This is not a spoiler-free review so proceed at your own risk.
Throughout the buildup to The Force Awakens, the phrase “Chewie, we’re home” summed up the sentiment that had everyone, myself included, excited for the return to the galaxy far, far away. The movie promised it would be an exciting new story that would return us to our childhoods and take us to that moment when we first discovered the magic that was Star Wars.
But as I walked out of the theater after my first viewing, my first thought was “…that’s it?” The post-Return of the Jedi narrative is supposed to be the Great Unknown of the Star Wars fandom. Unlike the prequel trilogy, we had no idea what was going to happen. Episode VII was the first step into this larger world and was the start of a story for a new generation of heroes. So why did I feel so underwhelmed?
Though my initial reaction has only improved upon subsequent viewings, there’s still some issues I have with TFA that keep it from being my favorite Star Wars movie (or even in my top three). Narratively, the movie starts off strong but then gradually starts to feel a bit…..familiar; at times it felt straight-up derivative. We’ve got to rescue the girl from the evil base, though she’s also resourceful enough to rescue herself if given half a chance. The bad guys have a planet-destroying superweapon that is nearly impossible to destroy but we’ve got to take it out because they’re about to destroy us. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a heavy original trilogy influence (indeed, it might be the best way to sell a new Star Wars trilogy to a general populace that feels burned by the prequels), trying to bank so much of the movie on a familiar narrative kept it from really standing on its own.
To be abundantly clear, I’m not saying TFA is a rehash of A New Hope, because it’s certainly not. Unlike other Big Sequels To Old Beloved Movie Franchises That Mostly Rely On References To Make You Like The Film (i.e. Jurassic World, Spectre), TFA has enough original characters and settings that it still stands out as a fun continuation of the original saga. But it clearly takes heavy inspiration from ANH. For many that seems to be the reason they loved the movie; feeling like you were a kid again, watching the movies for the first time. But for me, TFA felt like it was riding the line between referential and derivation.
And that’s the heart of my issue with the movie; it lifts a lot of story elements from ANH but doesn’t always properly develop or reinvent those references in a way that’s interesting and doesn’t feel like shallow nostalgia. And TFA showed that it COULD do that; the confrontation between Han and Kylo was a perfect blend of Vader and Obi-Wan’s duel on the Death Star with Vader and Luke’s duel on Bespin. You have the death of the mentor figure (essential for Rey to take the next step on her Hero’s Journey) imbued with the emotional family drama that Star Wars is known for. It called back to the previous films without coming across as derivative.
But the existence of Starkiller Base (really, the last third of the movie) is not so cleverly reimagined, and that’s where the movie loses momentum for me. Ideally I would’ve preferred Star Wars not introduce another superweapon again; from the get-go it creates comparisons to the Death Star. But if TFA was going that route, they should’ve owned it and built it up as the terror it is. Instead, we abruptly get introduced to the First Order’s new superweapon, Starkiller Base. We see it destroy a whole system (apparently the Republic’s capital) but this isn’t really dwelled on at all, outside of Finn saying the First Order was responsible and Poe making an offhand comment about it at the Resistance base. We don’t have a chance to feel the magnitude of that destruction the way we do with Alderaan; there’s no equivalent scene to Obi-Wan Kenobi feeling “millions of voices suddenly [crying] out in terror [that] were suddenly silenced.”
The First Order somehow tracks a ship to the Resistance Base, just like Tarkin did with the Millennium Falcon, so the Resistance has to figure out how to destroy the base before it destroys them, just as the Alliance had to defend Yavin IV. The final aerial fight hits the same narrative beats as the Death Star battle, right down to the trench run and some unlikely shooting from a sole hotshot pilot, but there’s never the same sense of urgency and tension as there is in the original Death Star fight.
As it is, Starkiller Base feels like a tacked-on afterthought, as if the writers were saying “Hey, remember when this happened in 1977 and it was super cool?!” It takes away from the far more compelling plots about the search for Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren’s struggle between the light and the dark.
Ultimately, I felt like TFA was more interested in setting up the mystery box for the trilogy than it was with creating an engaging plot. The movie’s strength is in the characters it creates and how they interact with each other, not with its story. Furthermore this is a movie that knows it is the first of a trilogy and therefore can afford to spend most of the movie setting up plot threads that won’t be resolved for another movie or two. And that’s fine; after all, we don’t need explanation and backstory for everyone right away. It would be no fun to know all the answers at once. But at the same time, a movie should be able to stand on its own within a series and I’m not entirely sure that TFA does.
In a brief comparison, The Phantom Menace similarly knew that it was the first of a trilogy and set up a lot of plot elements that didn’t see payoff until later. But it didn’t get bogged down in creating the mystery box for the trilogy, and it certainly didn’t rely on the nostalgia card; for all its faults, TPM at least brought something original to the table.
All this isn’t to say I hated the movie, because I certainly didn’t. I enjoy it every time I see it. But at the same time, I have a feeling that my love of TFA is going to be defined by its relationship to the rest of the sequel trilogy and not how it is as a movie in its own right.
I’m excited for the new characters we get and I cannot wait to see the paths they will carve for themselves in a galaxy far far away. I want to know all about Kylo’s fall to the Dark Side and why it apparently devastated Luke so much that he went to go hide out on a remote island for however many years. I am absolutely vibrating with excited anticipation to see Rey take her first steps on the hero’s journey and (presumably) begin her Jedi training. I desperately want see more Poe Dameron X-wing battles. And this is Star Wars so I’m sure there will be lots of Skywalker family drama, which I’m always a fan of.
Overall, TFA hits the checkpoints that make this feel like a Star Wars film, but I think it relies too much on franchise nostalgia instead of developing its more original aspects. I’m excited about where these new characters are going to go. On a meta level, I love TFA less as a Star Wars movie and more for what it means for the fandom and for the loads of kids who are going to grow up on a Star Wars trilogy that features a girl as the main character. I’m can’t wait to explore this new universe but I hope that in the future we won’t be retreading the same ground. Let’s take the training wheels off and create some new stories.