Let me say up front that this review is chock full of spoilers so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading now. Of course, if you are reading a movie review and not expecting it to have spoilers, I’m not sure what to tell you. They do.
I saw the original Star Wars (now Episode IV, a New Hope) when it was released in 1977. I was in the 8th grade. I just loved it. I wanted to see it over and over again but this was a time before movies could be purchased on VHS (that’s the 1977 version of a digital download for you youngsters except that it wasn’t digital and you couldn’t download it). After the movie, I convinced the theater manager to let me clean the aisles between showings in exchange for watching the movie over and over. It was obviously a great deal for him and it worked out well for me too as I found $40 in cash while cleaning.
A few years later, the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was released. It was great because it continued the story and introduced us to new parts and characters of the Star Wars universe. We saw Luke begin his impatient journey towards becoming a Jedi. Just as he had been anxious to leave his Uncle and Aunt’s farm to join the Academy, he’s too anxious to go help his friends in the Cloud City to stay and finish his Jedi training. Han Solo starts out as someone who cares only for his own wants and needs but later starts to realize that whether he likes it or not, these people are his friends and he cares about them. Even Darth Vader begins as completely evil but later begins to have doubts, paying the ultimate price for choosing family over the Empire. Still, the cracks in the Star Wars storyline began to show. As great of an idea as it was to have Darth Vader end up being Luke’s father, it’s pretty obviously that George Lucas hadn’t thought of that when he made the original Star Wars. If he had, Obi Wan would have had a better story to tell Luke about what happened to his father in the first movie. Instead, George finds himself having to explain why Obi Wan said that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father when in fact, he didn’t because they are the one in the same. We get this lame excuse from Obi Wan that it’s all about your point of view. “Point of view?!?”, Luke replies. Luke’s response tells us that even George Lucas doesn’t entirely buy it.
Before I talk about Return of the Jedi, a little history is appropriate. 20th Century Fox was so convinced that the original Star Wars would flop that when Writer and Director George Lucas said he would waive his director’s fee in exchange for the all of the rights to Star Wars, the studio happily agreed. Years later they realized they had made what is arguably the worst decision in movie history. In fairness to 20th Century Fox, science fiction wasn’t doing particularly well at the time. What they failed to recognize was that Star Wars wasn’t really science fiction. It was more of a cowboy movie set in space.
By the time Return of the Jedi was released, George Lucas was making so much money from Star Wars toys and such that he apparently felt the movie would do well no matter how good or bad it was. Fans just wanted another dip in the Star Wars pool. It didn’t matter if it had been pissed in. The fans wouldn’t notice. Really George? You couldn’t come up with anything better than the Empire building yet another Death Star with yet another weakness that would result in catastrophic failure? Haven’t we already seen this movie?
Many years later, George Lucas decided to go back and do 3 prequels. At that time I thought that could be interesting. A lot of backstory could be filled in to help us understand things like how Obi Wan ended up hiding out on Tatooine and how the Old Republic fell, replaced by the Empire. How did Anakin Skywalker ultimately become Darth Vader? Alas, no. We found out instead that George really didn’t care much about these things. He only cared about selling more toys so the movies suffered accordingly. The first, Episode I was especially bad in terms of the plot. C3PO and R2D2 just go along for the ride instead of being the narrators they were in the first three films. I really thought the idea of these two characters being the consistent element that tied all the movies together made a lot of sense. It’s unfortunate that it was abandoned. Over the next two films we get to see some of the worse acting in all of the Star Wars films. You can forgive Hayden Christensen as he was relatively new to acting. On the other hand, someone thought it was OK for Christensen to wear the Dark Vader outfit at the end of Revenge of the Sith looking more like teen Dark Vader than anything. Are we really supposed to believe that Christensen’s whiny voice suddenly becomes that of the ominous Lord Vader? And who takes such a fine actress as Natalie Portman and gives her so little to work with and so little direction that she comes across like it’s her first acting job ever? The actress actually said that after making Star Wars that she thought her acting career was almost certainly over. It’s to our great fortune that she found a way to prove that even the finest actor cannot convince you they smell wonderful when covered in horse shit.
For years it looked like Star Wars was done. George had taken what began as something with a lot of storytelling potential, something enduring that could be passed down to future generations, something that could become a classic, but chose instead of sell his soul to the devil. I mean that figuratively of course. It appears that even George felt it was done, selling Star Wars to Disney for $4 billion dollars.
Then in 2013, Disney announced that the next Star Wars film was beginning production with J.J. Abrams directing. This gave me a new hope (pun intended). After all, Abrams had created LOST, Super 8 and successfully rebooted the Star Trek series. I’m a huge Star Trek fan. He took a new and very bold direction with Star Trek and it worked. I heard people say that Abrams was even better suited for Star Wars. If that was the case, there was a lot of reason to believe this new Star Wars film could easily eclipse even perhaps the original. Being better than everything after The Empire Strikes Back of course would be trivial with the bar set so low.
