You can’t really call Star Wars Episode VII– The Force Awakens a bad film with a straight face. The script is entirely serviceable with few logical inconsistencies or plot holes. Almost every character is well-established (Captain Phasma notwithstanding), and the performances are certainly on par with the original trilogy (especially with regards to the leads). Thematically, this is nothing that surprises us: it is the Light side vs. the Dark side, an allegorical simplification of the struggle between good and evil. But, from the get-go, there is a haunting echo: this doesn’t merely remind of the original trilogy, it outright pilfers its structure in hopes of re-capturing its magic. As plotpoint after familiar plotpoint falls into place, it becomes clear that this new trilogy is just calculated nostalgia.
Don’t believe me? Recall the bare-bones plot of Episode IV: A New Hope. A rebel alliance member hides secret plans in a droid which wanders around a desert planet before meeting a Force-sensitive young adult. Pursued by the Empire, the droid and its compatriots enlist smuggler Han Solo to transport the crew to the Rebel Alliance, but are captured and must escape the Death Star, which has destroyed a peaceful planet. Upon escape, they discover the secret to destroying the Death Star and do so during a rousing space battle.
How about Episode VII? A Resistance member hides a secret map in a droid which wanders around a desert planet before meeting a Force-sensitive young adult. Pursued by The First Order, the droid and its compatriots escape the planet and are captured by smuggler Han Solo, who takes them to a neutral planet where they are accosted by the First Order. Upon rescue by the Resistance, the StarKiller destroys five planets and they discover a secret to destroying it and do so during a rousing space battle.
Obviously, there’s more nuance than that, but you have to balk at how heavily the filmmakers borrow from the original story, especially since there are multiple instances of fan service throughout the proceedings. Easter eggs and in-jokes abound, and they all feel like shoe-horned detriments to the story at hand. Hence there is a feeling that the team behind The Force Awakens were not interested in telling a new story, just a serviceable one. And a familiar one, because the familiar is safe.
And that’s a real shame. Almost every newly-established character is introduced and performed beautifully. Oscar Issac appears sparingly as the smarmy X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron, but is always a treat. Fin (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisey Ridley) are the best parts of the movie and the true future of this franchise, if the creatives behind the scene let them do something original. Even Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a different kind of Dark Side character: a punching-above-his-weight poseur who actually yearns for the power of the Dark Side (but always falls short). His journey should be interesting regardless, as his type of character has simply never existed before in Star Wars.
In fact, the returning characters are the biggest bores of the film. Carrie Fisher is clearly unpracticed as an actress, and her scenes with Harrison Ford as Han Solo are as groan-inducing as the most offensive scenes from the prequels. (Okay, maybe not as bad as Anakin’s, “Sand” soliloquy, but they’re still bad). C3PO does literally nothing and could easily have been omitted, and the inclusion of R2D2 was more confusing than anything. Han and Chewbacca are about 50/50 in their scenes, as if Harrison Ford was just not into acting on some of the shooting days, but overall I think they are a positive.
But, by far the biggest mistake was to make a bigger, badder Death Star – the calamity known as the Star Killer. First, in an echo of Alderaan, the Star Killer fires its weapon and destroys five planets in the blink of an eye. It is not only the “biggerer = betterer” mode of thinking that fails here, but the execution of the scene. When Alderaan bit the big one, it was in the presence of Princess Leia, and the result was felt by Obi-Wan. It was well-established that Alderaan was peaceful, and thus its wanton destruction was a symbol of the abject evil of the Galactic Empire. In The Force Awakens, we don’t even know the names of the planets being destroyed. Neither Leia nor Rey (both force-sensitives) are shown reeling from the death of billions, and there is zero fallout or mention of the massacre ever again. The inclusion of a Mega Death Star was 100% a mistake.
Well, what else were they supposed to do, you say? The First Order needed to be feared in order to force the hand of the Resistance, so how does that happen besides a gigantic death ray? How about this: the First Order is known as a threat, but is generally under-estimated by the Resistance. The fleet is in check, and the Dark Side users are limited. The entirety of the “Skywalker Map” plot point can continue unchanged, as each side would still be interested in finding Luke under these circumstances. But, in place of the Star Killer, a different calamity unfolds. Once Leia and the rest of the Resistance rescue Han and Co. from Takodana (the forest planet where they find Luke’s lightsaber), we get a montage of assassinations. The First Order has placed deep-cover agents in the service of numerous ruling members of Republic worlds, and we rapidly see dozens of ruling members assassinated, disrupting the local governments.
We learn that we have only seen a small number of these – in the end, hundreds of ruling members have been assassinated by First Order operatives all over the galaxy under the instruction of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). In order to calm the multitude of systems terrorized by these actions, the Resistance must hunt down and capture Hux aboard his Star Destroyer, which is where Rey is being held. Thus, instead of a third assault on a planet-sized space station, we get our first assault on an actual Star Destroyer, complete with boarding and running through the ship attempting to capture Hux to make him answer for his crimes. Kylo Ren can still kill Han Solo, and Fin and Rey can fight him with Luke’s lightsaber, and basically everything can work the same way. But now, the intimation is that the First Order is full of subterfuge and ruthlessness, not that they are a lazy Nazi proxy with endless technological powers – which is much more concerning. Thus, after Hux escapes capture, the Resistance has a truly pressing need to follow the Skywalker Map to Luke, and Rey’s journey to find Luke doesn’t feel like an addendum, but can be a crucial continuation of the story.
Look, I am not a screenwriter, but I recognize when I am being told the same story in order to bootstrap commercial success. This is the case for The Force Awakens. The filmmakers were never interested in telling an interesting new story, they were interested in introducing new characters into an old story – and that’s precisely what they have done. Fin is fascinating as the very first stormtrooper who isn’t a faceless nobody, but someone seeking redemption. Rey is great as a reluctant, aimless force-sensitive person, and her journey is incredibly promising. And even Kylo Ren’s relationship with the Dark Side is refreshing: he isn’t being tempted, he’s a Dark Side sycophant who falls short of the power he so sorely desires. But, besides these interesting characters, The Force Awakens plays everything safe and does its very best to stray from the original trilogy as little as possible. Some will justify this appropriation by saying that the result was still pleasant, but one should never actively cheer a redux, especially when so much more was possible.
The Force Awakens will never anger like the prequels did, it’s too well-made. But after we’re removed from the initial hype, we’ll be disappointed that it didn’t do more and was content simply regurgitating the same old stories.