On the opening night screening of The Force Awakens, every seat is occupied well before show time. Many in the audience proudly don Star Wars t-shirts (but not the Vader masks, light sabers and blasters, which have been banned due to security concerns). The energy spills over to the previews; even average-looking animated comedies are greeted with laughs and cheers.
And then it arrives: the famous yellow title. The howling blast of the trumpets. The bold, mythic crawl, which has the plot rolling even before the opening shot (another of George Lucas' brilliant innovations from his original trilogy).
So why then, two hours later, do I feel deflated? Here was an opportunity missed to do something new, to expand the narrative arsenal of this rich universe. But while the Force Awakens is a manic light-and-sound show, it’s not a great movie. Not even close.
First, the good. Harrison Ford is back, all gnarly gravitas and surprising energy. The movie is, in places, genuinely funny. BB8 (the “new” R2D2) is irresistible as this iteration’s robot-puppy.
And oh, the look of the thing!
In reviving Star Wars, director JJ Abrams – who previously revived the Star Trek franchise – has proven himself expert in excavating the sights and sounds of these universes. In The Force Awakens, he shows masterful command of the cinematic vocabulary of the original trilogy. As the Millennium Falcon streaks across the desert, past the ruins of a downed Star Destroyer, pursued by a pair of TIE Fighters, the sinister breathy roar of their engines ignites a million childhood memories. There’s little to do except gasp in admiration.
But then, as the breath is caught and the brain reengaged, the logic of the scene falls apart: why did the evil First Order (otherwise known as the next-generation Galactic Empire) send only two TIE Fighters from their vast fleet to pursue new heroes Rey and Finn – targets they believe vital to achieving their major objective? And how have Rey, a scavenger, and Finn, a former Stormtrooper, almost instantaneously acquired advanced piloting skills? And how did the TIE fighters know precisely where on the planet to look for them?
To distract the audience from the incoherence of the script, the movie permits only the most minuscule of gaps between action sequences. As for the plot itself – well, we soon realize that it’s Star Wars Episode IV, take two.
It’s a problem that appears in each of JJ Abrams’ recent science fiction movies, with The Force Awakens roughly on par with Star Trek (2009) and marginally superior to Into Darkness (2013). Abrams seems to trust only the kinetic: the constant running, jumping, flying, shooting, exploding. It’s thrilling at first – all these sights and sounds from our collective pasts, gleaming and fast and beautiful and supercharged – but it quickly becomes exhausting.
In The Force Awakens, there is an absence of restraint, accompanied by misplaced priorities. When Abrams hits upon a moment of character development or emotional grace, it’s instantly drowned out by an explosion from a blaster, a screaming alarm or the roar of a giant tentacled monster. We find ourselves careening forward, again, on action alone.
What gives me most pause about Abrams' sensibilities is his insistence on replaying iconic scenes and plot points from earlier movies. For some, this is homage.
For me, it’s cheap.
Star Trek fans had recoiled from the crass reshoot of The Wrath of Khan (1982) that was Into Darkness. Now Star Wars fans get in The Force Awakens what is, at times, a shot-for-shot remake of A New Hope (1977). Justly maligned as George Lucas' prequels were, at least they tried to do something different by chronicling the downfall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire (albeit in a plodding, incoherent way).
Here, instead of moving the saga of Star Wars forward, Abrams has retold the same old tale of family drama, fallen sons, light and dark, tyranny and rebellion.
It’s a good story and Lucas told it well. But why do it all over again?
To be clear, this movie is a good time, a sugar high. It’ll garner positive reviews on its mix of nostalgia and adrenaline and visual accomplishment. But it’s weighted down by Abrams’ now well-established flaws as a director. Its best parts are retreads of things you liked the first time around. The Force Awakens demands in-the-moment enjoyment.
But we treasure the original telling of great stories, not the pretty-looking remakes.