The recent blockbuster release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is an undeniable financial success, having broken box office records domestically and internationally. What can be said of the film's critical success? More importantly, now that the Star Wars franchise is out of the hands of its creator, George Lucas, what duty, if any, does Disney have, to maintain a certain level of creativity? While Disney is in the entertainment business, that does not mean that their product has to be a pale imitation of the original. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is commercial film-making at its worst.
Mystery writer Raymond Chandler once commented, "I don't particularly care for the hard boiled babies, because most of them are traveling on borrowed gas, and I don't think you have any right to do that unless you can travel a little further than the man from whom you borrowed the gas." Chandler epitomized this. He wrote hard-boiled mysteries, following in the footsteps of Dashiell Hammett (who pioneered hard-boiled detective fiction) but taking the genre to new heights.
Director J.J. Abrams and the people at Disney have shown with Star Wars: The Force Awakens that they are content to rest on the laurels of George Lucas. The Force Awakens breaks no new ground. The result is a film that is formulaic at best, and an insult to George Lucas' work, and the goodwill of the Star Wars saga's legions of fans.
When J.J. Abrams took the helm of the Star Trek film franchise relaunch (not quite a reboot), I wasn't sure what to expect. The trailer hinted that the film was going to modernize the classic series (which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year) and make a lot of money from a new generation. The first film was a pleasant surprise. It was more action oriented than the original (which had its share of action/adventure episodes and films, but also a lot of thought-provoking drama) and while it clearly wasn't a cerebral film, it honored the original series while taking it into a new direction.
Unfortunately, the film's sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness was a complete mess and evidence of J.J. Abram's shortcomings as a director. Abrams chose to retell the story of Khan Noonien Singh in his second Star Trek film, just as was done in the original series' second film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Perhaps in a move to be different, Abrams reversed Kirk and Spock's roles, with Kirk dying to save the Enterprise, and Spock seeking vengeance on Khan. The role reversal didn't work, only highlighting the film's lack of creativity and direction.
Sadly, The Force Unleashed reminds me of bad fan fiction. Bad fan fiction tends to take what the writer loves about their favorite property, but often lacks the imagination to take their story in a new direction. Instead, the writer uses crutches which they think are good storytelling tools. Examples include romances (or breakups) and killing off major characters for the sake of doing something different.
A lot of people have seen The Force Unleashed and enjoyed it. For fans who didn't enjoy the prequels, or fans who waited for a new big screen Star Wars since Revenge of the Sith, a new Star Wars film must have brought back memories of Christmas morning as a child. The demand was really there, and like Field of Dreams, "build it and they will come."
Although it's very likely that The Force Awakens will set several box office records, it doesn't seem likely to stand the test of time, either in the fans' eyes, or in the eyes of critics. After the honeymoon is over, I think The Force Awakens will be compared to The Phantom Menace in terms of good and bad Star Wars films.
Although Star Wars: A New Hope was by no means a technical masterpiece or an acting tour de force, it was a ground-breaking and imaginative film. Looking at the camerawork and editing, it resembles a student film with its simplistic shots and cuts. With the exceptions of veteran actors Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, the film's stars are still learning how to act. Lucas has acknowledged that he borrowed from other films (such as The Hidden Fortress) but there's nothing wrong with borrowing when you build on the foundation of others. A New Hope was a magical film that took science fiction (or space opera, or whatever title you slap on it) to unprecedented heights, and created a true cultural phenomenon. George Lucas took various ingredients from films and concocted a successful recipe all his own. The film's sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is undoubtedly the closest thing to art in the Star Wars saga, an entertaining film with a lot of artistic qualities.
With The Force Awakens, we really get nothing original. There's plenty of fan service. Great special effects, lots of familiar faces, and lots of different characters. As several critics have pointed out, the film is a rehash of A New Hope, and a bad one at that. While the Star Wars prequels weren't perfect, they made up an original trilogy that chronicled the fall of the Republic, the Jedi, and Anakin Skywalker. With The Force Awakens, you have to ask, is this really the best that Disney could do?
Disney could have done far better creatively. The Star Wars Expanded Universe showed that there were many different types of stories to be told in the Star Wars universe. Disney didn't have to use any of them (although one has to ask whether it's coincidence that Han and Leia's son turned to the Dark Side in the Expanded Universe books and the same thing happens in The Force Awakens) but they are proof that there are many fresh approaches to Star Wars that are entertaining, original, and stay true to the spirit of the original film trilogy.
Creativity wasn't what Disney was looking for. They were looking to make a lot of money. They didn't pay George Lucas four billion dollars for LucasFilm to take Star Wars to new creative heights. They bought it because Disney is an entertainment conglomerate and they know Star Wars has the potential for a very lucrative film franchise (much as Disney has done with its purchase of Marvel).
Making a profit doesn't mean you have to make a shallow film. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is blockbuster entertainment at its worst. While the film doesn't have the product placement overload of a Michael Bay film (Disney shifted its Star Wars merchandising to everything off of the silver screen ranging from automobiles to makeup), it has the same lack of soul.
If you're going to borrow someone else's gas, at least drive your car further. Star Wars: The Force Awakens drives around in circles rather than breaking new ground. Disney is fortunate that people wanted to ride in the Star Wars car no matter where it was going. Disney took advantage of this and made a fortune. As H.L. Mencken wrote, "No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby."
Disney isn't going to lose any money on the Star Wars franchise. People will flock to see the films and buy up the various merchandise tie-ins. Disney does not care whether or not the films stand the test of time as long as they make lots of money. Time is less forgiving though. Years from now, people will compare Lucas' Star Wars films and Disney's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and ask, how a studio could do so little creatively, with so much to draw upon.