This review contains lots and lots and lots of spoilers for The Force Awakens. Read at your own risk!
After more than 10 years, Star Wars has returned to theaters.
J.J. Abrams put a lot of hype behind this movie just for trying to do what the Original Trilogy did. Emphasis on practical effects? Check. Callbacks to the Original Trilogy? Check, in spades. Similar action-adventure structure? Check.
The result feels like something that wanted to stray so far away from the Prequel Trilogy that it felt like it had to be A New Hope. Now, A New Hope is a good film, so copying elements (or entire plot outlines) can result in something good, especially if you put your own spin on it.
And, in fairness, we had the political and character-study focused Prequel Trilogy. Those films weren’t very well executed for the most part, but they had different goals, so I don’t think a new film striving to retain elements of a 35+-year-old trilogy is necessarily bad.
After all, A New Hope took aspects from serials that were decades old at the time. It’s almost meta in that way, though where A New Hope lifted scenes, The Force Awakens lifts a ton of elements from Empire and A New Hope and then blends them together.
Some elements are clear copies, like Starkiller Base being a fanfiction version of the Death Star, but Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is an example of a subversion of an existing trope. More on him later, since he’s… divisive, to say the least.
That’s where we come to one thing about the movie that differentiates itself from A New Hope. This film, while having the basic three act structure it needs to stand on its own, is very reliant on shoving answers to Episode VIII.
How is Rey so adept already? Why did Kylo Ren betray Luke? Why is Luke in hiding? How was Anakin’s lightsaber found? Why is Phasma even there? What are Snoke’s plans?
“A story for another time,” to paraphrase Maz Katana, the not-Yoda of this movie. On a side note: Her CG was surprisingly bad, in spite of how this was easily the best looking Star Wars movie ever made.
Is this a problem with the movie? I don’t think so, but that’s taking into account the scale of the film. Three main protagonists, one villain with a lot of screentime, loads of elements trying to introduce the audience to a post-Empire Galaxy, and so on.
In that sense, I don’t think it’s unfair to make some sort of comparison to Lord of the Rings. Is it as good as that? No, this film isn’t a 10 like Fellowship is, but I think there’s a similar philosophy. It can tell a segment of the story. It isn’t stand-alone like A New Hope is due to the mythos it’s trying to build compared to the smaller scale of the Original Trilogy, but it isn’t a movie without a story or with too little story.
This film takes A New Hope, adds some of the bigger elements of Empire, and spins it all together into some nostalgia hybrid that works pretty well.
I think Starkiller Base is conceptually stupid and I recognize it’s one thing that will almost assuredly never be adequately explained (How does the First Order have the resources to make it if they’re just remnants?) but I can, at least, accept the device as it is since I don’t think the core of the film rests on it.
That being said, that’s the third goddamn planet destroyer, stop it, they don’t work.
A big thing about the movie is that it handles characterization the same way that the Original Trilogy did. We don’t reach Marvel-level quipping here, but the characters are certainly charismatic and fun to watch. Though, I hope Poe is expanded a bit more in Episode VIII – he’s a side character here with some potential if Oscar Isaac’s portrayal is any sign.
Finn is fun, but I do actually take issue with his lack of remorse after killing Stormtroopers. I think it was a missed opportunity on the film’s part to flesh his character out more, and now if he does it in Episode VIII, it’ll reflect poorly on Episode VII. The death of his comrade at the start of the movie seriously affected him, yet he never really reflects on killing other Stormtroopers in the movie.
I do think he’s a good character outside of that, though – he has a resolve and he’s naturally brave, but it doesn’t always work out in his favor. The action scenes are pretty even because of it since his brashness gets ahead of him.
Rey’s character is a big “?”, and I just kind of accept that she probably has a secret past we aren’t aware of that gives context to how she’s so good at everything in the movie.
She’s so adept that it’s kind of annoying how she doesn’t struggle as much as she should, but part of this is redeemed in the fantastic lightsaber duel near the end of the film that strikes a balance between the Original Trilogy’s limited choreography and the Prequel Trilogy’s frequently over-choreographed sequences.
The biggest kept secret of the movie is the twist that Han is Ren’s father, but… the film itself makes no attempt to hide it. The film’s opening sequence strongly implies he has an important heritage, and it’s a given that most audience members probably figured out he’s related to somebody important.
That somebody turns out to be Han, told through Supreme Overlord Snoke in a very casual manner. I appreciate that the film just takes the concept and runs with it, making it a part of the plot rather than hiding it.
