As we count down to The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20), Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich is looking back on every film in the Star Wars franchise. Last week: A fascist abusive husband becomes a screaming skinless torso. Next: The Last Jedi twists and turns. And check out Entertainment Weekly’s new Star Wars podcast!
Luke Skywalker was just a kid when we met him, a farmboy living at home with his parents in 1977’s Star Wars. Mark Hamill still had that adolescent squeak, pouting over power converters, even playing with a toy spaceship.
2015’s The Force Awakens introduces a new desert dreamer, and doesn’t Rey seem much older, by comparison? Daisy Ridley‘s scavenger lives rough and free in the sunswept wide open. She’s a treasure hunter mining old battlefields, and the single best moment in the whole movie arrives early, when she sandsleds down the side of a crashed Star Destroyer. What fun we can have in this franchise wreckage! Later, a ruined AT-AT offers mealtime shade from the sizzling Jakku heat. You think of bohemian communities sprouting out of bombed-out real estate, young people sacrificing amenities for cheap rent in dramatic postwar settings.
She drives an open-air speeder, and wields a henchman-crushing battlestaff. The Lars homestead was a domestic purgatory for Luke, whereas Rey’s parentless lifestyle is secretly aspirational: An eternal campout. To make money, she explores leftover toys from old star wars. What a job description! That’s what J.J. Abrams is doing, directing this movie. It’s what I’m doing now, writing about it.
Rey is also, it turns out, a fan. “This is the Millennium Falcon?!?!” she exclaims, after she’s already twirled the freighter through a stratospheric swoopfight. “You’re Han Solo! This is the ship that made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs!” She gets the parsecs count wrong, but don’t we all babble when we’re starstruck? Han (Harrison Ford) is as famous in his universe as Harrison Ford is in ours. And Rey’s heard of Luke Skywalker too, though she thinks he’s a myth.
The opening crawl rattles off the new geo-galactic political reality: Republic, Resistance, First Order. By now, though, one single celebrity family is the cause and solution to all life’s problems. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is in charge of the Resistance, and her army’s entire mission depends on finding her long-lost brother. Nefarious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a Skywalker cousin hunting vanished Uncle Luke. He has his own sacred fandom totem, worshipping grandpa’s half-melted helmet. He imitates the Dark Jedi’s style, too, rocking a sleek noirborg armor. Anakin needed machine parts to breathe electric. Kylo’s just a Vader poser, his radiogravel voicemask the robo-villain equivalent of a badass fake tattoo.
Kylo’s dark origin, as near as I can tell, is: His famous parents sent him to a school operated by his famous uncle, and he wound up joining a cult. That’s the outline of, like, a Malibu true crime tragedy, and there’s a ghost version of Force Awakens where the big problem is very bad parenting by Han and Leia. Such a movie would probably not involve Snoke (Andy Serkis), a remarkably uninvolving shirttail Emperor. He’s eeeeeeeeeevil and boringly performance-captured, such a whiff that he seems like a joke.
Kylo and Rey could still be stark antagonists, though: The aristocrat son of a princess and a general turning fascist to spite his counterculture parents, and the orphan from a junkyard planet waiting patiently for a family she barely remembers. Now she’s becoming part of a world that is all so new for her, hero-knights and daring smugglers and lifelong rebels. He’s been part of this world his whole life — and hates it.
Or, maybe The Force Awakens didn’t need to be about Skywalkers at all. The other great moment arrives in the first action scene. A random stormtrooper rushes over to his blasted buddy. The dying soldier lifts his hand — and marks his friend’s helmet with blood. For the first and probably last time in the entire movie franchise, a random background trooper becomes a main character, freezing from fear or moral quandary. He will turn out to be Finn (John Boyega), a good man or a coward, the failed bad guy who pretends to be the good guy so he can get as far away from this movie as possible.
That’s a good launch for a character, and Force Awakens certainly gets off to a running start. There’s a laserfight and a spacecrash, a ground-air chase, a horde of Rathtars, the irrepressible Oscar Isaac. Desert planet, frozen planet, forest planet, lightsabers: Right?
There are two broad complaints you can make about a Star Wars project. First: It’s not enough like Star Wars. Second: It’s too much like Star Wars. The former sums up the chief complaints about the prequel saga, those fables of celibate braidmonks deploring politics amidst expositional greenscreen. The latter explains one burgeoning response to the Disney era, where Boba Fett-types go to multiple Tatooines, terrible digital effects reanimate long-deceased actors, and the big new weapon is so similar to a Death Star that a character has to explain why it totally isn’t a Death Star.
You don’t need to be a scholar to love a movie, of course. And you don’t need to have a good reason for hating something pointlessly. I know people who think Obi-Wan Kenobi is the best character in the franchise because Ewan McGregor looks great in a beard. Kids will love whatever Star Wars movie was new when they are young. I grew up buried deep in the multimedia universe, and somehow I’ve come around to thinking the single best project the franchise produced after 1980 is Genddy Tartakovsky’s animated Clone Wars spin-off, which isn’t really like anything I read or played or watched in my youth. Who knows why people think the things they think? Some loudmouth terrorchunk of the ragebox internet complains that too many characters in the Disney Star Wars movies don’t look like the people Disney keeps hiring to direct Star Wars movies. The franchise is very popular across so many generations and cultures. So you have to picture the worst person in the world, and remember that they probably like Star Wars, too.
