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Star Wars Episode VII:
The Force Awakens

Unlike the titles of the previous episodes of the Star Wars saga, I can't say I'm at all sure what the title of the new film is supposed to mean, other than, I suppose, a way of saying "return of the Jedi" without it actually being called Return of the Jedi. Perhaps titles such as More Star Wars, Same Shit, Different Century, or Re-hashapalooza didn't test well.

When the news came that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and would begin churning out new films in the venerable series, I was extremely dubious of the concept, for two main reasons. One, it seemed absurd to continue a story that was so much the product of a particular man's imagination without the participation of that man, in much the same way it would feel like pure folly for an author to start writing The Further Adventures of Frodo Baggins without, necessarily, the input of Tolkein. Such a project would be, by nature, essentially bankrolled fan fiction. And two, Star Wars really felt quite finished. There seemed little point to carrying things forward past Luke Skywalker's personal triumph, no matter how much mopping-up probably still needed to take place. And yet, in the hands of such Star Wars alums as Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan, it seemed as though the project was at least in good stewardship. Nevertheless, my skepticism remained, and resulted in one of the most oddball film experiences of my life: I went in with no expectations, and still found myself more disappointed by this film than I've ever felt for any movie before.

This is cynical, corporate-driven filmmaking at its worst, made all the more of a letdown by virtue of piggybacking on one of the greatest modern mythologies of the past century. Much has been said-indeed, far too much-regarding the disparity between the original trilogy of films and the more recent prequel trilogy. I think it's fair to say that Episodes IV-VI told a simple story in an exemplary fashion, while Episodes I-III told a more interesting story with less overall surety. This, however, is by far the worst entry into the series by virtue of its shameless redundancy; I've never encountered a more inherently unnecessary film. A rag-tag band of rebels is attempting to keep vital information out of the hands of the First Order, a remnant of the Empire that dresses the same as their forebears and still utilizes the same old spaceships as they did thirty years before. To preserve the vital data, a rebel places it inside a small dome-headed robot and sends it to a desert planet where it is freed from salvagers by a plucky young local. In order to return the data to the resistance forces, she and a companion board the Millennium Falcon and soon run in with its former owner, Han Solo, still with Chewbacca in tow and still dodging bounty hunters in pursuit of unpaid debts. Personifying the evil of the First Order is man with a black cape and helmet, a modulated voice and a red lightsaber, who chokes subordinates when he's in a foul mood. He interrogates the heroine regarding the location of the resistance base in a cell aboard a planet-sized superweapon, which wipes out a peaceful world as a demonstration of its strength. This weapon is targeting the resistance base, though it has a weak spot at the end of a trench that may prove its undoing. There's bits of barely-altered and needlingly familiar dialogue in the vein of "There's still good in him" and "He has too much of his father in him" and "I can't get involved," there's the Falcon flying up a pipe-lined tunnel chased by Tie fighters, and a lightsaber stuck in the snow being retrieved by a Force neophyte. Director JJ Abrams said in recent interviews that he felt the film needed to disregard George Lucas's proposed outline for the stories because he felt they had to go their own way. It would seem that this wasn't quite true: The Force Awakens uses almost nothing but Lucas's ideas, with the unfortunate caveat that they are all ideas Lucas has already used. This isn't moviemaking or storytelling, it's marketing, and displays a barely-disguised contempt for its audience.

Where Abrams's film attempts to forge its own path is even less impressive; The Force Awakens is like Star Wars as performed by a cover band that learned all the notes but never quite could make out the lyrics. No, a black main character in a previously white-leaning series is not an issue, and could be seen to typify the series' endorsement of multiculturalism, but a black stormtrooper in a film which goes further than ever to draw parallels between the Imperials and the Nazis seems to be utterly missing the point of Lucas's depiction of evil, which had always been a starkly homogenous enemy pitted against a culturally and racially diverse band of heroes. A soldier who deserts his forces after a brutal massacre turns his stomach, Finn's motives seem woefully underexplained; he describes a lifetime of military indoctrination but displays no signs of having experienced it. One wonders if desertion is a commonplace occurrence in the First Order. Even clumsier is the depiction of Rey, the film's central protagonist. She's a vivacious and likeable young woman, and Daisy Ridley is a talented actress who will probably have a fine career ahead of her if she can escape the problems of typecasting. But her character's journey is a flat line instead of a voyage of learning, as if all her travails had been excised by a panel of woman's studies majors who were more concerned that Rey never, ever need help from any male character. Given the companions she finds herself travelling with, this means the least experienced character magically never needs help from anyone. Contrast this with Luke's story arc, where he spent his first two films making mistakes, getting in over his head, making the wrong choices and frequently needing the help of his friends in between his nascent heroics. Neither he nor Anakin actually won a lightsaber fight until their third outing, whereas Rey seems already better than everyone at everything. Villain Kylo Ren, so named, presumably, because "Darth Snape" would've been trademark infringement, is a Sith wanna-be who is neither as intimidating as Vader nor as cunning as Palpatine, while still exhibiting Force abilities neither of them possessed. His tendency to vent his frustrations on nearby computer consoles instead of his underlings probably makes him the bane of the tech support department, but his skills against a similarly armed opponent leave much to be desired. Easily the most likeable new character is the droid BB-8, a sort of "younger" R2-D2 who is often a pleasure to watch, a fact which should've made the writers realize their copious failings elsewhere.

The nature of the conflict is not ever clear. Is the old Republic reestablished, as seems to be offhandedly mentioned? If so, why are the heroes referred to as "the resistance" (beyond its obviously similarity to "the rebellion") instead of being servants of the Senate once more? The quest to find the long-lost Luke Skywalker forms the backbone of the plot, though it's never very certain why this is prioritized by either side when, clearly, bigger things are happening. The much-anticipated return of the original cast is disappointingly utilitarian; Luke is barely involved, and Leia, the sort of strong female this film seems desperate to have, is there simply to be there, and does nothing to advance the plot. Harrison Ford is in fine form as the elder Han Solo, but even he functions as little more than a set of training wheels to get the new trilogy moving. The trailers closed with Han remarking, in what was obviously meant to be a reassurance to the audience, "We're home." The Force Awakens is a sad reminder of why we all eventually must leave home behind.

-review by Matt Murray

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