After years of anticipation, Star Wars The Force Awakens has finally hit theaters, and by all accounts everyone is loving it. It made $238 million in the first weekend alone, crossed the $300 million threshold after only 5 days in theaters, and currently holds a 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. If you don’t like this movie, something has to be wrong with you. But as the final credits rolled and the audience cheered, I found myself a little disappointed at what I had just seen.
Like all of Abrams’ films it’s got great action and genuine emotions; the man knows how to craft an exciting film. But despite a whole galaxy’s worth of storytelling possibilities, the movie is content to retread old territory. At first, the familiarity is noticeable but not egregious. Important information is hid in a droid, a loner on a desert planet is thrust into the adventure by said droid, Han Solo helps the heroes but doesn’t want to commit to the fight at first, etc. All these certainly registered for me as a viewer, but didn’t derail the movie. Then came the third act, where the evil First Order unleashes their world-ending super weapon, obliterating five planets and the heroes must race to destroy it by targeting a particular weakness in the design, before being destroyed themselves, as the First Order has tracked them back to their Resistance base. You'd be forgiven if all that felt familiar.
This is, for me, the crucial error of The Force Awakens. The filmmakers presuppose that because we like Star Wars we’ll be enthralled with seeing the same story elements play out again in a slightly different way. But we love the world (or galaxy) of Star Wars, the new and exciting locations, the vibrant characters, and the spirituality of the Force that seems so genuine it almost has to be real. I didn’t want to see the same story rebooted, I wanted a new story that wasn’t afraid to blaze its own trail. Even some of the more intriguing aspects of the plot, that Luke has vanished for instance, are sidelined for the third act retread of A New Hope. The Force Awakens has a great plot...but it’s already been done before.
What the movie does right is its characters, newcomers Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and to a lesser degree Poe Dameron, are all a blast to watch on screen, and better yet they’re fresh personalities. Rey is a spitfire; when we first meet her, she’s already self-sufficient after surviving by herself for so long on Jakku. Her initial rejection of the hero’s journey (an intriguing counterpoint to Luke jumping at it) culminates in that wonderful moment where she uses the Force to pull the lightsaber out of the villain's grasp into her hands. Resourceful yet desperate, tough yet vulnerable, and overall fierce. Rey is everything I wanted from the protagonist of this movie.
Finn’s motivation to flee the First Order rather than fight them is an interesting new angle, we haven’t gotten to see what life might be like for a stormtrooper before, and John Boyega’s slightly manic energy makes it easy to empathize with his unusual situation.
Then there’s Kylo Ren, a petulant and whiny villain with a face no more menacing than the guy you took calculus with. And yes, that’s a compliment. We’ve seen Darth Vader, already established in his power and villainy, coldly rule the galaxy, the movie is smart to not replicate that. Instead, The Force Awakens gives us a young man with real and terrifying power but whose calm demeanor is a facade. Underneath, Kylo Ren is unsure of himself, and when genuinely challenged, seems scared. Unfortunately for those around him, that fear manifests as violent outbursts, a puffing out of his chest, of sorts, to re-establish his dominance. The fact that he’s unstable and prone to tantrums (that stormtroopers seem all too familiar with) makes him unpredictable and even more frightening.
As stated, the movie does a lot right, even while writing this review I’m thinking of how excited I am to go back and watch Rey just...be Rey. But the wonderful characters unfortunately serve a story that frequently feels inferior. There is a strange duality to this movie. On one hand, the film’s characters, especially Rey, Finn, and Kylo, have fresh ideas and motivations; on the other hand, the movie’s plot places old characters and the machinations of the bad guys in roles too familiar, ultimately amounting to a re-telling of A New Hope.
By the end of the movie the galaxy is essentially back to the status quo it held at the beginning of A New Hope. the evil Empire is established, and the seat of democracy has been destroyed. It feels like a wasted opportunity for a galaxy we haven’t seen for 30 years to revert back to something so familiar.
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