In the Force Awakens, what's interesting about the planets isn't so much the environments as what the movie can do with them. Jakku is pretty much Tatooine with the serial numbers filed off, except for the graveyard of military hardware that gives Rey a craptacular job and provides some neat scenery for a starship chase. The Starkiller Base planet doesn't even seem to have a name; all that matters about it is the giant weapon inside.
The most egregious example is Solo's new ship. It possesses only two distinguishing features:
- a maw-like hangar to ominously swallow the Falcon in.
- a maze of corridors whose only clear purpose is to set an action scene in which heroes, gangsters, and hungry monsters run about chaotically.
Beyond that, no only do we not know anything about it, nothing is even hinted. The ship has no name, no type, and (in what may be a first for a Star Wars ship) we don't even get to see the entire exterior. And thus it feels fake. It feels like a movie set.
At no point do I feel there's more to Han's new ship than its maw-like hangar and the bizarre maze of tunnels inside.
This is a big deal for Star Wars. The toys, the games, the books are all predicated on the idea that the stories of the Skywalker clan take place in a bigger universe. The first movie made that obvious.
Another example: stormtroopers. Each movie gave us a new flavor of stormtrooper. In the first one, we had the dudes in white armor and the fighter pilots in black (a nice contrast to the rebels' safety-orange suits that said so much about how much both sides valued life and their own people). We got the snow troopers at the Battle of Hoth, and then the scouts in Return of the Jedi. In all four cases, it was obvious what you were looking at. The hows might not have been obvious (what, exactly, is special about the snow trooper's kit, for instance) but the why and the who was obvious.
The lack of verisimilitude in another sci-fi movie would be annoying. In a Star Wars movie, it's downright shocking and perplexing. So much of this franchise lives and breaths to invite people to come play in it. The toys, the games, the spin-offs all thrive on the notion that the Star Wars galaxy is big enough for a million stories. There are so many things hinted at, elegantly, that imply this: the XP-38, nerf herders, bulls-eyeing womp rats in a T-16.
I am not, by any stretch, suggesting that Force Awakens does anything to rehabilitate the prequels. Far from it; I think Abrams movie shows just how much Lucas stumbled in making his new films. However, Abrams' own shortcomings as a filmmaker do highlight Lucas' strengths. Chief among those strengths was creating what feels like a living, breathing larger universe.