I just got back from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (on my birthday, no less) and I’m unprepared to render a final verdict.
I have to let this one percolate for a while, as with other films that feature treasured pop-culture icons like “Star Trek” and Superman. In fact, I will need to go see the new “Star Wars” movie at least once more, maybe twice.
I am a bit crestfallen, though, at how little “Force Awakens” thrilled me to my core on an initial viewing.
The reason for this is pretty clear. I can’t explain in any detail because I’d give away key plot points and other spoilers, so I’ll just say this: I have seen this movie before.
Almost everything about it is somehow derived from past “Star Wars” installments (even the execrable “Phantom Menace,” if you can believe that).
That doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s a very good film. It just does not instill in me the sense of awe and wonder that the first two “Star Wars” installments did when I was a boy.
This particular “Empire Strike Back” scene, to this day after dozens of viewings, still gives me chills:
That is partly because I had never seen anything quite like it. It was a jaw-dropping moment for me.
“Force Awakens,” made by a “Star Wars” superfan for other fans, does a wonderful job of paying homage to what came before. That, however, could be its biggest flaw: It’s largely a retread, which can frankly be a bit boring.
I want something fresh, something new. “Avatar,” for instance, is one of my favorite science-fiction movies because it is the first of its kind. Now, three and possibly four sequels are on the way; will I be writing a post like this about “Avatar 5”?
I know: How can a “Star Wars” film not be derivative and still be “Star Wars”? Well, I just hope the next chapter, after the necessary context setting in “Force Awakens,” blazes new paths while remaining true to the mythology.
Maybe I was not in the right frame of mind for “Force Awakens” today. I was feeling a bit grumpy and tired, to be honest. I definitely need to see it again.
But I’m pretty sure “Force Awakens” isn’t destined for my short list of all-time-fave sci-fi flicks. “Empire Strikes Back” may be number one on that list.
Update: Brian Merchant writes, “The Force Awakens” is the least interesting “Star Wars” yet.
Update: Minnesota Public Radio’s Cube Critics kind of agree with me that “Force Awakens” is basically a remake of the 1977 original … but they say this is the new movie’s strength.
Update: I liked the new James Bond movie “Spectre,” which I saw with my wife the day after we saw “Force Awakens,” a lot more than I did the new “Star Wars” movie.
Update: I did like “Force Awakens” much more the previous “Star Wars” movie, “Revenge of the Sith.” I had a few sharp words for that film in a 2005 Pioneer Press review:
As a certified sci-fi nerd, I wish I could tell you I loved, or at least liked, the new “Revenge of the Sith.” But, sad to say, the “Star Wars” franchise hit its peak long, long ago.
It was 1980 on my home island far, far away, and science fiction consumed me even more than it does today. Isaac Asimov’s famed “Foundation” novels had primed me for galactic-scale storytelling, and the miraculous “Star Wars” had transplanted it onto the big screen (a sci-fi wasteland until then).
I didn’t think anything in George Lucas’ goodie bag could match the visceral impact of that first scene when the desert planet comes into view, followed by the small ship in flight and its menacing, interminably long pursuer, amid an unforgettable orchestral fanfare. But in the 1980 sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” I saw “Star Wars” at its apex.
The Rebel Alliance is mounting its evacuation from the Hoth ice planet as Imperial forces tighten their blockade. Sweeping in for the kill, a wedge-shaped Star Destroyer spots rising ships. The gray-clad commander sneers, “Good. Our first catch of the day.”
Just then, our heroes’ ion cannon lobs an energy burst at the enemy craft and knocks it aside, allowing the Rebel freighter and its fighter escorts to stream spaceward. “The first transport is away!” an announcer on the surface exults as Alliance fighters cheer and pump their fists in the air. “The first transport is away!”
Sitting in the darkened theater, I was agape; even today, after watching that sequence two dozen times, I get chills. I jumped out of my skin during the Cloud City double-cross sequence when the door whisked opened and Vader stood behind it. The snow-yeti ambush, the incompetent admiral’s execution, Yoda’s unmasking on Dagobah, Darth Vader’s climactic revelation — those were all delicious solar-plexus blows that have held up nicely in repeat viewings.
I literally ran home that long-ago day, bursting through the door and blurting, “Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father!” (My brother, who had yet to see the film, was furious that I spoiled it for him.) I would have felt depressed and betrayed had I known then what I do now: That too-cool plot twist was basically it for nerd-worthy “Star Wars.”
In the films that follow, all that is awful about the franchise emerges: the bratty child Anakin and the sulky adult Anakin; insipid Ewok teddy bears; idiotic Battle Droid foot soldiers and grating Gungans, including the detestable Jar-Jar Binks; and a misguided dependence on over-the-top special effects, most notably in the migraine-inducing visual cacophony that is “Revenge of the Sith.”
In reviving the cherished “Star Wars” franchise after its lengthy hiatus, director George Lucas seemed to model it after the razor-blade wars: “OK, Vader wielded one light-saber blade in the original trilogy, so let’s give Darth Maul dual blades. And, hey, General Grievous should get four blades! And let’s make ’em whirl really, really fast, all at once!”
And, oh, the mind-numbing predictability. “Empire,” as it turned out, was the only chapter that kept me in total suspense, with an unknowable outcome instead of a preordained ending. “Return of the Jedi,” on the other hand, climaxes with a Death Star battle — gee, I didn’t see that coming.
“The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” provide a few thrills, along with an inspired Sith-villain lineup and, for ubergeeks such as myself, echoes of other universes; I shuddered in delight when I first saw the Republic home world of Coruscant, a planet-enveloping metropolis essentially identical to Trantor in Asimov’s “Foundation.”
But three newer movies are much too destiny-sodden — the poor doomed Republic, the future Vader’s oh-so-tragic descent into darkness and all that — to be much fun.
That’s why I all but nodded off during a recent “Sith” screening, amid all the blaster fire and light-saber derring-do, as the movie ground to its predetermined finale. The Jedi are betrayed and decimated, check. Anakin and Obi-Wan duel, check. A wounded Anakin gets his lifesaving black duds and James Earl Jones voice, check. The twins are born and then separated for their protection, check. Yoda and Obi-Wan scurry off into hiding, check.
Trudging out of the Southdale cineplex, it hit me: I had spent a quarter century pining for a moment that would never be repeated. Ah, it’s just as well Lucas has said “Sith” is the end for “Star Wars,” nixing earlier reports that a total of nine chapters would be made — I can’t bear to think what the franchise could become given another decade or two.