Let’s actually talk about Ren before we get to talking about the technical aspects and the OT references.
I’ve seen people compare him to Anakin from the Prequel Trilogy, but I think it’s more apt to think of him as an anti-Vader.
He has the look of Vader with some elements to distinguish himself, but his personality is far different. Vader is calm, collected, and exacts wrath on people he deems responsible for failure as a way to intimidate his subordinates, but Ren…
Yeah, Ren just kind of loses it like a petulant child. This is intimidating to his subordinates, but not quite in the same way. Where Vader was stable, Ren isn’t, and Ren’s instability partly comes from his self-consciousness over his inability to BE Vader. He can’t commit to the dark side.
There are some questions about his character, mainly in how Ben Solo became Kylo Ren, but I think those questions are being pushed to Episode VIII because of how it relates to Luke and (probably) Rey. That’s enough to have its own plot that could be explored a lot.
I like the character that was created here, but I’m interested to see where it goes. I think there’ll be a meta display where Kylo Ren can never truly live up to the iconic Darth Vader as a character, but depending on how the film series continues, I think he could end up being a worthy antagonist in the Star Wars canon.
That being said, the catwalk scene? Amazing. Harrison Ford shouting “BEN!” with the darkness and smoke creeping onto the catwalk was fantastic filmmaking. The film manages to take those few scenes we get between Han and Leia and translate them into something with a lot of weight.
If I had to ask for anything more, I would’ve enjoyed some more interaction between Han and Rey to add some long-term impact to his death. Though, perhaps Rey’s desire for some human connection resulting in their brief interactions together will be enough for his death to stick with her emotionally.
Onto the filmmaking…
It’s shot well, the effects outside of Snoke and Maz’s iffy CG are fantastic, the environments look real and like they have a history to them, there’s tons of attention to detail, etc.
Even though this film is in many ways a product, I can’t deny the sheer amount of effort that went into minute details. I think there really was a soul to the movie that gave life to tons of scenes through its use of real-looking environments.
The grit of it is part of what got me invested. I didn’t get taken out of the movie a bunch of times by noticing shoddy effects, which is more than I can say for any of the six previous Star Wars movies. Now, sure, Empire is one of the best films of all time and A New Hope is fantastic, but the effects haven’t aged all that well in some parts, and it’s easy to go “That’s fake.”
*Return of the Jedi is really shoddy in few places and the Prequels haven’t aged well at all visual effects-wise.
Outside of Maz and Snoke’s iffy CG, I didn’t see any of that in The Force Awakens. I’d call it a near-flawless technical effort.
For a criticism, the editing is off-pace and bizarre in the earlier parts of the movie. There are a few scenes where a character’s done speaking and we immediately get a screen wipe to the next scene. It’s distracting, but it stops happening when the second act starts.
There’s another thing that’s garnering a lot of discussions: Where there too many OT references?
I think they struck a decent balance on OT cameos and references. Ackbar makes an appearance, we see the ball Luke used to train with on the Millenium Falcon, there’s a clever callback to the trash compactor, and there are all sorts of visual nods or name references to other things that I won’t go over.
Point being, most of it felt organic and it didn’t bog down the film.
The bottom line:
I think there’s a lot of work that went into the movie. It’s presented well, it’s thoughtfully designed, the acting is good, the pacing is great, and the character interactions are good. The narrative is somewhat lacking, but I think the film accomplishes what it set out to do and remains a good film in the process. Not perfect, but not just serviceable, either. It’s paved the way for something new in Episode VIII.
I’ll need more viewings and more time to process it, but…
If for whatever reason you haven’t seen it yet you’re reading a spoiler review, go see it.
So, where would I rank The Force Awakens? I’d say “right in the middle, maybe above Return of the Jedi” is about right. In spite of my dislike of Attack on the Clones and most of The Phantom Menace, I think Revenge of the Sith is a pretty decent film – but it still has issues with its dialogue and presentation that sometimes undermine what it’s going for.
- The Empire Strikes Back (10/10)
- A New Hope (9/10)
- The Force Awakens (8/10)
- Return of the Jedi (8/10)
- Revenge of the Sith (7/10)
- The Phantom Menace (5/10)
- Attack of the Clones (4/10)
Episode VIII has me really excited. Rian Johnson is a fan of Cowboy Bebop, so I think he should have a proper grasp of the Space Opera genre. He’ll probably make VIII something special.