The following contains SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Like everyone else in the galaxy, I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens over the weekend. I liked it. I didn’t love it, but I am grateful that it exists. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be to live in a world in which I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next Star Wars movie, and I look forward to exploring the Wookieepedia to find out more about the newly expanded universe.
At the same time, I find myself in an awkward position. I thought The Force Awakens had some pretty glaring flaws as a film and I want to talk about them, but I don’t want to be a killjoy. Is it possible to criticize the film without being a hater? Probably not. But I’m going to try anyway, because while I might think The Force Awakens is relatively average as a standalone action film, it is a brilliant piece of pop culture cinema tailored to the sensibilities of a modern multimedia audience. It taps into the zeitgeist surrounding the film in order to enhance the experience of watching the film, and in the process demonstrates how no work of entertainment can be divorced from the audience that consumes it.
Most of my complaints trace back to J.J. Abrams. I’ve never been a huge fan of J.J. Abrams: The Director because I’ve long felt that he doesn’t appreciate the value of narrative connective tissue, the smaller beats that make characters more relatable. The Force Awakens did not change my opinion. Though it’s far, far better than Star Trek: Into Darkness, I still think Abrams makes films that are technically proficient and emotionally vacant.
The issue is that Abrams sets up plot points and then knocks them down with ruthless efficiency, rarely giving the characters (or the audience) time to breathe. The emotional arcs feel rushed even though they do have roughly the proper shape and trajectory. It’s almost like listening to a record with a bunch of great singles. There are amazing highlights such as Finn’s reunion with Poe, but there’s also too much filler for a movie that only lasts two hours. I’d much rather watch a scene in which Rey and Finn ask Han a bunch of questions about the Force than a meaningless action sequence in which they fend off a pack of Malboros airlifted from Final Fantasy X. The Force Awakens is composed almost entirely of callbacks, but there’s no parallel to Luke, Han, and Obi-Wan sitting around getting to know each other while in transit.
But that’s long been Abrams’ weakness as a filmmaker. Though he often delivers memorable characters, he puts them in stories that traffic in iconography rather than humanity. When the First Order obliterates an entire system of planets, the film gives a casual ‘shit happens’ shrug and then races on to the next domino before anybody processes the last one. It tells us that the First Order is evil in a factual sense rather than a visceral one, an act of genocide that doesn’t land with even a fraction of the weight of the one planet that was destroyed in A New Hope.
Of course, that’s just my opinion. It’s also difficult to reconcile that opinion with the outpouring of emotion and fan art that has followed the debut of the film. People love The Force Awakens. Facebook and Twitter have lit up with fans sharing their theatrical adventures, many of which include laughter, tears, and the unbridled thrill of adults rediscovering their childhoods.
The backlash – because there is always a backlash – would insist that The Force Awakens is overrated and that we’re all corporate sheep for enjoying it. I have no interest in that kind of condescending contrarianism, nor do I want to tell anyone that they misinterpreted their experiences. That would be shitty, anti-social behavior. Emotions are emotions. They’re neither right nor wrong, and it’s not as if people are fabricating their reactions to Star Wars. I fully believe that it moved some people to tears, and there’s not much point in arguing otherwise.
In any case, those responses indicate that the film is doing something right, and I’m more interested in that qualitative element because The Force Awakens is by no means bad. It’s simply good in a way that falls outside the traditional confines of auteur-driven cinema, a refutation of the school of critical theory that suggests that movies should always be forced to stand on their own merits and examined in isolation. The Force Awakens works so well precisely because it is so aware of the culture of which it is a part, and it owes much of that to J.J. Abrams’ skillful manipulation of the fan experience.
That’s ultimately what I find so fascinating about The Force Awakens, and why Abrams may have been the perfect filmmaker for a Star Wars revival. If I’ve criticized him for his lack of cinematic nuance, then it’s only fair that I praise him for what he does well. Simply put, Abrams understands that films do not exist in a vacuum. People have long, complicated histories with the Star Wars franchise, and they bring that history with them when they sit down for The Force Awakens.
The film itself is therefore only a portion of the experience. Major franchises like Star Wars or The Avengers exist as much in the ethereal world of fandom as they do on the screen, and the hype and conversation offer just as much entertainment value as the film. It’s fun to sit in bars with friends and chat about the mystery of Rey’s parents. Like the Bible, people will spend more hours debating what it means than they will consuming the source material the debate is based on.
The Force Awakens is the ideal movie for that audience. The film is like a greatest hits record, a compilation that’s supposed to be broken into individual pieces that can be picked up and reexamined from every angle, to live on the Internet in a format that celebrates its merits and willfully overlooks its faults. In that regard it doesn’t try to stand apart, but instead tries to integrate itself into the modern fan experience, to meet those fans on the plane in which they will consume it.
That’s why the visual and audio callbacks – the Star Destroyers and X-Wings and alien cantinas and BB-8 – are so important. It’s not so much that The Force Awakens resonates internally, with one scene building to the next. Rather, it’s a film that deliberately attempts to trigger our fondest associations, that encourages us to bring our real-world memories to bear on a wholly fictitious universe. Because Abrams knows that we aren’t watching passively. We’re sitting in the theatre and remembering what it felt like to watch Star Wars as a child, and he seeds the film with so many references that he can rightfully expect at least one of them to resonate with everyone.
And you know what? That’s a pretty incredible accomplishment. I didn’t leave the theatre crying because I’m a soulless bastard, and I’ve had more fun talking about the movie than I did watching it. But when Han tells Rey that the legends are true, her face reflects the awe that we all felt when we first learned about the Force and a galaxy of new possibilities opened before us. I wish that scene was longer, but events that bring so much happiness to so many people are entirely too rare, and I genuinely love seeing the joy that’s greeted The Force Awakens.
Star Wars resonates at a profound level for millions of people around the world, and the memories that people have of the franchise – as well as the emotions that go with them – are completely legitimate. If I don’t have the same outward display fervor, it only means that my personal appreciation manifests differently than someone else’s.
I suspect The Force Awakens would be a pretty underwhelming movie without that history, that preexisting knowledge of the Star Wars universe. But in the same way that it’s pointless to deny people’s emotions, it’s pointless to speculate about a hypothetical timeline in which the other Star Wars movies do not exist. The fact of the matter is that the other movies do exist, and everyone seeing The Force Awakens has some kind of relationship to the franchise. It’s perfectly reasonable for a filmmaker to take that into account during production.
Does that erase the film’s flaws? Not necessarily. But The Force Awakens is still exciting because it represents new possibilities, reviving Star Wars as a franchise that invokes the imagination and in which the things we bring to it are just as noteworthy as the story it delivers. That’s why I’ll probably enjoy the film more after I’ve seen it a few times and the weight of expectation is lifted. The Force Awakens matches the intensity of its audience, and in that regard it can be a uniquely powerful bit of cinema.