by Gary Westfahl
An introductory disclaimer: although I have repeatedly watched, vividly remember, and still cherish the first three Star Wars films – which I still insist upon calling by their original titles, Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) – I could never force myself to watch any of the three “prequel” films in their entirety, and I have no familiarity with the innumerable extensions of the franchise in television films and series, animated films, novels, comic books, and video games. So, for a detailed exegesis of how this film accords with, expands upon, and/or contradicts the established tenets of the Star Wars universe, you will have to turn elsewhere. The following is simply the impressions of a man who went to see a film promoted as a direct sequel to three films he had enjoyed over thirty years ago.
Do not be misled by my title, for I enjoyed this film too. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible to not enjoy a film that is so visibly striving to replicate all of the elements that made the original films so appealing. Certainly, filmgoers of a certain age will be thrilled to observe fellow senior citizen Harrison Ford effortlessly falling back into the role of duplicitous, wisecracking Han Solo and demonstrating that a geezer can still do some heavy lifting as an action hero. Though they were less prominent, it was also pleasurable to see Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew, and Anthony Daniels reprising their iconic roles. (And, since purported pals Solo and Lando Calrissian so obviously despised each other in real life, it was just as well that Billy Dee Williams was not brought back to reprise his iconic role.) Yet director J. J. Abrams also recognizes that it is time to pass the torch to a new generation: Ford’s Solo goes out of his way to repeatedly praise the skills of prominent new heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), as if to give his blessing to the characters clearly destined to take his place in future films, and both seem capable enough of carrying on the tradition. As is always the case in Star Wars films, there are plenty of exciting spaceship battles and lightsaber duels, accompanied by the rousing music of John Williams, with scores of exotic aliens in the background to enliven the slower-paced sequences as another war against the forces of the Dark Side progresses toward its inevitably triumphant conclusion. What is there to dislike about such a masterful concoction?
The problem is that while one can praise to the stars the immense talent that went into the making of this film, it is hard to discern much creativity in either its design or its execution. Abrams was assigned to produce another Star Wars film, and he did so magnificently, but it is also a film that anyone familiar with the franchise, by this time, could have made in their sleep. And one is disheartened not by this film but by visions of the interminable series of clones of this film likely to be churned out annually by the Walt Disney studio in the wake of its guaranteed success. Again and again, there will be characters who loudly announce that they are giving up the good fight to pursue their personal interests, only to surprise everyone (actually, to surprise no one) by suddenly returning to the fray. Again and again, a virtuous man will abandon his parents to be seduced by the Dark Side, even while occasionally intimating that he might someday change his evil ways – if not in this film, perhaps in the next film. Again and again, a beleaguered band of freedom-loving heroes will face imminent destruction by an immense and seemingly unstoppable weapon – until someone improvises a desperate, patently impossible counterattack that somehow works, due to a last-minute assist from the Force.
Still, it would be unfair to criticize Abrams, or his probable successors, for failing to experiment with an innovative approach to the Star Wars saga, since creator George Lucas has forever precluded such initiatives. His universe has an inherent simplicity, even rigidity, in its underpinnings: there is a Light Side, there is a Dark Side, and there is no Gray Side. Those who follow the Light Side are virtuous and merit our admiration and sympathy – even if, like Solo, they occasionally indulge in minor transgressions like breaking a few laws or swindling a few scoundrels. Those who follow the Dark Side are evil and must be destroyed, to cleanse the galaxy of their unalloyed perfidy. There are only a few sorts of drama possible within such a framework: violent battles between followers of the Light Side and followers of the Dark Side; efforts to persuade people wavering between the two camps, or seeking to avoid the conflict, to join the Light Side; embryonic romances involving apparently incompatible adherents of the Light Side; and comic relief with lovable robots and eccentric aliens. There may be room for striking improvisations – like this film’s delightfully imaginative new droid, BB-8, and Rey’s liquid mixture that instantly inflates into a biscuit – but anyone undertaking to tell another Star Wars story will end up playing the same tunes.
