So by this point anyone who has any kind of emotional investment in Star Wars has probably seen The Force Awakens, at least if my Facebook news feed is anything to go by. The internet is covered in outpourings of enthusiasm and joy varying from lots of declarations of how amazing the film was to tearful platitudes about how Star Wars has been reclaimed from the dastardly clutches of its own creator. And hey, I’ll be the first to say that there is a hell of a lot that the film gets right and as far as charting a clear future for the series, it does a good job. But… I didn’t love it.
And from here on I’m spoiling stuff, so leave now if that’s of concern.
Star Wars has always been pretty important to me, as it is for a lot of people. I saw the original trilogy at six years old in 1997 when the special editions were released, and each prequel coming out in subsequent years was a major event. My friends and I obsessed over Attack of the Clones, thinking it was just about the coolest thing ever and the release of Revenge of the Sith was a massive deal for me, rivalled only by the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. And before anybody laughs me off for saying I enjoyed the prequels, consider the fact that there is not a single thing you can say that hasn’t been said already and furthermore I don’t care; I love the prequels even while being aware that they’re terrible films because such is my love for the world and mythology of Star Wars. Every new venture into that universe was so intoxicating and exciting to me, enough to turn forced love stories and clunky dialogue into minor quibbles.
But, even liking the prequels didn’t mean that the prospect of a Star Wars film that promised to get back to basics, to restore the real sets and props as well as the zippy, fun tone of the original trilogy wasn’t just about the best thing I’d ever heard. As more and more pre-release glimmers of information hinted that we were about to get something that tapped into what initially made Star Wars so special, I let myself get totally caught up in the anticipation. Let me stress; I didn’t need The Force Awakens to be the best thing ever. A franchise like Star Wars is impossible to view objectively, and I would have settled for a fun film that made me feel like a kid again. I didn’t need much more than that. And I guess I got that… kind of.
The Force Awakens is a lot of fun. Anyone who’s ever seen one of my plays knows that I loves me some banter and quips, and this film was overflowing with them (courtesy of returning Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan). Plus, the new characters had charisma and chemistry to spare and watching Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron bounce off each other was great fun and really promising for the future. For the most part Han and Chewie’s return managed to walk a fine line between feeling like a throwback yet also like a logical continuation of where these characters would end up given the events of the years since last we saw them, and I loved how they interacted with the newcomers.
But for me, Han’s return was where the cracks in this film begin to show. In some ways J.J. Abrams had an impossible task; he had to not only bring back and pay homage to beloved characters that have lain dormant for thirty years, but also forge a clear path forward for a new generation and give us a reason to care about the fresh faces, all the while making sure that everything we’re seeing feels like Star Wars. The newcomers were a resounding success, the rest, not so much.
One of the most exciting things about this film was the promise that we would catch up with old friends. And while we got plenty of Han and Chewie, the rest of the returning cast were terribly underused. Carrie Fisher had little more to do than exchange awkward exposition with Han before looking mildly miffed at his death, while the much touted mystery of Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts was resolved with what amounted to a five second cameo. We didn’t even get to hear him speak. And yeah, I get that that’s being held off for the next film, but you know what? The reason A New Hope, for me, is still the best Star Wars film is that it tells a complete, satisfying story while leaving the door open for further adventures and considering the fact that The Force Awakens was basically just a remake of that film, it’s disappointing that it was more focussed in setting up the future of the franchise than in telling a solid story in its own right. The ending of A New Hope always has me grinning from ear to ear. The ending of The Empire Strikes evokes a sense of determined optimism in the face of overwhelming odds. For fuck’s sake, even Revenge of the Sith leaves me with something of a melancholy feeling. But The Force Awakens was strangely empty, like I got to the end and felt neither satisfied by what I had seen or desperate for the next instalment. And that is a big, big problem.
It was in the last third that the film really fell apart for me. The fact that the First Order’s whole plan hinged on what basically amounted to ANOTHER goddamn Death Star was really disappointing. Yeah, great, you blew up a planet. Star Wars films have been doing that since 1977; come up with something original J.J. And on that note, I’m sorry, but Han Solo, one of the most iconic characters in cinema history, deserved his own iconic death, not a blatant echo of Obi Wan’s. Killing Han was a HUGE moment but in trying to emulate another classic scene from the original film it lost so much for me, and was weakened even more by the fact that we didn’t even get time to mourn the loss of a beloved character before we were plunged back into more action and chaos.
The alchemy that made the original trilogy sing lay in the way it combined thematic weight and powerful mythology with likeable and believable characters that we could root for. The failing of the prequel trilogy was too much of the former ingredients and none of the latter. This new film almost has the exact reverse problem.
I went into this film feeling so much excitement, ready to like it no matter what. I walked out feeling not very much at all. And even the worst Star Wars films never had that effect. In almost every way The Force Awakens is a better film than the prequels; it’s pacier, it’s funny in a way that isn’t forced, it’s straightforward, it’s full of great characters and yet it just feels shallow, like it coasts on cheap nostalgia and fun action rather than a real engagement with the rich mythos it wants to build upon.
Writing words about writing words.