Like many little boys, I worshipped Star Wars when it first came out. In that pre-VHS era, the movie played at our local blockbuster palace (San Jose's late lamented Century 22) for over a year, allowing me to catch it at least ten times on the big screen – and that was even before the re-releases. (This was nothing; several classmates boasted of seeing it more than 40 times.) That made me a fan, but not a fanboy: while I still love the first movie, and to a lesser extent The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, I have grown up. I don't wear Star Wars T-shirts or buy toys "for the adult collector", and I certainly won't defend George Lucas' dippy prequels. Thus I went to The Force Awakens – two weeks late, after the crowds died down – not as a goggle-eyed manchild but as a film lover who just wants to be surprised, thrilled, and inspired.
I'll cut to the chase: while I laud Disney's attempt to erase the joyless CGI orgies that were the prequels from our memories and recapture the lovely, 35mm, shot-on-location look of the first Star Wars trilogy, and I definitely approve of the fresh talent in the cast, I feel that J.J. Abrams and his team went overboard in referencing the earlier films. The Force Awakens isn't a sequel. It's a tribute.
Sure, it was fun – though a little sad – to see raspy old septuagenarian Harrison Ford back as the once-dashing Han Solo. And sure, Leia (an even raspier Carrie Fisher, not given much to do here), Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2D2 were welcome returns. But when the film's opening scene showed a resistance fighter hiding secret plans inside a cute little droid, moments before being taken prisoner by stormtroopers and an evil masked man clad in black, after which the droid was left to wander a desert planet until being discovered by a lonely young local, the deja vu was hard to escape.
The analogues to Star Wars (and Empire) don't stop there. In fact, they never let up. Scene after scene, character after character, detail after detail, The Force Awakens is packed with callbacks to the earlier films. Seeing as how it would have made a billion dollars regardless of its plot, why didn't Abrams – and cowriters Michael Arndt and Empire scribe Lawrence Kasdan – dare to write something more original? Why just rehash and rehash and rehash? Was it Disney's decree? Or was Abrams' own inner fanboy merely eager to put his own spin on the Death Star, the cantina scene, and family revelations?
If the goal was to give us a movie that felt exactly like Star Wars, though, Abrams and company forgot one thing: Star Wars took its time. As did Empire and Jedi. Suspense was allowed to build. Characters were allowed to wonder, and flirt, and learn. But The Force Awakens is so busy hurtling us from one action set piece to another, and cramming in tons of characters and locations, it doesn't slow down to simply let us live in these worlds for a while. So characters remain underdeveloped and unrelatable, and just what the hell happened in the 32 years after Jedi is only fleetingly touched upon.
The Force Awakens still entertains. It looks great, the cast is appealing, and the warmhearted humor is welcome. But it failed to excite me. And I really wanted to be excited.
I don't know what to make of J.J. Abrams. I can't call him a hack, per se: his dedication is real, and I appreciate his efforts to make his films more inclusive by offering more key roles to women and non-white actors. But I'm not sure if he has anything to say other than, "These movies from my childhood – weren't they great?" And so, like Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness, The Force Awakens is a very expensive and very well-made fan film. It's reverential to a fault, but it lacks the idiosyncrasies that can turn everyday movies into works of art.