It is true that Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams, and Michael Arndt’s screenplay did introduce precisely one complication into Lucas’s equation, but they refuse to develop it in any manner. Finn is a former Stormtrooper, who explains that he had been kidnapped as a child and indoctrinated to serve as a loyal soldier to the Empire …. excuse me, it’s now being called the First Order. However, after resolving that “I wasn’t going to kill for them,” he decides to rescue a rebel pilot because “it’s the right thing to do” and soon joins the resistance. Well. Stormtroopers have traditionally functioned in Star Wars films as the anonymous, implacably evil agents of the Empire who are routinely slaughtered without compunction; if we are suddenly advised to regard them instead as victims of abduction and brainwashing, that would apparently change everything. For in that case, instead of always killing them on sight, the rebels should be making more of an effort to capture the Stormtroopers, rip off their masks, talk to them kindly, and strive to undo the repressive conditioning that made them into merciless enemies. Yet the film does absolutely nothing to inspire any further sympathy for the Stormtroopers, who carry on with their traditional role as cannon fodder, the Them who must be eliminated in order to protect Us.
It is in this respect that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has unsettling resonances with contemporary politics. There are no explicit parallels: one commentator recently attempted to argue that the Empire represents the Western world, while the rebels are the jihadists, fiercely dedicated to their ancient religion. But the comparison is hardly appropriate: the last time I checked, President Barack Obama was not ordering soldiers to exterminate entire towns of people opposed to his policies, and the last time I checked, the spokesmen for ISIS have issued no calls for a return to democracy and respect for human rights. Still, the Manichaean world view of the Star Wars universe can be said to encourage confrontation instead of compromise, solidification into opposing factions demonizing each other instead of constructive engagement in pursuit of mutually satisfactory outcomes; and such attitudes have contributed to ongoing political disputes both at home and abroad. Yet this perspective in endemic in contemporary Hollywood films, as I have observed in previous reviews, and there is no reason to single out Star Wars for criticism in this regard or lengthen this review with repetitive denunciations of the phenomenon.
There is, though, an illuminating contrast to be made between Star Wars and its illustrious precursor, the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), which portrayed a future universe filled with moral ambiguities: the Klingons and Romulans were regularly portrayed as the Enterprise’s opponents, but there were recurring suggestions that they were not entirely villainous and might someday become allies of the Federation; in the case of the Klingons, this actually occurred in later incarnations of the series. Most of the conflicts in the series stemmed from misunderstandings that concluded with reconciliation, rather than attacks by unrepentant reprobates who are wiped out by representatives of the virtuous Federation; in the episode “Errand of Mercy” (1967), Kirk was even explicitly criticized as self-righteous and ignorant. And, to bring this discussion full circle, one could summarize my complaints about Abrams’s earlier refurbishing of the Star Trek franchise in a review of Star Trek into Darkness (2013) (review here: here) by stating that he was improperly attempting to transform Star Trek into Star Wars. In retrospect, I suppose, that work can be seen as ideal preparation for the task of reviving the Star Wars franchise.
Still, even if its bedrock philosophy is improbably, even dangerously, simplistic, the Star Wars universe has always been more realistic than the Star Trek universe in other respects, well illustrated by this film. In Star Trek, an occasional phaser blast might damage a spaceship’s engine and require repairs, but its machines otherwise always seemed to be brand-new, in tip-top condition, and they rarely malfunctioned. In Star Wars, machines regularly grow old and decrepit, frequently breaking down and demanding yet another spit-and-duct-tape solution so they will keep working long enough for the heroes to complete their mission. Moreover, more so than the characters in Star Trek, the residents of the Star Wars universe forge genuine relationships with the machines they depend upon, whether it is Solo and Chewbacca’s affection for the Millennium Falcon, the bond between BB-8 and pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and later Rey, or the way that Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber mysteriously summons Rey. The franchise’s machines thus take on personalities of their own and become meaningful components of their owners’ lives, just like many machines in the real world.
