THE FORCE AWAKENS, a Double Take
If Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the latest reboot to the popular franchise, has any cultural merit, it is this: it confirms how mainstream moviegoers have become increasingly uninterested in engaging with films as visual art and, instead, only bent on devouring big-budget product. The Disney corporation (which bought Lucasfilm in 2012) exploits that hyper-consumerist impulse – along with Star Wars fans’s enthused nostalgia – and gives us an unacceptably dull and cobbled-together reboot that simply functions to ring out the Star Wars brand. Naturally, mass audiences respond like Pavlov’s dog, lapping up the shrill excitement.
Of course, a mega-movie like The Force Awakens needs to make money. I get it. Just, at least on the way, supply the viewer with a coherent story that has a palpable sense of immediacy and is not merely setup for the next Episode (to be directed by Looper’s Rian Johnson). For most consumers and fan boys, The Force Awakens does not need a compelling story – nor does it, really, need to be that “good” – so long as the movie meets its quota of dropping enough references to the franchise, including some (impersonally edited) action sequences, and transferring its gullible audience’s excitement to anticipating the upcoming sequel.
The Force Awakens smashes in with John Williams’s classic theme and the flattened yellow scroll that prefaces the episode’s story while ascending and disappearing into the galaxy. The music pulls us in and prepares us for the unfolding adventure. The basic backstory here is that The First Order, run by Voldemort’s colossal cousin Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, given little to do here), has risen from the defunct Galactic Empire like a twisted phoenix incarnate. The military power wants to crush what is left of the New Republic and its last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Only the Resistance, led by Princess – now “General” – Leia (Carrie Fisher), stands in the way.
Ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. This is just “information”, which The Force Awakens is replete with; the characters are mouthpieces for silly exposition. Director J.J. Abrams (who also did the lame Star Trek reboots) has no eye for visual wonder, nor does he have a steady hand for conducting the inflective rhythms of good storytelling. At 135 minutes, The Force Awakens is awkwardly manic, frequently skipping important emotional beats and mini-climactic payoffs to rush to the next plot point. Abrams never generates buildup or suspense, which makes his action sequences feel rote and over-determined. Characters just shout horrible dialogue like “nice shot!” or “good one!”, which Abrams obediently frames in these bland, eye-level closeups. He serves the action too literally, rarely going out of his way to surprise us with awesome imagery.
Abrams’ issue is his pretend seriousness. He seems intent on creating a Star Wars movie that moves like lightening and poses real danger to Lucas’s characters – though all in good fun. I have no doubt his heart is in the right place. In his defence, J.J. has little help from the script – its chief writer being Lawrence Kasdan – whose dialogue is slogan-based as if cut out from science-fiction cereal boxes. Together, the writing and direction fail to give the narrative gravitas, which is needed in crucial moments, namely the film’s big twist.
Furthermore, the young actors do not embody compelling heroes. Attack the Block’s John Boyega plays Finn, an ex-stormtrooper who teams up with a Resistance pilot (a wasted Oscar Isaac) and escapes The First Order. Boyega’s pretty charmless for the most part, playing an imbecilic male that is repeatedly put in his place and needs saving by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a robust yet thinly-drawn heroine meant to appease all feminists watching. This fake progressivism is clearly Disney at work, playing up the Diversity Card and appointing young talent solely based on race and gender (our new PM Justin Trudeau would approve of this casting strategy; in fact, he has already publicly endorsed The Force Awakens).
The problem is not that Boyega is black or Ridley is a young woman. Please, PC people. The problem, instead, is twofold: firstly, while the two have okay chemistry on screen, they are not very good actors individually. Boyega always seems to be bungling his lines and Ridley affects this hard, piercing “I’m ready for action!” look that gets old quick. Secondly, Kasdan, Abrams, and cowriter Michael Arndt offer little character depth. With Finn, there is an excellent opportunity to touch on the humanity of stormtroopers, but the movie never begins to understand that character’s conscience. While a bloodied handprint on the stormtroopers mask is a decent idea, the sanitized battle scenes don’t give weight to this symbolic gesture.
The Force Awakens’s most interesting Millennial actor is Adam Driver, who plays Kylo Ren, the Darth Vader-like commander of The First Order. What’s interesting about Driver’s performance is that he does not have James Earl Jones’ bass voice and obviously not David Prowse’s muscular build. When Kylo first removes his mask, our expectations of an intimidating-looking villain are shattered. Instead, Kylo could resemble one of those childish university students looking for his “safe space”; his inability to play an iron-fisted tyrant is the source of his rage and insecurity. Kylo often throws hissy fits, though Abrams misuses them for awkwardly-timed comic relief. Kylo is also given two scenes where he removes his mask, which defeats The Empire Strikes Back-esque reveal at the climactic bridge confrontation (because we are seeing Ren’s face for the second time and, thus, it is not a proper “reveal”).
On the whole, The Force Awakens is a lot of clutter. There are some sequences where I literally scratched my head trying to figure out why they existed. One instance: aboard The Falcon, Finn and Rey – now in-arms with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) – have to flee the ship after it is invaded by criminal gangs (played by The Raid’s martial artists). This leads to a sequence where the characters evade giant squid monsters set free accidentally. The scene is just weird and confusing, because it does not move the story forward nor does it develop the characters by showing how they survive and strategize together. Finally, Rey saves the day (again) by hitting a switch, but her last-ditch rescue attempt has no suspenseful timing. The whole sequence comes off mechanical without leaving us with any sense of relief.
The movie reintroduces classic Star Wars characters simply for nostalgia purposes. Abrams and company do not show how these older characters succeed or fail to adapt to this new interplanetary era. When Boyega struggles to activate his lightsaber, it might be the film’s best moment, because it taps into the idea how our new generation fails to grasp the older generation’s most precious technology – and vice-versa. In The Force Awakens’s new era, you gotta think the lightsaber will become an outdated weapon.
Overall, The Force Awakens is haphazard, hackneyed, and tragically short on imagination. Unlike the stunningly rich Spectre, the twenty-fourth entry in the Bond franchise, the new Star Wars is politically irrelevant. In The Empire Strikes Back (the best movie of this franchise), the Millennium Falcon represented Vietnam-era US imperialism. Revenge of the Sith’s (the best of the prequels) corrupted emperor plot prodded at 9/11, Bush-era politics, which Lucas has discussed repeatedly. As a social and political artifact, The Force Awakens is full of empty gestures. The nostalgia that was once powerfully instilled by Steven Spielberg’s blockbusters (Close Encounters of the Third Kind will always be a better movie than Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) is now Disney’s impetus for our mindless consumption.