The movie was entertaining, I thought, but too derivative of the original Star Wars. It boasted some compelling new characters and some enthralling moments, but it frequently seemed fearful of running afoul of the franchise's core fan base. This felt especially true in the context of the much-derided prequel films — which were flawed, to be sure, but at the very least tried to do something quite different from the original trilogy.
However, as the months have gone by since The Force Awakens first launched, my opinion has softened on the film, for one big reason: It's really, really hard to do what Force Awakens does as well as it did.
2016 is already lousy with pointless franchise reboots — with more to come
This is the year the mega franchise comes home to roost. Inspired by the success of Marvel Studios, seemingly everybody in show business is launching their own cinematic universe or has one in the works. So far, the results have been generally poor.
The most prominent example, or course, is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a confused mishmash of a movie whose visuals and script tell two completely different stories that were largely at odds with each other. It's a dark, oppressive film that doesn't seem to understand why it's so dark and oppressive, and after a massive opening weekend, it sank at the box office (it never sat particularly well with critics).
But the four-and-a-half-month span since The Force Awakens' debut has also seen plenty of attempts to launch peripheral characters into their own film series (see: Deadpool) or to revisit old favorites (see: Kung Fu Panda 3) that were adequate at best and wheezy at worst. Simply put, this kind of seemingly effortless, popcorn-movie fun is really difficult to pull off. Most efforts get bogged down in belabored storytelling, bland filmmaking, or both.
Yet The Force Awakens largely makes the extension of a beloved and long-running franchise look easy. Yes, its story leans heavily on Star Wars, and director J.J. Abrams isn't as grand of a visualist as George Lucas (who directed both the 1977 original and the prequel trilogy). Consequently, the film will never be considered as true of a cinematic sensation as even the Lord of the Rings films were.
But Abrams is really good, and his story and visual sense largely leave the 1977 film behind as The Force Awakens progresses — which is why the film's climactic lightsaber battle in a snowy forest contains its most potent moments and images. Abrams might not be a great director, but he knows how to make a scene land, as anyone who sat up straight in their seats when Rey picked up Luke Skywalker's former weapon can attest.
The Force Awakens is a perfect rolling stone of cinematic momentum. The movie gathers characters and incidents with a headlong speed that makes it easy to overlook its generally solid construction. And if my use of the word "solid" seems like damning with faint praise, in some ways it is.
But it's also a sign of the times we live in. As more and more big studios turn over more and more of their schedules to massive franchise films, directors and screenwriters can occasionally feel less like artists and more like caretakers of beloved childhood properties. Vision is pushed aside in favor of custodial duty. But if the director and screenwriter really do love the world they're playing in — as Abrams and his creative team love Star Wars — the film can still pop.
Blockbuster films are becoming more like TV, and that's okay
Notably, The Force Awakens hails from the one major Hollywood film studio that seems to have largely figured out how to produce these types of franchise installments without signing its name to anything too ruinous: Disney.
This year alone, Disney has already released Zootopia and The Jungle Book, and Captain America: Civil War is on the way. All of these movies fit within one of the studio's broader franchises or brands (like, for example, live-action remakes of animated hits), and they all make for an enjoyable night at the movies.
True, Disney probably won't put out anything as wild and visionary as Warner Bros.' Mad Max: Fury Road or Creed, but also it probably won't put out anything as messy as Batman v Superman (another Warner Bros. film).
Disney prizes consistency of vision, and while that approach has its drawbacks (in that the studio is unlikely to craft a towering masterpiece, outside of the work produced by its semi-independent animation arm, Pixar), it means that most of the studio's films turn out pretty good. (In TV terms, Disney would be the CBS of the networks — not super cutting-edge, but strong and reliable. I mean this as a compliment.)
Where The Force Awakens really sings, then, is in understanding the pleasure of revisiting characters you've known for a while, characters whose adventures your own imagination may have been filling in in the meantime.
And yet it also understands the importance of introducing new characters like Rey and Finn and BB-8, figures who become iconic in their own right, particularly Rey, who's the perfect hero for the new trilogy.
If you buy this argument of mine, the similarities between The Force Awakens and the original film are a strength rather than a weakness. The movie's willingness to wrap viewers in the gentle pleasures of the old, rather than challenging them with the new, becomes a kind of attempt to engage with the major forms of story serialization that are currently percolating on television. It mostly wins over audiences through its love of old-fashioned, character-based storytelling.
J.J. Abrams may not be a great film director in the way we think of great film directors, but he is someone who boosts the very sort of skill set these mega franchises need. After all, he first came to prominence as a TV showrunner.
Is The Force Awakens the best movie of all time? Nah. But it's a surprisingly pleasurable standalone film that nevertheless continues a decades-old story in a way that draws in fans both old and new. Maybe it leans too heavily on the past to accomplish that, but if you write it off as taking the safe path, or discount it for doing things that are "too easy" (as I have in the past), well, just take a look at the nearest multiplex to see how tough creating a movie like it really is.