The Force Awakens and a Critical Turnaround

A few final thoughts on J.J. Abrams’s film, nostalgia, and the expectations game


As someone who often sees movies more than once, I occasionally have the following experience: I see a film and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s better than expected; then I see it again, and I’m disappointed that it no longer sustains my upwardly revised expectations. Or the process proceeds in reverse: initial disappointment, followed by a pleasant surprise later on. At least a few times, I’ve had the cycle repeat itself through more than one iteration: disappointment, pleasant surprise, disappointment (or the reverse).

This expectations game poses a particular challenge for people, like me, who write movie reviews. On the one hand, you need to be as clear as you can about how your expectations may have influenced your response to a film. On the other, you need to recognize that the review itself will, at least at the margins, help set viewers’ expectations, for good or for ill. Over-praise and you court backlash; under-praise and you may seem like a wet blanket.

Never have I seen this dynamic more evident than in the  response to Star Wars: The Force Awakens—which isn’t surprising, given that it’s the most-anticipated film in recent memory. Since its release two weeks ago, J.J. Abrams’s reboot has seemed to work its way through the expectations game not merely on the level of the individual (myself included), but on the level of vast, cultural consciousness. When the movie first appeared in theaters, the characteristic response by critics was, essentially: Yes, it recycles too much from the initial trilogyand the original Star Wars in particularbut it so aptly recalls those long-ago delights that this is more a quibble than an existential flaw. (My own version of that case can be found here.)

But over the subsequent two weeks, as the movie has racked up historic box-office numbers, critical sentiment seems to have shifted. The essential components of the assessment remain the same: On the plus side, the film’s performances are strong and pleasingly diverse, it boasts many lively sequences, and the overall result is way better than the second trilogy; on the minus side, the movie is ensnared in its own nostalgia and lack of originality. The balance, however, has shifted from emphasizing the former to emphasizing the latter. Even George Lucas has gotten in on the act, complaining that the movie is all recycled ideas, and that his experience of selling the franchise to Disney was akin to selling his children to “white slavers.” (Which mostly raises the question: Who’s worse? White slavers, or the person who sells his children to them?)

The litany of particulars is by now well documented, and I have no desire to add unnecessary spoilers for anyone who has (somehow) managed so far to avoid them. So briefly: The Force Awakens’s chief protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is essentially a female version of Luke Skywalker (and a marvelously understated feminist one: read our own Megan Garber on the subject here); its chief antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is a Darth Vader knockoff in more ways than one; Harrison Ford’s Han Solo fulfills pretty much the role this time out that Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi did last time; oedipal issues are once again resolved by means of a light sabre encounter witnessed by young heroes; it ultimately all comes down to an X-Wing assault on the minuscule weakness of an asteroidal, planet-killing super-weapon; etc., etc., etc.

All this has been known and acknowledged from the start. Yet what were once generally considered acceptable flaws are now viewed by some as defining failures. Let me offer a few examples out of the many available. And please be forewarned that this is going to get down into the weeds a bit.

I’ll begin at home, with The Atlantic. I saw The Force Awakens on Tuesday December 15 and wrote my review that day for publication when the embargo broke Wednesday morning. I described the movie as “less sequel than remix,” noted that it was “ensnared in its own nostalgia,” and explained that “much of the enjoyment it provides is by design derivative.” But my complaints were half-hearted at best. Ultimately, for me the movie accomplished two crucial goals: It transported me back to 1977, when I saw Star Wars on opening day as a 10-year-old boy; and it began the task of wiping away all cultural memory of the abominable prequel trilogy. Like most contemporaneous critics, I considered those accomplishments to be more than enough. My thoughts have since evolved somewhat—a second viewing played a significant role—and I’ll return to that evolution in a bit.

The Atlantic’s second bite at the Force Awakens-nostalgia apple was a debate the following Monday between my colleagues Spencer Kornhaber (mostly frustrated: “the lack of originality almost kills the film”) and David Sims (mostly happy: “the notes are familiar—but they’re still well-played”). I don’t know whether either might have written any differently had they done so during in the initial blush of enthusiasm for the movie. But their debate coincided precisely with the moment when the question of how badly The Force Awakens had over-indulged in nostalgia was coming to the fore. And it’s notable how little they actually disagreed on any particulars. Their dispute was almost exclusively a question of the relative weight given to merits and demerits. (Also worth noting is that Spencer, the harsher critic, liked the movie better the second time he saw it.)

