NOTE: The article contains MILD SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
As soon as news dropped that Disney was going to make the next episode of the Star Wars series, I knew it would be absolutely impossible for me to give it a fair and unbiased review. Now, after seeing the movie twice, I still find myself in the same predicament.
Star Wars is the greatest artistic inspiration of my entire life and the day my dad watched it with me for the first time was the day my passion, my goals, and my life changed forever. Giving The Force Awakens a bad review was never going to happen. On the other hand, my journalistic integrity would get in the way of me comfortably giving the film an overwhelmingly positive review. I still had to look at it with an analytical eye as well as the eye of a fan.
I'm holding out hope that The Force Awakens will be a good launch-point for Star Wars to live on indefinitely. Many interesting characters and storylines were introduced, led by Kylo Ren and his backstory. It felt like the original trilogy in scope and tone. I can't wait for Rian Johnson's Episode XIII.
But, Star Wars was already going to live on forever, and I guess that's my main contention with the new film (as well as the prequels) – that it is unnecessary.
Return of the Jedi brought a sense of completion to George Lucas' original saga and A New Hope is one of the most perfect (and self-contained) stories ever told. The Empire Strikes Back is one of the greatest films ever made. The Expanded Universe books and comics satiated fans who wanted more content, but the love always started and was always going to be with the original trilogy.
The Force Awakens is a solid movie and J.J. Abrams did an admirable job, especially considering the hype leading up to the film's release, but it is easy to see what it truly is – a product.
This trend has been no more apparent than this past year which saw Avengers 2 and Jurassic World become big box-office successes. Studios and audiences alike are conservative in their tastes and by and large, only spend money on things that are proven and invoke a sense of nostalgia.
Things were different in 1977. Star Wars was the biggest gamble in film history. An unproven filmmaker, with an unproven cast, with unproven special effects. It should have amounted to a disaster, but it didn't.
The story, characters, and breathtaking special effects touched something deep within everybody who saw it and it wasn't a longing for nostalgia or hope for more. Lucas had to make the film as if it would fail and his subsequent stories couldn't be told. It was a film for everyone, about everyone, and the crazy world that we live in. It was a modern myth.
In the creation of his saga, Lucas explained that certain events would "rhyme" with one another. Certain images and thematic elements would be riffed off of to tell new and different stories. The Star Wars magic would be consistent.
This is where I take exception with the new film. Unlike Lucas' films, The Force Awakens, narratively speaking, is closer to an exact copy than a rhyme. It's more of a reboot than a continuation. Before the films release, Disney erased all Lucas-approved EU material in order to give filmmakers more freedom. But ultimately, the film's main narrative hinges on the same exact plot beats as A New Hope. While it can be argued that this is intentional, creatively, it's inexcusable.
The characters, apart from Kylo Ren and the original cast, are poorly-drawn fan inserts. Poe Dameron is invincible in an X-Wing and always awesome. Finn is a bumbling fool who gets by on dumb luck. But Rey is really who The Force Awakens tries (perhaps too much) to make the audience invest in. Many say that a movie is only as strong as its villain, and while in some cases that's true (The Dark Knight), more often than not, the film is designed for the audience to invest in the hero.
These new films will live or die by the character of Rey, a scavenger from the desert planet Jakku. Rey is written as a physically strong lead with Force sensitivity that would put Yoda to shame. While her backstory will be interesting to discover going forward, there is nothing interesting about her as a character or person. She easily overcomes adversity and is liked or envied by everyone in the movie. If the hero has no stakes, why should the audience?
It's not to say The Force Awakens isn't a thrill-ride. It definitely is. It's exciting. It's funny. It's the most gorgeously shot of all the films. It's everything a fan could want to see. But I couldn't help but think about what it means for the Star Wars legacy and for the future of storytelling in film.
The Force Awakens is a critical and financial success, but a narrative failure. It does not hold up without our love of the original trilogy. Its cliffhanger ending signals a trend for more serialized movie making than self-contained storytelling. While The Force Awakens left me excited, its transparent characters, story, and effects did not leave me gazing upon it in awe.
The Force Awakens represents a move from creating something special, to something satisfying and safe. To me, there's beauty lost in that. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy: That a film carrying the moniker of Star Wars is not inspiring.
Then again, it's quite possible that Star Wars fans don't need to be inspired anymore. The spark was set off with A New Hope and now all fans crave is more content, whether its good or bad. I'm happy that we are getting more Star Wars, but wary that the brand is more powerful than the films.
We'll see where this new trilogy and cast of characters take us, but with a new film coming every year, that wondrous galaxy far, far away will become closer and more familiar than ever and we could forget about what made it so special in the first place.