Have you ever watched a tribute band play?
They play the same songs as the original. They play them the say way as the original. They sound pretty similar to the original. They look pretty similar to the original. They move in a similar way to the original. But for all the talent they may possess, for all their ability to be a near perfect replica of the original, they are not the original and it is that lack of originality and lack of soul that means that a tribute band will never be as good as the real thing.
Welcome to Star Wars: The Force Awakens… the most high budget tribute act of all time.
Alternative title; Star Wars: The Star Wars Movie.
There's barely a major plot point developed or major scene presented over the 136 minutes of the Force Awakens that isn't lifted pretty much wholesale from the original trilogy. To begin with one could argue it's fan service. As it goes on you could claim it's an ironic wink to those who grew up with the original trilogy and want to relive that experience. But in the end it just becomes banal, predictable and seemingly a sign of little courage or imagination on the part of the writers and director.
Small droid that's sort of “cute” escapes with secret documents when its owner is captured? Check.
Promising Jedi fallen to the Dark Side who wears black, has a mask, speaks with a distorted voice and is a close relation to one of the major characters? Check
Giant starbase that can blow up planets? Check
Said giant starbase being taken out by a combination of star fighter attack and an infiltration? Check
Said starfighter attack involves flying down “trenches” lined with turrets while being pursued by enemy fighters? Check
A quest by a young force user to discover a famous Jedi master who has gone missing and can seemingly help them develop their understanding? Check
Major good guy character facing off with a bad guy he has a close history with and eventually sacrificing himself without much of a fight? Check
The bad guys basically being the Empire (including a mysterious master-type character) and the good guys basically being the Rebels? Check
Han Solo as a smuggler who owes dangerous people money? [Check
Some of this is deliberately played up and noted upon within the film itself; Kylo Ren is presented as being obsessed with Darth Vader which makes his obvious similarities to him somewhat understandable. Likewise there is something to be said for watching how the young characters from the original trilogy have basically become the older characters from the original trilogy with Han Solo playing a (slightly more grumpy) Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke taking on the role of Yoda. But the fact there are so many, that they are so similar and that they are so frequent meant that I struggled to meet each one with anything more than a groan. It was a very high budget tribute act… different people playing the same songs in slightly different ways while wearing similar clothes… but for me it lacked soul. It was that tribute band playing the greatest hits because they knew they'd get an "Oohh" and an "Aahh" because they were so good years ago.
Even if one gets beyond the wholescale lifting from previous movies there were things that didn't really work for me either. Despite the long running time the film covers so much ground (both literally and metaphorically) that things frequently lose their punch. The revelation that Kylo Ren was Han Solo's son came and went without much impact because there'd been little build up to it. Han and Leia having broken up? Pretty much the same. The Starkiller base destroying multiple planets (including the current seat of Senate and thus the leaders of the Republic)? It just sort of happened. Poe being alive? Barely raised an eyebrow. Part of that's the pacing; the first half (or more) of the film is relatively sedate which means there's a lot to fit in to the final third; it doesn't so much build to a crescendo as just throw the drum kit off a cliff. But even with the slower pacing some things just never seemed to develop for me. I like the idea that Finn and Rey seemingly are going for a friendship/brother and sister type relationship rather than a romantic one but their sudden closeness was a bit jarring; Finn has the one brief monologue about how Rey was the only person who looked at him a certain way and you can extrapolate how Rey, scarred by abandonment, would feel so deeply about someone coming back for her but the entire thing felt like a somewhat forced bromance. Likewise with Poe and Finn. Hell, throw in Solo and Rey as well; they seemed to have spent about five minutes together, exchanged a few lines and had a few moments where they both understood starships before she's thinking that he's the father she always wanted.
The setting itself threw up some issues that I never quite got over as I watched. The film is set 30 years after the Rebel Alliance won and overthrew the Empire. Yet the way the film goes it could just have easily been set during the height of Imperial Power. The New Order have vastly more men, ships and technology; the first half of the film features the protagonists being on the run and the second half pitches the overmatched rebels against seemingly overwhelming forces; the Resistance (and I'll mention them more later) have the same (or arguably a worse) feel as the rag tag alliance early in the original trilogy. The Republic itself is barely mentioned and the only talk of their direct military forces are a few references to the Republic fleet not being there. Exactly what the Republic Fleet found more important than a considerable military force with dark side users and a super weapon that just destroyed a whole bunch of planets in one go (including the current Senate) is never said. It's that lack of saying that got to me; we know basically nothing more about how the galaxy works 30 years after the Empire fell than we did at the Ewok party. Why has the Republic let the New Order grow as powerful as they have? What is their fleet doing? Why were the Resistance and Leia (surely an important figure) left to take them on at least one star destroyer, countless tie-fighters, a fallen Jedi (who was Luke's apprentice) and a planet sized superweapon with little more than some X-Wings? All it would have taken is a line of dialogue here or there to give at least some explanation. Maybe it's explained in the supporting media that are out there… but one shouldn't have to follow all that media to get some pretty basic questions answered.
