A few weeks ago, someone on my twitter feed joked that soon, we'd be inundated with a million reviews and thinkpieces about The Force Awakens all starting the same way--with a recitation of the author's personal connection to Star Wars, how they first encountered the movies, what their emotional reaction to the prequels was, and what place the franchise holds in their heart. This threw me, because it made me realize that I honestly have no idea how I feel about Star Wars. I don't love it. I don't hate it. I can't be indifferent to it--no person who comments on pop culture, and particularly geek culture, can do that. When I searched my heart for the feelings about Star Wars that were uniquely and untouchably my own, all I found was a big question mark.
So I went back--for the first time in at least a few years--and rewatched the original films (I didn't bother with the prequels, because I know perfectly well how I feel about them--they're awful, and pointless, and watching them once in the movie theater fifteen years ago was at least 0.5 times too many). And honestly, that just left me feeling more uncertain. Because the truth is, the original Star Wars films are fractally awful. The closer you examine them, the more apparently fatal flaws you notice. The story makes no sense. The worldbuilding is laughable when it isn't offensive. The dialogue is wooden. The actors are even more so, and the only exception consistently makes acting choices that seem rooted mainly in orneriness. The characters behave like dim children, and their reactions to calamity, either personal or global, are basically sociopathic. The good guys only win because the bad guys are stupid and incompetent. The central love story is creepy (and that's before you even get to the inadvertent incest). And the philosophical conflict that underpins the entire series runs the gamut from hopelessly muddled to morally bankrupt. The only thing the series has going for it are its visuals (which are on gorgeous display in the most recent, HD versions of the films, though Lucas's CGI embellishments from 1997 look a lot less convincing than the original footage from the 70s and 80s). But even then, what starts out as genuinely artful in the first half hour of A New Hope devolves into self-cannibalism by the end of Return of the Jedi.
But having said all this, no, I still do not hate Star Wars. I still, in fact, feel deeply for Luke and Han and Leia, even if I can't tell you why, and I still have a fond reaction to terms like lightsaber, Death Star, and the Force. I think I like the idea of this story more than I like the reality of it, which is almost enough to get you to buy that Joseph Campbell claptrap that Lucas has been peddling for the better part of four decades. Maybe the answer is simply that Star Wars is like chewing gum--fun and tasty at first, but the more you chew on it, the less flavor it has, until keeping at it feels more like a chore than a treat. We've been chewing on this particular piece of gum for 38 years, so it's not surprising that my main reaction to the franchise at this stage is ennui. It certainly doesn't help that Star Wars has been everywhere in 2015, that the new film's publicity machine has been utterly inescapable, that the internet has been occupied by hardly anything else for the last few weeks (though at least the obsession with avoiding spoilers has provided us with this handy comparison, throwing into sharp relief just how much the entitlement of fanboys is prioritized above the safety and wellbeing of women and people of color). In the face of all that excitement, all that anxiety, how can someone like me, who at this point mainly finds Star Wars rather fatiguing, even know how she feels?
So probably the best compliment that I can pay J.J. Abrams's The Force Awakens is to say that it has largely swept away my fatigue with Star Wars. This is not to say that it's a great, or even a very good, movie. Like the original films, it has flaws that only loom larger the closer you examine it. It's too long. Its plot is basically a whole bunch of setup and scene-setting poured into the rough outline of A New Hope. The mission that makes up its final set-piece was clearly arrived at because someone asked "what's cooler than a Death Star?" and the only answer they could come up with was "an even bigger Death Star!" Its worldbuilding makes no sense within the film itself and, once it's explained to you, is really quite massively ethically dodgy. But nevertheless, it's a hell of a lot of fun, with a plot that moves effortlessly, genuinely exciting action scenes, winning characters, and some interesting additions, especially on the visual front, to the series's universe. All of this is enough so that while you're watching The Force Awakens, its problems seem a lot less important than its pleasures. Now, possibly all this is just me saying that someone has handed me a fresh stick of chewing gum, but especially with the example of the prequels before us (or for that matter, Abrams's previous attempt to revitalize a moribund SF franchise), let's not pretend that this is an easy thing to do.
