As much as I wanted to see this one, I really, REALLY was not looking forward to writing about it.
I’ve covered overhyped blockbusters before, but talking about Star Wars is practically like talking about religion. There’s virtually nothing new to add to the discussion. Say something positive and it’s just a drop in the bucket. Say something new or critical or — Heaven forbid — negative and risk being branded as a heretic. On a similar token, it’s like everyone is on high alert for even the tiniest spoiler. I could say that the good guys win and the bad guys lose, and even that might be too much of a spoiler for some irate fan.
But more than that, this is the absolute pinnacle of critic-proof. EVERYONE knows about this movie, and everyone’s already made up their minds about whether they’re skipping it, seeing it, or seeing it more than once. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that screenings have been sold out for months in advance, and theaters will be packed to the rafters from now ’til February, all before anyone’s typed a single word. I always hate reviewing this kind of movie, because I know that anything I say will matter for less than jack shit.
Yet that speaks to the power of this franchise. The series is so deeply ingrained into our cultural DNA that we all feel compelled to take part in this huge event. We may not agree on politics or religion, but we can all agree that lightsabers are fucking awesome. This movie — more than practically any other — has the ability to bring us all together to the point where we’d spend a couple of hours with total strangers in a dark theater, sharing in this new experience. This is the stuff that movie geeks live for, and it’s a huge part of why movies in general are so important to us not just as a civilization, but as a species.
More than that (as I talked about in a previous blog entry), pretty much everything related to Star Wars over the past 20 years has been thrown out of canon. Which means that this current generation — that never knew a world before the franchise’s heyday — has its own unique chance to remake the whole franchise in its own image. This is a tremendous opportunity that must be taken seriously.
All of this to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens had better be a damn good movie. And it is.
Before going any further, I suppose I should elaborate on my spoiler policy. Put simply, I don’t want to spoil crucial plot twists — I want to help you make a more informed decision about whether you’re interested in seeing the plot twists unfold. It’s my opinion that if something is strictly necessary to understand the basic premise of the film, then I have an obligation as a film critic to discuss it. Generally speaking, this means that anything in the first 15-30 minutes is fair game. And if it’s already been shown in the trailers and commercials, it doesn’t count as a spoiler.
We may as well begin the way every Star Wars movie begins: with the text crawl. Literally from the word go, we learn that Luke Skywalker has gone missing. Nobody seems to know where he is. And naturally, since Luke is the last remaining Jedi, every major power in the galaxy wants to influence the future of the Force by finding him.
Meanwhile, the galactic civil war has improbably grown even stronger in the wake of Palpatine’s death. The Rebellion has mutated into the Resistance, and it’s now backed by a full-fledged New Republic of independent star systems. Meanwhile, the Empire has regrouped around the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (mo-capped by Andy Serkis), who now holds the other half of the galaxy in the iron grip of the First Order.
As the film opens, the two warring governments have collided on Jakku, a desert planet so remote and desolate that it would make Tatooine look like Naboo. This is where we meet a character (He’s played by Max von Sydow. If he has a name, I don’t think we ever hear it.) who has a map to Luke Skywalker’s hideaway. The map is entrusted to the Resistance droid BB-8, who then rolls away from danger on a mission to get the precious data back to the good guys.
There are two things in the above paragraph that should immediately jump out at you.
First, the basic premise of a droid smuggling precious data to the Rebellion will definitely sound familiar. And that isn’t even the first callback — I’m sure the opening shot will bring a strong sense of deja vu. If I tried to list every location, character, and story point in the entire movie that resembled something iconic in the original trilogy, we’d be here all night. Plus, that would mean a whole lotta spoilers. And no, I’m not even counting running gags like the Wilhelm Scream or “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
That said, a huge part of what made Star Wars so popular to begin with is the simplistic and archetypal nature of its story. It is quite literally a textbook example of the Hero’s Journey plot codified by Joseph Campbell, with development arcs and story points that can be found just about anywhere if you know how to look. More to the point, A New Hope was such a massive game-changer that when you get right down to it, everything has been affected by it in some way or another. Any big-budget CGI-heavy space opera will immediately be compared to the original Star Wars trilogy regardless of whether the comparisons are warranted, and a movie trying to escape the shadow of its own franchise would not only be impossible but also unwise (see also: Jurassic World).
