This isn’t going to be a straight-forward review for The Force Awakens, but it was such an interesting movie-going experience that I need to get as many of my thoughts down as possible. If you haven’t seen it yet, read no further, as spoilers WILL abound.
First off, so as to not bury the lede, I had a great time watching The Force Awakens. It was a really fun movie with some great characters, both new and old. It is, at a minimum, a very worthy entry into the Star Wars canon. I’ve recently been able to forgive the prequel trilogy for its flaws, but I certainly wanted much more out of Disney’s new entries. The Force Awakens was lightyears beyond the prequels, and easily good enough to generate positive momentum for this next generation of films.
Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say exactly how good Episode VII was. It was very good, but where it ranks among the seven films, I’m not prepared to say. I think I need time to process it more, and additional viewing(s) should hopefully help, as well. I think a good summary of my immediate feelings comes from a comment by a writer on io9:
I will say this: The Force Awakens isn’t perfect. There’s some weird plot stuff and a few problems for sure.
But I feel about them the same way I feel about the problems in the original trilogy (e.g. all the times Luke and Leia almost kissed)—they exist, but they didn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie at all. In fact, primarily The Force Awakens felt fundamentally like a Star Wars movie to me and thus I love it. The plot problems I may have are basically inconsequential to this fact.
I think that’s a good way to put it. It had problems, but was always enjoyable, and most importantly, it was definitely Star Wars. Here are some assorted thoughts on specific issues, good and bad.
- The new characters were mostly rousing successes. The two main characters especially, Rey and Finn, were incredibly likable and more than capable of carrying this next generation of films. Poe wasn’t quite involved enough for me to feel as strongly about him, but he was fine or better than fine, and should become a worthy third member of this new Big Three. BB-8 was adorable without, in my opinion, being too cutesie, and his thumb’s up to Finn was probably the high point of humor for the film.
- Han Solo felt like Han Solo to me, which was itself a success; after a very long streak of weaker films for Harrison Ford, not to mention his somewhat infamous ambivalence (if not disdain, sometimes) for the Star Wars franchise, I wasn’t positive he could still capture his old Han magic. But he absolutely did: he was able, if made less cocky by age; funny; and above all, charming. Han’s death was almost too predictable; Ford famously thought the character should have died in the original trilogy, and it was evident what would happen once Han confronted his evil son. It was foreseeable enough that I even played devil’s advocate by predicting to Andy that Han would make it to the second or third film of this new trilogy, just because it would toy with the heavy expectations of him dying in this first one. Obviously, I was wrong, but I thought the movie still managed to hit the emotional weight of that death anyway. Thank goodness we still have Chewie, but I’ll still miss Han in these next two movies; his chemistry with both Rey and Finn was really fun.
- The movie looked just superb. The practical effects were often apparent and appreciated, but the CGI was deployed extremely well too. Of particular note to me was the battle on Maz Kanata’s planet (the name of which I did not catch/remember). The combination of fighting on the ground, and especially the aerial battle when the X-Wings showed up, was a treat to watch.
- Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, was a strong villain. He was duly intimidating, but I liked that he’s clearly not fully formed yet, like Darth Vader in the original trilogy. Instead, he seemed more like what Anakin should have been in the prequels: undeniably dark but still plagued by doubts (without ever seeming whiny).
His evil colleagues were a little less successful, I thought. General Hux was fine, but his big moment was his fiery speech to the First Order troops, and that moment suffered some from the political confusion I’ll discuss later. Captain Phasma looked cool, but barely had any presence in the film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there was only so much that could be crammed in, and establishing our new heroes was more important. Supposedly, her role will be larger in future movies.
More important is Supreme Leader Snoke, whom I’m still of the fence about. I didn’t love his look, though I wasn’t clear if he’s really a giant or if that was just an effect of speaking via hologram. At first I assumed the latter, but if so, I’m curious as to why use a CGI’d character instead of just an actor in costume (Andy Serkis doing the voice is pleasant, of course), as nothing else about him wasn’t doable in makeup. Snoke is apparently the new Sith overlord, but he seems old enough to have been around during the original trilogy. I think his backstory, when we eventually get it, will be key to how good of a villain he is.
- Who was Max von Sydow’s character, and why did he have the part of the map to Luke? This movie asked more questions than it answered, and while that’s not a bad thing, it did leave me impatient for the next entry.
- Is Rey going to be revealed to be Luke’s daughter? It certainly seems likely that she has some connection to Luke specifically, rather than just being a new and unrelated force sensitive. Her extreme reaction to Luke’s original lightsaber, the movie’s intentional vagueness about Rey’s family and backstory, and the interesting emotional tension when she finds Luke at the end of the film all seem like they’re more personal than her just being another strong force user. If she is his daughter (dare I hope that her mother happens to be named Mara Jade?), then I do hope that Luke didn’t know she was alive. (Rather, he could have msitakenly thought her killed by whatever happened at his Academy with the Knights of Ren.) If the next film follows the cliche and reveals that Luke intentionally put her on Jakku to keep her safe from Snoke/Ren, I’ll be a little disappointed. From what we saw of her life on Jakku, it was a pretty unsafe place to leave her, not to mention the emotional torment she must have gone through in her isolation.
