If you enjoy “Star Wars,” and I genuinely do, there is a lot to like in J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens.” It’s a sturdy actioner with a steady hand and a determined focus on servicing all the things that you like about the franchise: the key characters and their legacies; elaborate dogfights in the stars; a vaguely defined, inoffensive spiritual underpinning; and fantastical yet strangely plausible sci-fi production design.
The first act of the film, too, is a blast. It efficiently drops several new characters into the vast tapestry of the Star Wars Universe and adroitly wins the audience over to their cause. The actors who play them are all more than up to the task, and for a while their journey is a raucous good time because they’re living out the audience’s dream of taking part in this imaginary galaxy, romping through a playground of thirty years’ worth of fandom. To be specific, they spend the first third of their screen time literally walking among the remnants of the original trilogy, and the sheer novelty of it sends chills up your spine.
Beyond that, though, the film is a slog, like a long errand list of franchise debts that must be paid off. It’s been said that in many ways “The Force Awakens” feels like a remake of the original “Star Wars” entry. But for me, beyond the first third, at the point when it devotes significant time to legacy characters, it feels more like some kind of History Channel documentary of the 1977 original. It’s preoccupied with scrupulously re-enacting old scenarios, faithfully reviving old themes, pedantically inventorying old details—even resetting major aspects of the premise so that we’re essentially back at square one. Some people find that entertaining, and after the punishingly inept prequels, who can be blamed for wanting to revisit fertile ground? But for me it was tedious and even boring, like being back in school and repeating a grade. Even the considerable energy it expends painting a more ethnically diverse galaxy than any of its predecessors did is only moderately satisfying.
The original “Star Wars” and its first sequel—the only two films in the whole franchise worth a damn, in my opinion—may not have been built on genuinely new ideas, but they succeeded as wonderfully unexpected mashups of the broad world of cinema. George Lucas’s brilliant insight was that you could construct a novel vision by borrowing liberally from an eclectic array of source material—everything from old adventure serials to Kurosawa. Its genius was that it was a film about film itself, rooted in a mix of wide-eyed wonder and knowing irony.
By contrast, “The Force Awakens” spends most of its time mixing and matching bits of “Star Wars” and little else. If it has a wider body of inspiration that it draws from, it’s still nowhere nearly as diverse as Lucas’s. Most of what this ostensibly new movie puts in front of us depends heavily upon our sense of familiarity, even of nostalgia, and it’s all presented with so much reverence for Lucas’s originals that its universe feels hermetic, closed off to anything that wasn’t already contained within. If the very first 1977 “Star Wars” was a film about dozens if not hundreds of the films that came before it, “The Force Awakens” is about only its six predecessors. It’s not a film that’s animated by ideas; its principal purpose is just to worship “Star Wars” itself.