I have very little – perhaps nothing – to say regarding any of the details of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What I do want to tell you is how I felt about it without giving away any part of the story. (Wish me luck…)
First of all, is the film nostalgic? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily.
Is the film derivative? Of the original film(s), yes, to some degree. That’s also not a bad thing.
Is the film enjoyable? Yes.
Is the film great? No.
Is it good? I think so.
It’s not really much of a spoiler to tell you that The Force Awakens really breaks no new ground. (New characters, yes.) But for most of us, we didn’t really want J.J. Abrams to break new ground. We (and although I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, I count myself in “we”) wanted and needed to feel good about Star Wars again.
When I attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop several years ago, one of the instructors cut through the convoluted red tape of writing and boiled it all down to this: just tell me a good story. Episodes IV, V and VI did that. Why else would people spend endless hours going to see them again and again in movie theaters, buying the toys, shirts, posters, and all the rest? For years? Decades?
I was 15 when Star Wars premiered and I loved it. The first time I saw it, I remember having this sense of wonder, both at what was happening onscreen and that it was happening at all. As a lover of the original Star Trek series, I’d never seen another film pour as much love and care into a science fiction story that was this entertaining. That sense of wonder translated into many realizations: someone else besides me loves this stuff; someone else besides me cares. Another realization – that the director, producers, actors, and crew cared – made me care about the story and the characters.
So we’ve got two boxes checked for things that went right with the original Star Wars:
Just tell me a good story. Check.
Give me characters I can care about. Check.
That’s really all any storyteller has to do, regardless of the medium. If you want to please your audience, you’ve got to do one or the other, preferably both. When you do neither, you’re done.
Which is the perfect segue to Episodes I-III. By and large those weren’t good stories and by and large I didn’t care about the characters. Somehow Lucas got caught up in a lot of special effects and threw an awful lot of money on the screen and lost sight of just-tell-me-a-good-story and give-me-characters-I-can-care-about. Dedicated fans can tell you far more about what didn’t work and what went wrong, but all I can tell you is I didn’t get good stories and I didn’t get characters I cared about (for the most part).
The Force Awakens gave me a good story and characters I can care about. It’s really as simple as that. It’s not rocket science.
I wouldn’t exactly say I was giddy watching The Force Awakens, but several times, the film filled me with a sense of wonder, the same sense I experienced as a 15-year-old watching Star Wars. I felt that same sense that somebody cared. I think that’s what it comes down to, giving yourself to a film that engages you, gives your imagination a sense of wonder, and entertains, all because of those two things. I think that’s what Siskel and Ebert were trying to get John Simon to understand years ago. Star Wars is not Ingmar Bergman. It’s not even trying to be Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, or anyone else you can think of. It’s Star Wars. It’s fun and J.J. Abrams knows this. He also knows how to tell a good story and give me characters I can care about. Other than popcorn, I don’t know what else you really need.