I've held off commenting on the new Star Wars movie for a couple of reasons. First, there's been the huge (and somewhat pointless) push to keep people from revealing "spoilers" about the plot. And second, I wanted to give myself enough time to think about it after the glow of fannish enthusiasm and nostalgia has had a chance to fade.
Overall, I liked it. I give it a letter grade of B+ — perfectly executed, but with some flaws in conception. I have no complaints about any of the work that went into putting the movie together. The acting, the cinematography, the visuals, the music — all of them were exactly right for a Star Wars movie.
And that, I think, is the reason it doesn't get an A: the director and the writers were trying to make "a Star Wars movie." At some point in the process, I expect someone stood in front of a whiteboard in a conference room and a group of people shouted out things that needed to be in the film in order to make it "a Star Wars movie." The eventual list doubtless included:
- Desert planet
- Masked villain who turns out to be related to someone
- Scrappy kid with untapped potential
- The Millennium Falcon!
- Dive bar full of scum and villainy
- Lightsaber duel!
- Rescuing someone from the bad guys
- Giant superweapon!
- MacGuffin hidden inside a droid
- X-Wings to the rescue!
- Bottomless chasm
- Superweapon destroyed at the last second!
All of those boxes get ticked off in the film. The plot is essentially a way to work through that list, and allow guest appearances by Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill.
Obviously, it was a success. You don't make half a billion dollars with a movie that's a failure. As someone who owns a little Disney stock, I'm pleased. As a science fiction writer who remembers the boom in SF after the original Star Wars, I'm pleased.
But in the back of my mind there's an echo of the same vague sense of letdown I felt in 1983, when I went to see Return of the Jedi. As the music swelled and the opening text crawl slid up the screen, I read the words ". . . a new DEATH STAR . . . " and my excitement level dropped a couple of notches.
To me, the problem with Force Awakens is not simply that it's derivative. All the Star Wars movies have been derivative. My problem is that Force Awakens wasn't derivative enough.
The original Star Wars drew on samurai movies, Westerns, Flash Gordon serials, the Wizard of Oz, war movies, Robin Hood — essentially the whole canon of adventure films from Melies to whatever George Lucas watched in 1976 before going off to start filming in Tunisia. I recently watched a video called "Star Wars Minus Star Wars" which retells the story of the original Star Wars by replacing all the shots in it with shots from the movies that inspired it.
The Empire Strikes Back drew from a different well. With seasoned pulp writer Leigh Brackett crafting the first draft of the script, it incorporated a lot of tropes from the science fiction magazines of the prewar era. If Star Wars was a condensed history of adventure cinema, Empire was a distillation of pulp fiction — including scary monsters, a villainous mastermind, a scrappy dame, and a hero with a dark side of his own.
But subsequent movies abandoned that approach. Instead of being derivative of all cinema or all adventure fiction, they were derivative of . . . Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi took us back to the desert planet Tatooine, then to a desperate attack on a new, bigger Death Star. Phantom Menace took us back to Tatooine again, then to a desperate attack on a smaller (but still generally spherical) space superweapon.
Attack of the Clones was a bit of a change-up, with no superweapon to blow up at the climax, and a nice cavalry-to-the-rescue appearance by the titular Clone troopers as the music of the Imperial March plays heroically. (It's no coincidence that Attack of the Clones is by far the best of the "prequel trilogy.") Revenge of the Sith piled up one action sequence on another in order to maneuver us to the endless lightsaber duel between Kenobi and Skywalker, but was hobbled by the fact that the outcome of the entire movie was already set in stone.
Despite my griping, I actually am a little hopeful about future Star Wars movies. Disney/Lucasfilm are already hard at work on a flick called Rogue One, about the daring Rebels who steal the Death Star plans in the first place, kicking off the action of the original Star Wars. Why am I enthusiastic? Because the nature of the story will practically force the moviemakers to break out of their self-referential spiral. We'll have to see new characters (and it's pretty likely that some of them or even all of them will perish); the plot can draw on spy movies, caper flicks, maybe even a bit of film noir with betrayal and counter-betrayal.
I think much of my sense of disappointment since Return of the Jedi has been a feeling that George Lucas et al were squandering the immense potential for storytelling in the Star Wars universe. One of the really nice features of the original film was the way it casually made reference to things like the Clone Wars or the ancient feud between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, but didn't bother to explain them. The audience could imagine cool stuff to fill in those hints. It felt like a big universe, with a long and complex history, and lots of stuff going on outside the frame of the screen. Rather than broaden the canvas and show us more of that world, the subsequent films narrowed to an almost obsessive focus on the extended Skywalker family and its assorted snits and dysfunctions.
I want to see the Star Wars films break away from that claustrophobic emphasis and make use of the scope and depth of the universe we all invented in our heads. It's worth noting that the animated television series The Clone Wars managed to have much more interesting storytelling and well-developed characters, and constantly visited new parts of the Galaxy, even though all the plot developments had to fit into continuity between Episodes II and III. What I'm saying is, it can be done. Now I just want to see Lucasfilm/Disney actually do it.