(As for the "Resistance"... why are the soldiers from the victorious side called that? The Resistance represent the Republic, the dominant force in the galaxy… if anything shouldn't they be called the New Order and the New Order the Resistance? What exactly is it they're resisting? Why don't they have more support? Why does everything about them seem pretty run down? Why don't they have some capital ship support?)
I imagine other things like Rey suddenly becoming an expert in how to use the Force will be explained in the coming films but that doesn't necessarily mean they should be whitewashed away for now. Luke Skywalker, the Chosen One, required extensive training from both Obi Wan and Yoda to start using the Force effectively. Rey has Kylo Ren delve into her mind for a few moments and suddenly she's using Jedi mind tricks and outpowering Ren in a Force telekenesis contest. Likewise Maz having Luke's lightsabre… why did he give it up, where did she get it and how come no-one else came chasing after it, instead leaving it in the back room of some backwater bar? Or the fall of Kylo Ren; we're given little clue as to why he turned to the dark side and the best we can put together is that he wants to be like Vader… hardly a convincing reason. The strongest stories involving someone falling to the Dark Side are them going too far in pursuit of a generally positive aim; it may not have been well executed in the prequels but Anakin falling because he wanted to save the one he loved is the classic while the Expanded Universe-based fan theory that Palpatine fell because he realised the Republic as it was wasn't strong enough to resist the Yuuzhan Vong (which would also explain the Empire's penchant for super weapons) is a good one. Ren? Right now it appears to be that he fell “just because”. With Luke getting more (well, any…) screen time in the next film we should get more (and I think it could be a powerful story and good example of how obsession, even for good reasons, goes to the Dark Side if Luke was so worried about Ben Solo becoming a new Vader that he ended up turning him into him) but again, that doesn't mean this film should get a free pass for leaving a major element largely untouched.
Other things are personal. Kylo Ren was pretty damn effective while masked and his occasional displays of petulance struck me of being a good example of how the dark side amplifies rage. But once the mask came off I found it hard to care about him; I know for story reasons he can't be too old but he just didn't seem threatening at all. When the good guys return to their base at the end why is Leia's first reaction to hug Rey in the wake of Han's seeming death; she barely knew Rey, Rey barely knew Solo and Chewbacca… Han's best friend, the one seemingly in most need of comfort and someone Leia actually has a long relationship with… is left to stand alone. What happened to the Star Destroyer during the attack on Starkiller Base?
Here's where the courage point I mentioned earlier comes in…
Right now Disney buying Star Wars looks like a licence to print money but let's be clear… it was a risk. The Star Wars liscence will always be profitable just because they can sell so much but Disney didn't pay four billion dollars so they could sell some game licences, do a couple of cartoons and include Star Wars characters in their lineup of plushie toys. This was what they did it for… a big movie which in turn drives all the other merchandising opportunities forward. But the prequels lost a lot of good will which the community had (and even if you liked them popular memory has turned to the point where they are seen as being dreadful) and people were less likely to be forgiving. If this movie did badly (both critically and commercially) it could have been really, really bad for Disney.
If you asked the typical fan what they wanted from this new trilogy they'd have probably said for it to be less like the prequels and more like the original trilogy. So that's what we got. The Republic as a dominant military force rather than a group of rebels? That's too much like the prequels and not enough like the original trilogy. Political scenes setting out how the Republic works? Too much like the prequels, not enough like the original trilogy. Watching the fall of a Jedi rather than have it having already happened and an established master/apprentice Sith relationship? Too much like the prequels, not enough like the original trilogy.
That point also applied to the director as well. J. J. Abrams' re-imagining of Star Trek was a commercial success and, as a non-Trekie, I quite liked them as somewhat generic sci-fi action movies. But from what I understand a lot of Star Trek fans largely disliked them because to them they didn't feel like Star Trek movies. And I imagine that hurt J. J. Abrams. So what he did here was make the most Star Wars type movie he could by simply reusing every element of the original trilogy he could get his hands on. For me that shows a lack of courage. He didn't have the bravery to attempt to make something with the same soul as the original trilogy, he took the trappings that surrounded it.
It's appropriate in some ways; the term “Disneyfication” is a criticism generally used when something is stripped of its original character and instead given little more than the outer veneer of what it once was. And that's exactly what happened to this, the first Disney Star Wars movie.
What we got here could in many ways be argued as a re-imagining, much as the first new Star Trek film was, down to characters and actors from the original having plot important cameo roles. But what I wanted wasn't a re-imagining, I wanted a continuation.
That's not to say it's an awful film. It's generally well acted and well directed, the special effects are brilliant and it goes along well. If all you want is to be reminded of Star Wars or a generic sci-fi action film then you'll be well catered for. But I wanted something different from that.
I wanted Fugazi following on from Minor Threat. Instead I got a Minor Threat cover band.