A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I cared about the Star Wars franchise. The original trilogy was powerful formative science fiction, and surely a huge influence on my early interest in the field. Much as the youthful me loved it, though, the twenties me was so repulsed by The Phantom Menace that I more or less flounced on the series and never looked back. But now we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), easily the most anticipated film of the twenty-first century, and there was just too much buzz; seeing it felt like being officially indoctrinated into the pop-culture zeitgeist.
Decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, a new imperial menace has developed: the First Order, rising from the ashes of Darth Vader’s empire to once again threaten the Republic. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, and the Resistance feels his Jedi powers may be the key to saving the galaxy. To that end, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has acquired intelligence that could lead to Skywalker’s return. Unfortunately the First Order, led by the vicious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), moves to intercept. Rather than yield the information, Dameron entrusts it to his droid BB-8, who ultimately crosses paths with two unlikely young heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a subsistence scavenger on the desert world of Jakku, and Finn (John Boyega), an AWOL stormtrooper trying to forge a new path. Together they must convey the crucial intelligence into the hands of the Resistance so that the First Order can be defeated.
When news of this franchise’s re-launch came out, I was pretty sure I would see the film, and that I would either love it or hate it. I was wrong: it was neither a home run nor a strike out for me, but rather a solid, stand-up double, successfully conjuring moments of the old magic, but with elements that made me all too aware of the market-driven, blockbuster blueprint it was following.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens resurrects the props and furniture and general world-building of the original movies quite effectively. Glimpsing the old uniforms and weapons and spaceships, not to mention the familiar characters, was a powerful nostalgia trip. So great to see the legendary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and especially Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) back in action again. But it was the new characters — Finn and Rey and Poe — that really lured me back into the universe, and are the most likely to keep me there. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are all fantastic and I’m very excited to see them carry the franchise into the future. Unsurprisingly, the film is a visual feast, from its special effects to its spectacular battle scenes. John Williams’ themes can still raise hackles on the back of my neck, and there are genuinely powerful, emotional moments. I can see why people were blown away.
But I was not. I was held, I was entertained, but I was just one step removed from total immersion. At first I thought it might just be the plot’s lack of originality; The Force Awakens, as has widely been discussed, is a note-for-note cover of A New Hope in many ways. But I don’t think that bothered me nearly as much as the specifics of the plot’s execution: little throwaway lines and moments, cagily calculated to remind us how much we liked those original films. It’s an effective strategy, but, perhaps jaded by the prequels, I wasn’t fully susceptible to being manipulated by its fan-servicey charms. This is a reaction I’ve had to J.J. Abrams’ other shared-world efforts (Mission: Impossible 3, the new Star Trek movies); he’s generally skillful at repurposing legacy properties, but his work always reminds me that he’s doing that, which tends to jar me out of the experience.
On some levels I feel this reaction is a overly Scrooge-y, though. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun ride that successfully resurrects the iconic science fictional language of my youth, while also rinsing the foul taste of the prequels out of my mouth. But hopefully the next episode will make more interesting and unexpected narrative choices, as I’m excited to see Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, and Driver move the franchise in brand new directions.