Star Wars The Force Awakens is a film that earns it's keep in the first hour, and that's a good thing because the second hour... oh boy. The experience of watching TFA was akin to watching my favorite team build a huge lead over a bitter rival in the first half of a game and then almost blow it in the second half and hold on for a narrow win. Sure, a win is a win. But...
Sports analogies aside the story begins promising enough. Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac - maybe the best thing in the film) has been sent by <ahem> general Leia on a secret mission to retrieve an important clue into the whereabouts of the missing Luke Skywalker from Max Von Sydow. Their pow wow is interrupted by a gaggle of storm troopers led by the imposing Kylo Ren who also wants to know where Luke is hiding so he can kill him and put an end to the Jedi once and for all. Ren's troops commit atrocities and take Po prisoner but fail to retrieve the computer file they were looking for. That has been tucked away into Po's droid, BB8, who has taken it deep into the desert.
So far so good. I should mention that this is a beautiful looking movie right through to the end and the action complements the visuals perfectly, at least early on. The writing in the first act is succinct and easy to swallow and the acting is top-notch.
So, after Po is taken prisoner we spend some time with Rey (Daisy Ridley in one of the great star making turns of the past 20 years). She's a loner with an independent streak who scrapes a living from the detritus of empire. One day she's contentedly eating her lunch when suddenly BB8, fresh from the atrocities over yonder, wanders into her sphere of influence and is snagged by another scrapper. She frees the droid who takes to her and the story becomes one of a girl and her dog.
Meanwhile back at Kylo's place Po has succumbed to torture and spilled the beans on BB8's whereabouts. Soon after however he's befriended by a stormtrooper with a conscience who wants out of the ranks. The two steal a tie fighter and make their escape but are shot out of the sky as Po is heading back to the planet to get his droid.
The stormtrooper with a heart of gold is Finn (John Boyega) and when they crash land on the planet he assumes Po has been killed so he wanders off in search of water and into the scrap yard where Rey is fighting for control of BB8. The two form an uneasy alliance but before long more storm troopers arrive thanks to the information that was culled from Po's head. After a scuffle Rey and Finn wind up hopping into the Millennium Falcon that just happens to be sitting outside the scrap yard, partially dismantled and covered in a dirty tarp.
Once they reach orbit they're caught in a tractor beam and pulled into what turns out to be a freighter owned by ta da - Han Solo ("Chewie... We're home").
Up to this point everything has been going swimmingly. I'm fully engaged in the story in spite of the familiarity of it all and the fact that them's some serious coincidences playin' out dere. But it's not long after this that things start to go south. It's great to see Harrison Ford back as Han. But once he's introduced the story starts to buckle under the weight of expectation. And when it does other cracks begin to appear as well.
It's around the film's middle that we start to get a clearer picture of what the good guys are up against; and it looks an awful lot like a death star. Around the same time Leia makes her grand entrance and it's about as flat a big entrance as I've ever seen. She ambles gingerly off her space ship and creaks up toward Ford for the big how-do-you-do. But her performance is so wooden, so self conscious, so inept that I felt embarrassed for her. Ford too looks like he'd rather be flying his plane into a golf course than having to go through the sentimental motions with his less talented co-star. I found myself flashing back to the opening crawl and wishing it had said something like...
"After his sister Leia was killed in a knife fight with an Ewok, Luke Skywalker went missing"
But alas it didn't say that and here she was tossing a huge bucket of ice water on the proceedings with each wooden recital of the prequel-worthy luuvvvv talk with Han.
From this point onward the film starts cashing in those goodwill chips it won during the first hour and as it does my willingness to just accept all a dem coincidences and glossed-over details ("Oh look! It's Po... WTF?") starts to erode. I'm also less willing to accept used story elements, including the new super-sized death star/planet/killer/thingy.
The death star on steroids notion seems right in keeping with this year's tendency to simply take what worked before and make it bigger, with more teeth. Doesn't $200 million buy you an original idea any more? I know Disney wanted to do some serious fan service here and that's great but fan service became outright mannerism in the second hour with all the important scenes being little more than former scenes with more teeth. There was no suspense because I'd seen it before. Hell, they even seemed aware that they didn't need to set up the final battle because everybody knew what was coming. So instead of planning we got:
"You disable the shields. You fly in and blow it up. Got it? Let's go."
Uhhhmmmmm... isn't this like the largest, most sophisticated weapon ever built in the history of the universe? It has no defenses? Not even a security camera? Didn't these dullards learn anything from the destruction of the 2 previous death stars? Apparently not.
But before the Indominous Rex, uh, I mean new death planet thing, can be neutralized we of course need a version of the big showdown from the original film, and so we get it. Regardless of the fact that it was simply warmed-up leftovers it still should have been the film's biggest moment. But it wasn't. It just sort of happened and that was that. No resonance. No particular implications for the story or the remaining characters. Just an OMG second and then it's over. Next.
A couple of other things. The decision to unmask Kylo Ren completely undermined the character. I'm sure Adam Driver's contract called for a certain amount of face time but it was a huge mistake. Also, billions of people are killed in one scene and then never mentioned again. In addition: John Boyega is a fine actor but what is his character doing in this movie? Finn doesn't advance the story one iota. He seems to be there simply so that Disney can deflect charges of racism against the film.
Which brings me to what was really lost in the second hour: the sappy sentimentalism, the atrocious performance of Carrie Fisher, the head-scratching presence of Boyega's Finn, the tired rehashing of the death star and the relegation of C3PO and R2D2 to the status of Hammond's grandkids in Jurassic Park II completely undermined the real story of Rey and her march to the fore.
Ridley does a commendable job with the character arc here, taking command of it early and guiding it confidently to a conclusion that should have resonated much stronger. But because, by the end, I was consumed with trying to understand how my team could have squandered such a huge lead and nearly lost it all I wasn't fully available for the film's conclusion; which was a shame because in hindsight I can see it was handled deftly, brought Rey's journey to a satisfying rest point, and set up compelling possibilities for the future.
In the end team TFA squeaked out a win but, because I spent the second half with my head in my hands mumbling "what are they doing!?" I wasn't able to enjoy the victory.