I anxiously awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens with cautious optimism. The teaser trailer arrived and damn, it looked good! When it finally premiered, the early signs were that it was everything I had hoped it would be. Star Wars had been redeemed and could potentially live on as something great. Alas, it was not meant to be.
The movie is exciting, filled with action, great special effects, the occasional pun and most of the characters we have come to know and love along with some new ones. It’s entertaining if you don’t really care about anything other than being entertained for a few hours. The movie is broad but without depth.
I guess the first warning sign really should have been that the film was announced in 2013 for release in 2016. That’s not very long to write a script, do all the pre-production, complete filming and post production. At least, not for a film and big and as important as this. Disney was no doubt anxious to start getting a return on their $4 billion investment.
Because I had not seen these signs, I went to see the movie yesterday filled with anticipation. After about 10 minutes I started to have that same sinking feeling I’d had with the most of the other films. The Force may be awakening but my 12 year old son sitting next to me in the theater wasn’t. He fell asleep about 20 minutes into the film.
The basic story of the movie is a poor, young, orphaned girl, living on a desert planet comes into the possession of a droid that has information inside it vital to the interests of the Resistance and is is suddenly thrust into the middle of a conflict in which she has no interest. The remains of the Empire, now called The First Order, is once again run by a hideous, monstrous being and a dark, masked, cloaked figure who we later find out is related to one or more of the good guys. The Empire builds yet another enormous planet-killing Death Star only this time it’s called the Star Killer. Our heroine discovers that she has the force in her and gets into a light saber fight with the dark, masked, cloaked figure who wants to bring her over to the dark side and train her as a Jedi. She defeats him but doesn’t kill him despite the fact that he appears to be trying to kill her. Later, she helps deliver the cute droid to the resistance who, after extracting the vital information from the droid, once again finds a weakness in the Death Star, sorry “Star Killer”. They attack and despite over-whelming odds, manage to hit the target and destroy the Star Killer. At the last moment, the dark figure escapes so we know he and the Emperor, will be back.
Really? That’s it? Haven’t we already seen this movie? This is just a rewrite of the original movie. It’s parallel is so unimaginably unoriginal that’s it would be truly unimaginable had I not just seen it. I mean, they didn’t just bring back some of the familiar characters, but actually put them back into essentially the same story. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca are back to their old business and unexpectedly get caught up in the war. So much for a decent plot.
In some movies, a bad plot can be overcome with well-developed characters. We start with Rey, the Luke Skywalker of this film, scraping by on a meager existence on the desert planet Jakku. Soon we meet Finn, a Storm Trooper with a conscience who decides to abandon the First Order when he’s told to kill innocent civilians. Abrams apparently thinks that we don’t really need to know anything about Finn. It’s enough that we see him hesitate to kill. He comes across a prisoner which he helps to escape only because he needs him as a pilot to get away from the First Order. They crash on Jakku where Finn runs into Rey and they end up having to escape in, conveniently, the Millennium Falcon which is in mothballs nearby. The two manage to barely escape only to be captured by of all people, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Next they are attacked by some bad guys because Han once again has failed to deliver on his promises. Some hungry aliens Han is transporting are accidentally released but only seem to immediately eat the bad guys. When one manages to grab Finn, it nearly drags him through the entire ship like a toddler dragging a favorite blanket, giving Rey all the time she needs to find the right button to close the right door and save Finn. Rey helps Han fix the Falcon as if she knows it well but again, we are giving no backstory to explain why this would be the case.
After arriving at the base of the Resistance, Rey follows what sounds like a crying baby to find Luke’s original lightsaber. Upon touching it she has flashbacks which apparently require no explanation because none is given. In the Empire Strikes Back, when Luke ventures into a dark area during his training, Yoda explains it for us. This time, nada. Finn is anxious to get as far away from the First Order as possible (where have we heard this before?) but when Rey is captured by Ren (the Dark Vader of this movie), he suddenly can’t live without her and is willing to risk everything to save her.
What? Come again? They just met a few hours ago, there’s no obvious chemistry between them nor is it even clear that they like one another but suddenly he’s willing to risk his life for her? Had there been some time and reason for them to care for each other this might have made sense but they are strangers at this point.
We are told that the droid, BB-8, has a map to Luke’s whereabouts. When he shows it, we are told that it doesn’t match any known star maps. Yet later, when a map of the galaxy is displayed with the portion of Luke’s travels they do know, there’s a missing section that perfect matches the portion that BB-8 has brought with him. Huh? So the map wasn’t encrypted or drawn in some bizarre way that no one understands? How exactly are we supposed to believe they they couldn’t figure out where this part of the map goes? The resistance is apparently desperate to find Luke and they have a nice dotted line on their map to the one region of space where clearly he must be and yet they can’t find him without BB-8’s portion of the map? Abram’s is either treating us like children or doesn’t think the storyline is important at all. Again we are just asked to accept all of this as the price of admission for another dip in the Star Wars pool.
Ren takes Rey back to the Death Star (sorry, “Star Killer”) and and begins to use the force to torture her into giving him the information he wants. She’s resistant and demands that he remove his mask. Of course he capitulates, something Darth Vader would never have done, and instead of finding out that his mask hides a hideous face, he instead is a handsome, young guy so it now becomes difficult to really, truly hate him the way we did with Darth Vader. He hasn’t even killed anyone yet. Failing to get what he wants, Ren decides to try again later and leaves Rey locked up. Rey suddenly figures out that she has the Force and uses a Jedi mind trick to get the guard to let her go. Huh? Once again we are asked to accept something implausible. Rey, having had not a sign that she has any special abilities, having had no training whatsoever, can suddenly perform a Jedi mind trick that it took Luke 3 films to master?
At this point we find out that Ren is the son of Han Solo and Princess (now General) Leia who sent him off to be trained by Luke. Instead he turns to the dark side and joins the First Order. Really? Where have we heard this before? It’s Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker all over again. Leia asks Han go after their son because she knows there is good left in him, just like his dear old Granddad, Darth Vader. Unlike Vader, Ren cannot control his emotions and has a few temper tantrums. When his underlings fail him, he takes out his frustration on the hardware rather than make an example as Vader did. This makes no sense at all, though there was a funny moment where two storm troopers, coming across their boss having a fit, decide he needs some alone time and make a quick exit.
When Han comes across Ren, the only backstory we have is a few lines from Leia so we barely feel like Han and Ren are anything more than complete strangers. Just as it looks like he might be getting through to Ren, Han is killed by him. Again, no storyline to help us understand any of this. We are asked to just accept it. There were no signs at all that Ren hated Han. Clearly while Harrison Ford agreed to be in this movie, he wanted assurances that he wouldn’t be expected to be in any more of them. Chewbacca, having just seen his best and oldest friend killed right in front of him, chooses to set off the bombs he’s laid but doesn’t go after Ren to avenge Han’s murder. No, instead we get one scene back at the rebel base with Chewy looking more like he’s got a headache than mourning the loss of his best friend. Chewy was more distressed in The Empire Strikes Back when Han was left overnight outside on the planet Hoth than in this movie where Han is killed right in front of him. Leia, having sensed Han’s death, looks less like a woman whose husband (or at least the father of her children) had just died and more like someone whose lunch is repeating on her.
Later, Finn gets into a light saber fight with Ren. This is a fight between a former storm trooper who had probably never even seen a light saber up close and a Jedi who we assume has mastered it. Despite this, Finn seems to hold his own, at least for a while. Considering Ren’s custom light saber with it’s little mini-sabers sticking out the sides, it’s wonder that Ren didn’t kill himself. When Ren knocks Finn unconscious, rather than take the opportunity to kill this traitor to the First Order, he just stands there. Then, deciding that what he really wants his is Uncle Luke’s light saber, rather than walking over and picking it up, he instead uses the Force to will the device into his hand. With all his power and experience, the light saber is unresponsive but finally it comes loose from the snow and flies towards him, passing right by and into the hands of Rey! Wow! She really is some Jedi! I mean, it took Luke several attempts in the ice cave on Hoth but not Rey! She barely knew what the Force was a few hours ago but suddenly she’s doing things that her foe that her well-trained foe can not. She’s a quick learner because regardless of having had no training with a light saber, she has little trouble fighting Ren who as I said before is presumed to be at the minimum, very experienced with a light saber. We are asked to just accept all of this.
I had heard that the ending was a really twist. Despite the let down I had experienced so far, I figured that the ending might make the movie worth while. Since I knew that Luke was in this movie and had yet to make an appearance, surely there was quite a bit of movie to go, right? Nope. Luke is in the last 30 seconds of the movie and never utters a word. This was a decent setup for the next movie of course (like the ending of The Empire Strikes Back) but am I the only one that feels gypped?
The move title, “The Force Awakens” sounded great and I expected it to be the central theme of the movie. Instead, Rey discovers she has Jedi powers and is able to do amazing things nearly instantly. This could be accepted and even understood if there had been ANY backstory WHATSOEVER to explain why she might be a powerful Jedi. It’s not really central to the story at all. Put another way, Rey’s discovering of her Jedi powers is not really important to the story at all, let alone its central theme.
I had so much hope going into this film. Many friends had seen it and said it was great. Instead I saw a film that, while entertaining, did nothing to rebuild what little reputation Star Wars had left. It’s sad because it could have been great. If I could narrow it down to one thing, I’d say that Abrams was trying to put too much into a single film. That meant leaving out desperately needed backstory , plot details and character development.
Am I expecting too much? Is my bar too high? I don’t think so. Look at the Harry Potter series. It’s nearly perfect in just about every way one could measure it. Long after Star Wars is forgotten, the Harry Potter series will be an enduring classic. What’s the difference? The Harry Potter series was shepherded from start to finish by a single person who cared deeply for the story and only the story.