There’s a child raised in the sand dunes, a morally-conflicted rogue, and a stalwart defender of the intergalactic Resistance. One will develop powers of great force, another will redeem their past misdeeds, and the third will score the surest victory yet for their revolutionary cause. Somebody stop us if we’ve said too much. See, we’ve been asked—by fans, by publicists, by fellow critics—not to “spoil” the events of Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens. But that was a needless request. You already spoiled The Force Awakens for yourself when you saw the movie described at the top of this paragraph. You spoiled it way back when you watched the first Star Wars.
That’s not the first time we’ve had this reaction. There’s a new mode of commercial filmmaking that The Force Awakens fits into. First we had sequels. We had remakes, and we had reboots. But the movies we’ve been seeing lately work to combine all three. We’re thinking about Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, Creed—and that’s just limiting it to 2015. These movies exist to introduce new primary characters for future sequels, and yet they spend much of their time trotting out the old stuff for nostalgia’s sake. In each of the trio, the climactic moments are self-referential: the camera rolls into close-up, and we grin at the return of a costume (an original Jurassic Park t-shirt,) or a sound cue (“Gonna Fly Now!”) or a catchphrase (“I’ll be back,” quite fittingly.) This is the cinema of pre-built parts. If it’s filmmaking, then assembling a LEGO set is architecture.
As is customary in this Cinema of Callbacks, we meet the new toys first. Poe (Oscar Isaac) is the best pilot that the Resistance (formerly the Rebels) has got in the post-Skywalker era, so he’s trusted with a map that may lead to the long-missing Luke. That draws the attention of First Order (formerly the Empire) rep and Darth Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver,) who tracks Poe to one of this franchise’s many desert planets (Jakku.) Poe, sensing his capture (but not through the Force,) enlists an R2-D2 stand-in named BB-8 to carry his secret map-message, which eventually finds its way to local scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley.) To see what old role she’s filling, look to her wardrobe: beige robes, ripped up, with sand ingrained into every fiber. It’s Skywalker chic. That leaves us only without a new Han Solo (who returns here, still played by Harrison Ford—we’ll get to him in a minute,) so for that role there’s FN2187 (John Boyega.) He’s a First Order devotee, until he contributes to a mass killing as the movie opens. Then he develops post-traumatic Stormtrooper disorder.
Troubled by the blood on his helmet, he joins Poe in shawshanking a way out of Ren’s intergalactic jail cell. He is christened (Finn,) and then he is stranded (on Jakku, alongside a few other characters.) Thus the new stable is born—Finn, Rey, their droid, and the macguffin—in the exact same mold as the old one. Which means we’re ready for the originals to arrive themselves. First Solo, as a co-pilot to the younger crew, and then Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher,) who’s since been promoted to General. Only then can the gang, and the movie, focus energies on the planet-sized weaponry wielded by the First Order. It might look similar to an older base, but don’t call it a Death Star. There’s a Resistance advisor who makes a point to establish just how different the two things are. Everybody seems to believe him.
No surprise that all these designs are being rescued from the dustbin. J. J. Abrams is the director of The Force Awakens, and he’s got the cinematic voice of a vacuum cleaner. His movies are made from whatever influences and predecessors he’s sucked up last. (The Abrams oeuvre is comprised of two sequels, one reboot, and Super 8—a feature-length Steven Spielberg homage.) With Force he’s trying to recreate the open-world weirdness of Lucas’ original trilogy: every wide-angle composition here has a beastly accoutrement resting in the left or right of the frame. Those pets give the movie texture. It’s a tangible one, with ridges and scales. Yet only in two early moments (one is a frozen potshot, the other involves a tied-up TIE fighter,) does Abrams and his visual effects team fire up something capable of surprise. His primary camera-movement—a tilt to the side, throwing the frame off-balance, that’s used at moments of tension and danger—suggests the motion that a dog makes when it’s confused. Even the best of those creature-feature money shots is just there to make space. You could call this staging. You could also call it decoration.
The staging of the first Star Wars breaks down simply: Darth Vader was framed throughout as a great dictator, while Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker got the John Ford-John Wayne treatment. And the action sequences, filled with the aesthetic hallmarks of both wartime propaganda and western serials, gave that idea ground to stand on. Lucas set the respective myths of the 20th century’s superpowers on a track to butt heads. In The Force Awakens, then, a speech is modeled after Triumph of the Will. Enslaved Stormtroopers are given numbers in lieu of names. Mass genocides are staged. One action sequence even hinges on the fact that our two protagonists are trapped and hiding below the set’s floorboards. None of this is here because Abrams has something to say—or something to show us—that regards the Holocaust, or even its iconography. These homages are just hand-me-down’s.
Maybe that’s hard to avoid when your stars also arrive secondhand. Much press has been made about the return of Ford, Fisher, and Hamill to the roles that made them fandom royalty. But aside from the three c’s—costumes, callbacks, and close-up’s—The Force Awakens doesn’t make much of them. The dialogue shared between Han and Leia is simple, single-syllable exposition stuff. And it’s hard to imagine that anyone who waited decades for this family reunion will be satisfied with the one-liners that Abrams’ screenwriters (Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan) pass off for pathos. But we barely blame them. This is how the sausages get made. Harrison Ford, costumed up, making jokes about a 38-year-old trash-compactor scene—that’s the modern commercial ideal, right? Even this movie comments on it: Ren is obsessed, to the point of distraction, with Darth Vader’s old mask. Much love to anyone who extracts true joy from these past-raiding sequels. But we’ll be wondering: how long is it going to take before we’re tired of playing with this new Darth Vader toy?
STAR WARS: EPISODE VII — THE FORCE AWAKENS. NOW PLAYING EVERYWHERE.