Hating on The Force Awakens has seen a new surge with South Park comically blaming the film for all of 2016’s problems. Critics accuse the film of just being poorly repackaged nostalgia moments from A New Hope, while supporters insist the movie is a well made film that works on its own.
Where does this conflict come from, and who’s right?
It comes from the middle of the movie. The first half of the film is simply excellent, easily on par with the opening of any other Star Wars film. A wide cast of characters is rapidly introduced. expectations are creatively subverted (anyone else think that Finn was supposed to save Rey when he saw her getting attacked?). While there are continual and obvious references to A New Hope, including strange specifics such as a beeping droid carrying vital information, the biggest risk for the film was not feeling enough like the original series and too much like the prequels (or like Star Trek). It’s ideal to consider each film on its own merits, but the legacy of the franchise and the public’s own familiarity with the director’s past work demand consideration too.
In either case, The Force Awakens works extremely well right up until the halfway point. The second half is from a completely different film.
All of the first half of the movie built up the search for Skywalker. This is a brilliant nod to both the mythical stature of the character in the minds of the fanbase and mirrors our own desire to see Luke again (strengthening the characters’ motivations). It’s also a sly wink to the original plot for the first star wars movie, which featured the characters looking for “The Starkiller”, basically the last great Jedi.
Then the Starkiller base, with absolutely no preamble or hint as to this threat’s existence, blows up a bunch of planets we don’t know the names of or have any connection to. Suddenly the whole movie is about the Starkiller base.
This is as bizarre as if in the original New Hope, the plot about the death star plans was forgotten halfway through and the rest of the movie suddenly focused on trying to find the first jedi temple. Audiences were naturally left reeling. Even Kylo Ren is insulted by one of the first order’s officers for still being focused on Skywalker.
Why does the film take this abrupt turn? Audience’s brains scrambled for an explanation. The only obvious one was “because it’s like the Death star battle”.
This changed the tone of the movie from a new spin on a beloved story to a senseless echoing of the original nostalgic moments. This is where the criticism comes from. This was magnified by the arbitrary nature of R2D2 already having the rest of the map, even though that was already established as unlikely by C-3PO. I still can’t believe they did this, considering they were setting up a perfect way to get the rest of the map already. It was established that the First Order has the rest of the map already, and our heroes were already messing around with the First Order’s computer systems.
Looking at The Force Awakens as entirely a high budget reenactment of nostalgic moments is incorrect. However, the midpoint arbitrary story flip created this impression and was bookended by an arbitrary ending where R2D2 inexplicably saves the day.
This is the error that caused the backlash to what was otherwise a great film. Well, that and a misstep involving the presentation of Kylo Ren which was clearly meant to make the character both more intimidating and sympathetic but ended up undermining both ends instead.
But that’s a topic for another post.