Retrospective | What ‘The Force Awakens’ Remembered — and What It Forgot
Last year, I watched all 33-and-counting Godzilla feature films ahead of the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This year, I’ve undertaken a programming schedule that is much more manageable in scope, but even closer to my heart. This is The Road to ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Rewatch!
When I heard that the Walt Disney Company had purchased Lucasfilm Ltd., and that the creation of a new trilogy was to kick off with a seventh episode, I figured it had to be a fake-out rumor. George Lucas, notorious franchise control freak, selling his baby to the suits? It was almost impossible to believe.
On the other hand, he was essentially retired, and there were a lot of mouths to feed on the Lucasfilm roster. Furthermore, the relationship between Disney and Lucas went all the way back to the ’80s. As a kid who grew up in Orange County, Disney had long been indelibly tied to my appreciation of the world of Lucasfilm, via Disneyland’s landmark attractions Star Tours, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and the defunct Captain EO. Admittedly, there was no media company with a comparable track record of long-term, generational stewardship of their intellectual property that could match Disney’s. While other studios like Universal and Warner Bros. seemed keen to sign quickie cash-grabs and licensing deals for their most famous faces (ever been to a Six Flags?), only Disney seemed to grasp brand control in the way that, say, Apple manages over its competitors. If Lucas was going to put his baby in someone else’s hands, it almost had to be Disney.
The more I thought about it, the better an idea this all seemed — to put it charitably, Lucas’ tastes and vision for Star Wars had long since gone in a different direction from where many fans were at. Disney had the power to recruit the brightest creative minds in Hollywood — many of whom had grown up inspired by Star Wars and its ilk — to finally take up the mantle, as I had thought George should’ve done with the prequels more than a decade earlier. But I was surprised and uncertain about them making a movie claiming to be an ‘Episode VII,’ rather than just endeavoring to do spin-offs set in the universe, similar to what projects like Rogue One, Solo, and “The Mandalorian” would eventually do. There would be so much added expectation to a numeric sequel, and it felt like the narrative circle had been completed with Revenge of the Sith. The story of Luke and Anakin had been told. What more needed to be said?
When it was announced that famous fan J.J. Abrams would be in the director’s chair, it was a reassurance that things were on track. His credentials as a pop culture guru, power producer, and director were well-established by the early 2010s. This was the first time such a high-profile outsider would be helming a Star Wars movie, and that caliber of proven competence was a must for this initial outing. Resuscitating the franchise would be a big task with high stakes no matter what, but after Disney’s $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd., all eyes were on this project. Given the lukewarm-to-negative legacy of the prequels, and the relatively fallow period which followed, there was a sense that this didn’t just need to be a good movie, it needed to be a course correction and a kind of creative manifesto for Star Wars 3.0.
Almost all of Episode VII’s pre-release promotion implicitly or explicitly served to reassure both fans and the broader public that the franchise was in safe hands. The House of Mouse wasn’t going to mess with the formula, and perhaps even more importantly, the era of privileging green screen and CGI over good old-fashioned Hollywood handiwork was at an end. Abrams insisted on shooting his movie on 35mm film, despite Lucas’ sheperding of digital cinema into the mainstream. Furthermore, he promised that the production would use or emulate the same film stocks and lenses that A New Hope had been shot with wherever possible.
Puppets and enormous practical sets would replace the digital environments of the ‘00s. Early behind-the-scenes glimpses of sets showed off 1:1 scale starfighters with the same well-worn “used universe” look that had defined the original trilogy. A stunning matte painting depicting a wrecked Star Destroyer, showcased in a theatrical trailer viewed by tens of millions of people, even simulated the subtle film wobble of old, analog-era effects where the optical printer wouldn’t quite perfectly keep everything in line. Few would notice that kind of thing, but The Force Awakens appeared engineered on an almost subconcious level to evoke the nostalgic connection millions of people had for the early Star Wars movies.
It’s safe to say their strategy worked. The Force Awakens was a record-smashing hit, well-received by critics and audiences alike. For many purists, there was above all else a sense of relief that “they” hadn’t totally screwed things up, and that the pitfalls of the prequels had been avoided. I had a lot of fun watching it in theaters in 2015 — all four times, in fact.
Unusual for me, however, I found my estimation of The Force Awakens falling a bit with successive viewings, rather than warming to it as part of the Star Wars family. For everything I appreciate about its construction, there’s plenty that quietly rubs me the wrong way. Episode VII has solid bones, but it doesn’t seem to have done much self-reflection regarding what what it’s trying to say beyond serving as both a mea culpa to the prequel-averse, and a canny nostalgic button-pushing exercise.