What’s more interesting to me is that the movie never tries to shy away from that nostalgia. If anything, it doubles down on the nostalgia by making it a crucial motivating factor for our characters. For instance, Luke and Vader both left behind certain artifacts over the course of the original trilogy (Luke’s lightsaber and Vader’s burned-out helmet are two examples already spoiled by the trailers), and they naturally hold tremendous symbolic power for our characters. More importantly, this newest generation of protagonists came up hearing stories about the Rebellion, the Force, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and all the rest. Just like we did. So when the characters get the chance to meet all this living history firsthand, it gives them a sense of excitement that we can relate to on a meta level.
Furthermore, as the saying goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” We know that to be true in the Star Wars franchise, especially in the way George Lucas crafted the prequel trilogy. Luckily, I’m glad to say that when J.J. Abrams and company craft their historical rhymes, it’s done with far more poignancy and with a greater understanding of what made those similar moments so powerful the first time we saw them.
But let’s get back to the second thing I mentioned about that paragraph above: Who exactly is Max von Sydow playing? How did he come to learn the whereabouts of the most wanted man in the entire fucking galaxy who also happens to be a Jedi? In addition, it’s clear from all the Rebel and Imperial shipwrecks on Jakku that at least one major battle took place here, so what could possibly have been on this dustball that was worth fighting over? Then there’s Supreme Leader Snoke. Who is this guy, where did he come from, and how did he get so much power? These are all just a few of the questions that are raised and left unanswered by the movie.
I mean, you know as well as I do that this picture had to serve as a launching pad for a revitalized Star Wars franchise. And I’m not just talking about the next two films in the trilogy; I’m talking about all the movies, novels, comics, video games, and other stories to take place all throughout the timeline. So it’s completely understandable why Episode VII would leave so many story threads dangling, to be resolved by future sequels and tie-ins. And to be entirely clear, the movie does have a strong enough plot to be entertaining in its own right.
But it still gets on my nerves that this movie can get away with using franchise synergy as an excuse to leave giant goddamn plot holes sitting wide open. It seems like an unfair advantage, especially when we have no firm guarantee that any of these questions will ever be addressed.
Moving on, another problem with the crowded plot is that a lot of characters tend to get short shrift. Snoke gets very little screen time, but that’s entirely suitable for the overarching Big Bad waiting in the shadows. Unfortunately, the aforementioned Max von Sydow is needlessly wasted, and Lupita Nyong’o is far too talented for the role she got. As for the returning characters, R2-D2, C-3P0, Admiral Ackbar, and Nien Nunb all get little more than glorified cameos. Carrie Fisher brings some dignity to the film and respectability to the Resistance as General Leia Organa, but I’m sorry to say that she’s only in a few brief scenes and primarily serves as an emotional foil for Han Solo.
Of all those in the returning cast, it’s Han Solo and Chewbacca who get the most screen time and the biggest impact on the plot. What more do I really have to say? As for Luke Skywalker… well, given that so much of the plot revolves around the search to find him and I’m trying to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into detail here about how much screen time he gets in this picture. Suffice to say that his presence is felt in some way or another throughout the entire running time.
BB-8 naturally plays a central role in the movie, and I’m glad to say that he’s a plucky little droid with a ton of useful tricks and personality to spare. Definitely a worthy heir to R2-D2, and that’s not a statement I make lightly. It certainly helps that BB-8 can trade fluent dialogue with Rey (we’ll get to her in a minute), which means that he doesn’t need a prissy comic relief character hanging around all the time to serve as an interpreter.
Then we have Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). These three are clearly meant to be the “main trinity” for this new trilogy, but the filmmakers were smart enough not to make direct copies of the Luke/Han/Leia trinity. It’s more like the filmmakers completely disassembled the previous trinity of characters, then shuffled the parts around and put them together in a new order.
For example, Poe Dameron may be a flying ace, but he’s way more of a team player than Han Solo ever was. And also, I’m sorry, but Poe Dameron pulls off so many spectacular X-Wing maneuvers that he’s indubitably a better pilot than Solo ever was. It’s a damn shame that Poe gets sidelined through so much of the movie, because Oscar Isaac gives the character a strong impression and he works superbly well with John Boyega. What little I saw of Poe Dameron made me want to know more about him, and I mean that as a great compliment.
