I know what people are going to say. First, I am going to get accused of click-baiting. The only reason I am criticizing this film is to get attention, they’ll say. This is, perhaps, what is most depressing. Social media creates peer pressure, to the point where you’re afraid to voice your true feelings. Whether it’s 97% for Star Wars or 14% for Fantastic Four, the hype train takes on a life of its own, and everyone is expected to get on board. It reminds me of middle school. My sandwiches were getting smashed in the paper bags we used to carry, but only babies bring lunch boxes to the cafeteria, until you get to college, that is. Then they’re hip and retro.
For the past fifteen years, I have defended the prequels, not because of some blind love for all things Star Wars, but because I actually (call me crazy) loved the movies. Now, in many ways, I feel that I owe the haters an apology, but not for the reasons you might expect. I now know the crushing disappointment they must have felt in ’99, and I can relate to their need to vent.
Star Wars has always meant different things to different people. For some, it is a gritty space-adventure with zingy one-liners. But for me, Star Wars is boundless imagination, spectacle and inventiveness epic in scope, sheer visual poetry. Lucas uses the screen like a painter does a canvas. You can just freeze the frame and hang it on your wall. His worlds feel alive even when you’re not watching. He is like a documentarian, only filming what he found. We may not have understood the political machinations of the Galactic Senate, but that was the whole point. Like THX1138 and American Graffiti, Star Wars was “found footage.” This has always been Lucas’ style, and it’s one of the reasons I love his films.
With the prequels especially, Lucas had something to say. Despite most people not wanting to think (just look at the travesty that is the Trek franchise) he espoused philosophies and explored political ideas. Maybe the dialogue felt wooden, and the acting abysmal, but at least his characters had something interesting to say. I’ll take Padme’s, “This is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause,” over 2 1/2 hours of vacuous lines—however well delivered—any day.
People act as if Lucas suddenly became interested in effects, at the expense of story, but this is demonstrably not true. The original trilogy was cutting-edge for its time, and George used every technique available to him, limited only by what he could imagine. When we got to the prequels, he did what he knew best, pushing the visual envelope. Now, for the first time in Star Wars history, the franchise has taken a deliberate step backward. While everything in Episode VII feels more gritty and real (JJ uses almost entirely real sets on real locations), what does it matter, when we’ve seen these places before, in other films, and with our very own eyes? I’ve walked through a forest before, and a beach, and a snowy mountain. I don’t need to go to a galaxy far, far away to visit Jakku. Heck, my parents went there this summer; it’s called Dubai. And if I had a Millennium Falcon, I sure as heck wouldn’t take a trip to Clearwater Beach, 10 miles down the road. I’d want to see a giant sinkhole planet, like Utapau, or a termite-mound world like Geonosis, or the planet-wide cityscape of Coruscant. I’ll take imaginative and unconvincing over boring and realistic any day. National Geographic may look more believable than anything Frazetta can paint, but what does it matter, when we’re talking Sci-Fi/fantasy?
Now, I’d be willing to overlook the mundane settings if at least the story was original, but it isn’t. The Force Awakens is a near-identical retelling of A New Hope, only, and I am not kidding here, the ’77 version told it a lot better. And if you are reading this and want to remain spoiler free, this is your last warning:
—- SPOILERS AHEAD —-
So, the day before I go into the movie, I am having a conversation with my nephews, and here is what I said, “I bet Kylo Ren is going to end up being somebody’s son, either Luke’s or Han’s.” It was Han’s. “I bet Finn holding a lightsaber on the poster is a red-herring. At the very end, Rey is going to pull out a lightsaber, proving (to herself and the audience) she is a Jedi.” This is exactly what happens. But this is the worst part, “I really hate that Starkiller base is a knock-off of the Death Star. It’s bad enough we have a Vader clone, more tie fighters and more X-Wings, but did we really need another super weapon? I swear, if they have to fly their X-Wings inside of it, to blow up some tiny reactor so that it implodes, I am going to be really pissed.” But my older nephew gave me hope. “Maybe not,” he said, “maybe JJ will do something cool and unexpected, like have Luke pull a moon down on top of it, destroying it with the Force. Remember how Yoda said, ‘Size matters not?'” Had they done that, it would have been amazing. In fact, his idea made me consider how JJ could take a familiar element (like the Death Star) and do something unique with it. Alas, we got nothing of the sort. I predicted almost the entire movie, scene for scene. Now compare The Force Awakens to the first Star Wars sequel. Who could have imagined, after A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back? With the introduction of Yoda, and Vader telling Luke, “I am your father,” and Han getting frozen in carbonite? Had Lucas let 20th Century Fox make a sequel to Star Wars in 1980, I imagine we would have gotten something like VII. There’s even a character in it, Maz Kanata, reminiscent of Yoda, and an Emperor-type character, who appears only as a hologram, Supreme Leader Snoke.
I admit, I was excited about seeing Snoke and Kanata. Up to that point, the absence of CGI is bluntly apparent, an effort to pander to the haters and apologize for Jar Jar Binks. So many puppets and costumes are on display here, that the movie, at times, looks outdated. Considering modern Sci-Fi, like Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s kind of ridiculous. Unconstrained by the weight of nostalgia, director James Gunn was free to try new things, and embrace modern effects, something Star Wars has long prided itself on. I don’t care what people say, CGI creatures look more real to me, because they move more fluidly, and their expressions are more lifelike. Why else did nobody think to use a hand puppet for Rocket Raccoon? So, I figured, at least we get to see some aliens that look alive. Only, these CGI characters could not be more boring. Supreme Leader Snoke, particularly, looks so human, I don’t know why they didn’t just make him human, or an actor in makeup. It makes the CGI look less convincing than Jar Jar.
All this aside, I did not hate the film. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed it, mostly for the nostalgia trip that it was. Watching the Falcon dodging tie fighters, and seeing the old gang together again, was great. Newcomer Daisey Ridley also gives a superb performance as Rey. But if Star Wars did not precede the title, the movie would not be causing such a stir, or come close to making the 2 billion it will undoubtedly make. As a standalone film, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy and even The Martian are better. But Star Wars has a history behind it, a pedigree of expectation, and this was the first time in the series that I walked out of the theater not feeling thrilled or inspired, or even really wanting to see it again. Even John Williams’ score, which never fails to impress, is routine. I can’t think of a single memorable piece of music, nothing to compare with Duel of the Fates or Across the Stars. Perhaps most disappointing for me, The Force Awakens gives us little to nothing to talk about, and I doubt anyone will be discussing it, or debating it, in the next ten years.
At this point, I realize, it doesn’t matter what I think. Episode VII is riding a wave of positivity, and any dissenting opinion (like mine) is bound to get washed away. But to the people who really loved this movie, I only ask, “Does this improve on the Star Wars saga as a whole? Were we not better off, leaving it at Return of the Jedi?” Lucas said he never made a VII because there was no more story to tell. And, quite honestly, it saddens me to know that Han is killed by his own son, and that he and Leia don’t get to live happily ever-after, and that Luke becomes a hermit somewhere. Jedi was the perfect ending to a perfect story. Now, we have this ugly, uninspired imitation tacked on to it. While I am happy to see my favorite franchise return, I would have preferred a clean slate in another era, perhaps something along the lines of Knights of the Old Republic, but then Disney would not have been able to cash-in on the nostalgia trip.