“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Episode VII) is an entertaining and exciting film, unusually funny for the franchise, with a few gorgeous scenes and the special effects spectacle we’ve come to expect from the “Star Wars” universe. Its frequent homages to the past six movies and familiar characters popping up around every corner in surprising ways are sure to delight “Star Wars” fans everywhere.
But I’m going to declare what 95 percent of “Star Wars” fans lauding this movie seem to be missing: This isn’t a great film. In fact, it’s not even a good one.
Before I explain why, this caveat: I’m actually a “Star Wars” fan! The first film (Episode IV), despite some poor acting and a mediocre script, is still one of the greatest films in Hollywood history. Its rich, fantasy world, revolutionary visual and audio special effects, epic sweep and iconic score overcame all its flaws to truly redefine “blockbuster” and impact the culture of a whole generation like almost no film before it. It belongs with “The Wizard of Oz” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the list of most re-watchable movies ever made.
None of those things can be said of “The Force Awakens” (except for the “mediocre script” part – that’s more true than ever).
The primary protagonist of the film, to be fair, is one of the movie’s stronger points. Actress Daisy Ridley shows both action and acting chops as a charismatic and watchable Rey, an orphan girl on a desert planet who shows not only unusual talent at mechanics and piloting, but also a startling natural affinity for using “the force” (ala Anakin Skywalker). She’s engaging enough to carry the film, but major unanswered questions – Who was her family/support system that enabled her to survive on this planet? Why is she waiting for someone? What’s her story? – leave her character tragically underdeveloped.
Yet she’s the most developed character in the whole movie!
The secondary protagonist, Finn, is a storm trooper who has a sudden pang of conscience and ditches “The First Order” white armor for a life of heroism. But alas, this redemption happens out of thin air, without any idea what leads to his conversion or why he’s suddenly become a good guy. We’re told (not shown – the film does suffer from a lot of telling us instead of showing us) Finn was taken from his parents as a child and trained and brainwashed for years to be a mindless, obedient storm trooper – and yet, poof!, he’s now a good guy defined by a code of “doing what’s right,” without any internal conflict over completely abandoning a lifetime of moral training for his angelic new one.
Worse still is the film’s villain, Kylo Ren, an emo version of Darth Vader, who we’re told (again, not shown) really, really hates his dad. But we aren’t told why. Or what happened. Or why he turned to the dark side. Or anything, really, about his past or his motivation or what makes him an interesting character. Or anything about the re-emergence of the Sith Lords, or anything about where this evil came from. He’s just bad, and mad at dad, and deal with it, a cardboard character used just to advance the plot.
But what plot?
This could have been a film about Rey’s coming of age and discovering her place in the battle between good and evil (ala Luke Skywalker in Episode IV), but it doesn’t spend enough time and detail on that storyline to make it the centerpiece. It could have been a film about the redemption of former storm trooper Finn, but that magically happens in a snap and is never dealt with again. It could have been about the rise of the new Sith lords, but it’s not. It could have been about the return of Han Solo and Princess Leia’s prodigal son, but it’s not. It could have been about reconciling Solo and Leia’s estranged relationship, but it’s not. It could have even been about finding the missing Luke Skywalker, but in one of the most blatant and textbook examples of a bad filmmaking technique called Deus ex machina, even that gets magically and inexplicably solved in a snap.
Instead, “The Force Awakens” is about the rebels blowing up another Death Star (which at least two of the previous movies have already done) … and that’s it.
In short – we have characters we really know nothing about, a villain we aren’t allowed to care about, doing stuff for no apparent reason in order to rehash a plot we’ve already seen twice. And call me cynical if they don’t just throw in the shiny baubles of the original actors from the first three films to distract “Star Wars” fans from how bad this new movie really is.
As for worldview, the absence of meaningful character development or significant plot leaves me nothing to comment upon but all the “force” gobbledygook, how it “moves through and surrounds every living thing,” how it’s “light and dark” and needs to be “balanced” – a lot of New Agey, quasi-Taoist blech. The whole “force” thing has been a part of the “Star Wars” universe from the beginning, sometimes more innocent, at other times more paralleled to Christianity, at other times more clearly pagan. This film is more pagan in its depiction.
In the final summary, for “Star Wars” geeks (and I am one), there’s lots to geek out about in “The Force Awakens.” My fellow geeks will naturally enjoy it. But I’m not just a “Star Wars” geek; I’m a story geek. And “The Force Awakens” is not a good story; it’s a prolonged homage to a story and a bridge to the next story. I just hope when Episode VIII comes out, the filmmakers will finally tell (or better yet, show) us the story.
- “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” rated PG-13, contains three minor obscenities and one profanity.
- The film has almost no sexuality, indeed less than the other films in the franchise.
- As is to be expected, however, there’s plenty of violence, as it portrays a war between an evil empire and rebel forces. Spaceship laser battles, explosions, gunfights, aliens attacking and killing people, and the fencing-like light-saber duels abound. There’s also the depiction of an entire planet of people being blown up. The violence is not gruesome or graphic, but there is a high body count.
- The movie’s only religious or occult references are its frequent allusions to “the force,” a quasi-Taoist belief system that pervades the entire “Star Wars” franchise. In Episode I, this “force” is explained as a purely natural phenomenon created by an abundant, microscopic alien species, but in this film, like many of the others, it sounds more like a pagan religion. Discerning parents will naturally want to discuss with their children the distinction between the fictitious “force” and modern religions that teach similar concepts.