Recently I saw the movie on track (or already through) to shatter every box office record it is in line for, including total worldwide and domestic box office ticket gross: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (TFA). I saw it a few days ago now, and I think I have had the necessary time to mull over the film properly and form my conclusions about it. And I’ve come up with my short answer and my long answer when people ask me what I thought of it. Short Answer: A- as a stand-alone film, B next to the rest of the series, and C+ when compared to the Expanded Universe (EU). Long Answer: well, you’re going to have to bear with me here. It’s not going to be short. Oh, and before you read any farther, THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING, both for the film and a huge chunk of the Expanded Universe, now called Legends. I repeat, THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING.
Now for the second warning I feel compelled to offer. I am a Legends Loyalist. I would like nothing better than to go back in time and convince Disney after purchasing Lucasfilm and the Star Wars rights to make movies out of the Expanded Universe. The Yuuzhan Vong War, the Dark Nest Crisis, and/or the Second Galactic Civil War all could have made excellent films in the timeframe Disney selected, and frankly they were none the worse for already existing in book form. I mean, that didn’t stop Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, did it? No, no it didn’t. I won’t pretend to know why Disney made what I believe to be a bone-headed decision that alienated the millions of hardcore fans that kept the franchise a cultural juggernaut long enough for the prequels, let alone Force Awakens, to be made, only that I believe it foolish. So when I saw Force Awakens, it had to meet the bar of the highest quality attained by the Expanded Universe, the Star Wars that I really loved, that kept me engaged, and the Star Wars I grew up in, not the films. So, if you are not a Legends Loyalist, or have never heard of the EU, I suggest when I reference such things you head over to Wookieepedia, still the Star Wars encyclopedia, starwars.com‘s futile attempt to the contrary notwithstanding, and do a little research into what you are missing out on. One final note before I dive into TFA, here is my previous article on the fate of the EU, might provide some decent context for those of you unfamiliar with my stance on the subject.
Now then, the meat and potatoes, The Force Awakens. To be honest, the film did get quite a bit right. Casting was excellent, writing was leaps and bounds away from the prequels (*cough EPISODE II ROMANCE FAILURE *cough), the action sequences were superb, the CGI top notch. As I mentioned in the introduction, as a stand-alone film, it earns an A-. It was clearly edited in a couple of places, and I don’t blame Abrams and his team, this is already a lengthy film. Kylo Ren is a powerful, intimidating villain for the majority of the piece, and a very potent adversary for the new heroes. I have no idea what the romantic pairing will be after this film, and in my book that’s a gigantic plus. (Finn and Poe are going to be the bromance to end all bromances.) It was trope-ridden, but like many of my favorite films, its success was not based on pure originality but the delivery of what it does. All of the characters felt like real people, even the new soccer-ball-with-a-head BB-8 (sorry, I like my R-series astromechs like R2-D2).
And as I said in the beginning, the film holds up to a B when compared to the other films. It certainly is the prettiest film, although when practical, I would have preferred more practical effects or more subtle CGI. (Yeah, I’m a video snob and CGI is easy to spot on a good screen with a good eye. Sue me.) Fight choreography and flight sequences were all excellent, on par with the best of the originals. I didn’t quite get how Rey overpowered Ren in the final duel, but I have only seen it once, unlike most folks seem to have. Kylo Ren also could have done without the wanton temper tantrums. Yeah, he isn’t killing minions willy-nilly like his grandfather (although Ozzel was a moron), but it also makes him much less fearsome and much more like a moody teenager, twenty-something appearance and raw personal power notwithstanding. When TFA is compared to the Original Trilogy (OT), its single biggest flaw is highlighted, rather starkly: it is a highlight reel remix of the Original Trilogy.
Find me something in this summary that isn’t a beat from the OT (hint: start mixing up the gendered pronouns, and the sequence of events): Droid with secret information is smuggled away by badass Rebel agent who is caught by incredibly Force-sensitive villain. Droid and new local companions shoot their way off the desert world, aboard a rugged, heavily modified freighter, eventually blasting through enemy starfighters in a high-stakes gun duel. (Ok, I really don’t blame them for the Falcon showing up, but it is a bit convenient.) We move forward to returning to the Rebell-, I mean Resistance, we meet wise old alien who shows a hero character her destiny. A fierce battle occurs, in which despite incredible Resistance gallantry and heroics, it can only be called a defeat, and a central hero character is taken prisoner. Captured character is rescued on a hare-brained, poorly thought out attempt by her companions, where she ends up saving their would-be rescuers. Team of commandos blows up critical infrastructure for Rebel attack, on an ice world this time instead of jungle. First lightsaber duel with bad guy, protagonist duelist gets their butt kicked, second time, the bad guy is overpowered through sheer talent and energy, mentor figure is killed for plot emotional hit, and oh yeah, a literal handful of starfighters take horrendous losses while taking out Giant Galactic Destruction Sphere Mk I/II/III.
Yeah the film has its original points. Finn’s escape with Poe from Finalizer was cool, although the superstructure of that ship made even less sense than the location of an Imperial-class ship‘s bridge. The pair of main characters were well thought out, and I did appreciate Rey’s continuing insistence that Finn didn’t need to hold her hand. The low-altitude aerial furball over Maz’s palace was also cool, if as non-sensical as Finalizer’s superstructure. (Side note: someone tell me when the tie-in explaining Poe’s escape from Jakku comes out and point me at it. I’d appreciate it.) As a remix, it did a really good job being fun and entertaining with all its new elements, but at the end of the day, all the major elements we have all seen before if we have seen the original trilogy. As I and several of my companions have pointed out, there are only a couple of plot points to actually spoil if you actually watched the original three movies. And while clearly nostalgia trip films, which this most definitely was, clearly earn money, and can be an entertaining side-line, that’s not what I signed up for with this film and that’s definitely not what Disney’s advertising campaign sold me.
