Rey & Finn (Image from IMDb)
The plot is more or less the same as A New Hope (Episode IV). Sure, J. J. Abrams style of directing isn’t unique—it’s practically a carbon copy of George Lucas’ early work. That’s okay.
Han & Chewie (Image from IMDb)
Why was I shocked? You probably know the answer.
Like many fans, I was disappointed with the prequels (Episodes I, II,
& III). They weren’t horrible, but
they weren’t good—they were below average at best. With some exceptions (Ewan McGregor as
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine), a lot of acting was painful to
watch. Dialog and character development
were superficial: Anakin Skywalker came across as a whiny juvenile rather than
a fallen hero, and other portrayals were idiotic (aliens depicting racial
stereotypes). Plot was rushed and underdeveloped: Anakin's virgin birth was never explained minus some esoteric talk about being created by "midi-chlorians" (microscopic lifeforms that somehow communicate with the Force). There were well executed scenes here and there that nearly salvaged this plot: the
opera house scene in Revenge of the Sith (Episode III),
for example, where Palpatine tells Anakin about manipulating midi-chlorians to
create and destroy life. Perhaps—some of us thought—Palpatine created Anakin and kills Queen
Amidala as part of his evil plan to concoct Darth Vader … but no, this talk becomes
pointless, and Amidala dies for trivial reasons (she loses her "will to live").
Palpatine & Anakin (Image from IMDb)
Jar Jar (Image from IMDb)
Need I even mention the extremely unfunny Jar Jar Binks?
However, this post isn’t a Why-The-Prequels-Fell-Short discussion.
Rather, I wish to speculate as to why The Force Awakens avoided a similar disaster.
The Force Awakens has an apt title. What is the Force? There are many spiritual interpretations (the Force signifies Divine Grace, Tao, Buddha-Nature). Another interpretation sees the Force as a kind of yin-yang, symbolizing balance (or imbalance and conflict) between humans and their technologies. The Dark Side of the Force represents imbalance: losing your humanity by becoming a machine, living as a mere tool for an impersonal empire (or what Lewis Mumford calls a “megamachine”). Hence, Kylo Ren, like his idol Darth Vader, opts to wear a mechanical mask, signifying that he's more machine than man.
Kylo Ren (Image from IMDb)
The prequels fell to the Dark Side: they lost their humanity by becoming obsessed with digital machinery. Lack of plot depth, weak characters, and insubstantial dialog were symptoms of an obsession with special effects. Episodes I - III resulted in CGI extravaganza, but they overlooked what connected fans to the original trilogy: father-son relations and the magnitude of friendship, love, and self-sacrifice. By recovering meaningful characters within a mythic narrative, The Force Awakens recovers the heart of Star Wars (even if the original thrill of Star Wars gives way to nostalgia in The Force Awakens—Lucas has criticized it for being “retro”). And it did so with special effects that didn’t distract from the story.
Regarding these special effects, here’s a final thought. There’s an authenticity to The Force Awakens that the prequels lacked, a kind of tangibility. While the prequels obviously involved actors trying to play in front of green screens, The Force Awakens, like the original trilogy, used real movie sets in physical locations—later embellished, as opposed to replaced, by CGI. I imagine that this tangibility must help actors visualize and perform their parts. Why? Perception itself requires embodied interaction with things, so there should be no surprise that movie aesthetics appear more authentic when cinema uses tangible art (in fact, the word ‘aesthetic’ originally meant ‘perception’).
(Image from IMBd)