By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 7, 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens brings together a mix of old and new characters from the mega-successful science-fiction movie series in order to launch a new sequence of cinematic space adventures.
But you probably already know that.
The plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set in motion by a search for Luke Skywalker, the hero who helped topple the evil Galactic Empire at the conclusion of the original Star Wars film trilogy. The missing Jedi, who wields the mystical, magical power of the Force, is sought on the one hand by the evil First Order, an Imperial remnant that retains its predecessor’s taste for mass destruction, and on the other hand by the Resistance, an ill-defined successor to the Rebel Alliance that is long on scrappiness and diversity but seemingly short on everything else.
But you probably already know that, too, because this movie has been selling tickets like gangbusters. Before it was in theaters for three weeks, The Force Awakens earned $1.5 billion worldwide, making it the sixth-highest-grossing feature in history — all without even having opened in the world’s second-largest film market. If the picture is as popular in China as it’s been elsewhere, it could just be a matter of days before the seventh Star Wars movie overtakes Avatar’s $2.8 billion in tickets sold to become the most successful movie of all time.
Which frankly leaves me feeling somewhat baffled, because while The Force Awakens — or Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, to use the complete title — is an occasionally enjoyable movie, I’m hard-pressed to call it a great one. Director J.J. Abrams and his fellow screenwriters, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, extend the space saga originally created by George Lucas mainly by updating the formula of the original Star Wars and adding a handful of new characters.
Here are some things that The Force Awakens has in common with the 1977 blockbuster that has been retroactively titled Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope: Heavily armed evil forces force an individual to secrete vital information in a droid marooned on a violent desert planet where a great deal of the economy seems to rely on scavenging. The droid becomes associated both with a technically proficient, good-hearted young adult who works the land and with a rogue with a shady past, good aim and a knack for improvising. The main characters turn to an older fatherly mentor for aid. The main characters team up with a smuggler who can offer them transportation, but this character is menaced by gangsters who want him to make good on his debts. The characters visit a dimly lit cantina populated by very exotic clientele as part of their quest to deliver the droid to its masters.
The heroes infiltrate a massive mobile weapons platform in order to rescue a young woman who’s being tortured. This leads to an encounter between a nefarious lightsaber-wielding black-clad figure and the aged mentor type, who once had a very close connection with one another. At the climax of the movie, the outnumbered-but-scrappy band of ragtag fighters mounts a seemingly hopeless assault on the weapons station, with the fate of the galaxy possibly resting on the outcome. As the immensely powerful weapon is seconds from firing, Leia Organa, the fussy humanoid robot C-3PO and a band of mostly anonymous officials watch anxiously…
This time around, the Luke Skywalker character is an orphaned young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley), the Han Solo type is a First Order stormtrooper-cum-defector named Finn (John Boyega), the droid on an urgent secret mission is not the three-legged rolling trashcan R2-D2 but a rolling ball with a floating head named BB-8, and the Darth Vader substitute is the masked Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Several characters and performers from the original trilogy appear alongside Rey, Finn and the other newbies. They include the actual Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, although Joonas Suotamo is listed fairly prominently by the Internet Movie Database as a “Chewbacca double”), Threepio (Anthony Daniels) and even, in a dramatic appearance, the actual Luke Skywalker (Hamill), although that last character is more talked about than seen. The show also features several familiar Star Wars ships, notably the Millennium Falcon, the Rebellion/Resistance X-Wing fighters, and Imperial/First Order Star Destroyers and TIE fighters.
Ren serves alongside, and has a not-so-latent rivalry with, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who seems to model his performance against that of the Nazis from the Indiana Jones movies. Both Ren and Hux serve the First Order’s creepy supreme leader, a strange creature named Snoke (Andy Serkis, in yet another motion-capture role), who approximates Emperor Palpatine from the latter two entires in the original Star Wars trilogy. The movie also introduces a little-used new character, ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, whom the picture bills fourth from the top amongst performers new to Star Wars). Dameron most closely resembles Wedge Antilles, Luke’s Rebel pilot buddy who played a very small on-screen role in the original trilogy but had a significant place in the so-called expanded universe of Star Wars novels, games, comics and whatnot.
In general, The Force Awakens looks great, from sets to costumes to aliens to ships to special effects; virtually every frame of the movie seems suitable for, well, framing. I was a bit puzzled by a few relatively minor design choices. The First Order’s stormtroopers’ helmets have an unbroken line, a slight difference from the original stormtrooper helmet design that makes these fearsome soldiers appear to be smiling. The new stormtroopers also carry laser rifles that are partly silver, which to me suggested a contemporary Apple product rather than a deadly weapon. Also, the Resistance fighter pilots wear helmets that I found annoyingly distracting for no reason that I could put my finger on.
The special effects in The Force Awakens are breathtaking, as would be expected. An early set piece with the Falcon taking on a small flight of TIE fighters over Jakku, this movie’s stand-in for the original’s desert planet of Tattooine, is tremendously exciting. It hurts not one whit that composer John Williams reprises many of the iconic themes from his classic score to the first Star Wars.
But as the new movie progresses, its originality seems to decrease. Ridley and Boyega are appealing actors, but their characters in The Force Awakens are mainly ciphers, making decisions driven not by any intrinsic desire or need but instead solely by plot mechanics. (OK, now we need someone to get captured!) The net effect is that The Force Awakens seems more pastiche than sequel.
Abrams and his co-writers are certainly accomplished movie makers. Arndt has scripted movies as diverse as the indy comedy Little Miss Sunshine, the animated Toy Story 3, the second Hunger Games film and the 2013 original science-fiction movie Oblivion. Kasdan co-wrote the 1980 and 1983 entries in the original Star Wars trilogy as well as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s brilliant action-adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he both wrote and directed the thriller Body Heat, the hit drama The Big Chill, and a number of westerns, among other works. Abrams, of course, is the wunderkind who helped produce the popular television series Felicity, Alias and Lost, who has also directed the excellent Mission: Impossible III and the first two rebooted Star Trek movies.
Alas, the story hits a number of familiar action beats and character notes without injecting much creativity or liveliness into the proceedings. The most interesting and sympathetic characters here, at least among the good guys, are the robotic BB-8 and the computer-animated alien Maz Kanata (the voice of Lupita Nyong’o).
It doesn’t help that the interstellar conflict set up in The Force Awakens is so black-and-white that it lacks virtually all intrigue — especially since, as noted above, we’ve seen a lot of this story before. The First Order’s officers mainly wear black, and their minions torture and kill without compunction, while the Resistance personnel include humans as well as multiple kinds of aliens. Like the Galactic Empire, the First Order is basically Nazi Germany in space.
The feature spends about 15 minutes trying to convince us that its young lead characters are going to seek quiet places where they’ll be able to avoid battling the First Order. But it’s impossible for anyone older than 8 to believe that a movie (let alone a trilogy) called Star Wars will revolve around two people who will be allowed to enjoy peaceful lives.
In the end, The Force Awakens is all too reminiscent of Abrams’s Star Trek reboots: All three films look great and have elements familiar from the source material, but they fail to recapture the essential magic that elevated the originals beyond the level of mere entertainment. I liked The Force Awakens enough that I’ll probably see it more than once in the theaters, and I’ll almost certainly see its successors in theaters as long as they don’t draw awful reviews (and maybe even if they do). But I can’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t already a Star Wars or science fiction fan.