Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - A Review

It’s been an excruciatingly long wait, but it’s finally here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is showing in theaters, and I’ve seen it, and this is what I think of it, just a few hours later.

[This will be REPLETE with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film, take heed and go no further.]

If you’re just reading to find out if it was any good, if you should go see it, I can answer those questions up-front: It was good, and you should go see it.

The Big Picture

It’s hard to know exactly where to start and how to talk about everything going on in this film, from the appearances by the old characters we know and love, to the new characters we need to like for the film to work, to the story, to the comparisons with the prequels – there’s a lot going on here that needs to be unpacked and examined. I’ll start with plot and themes.

Thematically, The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie. It’s a very safe script, in that almost everything that happens in the film is an echo or a reimagining of something that happened in the original trilogy. Broadly speaking, TFA is the story of a poor girl from a desert planet who unwittingly gets involved in the conflict between The New Order (the artists formerly known as the Galactic Empire) and the Resistance, who are the current iteration of the Rebel forces, now protecting the newly-reestablished Galactic Senate. She realizes along the way that she’s particularly in-tune with the Force, and she has a confrontation with a powerful dark Jedi at the end. There are plenty of sub-plots and other details, but the main plot points feel very familiar.

I hesitate to decide whether the similarities are just what they need to be, or if perhaps JJ Abrams and company should have taken a few more liberties or creative twists with the story. I mean, at the end of the film, the Resistance forces literally attack and blow up The New Order’s latest Death Star. In speculating about the plot of this film before it was released, most of us dismissed the idea that the bad guys would be dumb enough to build a giant moon laser for the third time, but there it is. What’s that famous quote about the definition of insanity?

At the heart of it though, this latest film is about the conflict between good and evil, the light side of the force and the dark side, and that’s really what Star Wars is about. So the story is easy to follow and as inviting and familiar as a warm blanket, but what about the characters?

The Old Faces

Most of the hubbub about this new film has centered around the fact that Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill have returned to reprise their roles as Leia, Han, and Luke. This was the most potentially disastrous aspect of this new film for me, because a bad Star Wars movie with these beloved characters would be an unforgivable cinematic transgression. (We can largely write off the prequels because we basically didn’t care about any of the characters, so nobody important was totally ruined.) The original cast is used sparingly in TFA, and by necessity. It’s been so long (30 years in movie time) since Return of the Jedi that it wouldn’t make any sense to have Leia, Han, and Luke running around like they did decades ago, so their roles are much more subdued.

Han features most prominently (and Chewbacca, of course) of the returning cast, but even he’s really only there to help fill in the story gaps and explain to the new characters (and to the audience) what’s been going on for the last 30 years. We do get to see him and Chewie flying around in the Millennium Falcon again, and they both do a fair amount of blasting storm troopers. Harrison does a convincing job of recreating Han’s snarky scoundrel character, but it’s not nearly as intense as it was in the original trilogy. This is completely understandable (and consistent with a character now about 70 years old) if slightly (and unfairly, I admit) disappointing. 

Leia is barely in the film at all. The only thing the plot really needs her for is to explain that the new villain, Kylo Ren, is Han and Leia’s son. Most of those two characters’ screen time together involves them discussing their son, so they’re basically just there to deliver exposition so the audience knows what’s going on. Leia is only in a few scenes and even then really just standing around talking to other characters.

Luke is in the film even less, although most of us expected that given the nature of what we knew of the story and the fact that he was almost entirely absent from any of the teaser trailers. It turns out that Luke was entrusted with training Han and Leia’s son in the Jedi arts, but Ren (Ben to Han and Leia) turned to the dark side and apparently murdered all the other Jedis-in-training. Luke feels personally responsible for this and goes into exile; much of the driving force of the plot involves trying to piece together information about his location.

The only scene in which Luke actually appears is, incidentally, the most powerful scene in the entire film, the final scene. Rey treks up a stony mountain island in the middle of the sea to find Luke, who turns around and unhoods himself as Rey offers him his old lightsaber. I think I nearly exploded at this point from the sheer gravitas of everything that was happening in that scene. In fact I think I may have actually died and am not even actually writing this right now.