- Seeing Luke again felt amazing, more so than I expected. I had expected him to be in this movie at least a little more. J.J. Abrams had mentioned in an interview that part of why he took the Star Wars job was because of Disney exec Kathleen Kennedy posing a question to him, some variation of “Who is Luke Skywalker?” The implication seemed to be that exploring that question was what drew in Abrams, but he didn’t get to really answer that at all in what will be his lone entry in this new trilogy. But I cannot wait to see more of Luke.
Now, for a few things I did not particularly like.
- Like many Abrams stories, the plot relied on insanely unlikely coincidence at times. Most prominent to me was that Han seeks help from Maz Kanata, a pirate and potential source of information, and Maz just so happens to have Luke’s lightsaber and be the one to help put Rey on her path. I’m fine that we don’t yet know how Maz got the saber that was lost on Bespin, but the fact that the group just so happened to seek help from someone who, unknown to Han, had this immensely important weapon to give them felt crazy to me. A lesser example is the Millennium Falcon apparently being stolen multiple times and just so happening to end up exactly where Finn and Rey needed it for their escape.
- While I’m mostly fine with waiting til Episode VIII for a lot of answers, I was disappointed by the very vague political situation of the galaxy now. I’m still hopeful that maybe I missed something that will make more sense on future viewings, but I was highly unclear on the power breakdown between the First Order, New Republic, and the Resistance. The First Order has obviously risen from the ashes of the Empire, but are they mostly in control already, or not? A Republic does exist, even including a new Senate apparently, so the First Order doesn’t seem to have the power of the old Empire yet. But I would have thought that meant we’re seeing an outright war between the New Republic and the First Order, but it’s not clear if the Republic is a factor at all; the Resistance is mentioned as being a separate entity, possibly supported/tolerated by the Republic but not clearly part of it. Hux’s fiery speech about taking out the Resistance and/or Republic fell kind of flat to me, because I wasn’t sure what the alignment even is as between those three groups.
- Probably most importantly among my misgivings, is how uninspired the First Order’s Starkiller Base felt. It’s not even that I entirely minded another evil megaweapon that’s essentially a much better/bigger Death Star. I can even easily ignore the handwave-y anti-science of that weapon, because Star Wars has always done that. But the entire weapon felt like just a box to be checked, rather than a really worthwhile plot device. It’s far bigger and more powerful than the Death Star, yet the movie doesn’t do nearly as much as A New Hope did to make us care about that power. Episode IV introduced the Death Star’s destructive capabilities by making a lead character watch her home world get destroyed; we saw Leia’s anguish and what this power meant to the chances of the Rebellion, and that helped inform our dread of the weapon by the movie’s end.
By contrast. Starkiller Base destroys an entire system, apparently, but we mostly see it only as explosions in the sky viewed by far-away people. I remember a throw-away line about that system having Resistance outposts, but we never learn whether anyone there mattered, and everyone moves on from that destruction pretty easily. There’s no emotional connection to its power, and thus there’s less investment in the attack to destroy it. It didn’t help matters how formulaic that attack was. The filmmakers at least were self-aware of this, having Han humorously point out that there is indeed a formula to destroying these megaweapons. But that acknowledgement didn’t fully absolve how paint-by-numbers the attack on Starkiller felt.
One of the things that makes the climax of Return of the Jedi so powerful to me is the way the movie weaves three prongs of attack — the aerial assault by Lando and Ackbar, the Endor moon battle with Han, Leia and the others, and Luke’s showdown with Vader and the Emperor — and makes you feel the tension of all three. The Force Awakens tries for similar interweaving, but only goes one for three, maybe one for two if you’re charitable and don’t count Leia and the Resistance nervously (but emptily) monitoring the fighting back at their base. The ground assault still felt powerful to me, with Han’s death followed by Finn and Rey’s fights with Kylo Ren. But the aerial assault was such standard fare that I never felt any significant tension there. The rebels attack, struggle, a couple die, then the ground assault opens a vulnerability, and the main pilot blows it up. Again, it’s not necessarily predictability that’s the problem — Han dying was predictable, but moving. But this was just too formulaic for me to fully get behind.
- Finally, I’m quite sad that we’ll never get the Big Three of the original trilogy — Luke, Leia, and Han — together on screen again. That was probably the thing I was most looking forward to, and now it’s off the table; since Han, the non-force sensitive of the trio, was the dying party, even a force ghost is presumably out of the question. Phrasing this as a problem might be going too far, as the lack of reunion arguably just adds to the tragedy of Han’s death. But it did sadden me.
So there are my thoughts. I spent longer talking about the negatives, I think, but only because they required more elaboration; the good of the movie was definitely more plentiful but also faster to write about. The biggest positive for me was how the characters were just really strong, and provided such a wonderful foundation for the future of this franchise. It was always fun, always entertaining. It looked great, with some really impressive designs and gorgeous battles. And it just felt right, which is the kind of vague sensibility that’s hard to describe but was undoubtedly lacking from the prequels. And at the end of the day, that vague sense of rightness is probably all that really matters. The Force Awakens wasn’t perfect, but it was genuinely Star Wars.
Star Wars is back.