Moving on to Finn, the trailers have already spoiled that he starts out as a Stormtrooper. In fact, it’s really kinda neat to see the character introduced in the opening action sequence, and all the ways the filmmakers wring emotion out of a character wearing those full-body costumes and masks. Finn is an Imperial trooper affected by the terrors of war, led to question his ethics and actions under the First Order. He’s deathly afraid of crossing such a powerful organization and running away from the system he was born into, but he knows in his heart that he can’t stay with the First Order any longer.
This is some intriguing and pretty bold stuff for the franchise to get into, and John Boyega plays it like a champ. There may be times when his paranoia and neuroses come within a hair’s breadth of annoying, but the comic relief is always just enough to take the edge off of Finn’s predicament and bring his dark inner conflict to a place just this side of kid-friendly. Plus, Finn is incredibly useful as an Imperial turncoat: not only is he a fount of exposition about the First Order, but he’s quite capable in a fight as well. I’ve been rooting for John Boyega since Attack the Block and I’m sincerely thrilled that the whole world will get to see how talented he is.
We come at last to Rey, the true hero of this new trilogy. I’m sorry to say that most of her inner conflict is tied up in mysteries about her past that go entirely nowhere (likely to set up an Empire-level cliffhanger in the next film, I’d wager). That aside, Rey kicks some serious ass and Daisy Ridley proves herself to be a phenomenal discovery. I’m sorry that I can’t go into a whole lot of detail about Rey, since a lot of it has to do with her parentage and whether or not she’s Force-sensitive. I can only say that she’s a delightful new addition to the franchise and I can’t wait to follow her development through two more films and beyond.
On the other side of the spectrum, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is already doomed to become the Boba Fett of this new trilogy. She looks badass, every other character is clearly afraid of her, and she’s entirely useless. She gets maybe five lines in this movie, though that’s admittedly as many as Boba Fett had in the whole original trilogy.
Oh, and speaking of total wastes: Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian get something like twenty seconds onscreen before getting killed off. J.J. Abrams got the stars of The Raid: Redemption to join his picture and he didn’t have them take part of some epic martial arts action centerpiece? SHAME.
Easily the most prominent villain in this movie is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. You’d be forgiven for thinking that he’s the resident Darth Vader analogue, but that’s not exactly the case.
We’ll put it this way: In an earlier screenplay draft of what would eventually become A New Hope, Darth Vader was originally the name of a heavily scarred and highly decorated Imperial general with no Force abilities. He worked alongside a Sith assassin named Valorum who wore a mask. The two would eventually be merged together to become the Darth Vader we all know and respect.
(Side note: For more details, I recommend “The Star Wars”, a comic adaptation of George Lucas’ original 1974 screenplay draft. It was one of the last Star Wars comics published by Dark Horse Comics before the rights reverted to Marvel.)
Episode VII basically un-merges the Vader role, which is now split between Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). This arrangement makes a lot more sense. After all, Vader was such a homicidal blunt instrument that it was always kinda hard to believe he was a brilliant tactician who could rally whole armies toward his cause. This way, Kylo Ren gets to do all the murdering and interrogating while General Hux can make the big speeches and coordinate the troops. Hux may not get a whole lot of screen time, but he’s sufficiently developed to the point where I could believe him as a crucial part of the First Order regime.
Alas, for all the screen time Kylo Ren gets, he never comes off as anything more than a watered-down Darth Vader wannabe. But a huge part of what makes Ren interesting is that he’s aware of the fact. He wants to follow in Vader’s footsteps, but he’s plagued with doubt over whether he has the ability to match that level of power and notoriety. This leads to moments of tension, as we’re not sure just how fallible Ren’s abilities are or how much good is still inside of him, all in spite of his posturing. That said, Ren does have a moment (the scene on the bridge, if you know what I’m talking about) when he gets a speech that’s supposed to be all emotional and vulnerable, and Driver just doesn’t sell it. I’m sorry, I don’t know what it is, but that whole scene just fell flat. Which is an especially huge problem, considering that what happens immediately after needed a much bigger emotional punch to really be worth it.
