It’s Star Wars so it has open with the trademark slow text crawl. I’m okay with that even though I’m bored of it after six movies and innumerable videogames. Next comes a long, tracking shot of the familiar wedge shape of a Star Destroyer, except from a novel angle. Homage. I’m down with that. But when we see Max von Sydow wearing clothes that make him suspiciously resemble Alec Guinness and the McGuffin being hidden in this iteration’s version of the lovable droid, I start cringing. Long before it recreates the cantina scene, to seek transportation to boot, or show the shadowy, disfigured behind-the-scenes big bad via hologram, I’ve realized this isn’t so much a continuation of the original trilogy as a beat-for-beat remake.
This is obviously the biggest film of the year and it was always a given that it would be a massive success. I am however surprised that film critics have given it such unalloyed praise. At the time of writing it has a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Among the tiny minority who demur runs the common complaint that this is essentially the same movie as A New Hope. It’s actually kind of disgusting how slavishly The Force Awakens tries to replicate the original film down to the tiniest detail. There’s no other reason to have Rey grow up on a desert planet or to ensure that Kylo Ren has a rival that is a direct analogue of Grand Moff Tarkin. J.J. Abrams seems to be cynically saying, “Since you all liked the original so such and hated the prequels here’s the first movie all over again, except with updated characters and effects.”
It does have to be said that even if it’s a copy of the original, the execution is at least pitch perfect. Going back to using real physical sets and practical effects gives the action scenes the kind of heft that was lost in the CGI-infested sequels. I even appreciated how grounded the lightsaber duels looked. But far and away the best thing about this movie is that its updated characters are really quite good. None of the new cast members are great actors but they’re still better than anyone in the original barring Harrison Ford. Rey and Finn have real chemistry together, with the scene of them being deliriously exhilarated after their first fight on the Falcon being a great example. My wife didn’t think much of Kylo Ren but I found him to be a very interesting character. I loved that he really is supposed to be insecure, emo-ridden try-hard rather of just accidentally coming across as one as Anakin Skywalker did in the prequels.
This doesn’t change the fact that The Force Awakens is a remake with a recycled plot and is crammed full of callbacks. At some point, surely homage turns into farce. How many times do we see need to see a Death Star being blown up anyway? But after discussing it with the other posters at Broken Forum who almost uniformly loved it, I do acknowledge that they have a point. Star Wars was always a franchise that was mainly meant for children anyway and indeed the strongest emotional reaction among adults were those who watched this with their own children. For this audience at least, the fact that this is a remake doesn’t really matter and may even be a point in its favor as a emotional connection that crosses the generations. The kids today can hardly be expected to have watched a movie that is now over 35 years old. Another poster pointed out that updating a classic action movie with a more diverse cast, arguably better dialogue and unquestionably better effects may well be a worthy endeavor in its own right.
For my part however my enjoyment of this movie is severely curtailed by the fact that I can’t help but notice in almost every other scene that I’ve seen this before. There aren’t even any new starship or starfighter designs to ogle over and the new music doesn’t leave much of an impression. Worse, the film pretty much does what I expect each and every time, telegraphing everything so far in advance that there is zero sense of tension. On a more meta level, I really can’t condone such a cynical form of film-making and refuse to believe that it is impossible to make a new and good Star Wars film, updated to modern sensibilities, without completely copying the old ones. If Mad Max could do it, then Star Wars shouldn’t be held to any lower a standard. Plus I’m not forgetting that this film is riddled with the usual Abrams lack of respect for scientific and plot plausibility, such as near instantaneous hyperspace travel and how Han Solo knew to show up when he did.
It’s possible that to wash away the awfulness of the prequel trilogy, Disney felt that it was necessary to convince everyone once and for all that this is the old Star Wars that they knew and loved. As such they went out of their way to channel the originals as much as possible. Now that they’re successfully cleared the palate maybe they’ll have the creative room to make something truly new. That’s what I hope for but judging by how this one ends there’s a distinct possibility that the next one might yet be a transparent remake of The Empire Strikes Back.