As noted, The Force Awakens largely recapitulates the beats of A New Hope, so the plot can be glossed over rather quickly. Rey (Daisy Ridley), a plucky orphan on a backwater desert planet, finds a droid carrying information crucial to the rebellion against the empire (both "rebellion" and "empire" are being used here as stand-ins for the names the film gives these bodies, but this is effectively what they are; if you actually try to work out the film's geopolitics, you'll end up with either a headache or a burning rage; best not to, either way). In her quest to return the droid to its owner, she's joined by renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and is taken under the wing of a mysterious old man, here played by Harrison Ford. (The third member of of the film's trio of young heroes, Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron, is actually a lot less important to the story than the film's promotional material leads us to expect. He disappears after the first act and never even interacts with Rey. For most of the movie, the central trio are Rey, Finn, and Han). The three of them (plus Chewie, of course) bounce around on the Millennium Falcon, facing various dangers, until they arrive at the rebellion headquarters and the film's final act, which revolves around destroying the Death Star (sorry, mega-Death Star).
There are really only two things that Abrams does in The Force Awakens that feel like his own additions to the story, and like setup for his own trilogy rather than a retelling of Lucas's. The first is that the quest its heroes are set on is the search for the long-missing Luke Skywalker. The second is that the villain of the piece, the Sith lord Kylo Ren, is Han and Leia's son (real name: Ben, which honestly makes no sense as a name that Han and Leia would give their child). Technically, the fact that Finn is an ex-stormtrooper is also an original touch, but this is something the film does almost nothing with. Finn's moral awakening and decision to leave the empire happen in all of a single scene, and as it turns out he never even committed any real atrocities. We learn that he was essentially a janitor for most of his career, and he never fires his weapon in the battle that crystalizes his realization that he hates his job.
Luke's absence is something that hangs over the film but doesn't really shape it--he's more of a McGuffin who will probably have more of an effect in the next movie(s). Kylo Ren, meanwhile, is the film's biggest problem, and the place where Abrams most struggles to escape the gravity well of Lucas's shoddy worldbuilding. We get vague hints of his background--he's disappointed with his parents, especially Han; he was trained by Luke but seduced by the Dark Side; he's currently the apprentice of the new trilogy's Big Bad, the unfortunately-named Supreme Leader Snoke (a CGI puppet voiced by Andy Serkis). He's also obsessed with his grandfather, and with recapturing what he sees as Vader's lost glory. But the problem here is that the Star Wars films have never done a particularly good job of defining the light and dark sides of the Force, nor why anyone would be drawn to them. When Luke supposedly struggles with the pull of the dark side at the end of Return of the Jedi, absolutely nothing shows up on screen, and we have no idea why becoming evil is suddenly so seductive. There's a similar opacity when we're told that Kylo, though sworn to the dark side, is "tempted" by the light.
What little moral philosophy is laid out by Lucas in the original trilogy is barely worth scrutinizing. Luke is apparently in danger of becoming evil because he feels anger and hatred towards Emperor Palpatine, a man who has subjugated the galaxy, ordered the murder of billions, and is about to kill Luke's friends. The planet-destroying, child-murdering Darth Vader, meanwhile, becomes good by saving the life of his son, which is surely at least partly a selfish act. Oddly enough, it's the prequels that actually come closest to explaining the allure of the dark side, with their story of an abused former slave who is unable to let go of the anxiety and rage bred in him by years of precarious living and the loss of his family, who turns to the dark side for a sense of control (to be clear, the prequels tell this story abominably--"from my point of view, the Jedi are evil," anyone?--but the bones of it are extremely compelling). But even there, Lucas's ideas of good and evil are simplistic and even offensive. The Jedi are right to tell Anakin that fear and anger are the path to the dark side. But instead of teaching him to overcome those feelings (or, for that matter, doing anything for the people still languishing in slavery and oppression, the causes of Anakin's fear and anger), the Jedi tell him that he is a bad person for feeling them. Unsurprisingly, this does not end well.
Kylo Ren, a child of privilege who was raised by loving parents, doesn't have Anakin's justification for feeling fear and anger. Neither is he as fearsome as Darth Vader--his displays of anger feel more like tantrums. He is, in short, an utterly pathetic, entitled, whiny excuse for a villain, made all the more unpalatable because he apparently feels stirrings of conscience but chooses to ignore them. If The Force Awakens intended for us to recognize how unimpressive Kylo is and leave it at that, that would be one thing. But to me it feels as if the film wants us to be interested in him, and even wish for his redemption. Since "redemption," in this case, would mean Kylo getting over his unjustified self-pity and not hurting people for a second, I find myself utterly unsympathetic, and genuinely resentful of every second spent in his presence. It's particularly annoying that most of the emotional weight of Han's presence in the film (and all of Leia's) is expended on his grief for his son and his desire to save him, when I have to believe that the real Han would have absolutely no patience for the self-pitying streak of piss he somehow managed to raise.
