It’s now been almost a year since Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters. I saw it twice in its original run, once with my dad and once more with friends. At first, I loved it, and even the second time around I still enjoyed it. Over the course of the more than ten months now since the film released, I have not watched the film again. That is until today when I sprang for a DVD on sale. Now, two and a half hours later, my thoughts on the film are not easy to sum up.
And when I say that, it’s mostly just code for me not wanting to come out and say that pretty much all my problems stand and fall with J.J. Abrams, because they really don’t. Then again, my thoughts on the movie did change after I watch Star Trek Beyond, the best of the reboot movies and not accidentally the one where Abrams and his lackeys had the least influence on. Abrams has become a controversial figure in geekdom. The is the man who “ruined Star Trek”. He didn’t, Rick Berman got to that a decade or two before. Yet there is a theme that strings through both “Star”-franchises. Star Trek 09 and Into Darkness were slick, fast paced action rollercoasters, incredibly exciting on the first or even second watching that you forget to notice the cracks in the support beams because of how fast you race past them. Force Awakens feels similar to that. On this third watch, knowing everything and having my nostalgia under control, these cracks were very apparent. Force Awakens’ pacing is horrible. The most interesting things of world building and mystery get rushed through or interrupted by the next set piece, gravitas disturbed by out of place humor. Character development is more implied than anything if existent at all. Most of the hoo-man emotions you feel come from callbacks, specifically the work of John Williams, who is the MVP of this movie franchise, lauded so much and yet its never enough.
Like I said, the first hour of the film is horribly paced, one set piece following the next on a long, drawn out chase that leaves you exhausted at the end, and where all the supposedly character building scenes get lost in. The most pointless of which being the interlude when the Japanese and Scottish mafias have a stand-off with Han Solo and tentacle hentai monsters. For the most part in that first hour or so the action beats did not grow organically from the story, they interrupted it. Things did, however, get better once they got to the Not Eislys Cantina. From then on the movie recovered, the pacing slowed down, the action scenes finally followed logically from the story and served the characters. The fanservice scenes still annoyed me, but then I don’t like fun, so hey.
Ironically, the moment the movie’s pacing improved, the story lost me in its beat for beat repetition of A New Hope. Up until then I could take it as a cute homage, since every good story should open with a droid in need. Casablanca starring BB-8 and Ingrid Bergman anyone? It made the universe feel smaller and even more like a rollercoaster, Star Wars: The Ride. Maybe it was because of Abrams’ previous track record, but it did feel incredibly lazy, like working off someone else’s work for a class project and trying to hide it with unnecessary flair and tricks. It annoyed me, yet I’m unsure on whether or not to hold it against the film just yet. I had a positive reaction to Star Trek 09 when it came out, I understood that this was the film to proof that the concept still was viable, same as this was proof that Star Wars wasn’t stuck following in the Prequels’ steps. With Trek it depended on what they did with Into Darkness, which was such a massive bellyflop, that it retroactively invalidated what good 09 did. It took Star Trek Beyond to redeem and build on 09’s foundation, and similarly it will depend on Episode 8 for us to judge on whether or not The Force Awakens’ back to basics approach will pay off. It’s an introduction movie, but that does not mean its an excuse to just get on stage and play some greatest hits with some replacements for the elderly band members. Speaking of which:
The new characters were, for the most part, a good addition. Like the old cast they were mostly two-dimensional vessels to move the plot forward or have action beats, with a protagonist taken straight out of George Lucas’s coffee stained copy of “The Hero’s Journey” or similar works, reliant on good actors to give them life. This happened for our trio of heroes, not so much for our villains. Hux and Phasma were boring cliche’s, good actors wasted on nothing to do, Kylo Ren was fun at first… until you realize that he’s basically Dark Helmet from Spaceballs crossed with a moody teenager. This might end up working in later movies, but so far he’s just an empty shell with an actor that tries to give him the illusion of depth. Poe Dameron was a great character with a fun bromance with Finn, but in scenes where he didn’t have Oscar Isaac to help him, Finn was led down by being the comic relief, coward, and serious dude all rolled into one. The character was just given way too much to do in a short period of time without breather moments in between to not give you mood whiplash. Which brings us to…
Force Awakens’ main character Rey… it seems like the 2010s are a time in which no female main or side character in a genre movie hasn’t been part of some controversy. From gatekeepers to marketing, audiences to Hollywood insiders, something always comes up. Which is a shame because Daisy Ridley deserves all the praise she got, she was the best thing in this movie for me… yet Rey wasn’t. Rey is a cypher, a mystery box in human form, more riddle than (wo)man…. I am so sorry for that pun. Point is that there isn’t much to the character outside of her abandonment baggage. She’s a brilliant engineer, pilot, talented in the force without any training, third wave feminist icon that eats thunder for breakfast, but one without much humanity to her because everything comes effortlessly to her. She’s just gifted, good in the force. It’s like Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, but hypercharged and without his flaws. She is a good person. That’s all there is to the character on the page. And then there’s Daisy Ridley, who is single-handedly responsible for all the positive reaction to the character. More than any of the other good characters she was given nothing to work with and yet her natural charm and charisma and that goofy big grin of hers endeared her to everyone. The flat characterization and being embraced by the old characters for seemingly little to no reason though, should make it understandable why people call her a Mary Sue. I think the character avoided that, if only barely by the wonderful work of the right actress.
Overall, I’m still torn about this movie and like I said before, it will still take years for the movie to be evaluated and re-evaluated for what it is, rather than what it meant to us when it came out. Its title might have been The Force Awakens, but “A New Hope” might be more appropriate to Star Wars fans, old and new, hardcore and casual, everywhere. Maybe this is J.J. Abrams’ true curse: hire him to your franchise after all hope is lost and marvel at him doing an… okay job. J.J. Abrams is a “5 out of 10” made flesh. But that’s all that’s needed sometimes. Sometimes “not horribly crashing and burning in a fiery explosion” is enough for it to feel like a masterpiece. The Force Awakens is not a masterpiece. What is is though, is a good movie, a very good movie, but one where nostalgia and performance elevate less than stellar material. It’s a solid foundation so far, it’s up to the rest of the trilogy though to tell us whether or not that foundation is made out of solid stone or poo.