The important thing about the First Order is that we finally get an Imperial menace that seems to have its shit together. The Stormtroopers aren’t a walking punchline anymore (except for when the plot needs them to be, anyway). Their big superweapon has a weak point that is very heavily fortified and takes a concerted effort to take down. The bad guys of the franchise aren’t all about brute force anymore, and that’s very refreshing to see.
In terms of music, it’s a John Williams score. Of course it’s amazing. That said, I kept trying to listen for the next iconic Star Wars theme. Something on par with “Duel of the Fates”, which was almost enough on its own to make Episode I worth it. But I just couldn’t hear it. Maybe everything else was overshadowed by the more classic Star Wars themes, or maybe I need to listen to the soundtrack proper, but nothing new immediately stuck out in my mind. Which is an especially huge disappointment, considering that “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a brand-new Cantina song that I could barely hear in the film. SHAME.
If it sounds like I’m being overly hard on the movie, that’s primarily because I’m trying so hard not to give away those moments where I was cheering right along with the rest of the audience. There are so many twists and reveals and incredible moments that stick the landing beautifully. The moments of comedy are wickedly clever and delivered with perfect timing. The action scenes are perfectly thrilling, with all the dogfights and saber duels you could ask for. The plot even throws in a creature showdown, with some legitimately terrifying beasties destroying everything in their path.
This brings me to the production value. It’s easy to forget that back in the ’60s and early ’70s, science fiction looked more like Forbidden Planet, or “Star Trek” or “Lost in Space”. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey had a shiny, pristine, sleek look to it. A huge part of what made A New Hope so revolutionary is that the props and costumes showed their wear and tear. It felt like a lived-in universe, so tangible and accessible that it felt like the viewer could step right through the screen and be there in Mos Eisley. One of George Lucas’ biggest mistakes was in forgetting that when he made the prequels. And one of J.J. Abrams’ greatest successes was in remembering that when he made this movie.
Absolutely everything about this movie is constructed in a beautifully imperfect way. Everything looks appropriately banged-up and beaten, to suggest of what a history it might have seen. The creatures (in spite of some occasionally flawed CGI work) all act and move in a way that suggests personality. Then we have the mix of practical effects with CGI, which does the movie all kinds of favors. This universe is made to feel so much more immersive because it’s that much harder to tell where the CGI begins and the real stuff ends. All of this to say that fifteen years after Episode I — and thirty years after Episode VI — we finally, FINALLY get to see a Star Wars universe that feels tactile enough to be completely immersive.
On a couple of miscellaneous notes, the film looks gorgeous from start to finish. There’s some great use of color throughout, and we get a few shot compositions that are simply striking. I also got a kick out of seeing the technology on display and how it’s advanced in the 30 years since Return of the Jedi. Some examples look great, like the newer blaster models, that kickass Imperial shuttle redesign, and I assume that BB-8 is a newer model of droid. But then we have the larger Resistance ships, which look pathetically unremarkable. I was kinda disappointed in how little the TIE Fighter and X-Wing models have changed, but these ones have some toys under the hood that I’m pretty sure weren’t around in the original trilogy.
To sum up, J.J. Abrams and his crew had a lot to accomplish with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They had to make the franchise viable again after George Lucas drove his own creations into the ground and divorced himself from the property. They had to tell a story that expanded the universe and kept the saga moving forward while also honoring the movies that came before. They had to craft a whole galaxy that moviegoers everywhere would be excited to revisit, and to keep revisiting over and over again. They had to deliver action and adventure and comedy that was kid-friendly without getting too safe or annoying. And that isn’t even getting started on all the time, money, and effort that had to be put into a top-notch production. To say nothing of crafting new characters who were worthy of accepting the torch from Luke, Han, Leia, et al.
That the filmmakers accomplished all of this is nothing short of miraculous.
Abrams and company get so many impossibly huge things right that I can easily forgive them for the minor things they get wrong. Yes, it frustrates me that so many characters don’t get their due screen time or development. Yes, it annoys me that so many plot threads are left there dangling until some new expanded universe story comes along to resolve them. But if I walk away from the rebirth of a massive franchise and my overriding thought is that I want more of it, I’d call that Mission Accomplished.