Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens

As promised here if my spoiler filled review of The Force Awakens. Let me be clear, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, do not read any further. You will learn a lot of key plot points that are best experienced when watching the movie for the first time. Maybe you’re OK with that, but I think that you’ll enjoy The Force Awakens better if you go in willing to be surprised.

Therefore this is your last warning.

Spoilers ahead.

Let me start this review by talking about the elements of the story that I liked. I have a lot of critiques of the film, but I don’t want to start on a negative note, because overall, this was a really great movie. This film continued the magic of the original trilogy and is a great addition to the Star Wars canon.

First, I have to say how beautiful this movie is. The use of more practical effects instead of CGI gave the film a raw and gritty feeling that made it feel more real. Characters wearing costumes, that were enhanced by CGI, was a great change for this film and really paid off. Additionally, the cinematography was exceptional. The wide sweeping shots of Jakku and the Death Star-like planet were just as powerful as the tighter shots of the characters together. On a technical level, this was a really amazing film.

Getting to see all of our old favorite characters was also a real treat. Han and Chewie are as much stars of this movie as Finn and Rey. In fact, it feels like this film was a way to pass the baton to the next generation, through Han and Chewie. Getting to see the two of them go on one last great adventure was touching. I felt that Han’s death was handled well, and Harrison Ford finally got to kill off the character like he originally wanted.

I also really enjoyed Leia in this movie. She managed to continue to bring that same, tough and no-nonsense personality to the role that she was meants to have in the original trilogy. I think that Carrie Fischer brought a lot of her real life struggles to her portrayal of a tired and hardened general. I also REALLY liked how her relationship with Han was dealt with. Many of us assumed that her and Han just went off and got married and lived happily every after leading the New Republic. The fact that their son turned to the Dark Side, and the loss of him tore their relationship apart was beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. But, most importantly, it was real. It felt like these two amazing heroes were a bit more approachable, since they handled their grief about their son in a familiar way to how many parents deal with the loss or death of a child.

Some of the new side characters in this film were really great as well. Poe Dameron is the character that Wedge Antillies should have always gotten to be. Daring and skilled, a true pilot hero that does amazing things, but still seems like just one of the guys. His acceptance of Finn was beautiful and you could tell that he saw greatness in Finn right from the start.

I also loved Maz Kanata, the diminutive pirate lord with the ability to see beyond surface appearances. I felt like her character was the wise Yoda that the story needed to help show these new heroes that there was a long and storied history to the universe that they now inhabit. I have no idea if she made it out of the attack alive, but I really hope so.

However, not all characters were quite as good as I was hoping for. In particular (moving into the negative realm now…) Kylo Ren left me feeling like he wasn’t the big bad villain he needed to be. I understand that this film was supposed to be about him purging his last vestige of longing for the light side of the Force by killing his father Han. But, as the movie went on, I felt like he was getting weaker and weaker. He wasn’t the menacing evil force of darkness. He was a lost, and scared, child who was taken in by the big bad guy. I’m sure the next film will show that he’s given himself to the darkness completely, and I’m sure that eventually his story of redemption will be tied to Luke’s journey for forgiveness for making him who he is.

Finn and Rey are great new additions to the cadre of heroes for the new Star Wars world. Both actors played the characters really well, however, their relationship felt a bit ‘Disney-ified’. Finn obviously has feelings for Rey and the whole love at first sight thread is very fairy tale. Granted, because of Finn’s life in the First Order, he most likely has a stunted maturity level, but I’m sure the arc of the two characters getting together will resolve in one of the usual ways in the future.

Beyond the characters, a couple of small nitpicks bugged me, albeit to a small extent. The biggest one for me is how everyone in the galaxy seems to be an expert sword fighter. Finn handles Luke’s lightsaber like he was born with it, slashing through stormtroopers until he finally meets one that has a weapon that can resist a lightsaber’s blade. When Rey gets the lightsaber during the final battle, she wields it with ferocity against a man who was trained by a Jedi master. She struggles until she magically taps into the Force and suddenly is a sword fighting beast, bringing Kylo Ren to his knees. I had a hard time believing that, unlike Luke, both of these characters were able to just pick up a laser sword and manage to fend off a trained master as well as they did.

My other little nitpick, is the lack of explanation as to what happened to the government in this new universe. There are hints that the New Republic is up and running, and that the Resistance is just a group of freedom fighters that are trying to stop the First Order, but that the Resistance isn’t an official part of the New Republic. I would have liked a bit more exposition on this, since at one point they just blew up the New Republic government. Though maybe that’s the reason they didn’t bother talking about it, since they destroyed it so quickly.

Overall, J. J. Abrams did a good job with the movie, and he kept the lens flare to a minimum. However, he also has this habit of shrinking vast universes when he makes space movies. He did it in Star Trek, and again in Star Wars. You have multiple planets that are apparently visible from the sky of Maz’s planet, and everyone was able to see the laser beam shooting across what should have been billions of miles between galaxies. I guess in Abram’s universe, everything is much closer together.

Finally, my biggest issue is also the thing that made the story so approachable, and what I see as it’s biggest failing. As a whole, The Force Awakens is a retelling of A New Hope. Much like J. J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek, this movie is a reboot of the original Star Wars, but it’s simply set far into the future, instead of an alternate universe.

  • You have a droid with details that are vital to a rebellion/resistance
  • The orphaned hero starts on a desert planet and eventually escapes with the help of the Falcon.
  • There is yet another Death Star (Starkiller Base), planet killing weapon.
  • The Starkiller Base has a weak point that is targeted by a squad of X-Wings.
  • The next target of the Empire/First Order is the base of the Rebellion/Resistance.
  • The final run to destroy the weak point takes place in a trench, just like in A New Hope.
  • There is a daring rescue/escape from the new Death Star-like weapon.

The list goes on and on. The story of The Force Awakens does more than pay homage to A New Hope, it wholesale copies it, puts it into a future setting, where the problems are solved in an almost identical fashion. One of the final battle shots is, once again, the Millennium Falcon and a handful of X-Wings flying away from an exploding Death Star.

The similarities to A New Hope are intentional. Star Wars fans have been clamoring for a movie that makes them feel like they did when Episode 4 came out, and this movie delivers big time. Although fans might have been satisfied with some simple references to the original trilogy, the wholesale retelling of it rekindles the nostalgia in a way that homages simply wouldn’t have.

However, this is now the new challenge for J. J. Abrams. The Force Awakens is a first chapter in a new trilogy, and I firmly believe that episode 7 will be judged more by what comes next, than what it was itself. Now that Abrams has earned the trust of the loyal Star Wars fan base, he needs to deliver on something that is unique, and not just a retelling of the same trilogy that we had before. He needs to capture the magic of Star Wars and take it to a new place. People are going to praise The Force Awakens, and rightly so, but our appetites have been whet now, and the main course needs to be less familiar, pulling us away from the same old adventures and bringing us new memories of a galaxy far far away.

 

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