I’ll start with two things in the hopes of staving off threats of physical harm: one, I like Star Wars; and two, The Force Awakens is an enjoyable movie. However, it’s not terribly clear or original, and yes, clarity and originality do matter, even in Star Wars.
I loved JJ Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise. The glossy update kept the charm and integrity of the original, while the young cast and original script won over a modern audience. The alternate reality timeline was a brilliant storytelling device that avoided negating (or rehashing) the original series. Not to mention, it gave Chris Pine’s James Tiberius Kirk instant pathos. It was not a distant hope to expect Abrams to come up with something equally innovative (if entirely different) to revitalize the Star Wars franchise.
Instead, as critics and fans have noted, The Force Awakens trod a well-worn path (so much so that it seems almost an insult to our collective intelligence to call any of the plot points ‘spoilers’). Many have already pointed to the ‘seven basic plots’ to defend the derivative nature of The Force Awakens, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s not the plot in general that is the same, but its details that track so closely to the original trilogy—an orphan from the desert meets a droid with information and gets swept up into an intergalactic conflict; a father and son find themselves on opposing sides; a nebulous war is underway between a powerful evil empire and an underwhelming rebel army; the climactic scene hinges on the destruction of a world-destroying weapon. This cannot be explained away by saying The Force Awakens is, in terms of the seven basic plots, a quest. If that were the case, it would have far more in common with The Lord of the Rings.
Of course there should be a struggle between light and dark sides, there should be desert worlds and scrappy rebels and budding force powers, but part of the joy of watching movies is that sometimes our expectations are met, and other times we’re surprised. From the moment we spot Rey salvaging, Finn hesitating, BB8 rolling away, or Kylo Ren being reminded of his ‘family’ we know exactly how their stories will unfold. Then, without fail, they do. We’ve already had this story, in this very universe. It can’t be that the only possibility is for an orphan to save the day and a son to kill his father.
Making a new Star Wars was a near-impossible task. The Force Awakens was supposed to be a sequel, not a reboot, and perhaps this created a conflict that couldn’t be resolved. Fans wanted to see the original characters, and Abrams wanted to make an homage to the original series, while setting up an arc to take the story forward. If we set aside the thrill of reuniting with beloved characters, settings, and sound effects, the best parts of The Force Awakens are the newest—Rey, BB8, and to a lesser extent, Poe (too little airtime) and Finn (a shade too earnest). For all her similarities to Luke, Rey was perfect, and we could have had far more of her—not as she relates to Luke/Han/Leia, but for herself. She had emotional resonance, much of it established in early scenes that lacked any dialogue. When she marvels that the universe can hold so much green as a jungle, we’re right there with her. However, when the next most relatable character is a robot, you’re either in trouble or you’re Pixar.
Star Wars has always worked hard to explain, rather than evoke, and this was the greater failing of The Force Awakens. It leaned hard on what we already knew about Star Wars to try to make us feel without putting in the effort to develop that emotion. Kylo Ren is presented as straight-up, village-slaughtering evil, yet we’re supposed to think, for a second, he could be redeemed because he’s Han and Leia’s son? Leia feels Han go out of the universe and all she manages is a slump? One Direction (sorry, First Order?) is now the evil empire and they want to what—destroy all the planets? It’s going to be difficult to breed the next patricidal black-robed villain if all that’s left are stormtroopers.
Still, I was happy to spend a few hours back in the Star Wars universe. I felt the pull of nostalgia at the sound of TIE fighters swooping across the screen and the sight of the Millennium Falcon. In the end though, that wasn’t enough. The Force Awakens missed its chance to refresh the franchise by saying anything new about the cycle of war and the spectrum of good and evil that lies at its heart. For all its fun new characters and stirring visuals, it couldn’t make me forget I’d heard this particular story before.