The Force Awakens is a surprisingly dark new vision of Star Wars
Of all the interesting questions raised for Star Wars fans by the sequel trilogy and by The Force Awakens, the question that turns out to be the least interesting is: is it a good movie? Well sure, I guess in the sense that if you liked the original Star Wars (and really, if you didn’t, then why are you in a theater watching this one?), you’ll like this one. And the reason for that is The Force Awakens quite simply is A New Hope, right down to every significant plot element. It’s a virtual remake that doesn’t even try for an original story.
Let’s see: we have the scavenger on Jakku for the farm boy on Tatooine, the First Order for the Empire, the Resistance for the Rebellion, a secret map carried by a droid instead of stolen plans carried by an astromech droid, a new super-weapon for the Empire (I mean, First Order), a new fallen Darksider who dresses in black and has purged the Jedi, with family connections to the heroes as well. There’s also an Emperor-like character pulling the strings behind the Darksider in black, and an old Jedi now in hiding who had an apprentice who turned against him.
J.J. Abrams essentially takes A New Hope and retells it thirty years later in-universe, with the effect of wiping out the narrative progress that was made by the original trilogy. The triumph of the Rebel Alliance turns out to be temporary, and easily reversible. The promise of Luke and Leia leading a new era of Jedi to preserve a New Republic based on justice and peace turns out to be an empty one. The result is a surprisingly dark vision of Star Wars, where the victory of the good guys in Return of the Jedi ends up being meaningless. Han and Chewie are back to where they were pre-A New Hope, as smugglers on their own, unconnected to a larger cause. Leia is where she was pre-A New Hope, leading the equivalent of the Rebel Alliance. And Luke and the Jedi order are in a worse place than they were before Return of the Jedi.
For all of the criticisms of what the prequel trilogy did to the backstory of the original trilogy, in terms of its effect on the character of Anakin as well as various continuity issues, it didn’t wipe away the accomplishments of the original trilogy in the way that The Force Awakens does. Not only does the new film feel like a retelling of Episode IV, but the ending of it seems to set up the next film to be a retelling of Empire Strikes Back. Rey is going to be trained by a reclusive Jedi master on a distant planet, much like Yoda trained Luke on Dagobah, while the First Order recovers from a defeat at the end of the film and “strikes back” against the Resistance.
I mostly avoided spoilers and plot details before seeing the new film, but I did read summaries of reviews after it came out, and remembered after watching the movie that there were references to the story being “familiar” or featuring riffs on the original trilogy, but I didn’t realize what an understatement that was. I felt like I was watching the beginning of a sequel trilogy of Back to the Future where we fast forward ten years after the original, and George McFly has gone back to being bullied by Biff, Doc Brown has built a new time machine (this time out of a PT Cruiser), and Marty has to go back to 1965 to help his mom and dad get back together after they broke up in the past after the events of the original. Oh, and Marty has to avoid the attentions of his mom again. Okay, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, so my overall take on the new Star Wars movie from a concept/writing perspective is that it was surprisingly cautious and unoriginal in approach, opting to give the audience exactly what it was familiar with rather than try for something new. With that out of the way, let me turn to more specific analyses of characters and plot elements.
Kylo Ren seems to dominate the movie with his presence, and the idea of a new Darksider who consciously models himself after Darth Vader is interesting. I thought his trait of being more hotheaded than Vader in his anger, and prone to temper tantrums and outbursts was a clever detail in addition to providing opportunities for comic relief.
The dialogue throughout the movie was generally solid, and a huge improvement over the prequels. I especially enjoyed the banter between Han and almost any other character he was onscreen with. The pacing of the movie was good as well, and the movie never dragged, nor did I as a viewer find myself checking my watch or noting the running time. Finn was probably the most original character in concept, as a stormtrooper who turns away from his training and indoctrination. He seemed like the only character not either already present in the original trilogy or just taken from a template from those films.
Let me further delve into the surprising bleakness of this new Star Wars film. The ascendance of Kylo Ren and the First Order seems to indicate that the triumph of Palpatine in the prequels and subsequent purge wasn’t a unique event emerging partially from the complacence and stagnation of the prequel-era Jedi as well as the singular talents and deviousness of Palpatine. Instead, we’re expected to accept that the Jedi have been all but wiped out twice within two generations by a small handful of Darksiders. Really, what’s the point of restoring the Jedi Order when they seem destined to play the role of the Washington Generals to the Darksiders’ Harlem Globetrotters? Yoda may insist that the Dark Side isn’t stronger, but its followers do seem to have the edge in competence. On a serious note, that’s a further example of the surprisingly depressing backstory of this film. I don’t want to delve into spoiler territory too much, but a certain event near the end of the film seems to depend too much on our connection to the original trilogy, rather than being set up adequately in this film, since we don’t get enough of a backstory on Kylo Ren and certain other characters for the event to have earned its impact that way.
One of the central story elements here is the quest to find Luke Skywalker, who’s disappeared out of a sense of failure and remorse with a fallen apprentice. This is of course another plot element drawn from the original trilogy, as both of the prominent Jedi remaining from the Old Republic era, Yoda and Obi-Wan, had long been in hiding by the time of A New Hope. Yet, the reasons for that were supposed to be that the Jedi had been hunted down, and because of the sheer power of the Emperor. So there were concrete reasons for Obi-Wan and Yoda to bide their time, waiting for Luke to mature and become powerful enough to succeed where they had not. So what’s the reason for Luke to go hide in this new era? Surely he must be far more advanced in Force abilities than Kylo Ren, considering how we saw him fare against Rey, who hadn’t had that much training. Are we supposed to believe that it’s a regular Jedi practice to respond to failure by going into hiding? Somehow, “if at first you don’t succeed, go into hiding” doesn’t strike me as a Jedi concept. The idea that Luke, who could be very valuable in confronting Kylo Ren or the First Order, chooses to spend his time brooding on a distant planet instead, leaving others to face the danger of the First Order, is a puzzling and disappointing one to me.
I’ll close by comparing or contrasting this movie with a few other ones. The Force Awakens seems to me to be surprisingly like Superman Returns, another movie that picked up after a long gap in a series, and could have gone in a lot of interesting narrative directions, yet ended up sticking very close to what had already come before, brushing right up against the line of being more of a reboot or remake rather than a new story. In contrast, a movie like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which also picked up after a long gap in movies, really embraced the opportunities offered by moving the narrative forward, telling a story in a very different historical era, and it showed the changes in Indy’s life and family over a long period of time. It may have a similar plot structure to other Indiana Jones movies, but it doesn’t feel like it simply chose to either ignore or wipe out what might have come between Last Crusade and Kingdom.
Finally, I must inevitably return to the prequels when looking at this movie. For all of the problems of the prequels (though, I think that most of them are confined to Phantom Menace), the look, style, and story of those movies feel very different than the original trilogy. I feel like we got two original sagas that focused on very different things, and you could potentially enjoy them in different ways. It seems like the negative reception to the prequels influenced the new movie in a way that resulted in a (depending on your perspective) cautious, brilliant, or cynical strategy to give the fans and audience a nostalgic collection of recycled elements and moments from Episode IV. As a huge fan of that movie, that makes The Force Awakes an enjoyable experience. As a fan of sci-fi movies that take risks and tell original stories, that makes it a disappointing one.