Apart from those big three, there is a brief cameo by Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and R2-D2 gets some screen time (and vitally involved with the plot) at the very end. On the whole I would say the original cast members are used tastefully and believably. The film obviously can’t lean too heavily on them, because this isn’t a stand-alone sequel to Jedi, it’s the first in a new era of Star Wars films. The focus of TFA is really on the new characters, and the movie lives or dies based on how we respond to them.

The New Faces

This is another area where so much could have gone wrong: who will be the new heroes and villains going forward, and who will play them? The plot is driven along almost exclusively by two new characters: Finn, a disillusioned New Order storm trooper who deserts the only life he’s ever known, and Rey, a lowly scavenger on a planet called Jakku, which is indistinguishable from Tatooine. Their paths serendipitously cross on Jakku after Finn and an escaped Resistance pilot (Poe Dameron) crash on the planet on their way to recover valuable information on the location of Luke Skywalker. The New Order is also after this information, and everyone flees the planet when the bad guys come in with guns blazing.

Finn’s character is believable enough, although the only back-story he really has is what he tells to his new friends: he realized while fighting with the other storm troopers that it simply wasn’t right, so he fled. He’s not a Jedi, although the trailers (and movie posters) offer a bit of a red herring in showing him wielding a blue lightsaber. Actor John Boyega, whom I’d never seen nor heard before seeing this film, does a good job. (He’s a Brit but does a very convincing American accent in the film. I was surprised to hear his UK accent in interviews.) Finn is a likeable character, and it seems that he’ll figure heavily in the plots of future films.

Rey is easily my favorite new character. I mentioned before that she has obvious parallels with Luke, in that she’s basically a poor nobody on a desert planet but becomes the eventual hero. Just as we see Luke grow stronger with the force in the original trilogy, we witness Rey discovering this ability in herself. There are important differences, though: whereas Luke was a bit of a helpless farm boy who was destined to become a Jedi because of who his father was, Rey is a total badass from the beginning. The SJWs will love her (actually no they won’t; they’ll find something to criticize about her character) – she’s a very strong female character who doesn’t need anybody’s help. In fact, the script almost beats us over the head with this, as she’s unimpressed with Finn’s constant checking up on her. [To comic excess: in one scene, Finn has just been knocked to the ground by an explosion and asks Rey if she’s ok once he collects himself.] For me, most of the oh hell yes moments in the film were when Rey was discovering how powerful she can be. Case in point: the scene in the Kylo Ren fight where she retrieves Luke’s lightsaber from the snow with her mind as Ren is trying to do the same thing – she already fights with a confidence that Luke never really shows until the very end of Jedi. Daisy Ridley, another unknown actor to me, does a great job with this role too (and gets to keep her accent, unlike Boyega), and I’m absolutely on board with Rey as the new hero of the franchise.

So the good guys are great, but what about the bad guys? For TFA to work, it needs a strong villain character for all of us to hate. In the original trilogy we had Darth Vader, who was basically evil incarnate, and later the emperor, who was also an impressively unlikeable asshole. Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, who has apparently been in some other things that I haven’t seen) is the new menace, decked out in decidedly Vaderesque garb. He has a scary mask that distorts his voice when he speaks through it, a menacing, hilted red lightsaber, and an exclusively black wardrobe clashing against the brilliant white of The New Order troops. This isn’t a coincidence, of course; Ren is Han and Leia’s son, and Darth Vader is Leia’s father, so Ren is Vader’s grandson, though Vader died before Ren was born. Ren keeps Vader’s charred and melted mask on-hand for inspiration, and he clearly wants to be just like his evil grand-pop when he grows up. However, whereas Vader’s character only became nuanced and complex in Empire and Jedi, Ren has obvious conflicts from the beginning, revealed to us through his interactions with Rey in particular. He’s not the intimidating, sinister juggernaut that Vader was when he first stepped terrifyingly onto the Tantive IV at the beginning of the original film. (How’s that for an obscure bit of original film trivia?) He’s emotional and shows weakness, and his character arc will be interesting to watch in future films.

