This review contains spoilers for “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” — to the extent that it is possible to “spoil” a movie and, indeed, a film saga that is so completely spoiled that scarcely anything remains to salvage.
In an early scene of the new movie, the saga’s new hero Rey is scavenging for parts within the massive wreckage of an ancient, decaying hulk of a Star Destroyer. It’s something of a metaphor for the new movie. The Star Wars saga has lain in ruins almost since it first began and took the universe by storm. And now someone new has taken creative control and has rooted around in the wreckage, taken a bunch of spare parts, assembled them together, and announced that everything will be restored and made right. And countless movie goers have largely agreed, generally declaring that the new movie equaled or excelled the original three, perhaps ranking third best overall (since collective wisdom ranks “Return of the Jedi” lower than its two predecessors).
Unfortunately, I can’t agree. In fact, the shortcomings of “The Force Awakens” have actually led me to comparatively reevaluate the merits of the three Star Wars prequels: a thing I had never imagined possible. Although the prequels were disasters, in my opinion they had at least had something this new movie lacks: they thoroughly understood that they were part of an epic saga. The prequels understood that in the final analysis — in the big picture — Star Wars is an epic saga: the history of the fall of the old Galactic Republic, the Rise and Fall of the Galactic Empire, and the rise of the new Galactic Republic. The foreground may be the mythic story of one man’s (Anakin Skywalker’s) rise, downfall, and redemption, and the consequences for himself and his family, but the fact that his story is told against the backdrop of Galactic history makes the saga an epic. By contrast, I feel that “The Force Awakens” is the first Star Wars movie made without any sense or understanding of the franchise’s core essence.
As many reviewers have pointed out, “The Force Awakens” is more of a re-make of various scenes of previous Star Wars movies than an original offering. What most have failed to notice is that in the process of remaking and cobbling together the scrap parts of old movies, director and co-writer J. J. Abrams destroyed the original purpose behind those parts. In brief, he’s recreated the surface excitement of a scene segment, but lost all sense of the segments’ meaning — its actual purpose as a component of a saga. The result is a Frankenstein that may look vigorous and exciting on its surface — and certainly strives to appeal to our shared nostalgia — but which lacks any soul whatsoever. With this movie, the epic is truly dead.
While I judge “The Force Awakens” to have been, like the prequels, a disaster; it was not an unmitigated disaster. And so, in this review, I want to admit its few mitigating components. The Finn character was perhaps the movie’s only original element. The idea of seeing Imperial (or now re-christened “First Order”) atrocities from the perspective of one of the stormtroopers, and then having that trooper recoil and rebel was very clever, and had the potential to humanize the fight in a way that was missing in the originals.
The other new lead, Rey, is also a highlight. She is shown as self-reliant, strong, and skillful both technically and with the force. These talents might make her cocky; instead, she is authentic and unassuming. The character is something of a re-issue Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars, but more so of Anakin Skywalker (Episode I). Like Anakin, her straits are desperate — she’s an orphan scavenger on a desert planet; he was a slave on a desert planet. Like Anakin, she has preternatural piloting and engineering skills (none of which are sufficiently established before they start using them) but at least she hasn’t built C-3PO in her spare time. Whereas the casting of a child as Anakin in Episode I was a horrible mistake, the actor who plays Rey performs superbly and improves upon the problematic writing she had to work with.
BB-8 is a newer, smaller, cuter version of R2-D2 and the decision to generally replace R2 and his counterpart C-3PO was probably wise, given the tortured way the original droids had been worked into the prequels. (Again, the idea that Anakin built C-3PO as child project is so amazingly, gratuitously stupid.) The few other nice features of “The Force Awakens” include letting Chewbacca shine a bit more than he had previously, the aforementioned image of the wrecked Star Destroyer, the reunion of Han and Leia, and the idea that their son had turned to the dark side of the force. The rest is pretty much a loss.
Although Rey and Finn are positive additions, the third member of the new character triumvirate is much less successful. Leia and Han’s son Ben / Kylo Ren is meant to be a rehash of Darth Vader, but the character is actually a rehash of Hayden Christiansen’s Anakin Skywalker (Episodes II and III). After Vader’s redemption in “Return of the Jedi,” his overall image has inevitably changed. People don’t really remember what a terrifying, implacable, ruthless, and effective villain he had been in the original “Star Wars” and in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Kylo Ren is none of those things; rather, he is a weak, ineffective twenty-something dark Jedi, prone to fits of rage and tantrums — very similar to Hayden Christiansen’s character. (It’s probably unnecessary to say that Hayden Christiansen’s role isn’t among the components of the saga people were eager to revisit.) It’s hard to overstate the waste here of having a character be the child of two characters as fully developed as Han Solo and Leia Organa and then see nothing of them in him and have them demonstrate no particular connection.
