Review: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars VIIIt was nearly 40 years ago. But I still remember the experience of seeing the original Star Wars (“Episode IV,” which was confusing at the time). Because the movies of the 70s were populated by anti-heroes like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Star Wars felt like a welcome throwback. You knew who the good guys and bad guys were: idealistic young Luke Skywalker, all in white; evil Darth Vader, all in black. The battle of good and evil was cleansing and exhilarating. When I walked out of the theater, I was ready to jump in the nearest X-wing to fight for the Rebel Alliance.

Episodes V and VI brought more depth and nuance, and a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. The prequel episodes that followed, unfortunately, were at best mediocre, with corny dialogue and wooden performances. Episode VII, therefore, has big shoes to fill. It’s been 30+ years since Return of the JediThe Force Awakens has to recruit a new generation of fans while satisfying the old ones, and craft a plausible continuation to the storyline.

Director J. J. Abrams already pulled off a similar stunt with his reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote episodes V and VI, was also on board. Would the Force be with them for episode VII? It’s a matter of Do, or do not. There is no try.

My personal verdict: for the most part, they’ve succeeded.

(Warning: spoilers ahead — but not the big ones.)

When last we saw our heroes, the Empire had been defeated and the Death Star destroyed (again, for real). But a new, evil First Order has arisen from the ashes, vowing to sweep away the Republic with its planet-destroying Starkiller.

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads the Resistance. They need help from her brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), last of the Jedi. But Luke is missing. Leia knows of a map to Luke’s whereabouts, and sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to retrieve it from a village elder (a short cameo by Max Von Sydow) on the planet Jakku.

But a battalion of First Order stormtroopers attacks the village, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who serves the Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, again playing a CG character that looks like something plucked from The Lord of the Rings). Dameron is captured, but not before he hides the map inside his droid, BB-8, who escapes.

Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega), can’t stomach the slaughter of innocent villagers. Looking for a way to leave the First Order, he helps Dameron escape, and in friendship, Dameron renames him “Finn.” They two men are separated when they’re forced to crash land back on Jakku.

BB-8, meanwhile, is saved by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young scavenger with a mysterious past. Finn discovers them by accident and pretends to be a Resistance fighter to win Rey’s confidence. They flee Jakku in a stolen spaceship — the Millennium Falcon.  Rey, Finn, and the Falcon are in turn captured by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have returned to the life of smuggling. And eventually, of course, all the good guys come together to play their part in finding Luke and stopping the First Order’s plot to destroy the Republic.

As Rey, Ridley makes a fine protagonist — better, indeed, than Hamill’s original Luke. Boyega’s Finn, refreshingly, gives us a stormtrooper with a conscience; his search for purpose and identity makes a nice foil for Rey’s own development. And fans of the previous movies will delight in seeing the old gang reunited. The Force Awakens pushes all the right buttons: it looks, feels, and thanks to John Williams’ score, even sounds right. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that it accomplishes this by pushing too many of the same buttons. It’s one thing to satisfy fans with a feeling of familiarity; it’s another to include so many nearly identical plot points that you end up thinking, “Wait — haven’t we done this before?”

Let’s see. Important intel is hidden inside a droid who is loyal and has an almost pet-like personality.  There’s a race to get the droid to the rebel forces before the bad guys get hold of it. The primary villain goes around manhandling people with the power of the Dark Side, dresses all in black, and wears a mask (this time, for no discernable reason). The heroine is a young woman with no parents who dresses all in white and must discover that she is strong in the Force. There’s a scene that is nearly a clone of the Mos Eisley spaceport cantina. The First Order’s new weapon is essentially the Death Star’s big brother. And apparently, the bad guys have learned absolutely zilch from previous design flaws.

And oh, yes: we have father issues again. Big time.

Don’t get me wrong. SW VII is rollicking good fun, with plenty of sci-fi action and wisecracking humor (Han Solo responding to a complaining Chewbacca, on a snow-bound planet: “Oh, really? You’re cold”). And for long-time fans like myself, there are moments with a strong emotional punch. But the movie feels too derivative, as if the writers couldn’t decide if this was supposed to be a continuation, a remake, or a reboot. To borrow from the great Yogi Berra, in scene after scene, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

I’m left wondering what a more original or imaginative screenplay might have yielded. And that’s saying nothing about the movie’s relationship (or lack thereof) to the entire Star Wars literary universe so painstakingly and lovingly constructed in dozens of novels.

We’ll see what happens with episode VIII.