I should also say something about BB-8, the adorable little rolling droid that’s already become something of an icon even before the film’s theatrical release. BB-8 is used almost identically to how R2-D2 was used in the original films. They have similar playful personalities, feature prominently in the plot by carrying important information, and are used frequently as comic relief. Just as the droids were endearing characters in the original trilogy, BB-8 is likeable without being overly pandering or insultingly cartoonish (cough Jar-Jar cough cough).

Fan Service

I don’t think I’ve adequately explained just how many scenes and bits of dialogue echo the original trilogy. While I appreciate that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan were doing this intentionally to give the fans things to cheer about (and we did, over and over), the number of references to the old films is rather striking. Here are the things I can explicitly remember after just seeing it once; I’m sure I’ve left several out:
  • Desert planet (Jakku and Tatooine are basically the same)
  • Referring to the Millennium Falcon as junk (“garbage”)
  • Cantina scene with weird aliens (although in TFA it’s not on Jakku)
  • “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
  • Finn accidentally activates the holochess board on the Falcon
  • Making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs
  • An evil Jedi wearing black, a mask, and with a red lightsaber
  • Assault on a planet-sized, planet-destroying super weapon
  • A ground team disrupts shields while x-wings attack
  • Someone mind-grabbing a lightsaber stuck in snow
  • A father-son confrontation
  • Rey uses the “Jedi mind trick” on a storm trooper like Obi-Wan did
  • The New Order looking for a droid carrying important information
  • Han asks about a garbage chute and trash compactor
  • Finn mans the gun on the Falcon and shoots down TIE fighters
Besides these very specific echoes, most other locations are similar to those in the originals. I’ve already mentioned the desert planet, but there are also scenes in a snowy environment, and the Resistance base is on a verdant planet like the moon of Yavin in the original film (or Endor, for that matter.) There are also scenes in an interrogation room and the New Order leaders speaking to the new equivalent of the emperor via hologram. The scene between Han and Ren feels reminiscent of Luke and Vader after their duel in Empire: both characters are in a precarious position high above a chasm and the good character ends up falling (although Han is dead and Luke goes willingly).

The Death of Han Solo

The only potentially “shocking” moment in TFA is Han’s death, although it didn’t come as a shock to me. Harrison Ford has been suggesting that Han’s character be killed off since back in the original trilogy days, so in that sense it’s not out of nowhere. I wasn’t sure that Abrams would have the temerity to do it, since Han is such a beloved and important character. The way it was done, though, is perfectly acceptable: Han is killed by his own son, who is also supposed to be the main villain of the new films. Everything about the scene suggests that Ren not only will kill Han, but must in order to establish his character. The two enjoy a seemingly genuine moment before Ren ignites his lightsaber while both of them are clutching it, impaling Han before he falls to his unceremonious death. This probably should be shocking, but at this point Han’s secondary role in the plot was well established, and the story needed Ren to do something utterly execrable in order for the audience to hate him sufficiently. Ren’s killing of Han takes care of these various needs in a way that seems organic to the story, so it works. We as an audience did at least get to enjoy some nostalgic moments of Han flying the Falcon and laying waste to storm troopers before his end, and I’m grateful for that. It looks like Luke will have a larger role in the next film, so it was time for Han to step aside, one way or another.

Pacing, Script, Tone, Other Film Jargon

Although it’s difficult for me to look at TFA as a film (because it’s STAR WARS and may as well be real events affecting real people to me), I can try to apply some critic-sounding language to it. In general I thought it was well-paced; it never drags or becomes tedious or boring. Exposition is minimal and only stated bluntly when the audience simply can’t get much-needed missing information any other way, as for example when Han and Leia talk about how their son became an evil jerk. Tonally it’s very similar to the original films, in that it’s a mix of action and excitement and occasional serious character moments with some comic relief sprinkled here and there. As I’ve said before, TFA feels like a Star Wars movie, and I think that’s largely due to the similarity in tone.

