Movie marketing can be a powerful tool. JJ Abrams treats it like a super weapon. Now that Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens has opened, it's clear that the movie was at its very best when first displayed in the initial teaser released so many months ago. The marketing was brilliant, while the movie itself is decidedly not. It's not the first time (nor the hundredth) that clever marketing has oversold a cinematic product, but Abrams has become the king of the long tease. He's great at stringing an audience along and he's a competent filmmaker with the end result, too, but boy does he lack originality. Except in the marketing. The Force Awakens can be cut to make an absolutely magnificent 90 second or two-minute spot, but a full feature length leaves no room to hide.
At first, this matters little. The parallels to A New Hope begin almost immediately with the villains (now titled the First Order, though they're identical in nearly every way to the Empire) hunting down a good guy (a member of what's now called the Resistance) who has something valuable that is quickly stashed inside a cute droid before the Resistance fighter is caught. That droid wanders around a desert planet (not series mainstay Tatooine, but basically Tatooine) until it locates the movie's hero, beleaguered teenager Rey (Daisy Ridley).
The been-there-done-that sensation is strong with this one, but the execution is so slick and sharply paced that it doesn't seem like a deal-breaker at first, especially since Ridley is so wonderful in the role. Great acting is a rarity in the Star Wars saga, so to see a newcomer command the camera as she does is breezily exciting.
Other newcomer John Boyega, as a Storm Trooper with a guilty conscience, is equally great and Abrams effortlessly connects Boyega's Finn and Rey so that they become convincing friends in condensed fashion. Having two talented stars at the forefront makes for a smooth ride and it's easy to get invested in their arcs.
It's also easy to cheer for the return of Han Solo and Chewbacca, whose playful banter is still endearingly comical probably most thanks to the presence of legendary Lawrence Kasdan on the writing staff. Harrison Ford is decent, again thanks to the script, but The Force Awakens starts to struggle at this point. The similarities to A New Hope no longer feel justified by Abrams’ un-Lucas-ian visual aesthetic and the plot becomes tiresome. It’s not boring, but bored, as if Abrams knows that his increasingly obsessive focus on aping beloved instalments of adored screen franchises is inevitably wearing thin.
Rey and Finn help keep the sense of fun alive while Han and Chewie stoke the fires of nostalgia, but the blazing momentum of the first chunk, during which a wonderfully hilarious reveal of the Millennium Falcon is the highlight, seems to sputter. The characters are going through the motions, visiting a bar that’s meant to conjure memories of Mos Eisley and meeting an ancient sage who represents one of the movie’s only attempts at a (distracting) digital character.
Things perk up with the reintroduction of (former Princess, now General) Leia and C-3PO, who nabs the spotlight for one of the movie’s best moments. It’s certainly great to see Carrie Fisher back in her iconic role, but once she starts, well, acting, it’s clear she’s been out of the game too long. The experience is sadly similar to seeing Karen Allen reprise her feisty role from Raiders of the Lost Ark nearly thirty years later in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The magic is simply gone and the parts they’re given to work with hardly offered them a chance to make a good impression anyways.
At this point, The Force Awakens is nearing peak A New Hope parallelism. Sure, some of the similarities are cleverly justified, such as masked villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) owning up to being a Darth Vader wannabe even though he’s an emotional wreck, but mostly, I found the lack of originality disturbing. Abrams has built his directing career on rehashes and while his Star Wars rehash is much better than his abominable second Star Trek rehash, his insistence on carbon copying always-better originals is suffocating.
In fact, the only entity with less imagination than Abrams is the Empire itself. After following up their imposing and iconic Death Star in A New Hope with a second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, the Empire-y First Order now, three decades later, makes... wait for it... a third Death Star! It gets a new name, but even then, it's called Starkiller, which really couldn't be closer to "Death Star" if it tried. They also keep making their giant planet-destroying spheres easier to blow up with each new iteration. Or maybe the filmmakers are just increasingly embarrassed by how lamely they're ripping off Lucas's Death Star assault sequence that ranks among the most memorable and recognizable action sequences of all time.
Either way, watching the good guys scramble the X-Wings yet again and fly into the trenches to fire at that sweet spot is such a lifeless kick at the nostalgia can that it feels more depressing than triumphant. Even the lightsaber-enabled showdown is underwhelming, falling well short of the epic highs found in both the original and prequel trilogies whenever a hero and villain crossed laser blades.
Perhaps these are merely the ramblings of a demented prequel defender. Surely the casting of Ridley and Boyega is a stroke of genius since Star Wars has rarely featured such strong performances. And there’s a charm to seeing certain returning characters that feels acceptably cozy. But what began as a great big bang of imagination has now become a whimper of imitation. The galaxy just got smaller and what once was old is new again. Abrams brushes the dust off with cool confidence, but to what end? Basically a great couple trailers and a mediocre retread of one of the most famous movies ever made. I'll take originality in Lucas's shaky hands over Abrams' punchy parroting any day. Star Wars can weather repetition; what it doesn't need is replication.