The Prequel Trilogy, for all its faults, proved conclusively that a Star Wars film does not have to revolve around a Giant Destruction Sphere for an interesting and moving plot line. Sure, the Death Star showed up in Ep II and Ep III, but both sequences were little better than cameos. And this trend was continued into the Expanded Universe. Sure, the EU had its share of superweapons, the Sun Crusher, the World Devastators, the Galaxy Gun, Tarkin, etc., but the Expanded Universe made a point that the Original Trilogy did not: the superweapons were a vehicle for the plot, not the plot itself. Throughout the Expanded Universe, the tradition of the six films, character pieces in various situations and perils, were expanded upon into innumerable situations and interactions. The Expanded Universe carried the banner of the original films with glory and honor. And The Force Awakens did not live up to that tradition of excellence.
I said this above, the Star Wars I love includes the Expanded Universe as integral to the story of that setting. To me, they really are inseparable. And the Expanded Universe created characters and situations I would never have found, have never found anywhere else, in any other setting, than the unique fantasy-scifi that is Star Wars. Characters like Admiral Gilad Pellaeon, the Imperial officer that fought the entire Galactic Civil War to its end twelve years after the Battle of Endor, then had the courage to create a lasting peace with the New Republic. Characters like Wedge Antilles, the only fighter pilot to fly against both Death Stars and survive, a charismatic New Republic ace, general, and a father. Characters like Warmaster Tsavong Lah, leader of the Yuuzhan Vong extra-galactic invasion of the galaxy, a fierce and cunning warrior, and an enemy the likes of which exists nowhere else in Star Wars lore. All these and more fascinating people are interwoven into an engaging galactic history, filled with exciting events and engaging mysteries. We follow the New Republic through the rise of Admiral Thrawn, and his assault on the fledgling New Republic. We see the return of Emperor Palpatine through cloning, and the release of the World Devastators. In the Black Fleet Crisis, the Yevetha present their own unique challenge, even as Luke searches for the history of his mother. Then the Yuuzhan Vong Invasion rocks the galaxy, sweeping through half of the inhabited worlds, and terraforming among others Coruscant, changing forever the landscape of the galaxy. All of these stories and more are the EU, and they are Star Wars.
Now, to be fair, Star Wars: The Force Awakens does well enough on the character count. Rey, Finn, and Poe are all equals to many of the characters from the Expanded Universe. Kylo Ren is an acceptable mashup of Vader, Kyp Durron, and Jacen Solo/Darth Caedus. (Thought the idea of a Solo evil Jedi was new? Sorry to burst your bubble.) But their movie does them no credit. It is a reboot in all but name. With the destruction of the New Republic capital world, and apparently the entire New Republic fleet (really?), by Starkiller Base, we find ourselves in the exact same position as the end of Episode IV: the Rebellion/Resistance has struck an incredible blow by destroying a Giant Destruction Sphere, but without the backing of a galactic government, is hopelessly outmatched by the regrouping forces of fascism in the galaxy. (I’m not even going to bring up the gross violation of physics that happened in that scene with Hosnian Prime. Hello Lightspeed? This is JJ Abrams. Go to Hell. *Click*)
I really liked the characters, and TFA brought up many incredible ideas I would have loved to explore. The idea of a proxy war between the Republic and the Imperial Remnant/First Order via the Resistance could have been incredibly original and unique, a very cool way to take and twist the tenants of the original films. But it was not to be. The Force Awakens was a very safe film, focusing on the nostalgia trip through the Original Trilogy. And I understand why Disney chose that particular route, given the general distaste within most of the fan base for the Prequel Trilogy. However, I am firmly of the opinion that they erred too far on the side of caution, and gave me a film I’ve already seen in another form. In light of the EU, that frankly isn’t enough for me. This film could have been so much more, and knowing that, having seen what it could have been, I can’t accept it as is.
Clearly this was a successful model monetarily, and I know a good many people who loved the film. And to be perfectly fair and clear, I did enjoy the film. It is a well-made, well-executed film. Go see it. You’ll enjoy it as a movie, I’m quite sure. But for me, the film failed. It took the parts that succeeded in the original films, with no apparent understanding of why they worked in the originals, and mashed them back together in a remix, relying on familiarity and the talent of new lead actors to carry it through. It’s the same model JJ Abrams used with the Star Trek reboot, a film I enjoyed quite a bit. More to the point, it’s a model that worked by the numbers. If Disney hired him to pull Star Trek again with Star Wars, he succeeded fantastically, and Disney made an excellent choice of director. However, to me, The Force Awakens failed the only test it was up for. Was it a Star Wars entry? Did it meet the traditions of fantastic characters, on amazing, original, well-executed original adventures? Did it earn its name, STAR WARS? My answer is no, and it pains me to tar it with that brush. I hold out hope for Episodes VIII and IX, but Episode VII failed.
As always, thanks for reading and feel free to comment below and share away. May the Force be with you all. – GP