From the moment the world premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ended Monday night, when the press retrieved their smart phones and tweeted en masse that the film was, as the L.A. Times’ Rebecca Keegan put it, “the movie you’re looking for,” fans not so spoiler averse as to swear off social media entirely could breathe a sigh of relief. (I suppose the same might be said of Disney executives, considering the company shelled out $4 billion for Lucasfilm, but was there ever any doubt it would be a hit?) A worthy successor! The best “Star Wars” film in 30 years! It checks all the boxes!
To review a franchise of such immense cultural stature is a thankless task, of course: “Star Wars” is the very definition of “critic-proof.” And critics had relatively little time to mull over “The Force Awakens,” which screened for the press only this week. Yet among the reviews, particularly the most effusive ones, there has been, as Criticwire’s Sam Adams put it to me on Twitter, a “disappointingly utilitarian” quality to the analysis, focused on detailing the film’s fulfillment of expectations rather than the meaning thereof. (Read Sam’s more ecumenical roundup of the initial reviews here.)
What’s at issue isn’t really what we want from “Star Wars,” per se, but what we want from film criticism. I’ve never been a big believer in the criticism-as-consumer-service approach (“Should you spend you money on this?”), because today’s viewer gathers intel—casting news, first-look photos, plot synopses, trailers—from many sources before a single review is ever published, and in the case of “Star Wars” this effect is heightened further by Disney’s endless, wall-to-wall marketing campaign. The far juicier question is not whether “The Force Awakens” will please longtime fans (let’s face it, they’re going to see for themselves no matter what critics write), but why J.J. Abrams’ nostalgia-saturated update proves so potent, and if this actually serves the filmmaking. If we are to see criticism as a brand of argumentation, “Fans will love it!” isn’t an invalid thesis, it’s just not a terribly interesting one.
As Time’s Stephanie Zacharek suggests, in one of the most engaging reads on the film so far, wrapped in the desire to satisfy audiences is another, more troubling notion, which is that audiences can’t be trusted “to know how to feel” when the familiar veers into the strange. To take the thought one step further, in a way that may not apply to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” but does apply to Hollywood’s obsession with remakes, reboots, revivals, sequels, and pre-sold properties more generally, this lack of faith in the viewer leads to a lot of shoddy films and TV series—and it falls to critics to point this out, even at the risk of being unpopular with readers. If the studios, as seems likely for the foreseeable future, are unwilling to challenge expectations, isn’t it our job to do so?
Below, find excerpts from TOH! editor Anne Thompson’s review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” as well as several other of our favorite pieces from around the web.
Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood!:
“‘Star Wars’ recruit J.J. Abrams (who rewrote original writer Michael Arndt with ‘Star Wars’ veteran Lawrence Kasdan) set about reconnecting movie audiences to a familiar world they know and love, as well as introducing them to new parts of that universe. Thankfully, Abrams’ contemporary “Star Wars” is more modern, diverse and female-empowered than the old order. This installment is satisfying and entertaining in a workmanlike way as Abrams pushes all the right buttons without seeming truly inspired.”
Eric Kohn, Indiewire:
“Snazzily directed by J.J. Abrams with vibrant effects and a busy plot that sets the whole franchise in motion all over again, ‘The Force Awakens’ delivers on expectations with a fun, polished space odyssey that embraces the appeal of the originals. The hype is strong with this one, but brace yourself: “The Force Awakens” does have flaws. It’s a little hokey in parts and at times distractingly self-referential, but that itself speaks to the nature of the material. Much as Abrams’ ‘Super 8’ worshipped at the altar of Spielbergian sci-fi, ‘The Force Awakens’ shows deep reverence for the first trilogy — even if it can’t duplicate its strengths.”
Stephanie Zacharek, Time:
“When you’ve been charged with reviving one of the most obsessively beloved franchises in modern movies, is it better to defy expectations or to meet them? With ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ J.J. Abrams splits the difference, and the movie suffers—in the end, it’s perfectly adequate, hitting every beat. But why settle for adequacy?”
Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com:
“The film ultimately runs up against the limitations of its own nature: like the James Bond films, the ‘Star Wars’ movies are pretty much obligated to revisit certain elements, to the point where they might feel played out even if they hadn’t been raided by other films, TV shows and books (including Harry Potter). But it’s still an exhilarating ride, filled with archetypal characters with plausible psychologies, melodramatic confrontations fueled by soaring emotions, and performances that can be described as good, period, rather than ‘good, for “Star Wars.”‘”
Ty Burr, The Boston Globe:
“The effect is like pulling a cherished old record album from the shelf and cueing up the needle. ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is analog. You can touch it. It feels good. Don’t tell anyone, but the movie’s more of a remake than a reboot. That’s what keeps it from being a great ‘Star Wars’ movie, as opposed to one that just satisfies every nostalgic itch you need scratched.”
Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly:
“With six films already in the series, and four since any of the good ones, Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt had to make ‘Force’ a crowd-pleasing hit. To ensure it, they’ve copied the arc of the original, ‘A New Hope’… You sense Abrams both slavishly worshipping ‘Star Wars’ and hoping to show the old girl up, as though the inner powerplays of Lucasfilm are ‘All About Eve’ with overgrown boys and their toys.”
Manohla Dargis, The New York Times:
“Despite the prerelease hype, it won’t save the world, not even Hollywood, but it seamlessly balances cozy favorites — Harrison Ford, ladies and gentlemen — and new kinetic wows along with some of the niceties that went missing as the series grew into a phenomenon, most crucially a scale and a sensibility that is rooted in the human. It has the usual toy-store-ready gizmos and critters, but it also has appealingly imperfect men and women whose blunders and victories, decency and goofiness remind you that a pop mythology like ‘Star Wars’ needs more than old gods to sustain it.”
Jen Yamato, The Daily Beast:
“From its instantly evocative opening credits crawl, ‘The Force Awakens’ is a relentless space adventure that’s trying desperately to find balance in the force between the nostalgic and the new. It’s perfectly safe and plenty full of the Force to satisfy fans who’ve been waiting for it for a decade—the diehards still nursing the trauma of the prequels in the deepest recesses of their souls.”
Sam Adams, Criticwire:
“‘The Force Awakens” canniest idea is making its characters ‘Star Wars’ fans. When Finn and Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley, have their inevitable encounter with Harrison Ford, she can’t help but blurt, ‘You’re the Han Solo?’ In the absence of Luke Skywalker, whose disappearance fuels the movie’s plot, the Jedi and the rebellion have passed into myth, meaning the original trilogy’s characters occupy much the same place in their universe as they do in ours.”
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune:
“The movie does all it can to establish its female lead as a strong, independent character. Still, ‘The Force Awakens’ allows for only so much disturbance in the Force otherwise known as the Proven Moneymaking Formula. In mostly entertaining ways the movie feels like a remake of the first ‘Star Wars’ from 1977. It’s easily the third-best in the franchise to date, behind the original, renamed ‘A New Hope’ (’77), and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980). Abrams’ temperament and tastes are sincere and amusing in roughly equal doses, and that’s about right for ‘Star Wars.'”