The blockbuster film was invented by George Lucas and 20th Century Fox in 1977, and, like all American institutions, the concept has evolved over the last thirty eight years. From the seed that Lucas planted by retaining merchandising rights for his film has sprouted a set of practices that dovetailed with the increasing corporatization of film studios to produce what are best thought of as trans-media, omni-commercial brands centered around movies that serve both as the beginning and endpoint for all of the products to which they are tied. When something like The Avengers or Star Wars - The Force Awakens is released, a large swath of the culture goes into something akin to a Total War mentality: if the film itself is the churning battlefield of Verdun, then every toy set, costume, branded soda, and cosmetic line is the civilian on the home front being pulled from their normal job and put to work at a munitions factory. Even non-combatants cannot escape the omnipresent dedication of national resources and attention to that loud, violent event taking place in movie theaters everywhere.
According to Forbes, Star Wars merchandise will generate $3 billion for Disney in 2015 alone, which is about $200 million more than the current record for total worldwide box office ticket gross. While I fully expect The Force Awakens to obliterate this record (currently held by Avatar, which was bolstered mostly by inflated ticket price; Gone With the Wind and Star Wars still hold the first and second spots when it comes to most tickets sold by quite a bit), even the most optimistic estimates would result in Disney earning more money from merchandising than from ticket sales by a healthy margin. For Disney, Star Wars - The Force Awakens is as much an advertisement for their line of Star Wars products as it is an entertainment experience in and of itself, not to mention its function as the first of at least five more films that will build off of its narrative and characters.
These commercial realities are important to keep in mind while watching The Force Awakens, as they explain almost every filmmaking decision that went into making the movie. The Force Awakens serves as an extended trailer for the next five movies in the series, introducing the audience to the cast of fresh young faces who are passed the proverbial torch by the stars of the original trilogy. We meet Rey, played by plucky newcomer Daisey Ridley, whose “orphan from a desert planet” origin and nascent Force powers make her the obvious Luke Skywalker stand-in going forward; there’s John Boyega’s Finn, a stormtrooper turned rebel whose crush on Rey is his defining character trait; Oscar Isaac plays Poe, the best pilot in the galaxy who flies for the Resistance (more on them later); and representing the Dark Side we have Adam Driver as Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo in some of the worst casting this side of Halle Berry in an X-Men movie. The film’s real star, though, is Harrison Ford, who reprises his career-making role as Han Solo with all the gruff-but-lovable charm that cemented him in cinematic history nearly four decades ago. Ford has great chemistry with Ridley and Boyega, a prickly avuncularity that makes his death at the hands of his estranged son all the cheaper.
As far as the story goes, the film begins strong, with Finn effecting a quick escape from The First Order (aka The Empire) with the help of Poe after balking at murdering helpless civilians during his first real battle as a stormtrooper. The two crash down onto Jakku, a desert planet that is home to the husks of Imperial starships and assault walkers that Rey makes a living stripping for parts. Finn and Poe are quickly separated, but not before Poe can tell Finn about BB-8, his lost droid who is carrying information that is vital to the Resistance (sound familiar?), and of course Finn finds Rey and the droid soon after crashing down onto the planet. Up until this point, the narrative, while derivative, is simple and effective, revealing character traits while pushing the action forward. But as soon as Finn and Rey meet, the coincidences and fan service begin in earnest and never let up: while running from stormtroopers sent to retrieve BB-8, Finn and Rey just happen to steal and escape in The Millennium Falcon, which is promptly picked up by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Next stop is a nameless jungle planet where a diminutive alien played by Lupita Nyong’o runs a super cantina that comes complete with aliens gambling, drinking, and listening to music that is nowhere near as catchy as the all-time classic. Unbeknownst to Han Solo, the cantina is the storage place of Luke Skywalker’s original lightsaber, which quickly passes into the hands of our new heroes before they step into the third act from Star Wars cut with the second half of Return of the Jedi, complete with a planet-destroying super weapon and a daring mission to disable a shield generator.
In short, the story feels like the winner of a fan fiction contest. Familiar faces crop up and are given a Kramer-esque pause for applause before speaking; fan favorites like Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb make cameo appearances; and Kylo Ren reenacts the infamous Cloud City father-son scene with a predictable twist. The very end of the movie, where Rey uses the hard won MacGuffin to find the long-lost Luke Skywalker, is easily the most transparently commercial scene in the film, as it sets up the sequel to the exclusion of concluding the story from this film. Otherwise, nearly every story beat from the moment Han Solo shows up on screen to the destruction of the planet-sized weapon is as predictable as it is copied from the original films.
Tonally, the film owes more to The Avengers than Star Wars. Every character apart from Rey spends a good portion of their speaking time dispensing Tony Stark-style quips, and the action scenes, while frenetic and nicely visualized, never have any sense of danger or real excitement. There isn't a trash compactor moment where we feel like our heroes might truly be in a bind; when Finn is being dragged through the corridors of a spaceship by a large alien that looks like a beholder, Rey simply punches a few keys on a console and frees him. The plot moves quick enough that the audience is never given time to breathe, or, more importantly, take a good look back and try to figure out exactly why the characters are doing what they are doing. Rather, like Wile E. Coyote, the plot runs right off the cliff but keeps moving because it never looks down and sees the thousand foot drop below its feet.
The one glaring flaw in The Force Awakens is its almost total lack of world building, which, given its source material, is a huge misstep. Other than Jakku, none of the planets or factions we meet are the least bit memorable or even well-developed. J.J. Abrams is content to simply make visual references to things from the previous movies instead of coming up with anything new, and so the galaxy feels much emptier than it ever did before. The one true plot hole, which might be explained in some of the supplemental material that this reviewer eschews on basic principle, is the fact that there are three factions when there should only be two. They are: The Republic, the galactic government that was reinstated at the end of the original trilogy with the fall of The Empire and which is totally obliterated halfway through The Force Awakens; The First Order, which seems to be remnants of The Empire, complete with its top-down, Dark Side-based power structure and legions of Nazi-esque officers and stormtroopers; and, puzzlingly, The Resistance, an independent paramilitary group comprised of Rebellion veterans from the original trilogy. From a script point of view, these groups are all necessary, as The First Order destroys The Republic’s home planets during the second act (a mass genocide that doesn’t seem to bother any of the characters that much after that scene is over), but from a logic point of view it makes absolutely no sense. It would be as if the Continental Congress continued to meet and maintain its army for thirty years after the United States had been in existence.
Look, chances are you’re going to see The Force Awakens. For better or worse, that’s just how these things work. And it’s not a bad movie; in fact, there are individual performances and scenes which are quite entertaining. As a whole, however, it does not stands on its own as a good film. It proves the long-held theory that something like the cinematic magic that is Star Wars cannot be recaptured, only replicated with diminishing returns. But since Disney is concerned less with artistic returns than that other, more bankable kind, it ultimately doesn’t matter to them, and really, it shouldn’t matter to you either. The Force Awakens is a modern blockbuster in every possible sense of the word, both good and bad. It’s not Star Wars, but then again, nothing ever will be again.