WARNING: This review may be spoilery
Yes it’s a cliché but it’s also a truism (like many clichés are): you can’t go home again. Sure there’s a lot which is familiar but at the end of the day, like the man said, you’re not the same person and it’s not the same river.
That won’t ever stop anyone from trying, especially in the world of big budget entertainment, but it’s important to realize at the outset it’s a Sisyphean task more likely to end in frustration than anything else. When that ‘home’ is one of the most beloved film franchises of all time, say Star Wars for instance, and one for which frustration has become irretrievably linked the downside could seem bottomless to a well-meaning director.
‘Where to even begin?’ becomes a paralyzing question. For Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the saga, it begins with the disappearance of Luke Skywalker (Hamill).
In the years since Return of the Jedi the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire, along with a Resistance to it, and both are on the hunt for Luke’s whereabouts. The only ones who know are the small droid carrying a secret map and the young scavenger (Ridley) who rescued him from being sold for parts. If that sounds almost familiar, it’s supposed to.
The filmmakers have mined the previous Star Wars films deeply to proffer up recognizable elements albeit rearranged into something new like big budget found art. Rey is a loner from the far end of the galaxy dreaming of a life beyond her frontier home, though now less callow farmer and more hardened survivor whose parent sold/gave her to a local thief when she was just a girl. Her partner in adventure Finn (Boyega) – whom she meets in the first of what will be many, many coincidences driving the plot – is more of an actual everyman. He has no face or even name of his own and is expected to have no personality as a Stormtrooper for the First Order.
It’s in these areas, taking the familiar and looking at it from new perspectives, where The Force Awakens really soars, and it’s when it focuses solely on the familiar that it misses. C-3P0 (Daniels) shows up solely to announce himself and state that one of his arms is a new color, and R2-D2 has turned himself off for some unknown number of years because sad.
It all suggests the very logical follow up which seldom gets asked: do you really want to go home again? Yes there is pleasure to be gained from nostalgia but ultimately we live our lives forward in time and lingering too long in the past hampers that.
Co-writer/director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness) certainly recognizes that fact and much of The Force Awakens is a quest to figure out how to get the best from both worlds. Fortunately, Ridley and Boyega are fantastic and fantastic together and watching their friendship and trust grow is the greatest joy The Force Awakens offers as they quickly prove capable of leading a generation of adventure all on their own.
Even better, it takes the first real look into what it must be like to be ‘the villain’ and the psychological toll their tasks can take on them (a key theme in a film which is more interested in the inner life of the Dark Side than any of the others except perhaps Revenge of the Sith).
It’s most poignantly represented in Kylo Ren (Driver), in many ways the most well-developed character in the film and the center of its greatest drama. He is very intentionally evocative of Darth Vader having patterned his life after his dead idol which allows him (and the film) to play up the connection without seeming false.
It’s an interesting take on the central villain, filling him with insecurity and conflict about his role and lending him a pathetic air in direct counterpoint to the danger he represents. If Vader was a middle-aged warlord long since accustomed to the atrocity power requires, Ren is an angry teenager carting around a bazooka he does not entirely know how to operate. In many ways it makes him more representative of the prequel’s Anakin than the original series’ Vader no matter (and indeed because of) how hard he tries to pretend he is an intergalactic strong man.
This all works, but it would certainly work better if the film could stop comparing itself to the originals: at one point it even holds up a picture of the Death Star next to a picture of the thousand times larger Starkiller Base (which can shoot across galaxies) in a potent bit of penis envy. Worse the preoccupation with the previous films becomes more obvious as original cast members come onboard, starting with a well-known smuggler (Ford) who tracks Finn and Rey down when they escape from the First Order in a very familiar spaceship.
Which just sort of happens to be sitting under a tarp.
That sort of thing happens a lot in The Force Awakens. As strong as some of the operatic elements are the plot is shoddily built on a steady stream of contrivances and with a couple of action sequences which have no bearing on anything else that happens (Han Solo being chased by slavering monsters on his new pirate ship being the worst example). The climax has actually nothing to do with the MacGuffin which propelled the early plot and everything to do with the super weapon which appears out of nowhere in the second act as Ren plots to destroy the Resistance in order to get back to his search for Skywalker’s refuge.
Nor are important plot elements the only thing missing in action: major characters like Captain Phasma (Christie) and Poe Dameron (Isaacs) are introduced and built up and then vanish never to be heard from again until it’s time for the finale. In many ways it has the opposite problem of the prequels: the individual scenes are often fine in and of themselves with deft humor and character moments but the story they’ve been stuck inside frequently doesn’t make sense.
Abrams and co. are very interested in making you feel a certain way and as long as they can manage that they figure you won’t notice what kind of shenanigans had to go on to make that happen. Still, if Star Wars: The Force Awakens wobbles back and forth it’s important to remember the film has set a high bar for itself and not clearing it is not quite the same thing as failing.
All of which makes it sound worse than it is. Many of the series’ best creatives have returned – John Williams score is excellent (though no character’s leitmotif is quite so prominent as in previous films barring the odd original trilogy cue which resurfaces) and the production and sound design and visual effects all recall the feel of the Star Wars universe.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an entertaining adventure film, at turns funny and exciting with some occasionally effective melodrama and often shoddy plotting. No, it’s not some sort of revelation, it’s far too shallow for that. It’s more like a piece of mom’s apple pie – designed to fill you up with something warm and familiar and full of sugar which will leave you in a happy place for a short period of time before it evaporates and is forgotten.
The end result will never be quite the same as the original – the further out in time the harder it is to produce something truly new within an old context – and what’s left is more of an echo than an announcement. But even if all you get for your trouble is a warm bowl of comfort food, sometimes that’s all you really need. Or at least it will do until something better comes along.
7 out of 10 stars
Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels and Mark Hamill