Star Wars and the Critical Benefit of Low Expectations

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My old colleague Ross Douthat is mystified that Star Wars: The Forces Awakens has wowed nearly every single critic its come up against:

This film has a 95 percent “Fresh” rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. 95 percent. (That’s higher than the audience rating, right now, which is only 92 percent. The wisdom of crowds!) If you want to be kind to the movie, I think it deserves, at best, the 65-70 percent earned by the last two “Hunger Games” movies — and frankly those were a lot more original and interesting than anything in “The Force Awakens.”

But no: 95 percent. Not from audiences; from critics.

Over at Vox, David Roberts is right in sync with the idea that The Force Awakens is getting an easy ride. I think this assessment doesn’t spend enough time considering three very important phrases. Those phrases are: Episode I, Episode II and Episode III.

However one feels about The Force Awakens, it is—in fact—a film. The aims of the heroes are coherent and accessible. The acting is good. (I really liked Ridley and Boyega.) And the pacing is well-managed. I’m an old man, so I thought the film was too loud. And I thought the film overplayed certain things, that it should have underplayed—the critical scene where Kylo Ren solidifies his place with the Dark Side (for now, at least) is interminable.

But The Force Awakens is a film—something that the last three offerings from Lucas were not.  Indeed, I walked out of the movie theater amazed that I now actually thought less of the prequels, then when I walked in. Everything—save special effects—is wrong the last three iterations of Star Wars. The plotting is indecipherable. The dialogue is painful. Otherwise good actors struggle under Lucas’s direction.  Also, Jar-Jar Binks. (What? Ain’t no more.) That this horribleness was strapped to an incredible hype machine only made matters worse.

Now it’s true that Abrams didn’t invent much and that he borrowed quite a bit. But he understood what was good about the Star Wars universe, and what was not. He took that expertise and made something that critics, and fans, have been waiting on for over thirty years—a decent Star Wars film, and arguably the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.