**This post is NOT spoiler free. This is your only warning**
I went into this movie cold, my only source of information the first official trailer released months before the premiere. I grew up with the original trilogy and even saw those questionable prequels in theaters, so the hype leading up to The Force Awakens was unavoidable; I bought into it a bit. The excitement didn’t hit until I was in my car, headed to the theater. It lasted until about 30 minutes into the film, then slowly faded away. I went into the latest installment with high expectations, to see the returning characters in a new light and to fall in love with new characters. What I saw was a film that played-up its nostalgia too much and left me with fluff when I wanted substance.
The flaws in “The Force Awakens” were not in the direction, or the editing, or the acting, or the special effects; all the flaws were due to the fan-service-screenplay. There was a greater focus on making sure the original cast got their “due time” than making sure the relationships between the established characters and the new characters were developed organically and realistically. The plot models A” New Hope” closely, and—while humor was successfully written into the script—the dialogue lacks the grace of the original trilogy that worked subtly to develop the characters.
This film laid a good foundation for Rey’s character. The audience sees that she is a resilient, hard-scrabble woman who was (presumably) taken away from her family at a young age and orphaned. She also has a strong connection to The Force. However we learn over the course of the entire film. To compare, with Luke’s introduction in episode 4, we learn a lot about him from the first few scenes: He wants to be a pilot; he lives with his aunt and uncle; his father was “killed” but Darth Vader. We see Obi Wan conduct training sessions on the fly (pun-intended) while they are on the Millennium Falcon.
The important part of Luke’s character development is that it’s set-up as a coming-of-age tale, which him realizing his full potential at the end of episode 6, which his story comes to a climax along the story of the rebels. This is why Rey’s character development moves way too fast in “The Force Awakens,” at an unbelievable pace: if Luke had to find good ol’ Obi Wan out in the middle of the desert to tap into his Jedi powers, and if Anakin had to have training as well, how in the hell can Rey automatically resist THEN tap into Kylo Ren’s mind on top of schooling him in a light saber dual? Even if there is a legit reason for writing her character this way, it doesn’t negate that her arch is confusing and unbalanced, breaking some rules of the Star Wars universe established by the earlier films.
Finn’s character gives a new twist on one of the most iconic group of characters in the franchise. He’s a Stormtropper with a conscious, with vulnerability, and with soul. His character is a fresh addition because it’s not something we have seen before. And he can actually hit shit. With a blaster. Where Rey’s character progresses closely to Luke and Anakin, Finn is off in a world all his own—that’s exciting, and I wish there was more of Finn in “The Force Awakens.”
Kylo Ren’s personality we’ve seen before (temper-tantrums must run in the family) but not much of a motive behind his desire to emulate his grandfather. With Anakin, he blamed The Force for taking him away from his mother and resented it because if had been there to protect her, she wouldn’t have died. He may have turned evil, but there is enough character development there to empathize with his pain. The film doesn’t show the audience why Kylo Ren romanticizes The Dark Side; there is nothing we see in his past that would cause him to reject Luke’s teachings and kill Padawans. It’s presented as fact, asking the audience to accept it as-is, which is lazy. Kylo Ren is more annoying than Jar Jar Binks.
The movie also uses nostalgia itself to evoke emotion between characters instead of working for it. When Han and Leia see each other for the first time in years the music swells, and the script rests easy knowing that the fan-boy thrill of seeing them on-screen again will carry all the weight. But the scene evokes nostalgia, not the feeling of a lovers’ relationship destroyed by their tantrum-prone, immature son. The audience has seen nothing of their Han and Leia’s relationship since episode 6, so they cannot tap into the deeper emotions the film suggests by revealing decades of back-story in (what feels like) two lines of dialogue. This is especially true for Han’s death scene. This is the first time the audience is seeing Han and his son, Ren, on-screen together; what little we know of their relationship isn’t happy, but it’s all told information, not shown. So, to no one’s surprise when Ren kills his father, the tears roll only because we have seen a finite end to a beloved character, not because a son has killed the father that still believed there was good in him.
However, when Chewbacca howls at the sight of Han’s death, that part is gut-wrenching and evokes real emotion. Even though the audience saw their companionship grow with the original films, it is understood that they are still thick as thieves when they enter the Millennium Falcon for the first time in decades, and you see the contentment in their eyes as they have found their way back home. “The Force Awakens” shows that not much has changed for the two of them, and nothing needed to be done to either of their characters or their friendship with one another. This is the only case in the film that used nostalgia without making the result feel cheap.
Echoing the plot of “A New Hope” is not a bad thing, but it makes the film too easy to predict and takes away the magic and much of the joy of getting to know new characters and revisiting old ones. Luke Skywalker has become Obi-Wan, Leia is Mon Mothma, and Han Solo is still Han Solo, helping yet again to take out a bigger, scarier Death Star. In fact, the film blatantly does a side-by-side comparison of the Death Star and the Starkiller Base that comes across as if your friend is explaining what the Starkiller Base is to someone who hasn’t seen “The Force Awakens.” (You know how big the Death Star was? Imagine that times, like, over a hundred! That shit was huge!) If you are going to completely disregard canon with Rey’s character, then why even replicate the formula of “A New Hope” with a bigger, stupider Death Star?
Thankfully, Luke Skywalker’s appearance is delayed until the end, when we see a gray-bearded Mark Hamill looking a little Lord-of-the-Rings-like atop that lush green island overlooking the ocean. As quick and as over-dramatic as that scene was, it foreshadowed to the audience that the next installment is going to be Rey and Luke heavy, and maybe the script will be more character-focused as a result, with an original narrative.
Regardless if anything I discussed was intentional or not, or intentionally made to “set-up” the next film, it still failed to live up to its potential in several ways. You can have mystery in a film with good dialogue and character development without gaping plot holes or unnecessary confusion. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” wasn’t amazing. It was “meh.” You can’t carry a film on nostalgia alone. Nostalgia is “safe,” which is all too representative of the the current state of Hollywood. Safe is boring. After all, when episode 4 came out in theaters, there was nothing safe about it. That’s why it was exciting. I’m with Brian Merchant: “The movie’s predictable, nostalgia-reliant, repackaged thrills” are “a defeat for what made the trilogy extraordinary in the first place—its madcap sci-fi originality and genre-bending experimentation.”