“Chewie, we’re home.”
Indeed we are, Han Solo. Indeed we are.
The question is: who is ‘we’?
For this glorious homecoming, while sure to thrill legions of Star Wars fans across the galaxy, is a somewhat private event. Because of its devotion to the powerful legacy of the Original Trilogy, The Force Awakens is fenced by a level of exclusivity in its appeal.
‘We’ will certainly enjoy their return to the galaxy far, far away that they loved, but ‘we’ does not include everyone. And for those who do not consider themselves particularly invested in the glory of the Original Trilogy, there is little to go wild for in a nostalgia fare that stands on the shoulders of giants, but not on its own two feet.
MINI-SPOILER MARK: Minor plot details discussed beyond this point. No spoilers revealed.
30 years have passed since Return of the Jedi. The Galactic Empire has risen again as the First Order, led by the Sith-like Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), has disappeared without a trace. Determined to stop the First Order, the Rebellion sends pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to obtain information about Luke’s whereabouts. Through the BB-8 droid containing the map to Luke’s location, former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) meets the scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), and the youthful duo realise that the fate of the galaxy rests on their shoulders.
For the past two years, the will of the Force bestowed upon J. J. Abrams both a great honour and a terrifying quest; directing and co-writing Star Wars Episode VII, officially titled The Force Awakens. Even the most experienced directors would hesitate. Who in their right mind would say ‘yes’? But then again, who in their right mind would say ‘no’? For the brave Abrams, one of his most challenging tasks would have been attempting to please countless devoted Star Wars fans, all fiercely protective of one of the greatest sci-fi franchises of all time.
And how did Abrams fare? Judging from the way The Force Awakens has turned out – passed the test, J.J. has. Heave a sigh of relief, he should.
Down to its core, The Force Awakens is a nod to the past, a toast to the magic of the Original Trilogy. Littered throughout its 136-minute run are countless references to characters, starships, locations and other elements of the good ole’ Galactic Empire days. No surprises that one of the film’s most powerful scenes – and one that would certainly have fans smiling too widely and forgetting to breathe – is one executed in such a way that it thoroughly celebrates and honours a franchise icon, and allows fans to soak up the emotional overload of being reunited with said icon.
Loyalty and fierce devotion to the Originals is The Force Awakens’ greatest strength, and what allows the film to be a thoroughly nostalgic tribute that sets fans on a hyperdrive jump back to the 1970s and 1980s. For any fan of the Originals, The Force Awakens is an emotional dream come true, an homage to some of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. But loyalty is a double-bladed lightsaber, and what allows devoted fans to rejoice their return to the old days is precisely what leaves the film bleeding as it struggles to offer up anything else of substance. And those not cashing in on the nostalgia overload – those less devoted to the Originals, and certainly the non-fans – will quickly notice how thin The Force Awakens is when all the references have been stripped aside.
The film does not have much of a plot, or at least one that does not not give us a vibe of been there, done that. The basic storyline, the design and content of the majority of the scenes, and many of the battle scenes are reincarnations of everything already seen in the Originals. X-Wing dog fights, TIE fighters, a mega successor of the Death Star, countless interior shots of First Order/Galactic starships and uniforms, mysterious masters appearing via holograms – these are all mirrors, bearing too striking a similarity to their source to claim any credit for whatever strengths they might have.
The only thing truly new on offer are the characters. Here, Daisy Ridley‘s Rey shines. Smart, tech-savvy, incredibly independent and impressively physical, Rey more than carries the film as the strong and charming leading lady that the 21st century audience needs. Gleaming with potential and strong screen presence, Rey easily wins fans over to the idea of her leading the Sequel Trilogy. The character is great, and actually could have been greater; if only her potentially interesting backstory were further developed and her screen time was not split as much with John Boyega‘s Finn and Driver‘s Kylo Ren.
Boyega owns the film’s most humorous moments as the charming Finn, but the character is too simplistic and lacking in the backstory and future potential that Rey has. Kylo Ren does offer some freshness and depth to his less straightforward and more ambiguous villain, but even he is forgettable as the film tosses out facts about his past but does nothing to develop them. Funnily enough, Ren fears that he might never be as strong as Darth Vader. Indeed, Ren is not even a shadow of Vader, but he should not be simply aspiring to imitate an iconic villain, nor should the film be inviting such explicit comparisons (as it does multiple times) between the two characters.
An impressive supporting cast further populates the screen, but they are wasted behind thoroughly dispensable characters. Domhnall Gleeson plays General Hux and Gwendoline Christie (of Game of Thrones) injects a new but odd feminine touch to the stormtroopers via Captain Phasma, but both character struggle to find their place in the plot. The immense talents of Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis are instead hidden somewhere underneath their CGI characters. Even the returning characters seem to have lost some of their steam. While Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) easily steal every scene they are in, the iconic love-hate couple have lost their banter. Perhaps age has caught up with them, or they’ve exhausted their witty bickering after 30 years. But the script is more likely to blame here.
Sci-fi being sci-fi, surely The Force Awakens‘ action scenes are a consolation? Well, they aren’t bad, but neither are they significantly better than what we last saw ten years ago. True, Abrams executes one climactic lightsaber duel with tremendous beauty in its simultaneously picturesque and hostile setting. But the choreography – while understandably rough and unpolished given the context of the film – is somewhat underwhelming in comparison to what was accomplished as far as sixteen years ago with The Phantom Menace.
Try as hard as it might, The Force Awakens is too lacking in originality to feel more than a mere, if pretty well-executed, homage to its legendary predecessors. It is certainly not a bad movie; it has its moments, and is no doubt a satisfying and thrilling dream come true for countless franchise fans. But the film feels more like a successful fan service and less like a solid Star Wars film with true merits that it can call its own. Even Attack of the Clones, with all its cringe-worthy romance and such, was its own movie.
The Force Awakens is the loyal Padawan that reveres his Master to the extent that he becomes more of an imitation than a true apprentice. And unless one loved the Master with the intensity that Star Wars fans do, it is hard to see how one could be blown away by two hours with a shadow that barely has a voice of his own.
Rating: 3.0/5 (TALK-0-meter: “Okay, I guess? Could be better.”)