Author: Patrick Doyle
“He created the cinematic fountain of youth, man. He did the impossible. He brought the magic back. He put the ‘Star’ in Star Wars, man. It’s a trip down memory-land, like I went into that theater and came out a 9-year-old butterball kid.”
In watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it is easy to assume that Lucas sold the franchise to the Xerox Corporation – because the new film is nothing more than a weak photocopy of the 1977 classic and its 1980 follow-up.
The Force Awakens:
Recapturing Star Wars or Duplicating It?
Every major blockbuster has had backlash. It seems a matter of course that, no matter how initially well received a major movie may be, within a few days dozens of think-pieces swarm the internet detailing why that movie is an affront to their childhood, good movie-making, and basic human decency. Soon after, a response to the response emerges, detailing how the authors of those critical pieces are trolls looking to criticize something great for their own nefarious purposes.
The internet runs on hyperbole, something that often hides the truth in exchange for the greater readership that incendiary headlines can bring.
This article is going to lay out the history of the critical response to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with the hope that understanding the evolution of that response will offer a more complete picture of the film by itself. With The Last Jedi releasing in just four months, this is going to be relevant again very soon.
The Force Awakens has been subject to this hyperbole more than any film in recent memory, perhaps since the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace. With the first teaser released thirteen months before the film’s December 2015 release, I think it’s fair to say that Disney’s strategy was to cultivate a fever pitch of excitement long before the film was released.
Publications from the lowest blogger to the largest news conglomerate praised the teaser. (With the one exception of the racist and sexist “critics” who I’ll give no more than a brief mention of here.) Hollywood Reporter called it “Perfectly Potent Nostalgia,” capturing the same “visceral, childlike thrill of the visual spectacle” as the originals. The Verge, less eloquently but just as enthusiastically, said: “it looks really, really good.”
Disney had wrapped the film’s production in a cloaking device of secrecy, giving each subsequent trailer more and more weight. 112 million people watched the next trailer in the twenty-four hours after it was released (a record at the time). The cautious optimism ballooned into full-blown excitement.
No matter how good or bad The Force Awakens was, it was going to a financial hit, but improbably, it appeared that The Force Awakens might also be the critical hit that the prequel trilogy was not.
December 14th came. The Force Awakens had its world premiere in Los Angeles, and over the course of the night, the first reactions began to trickle in. A review embargo would keep details from leaking out until December 16th, but reaction ranged from Chris Hardwick levels of positivity (I’m fairly certain he’s contractually obligated to be excited about anything tangentially related to geek culture):
— Chris Hardwick (@hardwick) December 15, 2015
To merely extremely positive:
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a strong, promising kickoff. As a standalone, I’d rank it #3 in the series.
— Josh L. Dickey (@JLDlite) December 15, 2015
When actual reviews began flowing out on December 16th, they were almost universally positive. On the day of the film’s release, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes had it ranked as Certified Fresh at 95%.
Most of the film’s positive reviews cited the way it felt like the original trilogy. Often they discussed how their viewing of The Force Awakens played on their own personal experience with the original series.
The Force Awakens, it seemed universally agreed upon, felt like Star Wars in a way that the prequel trilogy hadn’t.
Yet, as more time passed, the gap between the most positive and negative reactions to The Force Awakens widened. While most reviews remained glowing, the negative responses have been vicious.
Some of the criticism can no doubt be attributed to attention seekers. Some, like Cole Smithey, the self-proclaimed “Smartest Critique in the World,” have no doubt exaggerated their responses for greater readership. I’ll admit, The Rotten Tomatoes blurb for his video review: “This latest installment of fandom’s favorite mongrel pet is a poorly paced MacGuffin-chase plot, ginned up with groan-inducing spoonful doses of pro-war imagery and its attendant rudimentary vocabulary” got me to hate-watch part of it.
Still, dismissing all criticism as a product of hyperbole strikes me as short-sighted.
The criticism that The Force Awakens is derivative of the episodes of the Star Wars saga that came before it is the common thread across most negative reviews.
The Force Awakes shares many of the same beats as A New Hope. Our hero is a desert dweller whose story begins when they come across an escaped droid with data imperative to defeating an evil empire. They meet an old mentor, travel to a cantina filled with strange creatures, and destroy a planet-killing super weapon. Their mentor is killed by a masked villain from his past.
Yet, criticism that the reduces The Force Awakens down to “a weak photocopy” is, I feel comfortable saying, reductionist.
The Force Awakens is not A New Hope. A movie is more than the sum of the beats of its plots. Rey is not Luke. Her journey as a character and a human is not the same. Kylo Ren is not Vader. Han Solo is not Obi Wan.
The Force Awakens is a film that is incredibly aware of the films that preceded it, sometimes to its detriment and sometimes not.
How you react to that is entirely a personal response.
The point is this: looking critically at a film is hard. It’s even more difficult when combined with thirteen months of Disney-engineered hype, the film’s deep involvement with its predecessors, and every one of our own individual experiences with the Star Wars saga.
For better or worse, The Force Awakens never had a chance to simply be a movie. It was always the newest Star Wars film.