The script is fine, if imperfect. There were a few scenes in which the dialogue felt a little clunky, a little awkward and silly, but this was almost exclusively whenever anyone was talking about the Force. In the writer’s defense, the Force is an inherently silly concept, and it must be difficult to write dialogue about a magical energy that some people can control with their minds without sounding silly. It’s not as though every single line in the original films is a gem either, so it’s not a huge problem. The plot is believable enough, easy to follow, and rewarding for the audience.

As far as the direction goes, not much else needs to be said: JJ Abrams knows how to make a movie. It looks fantastic, even the CGI bits, which were used (thankfully) with restraint. The film was shot in various actual locations using actual sets and practical effects, much like the original films, and it feels real. It has plenty of action sequences without being a schlocky mess of explosions and sword fights; in fact, there’s only one lightsaber fight in TFA, keeping very much with the tradition of the original trilogy, and it is entirely in service of the plot.


TFA is not a perfect movie. Although my impressions of it are overwhelmingly positive, there were a few things that bugged me. First of all, it doesn’t appear that Kylo Ren wears a scary mask for any reason other than that he wants to be like his idol, Darth Vader. Ren takes it off several times during the film and seems to have no practical need for it whatsoever, and it’s never explained why he has it. I’d also like to know, while we’re on the subject, how exactly he came into possession of Darth Vader’s charred and mangled helmet, since Ren wasn’t even born when Vader died. Who kept that thing around?

Ren’s first scene in fact is with a captured Poe Dameron, who doesn’t seem particularly impressed or intimidated by him. Poe makes light of their confrontation and completely dissolves any tension that had built up around this dark figure. I’m not sure if that was handled properly, although it does establish Dameron as a bit of a rogue and Ren as less imposing than Darth Vader. Perhaps it works, but I did question the use of humor in that particular scene.

The assault on the latest Death Star seemed a little hastily developed, although if I think back to the original film, it’s largely the same. There’s only something like two hours in movie-universe time between when the Resistance discovers that the New Order has this terrifying weapon pointed at them and when they destroy it, and all of that seemed to unfold rather quickly. There are also the usual “it’s a movie” coincidences putting important characters in the same place at the same time, and the eventual meeting of Rey, Finn, and Han and Chewie is eye-rollingly coincidental.

I also thought the movie should have ended right after R2 and BB-8 put their map pieces together to reveal where Luke is hiding, since that would set up the action for the next film – finding Luke. Instead, the film goes on a few minutes longer to show Rey walking around a remote rocky island only to find Luke and present him his old lightsaber. This actually turned out to be the most emotion-stirring scene in the entire film, but it seemed like something that might have worked as the driving force of the next film instead.

Highlights, Final Thoughts

I didn’t even make it through the opening title crawl without tearing up, and I was routinely dabbing my eyes under my 3D glasses throughout the film. It’s a serious nostalgia trip, and of an intensity I’ve never experienced before. If Star Wars has been a big part of your life as it has of mine, watching this film is an emotional experience. The first memorable moment for me was when Rey and Finn are running for their lives on Jakku, looking for anything for Rey to pilot to get them away from the attacking New Order forces. Rey suggests a fast-looking craft ahead, while Finn suggests a different ship off camera; Rey dismisses his choice as “garbage” (my Spidey sense begins tingling). As Rey’s choice explodes in front of them, she acquiesces to the “garbage” ship instead. The camera pans over to reveal the Millennium Falcon, and I basically die. Everyone in the theater cheers, and I want to pause the movie so I can go cry for 15 minutes. Ditto any moment where an old character is revealed, even though Han and Leia’s first scenes aren’t really all that dramatic. I immensely enjoyed Rey discovering her power, and her duel with Ren is fantastic. The scene at the end with Rey holding out Luke’s lightsaber for him as he slowly turns and reveals his face is possibly the most powerful scene in a Star Wars movie (although I’ll note that I'm too young to have experienced Vader’s “I am your father” bombshell in theaters).

The highest praise I can give Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it’s worthy of the Star Wars name. It has an uncontroversial script, a good balance of old and new characters and story elements, and it looks and sounds absolutely amazing. I’m going to see it again, and then again, and then again.

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