If we judge the new “Star Wars” movie strictly within the context of the franchise, we’d give it a score that’s higher than the one we’d assign if critiquing the film on its merits.
As part of the franchise, it was pretty good, mostly because of the appealing “Star Wars” aesthetic, Adam Driver’s performance as the troubled villain Kylo Ren, and Daisy Ridley’s turn as the new hero.
But if we set aside for a moment the history, the baggage, all that we know and like and hate about the first two trilogies, and consider “The Force Awakens” independently, we should probably admit that the movie was, well, just OK.
This is probably because director J.J. Abrams was caught between two rocks and two hard places. He had to appease die-hard fans and appeal to the new generation of moviegoers. And he had to adhere adequately to the general plot and interstellar environment established by the first six films, yet introduce enough new elements to ensure audiences didn’t merely experience a lot of deja vu.
In a sense, then, it was a no-win situation.
When the first of the “Star Wars” movies appeared in 1977, it thrilled audiences precisely because it was so revolutionary. The 1970s was, in certain ways, a terrific decade for Hollywood, which produced a slew of gritty and exciting films such as “Taxi Driver, “The Godfather” and “All the President’s Men.”
When the Jedi knights, Darth Vader and that cowboy Han Solo burst onto the screen, audiences suddenly were confronted with a new kind of very old storytelling, a space opera, a grand myth. Everything about the experience was thrilling, and we didn’t mind that the dialogue sometimes could be cheesy or the alien creatures a bit goofy. The epic adventure provided an unusual and enthralling form of escapism from recession, gas shortages, Middle East conflict and Cold War animosity. Never mind our earthly troubles; we could lose ourselves in the intense drama of this galaxy far, far away.
But Abrams’ “Star Wars” comes after we’ve become accustomed to huge Hollywood blockbusters selling escapism and special effects. We’ve seen all the Marvel movies and disaster flicks and Star Trek remakes. Big ships and exploding Death Stars cannot impress us the way they once did.
The only other option for the filmmaker, then, is to scrap the archetypes (reluctant hero, brilliant pilot, turncoat, evil villain in the service of a master, wise mentor) and old plot formulas (hero’s journey, good vs. evil) and go for something fresh, a more invigorating kind of storytelling. But that would mean to abandon what “Star Wars” fans love.
And it would threaten to topple a multifaceted enterprise at just the moment Disney paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm. Well, that’s not an option. So we get, in the end, a movie that plays it safe, that necessarily keeps within its commercial boundaries.
And therefore no goosebumps. No chills. No accelerated pulse rate. We know what will happen long before it does. We know that young Rey will embrace her destiny, that the masked Kylo Ren is someone’s son and still has a sliver of light in him, that one of the characters will play the role of the sacrificial lamb, that the battle will be won and the new Death Star will be destroyed, but that the war will rage on.
We know that, to keep us hooked and ready to buy tickets to episodes VIII and IX, certain key questions purposefully will be left unanswered, such as Rey’s and Finn’s parentage, the manner in which Kylo Ren’s redemption will be realized, the mystery of the dismembered map and why C-3PO has one red arm.
So be it. Yet these mysteries fail to engage our curiosity as intensely as they might, perhaps because we know they will eventually be resolved in predictable ways. After all, there is a formula with which to comply.
“The Force Awakens” hews closely to the first of the movies, “A New Hope,” with many of the same proto-characters and much the same narrative arc. Whereas the older film was rough around its edges because of the intensive manual labor involved in making it, this movie is slick. Too slick. The action unfolds in a rush, and the glitches and inconsistencies are few. The pace struck me as a little off: each plot development follows logically and quickly from the previous one. Rey learns to fly the mechanically compromised Millennium Falcon (which conveniently starts right up after years of disuse) with ease. Han Solo turns up at just the right moment. The planetary system housing the Resistance is obliterated unceremoniously. The only moment someone feels a disturbance in the Force is ... well, I won’t give it away.
Suffice it to say that it’s all too pat. And it fails to provide us with a glimpse of the characters’ inner turmoil. We see angst and stress on their faces, but we know little of their emotional lives.
“Search your feelings,” Darth Vader told Luke Skywalker, a plea repeated in various forms throughout the first six films. Feelings were important. They determined to which side of the Force one gravitated. They could be harnessed for good or exploited for evil. One could, within limits, shape one’s destiny.
In the new movie, feelings take a back seat to action. Destiny seems imperturbable. And we don’t wonder whether or how Rey might be corrupted.
Of course, it’s impossible to employ a standard myth narrative, such as the hero’s journey, and throw in a twist, say, kill the hero, or cause her to fail. So Abrams is stuck with the predictable and inevitable. He’s also stuck with an already-defined space adventure milieu, so he can’t change that up either.
Finally, he’s stuck with a commercial obligation that takes precedence over everything else. Failure, Disney mandates, is not an option.
What we’re given, then, is an adequate, if ultimately unimpressive, Hollywood rendering of a favorite movie realm. It succeeds in transporting us to this faraway galaxy of long ago, but it doesn’t grab us by the throat like Darth Vader and fling us about with any force.