"God willing, we'll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money." - Mel Brooks as Yogurt in Spaceballs (1987)
It should be stated at the outset that Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens isn't remotely as boring as Star Trek 12. The most obvious difference is that no one who ever wrote a Transformers movie was allowed anywhere near the script. Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (credited with the emotionally devastating Toy Story 3) are a vast improvement over the likes of Lindelof, Orci, and Kurtzman.
But while Force Awakens isn't a creative null set, it is still inescapably an Abrams film: hyperactive, incoherent, and crammed with poor imitations of scenes and ideas from better movies. The best parts are the ones that haven't been done before; unfortunately, that list doesn't include the villain, several of the action sequences, or the ending, all of which are cardboard cutouts of their respective originals. Like Star Trek before it, Abrams decided that the safest way to revive the franchise was to stuff it full of recognizable parts, no matter how poorly they fit his movie.
For starters, core Star Wars concepts - hyperspace, lightsabers, and the Force itself - get cheapend for one off thrills. When Han, Chewie, Rey, and Finn are aboard the Falcon trying to escape some CGI tentacle monsters and two different gangs of thugs, Han says, apropos of nothing:
"We're going out of here at lightspeed."
To which Rey replies:
"From inside the hanger? Is that even possible?"
That's a good question, a better one would be: is that even necessary? Just getting into space would solve their immediate tentacle and gang problems. Going to lightspeed does nothing except ratchet up the tension just a teeny bit, and it does so at the cost of contravening what Han himself told Luke way back in 1977:
"Traveling through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops, boy. Without precise calculations we'd fly right through a star or bounce too close to a super nova and that'd end your trip real quick, wouldn't it?"
Jumping to lightspeed far more casually than it's done in the original trilogy isn't close to the worst problem with Force Awakens, but it epitomizes how haphazardly Abrams treats the basic tenets of Star Wars.
For another example, look no further than Finn using Luke's lightsaber after the bad guys finally show up at the cantina replica. Lightsabers are a Jedi weapon, elegant and from a more civilized age, etcetera. We see this in Star Wars: Luke barely knows how to handle it when he first uses it, only starting to look like he might know what he's doing once the blast shield is down and lets the Force control his actions. The next time we see him pull it is in Empire, when he's frozen to the ceiling in the ice cave, and there too he's pretty clumsy with it. Only after training with Yoda does he have the least clue how to actually wield the thing.
By contrast, Finn draws it like a standard issue movie prop sword and fights a stormtrooper who just happens to have a cattle prod thingie (shown nowhere else in the movie) that can effectively trade blows with a lightsaber. Finn's using the lightsaber because, well, fans like lightsabers. The stormtrooper has a thing that fights lightsabers because, well, fans like lightsabers. This is literally the dictionary definition of gratuitous: not called for by the circumstances.
Finn also can't believe this guy has a Klingon pain stick.
But nothing quite compares to the way Abrams treats the Force, the signature idea that defines Star Wars. Perhaps the only constant of the Force through the three good movies and the three wretched prequels is that using it effectively requires a lot of training. Skywalkers, naturally strong with it, can use it a teeny-tiny bit, to, say, guide a proton torpedo or pilot a racing pod, but doing Jedi stuff - wielding a lightsaber, influencing the weak minded, moving heavy objects - takes practice and instruction.
In Force Awakens, however, the Force itself becomes a very inconsistent thing, and nowhere is this more blatant than with Kylo Ren, a/k/a Darth Pout. After an impressive entrance that sees him order a village slaughtered while he effortlessly holds a laser blast in midair with the Force, he proceeds to spend the rest of the movie frustrated and failing, his Force abilities waning the whole time.
First we see him struggle to get information out of the presumably Force-less Poe (Oscar Isaac). He eventually succeeds, but anyone who can use the Force in the first movies, Luke, Obi-Wan, and especially Vader and the Emperor, would've been done with that in two seconds. At the end, Finn challenges him to a lightsaber duel, which Pout barely wins despite the fact that he's supposed to be a Jedi trained, Force powered super villain.
Contrast that with Pout's grandfather, Darth Vader, who was always overwhelming, determined, and ruthless. The audience knows all this right away since one of the first evil deeds we see him do is calmly interrogate a guy he's holding two feet off the ground with only one hand. Then he casually crushes the man's windpipe and tosses the lifeless body away like a rag doll. And that's just his warm up. Before the movie is out, he'll Force choke an Imperial officer, interrogate Princess Leia, kill Obi-Wan, track down the hidden rebel base, and shoot down half a dozen X-wings and Y-wings. He's a badass.