A few of the other components that the new movie re-purposes from its predecessors merit consideration. The core plot of “The Force Awakens” is that a data file, hidden in a droid, needs to be brought to Leia Organa. As many have pointed out, this is the exact plot of the original Star Wars movie (which was subsequently re-dubbed “Episode IV: A New Hope”). The changes in the plot are slight and cosmetic: BB-8 takes the place of R2-D2 and Leia now goes by “general” rather than “princess” and for some reason (actually no reason) she leads a group called “the Resistance” rather than “the Rebellion.” And the data file in the new movie is a component of a map to find Luke Skywalker, while the original data file had been plans for the original Death Star. Same plot, but that’s peachy, right? As many have pointed out, Star Wars is about myths and myths recur.
That’s possibly true on the surface, but consider a bit of what’s going on beneath the surface of the original movie. The Death Star plans were important! As we learn in the original movie, the size and power of the Death Star is almost unimaginable to people within the Star Wars universe. On seeing it, Han Solo identifies it as a “small moon” and protests that “it’s too big to be a space station.” He further asserts that it possesses more destructive force than the entire Imperial Starfleet (“it’d take a thousand ships with more fire power than…” he trailed off). The imperial commanders are similarly confident, proclaiming “this station is now the ultimate power in the universe.” The Emperor himself is so confident in the political master stroke that he feels able to dissolve the Imperial Senate, sweeping away the last vestiges of the old Republic. Princess Leia understood as much and undertook an incredibly risky mission to retrieve the plans immediately prior to the credits roll. Her gamble got her captured and tortured and ultimately resulted in the destruction of her entire planet and the wanton genocide of its millions of inhabitants. And yet she took the risk again, sacrificing the secret of the location of the Rebellion’s hidden base in order to gamble that these plans would yield a weakness that would undo the doom imposed by the Emperor’s political masterstroke. The entire original movie was built upon this plot and its underlying importance to the underlying epic saga. That’s how you establish value.
Now consider again the re-cycled plot of “The Force Awakens.” The data file BB-8 carries is a component of a map to find Luke Skywalker. Although people do die getting this map to General Leia and the Resistance, its value and importance are nothing in proportion to the Death Star plans R2-D2 carried. The actual priority for the Resistance is the plans for the First Order’s new Starkiller Base — an even gianter version of the Death Star! Indeed the map is so unvaluable that no one at the Resistance base has even bothered to power up R2-D2 (who is, after all, Luke’s droid) to see if he has the map. As C-3PO says in a hackneyed set-up line, it’s very unlikely R2 has the rest of the map. Except at the end of the movie, it turns out that R2 does have the rest of the map. For all anyone knew or cared, he might just as easily have had the whole map. No one bothered to check and why should they? No one actually needs a map to find Luke Skywalker. If the last of the Jedi was worth finding, he would find you.
Other re-hashes are similarly valueless, meaningless, and mindless. In the original Star Wars, Luke and Obi-Wan enter the alien cantina to hire a ship, which they desperately need to escape the planet and further the plot. In the new movie Han Solo takes his team to an alien cantina run by a newly introduced old friend in order to ditch his traceable ship for one that’s untraceable. So it should be little wonder that the First Order is able to trace them to his friend’s cantina, destroy it, and kill everyone. How insanely stupidly irresponsible is Han Solo?
(The fact that the Resistance just gets the Starkiller Base plans without any cost, devalues the whole cost of acquiring the Deathstar plans: the entire point of the first movie. The previous re-use of this plot in “Return of the Jedi” was based on a clever twist: the Emperor himself had allowed the Rebellion to think it was repeating its victory in order to set a trap. The re-use in “The Force Awakens,” by contrast, lacks any twist. It’s simply mindless and valueless rehashing.)
Starkiller Base itself is among the stupidest rehashes. J. J. Abrams apparently believes that bigger automatically equals cooler. But what sense is there in this re-hash? It’s one thing for a Galactic Empire to accomplish the impossible and build a moon-sized ultimate weapon, but how does it make sense that an exiled group of Imperial hold-outs against the new Republic would have the resources? And how could they possibly build such a thing without anyone’s notice until it was complete? What has the new Republic been doing all this time or, for that matter, what has Leia’s “Resistance” been doing? (The answer is nothing: it’s clear that no thought went into any of the background of this movie.) Finally, the StarKiller’s victims — seven planets full of people killed — are treated as nothing in the movie: a one-off loss that go unmourned.
When Han Solo leads a mission to blow-up Starkiller Base, it’s an obvious re-hash of his mission to destroy the shield generator defending the second Death Star in “Return of the Jedi.” But whereas it took a significant amount of work for Han and a whole strike team (aided by an entire tribe of retrospectively unloved Ewoks) to blow up a little shield generator in “Return of the Jedi,” in the new movie, Han, Chewie, and Finn blow up Starkiller Base more or less on their own, having waltzed in and set a few charges. No big deal.
