**SPOILER FREE PORTION**
As I walked into Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I resolved to throw popcorn at the screen if:
- There was no famous word “crawl” at the beginning.
- Chewbacca died.
- Either Jar-Jar Binks, “Force Ghost” Anakin, or an Ewok appeared.
Beyond that, my expectations were low, but as John Williams’ timeless chords poured over the starlit screen, I smiled, looked at my son, Caleb, and felt good. It was, unmistakably, Star Wars. Nostalgia, like the Force, flows in and through this film and binds it together. For many, that fleeting filament is sufficient to float happily through the two-hour blend of old and new faces. For me, it was not. The Force Awakens is interesting and entertaining, but only in the sense that Seinfeld reruns still make me laugh. This film is as much a remake as a sequel.
The story opens by introducing and blending together the new characters. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are mostly strong and well-acted, even if they are Star Wars staples. Rey is a struggling “orphan” on a remote world who is afraid to dream of bigger things. Poe is a hot-shot pilot with a sharp tongue, and Kylo is a force-blessed young adult choosing, it seems, the darker path of the force. Finn, in a way, is the only “new” character. He is a Stormtrooper with a conscience, quietly challenging immoral orders in the name of the First Order, a new power that has cobbled together the remnants of the Empire.
Old faces also make appearances, with one of them earning top billing. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) becomes, surprisingly, the hinge of the story, which I did not expect. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has limited screen time in her new role as General Organa, a leader in the Resistance to the First Order. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is Han’s aging wing-wookie. To say anything of Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) appearance would spoil a major plot point, but his character is pivotal to the story.
On balance, the younger actors are sharper and stronger. Daisy Ridley’s Rey may be the best fusion of character and actor. She seems destined to grow into the franchise’s spine, which will work if the team around Star Wars can rediscover some plot creativity.
Abrams, in spite of a dimming spark, knows how to move, and not move, a camera. The action scenes are well-crafted and the flying sequences are the best in the history of the series. Style abounds and some of the compositions are striking. To see tie fighters race on a pumpkin-hued solar backdrop is to know this genre can be beautifully captured.
The plot disappoints most and nearly robs the film of any credibility. Does this sound familiar? A down on his/her luck, desert-planet dweller gets swooped into a conspiracy in the form of a droid carrying secret electronic data that is vital to the Resistance/Rebellion, so the droid must be delivered in spite of great, space-based peril. In the interim, the Empire/First Order has built a super weapon (Death Star/Starkiller) that threatens entire planets/systems with unknown destructive power. Fortunately, a weakness has been found, but it can only be exploited if a small group can shut down the shields, thereby allowing the “against all odds” attack by a small fleet of gutsy, outnumbered pilots. Oh, also, there is a father/son struggle of identity, and someone might be turned to the dark/light side.
Star Wars was fresh. Empire Strikes Back was ominous. Return of the Jedi was largely derivative of Star Wars and was plagued by Ewoks. The Force Awakens essentially steals the same plot, and only varies by climate, location, and personality. It seems the galaxy, from a long time ago, and in a place far, far away, has but one plot, destined to be repeated again and again, like karma with marketing and merchandising attached.
J.J. Abrams was chosen, for some reason, to helm the seventh film in the iconic series, and with that selection, the game was up, the hand was tipped, and the future was set. Abrams was given a blank canvas that was already framed, a well-known palette, and finely hewn brushes. An artist can use familiar elements to produce a masterpiece, but here Abrams instead chooses to paint by numbers, to follow the path of the past, pausing only long enough to add an occasional flourish of excess. J.J. Abrams played it safe. Instead of awakening the force, I wish Abrams, and our entertainment overlords, Walt Disney, had resurrected creativity and originality.
The most frustrating part of this, at least for me, is that the pieces are present for a spectacular film. The directing and cinematography are stellar, the acting is more than solid, and the new characters are a breath of fresh air. But to take these strengths, and strain them through a repetitive plot like this one is simply a failure of imagination. Abrams and Co. could have achieved all of their objectives–new characters, new villain, new family dynamic, new conflict–while still creating a new storyline. Just so we are clear, there are ways to generate dramatic tension and action while not utilizing an intergalactic space station of varying sizes and power.
Yes, one other thing. It seems the tech in Star Wars is pretty top-notch. You know, light-sabers, blasters, light speed travel, shields, and all of that stuff. In spite of this, there seems to be no ability to either copy or send electronic information in any way other than by physically storing it in a droid or on a physical chip. There is nothing like an email or a cloud system where a file named “Map to Luke” might be uploaded, downloaded, linked to, or just put into multiple flash drives. Nope, that stuff does not happen in Star Wars. After all, if it did, the plot gets meaningless pretty fast, right?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is fun, but it lacks, severely, originality and imagination, two ingredients that should be mandatory for this universe.
Grade: 1/3 Eggheads