I know people were very excited for this newest STAR WARS film. I also know that some people hate to be disappointed and will hold onto anything that feels positive and that perpetuates their most-cherished narrative. I also believe that audiences have become so accustomed to comic-book movies and Hollywood origin-story rehashes that they have essentially forgotten not only what good storytelling is, they have forgotten its importance to human society and development.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS suffers from far worse than a wholly unoriginal story, which on its own would be bad enough. Not only did J.J. Abrams decide that what the film, the franchise, and the Star Wars universe needed was a remake of the original STAR WARS, it now required a version of that story sans heart and soul. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is yet another mournful stop on the road map charting the demise of Hollywood storytelling. We’re past the death-throws here, we’re now in “I’m exhausted, will it just die already” territory.
What seemingly starts out as a few nods to the original STAR WARS, quickly spirals into the harsh reality that we are actually going to get a comic-book-like, Reader’s Digest condensed Cliff Notes remake –er, retelling — of a beloved tale. What’s missing, of course, is the human element that made the original STAR WARS so successful and enduring. Sure, tossing in some of the original characters gives the film some slight emotional resonance due to its nostalgic value, but that is simply riding on emotions created by another artist in another time. J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS doesn’t have time for developing the new characters as anything more than stick figures that are reminiscent of the characters they are now acting alongside.
The “new” Luke Skywalker is now a woman. Instead of taking the opportunity to create and develop a rich female character, Abrams instead lowers the bar on character development across the board so that everyone is equally lacking in dimension. Is that a step forward for women in film? Not in my eyes. Yeah, like Luke Skywalker she lives on a desert planet and finds a droid that carries important information that takes her on a whole new adventure, but we know little-to-nothing about her. We’re given some slight information in a most unemotional way (this film likes to give information disguised as human interaction), but ultimately, we have no reason or way to connect with this character. All this character has to do is close her eyes and she discovers The Force. No real reason. But worse, no human consequence, no emotional or personal journey to make that discovery anything more than informational. Again.
If you’re gonna do a remake, learn from the original.
The original STAR WARS takes us directly into the life of Luke Skywalker. His family life, his yearnings, his disappointments, his lusts, desires, dreams, worries, pain, and responsibilities. And then his family and life is destroyed, violently ripped away from him.
In the new film, Luke — er, Rey — has already gone through something we are not privy to. She exists, seems moderately bored, then stumbles on a droid and the action begins. There is no reason to care about this person. She is not us. She is not anybody. Don’t get me wrong, she seems like a nice enough person, but she’s barely more than another plot point in a rehashed plot. She’s given Luke Skywalker’s broad-stroke action beats, but none of his heart or humanity. And what’s worse, she’s not even the first main character we are introduced to. That original and somewhat charismatic Han Solo-like character, Poe Dameron, goes missing early in the film only to turn up towards the end of the story as a secondary character at best. He’ll probably be the Han Solo of the next installment.
Then we follow the ridiculous escapades of a Storm Trooper with a conscience. Finn. Talk about a lack of motivation. So why does Finn turn against his supposed training (that we are not witness to)? “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Oh, well, I guess that’s enough backstory and motivation. Now back to the plot. Even when Finn loses what we can assume might have been a friend or, at the very least, a comrade, that person is just another faceless Storm Trooper to us. There is literally no human face to that character, nothing to attach to. Just another spoke in the plot mechanics. Hell, even Finn is faceless at that point. Finn’s story is never revealed in anything more than the most simplistic passing verbal reference. Insert Story Here.
The rest of the film relies on plot mechanics with no risk, nothing at stake, no drama, no real conflict. So what’s different about the story this time around besides the complete lack of characters or humanity? Well, this time the Death Star is, well… it’s bigger. WAY bigger. And big is, well, you know… better, right?
Yeah, not so much. Abrams even gives us a side-by-side comparison shot of the new “Starkiller Base” next to the old Death Star so that we can actually see just how much bigger it is. And instead of taking out one planet at a time, this Starkiller Death Star rehash can take out several at once. Are we given reason to care? Not really. We have no connection to the people on these planets and no one seems to mourn for more than half a second, so… on with the plot. We have a few more beats to retread before the credits roll.
Carrie Fisher shows up for a cameo and is not so much Princess Leia as Carrie Fisher intensely uncomfortable playing a role she clearly has no real connection to anymore. Her scenes with Harrison Ford are stilted and awkward and serve as nothing more than backstory information for the plot lazily disguised as human connection. There is no connection here outside of a sense of nostalgia that Abrams uses to do all the heavy lifting so that he and the film itself don’t have to. The result is flat, insincere, emotionless.
Our villain is, of course, a Darth Vader impersonator who wears a silly mask, not because like Vader he needs it to live, but because, well, it’s creepier and he sort of idolizes Darth Vader and wants to be like him. Underneath the mask is a handsome, little nerdy fellow that one can’t help wondering if he isn’t incessantly mocked behind his back for wearing his pathetic little maskie that makes his voice artificially dark and scary. I suppose in a world were Donald Trump can be taken as a serious presidential candidate, a guy wearing a Halloween mask year round can be taken seriously as a high-level player in the First Order. For me, he was like a bad joke from a STAR WARS parody.