Vader is also very judicious about pulling his lightsaber. In Star Wars, not only is Vader basically invincible, but he only draws his sword once: to behead Obi-Wan, his former master. With Luke a partially trained Jedi, Vader isn't quite invincible in Empire, but again, he only pulls his sword once, in a fight he handily wins that ends with Luke missing a hand. Even in the hot mess that is The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul only pulls his lightsaber twice, both times to fight Jedi.
Vader does not fuck about.
Vader's grandson, on the other hand, pulls his lightsaber at the slightest inconvenience. He uses it to kill a defenseless and elderly Max von Sydow. He brandishes it to chase and intimidate Rey. He pulls it to attack a chair after she escapes (the second time he loses a main character in the movie). He even pulls it to swing at some televisions after getting bad news. Given the way he mopes in private and whines in front of his boss (a disembodied CGI hologram), one presumes that the scene where he uses it to read Hardy Boys novels after his bedtime was cut for length. When Vader drew, it was for a purpose; when Pout draws, it's mostly because fans like lightsabers, right?
Where Vader spends the end of Star Wars laying traps and killing rebels, Pout spends the end of his movie taking off his mask twice and losing Force fight after Force fight to Rey, who is strong with the Force but didn't even know it existed until halfway through the film.* She swats away his attempts to read her mind; she snatches a lightsaber from fifty feet away; she kicks his ass in a duel. Vader only loses a lightsaber fight after Luke has not only been trained as a Jedi, but taunted into unleashing his anger. Pout got handily beaten by a novice his very first time on screen.
(*There are a lot of fan theories about who Rey is and why she got left on Jakku. My personal favorite is that Luke and Leia went Lannister and dumped her there to hide their shame, but I don't think Disney's gonna go for that.)
"Luke?" | "Yeah, Leah?" | "We cannot tell Han."
That last one is a particularly egregious Abrams-tastrophe since it's his attempt to copy Luke's decision to trust the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan, turn off his targeting computer, and guide the proton torpedoes with the Force. Rey gets reminded about the Force by Darth Pout, closes her eyes, and immediately becomes better with it than he is. Just to drive the point home, they even play the same musical cue.
It's this movie's equivalent of Kirk's imitation cheese death scene in Star Trek 12, bearing only the most superficial resemblance while ignoring all the context that made the original so chill inducing. It also accomplishes the neat trick of undermining the coolness of the villain while simultaneously ignoring the long established rules of the franchise.
All that can be dismissed as geek nitpicking, of course. But, like Star Trek 12, what robs The Force Awakens of even casual drama is how causeless so many of its events are. In Star Wars, Princess Leia has stolen the technical readout of the Death Star from the Empire, which they would obviously have since they built the thing. In Force Awakens, Max von Sydow has a map to Luke's location that he got from someone, somewhere, for some reason, none of which is explained. When we finally do see the map, it's incomplete until R2D2, who's been turned off for years, turns himself back on for no apparent reason and fills in the rest. You don't need to have seen even a single Star Wars movie to wonder what the point of all that was.
In Jedi, landing on Endor to deactivate the shield comes with a detailed and hair raising plan that requires impeccable timing. In Force Awakens, they waltz right into a base where the door was apparently left open and run smack dab into a minor villain who promptly disgraces herself by deactivating the shield for them without so much as a scuffle. Whether you've seen Jedi once, a hundred times, or never at all, conveniently unlocked doors and gutless villains subtract from any movie.
Compounding the pointlessness is the fact that even by this movie's own internal logic, there was never any reason for Han, Chewie, and Finn to land on "Starkiller Base" in the first place. The film's dialogue is quite clear on this point (1h:33m):
Elderly Ackbar: They have defensive shields that our ships cannot penetrate.
Han: We disable the shields. Kid, you worked there. Whaddya got?
Finn: I can do it.
Han: I like this guy.
Finn: I can disable the shields, but I have to be there, on the planet.
Han: We'll get you there.
Leia: Han, how?
Han: If I told you, you wouldn't like it.
First, let's pause for a second to note that Harrison Ford is fantastic in this movie. He cracks wise better than anyone else and all but looks at the camera several times. One of those comes just before the above scene when he says:
"Okay, how do we blow it up? There's always a way to do that."
