A Few Thoughts on Episode VII
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
I think it’s fair to say that The Force Awakens is probably the best Star Wars movie we could have hoped to see from JJ Abrams. That is, it’s a competent, entertaining film that plays it safe, hitting familiar beats intended to please fans, while managing to avoid committing any grievous errors. However, the cost of playing it safe is that it doesn’t take any real risks, doesn’t add anything truly new to the saga. There’s a fine line between parallel storytelling and merely retreading old ground that has already been explored in a previous film or six.
At times this is taken to an extreme; there’s something deeply disappointing about finding out that after everything that they’ve been through, Han and Chewie are basically back to where they started in A New Hope. The First Order is essentially a fledgling version of the Empire, just with marginally different uniforms. Even their leader, seen only as a giant-sized hologram (or perhaps he is actually giant-sized – that would be different!) shares many similarities with the Emperor, both visually and in his role in the story. This time around, instead of a Death Star, we have… a Starkiller. As the film explains, there’s really no comparison between the two; you see, the Starkiller is much, MUCH bigger than a Death Star. Like, forget moons, this thing’s as big as an entire planet even! Oh, and it’s so enormously powerful that it can blow up FIVE planets at once. Let’s see your puny little Death Star do THAT! Even Kylo Ren, who begins as a powerful, intimidating presence, falls victim to retreading and more or less degenerates into a petulant brat with anger-management issues by the end of the movie, evoking the worst characteristics of his grandfather. And by “worst characteristics” I don’t mean moral failings that help create a compelling villain who we can empathize with on some level; I mean characteristics that make us want to roll our eyes. Perhaps this was Abrams throwing a bone to the people out there who genuinely enjoy the prequels and the spectacle of an angst-ridden Anakin Skywalker.
“Virtuoso” is the word that comes to mind for a one-word description of JJ Abrams as a director; there is no doubt that he possesses a high degree of technical ability and talent. And while I don’t think any of his work is bad, I have never experienced any of it as rising above the level of technical excellence to qualify as a true artistic achievement, or which at least manages to be profound on some level. It’s the difference between a twelve-year-old hitting the correct buttons to bang out “Through the Fire and Flames” on Guitar Hero and Herman Li and Sam Totman pouring their hearts into shredding their solos.
With The Force Awakens, Abrams seems to be taking a page from his second movie from that other immensely popular sci-fi series. The Kirk-Kahn story arc was fantastic; what could possibly have been gained by trying to retell it in a slightly different way – furthermore, retelling it without the strength of the existing relationship between Kirk and Kahn providing backstory and depth for The Wrath of Khan? Seriously, if you’re going to reboot the original Star Trek with a new continuity and timeline, why squander the opportunity to go in new directions and tell new stories? I can’t help but wonder if some of this is what was going on in The Force Awakens; homages are fine, even expected even in a movie like this, but for the love of the Force, give us something more interesting than a lightsaber with a cross-guard.
I realize that my opinion of The Force Awakens is probably coming across as overly negative. While I did find some of callbacks and references to the previous movies to be too much at times, the truth is that I actually did quite enjoy it and I think that it’s a pretty good movie overall – good, not great, but not just good in comparison to the prequels, but pretty good judged on its own merits. I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan, but any criticism I have of this film is based on a love for Star Wars and a desire to see future movies be great movies.
Perhaps this is what the saga needed at this point: a well-made, entertaining, movie that showed, after the disappointment of the prequels, that it’s still possible to make a Star Wars that’s fun and which recaptures some of the excitement and adventure of the originals; a movie to restore the faith of the die-hard fans, and have a broad enough appeal for those who aren’t die-hard fans, setting up for a glorious second act from Rian Johnson, with some people speculating that Episode VIII will be the Empire Strikes Back of this new trilogy. If this was one of the driving intents behind The Force Awakens, then it meant this film would have to play it safe, hitting the notes that fans were expecting, but not venturing too far into unknown territory. At the risk of damning with faint praise, if this is indeed the case, then there was perhaps no better director for this film than JJ Abrams.