I think most people came out of The Force Awakens feeling a mixture of joy and sadness. For me, it was mostly the latter, but for all the wrong reasons. Here's the thing: The Force Awakens is not a terrible movie, but in a way, that makes it all the worse. It's just not a Star Wars movie.
Sure, the trappings are there. A sandy, barren planet (Jakku, rather than Tatooine). A droid bearing a secret map. Gritty practical effects and quirky aliens and vast empty reaches of space. The entire galaxy hinging on the domestic troubles of one family. Harrison Ford. Carrie Fisher. Mark Hamill. But all of these details are in new hands, in a new universe, with a new style. Ross Douthat nailed it when he predicted the movie to be a massive work of calculated fan-service, much like the Marvel franchise.
[Mild SPOILERS regarding basic plot]
In brief, the story is this: After the Empire fell in Return of the Jedi, a new Republic was established. When Luke Skywalker disappears, Empire sympathizers organize as a new enemy: The First Order (neo-Nazis, basically). In addition to these two groups is the Resistance (Why is this different from the Republic? That isn't explained, as this movie is as vague on politics as the prequel trilogy was mind-numbingly specific).
The story begins with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance pilot, secreting a map on new droid BB-8, instructing him to bear it safety. The map will supposedly reveal the location of Luke Skywalker. Fleeing into the night, BB-8 is befriended by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger, and our protagonist. Poe, meanwhile, escapes the First Order with the help of a gawky stormtrooper, FN-2187 "Finn" (John Boyega), pursued by a Vader-esque villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey and Finn team together to deliver the map to the Resistance.
Going into the movie, I was optimistic. I'd just rewatched the original trilogy, finishing Return of the Jedi that very morning, and had slipped easily back into the galaxy far, far away. It's a simply story, really. The mythology stands stark and clear, unambiguous. Shots of Luke Skywalker gazing across a barren desert to the glorious sky, coupled with John Williams' soundtrack, are moving in their wordless power.
Things seem to settle down when we find Rey on Jakku, and the ten minutes spent introducing her spare existence are some of the best in the film, but they are over far too quickly, throwing us back into the chaotic violent pacing of the rest of the film. Not that this approach doesn't have its moments. There are terrific sequences, like Finn and Poe's escape from a Star Destroyer, or the first appearance of the Millennium Falcon, or when monsters chase our heroes through the cramped halls of a spaceship.
But the speed and restless camera mostly go towards distracting from a depressingly derivative plot, crippled by modern blockbuster ingredients. It plunders the structure of A New Hope, adding little of interest beyond nostalgia, CGI, and a postmodern sensibility. Despite J.J. Abrams’ promise of practical effects, CGI is still front and center. Supreme Commander Snoke (an Emperor imitator so inessential to the plot that he didn't even make it into my summary) is so obviously CGI that he’s robbed of all menace.
[REALLY SERIOUS SPOILERS]
Speaking of which, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren makes for a complex villain, but is worryingly reminiscent of Hayden Christensen (he does take after his granddad!), and having one of the most badass characters of all time die at his hands is frankly insulting. Han Solo deserved better.
Another bad decision: that so much of that subplot occurred off-screen. Because of that, it was difficult to give events sufficient tragedy. We began by hating Ren; we ended by hating Ren even more. There are so many things left unexplained here. What was Han and Ben’s relationship like? I suspect they were not the type of personalities to mesh easily: did Han drive him away? Did Han feel guilty about that? How in the world did Han Solo and Leia Organa raise a son like whiney Kylo anyway? Leia is not the type to brook much teenage angst, and I suspect any of Han’s children would have a lively sense of humor. We’ve waited 38 years: we want to know how our favorite characters spent that time, instead, we’re expected to fill in the blanks with…Kylo Ren. And what a blank (blankety-blank-blank) he is. Yes, yes, all of this is so much better than Anakin’s story, but that’s a pretty low bar to meet. The best thing to come out of this is the Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren.
That said, while I saw it coming miles away, Han’s Bridge of Khazad-dûm moment still made me die a little inside. Harrison Ford's mere presence packs nostalgic weight.
Before we leave the spoiler section, a suggestion: instead of another Death Star plot, I'd have loved to have seen an adventure focused on finding Luke Skywalker, which seemed to be the original direction. Rey, Finn, and Poe could go on a tour of the wilder parts of the galaxy, Indiana Jones-style with Indiana Jones.
[END REALLY SERIOUS SPOILERS]
And so, despite everything, The Force Awakens is a bad movie (not terrible, just bad). Daisy Ridley is great. John Boyega is great. Oscar Isaac is great (and under-used). They're great. Of course they are. With this amount of money and pressure, there was never a chance they wouldn't be. Hollywood knows how to find good young actors (step one: look to Britain). Harrison Ford appears and does all the nostalgic things. Carrie Fisher appears and does all the nostalgic things. Mark Hamill appears, all Alec Guinness-y. But all these things are calculated and controlled to please the fans - there is no free creativity here.
It's exceedingly meta. Rey and Finn, the audience stand-ins, are in awe of the Big Three. The new cast geek out about being on the Millennium Falcon and speak in such meme-ready lines as "Droid, please." As someone who has never been very nostalgic about Star Wars, I was less sympathetic to than distracted by their fanboyish glee. Because of its self-awareness, I found it impossible to accept The Force Awakens as canon.
Yes, I enjoyed the movie. There were lots of nice moments, and while, as a fan film, it's only my second favorite, I appreciated all the nods to the original. Daisy Ridley is blessedly free of pretension as Star Wars' first female protagonist. Her relationship with John Boyega's Finn is neither condescending nor romantic - they're essentially equals, but the film isn't shoving that fact in your face (too strongly, anyway: "I know how to run without you holding my hand!") Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron is charming and charismatic, but has far too little screen time - the dynamic between Isaac and Boyega could definitely have been exploited more. Harrison Ford obviously has a grand time walking down memory lane (but, shoot me first, I actually preferred Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the Harrison Ford Nostalgia side). The idea of a lightsaber as a relic connecting Rey to the Force was a great idea. BB-8 is brilliant. I enjoyed spotting Harriet Walter of Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries fame, hanging with Chewbacca.
But all the same, Star Wars is dead. Star Wars, as we know it, is gone for good, replaced by a franchise. Inevitable? Yes. But it still leaves me sad.
I saw The Force Awakens with a friend who had never seen a single Star Wars movie before. She told me this about thirty seconds before the film began, and asked for a diagnosis of genre. "It's...a space opera," I said, and off her blank expression, added, "A fantasy. A myth. A fairytale. Knights, swordfights, princesses. In space." I turned back to the screen, reminded by my own description of what made Star Wars what it was.
The Force Awakens was none of those things, and my friend must have been puzzled both by the film and by my broody silence after it ended. Around me, fans cheered. I wondered if I was the only one, and then turned to my sister. “That didn’t seem like Star Wars,” she said.