(As per usual this review contains multiple spoilers. You’ve been warned!)
In a recent interview the stage and screen actress Blythe Danner said that part of why she left New York and the stage for LA and the movies was that, after she won a Tony on Broadway, whenever she made a stage entrance the audience would applaud.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens reminded me of that. Whenever one of the old crew appeared I expected the theater to break out in applause, and it seemed to me that director J.J. Abrams slowed these sequences down a tad for these special moments of reverent self-reference.
Because if this movie is anything it is self-referent; it is a less a sequel than a re-make of the first Star Wars movie. I found myself silently checking off references to the first movie (and its 2 sequels).
We meet our young protagonist Rey, scavenging on a distant, sand-swept planet (check), just like Luke (who may or may not be, but probably is, her father). There are lots of characters related to other characters (Chinatown?). When Rey uses the Force to convince the storm-trooper to release her I heard in my head Obi Wan tell the storm-troopers, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”
And what about that escape? I had a “fool me once” thought when Rey escapes, the second important prisoner to get away. What’s with these powerful evil people? It is like in James Bond movies when the Evil Villain tells Bond he will kill him, but first leave him alone carelessly tied up for a few minutes (Dr. Evil?).
Rey is MacGyver (to move outside the Franchise for a second). She’s a polymath. First of all she knows the Force innately somehow, which makes her much more clever than her putative father, who needed lots and lots of extra-tutoring from Yoda before he mastered it. Apparently she also did some correspondences courses at MIT because she can figure out how to fix and operate anything (who says girls aren’t good at math and science?). She’s a good character, and badass in a fight the way Princess Leia would be if she was young now (or whenever).
The other young characters (Finn, Poe) in the new generation are all nice additions, although I longed for more dialogue to know who they are and what makes them tick. Are short attention spans demanding more frenetic action and less conversation? Perhaps the movie could have cut some of the hundreds of tech/art folks for a few good writers. I felt this about Avatar as well, full of spectacle but short on good writing.
To move on. The original three Star Wars movies were homages to multiple old movie genres the way only a master movie lover like Lucas can spin out (just as Spielberg did with Indiana Jones.) The Force Awakens contains many of these old movie (and TV) tropes, too, of the Old West and Flash Gordon and Captain Gallant in the desert, but it also nods to a generation who have played video games, many of them Star Wars themed. The big First Order (the new Empire) rally is right out of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, showing what Hitler and the Nazis could have put together at the 1933 Nuremberg rally if they’d had the budget.
But the biggest reference in the movie is to the Star War franchise itself, and Abrams handles the material with reverence, sometimes so much that the movie feels more like a piece of nostalgia rather than a fresh adventure. I’m not complaining (too much). I was glad to see all the old crowd, Han and Princess (now General) Leia, and Luke (Mark Hamill may have set a cinematic record for the importance of a non-speaking role with camera time under a minute.)
And the “theology” of The Force Awakens? It seems to be the old Manichean dualism of good and evil, dark and light. The good guys (now the Resistance) are really good and the bad guys (the First Order) are really bad, and that may be part of the appeal of the franchise in a day and time when many of the struggles of the world are more complex and nuanced. I’m not sure whether either the Force or the Dark Side have much transcendence; they seem to be immanent in the human (or sometimes other-specied) spirit. Some Christian liturgies that I have attended recently have construed the Holy Spirit to be something like the Force, resulting in very un-Reformed worship. But, hey, it’s just a movie.
And to tell the truth I really enjoyed it. Not as a movie so much as an experience like a happy high school reunion. For a movie buff I nowadays see very few movies in an actual movie theater (my last one may have been Avatar, also my last film review), but some movies beckon as this one did, and so I went and I am glad I did.
It is not a great movie. But thanks to J.J. Abrams and Disney for bringing it to us. It is always fun to see old friends. I realized in the end the only thing more powerful than “The Force” is “The Franchise.” I await more of it!