In addition, there is generally a sort of stiff formality in the personal interactions within the Star Trek universe, imposed by the military chain of command that governs starships and other Federation facilities, and while conflicts do occur, individuals tend to be preternaturally polite and cooperative as they work together to meet various challenges. In the Star Wars universe, perhaps as a subtle criticism of Star Trek, one encounters such an atmosphere only within the confines of the enemy’s headquarters; the heroic characters inhabit a very lived-in world, they always seem relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings, and they are never hesitant about being flippant or cantankerous. Invited to visit the world of Star Trek, people would feel that they had to be on their very best behavior; invited to visit the world of Star Wars, they would feel free to just be themselves.
Finally, Star Trek always insisted that an advanced civilization would progress beyond economics, as technology would provide limitless resources and eliminate the need to use money or work for an income. Star Wars offers a futuristic world that, more plausibly, is still driven by commerce: Han Solo transports dangerous animals to pick up some money and habitually gets in trouble by declining to repay his debts; Rey makes a living by scavenging parts from wrecked spaceships and standing in line to sell them to a parsimonious pawnbroker; and when Solo offers to make Rey a member of the Millennium Falcon crew, he emphasizes that she will receive a salary, albeit not a generous one. And, ever since the phenomenal sales of merchandise from the first Star Wars film, every Star Wars film itself becomes a matter of commerce, as there will always be at least one innovation that seems custom-designed to inspire profitable toys, ranging from Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks to this film’s BB-8 (worth “sixty portions” in the film, a functioning miniature BB-8 will cost you $150 in the real world). While microeconomics is foregrounded in all Star Wars films, though, one might question the franchise’s grasp of macroeconomics. Other commentators have noted its previous failure to explore the catastrophic financial consequences of the destruction of the Death Star, and watching this film, one wonders how, even if the principle behind the device was well understood, the First Order would ever muster the enormous amounts of money it would require to effectively rebuild an entire planet to function as a sun-absorbing, world-destroying weapon.
While the Star Wars universe can be praised in these respects, there are still a few other complaints one might make about this film, all falling into the category of missed opportunities. I have argued elsewhere that the success of the first Star Wars film was largely due to the sense of conviction imparted by Sir Alec Guinness’s brilliant portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and when the equally capable Max von Sydow appeared in an early scene, it aroused the hope that he might be similarly employed as a persuasive father figure for this new Star Wars saga. Yet his character is quickly thrown away, never to be seen again. The impression that this film is thoughtlessly repeating its precursors’ plots was needlessly enhanced by the unwise decision to have new villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) almost precisely mimic the appearance of the earlier films’ Darth Vader; one can convey that a man is striving to emulate his grandfather without having him dress up like his grandfather or haplessly endeavor to sound like his grandfather. Trying to outdo the original film’s cantina scene may represent an irresistible temptation to any Star Wars director, but Abrams’s version – the bar run by diminutive alien Maz Kanata (Luita Nyong’o) – fails to impress, and it further contributes to the aura of déjà vu surrounding the proceedings. Traditions should generally be respected, but some of them deserve to die, like including the line “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in every single Star Wars film. And while it’s great to bring back beloved old characters, one has to give them something to do; here, Daniels’ C-3PO has absolutely nothing to do, and his intermittent appearances and lines of dialogue become little more than annoying interruptions. Perhaps this highly anticipated film was rushed into production with a reasonably strong script that nevertheless needed one more rewrite to address these and other infelicities.
Overall, to epitomize the experience of watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one can liken it to making a return visit to Disneyland and going on a favorite ride – Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain – for the umpteenth time. You will enjoy the ride; you may notice an occasional new embellishment, as Disney’s creative team is constantly trying to incorporate slight improvements into even their most popular attractions; but you will never be surprised. Further, if you keep going on even the greatest of rides too many times, you may start to grow weary of it, as I have started to avoid a few famous rides that have lost their power to entertain me. It is a pattern of human behavior that the Walt Disney company would be wise to consider as they confidently plan their next dozen Star Wars films.