George Lucas's mistake was to think of Star Wars as a fictional universe to be shaped by his imagination. At least that was his first mistake -- the second being that his imagination wasn't so hot after a while. But the big mistake was not to realize that Star Wars essentially is a very specific type of story. Certain things have to happen in this story, and certain things have to be in it. At the turn of the century Lucas made three films that failed, among other ways, to meet these criteria. It was time for someone to step up and say they knew Star Wars better than George Lucas. To judge by the box office and a critical consensus best described as a sigh of relief, J. J. Abrams proved that he knew Star Wars better than George Lucas by remaking Star Wars. It wouldn't do, of course, literally to remake Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), but the idea clearly was to do an archetypal remake, to tell essentially the same story while continuing the original story. An unintended consequence of this strategy is a strange sense of demoralization, of the impossibility of progress, hangs over the film, despite it being not at all implausible that partisans of the Galactic Empire would not all lay down their arms upon the deaths of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, however much such an outcome was implied at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), especially in its later, enhanced edition. So if I understand the opening crawl correctly, this rump Empire, ruled by an entity called the First Order, itself led by some nebulous Oz-like power named Snoke, occupies a significant part of the former Empire, while the restored Republic occupies the rest and wages a cold war against the First Order masterminded by Leia Organa, who supports and/or provokes insurgencies on occupied worlds under the rubric of the Resistance. In answer, and in the classic action of the insane, the First Order builds a death star, bigger and more destructive than ever yet with the same fundamental vulnerabilities required by the Star Wars archetype. Meanwhile, on some outlier planet, the Force stirs in a resourceful ragamuffin who winds up with custody of a cute droid with important strategic information. And there's Han Solo!
The one relatively original idea in The Force Awakens is to have one of the heroes be a deserting Stormtrooper, a young man whose conditioning fails him when he's ordered to take part in a massacre. On some level, however, Finn (John Boyega) defaults to a Han Solo archetype -- while the actual Han (Harrison Ford) limps into the Ben Kenobi role -- according to which selfish motives evolve into selfless heroism. None of the major characters in Episode VII is a perfect match for someone in Episode IV; Rey the resourceful ragamuffin (Daisy Ridley) is sort of Luke and Leia rolled into one, while the cheerful X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a similar blend by virtue of his original ownership of the cute droid and his high-spirited heroism. Black clad Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is obviously our Darth Vader -- it's his right by blood -- but he looks more like a Slytherin dropout when he takes his mask off and his overhanging family drama leeches any badassery from him. For all that Abrams and Disney have declared themselves unbound by all the once-canonical novels published since 1983, the key idea that Ren is actually Han and Leia's son turned to the Dark Side had already been done in the books. It turns out not to be a good idea on film, for nothing could take the life out of the beloved Han Solo before he was actually killed than to force him into a "fathers and sons" storyline, and to treat his final confrontation with his delinquent brat as a moment of operatic grandeur undermined by cliched earnestness. Han's exit is a mercy killing, since Ford is unconvincing as a septuagenarian swashbuckler, however necessary his mostly irreverent presence was to make this new film recognizably "Star Wars" to all the people who cried for a Han-type character through all the Prequel Trilogy the way small children cry for Mickey Mouse during the second hour of Fantasia. That demand for programmed irreverence has always been a drag on fantastic ambition, a warning to creators not to take anything more seriously than the casual viewer is willing to. Here, somehow, by bringing Han back only to burden him with child issues and then kill him, Abrams manages to have his cake, spill it on the floor and face-plant into it. Still, the film's treatment of Han and Ford is as reverential as intended compared to its pathetic display of Carrie Fisher as General Organa. I don't know whether Abrams gave her nothing cool to do as, say, a fighting general, because he couldn't imagine it or because Fisher is heartbreakingly incapable of doing anything. You'd hardly believe, if you didn't know, that she's considerably younger than Ford from her presence -- it can hardly be called a performance -- in this picture. Neither her face nor her voice appear capable of expression at this point in her life, though I try to tell myself that she might have given more had Abrams given her more to do. Seeing this Leia is more tragic than seeing Han die. The real surprise, for anyone who'd seen him play the Trickster in episodes of The Flash, is that Mark Hamill, conveniently bearded, is the least decrepit looking of the original trio. Objectively, by appearing in only one scene he does the least to poison our imaginations.
While it's depressing to see the old stars displayed this way, the overall effect of The Force Awakens is like a random Star Wars role playing game brought to life, with roughly sketched player-characters getting to meet some famous NPCs in settings new yet familiar, Tattooine-ish or cantina-esque. For all that, it's not an overtly bad film; it lacks the ambition to be bad in the ways the prequel films often were bad. The craftsmanship is unimpeachable, apart from the acting, but there's only so much you can do with a paint-by-number set. The new main characters might have been more interesting if they (not counting Finn) weren't so tied, explicitly or implicitly, to the old characters. While the prequel films are largely failures, you can appreciate what Lucas was trying to do, and actually did, which was to expand his universe by exploring its past. We're supposed to be moving forward now, but Force Awakens doesn't feel like its expanding the universe in any way. Since the prequels showed us the slow rise of the Empire, having the First Order and Snoke and Ben Solo's corruption thrown at us each as a fait accompli seems wrong, and the incestuousness of the story in the way it has everything circle back to Han, Leia and Luke feels like a universe closing in on itself and locking into unalterable archetypes. A lot happens in this film, and some of it is quite impressive visually, but I don't know if "awakens" really describes any of it.