I had originally planned to write a review of the film “Crash,” a superficial, cliche overview of racism rendered all but worthless by its structure and development. However, upon viewing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” I was alarmed. I wondered if I had missed some golden scenes that give the film its own feeling, its own themes and its own plot. However, after about 15 minutes of reading other people’s summaries and analysis, I came to the tragic conclusion that I had indeed seen the same film. Now, I am in a state of disbelief that this film had received remote acclaim, and grossed $2 billion. JJ Abrams has made a fortune for doing nothing. “The Force Awakens” is a systematic failure of filmmaking: the camera work is bad, the dialogue is bad, the acting is largely bad and the structure of the film is awful, so derivative and unoriginal that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I witnessed plot development. I kept futilely hoping that the film would come into its own, but alas all that remained after over two hours was dreck. There are innumerable gripes I have about the film (Snoke sounds like the name for a 5-year-old’s stuffed animal) but will stick to my larger issues.
The camera work oscillates between fan service and bad shots. To be fair, there are two shots I found effective. The first is during the opening scene. The shot switches between shallow and deep focus of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow). It does an excellent job of concisely capturing their reactions and was a welcome stylistic flourish. The other excellent shot was a carefully crafted one on the bridge during the Starkiller Base assault. Light from the top streams in a long shot that gives the moment between Han Solo and Kylo Ren an almost religious quality, which the scene itself reinforces. It was a rare moment that wasn’t contrived, and was epic in itself. Outside those two more laudable moments, the camera work lacks any ingenuity. It is filled with references to the original trilogy. The opening shot of the film is a direct re-tread of a scene in the fifth movie when Darth Vader’s destroyer is introduced, which is a nice symbolism for the entire film: an inferior retread of the original trilogy. Among the most overt are the Millennium Falcon taking off from an identical angle when it flees from Mos Eisley, and a terrible rehashing of the wonderful Cantina scene, with even the same camera swoop surveying the bar. It's all done due to a creative void; Abrams is a vacuous ventriloquist, and there is never a desire to expand on what the original trilogy did, just to recreate it for maximum profits and fanboy acclaim. Watch the unveiling of R2D2 scene again, the camera swoops at the ground level and gazes at the robot with a monolithic admiration, as if the audience is staring at the Pyramids or Taj Mahal.
There is no fundamental difference between the plots of “The Force Awakens” and “A New Hope.” The escalation, the evolution and the character development are fundamentally the same. Consider the premise: an orphaned child with Force powers is reluctantly dragged into the battle between rebels and a powerful evil organization after the person runs into a droid carrying a valuable secret. That opening is even filmed in the same damn order, with the First Order/Empire attacking the rebels and forcing the droid to flee, then depiction of daily life for the hero, and finally them discovering the secret and having to flee their home planet. This decision to recreate the fourth film’s glacial first 40 minutes is confounding given that that is “A New Hope’s” weakest facet. There was no thought behind retreading that ground; it was just mindless fan service designed to appease people rather than try to make a film of any worth. "The Force Awakens" even highlights its own startling unoriginality when the rebels discuss destroying the Starkiller Base. They note it is functionally the Death Star again, only bigger (one of the films many failed visual gags). That is emblematic of the film’s ethos, just create the fourth film, modernize the film and make it “bigger,” which will hopefully obfuscate that the film has nothing to say. The stakes are not raised in any meaningful way; the film is not more epic or interesting, just lazy and devoid of ideas.
What makes the film a special kind of awful is the characters, either due to the acting, dialogue or at times, both. The film’s terrible fan service and imitative nature could be overlooked, even forgiven, if the characters and dialogue were strong. Remember all of the reasons I complimented the script of “8 ½?” Well “The Force Awakens” is the exact opposite. It is a terrible script. Half of the lines seem to have been pulled from a compendium of cliche action movie lines: e.g. “We’ve got company” or “That’s impossible! “We have to try” (the second isn’t verbatim, but that idea). Another chunk of the dialogue is, as many other elements are, designed to milk nostalgia as much as possible, e.g. “This place have a garbage chute?” “We're home, Chewy.” Now, to discuss the characters: Even in his 70s, Harrison Ford has not lost his charm, and the scene in which he attempts to talk his way out of trouble (the dialogue portion) has the humor that the other two hours and 10 minutes needed. It was a call back to the old trilogy while still offering something new. Unfortunately, the rest of his dialogue seems designed to recall his time in the original trilogy as much as possible, and he is certainly the most consistent nostalgia pull throughout the film. Carrie Fisher as Leia functions similarly, but unfortunately she was never a good actress, and age did not help that. Boyega as the rogue trooper, Finn, is generic, as is his character. There is nothing that separates him from any other defector in film. The film wastes the power of Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. The actor, who was brilliant in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Ex Machina,” has turned into a “Top Gun” character. He should be spitting abysmal one liners with Tom Cruise, though he does the first part of that plenty. Rey is probably the single most obvious example of the scripts overall negative trends. Abrams took Luke and made him a girl, and apparently thought that because Rey is female, that he should take out all of Luke’s charm and personality. Rey is determined and brooding to the point of caricature. She lacks any defining personality trait, a sense of thought behind her actions. She as a serious character isn’t bad in and of itself—I certainly think there should be female characters taken seriously—but not when it sucks out any chance at a personality. And finally, Kylo Ren, the greatest catastrophe of the film. Driver is stolid to the point of wooden, and there is none of the turbulence, confusion and frustration that he should have been afforded. Ren is an angsty teenager. Instead of the touching portrayal of a man torn in two, someone who is pulled by dichotomous sides of good and evil (his true nature and his obsession with power), he has the existential profundity of a Puddle of Mudd fan. Kylo Ren’s emotional depth makes a kiddie pool seem like Mariana’s Trench. To be fair, there are moments that seem to indicate Abrams wanted to make Ren a complex internal Jekyll and Hyde (scene with Vader mask is telling), but his ineptitude prevented more admirable character designs to reach fruition.“A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back” are so effective because despite the dark plots and high stakes, the films never lose their charm. The fourth and fifth films contain a hint of camp throughout the proceedings that makes them fun, engrossing even. The problems with the sixth film and the prequels is that they went too far into the camp realm (Ewoks, Jar-Jar), and now the reverse has happened. The film attempts to move Star Wars into the modern blockbuster vein, which is why “The Force Awakens” fails so utterly. Star Wars 4 and 5 are original films, they are charming, the characters are memorable; “The Force Awakens” is none of these things. Star Wars’ personality is not “The Dark Knight,” which it feels every blockbuster attempts to emulate now. JJ Abrams has produced another cash cow for Disney, but in doing so sucked any memorable moments, charm or silver lining from the franchise. This atrocious, venal film does nothing new, has nothing to say, contains nothing to remember and certainly leaves nothing worth pondering. Hopefully, Abrams will ponder this article.