Plenty of folks have pointed out how much The Force Awaken’s plot plays it safe, repeating the structure of A New Hope with a handful of Empire and Jedi elements adorning the framework as filagrees. On paper, I don’t think its similarity to Episode IV is a problem. There’s enough difference between its characters and set pieces from those of yesteryear that the familiar plot outline is just a reliable, stripped-down chassis on which to build something new. Its back-to-basics approach of conscious emulation in every aspect of the production, however, results in a distracting, uncanny effect. Rather than bringing Episode VII closer within the Star Wars fold towards some kind of elemental ideal, it makes it feel imitative. It’s reverse-engineered, like a Soviet car trying to take on midcentury Detroit steel. It lacks its own soul, and it’s constantly reminding you of that other movie, the one that was so much more daring in its time.
Perhaps the problem is that The Force Awakens can’t decide if it’s a sincere, self-evident next episode in this ongoing saga, or if it’s a kind of metafictional reboot that leans into its audience’s awareness and expectations in order to make a headier point. Characters like Rey and Finn speak of the exploits of Luke and Han in hushed whispers — but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that’s all more for the benefit of the audience watching the movie, rather than because it makes organic sense for either of them to care so much about the details of what happened half a galaxy away thirty years earlier. We can speculate as to whether Finn’s First Order conditioning was broken because he had access to contraband New Republic holo-dramas or some such, but the text itself offers up little rationale for many of the details in The Force Awakens that are so clearly engineered to matter to the audience outside the logic of the story.
That the movie’s setup parrots A New Hope isn’t that big a deal so long as the point of the story is to suggest that history repeats itself; that we forever live in the shadow of our forebearers’ actions, and that we are always struggling to live up to the mythologies we write about our own origins. That theme is definitely on the movie’s mind — or more precisely, it was on the minds of its filmmakers, who were well aware of the gravity of their task. But within its own text, The Force Awakens sees this reasoning through only intermittently. This is especially frustrating, because the movie is at its absolute best when it’s addressing the topic head-on.
To wit: One area where the “same, but different” approach works masterfully is with the character of Kylo Ren. His introduction in the movie as a masked, ruby lightsaber-wielding baddie with a forbidding musical motif is clearly meant to say, “THIS IS THE NEW DARTH VADER.” But from Kylo’s very first scene, we are tipped off that there’s more to his story than the mere cribbing of Vader’s sizable presence. The quality which made Vader so imposing — his raspy breath and James Earl Jones’ booming voice-of-God affect — is missing. Kylo’s vocoder effect, by contrast, sounds crappy by design. It’s tinny and fuzzy, and about as scary as someone talking through a Jack in the Box drive-thru speaker. He’s clearly an imposter, just some kid in a cosplay outfit, and the movie is telling us that. Over the course of the film, his imposter status will be explored in ways which, in concert with Adam Driver’s performance, will right out of the gate make him one of the most compelling characters in the whole series.
By contrast, however, the “big bad” character of Snoke is just an absolute dead-end dud in this movie. As the mystic head of the über-fascist First Order, he’s clearly an analogue for the Emperor as J.J. Abrams probably imagined him as a young kid — some mysterious hologram wizard, sans the contextualizing details of Sheev Palpatine as the Republic politician of the prequels. Veteran mo-cap actor Andy Serkis delivers none of Ian McDiarmid’s scenery-chewing camp. He plays it totally straight, and with no character on the page to account for, is utterly boring for it. Episode VII has already made us aware that it is consciously, overtly cribbing original trilogy elements, so Snoke can never measure up to Palpatine as a screen persona, unless something is done to take the archetype and then subvert it or re-contextualize it in a compelling way. Because we only ever see Snoke here as a thirty-foot hologram, I thought it would be interesting to discover, for example, that he was in truth the size of a child’s doll — a bit of a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” compensation tactic. As it stands, however, Snoke is nothing but a generic, uninspired CGI troll-man emblematic of the ways in which this movie falls short of the kind of weird, throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall creative curiosity George Lucas strove for his designers to pursue. Maybe that’s my biggest beef with this movie: it’s afraid to get weird.
