By now, you’ve already seen Star Wars: the Force Awakens—perhaps more than once. Reviews seem curiously irrelevant when over $1.5 billion sits in the bank.
Still, for what it’s worth, the early reviews for the Force Awakens were glowing; Rotten Tomatoes says that 94% of reviews are positive.* J.J. Abrams can surely rest easy, having brought his second Star franchise roaringly, profitably back to life.
But with a bit of distance from Opening Day’s orgiastic outpouring of collective nostalgia (and from the real danger of provoking a horde of lightsaber-wielding fanatics), critics have quietly begun reappraising the Force Awakens. Two charges against TFA have emerged as common threads: that it is overly commercial, and that it is unoriginal.
Before jumping into my own thoughts on the film, I’d like to tackle these two points. I find the first charge of commerciality absurd. Complaining that profits hold too much sway over Star Wars is like criticizing a rancor for its claws; dollars are in the series’ DNA. Gary Kurtz, a producer on the original trilogy, admits that the happy ending of Return of the Jedi was designed to maximize toy sales. Both Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wanted to kill Han Solo off in a blaze of glory, but Lucas nixed the idea.
And if it all feels unoriginal—well, the “original” films all owed a heavy debt to Westerns, Samurai pictures, and pulpy sci-fi serials. In some instances, George Lucas shameless copied his inspirations shot by shot:
The novelty of the original films came not from a bold vision of the future, but from the way they cheerfully borrowed from the past. In 1977, Star Wars returned viewers to the innocent world of adventure serials and comic books. For audiences in 2016, the closest analogue in terms of pure nostalgic value is—well, 1977’s Star Wars. Attacking TFA for being too derivative of Star Wars feels like a double standard when almost every blockbuster since 1977 bears its mark. Star Wars has so colonized the American mind that escape from its orbit is impossible—its cultural gravity is so great that the franchise has collapsed into a singularity of self-reference.**
Anyway, I digress. My critique of the criticism of TFA‘s is really just a long way of saying that I think the film should be judged on its own merits. Not as Exhibit A in the case against Hollywood’s greed, or as a symbol of the immaturity of the age, but as a standalone piece of art. And with all that said, I think that The Force Awakens is not a great film—a nice movie, but not a notable one.
Everyone who cares about spoilers has already seen it, so I will discuss the plot openly. It’s obvious by now that The Force Awakens closely hews to the basic structure of A New Hope, from its opening act on a desert planet to its climactic final attack on an armored space station. And for the first thirty minutes, a dose of vintage Star Wars is exactly what the doctor ordered. In the hands of J.J. Abrams, who can evoke a sense of mood better than any other big-budget director of his generation, it’s an intravenous injection into the nostalgic system. The sight of hulking star destroyers lying wrecked in the sand is enough to inspire glee in the heart of even the most hardened cynic. Just as in the fluid, Spielbergian first act of Super Eight (probably Abrams’s most personal film), much of the first half-hour of TFA glides by in a warm, bubbling feeling of joy.
But TFA sags in the middle act. There are too many comings and goings, false partings and goodbyes: I could have done without Finn’s half-hearted departure at Maz’s tavern, and the confusion that allows Rey to be captured seems more a writer’s contortion than a natural development. When the pacing slows, one begins to see the plot’s turning cogs, and the similarities to A New Hope become plain. By the time the group arrives at the rebel base, I knew what I was in store for. I’ll admit that Han Solo’s death came as a surprise (mostly because I thought the writers lacked the courage to harm the original icons), but from there the dénouement is inevitable.
It’s not bad, mind you. The second half may be more workmanlike than the first, but on the whole TFA is still made with much more joy than the thin gruel of your annual Marvel sequel. The new cast—particularly Daisy Ridley as Rey—is generally zippy and likable, and though I found some characterizations a little thin (like Finn and his decision to turn coat), there is at least no Hayden Christensen-sized miscasting here, since all the actors have the ability to emote. The special and practical effects are as excellent as you might expect, and the latter sometimes even shows flashes of the quirky charm that so illuminated the original films.
To sum up: Abrams and crew go far in painstakingly recreating the look and feel of the original films, and for the first thirty minutes, the illusion works. But as the necessities of plot and character take over, the deficiencies in both become apparent. That sublime floating feeling of nostalgia slips away, and what one is left with is a nice but flawed movie, made with much technical care but missing that rare touch that turns the everyday into the sublime. The Force Awakens may be not be high art, but it is the heartfelt work of an artisan.
* Rotten Tomatoes is a rather silly measure of critical approval—but that is a subject for another time.
** Not sure if that sentence actually makes sense, but it was so much fun to write that I’m leaving it in.