Probably spoilers ahead. Obviously.
After over a year of hyperbolic promotion, a decade since the last one and 32 years since ‘the last good one’, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released two weeks ago. The product of an industry titan acquiring a cultural juggernaut, and made by hundreds of people who had grown up in a world forever changed by the series, this seventh live-action feature instalment could only fail to please, surely? That certainly seems not to be the case, as it breaks into various nations’ all-time box office charts and sits comfortably with a 91% audience and 94% critic ‘fresh’ rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Despite all this though, The Force Awakens borders on an embarrassment, failing the fans on almost every possible front.
As a follow up to the original trilogy, what’s most astonishing is how the public have taken to it – it has become a cliché and is treated with mocking derision when a sequel merely takes the original and goes one louder, yet here we are. Remember the original trilogy? That farm boy who didn’t fit in? Now we have two people who don’t. Remember that whole ‘going to and escaping from an Imperial installation’ sequence? Now we have two. Remember that planet-destroying moon-sized weapon? Now we have a star system-destroying planet-sized weapon. Bigger bigger bigger, but always the same.
Remember when the falcon flips over 180 degrees so Finn’s locked weapon is facing the right way to destroy the pursuing enemy? That was good wasn’t it? It was good in Firefly, too, over a decade ago. Generally I have no qualm with references, homages, cribbing and outright ripping off. Borrowing, adapting and stealing are the sole foundational blocks of creativity. But when the rest of the film is simply a restructuring of the original trilogy, those elements which would in something more inspired serve as charming grace notes instead work to highlight how much this thing is going through the motions, only adding something new when borrowing from those very works Star Wars ushered in and inspired.
The only significant difference really is a distinct lack of wonder in this world, especially galling considering the obsession with just scaling up the content. There is utter dispassion both from its universe populace and subsequently the audience. “Here we are again”, the film seems to say, with all the inevitability and exhaustion that phrasing suggests. Any time there’s scale, grandeur, monstrous force, the filmmakers try their damnedest to cut it down – sometime literally, in this case Snokes’ mammoth size being revealed as a hologram, just after setting him up as a mysterious and almighty force. Other times potential moments of wonder are drowned at birth with glib in-jokes.
Instead what we have is nihilism-lite, a cynical depiction of a universe under yet another totalitarian regime, but even that lacks the courage of its convictions. We could perhaps, under the surface of what is essentially a rollicking screwball adventure, have a couple of observations about the galactic civil war beyond ‘pew pew pew’, ‘run away’. But why would we want that? It’s not like the central conflict is important at all, not like it’s there in the title or anything.
As Jonathan Rosenbaum has argued before me, Star Wars is the most bracingly bloodless depiction of genocide one is liable to find. Whole nations are wiped out, children are slaughtered and the most we get is lip service. Yes it’s a kid friendly film (arguably its primary demographic), but that’s not an excuse. Children aren’t stupid, and some of the most popular franchises with young audiences engage unsentimentally with the personal impact and insidious politics of war – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Narnia series are all major examples with immense fan bases.
At this point you would no doubt try to hurl counter examples from TFA at me. But when the most significant moment of the film occurred, an iconic character’s death, it just had not been earned. It came as a consequence of a long and troubled relationship that we had not been privy to; it was merely inadequately exposited to us, one of the main emotional arcs the film was leaning on. We had arrived to the party as everyone was going home. Oh well then, the emotion fell to the new characters, a serviceable if uninspired pair.
As for succeeding the prequel trilogy? After the wide leaps into unknown territory George Lucas took the franchise, this is just playing it as safe as one possibly could, save for rerunning A New Hope under a different name. Oh wait.
Of course your mileage with the prequels may vary depending on your tolerance for amphibious space rabbits going from stepping in poo to accidentally leading a senate into the hands of the Empire but you can’t deny that while misunderstanding the desires of his fans (which he was under no obligation to honour) Lucas was taking risks. Expanding the universe and doing so laterally, not just making the moon-sized gun into a planet-sized gun.
So, next to the prequels, The Force Awakens is lightweight and blinkered. This wouldn’t be fatal were it not for the fact it wasn’t exploring new material with its narrow focus, but sticking to well-worn ground. Frankly, The Force Awakens does the fans a great disservice by believing this is all it should take to please them. But then, people aren’t feeling insulted by it. In fact they’re falling over themselves to give Disney its hard-earned money. So maybe it’s all the fans deserve.
Image Sourced from ‘Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens’, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.