Happily, there's a lot less Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens than there is Finn and Rey, both of whom are delightful. To be fair, the writing for both characters cuts corners--as I've already said, it isn't really believable that Finn was raised from a child to be a stormtrooper, or that he breaks free of his indoctrination so quickly and so easily. As for Rey, there's been some criticism of her super-competence--she's a genius engineer, a hotshot pilot, and incredibly strong in the Force--and to be honest, I feel that there's some merit to these complaints. The Star Wars films are full of preternaturally gifted characters, from Luke Skywalker himself, to Finn and Poe (who are, respectively, a gifted fighter who can pick up any weapon, including a lightsaber, and learn to use it within seconds, and an exceptional pilot who can fly anything). But Rey's competence moves the plot and solves her problems a lot more often than they do for any other character in the series, and at some point it's hard not to roll your eyes at that. For me, that point came in the scene in which Kylo Ren tries to interrogate Rey using the Force. I can accept that Rey manages to turn Kylo's mind probe back on him, because she's been established as a character who can very quickly figure out how things work and use them to her advantage. It makes less sense to me, however, that in the very next scene Rey uses the Jedi mind trick on a stromtrooper, even though she's never seen it used and, for all we know, doesn't even know that such a thing is possible. By the end of the film, when Rey beats Kylo in a lightsaber duel despite never having wielded the weapon before, it's hard not to feel that her awesomeness is being layered on a bit thick.
None of this, however, makes Rey a bad character, because the more competent and powerful she becomes, the greater the challenges the film throws in her path. There is, in addition, something deeply compelling, and quietly heroic, about the matter of fact attitude that Rey takes towards her own abilities, her obvious belief that she is always the person for the job because she's always been able to do it. Early in the film, she announces that she is waiting for her family--for, it's strongly implied, years and even decades. "They'll be back, though," she says simply. The strength required to maintain that faith (and the toll that it nevertheless takes on Rey, whose constant motion is clearly an attempt to tamp down deep-seated anxiety) shines through her every action, and it's that same strength that powers Rey's incredible skill and competence. It also helps that Rey sparks delightfully with Finn and Han, both of whom are able to keep up with her quick mind. Some of the best scenes in the movie involve Rey and Finn or Rey and Han furiously discussing a problem and rushing towards a solution at a breakneck pace, quipping at each other all the way. In the end, the reason that The Force Awakens works as well as it does is that it has Rey at its heart, and that her heart is so obviously pure and true.
A lot of the criticism of The Force Awakens has centered around how derivative it is of A New Hope, with critics decrying it as yet another example of Hollywood's wholesale surrender to nostalgia. I don't think this is wrong, but I think the word missing from most of these discussions is also the one that most perfectly describes the film: fanfic. I mean this not in the wide and commonly used sense in which any work set in a universe created by someone other than its current writer is fanfic, but in a very specific way. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, for example, are not fanfic of the original series, because they both take the foundation it built seriously, and add something new to it with its own flavor and purpose. Abrams's own version of Star Trek, meanwhile, is not fanfic, because it lacks the crucial "fan" component, hollowing out the original Star Trek until all that's left is its exterior and filling it with something completely different. The Force Awakens is fanfic because it is both deeply reverent of the original it builds on, and doesn't add much of its own flavor--though it must be said that this is at least partly Lucas's fault, for constructing a story so flimsy that very little substantial addition could be made to it without completely changing its nature (as we saw in the case of the prequels). It is good fanfic, though, the kind that finds new notes that the creator never thought of--it's clear, for example, that Abrams has given some thought to the cool things you could do with the Force, as when Kylo Ren stops a blaster pulse in mid-air; and when Kylo and Finn fight with light sabers, they get scorched and cut, because that's what would happen if you fought with flaming swords. And it's the kind of fanfic that gives more space to women and people of color than the original trilogy did. That's definitely worth your time and money, and as I've said, it has reinvigorated my fondness for this series--without trying to make it something it isn't and could never be. But to me, it also illustrates the limitations of this fictional world, and the reason why I will never feel as strongly about it as I do for others.