This is, almost, what Force Awakens is about. Here’s Rey wearing some old Rebel pilot’s helmet, excited at the prospect of meeting a genuine member of the Resistance. And there’s Kylo Ren, the proverbial kid with a Darth Vader backpack, who thinks regular lightsabers need way more saberlights, bro. They are inheritors of the dual Star Wars tradition, attractive Dark and noble Light carried forward to a new generation.
A neat twist, too, that the bad guy is Ben Solo. He’s the son of Leia and Han, the student of Luke, and probably named after Obi-Wan. Presumably he grew up listening to Threepio’s nattering and R2’s beep-beeping. Possibly, he rode on Dad’s lap for some early Falcon adventures. This boy raised inside the iconography of Star Wars turned out to be a patricidal murderer. So Rey could offer the promise of new beginnings: An outsider arriving at this intergalactic House of Usher, rescuing the redeemable, killing the rest.
But The Force Awakens is synthetic on purpose, carcassing visuals and plot turns from the first trilogy into a Frankenstein of familiarity. Rey isn’t an outsider. She’s another Force-sensitive mystery orphan, and god help us, we’re still talking about Rey’s Parents four years later. So she seems to become less herself over the course of The Force Awakens, transforming from a sharp-edged scavenger gearhead into another lightsaber hero.
She’s another orphan on another sandsphere, meeting another droid with another Skywalker hologram. Decades have passed since the original trilogy, and nothing has visibly changed. The good guys still wear orange jumpsuits when they fly X-wings, and the bad guys are Stormtroopers with TIE Fighters. The Republic exists just long enough to get Alderaan’d off the space map. The main character finds out she can use the Force, and witnesses the death of a sage mentor figure at the hands of a blackcaped baddie.
“It’s too much like Star Wars” is one complaint I’m making, I guess. You have to remember that 2015 was also the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, a scathing and invigorating reconsideration of another ’70s action franchise. In Fury Road, the main character’s trademark vehicle gets destroyed as a throwaway joke — and that symbolic castration is entirely necessary, since the cool car was already stolen by dummy bro-fascists. Compare that to the treatment here of the Millennium Falcon. Han Solo’s ship is, we’re initially told, a piece of garbage, with a propulsion tank overflowing with poisonous gas. And then the Falcon performs maneuvers it could have never accomplished with the handmade bloodsweat special effects of the original trilogy. It jumps to lightspeed from inside a ship, and jumps out of lightspeed inside the atmosphere of Starkiller Base. It swoops, flips, barrel rolls, zips, zaps, zoops.
The second problem: The Force Awakens loves Star Wars too much to let the characters do anything except love Star Wars. Everyone gets along great; everyone is great! The newer characters are fast friends: “Good to meet you, Poe!” “Good to meet you, Finn!” Elders are always supportive. Han meets Rey and wants to hire her for the Falcon‘s crew. Leia pivots the Resistance assault around inside information from Finn, which turns out to be partially untrue, but his plan works fine anyways. Maz (Lupita Nyong’o) is a tough old restaurateur who meets Rey and immediately tells her how special she is.
It helps, I think, to consider the two very different California boys who directed the most famous Star Wars movies. George Lucas grew up in the Central Valley, territory austere enough to inspire Tatooine. He didn’t like Los Angeles and would complain about Hollywood so much, even after he sold his life’s work to the company that will swallow all Hollywood someday. Smashcut into a swooping shakycam close-up on Abrams, forehead sweat sparkling, glasses multiplying a sizzle-pop pyrotechnic effect into paired explosions where his eyes should be. An Angeleno if there ever was one: two parents with producer credits on IMDB, plus a longtime residence in Pacific Palisades, which could actually be that mythic SoCal vision, ocean air blowing over wealthy back yards.
Lucas directed 1977’s Star Wars in his early 30s, still a fresh young filmmaker known for the autobiographic youth-pop grenade American Graffiti. His budget was big and never ever enough, maybe half what his pal Steven Spielberg got for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. By the time The Force Awakens arrived in December 2015, Abrams was a triple franchise steersman with a quarter-century of screenwriting credits, pushing 50 away with one of the biggest movie budgets in history. He was a trusted insider, tasked with launching a franchise that cost Disney $4 billion.
Abrams is also an incredibly loud filmmaker. Everyone is always sweating. When Maz tells Rey her parents are never coming back to Jakku, Rey runs out of the castle into the forest, and then the First Order attacks, and Rey runs back toward the castle. The hyperbole can be fun. BB-8 is adorable, and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) looks cool as hell.
But all the excess strangles. Captain Phasma never has anything to do, and the final X-Wing assault is spacefight karaoke. The younger performers are always running or screaming. Nobody gets to be like Leia in A New Hope, dismissing short stormtroopers. In a script credited to Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt, characters keeps reading each other’s impressive resumés. Kylo Ren tells Poe Dameron he’s “the best pilot in the resistance.” “That’s one hell of a pilot,” Finn will exclaim when he sees Poe’s swirling X-wing. I don’t know, movie, can he fly good? Maz’s castle itself is franchise gentrification unbound. The Mos Eisley cantina was, like, a dive, populated by sadsack freaks and violent shadowlurk monsters. Maz’s establishment is a thousand-year institution that looks like a gastropub, and when the main characters walk in, the clientele clocks them like they’re celebrities.
The whole plot is a long existential search for Luke Skywalker, so the most important character in the movie is another trilogy’s main character — who barely even appears! I admire the intention to push the franchise toward a new generation, but Abrams is too dutiful a fan, or too unimaginative a filmmaker, to leave his own nostalgic points of reference behind. It’s a long way to go just to give an old man his lightsaber back.