That's one of the best lines in the flick, a rare moment of non-obliviousness. And, of course, there is a way to blow it up, but it's all rendered senseless by one of Han's own lines not two minutes later:
Finn: How are we getting in?
Han: Their shields have a fractional refresh rate, keeps anything traveling slower than lightspeed from getting through.
Finn: We're making our landing approach at lightspeed?
Like the "trans warp transporter" in Star Trek 12 that apparently works only for Khan, this is a story derailing record scratch. The Falcon is traveling at lightspeed and can therefore get through the shield. The rest of the assault is also traveling at lightspeed and . . . can't.
Is this because Han and Chewie are better pilots than everyone else in the Resistance? The movie doesn't say. Is it because the Falcon is somehow more capable than the X-wings? There's no hint of that on screen. Is Han putting the Resistance at risk to try and rescue his son from the Dark Side? If so, the script is certainly unaware of it. None of this require any special Star Wars love to notice; the film itself spells out its own contradictions.
The movie gets truly paper thin when Abrams combines his affinity for repeating with his Baysian contempt for story. Exhibit A: The Death Star in Star Wars is undeniably massive, and inside of it our heroes get easily separated and have to work their way back to one another. Force Awakens makes sure to show us how much bigger Abrams' Death Star imitation is than the original.
That's no moon, it's a statement of inadequacy.
But once Han and company get there, the base appears to consist of little more than a couple of hallways where the prisoner cells are right next to the shield controls which are right next to the "thermal oscillator" that is the target of the assault. Like the tiny Stonehenge in This Is Spinal Tap, Starkiller Base lacks a certain hugeness.
Similar to its superweapon, the First Order itself is an old idea made bigger and louder for the modern screen. The Empire's offspring wastes no time in demonstrating its haplessness compared with its far more competent predecessor.
Star Wars opens with the Empire violently storming Leia's ship in pursuit of stolen information. Not finding it aboard, they send a bunch of guys down to the planet who quickly determine that there were droids in the escape pod. Then we see that they've slaughtered the Jawas who found the droids; which leads them immediately to Luke's aunt and uncle, who end up as charred skeletons. When Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids get to Mos Eisley, the city is crawling with troops, and the only reason they aren't immediately captured is because Obi-Wan pulls some Jedi mind tricks.
There are five bad guys in this scene. Remember that number: five (5).
Even that doesn't last long, however, as more troops quickly show up to the cantina and then the docking bay, where our heroes don't even have time to get on board the Millennium Falcon before they're being shot at. Once they're in space, two Star Destroyers chase the Falcon, which barely makes it to lightspeed ahead of them.
The First Order allows a lone stormtrooper to spring a high value prisoner and escape in a TIE fighter. Even after that egregious breakdown of security, however, they don't really seem all that into the chase. They send down literally two (2) guys to find them, followed by two (2) TIE fighters as an "air strike". After outrunning both of the stormtroopers, Rey, Finn and BB-8 climb aboard the Falcon (which is conveniently sitting there in perfect working order) and re-enact the TIE fighter-Falcon fight from Star Wars.
The difference is that after the 1977 version of that scene (which involved twice as many TIE fighters), Leia correctly points out that the Empire was deliberately letting them go. In the 2015 version, the First Order was supposed to be genuinely hell bent on capturing them. No prior knowledge of Star Wars is needed to notice that out of a hanger full of TIE fighters and a ship brimming with soldiers, a total of four (4) people were sent to get the job done.
It's fun to joke about how stormtroopers can't hit the broad side of a barn, but at least in Star Wars you never have any doubt that the Empire is doing everything it can to track down the droids, however weak their minds and poor their aim. The First Order, on the other hand, barely even tries.
They, like Darth Pout, Starkiller Base, that cantina scene, the villainous hologram, the one off firing of the doomsday weapon, the whole droids in the desert thing, that briefing scene, and so, so much more, are brittle copies of a long time ago. All of the major events in Force Awakens boil down to fan service at the lowest common denominator: repetition for recognition's sake.
The good news is that Finn (rebel stormtrooper), Poe (fighter pilot spy), and Rey (Force using mechanical genius) will all be back in Episode VIII, where they'll hopefully be allowed to do their own thing instead of imitating their elders. With less self doubt and more competence, Darth Pout could even turn into a decent villain. And, who knows?, maybe Supreme Leader Snoke will turn out to not be a giant CGI nothingburger. It's Star Wars, so there's always new hope.
Continue to Chapter 7 - The Michael Bay of Rehashes