Episode VII is at its most creatively lackluster when it comes to Starkiller Base, a laughable third (!) doomed, enormous planet-killing superweapon which the good guys manage to implode with a chain reaction. Worse, this time they do it without even needing hard-won secret plans or at least a do-or-die pursuit through a narrow service tunnel. The Force Awakens would benefit from entirely omitting Starkiller Base, which strains credulity even for this fantasy universe. The obligatory, expository scene in which a plan of attack is established is self-aware enough to have Han ask, “How do we blow it up?…There’s always a way to do that.” But why lampshade the issue with a dry quip, rather than script literally any other, less-derivative third-act scenario?
When I first realized what Starkiller Base was, I thought the idea was genius — building a planet-killer out of an actual planet ought to mean there’s no central reactor that can be blown up with a well-placed torpedo, thus the First Order had solved the Death Stars’ Achilles’ heel! Alas, The Force Awakens gives us some loosely-sketched techno-babble about energy oscillators that can be overloaded in order to cause a planetary meltdown. Never mind that pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo has, until now, really never been used as an “out” for the scripts of Star Wars, which typically only use the language of high technology to decorate their world, not to write themselves out of corners.
Is the utterly predictable folly of Starkiller Base meant to illustrate how the First Order is blinded by its own ideological worship of the fallen Galactic Empire? Perhaps. But the movie only ever gets you halfway there, because it still wants you to believe that the First Order is a genuine menace that can fill the polished boots of those old bad guys.
Lucas himself was infamously irritated with The Force Awakens’ derivative tendencies. While some of his disappointment was doubtlessly due to Abrams & Co. having ejected his sequel ideas (apparently involving a Fantastic Voyage-style journey into the microscopic world of midichlorians), he also called out its lack of forward vision, according to Disney CEO Bob Iger’s 2019 memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime:
[George] didn’t hide his disappointment. ‘There’s nothing new,’ he said. In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, ‘There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward.’
To that point, I think part of what’s going on here is that there’s a feedback loop informing Episode VII. George Lucas created Star Wars not to refer back to Star Wars, of course, but to refer back to a wide swath of influences — old sci-fi serials, westerns, Kurosawa, The Wizard of Oz, Arthurian legend — in a melange that felt fresh, because those things hadn’t all been juxtaposed against one another before. The Force Awakens isn’t interested in broadening its own palette of conceptual influences, as each of the successive Lucas-era pictures had, because, of course, J.J. Abrams had grown up with…Star Wars! It’s an understandable impulse, but one which misses a great deal of the secret sauce that makes this material click. In the dogmatic pursuit of something which reads as “authentic Star Wars,” one ends up missing the point, because in truth that was never the game that Star Wars was playing.
Nevertheless, J.J. is an undeniably skilled pop filmmaker and experienced producer. In many fundamental ways that matter, Episode VII is simply a very solid piece of pop-arts craft. This is nowhere more true than when it comes to casting. The mandate which The Force Awakens had to deliver on above all else was creating a fresh crop of characters for audiences to care about. This movie needed a cast that could stand on its own outside the shadow of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill. In this regard, I’m not sure this movie gets enough credit. The foursome of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac — along with Lupita N’yongo, Domhnall Gleeson, and many other great supporting turns — instantly created a new generation of Star Wars figures that are compelling, charismatic, and fit right into its universe. Of course, casting director Nina Gold gets all the props in the world for this, but Abrams’ track record as having a Midas Touch for casting decisions is consistent across his career — from “Alias,” to “Lost,” to his Star Trek reboot, to Star Wars, I appreciate his eye for creating alchemical ensembles more than I do his story sensibilities, which I too often find slapdash and unconvincing. (See: the confusing, tortured logic of the puzzle-piece “map to Luke Skywalker,” which doesn’t make a lick of sense, unless you accept that its on-screen depiction as a missing chunk of some lost galactic atlas is visual shorthand for the simple-minded among the audience.)
More than in any of the prequels, more than in Return of the Jedi, and more than any piece of Star Wars media since The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens is a charismatic, accessible piece of cinema with its directorial and editorial core competencies accounted for, such that almost anyone can sit down and find something to enjoy. Us grouches who are already well-versed in the language and logic of the Star Wars universe will be the quickest to see its shortcomings, but everyone else probably won’t mind too much. I can put my personal misgivings about its place within the larger Star Wars saga aside long enough to acknowledge that by 2015, Star Wars desperately needed something that would just remind the general audience of why they had loved it in the first place. Even if The Force Awakens isn’t a movie I find myself often returning to, and even if I find its conceptual conservatism frustrating and uninspired, I can acknowledge it pulled off its most fundamental, tallest task — introducing a new generation to Star Wars, and helping to keep that fire burning in new audiences for years to come.
And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’: