***IF YOU KEEP GOING, IT'S YOUR FAULT, YOU'VE BEEN WARNED***
I watched STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS more than once because I needed to observe the film from multiple perspectives. First, from the angle of the 10-year-old emotional fanboy inside of me; and then from the perspective of a grown man with an extensive background in screenwriting and film making.
Here's how to understand THE FORCE AWAKENS, and that's by answering these two questions:
1) Does it function adequately as the product of a four-billion-dollar deal between billion dollar corporations who've presented the movie as a tool to keep a highly lucrative IP in the dead center of pop culture awareness?
Yes. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
2) Does it hit upon the emotional milestones that we've held dear for decades as old-school STAR WARS fans?
Yes... sort of.
If you were in the generation of the Original Trilogy (meaning you were born sometime between 1970 - 1980) and you were expecting to "feel like a kid again" then you've set yourself up to fail.
There's no way on earth you'll ever "feel like a kid again" because we've absorbed too much pop culture over the last thirty to forty years and the expectation to recapture certain levels of emotional connection (via nostalgia) will always fall flat. Our lives, mainstream media and the world itself is remarkably different than it was in late 1970s and early '80s. Even if the film had reached harder to elicit specific emotional reactions, it would have appeared to be far more manipulative and trite.
Of course, we're not totally to blame because Disney went out of their way to develop a marketing campaign that promised to deliver on the missing emotional core of the Prequel Trilogy. There's a great article from Kotaku about Disney's marketing push that clearly outlines the manner in which our emotional memories were toyed with in order to generate hype for The Force Awakens. I strongly suggest reading that essay when you get the chance, but here's the key idea from the piece:
"This is a Hollywood blockbuster that walks a perilous marketing tightrope between emotion and intellect. Disney have had to precisely target a finite reserve of emotion and nostalgia through marketing material that asks us to remember some Star Wars films, but not others. The way that this has been done has been nothing short of fascinating. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the major musical theme of the full length trailer is “Han Solo and the Princess” from The Empire Strikes Back, as it’s the only major musical theme from the whole original trilogy that didn’t return in the prequels. We haven’t heard that particular piece of music in Star Wars since Han, Leia, and Luke disappeared from the big screen in 1983.
But the key strategy for this targeted nostalgia, especially because so little dialogue has accompanied the trailers so far, has been visual. Every Force Awakens trailer has contained any number of carefully crafted callbacks to the original films, all designed to reassure us that it’s the spirit of 1977 (and not 1999) that’s being captured today."
Clearly, the goal of the marketing drive is to say: "Remember how you felt BEFORE the Prequel Trilogy? Well, prepare to feel that way again!" Some portion of the audience went in expecting a level of emotional fulfillment that would be impossible to achieve under any circumstance. Therefore many disgruntled STAR WARS fans are walking out feeling cheated and furious for wasting their time - yet AGAIN.
Does it hit upon the emotional milestones that we've held dear most of our lives as STAR WARS fans? Yes, I believe it does. For a specific generation of fandom.
One thing a lot of Original Trilogy fans refuse to consider is that there's a massive population of younger people who view the STAR WARS saga in chronological order as opposed to "Originals first, then Prequels."
My generation tends to view STAR WARS as IV, V, VI, then I, II, III, VII.
The younger generation tends to view STAR WARS as I, II, III, CLONE WARS, REBELS, IV, V, VI, VII.
That's a significant difference in viewpoint and expectation. Younger fans see this as a continuation of a fantastic saga.
Older fans went in expecting the experience of 1977's A NEW HOPE seemingly forgetting that the first STAR WARS movie came out of nowhere without any kind of direct pop culture predecessor. STAR WARS was a lightning bolt. There's no other way to describe it in 1977. The 21st century pop culture and cinema market landscape cannot mirror the market conditions or socio-historical background that allowed the first STAR WARS to flourish. The cinema and zeitgeist of the mid-1970s was dark, painful and packed with B-movie schlock or intense examinations of the human condition via crime, corruption and sacrifice in an increasingly grey moral spectrum . STAR WARS came along as a beacon of clearly-defined black and white morality with an otherworldly mis-en-scene that removed the audience from the doldrums of their lives.
That's the piece of the puzzle that can't be understated.
THE FORCE AWAKENS isn't constructed to placate the desire to recapture simpler times from the lives of the Original Trilogy generation. It's a massive entertainment machine with the bottom line of selling as many tickets, toys, video games and t-shirts as possible to justify the immense expenditures of the parent companies.
With all that out of the way, what about the product itself - the movie?
THE FORCE AWAKENS is a defacto remake/reboot of EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE. It thematically and structurally copies about 70% of the first STAR WARS movie from the desert planet opening with a droid carrying precious data in its memory banks to a giant laser cannon destroying planets to a fantastically-choreographed space battle/bombing run by X-Wing fighters to blow up the enemy base.
The story centers around three characters: Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Finn is a "reformed" First Order Stormtropper who saves Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) from the clutches of the enemy before they both crash land on the planet Jakku where Rey lives a very meager existence as a scrap scavenger.
Through a series of improbable events - likely the ways of the Force - Finn is thrown together with the fun new (toy) droid BB-8 and Rey as the First Order wreaks havoc on Jakku to track down BB-8. They want the droid because he has the location of the self-exiled Luke Skywalker. It is not clear why the First Order and Kylo Ren want to find Skywalker, but we do know that Kylo was a former student of Luke's who turned to evil, and this caused Luke to lose faith in himself and the Force.
Kylo is soon revealed to be the son of Han Solo and General (Princess) Leia who is obsessed with fulfilling the legacy of his grandfather Darth Vader. It's an interesting twist on Luke's story from the Original Trilogy as Kylo struggles to avoid the Light Side of the Force despite being naturally pulled to being a Jedi.
Ren and Kylo's stories form the emotional core of the movie. Ren is reluctant to leave Jakku because she believes her family who abandoned her as a child will someday return to take her home whereas Kylo deliberately rejects a loving home for the sake of chasing darkness. On paper, it's a great juxtaposition, but in application, the script only touches on the surface of their respective journeys.
Through Finn's journey, we learn that the First Order (aka the new Empire) doesn't use clone troopers; instead they kidnap babies and mentally program them into child soldiers. For reasons still unknown, Finn overcomes his programming during a violent razing of a village on Jakku. There's even a moment when Kylo turns to Finn as if he's caused a disturbance in the Force. We're constantly teased about who will become the next Jedi although the revelation in the third act is telegraphed horribly.
And that's the biggest problem with the movie: there's no real shock moment. (Note: there is one "shock" moment, but you know what's going to happen five minutes before it occurs - a la the death of Han Solo).
Too much of the screenplay is spent clearly telegraphing the next sequence to the point where anyone who's taken a screenwriting course can tell you exactly what's about to happen. Thus, because of the utter predictability of the story, you'd hope the filmmakers would have taken a chance in the narrative but we're left with an extremely competent but emotionally distant experience when it really counts.
Don't get me wrong, there are some wonderful moments in the movie, especially during the space battles and escape sequences - not to mention the utter joy of seeing the STAR WARS world realized from the mind of JJ Abrams - but as a finished product the film feels incomplete. We know it's the first chapter of the new trilogy but as a movie, there needs to be a sense of completion as any film needs to stand on its own.
A good example of this would be THE LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING which is the first movie in a trilogy but has a full emotional experience within its considerable running time. If more screen time in THE FORCE AWAKENS were spent on completely developing Finn and Poe as characters, there would have been a more satisfying experience. Instead, we're given the impression that there's "much more to come" in regards to Finn, Poe. General Hux, Supreme Commander Snoke, Captain Phasma and the rest of the new trilogy universe.
Again, there's a lot to love here. Daisy Ridley as Rey is a wonderful find. She has the ability to tell a story with her face and I can't wait to see what else she can do as an actress. John Boyega actually does great work with somewhat flat material and I know the guy has strong acting chops so we're going to get much more of Finn's story in the future. Seeing Han, Chewie, Leia, C-3PO, R2 and (eventually) Luke interacting with the new characters is really cool and - in my opinion - the true draw of THE FORCE AWAKENS.
So what's the final word on this?
On a scale of 1 - 10, I give STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS a solid 7 out of 10. It skirts the fringes of Original Trilogy nostalgia while setting up a future Trilogy in a manner that will satisfy younger fans but may ruffle the feathers of older, hardcore fandom who unfairly expect emotional resonance in a product moving in a new direction from a corporate machine interested in developing the long game of franchise sustainability.
If you can reconcile that reality, you'll have a great time. If you cannot, then you will be very unhappy.