Warning: this review is riddled with spoilers.
By now, more or less everyone has acknowledged that Star Wars: The Force Awakens closely echoes A New Hope — so closely, in fact, that "echoes" does not quite do it justice. It lifts most of its major plot points from A New Hope (and a few from that film's two sequels), sprinkling in some new characters.
Some reviewers have dismissed this lightly; others have dwelled on it a bit, but ultimately forgiven it. Vox's own Ezra Klein has argued that it is a feature, not a bug, a way of bringing comic-book sensibilities to the Star Wars franchise.
I find it a little weird that this doesn't bother critics more. I'm with Brian Merchant: the movie's "predictable, nostalgia-reliant, repackaged thrills" are "a defeat for what made the trilogy extraordinary in the first place—its madcap sci-fi originality and genre-bending experimentation."
There's borrowing and then there's borrowing
Obviously these things are subjective. But for me, over the course of the movie, the "borrowing" aspect slowly went from sweet and nostalgic to discordant to faintly ridiculous. It pulled me out of the movie.
When The Force Awakens began with a droid loosed on a desert planet, carrying information vital to the Rebel... er, Resistance, I laughed. I thought director J.J. Abrams was winking at us, having a little meta-fun.
I thrilled at Rey cruising through the desert on her speeder bike, a wide-angle shot that called back to an early shot of Luke in his land speeder. I clapped when the Millennium Falcon was revealed. Okay, the coincidences were getting a little absurd, but it was so well done. And it served to bring in Han and Chewie, which, despite my having seen the moment in the trailer 478 times, made me tear up all over again.
I can mark the exact moment when I finally grew exasperated. Our heroes have made it to the reb... er, Resistance base. There, a very familiar group of pilots, droids, and generals gathers around a very familiar circular 3D hologram of a very familiar Big Weapon, which is posing a very familiar threat to their no-longer-secret base.
Han says, "oh, you can always blow those up," and I laughed again. Abrams must be in on the joke, right?
Nope. Han was serious. In a rushed minute or two of screen time, they determine that the Big Weapon has ... wait for it ... one small vulnerability, if only they can find the right pilot and someone to disable the shields.
Seriously? Three times now the bad guys build a big weapon and the good guys find one small flaw in it and send one party to creep around inside it and another desperate sortie of ships to attack it? At that point, I was outside the movie, thinking about it rather than absorbed in it.
Even then, I thought Abrams must be kidding, setting us up, preparing to confound our expectations.
Yet not a single expectation was confounded. Everything played out along its well-worn path. A swarming attack. A confrontation inside, on a spookily lit walkway. A shocking bit of father-son dysfunction, telegraphed from a mile away. A lightsaber fight, a narrow escape, a heroic bit of piloting, and, yup, the big weapon goes kablooie. Like how it does every time.
It's far too much borrowing to count as mere homage. But the films are different enough that The Force Awakens can't be taken as a retelling or, as Ezra suggests, a "retcon" of the original (to my mind, the presence of characters from the original, still in the original timeline, rules that out).
So what is it? It's just ... peculiar, an unnecessary choice that doesn't pay off.
Mirroring the original Star Wars serves as a crutch
Whatever the motivation for Abrams' mimicry, it made for some lazy storytelling, especially in the last third of the film. By hewing so closely to the source material, he was able to rely on its emotional resonance to fill in gaps.
The scene where the Resistance plans its attack on the Death St... er, Starkiller Base is a good example. In Return of the Jedi*, there was some sense of significance and weight to that planning. As Mon Mothma gravely revealed, in one of several moments in that film that hints at a vast backstory, many Bothans died to secure the information.
The planning scene in The Force Awakens relies on our collective memory of that scene for all its power. Otherwise, there's almost nothing to it — figuring out how to blow up a planet-sized weapon takes less time than most meetings take to get the conference phone working. It tiptoes close to parody.
When the characters were sneaking around inside the original Death Star in A New Hope, it was tense. There were regular encounters with Stormtroopers. When Obi Wan Kenobi slipped unnoticed through the cavernous hallways in search of Darth Vader, it was another clue to the extent of his powers. In The Force Awakens, Han, Chewie, and Finn trot into the base, almost immediately find Rey (in a planet-sized facility!), and plant explosive charges on a dozen pillars, easily mowing down what guards get in their way. Bop, bop, bop, the expected beats are hit. What little tension there is feels borrowed.
And then there's the politics. I realize the prequels went too far with political exposition, but The Force Awakens barely makes an effort. Until I read Zach Beauchamp's explainer, I had no idea who the First Order was. Leftover Empire? A new Empire? It was just some big evil force, run by a wizened evil hologram dude, with Stormtroopers and a Big Weapon, with little backstory or motivation beyond evil. What was the Resistance, and how did it relate to the Republic? It was a muddle, almost totally unexplained.
For the most part, we buy it, because Star Wars fans know all about big evil forces run by wizened evil hologram dudes with Stormtroopers and a Big Weapon. We know all about planning attacks on, and sneaking around inside, giant bases filled with bad guys. We already have those spaces carved out in our collective psyche; we fill in the emotional details unconsciously. Abrams only has to rehearse the tropes and we do the rest.
Best case, The Force Awakens is an extended trailer
This appeal to the collective unconscious is part of any sequel — any piece of art, really. It was certainly part of A New Hope, which was a pastiche of characters and narrative elements from other genres. That was part of its charm.
But where A New Hope's pastiche drew from a dizzying array of sources, The Force Awakens' draws mostly from Star Wars itself. There's comfort in that familiarity, a powerful nostalgic satisfaction, but it makes for a closed loop — a cloistered, self-referential product with little of the original's sense of giddy discovery.
Matt Yglesias is right: if Star Wars VIII takes the franchise in a bold new direction, some of The Force Awakens' sins will be forgiven. It will look, in retrospect, like an extended trailer, meant to reintroduce us to the world and situate some new characters in it. If the second in the trilogy is just a retread of The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens (and Disney) will look much worse. (Signs so far appear extremely positive.)
I fear this review makes it sound like I'm down on The Force Awakens, but I'm really not. It is full of delightful moments and fantastic new characters. The acting is uniformly phenomenal. I already have tickets to see it again.
But let's be realistic: it's not a triumph. It's a solid B, maybe a B-.
It was probably inevitable that Disney's purchase of Star Wars would yield the equivalent of another Marvel, a source of reliable, crowd-pleasing franchise films that satisfy audiences but take few risks. Still, I couldn't help hoping for more, at least from this one.
* CORRECTION: This review initially said that the "Bothans died for this information" scene was in A New Hope. It wasn't. In A New Hope, it's never explained how the Death Star plans were stolen. The Bothan spies are referenced by Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi. Thanks to the four kajillion people who pointed this out to me.
ADDENDUM: Last night, I went with my extended family to see the movie for a second time. My experience: I enjoyed it way more! With my critical antennae down a little, I was able to relax and appreciate the film's pleasures for what they are. I wouldn't bother to mention it except both my brothers and several in-laws said the exact same thing: lots of stuff that bugged them the first time around worked much better the second time.
Anyway, for what it's worth, I give the movie a B+ on second viewing. Curious to hear whether anyone out there had a similar experience.