an exaggeration to describe The Force Awakens as a shameless pastiche of Episode IV. The basic plot-structure and many of the elements are virtually identical: a cute, spunky droid is given a secret that must be delivered to the Rebels/Resistance. After being captured to be traded (perhaps for scraps), the droid, which is hunted by an evil power (the Empire or The First Order) led by a masked, seemingly magical, masked figure who is desperate to obtain the secret, is rescued by a teenager on a desert planet. The thereby becomes a target of the evil power, and in their initial meeting, the masked Empirical/First Order leader recognizes that there is something special about the teenager, something that only those initiated in the magical world from which he draws his power could recognize, which makes him/her as important a target as the secret-carrying droid.
In both films the teens escape the desert planet in the same damn ship, The Millennium Falcon; in both films they are ultimately aided by the same damn person, Han Solo, who in both films uses his knowledge of the galaxy’s underworld to help them. Of course, in both films, things go horribly wrong and they are nearly killed while hanging out with Hans’ underworld cohorts.
There are more superficial similarities as well: at one point in both movies the Millennium Falcon escapes pursuit by diving into the belly of a beast (though in The Force Awakens, the beast is figurative: a fallen Imperial destroyer). Hell, even the opening shot, with a large Imperial First Order warship passing us, is an imitation of the opening shot of Episode IV.
Finally, as if an identical beginning and middle weren’t enough, both movies end with Rebels/The Resistance blowing up a planet-sized, planet-destroying weapons system with an X-Wing fighter attack that exploits a small, easily recognized but poorly defended weakness in the system.
Add to the pastiche some outright silliness on the level of the prequels, e.g., the surprisingly giant, surprisingly agile tentacled-beasts that actually save Han, Finn, and Rey from two groups of loan sharks out to kill Han, in an utterly unnecessarily part of the film that is little more than a nod to Han’s trouble with bounty hunters in the first two films and plays no real role in the plot, and some nonsensical plot elements, e.g., the First Order foot soldier and former janitor who understands an incredibly complex, planet-sized weapon system well enough to know precisely where its fatal weakness lies, and you’ve got a hugely disappointing film clearly produced more out of fear of failure and fan anger than of a desire to tell an interesting story.
My only hope for the next two films is that they’ve gotten all of the fan fiction out of their system and can start telling the interesting story of how the conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren shapes events on a galactic scale.
*Turns out the theater, the same one in which I saw the re-release of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and two of the three prequels (I didn’t see Revenge of the Sith in a theater), wasn’t even half full.