The familiarity of franchise films that have established and perpetuated a kind of formula that suits the given series of films is paradoxical: at once, comforting, like settling into the warmth of an old blanket found in the attic, as well as frustrating because that blanket smells like must and of failed college trysts. Call me demanding, but I like new blankets, or blankets with similar patchwork but the kind that’s turned on its head. That Spectre, the twenty-fourth James Bond film diverges so heavily from the established James Bond formula is admirable, enticing. That Star Wars: The Force Awakens adheres so closely to the idea of being “a Star Wars movie”, on the other hand, is irksome.
Writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell’s dissection of mythology, particularly the Hero’s Journey, is well known enough to have been imbued in seemingly every story. There are times when that’s knowingly examined and toyed with (Star Wars ) or even outright commented upon (The Princess Bride). But the long awaited follow up to Return of the Jedi feels as if the blueprint from Star Wars was just grafted onto a new film with better special effects and a more inclusive cast. There’s so little of the film to suggest that it’s overtly more interesting or has anything new to add to the universe, never mind filmmaking in general. Everything old is new again.
There’s a dessert planet without hero, there’s a smart ass pilot, there’s the old wise person for help, and there’s an important character who dies. It’s still as much of a family drama as Star Wars was, but for some reason the stakes feel lower because of how overly familiar everything is. All the planets actually seem to be “new” versions of older ones: Hoth, Endor, Yavin 4. There’s a Cantina scene. The Starkiller Base is aesthetically almost identical to the Death Star from Star Wars. Abrams, whose directorial tics scarcely show themselves, seems also content with adhering formally (with mise en scene and such) to Star Wars’s aesthetic.
Stretch it a little, and the harsh landscapes of fallen battleships, the contrast of characters dwarfed by their environments, and the decay of the Star Wars universe in general could point to a commentary on Star Wars fandom itself: this dead thing to be revived. But there’s not enough breathing room for that to feel substantial or truly executed in a meaningful and interesting way, especially with how the film’s story focus is on the foreground and not the background. George Lucas’s original trilogy was impressive in its constant oscillation between foreground and background story, and the prequels are to be admired in some way for how it used the foreground as a microcosm for the background. But too much of The Force Awakens feels shallow, and despite active use of Third Reich imagery, the lack of context of what this First Order follow up to the Empire makes it difficult for one to grasp the complexities of how the regime is wreaking havoc on this new/old/familiar world. Seeing the attacks on one of the planets isn’t really enough because a) The Force Awakens struggles to function as a standalone film and b) because of this, theirs is, despite the opening crawl, no background to why.
If one argues that there wasn’t really context for the Empire in Star Wars, they would be partially correct: but the crucial difference is that the Empire loomed in every frame. There was palpable danger, and the Empire was either explicitly or implicitly present in each scene. That sense of palpability of the First Order’s presence in the universe feels nothing but facile.
The Force Awakens, at its very worst, feels unambitious. There are interesting moments to be sure, with a laudable cast and excellent action sequences, but very little of the film pushes itself to be more than a comfy return to old fashioned Star Wars. This engenders, for me at least, much more appreciation for Lucas’s much maligned prequel trilogy. An interesting, ambitious (maybe even ludicrously so) failure is more impressive than a passable movie with very little ambition.
The prequel films (which I have always defended to a point, as well as, I should mention, The Star Wars Holiday Special) are only concerned, ironically, with a “facile” version of comfort inasmuch as being in the same universe. Lucas’s gravitas, which is rooted in his origins as an experimental filmmaker, allowed him to cast away the initial formula he set up and conceive of a new one: one that was darker, deadlier, and had a much larger scale. Bigger may not be better, but there was a constant back and forth between the primary players of the prequels and the political background of what was occurring. Yeah, yeah, no one cares about Trade Federation Embargoes or whatever, but while Lucas’s dialogue has rarely ever been very good, and while the explicit political regimes and standards of the prequels may not make absolute sense, his point was to examine how power corrupts absolutely, regardless of attempts at “diplomacy”. He traded a family metaphor in for a political one. The Force Awakens doesn’t really do anything but slump into complacency.
There’s still a sense of invention in films like The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, not merely with the cartoonish fun of the podrace, but of the dramatic weight of the Duel of the Fates and Order 66. Buried deep within Sith is an incredible drama of a gargantuan scale. Even the costumes, production design, etc. feel as if they’ve been made with vitality and newness. And in these prequels, not only are there new characters, they don’t fit neatly within the boxed archetypes that Lucas had used for his original trilogy, or the ones that JJ Abrams felt content using for The Force Awakens.
Back to Spectre: it’s a weird movie. It’s a very weird movie that is as unconcerned with the Bond formula as anything else, beyond the conscious desire to uproot it and dismantle it, even if that means winking at the audience. The skeletal structure and archetypes are there, but they’re subverted and washed out, drained of life. It’s a morbid vision of the Bond series, even essentially arguing that Bond as formula, or even as nationalist hero, is archaic. This divergence from formula began with Casino Royale, but it makes its mark most pointedly within Skyfall and Spectre, films where life and death, and light and shadow loom large.
With the tiny seeds of subtext planted in The Force Awakens, the hope is that Rian Johnson can make more of an impression, not only authorially, but in terms of the vigor and initiative of the films. Maybe one could argue that it’s so content with being “the same” because its a reclamation by its inclusive cast. But Star Wars, I don’t think, is supposed to be comfortable necessarily. At its heart, Star Wars is about the very complexity of family drama and/or politics. The Force Awakens feels too safe.