It doesn’t take much of anything to build a new planet-sized planet-destroying base. But that’s fine, because it doesn’t matter that it destroys planets, because those planets are unnamed, valueless, and meaningless. And all of that doesn’t matter because such bases are also preposterously easy to blow-up because they have no value. Because nothing has any value in “The Force Awakens.”
The lack of any sense of cost or value to anything in the movie is ultimately what cheapens the only scenes that would otherwise have been deeply moving and meaningful. By the time Kylo Ren kills his father, Han Solo, precisely zero development has led us to invest anything in the relationship. Has Han become a dilettante smuggler — trying unsuccessfully to re-live his hardscrabble, scoundrel youth — in order to escape the pain of losing this son to the dark side? If so, we haven’t seen much sign of it. Rather, he seemed to spend the movie enjoying himself, finding new pleasure checking out Chewie’s crossbow. Any potential build-up of emotional value in this father-son relationship was traded for the excitement (yawn!) of the reveal of Kylo Ren’s identity.
Without that development, Han’s death scene is incredibly unmoving and barren of emotion. Chewie is the only one who really cares. Even Leia’s reaction is completely undercut by the perceived need to pass the torch; in what universe after the death of Han does she hug Finn and not Chewie at their homecoming? Han’s dead. Who cares? We need to pass the torch.
Moreover, why should we care? Han’s death has no value in the epic. He didn’t sacrifice himself to save everyone (like Obi-wan) or to kill the Emperor (like Darth Vader) or even to blow-up Starkiller Base. (Why would you, since Starkiller Base has no value?) His death doesn’t turn Kylo Ren’s position. The fact that Kylo Ren participated in killing seven planets worth of people should sufficiently demonstrate a certain degree of commitment to the dark side that realistically wouldn’t come undone in 30 seconds of half-assed parenting (were it not for the fact that the planets had no value and so demonstrated nothing). And maybe the fact that Han is such a bad father and is too stupid to realize the obvious is the point; if so, he’s leaving little for us to mourn other than his own stupidity.
Indeed, “The Force Awakens” makes all three of our heroes from the original movies into shallow failures. Han may have several times been wooed back from self-interest to a nobler cause, but he ultimately loses his resolve and becomes a dilettante smuggler. Luke may have fought Yoda so that he could fulfill his destiny and become a Jedi, and then fought for his father’s redemption when no one else believed it possible. But at the first setback in training new Jedis, he’s apparently turned tail. Surprisingly, worst of all is Leia. A former member of the Imperial Senate, Leia should obviously be involved in the governance of the new Galactic Republic. Instead, she too has lost sight of her actual goals and responsibilities and tried to re-live her youth by leading a paramilitary group modeled on the Rebellion and called “the Resistance”. This is nothing if not stupid.
From this nonsense, we can see that J. J. Abrams has no sense of the epic scope that had undergirded the saga prior to his destructive touch. The backdrop of this movie should have been the real-life consequences of winning a civil war: why it’s sometimes easier to be a rebel than it is to try to build a new Republic from the ruins of an overthrown Empire. The imagery of the ruined Star Destroyer should have set the feel for the entire movie: these are the consequences of war. It should have shown we are all still living with the costs and consequences of the war. After thirty years, our heroes are still picking up the pieces at the center, while regular people like Rey are suffering. And meanwhile, in the periphery, surviving elements of the Imperial navy are regrouping under vigorous, new leadership. (Do I have to mention how stupid and lame Supreme Leader Snoke is as a villain? Of course I don’t.)
Aging characters like Leia, Luke, and Han would have been perfect vehicles to reflect on the complexity and costs that came with their victory. That’s what the epic had been about. George Lucas understood this in making the prequels, whose plots centered on the fall of the old Galactic Republic and the foundation of the Empire. His error (or one of his many errors) was in having the backdrop become the focus: showing us umpteen sessions of the Senate and even more (and worse) sessions of the Jedi Council.
J. J. Abrams has made the opposite error, just as extreme and perhaps even more dire than Lucas’s in the prequels. The epic saga ought to have remained in the background (as it had been in the original movies) instead of brought front and center as in the prequels. In “The Force Awakens,” however, the saga is simply scrapped. No one is dealing with the costs of the Galactic Civil War, because there are no costs to anything. Nothing here has any cost or value. What’s left of the saga is as hollow as the derelict Star Destroyer on Jakku, whose component parts are worth less than a half-ration each. And, sadly, re-cobbled together as they have been in “The Force Awakens,” sum of the new whole is worth even less than the derelict parts.
My ranking order of the Star Wars movies: V, IV, VI… III, I, VII, II