Over the course of the previous week, Vox addressed the nostalgia question on no fewer than four occasions. On December 21, Todd VanDerWerff, in a piece neutrally titled “Five Ways the New Movie Copies the Original Film,” offered a cautiously balanced assessment. Next came a harsher take by Peter Suderman titled “Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is a Prime Example of Hollywood’s Nostalgia Problem.” Ezra Klein then weighed in with a sharply counterintuitive take (“Abrams’s baldfaced rip-off of the original Star Wars is, by far, the most innovative thing about The Force Awakens”). Finally, on December 26, Vox ran a piece by David Roberts titled “Critics Are Going Too Easy on The Force Awakens” that, as its title advertises, went after not merely the film itself but the critics who had oversold it. (Notably, like Spencer, he liked the movie better after a second viewing.)

Finally, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written two posts on The Force Awakens. The first, published on December 18 and titled “Requiem for Star Wars,” was notable in part because Douthat had not yet seen the movie and yet was already disappointed (pre-disappointed?) with it. That’s not to say that his critique was inaccurate, but rather that he wasn’t describing the movie itself but rather his already-deflated expectations for it. In his subsequent, post-viewing post, “Star Wars and Decadence,” Douthat confirmed what he had already written, though more ominously: In this self-described “rant,” The Force Awakens had become an object lesson (literally) in the decline of Western civilization. The complaints, again, were precisely the same as those that had been rehearsed many times before by many people; it was the vehemence that was new. Like Roberts in Vox, Douthat was frustrated not merely with the film itself, but with the critics who’d praised it despite its flaws: “This film has a 95 percent ‘Fresh’ rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. 95 percent … Decadence, man. Decadence.”

There are many possible responses to Douthat’s critique. One could point out, for instance, that Rotten Tomatoes is a mere up/down rating system, and thus doesn’t screen widely popular masterpieces from widely popular non-masterpieces. (Avatar, which is a genuinely awful movie, got an 83 percent rating.) But The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates made the most straightforward reply of all to Douthat in his post on Saturday:

I think this assessment doesn’t spend enough time considering three very important phrases. Those phrases are: Episode I, Episode II, and Episode III … Now it’s true that Abrams didn’t invent much and he borrowed quite a bit. But … he made something that critics, and fans, have been waiting on for over 30 years—a decent Star Wars film, and arguably the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

Finally, back to my own experience. After my review, I saw The Force Awakens a second time with my family, and I enjoyed the movie dramatically less than I had the first time. The elements that had delighted me initially (Ridley’s Skywalker routine, Driver’s petulant young Vader, Harrison Ford’s undiminished star appeal) delighted me less, and the problems that had bothered me (the many nostalgia-driven errors described above) bothered me more. By the time we got to the X-Wing assault on the DeathStarKiller Base—they couldn’t even come up with a new name for it! Just another variation on “star + death”—the movie had jumped the shark for me as utterly as it had for many others.

So what to take from all this? A few small lessons, I think: First, that with the exception of Ezra Klein’s iconoclastic take, every single writer cited—from me to Douthat to Coates and everyone in-between—agreed, on a nearly molecular level, about what was good about The Force Awakens and what was bad. This is a rare enough thing regarding a movie that is uniformly liked or disliked; for a movie eliciting such wildly different appraisals, it’s borderline astonishing. The varying assessments depended, pretty much in their entirety, on how heavily one weighted the agreed-upon strengths and weakness.

Second, that expectations have played an outsized role in how people (or at least those people with online writing outlets) have responded to The Force Awakens. The rush of initial reviews was overwhelmingly positive, even when they cited flaws. But over the subsequent two weeks, those flaws have loomed evermore darkly over the film, in several cases in explicit pushback to the early reviews. Put another way, those of us who didn’t know what to expect from the movie were (for the most part) either pleasantly or joyously surprised; those who had their expectations raised by the reviews were (in some cases) disappointed or even angry about it. It’s noteworthy, too, I think, that those who enjoyed the movie most on first viewing (me, several other critics with whom I’ve spoken) tended to like it less the second time. And those who were initially disappointed (Spencer, David Roberts) often found themselves warming to it on a second viewing.

Eventually, a critical consensus will emerge, as it did with The Phantom Menace and its sequels. But that consensus will almost certainly depend on subsequent installments of the new trilogy: If they break new ground, and send our younger generation of heroes spinning off in novel directions, The Force Awakens will likely be seen as a much-needed reset, one that cleansed the palate of the prequels and rediscovered the cinematic flavor of the original trilogy. If, on the other hand, we again find our heroes lassoing AT-ATs on a snow-covered planet, the darkest predictions of our cultural decline may be vindicated.

Time will tell. But until then, forget about the Force. Nothing in the galaxy is as powerful as expectations.