“Star Wars: Episode 7” – A New Hope Episode 2: Stagnation of the Force

Review, “Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens”
Overall Rating: * 1/2 stars (out of ****)

Released December 18, 2015
Directed by JJ Abrams
Written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt
Cinematography by Daniel Mindel
Starring Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac
Running Time: 135 minutes
Budget: $200 million
Worldwide Box Office To Date: $1.5 billion

WARNING: Spoilers abound. Granted, a three year-old could guess what they are after watching about two seconds of this thing, but they abound nonetheless.

Well it’s better than the prequels…

I hate to say it, but Disney and director JJ Abrams set my hopes up with an amazing series of trailers only to deliver an underwhelming and mildly entertaining entry to the “Star Wars” saga.  Now like most people, I did have high hopes for this one.  I believed Lawrence Kasdan at the pen and Abrams shepherding the project would be a winning combination.  Kasdan cut his teeth early on writing “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” so he’s no stranger to high stakes adventure drama.  And Abrams, while not a particularly skilled director, has shown the right philosophy about storytelling that should fit in well within the “Star Wars” universe.  He’s one of the few blockbuster guys around who understands the power of foreplay and lead-up, and shown a discipline in withholding and allowing audience imagination to take charge, which is a bit of a lost art. (Check out his Ted Talk here where he discusses the power of the “Mystery Box.”)

Unfortunately, it seems both those talents were laid to waste and the two fell prey to the overwhelming commercial demands of the series.  “Episode 7” really feels more like a soft re-boot then a direct sequel.  The plot is almost a complete rip-off of “A New Hope,” and the film bogs itself down in supplicating fanboys rather than forwarding the “Star Wars” mythos.

The central structural problem of “The Force Awakens,” though, is that it’s unclear what the landscape is of the “Star Wars” universe now 30 years down the line after “Return of the Jedi.”  There’s a lot of major exposition that’s mentioned in passing, but the world-building doesn’t reflect the actions or motivations of our main characters.  JJ Abrams has likened the villainous “First Order,” the shadow organization of Imperial Empire adherents that developed after the initial fall of the Empire, to ODESSA, the shadow organization of former Nazis that developed after the fall of the Third Reich.  These bozos tried to pool their resources for another go at taking over the world, only they never had the means to do anything besides hide each other in villas around South America and Africa.  Still, the mythos of ODESSA spawned a whole series of spy pulp novels and movies that imagined what a sect of Nazi sleeper cells would unleash upon our civilization.  The danger was always that they had somehow smuggled themselves into positions of power and would be corrupting society from within its highest echelons.  This would have been a perfect and natural continuation of the “Star Wars” plot.  But instead, we’re basically brought back to square one.  Leia is still a commander of the rebels, and Han is again smuggling on the peripheries of society.  Has anything changed in this world?  It’s still generally lawless, and unclear as to why this world is any better than the one that existed under the Empire.  What is the power structure here?  And why are we calling defenders of the status quo “The Resistance?”

We’re to understand that in only 30 years, the Empire has 1) lost its leader; 2) found a new supreme leader, 3) turned some vital characters to the dark side, 4) re-organized into a formidable army, and 5) Built a weapon (which the movie so stupidly illustrates,) that is five times larger and more powerful than the Death Star.  It’s a little neat isn’t it?  Almost as if Abrams was more focused on mirroring “A New Hope” rather than actually continuing the saga logically towards new ground.

The whole premise of having a corrupt galaxy, operating under a “might makes right” code of ethics, only works when set under a dictatorship that’s more focused on its power than governing.  Emperor Palpatine didn’t give a damn about the people and just wanted their subservience.  Liken it to life under Stalinist Russia or any authoritative dictatorship throughout history.  Black markets flourished and people found side hustles to get around the constraints and self-serving laws of those in power.  This was the setting of the original movies, and it worked perfectly as a hero’s journey in an unjust world.  Re-doing the exact same set-up after the good guys have won just doesn’t work.  Why exactly is Han still just smuggling things around the galaxy?  Granted, he has graduated to smuggling Goosebumps monsters, but it doesn’t fit that one of the saviors of the Republic would go back to basking in an underbelly that existed out of necessity and not choice.

It’s unclear who knows what in this world, which is problematic because as viewers we need to know where the mystery is coming from and where our heroes can seek out the answers.  In the original films we followed a band of outsiders who collectively learned about their world.  Here, we’re plopped into a world where conceivably a lot of information is already out in the open, but nobody bothers to say anything about it.  Who is Snope, the baddie to whom Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren submits to?  How did the First Order get so strong?  What’s the state of this world?  Despite giving us two new outsiders in tough-nosed scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and morally conflicted ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), we get nowhere further in contextualizing the storyline by the end of the movie.  And we’re only given the suggestion that the answers to the questions we haven’t even asked, are going to come with Luke Skywalker in the next film.

There’s also a huge question of scope for these next episodes.  If a galaxy ending weapon like the Starkiller isn’t the end-all, be-all of this world, then what is?  What could the dark side do that’s worse than slaughtering what I’m estimating to be a conservative 4 billion people across 3 planets?  This was a huge mistake and we’re basically told we can go into cruise control with this series like we’re told to in every blockbuster that comes out these days.  How they messed up the simple formula of the first films is a real head-scratcher.  And, frankly it was the wrong strategy anyway.  This need to constantly point backwards is ultimately what undoes the chances of these films being any good and providing inspiring stories.  Instead of jamming in a haggardly Harrison Ford and having him ridiculously running down CGI corridors, can we allow him to just age with dignity and focus on moving the story forward?  Maybe him sitting back and giving advice or passing on an important piece of information would have been the way to go.  I’m saying this is the fourth-best “Star Wars” film, but that’s not really high praise.

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