Spoilers, yadda yadda.
The Force Awakens is a dad-rock concert. It’s that reunion rock show you won’t stop yappping at your kids about, about how this band was REAL music, and you made sure to find your vintage dad-rock band t-shirt, and then on the way back from the concert you sang loudly and off-key and thought about how you were going to dust off your guitar when you got home. And then you got home and took the dog out and went to bed.
I am wondering if J. J. Abrams has ever had an original idea in his life. He’s the kid who jams an extra engine onto another kid’s Lego model and goes running to mom to show her the spaceship he “made”. I keep thinking “but there was that one movie that I really liked” and then I remember it was Super-8 and the whole thing was an homage to E.T.
“Like ____, only ____”. It’s the formula for a Silicon Valley startup, or for any individual element in a J. J. Abrams movie.
I blame Quentin Tarantino, really. As far as I can tell he’s the one who made it cool to construct films entirely out of fanservice.
For me, the biggest disappointment wasn’t that the plot points followed the “like ____, only ____” formula. It’s that the visual design did. I’ve always loved Star Wars for its vehicle design. It’s the one sci-fi universe where designers can ignore all questions of practicality or logic, and just go with a design that’s visually striking. Nothing about a TIE fighter makes sense, but that’s OK, because it looks and sounds unique, and strikingly so.
In The Empire Strikes Back, there is no good reason for the Imperials to arrive in ponderous, vulnerable walkers that suggest (but don’t outright mimic!) elephants. But that doesn’t matter, because they look amazing.
This was the one area where even the prequels didn’t disappoint. Whatever their other failings, the prequels are just loaded with striking, iconic designs.
In The Force Awakens, by contrast, all we get are cheap derivatives. The Star Destroyers are just the old ones, only snub-nosed and less interesting. Kilo Ren’s shuttle does an adequate job referencing a bat, but it’s still a derivative design from Vader’s shuttle. And the X-Wings… don’t get me started on the X-Wings. There comes a point where it becomes obvious that you’re changing little things just to mark territory. Everyone knows Star Wars ships don’t make sense, but cutting a turbine in half is just rubbing people’s noses in that fact.
Where the designs don’t reference the past, they are largely uninspired. Compare Episode 1’s broad-winged, snail-footed C-9979 landing ship, with what we get in TFA: a standard Earth marine landing ship, only with rockets and a lid.
The one bit of vehicle design that stood out? Rey’s Jakku speeder. It references (but doesn’t mirror) a farm tractor from the 1940s, and it works. Moreover, it’s original.
Speaking of Jakku, can we talk about why half the movie takes place on a Tatooine stand-in?
And then, of course, the death-star-only-bigger. The film was apparently so worried that we might miss the fact that it’s a death-star-only-bigger, that it pauses for a fucking powerpoint presentation just to make the visual comparison. We get it, J. J.: Yours is bigger.
On to characters.
BB-8: eh, fun if you like that sort of thing. The overall movie has a very dark tone, which makes a goofy beeping droid feel a bit out of place, no matter how clever its design.
Finn: A creature made entirely from sweat. John Boyega completely fails to sell a stormtrooper who has been indoctrinated from childhood and begins to have doubts. He acts more like a conscript who was given six weeks of training and a blaster, and then told to shoot civilians. In his defense, this was at least as much the fault of the script.
Solo: it’s Harrison Ford. He can’t not be charismatic.
Leiah: Phoning it in. Fisher does not seem thrilled to be in this film.
Kylo Ren: Not bad.
And then there’s Rey. Who I leave for last because she is the one shining ray (heh) of light at the center of this film. She transcends the boggy mire of nudge-nudge wink-wink fan references and stands out as something legitimately new and compelling in the Star Wars universe.
Unlike Boyega, Daisy Ridley is never anything but believable. Watching her effectively teach herself to use the Force in extremis is arresting.
For her, and her alone, I’m looking forward to the next film.