Monday, January 18, 2016

Is "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" Really That Good?

Well, it's been one full month since Star Wars made its return to the big screen with Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and man, what a return this has been. The movie has already surpassed Avatar to become the highest grossing film of all time (ironic, since George Lucas once complained that The Phantom Menace was never going to beat Titanic, another James Cameron picture), and not only is it tough to find someone who hasn't seen it, but it's tough to find someone who hasn't seen it more than once and who doesn't still have plans to see it again. There hasn't been nearly this much hype and praise for one movie since maybe The Avengers three and a half years ago, and even after a whole month, The Force Awakens is still going strong.

But is the film really that good?

It's certainly not a terrible film, but given the history of the franchise, you have to wonder if people love The Force Awakens so much because of its own merits or just because of how disappointing the last three installments in the series were. Would people have been so approving if this had been the first Star Wars film to come out after the original trilogy?

One major thing that The Force Awakens always seemed to have going for it was that it wasn't helmed by George Lucas in any way. It was helmed by people with an outside perspective who probably knew from personal experience what the fans wanted to see in a new Star Wars movie, which was a lot of throwbacks to the original 1977 film. The only problem, as many critics have already pointed out, is that one of those throwbacks ended up being the plot of the original 1977 film.

It'd be one thing if The Force Awakens just offered another take on the Hero's Journey archetype story, but this is about as definite a ripoff of the original Star Wars plot as you can get, right down to the McGuffin being a droid with top secret data smuggled in its system. People debate whether this was just a story formula that Disney forced on the filmmakers or if the filmmakers themselves opted for it to play things safe in light of the prequels. Either way, it raises a few minor creative concerns.

It should also be noted that a few elements in the story don't carry quite as much emotional weight as they could. The protagonist Rey's fierce determination to protect and return the above mentioned droid to its owner is kind of sporadic and almost unwarranted, and her relationship with the character Finn is built more on circumstance than on actual chemistry. We don't know any of the fighter pilots who are trying to destroy the Starkiller Base well enough to really invest in them, and the Starkiller Base itself never quite reaches the same level of menace as the original Death Star despite being larger and more powerful.

A lot of that last issue probably comes from how little information the film gives about the history and setup of the galaxy's new political system. Almost nothing is known about the New Republic or any of the planets that make it up, so when the Starkiller Base destroys several of those planets at once, the horror and tragedy of that event are overshadowed by confusion about what systems we're looking at and who any of the people cowering on them are. Compare that then to the destruction of Alderaan in the original Star Wars, which worked emotionally because Alderaan was the homeworld of a character that we had grown to care about. We don't need any lengthy senate meetings discussing the politics of every system in the galaxy; we just need to have clearer identities for certain places and things.

One could give the prequel trilogy credit for at least trying to explain the political dealings of the Galactic Republic and make audiences care, but as the saying goes, there is no try.

With all of that said though, The Force Awakens does bring enough new and interesting elements to the table to keep the overall story fresh and engaging. A Stormtrooper defecting to the heroes' side is something that Star Wars fans probably never expected to see, and the presence of three intelligent, prominent female characters is actually rather groundbreaking for the series. It's also interesting after decades of reading the Expanded Universe books to see another version of how things have unfolded in the galaxy since the events of Return of the Jedi, even if some fans might object to such a huge retcon. How that retcon rewrites the lives of the franchise's original main characters and gives them all new material to work with is especially enticing.

And that's really where the heart of The Force Awakens lies. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as the leads both do impressive jobs for newcomers, but Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford are what bring the real emotional impact to this movie. Their appearances invoke a lot of personal memories within the audience, and unlike with most of the iconic throwbacks in this movie, that sense of nostalgia for the original heroes serves an actual diegetic function within the story. Because of that, the viewer's emotional response to it is earned.

It's also important to note how compelling all three of their performances are. Fisher and Hamill deliver quite a lot with very little dialogue or screentime, and you can really see the effect that reuniting with Star Wars has had on Harrison Ford. As much as he claims that returning as Han Solo was just another paycheck to him, it's obvious from his performance in the movie that a genuine sense of passion was tapped into during production. This is by far the most enthusiasm that Ford has conveyed on film in at least the past ten years, proving not only that the screen legend still has it in him, but that he really is the perfect Han. It takes a true spark of magic from the material to accomplish something like that.

What's more, the new character Kylo Ren is probably the most clever post-Darth Vader villain that Star Wars has ever created. That's not to say that the character himself is very smart (he's actually kind of the opposite, if you think about it), but the idea behind him is ingenious.

It's a proven fact that no matter what kind of villain this franchise gives us, fans will always compare him or her to Darth Vader, and he or she will always pale by comparison. The filmmakers behind The Force Awakens knew that, and since their film takes place after the events of the original trilogy, they rolled with that idea and made it the whole point of Kylo Ren's character. You're right; he's not as cool as Darth Vader, but he's trying his darnedest to be, and if you ever remind him that he's not as cool as Darth Vader, he'll stab one of your favorite good guys with a lightsaber. All criticism of this villain's inferiority is pointless because the filmmakers are in on the joke this time around. You really have to applaud them for that.

So once again, is Star Wars: The Force Awakens really as good as audiences have made it out to be? The answer: no, but it doesn't fall too short of those accolades. It's not the greatest Star Wars movie ever made, but neither was the original 1977 film, if we can be honest with ourselves. The 1977 film was an introduction to the original trilogy's story, an appetizer that came before the entrĂ©e that its sequels were. The Force Awakens does its job of introducing its characters and conflict in a fun way, and now that it's shown the studio that Star Wars is still extremely profitable, riskier and more complex films are probably on the horizon.

In short, The Force Awakens is, to put it simply, a new hope.