I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens this weekend after carefully navigating around family and friends who had seen it before me. I know there will be plenty of reviews of this film, and the box office has already confirmed it a commercial success. For many this film is already redefining what Star Wars is all about. And I suppose that is why I feel compelled to write even if my review may be unpopular.
Let me begin by saying that I have typically been a fan of J. J. Abrams. I thought Alias had its moments, and I appreciated Abrams' influence on both LOST and Fringe--though I know it was Lindelof and Cuse and then Pinkner and Wyman, respectively, who really made those shows great. I have appreciated Abrams' take on Mission Impossible and mostly liked his re-boot of Star Trek (though I do have some issues with those films). When I heard that he would be the one helming the first Star Wars film out of Lucas' hands, I was mostly hopeful, and I eagerly entered the theater along with many others.
Halfway through the film, I realized I was not connecting to it, and I tried to define what it was that I didn't like. But before I go there, let me be clear about what I liked:
(1) John Williams' score - There is no question my favorite part of the movie was John Williams' music. It is such a delight to see him return to this material. Williams does a much more effective job of blending the tradition with the reboot than the rest of the film does. Rey's theme is a particular highlight of the score, and nostalgia did surface with the glimmer of themes from Empire Strikes Back, my favorite score of all time. It was a bitter pill to take Star Wars without George Lucas; I can't imagine this franchise without John Williams.
(2) Rey - Although, to some degree, her character fits in with the current trend to populate science fiction with teenage girls, Daisy Ridley's performance is one of the clear highlights of the film. She gives her character an infectious energy that makes her scenes some of the most enjoyable of the story. The Star Wars saga needed a more active female lead, and Ridley's performance does give me some hope about the future of the franchise.
(3) Finn - I was pleasantly surprised by John Boyega's work on Finn. 24: Live Another Day did not give him much to work with, but the character of Finn gives him a chance to branch out, and he obviously has fun with the role. I enjoyed the ex-stormtrooper angle and how he stumbles into a series of important relationships.
(4) BB-8 - Although this droid is an all-too-obvious replacement for R2-D2, Abrams is successful in giving it Wall-E-type emotions. I do like the design of the droid, and its interaction with the other characters.
Because I liked these parts, I regret to list the things I did not like, but these ultimately prevented me from fully embracing this re-boot:
(1) Remake Repetition - So Abrams believes a Star Wars movie needs stormtroopers chasing a rogue droid on a desert planet, a newbie shooting tie fighters with the Falcon's guns, a Cantina filled with a motley assortment of aliens, a cadaverous old man as the ultimate villain, a lesser villain who is dressed in black and has a helmet, a diminutive alien who has a secret knowledge of the past, a planet-destroying weapon which the rebels blow up in a final battle. A number of people have bashed the Prequel Trilogy, but at least those films moved some away from this formula which we saw in Star Wars and The Return of the Jedi. I don't think this film should have been so shouldered with rehashing those elements, particularly when they were better done in the originals.
(2) Kylo Ren - Star Wars has had a series of memorable villains--from Darth Vader to the Emperor to Darth Maul to Darth Sidious to General Grievous. I do not think that Ren has any stature in comparison to these earlier ones. If people once complained that Anakin came across as a petulant, whiney teenager in Attack of the Clones, they had not yet seen Ren. I understand his family connections and how Abrams wanted to show a struggle within him, but the scenes that display his "temper" and "division" did not create any sense of an imposing figure. Perhaps Abrams wanted to portray evil as something petty, but the "controversial scene" (no spoilers) comes off about as well as Anakin's sudden decision to turn on Mace Windu (and then go into the Jedi Temple and kill the younglings).
(3) Lack of depth in characterization and mythology - Abrams has always been known for action, and Star Wars has had its share of great action sequences, so this seemed to be a great match. However, the original films also left us with great characterizations (even if the acting sometimes was a little rough) since Lucas had studied archetypes (in the theory of Joseph Campbell and others). There's a great bit of running, flying, and blowing things up in this new film, and many of the scenes are fun, but I did not feel that there was enough significant dialogue to add depth to the story--to compensate for the overall campy tone.
(4) Lack of teacher-student relationship - And in the original films much of the depth showed up in teacher-student relationships: Obi-Wan and Luke, Yoda and Luke, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan and Anakin. Yes, I realize these relationships are based off the Jedi order and this film presents a world without Jedi, but if you are going to follow all those other tropes above, then why not one of these. It looked like Abrams placed Han in this role (and Maz Kanata for an all too brief moment), but the presentation of Han does not allow this depth.
(5) The handling of iconic characters and the "controversial scene" - As I said above, I liked many of the new characters (except for the host of villains), but I did not like the handling of iconic characters. I suppose I am most dissatisfied with the treatment of Han and Leia. I know that Han is the epitome of a playful scoundrel, that he plays things "fast and loose" (not too far from Indiana Jones), but the portrait here is all too close to parody. Chewbacca was the one that came off most like the original. Even C-3PO comes off a little stiff. The story eventually stumbles into a "climactic" scene that I hope a number of people found "controversial"--it was not poignant or shocking. I was irritated and saw it as metaphor for my own experience with the movie (the Oedipal complex).
So after confessing my disappointment and alienating myself from all the people who fell in love with the movie, I propose that the film instead should have been an adventure quest to find Luke Skywalker, with Rey and Finn on an arduous journey, uncovering clues to the recent past along the way--and stormtroopers could still have been chasing them!
I am glad I saw Abrams' version. Fundamentally, Lucas' work was a tough act to follow (I would not have wanted to attempt it), and many will think Abrams has recaptured the magic. I'm hoping the next installment will get better and that maybe Abrams will go back and read Joseph Campbell, like Lucas did, and reconsider the power of mythological storytelling. So when you go back to see the movie a second time, I'll just go home and listen to John Williams' score again--turned up nice and loud!