"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" Is Bantha Poodoo
For the first ten minutes of J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” – ten beautiful, perfect minutes – it seems as though “Star Wars” may finally be back.
First, the opening crawl.
Inveterate Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing. His sister Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a General, leads the Resistance against the First Order, an offshoot of the long-defunct Empire.
At once, in grand “Star Wars” tradition, we’re dropped into the middle of a small story with obviously big implications. Abrams and co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt thus begin their long, slow zoom out.
Resistance X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis himself!) is on the Tatooine-like planet of Jakku to secure a map of Luke’s whereabouts. But when he’s confronted by murderous, Vader-worshipping, would-be Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and a mass of Stormtroopers, Dameron is left with no choice but to jettison said map by means of his cute astromech droid, BB-8.
These are all welcome, deliberate echoes of the original “Star Wars,” re-establishing George Lucas’ initial vision for the series: a vast, never-ending space opera that exists somewhere between the screen and our imaginations.
But time ticks by without a trace of Luke or Leia (the first of whom appears 80 minutes in) and Dameron vanishes, leaving us with two brand new characters played by virtual newcomers to carry the weight of the first “Star Wars” sequel in thirty-two years. Given the screenplay’s thinly drawn dramatis personae and sawed-off story – not to mention impossible expectations – they don’t stand a chance.
The introduction of Finn (John Boyega) is the movie’s first sign of trouble. His transition from reluctant Stormtrooper to deserter to hero is completed in a five-minute stretch, as banally convenient as anything Abrams has ever done (including his “Star Trek Into Darkness” villain reveal). Moreover, Boyega’s performance is a sizable step back from his debut in 2011 sci-fi actioner “Attack The Block.”
With so little characterization to chew on, the British actor is forced to play things broadly: ever wide-eyed and panicky, searching for an epiphany (or at least a laugh) in every line of dialogue. Apart from better writing, the part begs for someone with more depth and comedic experience (like, say Donald Glover), but Boyega’s struggles aren’t his alone.
Complete newbie Daisy Ridley fares similarly as Rey, a young Jakku junk collector with a mysterious connection to the Force. It’s invigorating to see a “Star Wars” heroine who doesn’t need to be rescued or don a metal bikini, but the script hammers home the point with such obviousness as to siphon out all impact. Equally problematic is her penchant for possessing whatever skill the screenplay calls for at any given moment. Rey’s late-game, out-of-the-blue lightsaber skill set is a prime offender.
73-year-old Harrison Ford returns as swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, getting significantly more screentime than Luke and Leia combined. It should be a highlight, but the actor seems as plainly uninterested as ever, with the character reduced to comic relief, nearly tangential to the plot. Han’s reintroduction (with Chewbacca in tow, of course) comes off like a “Saturday Night Live” digital short and his ultimate fate is the worst thing to happen to the series. Ever.
Not only do Abrams, Kasdan, and Arndt unwisely reprise the original trilogy’s father-son plot device (it turns out that Kylo Ren was born Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia, grandson of Vader), but they kill Han off at the hands of his angsty, noxious offspring. The duo’s eventual “Dad, you don’t understand me!” moment that represents the movie’s climax (Ren might as well be wearing a dog collar and a Misfits graphic tee) is plainly a result of Ford not wanting to keep playing the character. Fair enough, but it didn’t have to be like this.
What’s more than the cruelty and unusualness of making us watch Chewie watch his best friend die, the joy of imagining Han Solo speeding off to more adventures and eventually soaring off into the sunset dies with him. It’s a death that has absolutely nothing to do with the original trilogy’s version of the character and everything to do with the cold, calculated storytelling that nearly swallows up “The Force Awakens” – a constant drone of characters looking for other characters, all the while swapping the original trilogy’s sense of happy coincidence for expediency in franchise building.
Case in point: Luke’s lightsaber becomes a focal point of Rey’s search for him, and when it’s located in the basement of a Mos Eisley Cantina-esque bar, the tavern’s owner (an uninspired CGI lump played and voiced by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o) is asked why it’s there. “A good question… for another time!” she answers.
It’s a rancid piece of dialogue that shines a harsh light on Abrams’ “mystery box” brand of plotting: trinkets in lieu of layered storytelling, smoke and mirrors on top of smoke and mirrors.
Moreover, the picture’s interpolations of the original trilogy are frequently the wrong ones. “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” remain nearly perfect movies, but they’re more than perfect; they’re inclusive. Inclusive to characters and viewers alike, requiring no outside knowledge; only a taste for adventure.
“The Force Awakens” lives and mostly dies by references to movies past, much like Lucas’ prequels did, but here that conceit is exacted. Abrams assumes that each viewer is already deeply invested in the universe at hand but then goes out of his way to contradict its past at every turn, from disregarding the original trilogy’s explanation of the Force to some garish stylistic choices. The movie ends with an aerial helicopter shot, for God’s sake.
It’s an unconscionably directed scene that caps off the film’s use of Luke Skywalker as a prop to set up the next episode, a neat bow on all the other promises it fails to deliver on: not overdoing the computer generated effects (they’re everywhere), not rehashing old plot points for the third or fourth time (the weapon at the story’s center is nothing more than an oversized Death Star), and returning the personality that the prequels were missing (it’s all Force-choked out by the clunky scripting).
The cast mostly tries their best (God bless Boyega and Ridley for being so invested), but the screenplay is a heavy weight around their necks, leaving all but Isaac drooping. It hits all of its telegraphed beats, sets up the next movie, and gets the hell out of town without adding anything at all to the “Star Wars” mystique. The creatures are more evocative of “Men In Black II” than “Return Of The Jedi.” The string-pulling, behind-the-scenes villain (played by Andy Serkis) is an unimaginative computer-generated monstrosity. And the lightsaber battles serve the same function in the film as they did in the trailers: to look good.
Legions of “Star Wars” fans have been through so much that they won’t allow themselves to be disappointed again. Fair enough. But “The Force Awakens” cares for them only as far as their pocketbook. It’s fan fiction writ large, making it clearer than ever that – for better or worse – George Lucas is “Star Wars.” With his voice gone, all that’s left are tinny reverberations of movie history.
Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)
Release Date: December 18, 2015
Studio: Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Pictures
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriter: J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Peter Mayhew, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Max Von Sydow, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)