Don't worry! This review will be completely devoid of spoilers, so those of you who have yet to see the film, feel free to read on!
What can I say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Did it meet my expectations? Was I surprised at the plot twists and reveals? Am I excited for the eventual release of Episode VIII?
The short answer to all of these questions is yes. Though that answer bears different meaning for each one.
The film was incredible. It not only stands boldly as the continuation of the groundbreaking cinematic trilogy of our youths, but it wins in many of the places where the prequel trilogy failed. Episode VII is, far and away, within the top-tier of Star Wars films, though what exactly that means for any of us will obviously change from person to person.
There's not much to say about the visuals or the sound. These are both exemplary, as to be expected. We don't doubt for any minute that these characters really are on the desert planet of Jakku, in the vast reaches of space, or in the middle of an alien cantina. The cinematography, the acting, the screenplay, every facet of this film is a surefire win, for fantasy fans, for Star Wars fans, and for film fans. It's a fun and exciting trip from start to finish, and you owe it to yourself to see it in the theaters at least once.
Now that I've put all of your fears to rest, let's go over my complaints, however few or minor they are. Again, there will be NO SPOILERS in this review, so even if you haven't seen the film yet, please read on.
I am by no means a film expert, unless I mistakenly proclaim that of myself at one point or another. I do, however, tend to watch films with a different frame of mind than most of the movie-going populace. Many people mistake this as me not liking film, hating film, despising film, when really it is often the opposite. I am so in love with film as a medium that I am more easily disappointed when it doesn't live up to it's potential, when it doesn't ensnare and captivate me the way it should. I know what film is capable of, and I understand the various genres therein, and it upsets me when a film so easily makes a misstep, or fumbles with its story or tone. I had this issue with Jurassic World, when the audience was a little too front-and-center for a certain character death than we had any right to be. And there was an underlying feeling of this with Star Wars.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and it is the current fuel that is powering our entertainment industry. There has always been a strong desire for 'more of what we love' than 'new and exciting', and that is the case now more than ever. Franchises like Transformers, Jurassic Park, Marvel comics, and DC comics are all getting their screen remakes and reboots, and even semi-older films that were wonderful before, like Point Break, Predator and Alien, are all seeing sequels or remakes. It's very easy for us, as consumers, to throw our money at something we're familiar with, even if it is just more of the same.
And it was easy for me to see, and for others I have no doubt, that the basic plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was just the same plot as Star Wars: A New Hope. The hidden information, the missing droids, the smuggler with a heart of gold, joining the insurrectionists against the overpowering enemy, it really was just a rehashing of the original film. The basic outline is there, J.J. Abrams just changed some of the names and added a family subplot as a footnote to lead into future films.
And it isn't that surprising, really. Think about it, if you were J.J. Abrams and you had to helm this new movie, this gateway into a larger, newer Star Wars universe. Would you write a story new and exciting, take a gamble on whether or not people will like it, and hope to expand the scope or themes of Star Wars in a new way? No. Of course you wouldn't. That would be Hollywood suicide. It's success wouldn't be in the box office, even if people liked it. It would be in DVD sales and digital sales, long after Disney decided to go with a different director.
The safe move, and easily the safest move for Abrams, was to look at the most successful film that had done the same thing as he was trying to do. And that was obviously A New Hope. Borrow from it, pay homage to it, exist alongside it but don't steal from it. The Force Awakens was definitely more subtle about it's love for the original than Jurassic World was with Jurassic Park, and that is admirable. And the reviews are in, the fans (who have seen it) have spoken: J.J. Abrams has done it again, and we finally have our favorite space-fantasy saga back to the way it should be.
But should it be like this? I lament that the fan-base - as a whole - is so fickle and elitist, so picky that they would look down their noses at anything that deviates from this predetermined course - at least for the first installment. And I am one of those fans! While I can't say for certain, I can hypothesize that I would feel cheated if The Force Awakens was different than what it turned out to be. After all, George Lucas himself did just that with The Phantom Menace, and look how the fans responded to it.
Is there a better answer? Yes, I'm sure. Is it possible to create an original Star Wars story that isn't A New Hope and isn't The Phantom Menace? Undoubtedly. And while this does lean quite heavily on the success of Episode IV, it also leaves us with powerful plot threads and strong hopes for the upcoming Episode VIII.
The Force Awakens played the safe bet, as everyone should have expected. There are some minor twists, but I saw them a mile away, so I'm sure you will too. But overall, J.J. Abrams delivered the film not that we may have wanted, but the one we needed. And, best of all, he promises to only expand upon that in the future.