[Mild Spoilers about character, no plot revealed]
You can only judge something by contrast.
The first three Star Wars movies were amazing technical achievements. No-one had ever seen anything like this, because there wasn’t any infrastructure in Hollywood capable of creating it. Lucas had to build Industrial Light and Magic in order to pull off the visual effects, plus THX and Skywalker Sound in order to deliver the sound quality necessary for the spectacle he had in mind. It was a technical advancement that forever changed film, and it came via tightly-edited, precisely choreographed set pieces held together by flimsy bits of story and stilted dialogue.
To be a true successor to the original Star Wars, then, The Force Awakens had to be Avatar. Didn’t happen. To some extent, that’s understandable; thanks to ever-more-powerful computers, we’ve broached the uncanny valley, years ago in fact. Digital “beauty work” that changes an actor’s appearance during a shot is routine, yet you’ve never spotted it. Film makers can create whatever reality they want, limited only by time and money, so technical advancements aren’t easy to come by.
But the corollary is that if the visuals aren’t spectacular, the filmmakers can no longer blame technology. While there were a few shots that popped, nothing came close to the tightly-choreographed spectacle of the Battle over Endor. Even the prequels this better.
What we got instead was character-driven. A character-driven Star Wars.
Fortunately, the critical performances clicked for me. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were both solid, the former breathing some humanity into a Mary Sue, the latter capturing someone who thought they just wanted out before catching the heroism bug. Adam Driver pulled off what Hayden Christensen couldn’t, a cold brute who’ll dissolve into tears at the merest hug, an anti-Vader. J.J. Abrams realized that C-3PO was the Jar-Jar Binks of the original trilogy, and played that for laughs instead of shoving him back in our faces.
Harrison Ford was a discount Harrison Ford; very charming, don’t get me wrong, but he felt even less like a smuggler this time around, even as we saw him smuggling for the first time. Mark Hamill was wasted. Carrie Fisher was lousy, but she wasn’t given much to work with. Remember the Princess who was a strong and capable leader, a passionate speaker, willing to sacrifice everything for a cause? No more. The General just mopes, even in the war room, and offers sad hugs to all. I’m still livid about this change; story-wise, Episode IV’s biggest success was the subversion of the helpless princess trope, so this felt like a huge betrayal.
The plot was typical Star Wars. In fact worse, now that I think of it; Boyega was so good, you barely noticed Finn was a serial plot hole. What’s the minimum turning radius of an X-wing? Why were the planets that close? Fanatics suddenly cave in like caves, light speed is even more of a plot convenience, R2-D2 is magic, and don’t even think about the physics of the Big Gun. Ironically, a lot of things you’d think would be major plot holes aren’t. Secrets are dealt with rationally, and you can wave a lot away with “the Force diddit” or “we’ll get someone to fill that in with a novel.” But when the lights come back up, don’t go looking for plot holes.
While they’re down, though, you’ll enjoy it. The Force Awakens is better than the prequels, and in my books even A New Hope. Star Wars always put entertainment ahead of science, let alone plot, and on that score it’s worth a ticket.