The subsequent battles and light saber fights are devoid of consequence and even the death of Han Solo plays like another plot point with almost no emotional value whatsoever. Solo’s connection to his son is never seen, only told. And Kylo Ren’s connection to his dad is, well, also something we hear about peripherally, but never actually experience or share. So when the big “confrontation” happens, it has little meaning beyond, again, some sense of nostalgia we have to Han Solo that the film itself doesn’t share. The relationships here are not secondary to the plot, they are completely replaced by the plot! There are no actual relationships present in the film itself, only concepts and prototypes.
Silly lightsaber battles ensue until the ground literally splits in half between hero and villain in a guffaw-inducing moment of complete and utter ridiculousness in a film that relies far too heavily on unbelievable acts of coincidence and impossible-to-swallow timing (like Han and Chewie finding the Millennium Falcon just moments after it takes off).
So yes, they all end up blowing up the big, bad weapon with a tired battle that lacks the intricacies, emotional resonance, tension and human drama that made that same moment in the original STAR WARS so exceptional, memorable, and applause-worthy. This time around, it’s just a reminder of that other movie we’re poorly mimicking. It all seems to happen without much effort, skill or tension. As if all the players have been blowing up hundreds of these a day like workers on an assembly line long-since unconscious of their physical actions and simply working on auto-pilot as they wait for the 5 o’clock whistle or, in this case, something to explode again so they can go home.
Yes, there are some funny moments, little jokes and asides that sometimes work, sometimes don’t, but almost always feel like a crutch to try and distract the audience from the film’s total lack of storytelling capabilities or desire. And yes, this film is better than Lucas’ three “Prequels” which were abysmal and embarrassing. This contribution to the franchise rises a couple of notches above those, but is still a pale reflection of what Hollywood cinema once was.
I’m still waiting for a commentary or review that enlightens me as to how STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is anything more than just another entry into the lazy storytelling world of contemporary popular cinema. Several arguments have been made, but so far none hold water for me. The first was that since this film is a rehash of the original film’s plot, it is therefore a return to form and should be enjoyed and celebrated with equal measure. To which I reply, don’t mistake plot for story. They are not the same thing. To hit the broad strokes of another plot is not the same as telling an actual story. And that’s what is at the core of this conversation, isn’t it? The simple fact that nowadays “A-Storylines” (i.e.the plot) override and takes the place of the inner stories of the characters moving through the plot (the “B-Storyline”). It’s been said by many before me that the worst films are all about the A-Storyline and that the strongest, most enduring films are about the B-Storylines. It is this very distinction that separates the 1977 STAR WARS from its 2015 counterpart. THE FORCE AWAKENS has no B-storyline, its characters have no inner life.
Another comment thrown my way by a respected film-loving colleague was that the viewer appreciated that J.J. Abrams “rejected” all the Syd Field “character stuff.” It’s gonna take some serious work to convince me that lazy writing and a complete lack of character development is, in fact, daring structural risk-taking, a defiance of formula, or even some admirable form of genre-bending. It’s one thing to say “I liked it. I had fun.” It’s another to applaud the same lazy writing and storytelling inadequacies that plague most modern-day Hollywood films as, instead, being a groundbreaking step forward or a praise-worthy break from formula. I could understand and get on board with viewers who recognize the film’s flaws, missteps, and lack of characters, but like it anyway. For that, I have no argument. But this feels to me like attributing qualities that are not present in order to justify not being bothered by the film’s trite or superficial approach. I have not personally seen J.J. Abrams improve on a genre or a story. To me, he is the quintessential embodiment of contemporary Hollywood formula as represented here at the beginning of the 21st century. He is a one-size-fits-all filmmaker who makes the same single-layered film over and over again. He pays “homage” to the original inspiration, while consistently showing a complete lack of understanding of the nuances and life-force behind the films he is attempting to honor. Even if his heart is in the right place, he is most-definitely a well-seasoned product of his time.
And finally, it his been argued that Lucas intended the original STAR WARS to be a film for 10 year olds, so this one need do no better. But it’s the fact that STAR WARS’ perennial appeal and iconic stature is due to the undeniable reality that the film reached far beyond that of 10 year olds. At its heart, it was a story of individual journeys coming together, never losing site of the uniqueness of each story, the importance of each individual arc that completes the whole. It was an age-old story that reflected modern variations on the problems, struggles, concerns, and potential of the time in which it was made. THE FORCE AWAKENS has no time for individual stories or in reflecting anything other than a contemporary mass-desire to peer only at the surface, an anti-education and anti-intellectual movement that reduces actions and reactions to their most distractible, devoid of layered purpose or reason. It’s like a parent who always replies to their child’s question “Why?” with the same evading answer, “Because.” This STAR WARS is too busy trying to hit its plot’s broad strokes to bother with anything else. And it’s hoping no one notices. Or dares to challenge it. Or, more likely, even cares.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a film that hobbles awkwardly from one moment to the next as if by rote. J.J. Abrams has, as he did with his STAR TREK reboot and his SUPER 8 “homage,” managed to homogenize another iconic tale and its characters into that unforgivable and shamefully lazy cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all mechanized assembly line that has become contemporary Hollywood cinema. J.J. Abrams directs STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS like a lame Jedi mind-trick, manipulating audiences into believing that there is something here to hold onto, that this is a return to form.
In the words of the great Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, “Move along…”