If the title wasn’t clear enough; the second section of this review will contain ALL THE SPOILERS.
If you’ve somehow stumbled into this post by mistake, don’t worry, you’re still safe… for now. I’ll start with a basic, spoiler-free synopsis & review and then dig deeper into the good stuff a bit farther down in the post. It will be ridiculously obvious where the spoiler section will start, but if you haven’t seen the film and don’t even want to risk it, then you’d better make the jump to light speed and get out of here now to avoid any plot or character-related spoilers for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” .
With those disclaimers out of the way, here goes.
Currently holding strong at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m only adding my voice to a growing chorus when I say that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a fantastic film.
Director, J.J. Abrams and co-writers, Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt, managed to flawlessly capture the look, tone, and feel of the original trilogy. I’m not going to waste time beating up on the prequels too much, but for the first time since 1983, everything about this actually seems like the Star Wars I fell in love with as a kid.
The universe depicted in the original trilogy wasn’t exactly shiny and new.
Spaceships like the Millennium Falcon were falling apart and didn’t always work perfectly; droids like C3P0 and R2D2 were dented and scuffed; and the locations were populated by strangely believable creatures going about their daily business. These kinds of imperfections and the physical reality of everything on screen, combined with John Williams’ luscious and emotionally powerful score, gave the world a visual realism and emotional depth that the cartoonish CGI perfection of the prequels completely failed to accomplish.
The magic in those original films has had a profound impact on now several generations of young people who would – like myself – grow up to be film-makers and creative artists. I’m beyond thrilled to say that “The Force Awakens” reminded me of the creative inspiration I felt as a kid seeing Star Wars for the first time.
But the record-breaking success of this film will be owed to far more than style and tone.
Through the use of thematic and character parallels, “The Force Awakens” seamlessly blends the old with the new and firmly establishes a fabulous set of new characters – particularly Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) – as the next generation of galactic heroes while leaving a ton of room for the original cast to continue to play pivotal roles in this universe. Daisy Ridley is especially brilliant as Rey and her character’s place in Star Wars should be pretty exciting for fans of the series. I really can’t say enough about her.
Also, this film’s version of R2D2, ball-shaped droid BB8, is completely adorable without being annoying; the script was surprisingly funny, yet the humor never felt overly forced (pardon the pun) or too cutesy; and Harrison Ford gave his most remarkable performance in years as Han Solo.
That said, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is still not a flawless film.
For one thing, the main antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was presented without any clear motive and almost none of the movie’s underlying politics make any senseat all.
Additionally, the plot – about which I won’t go into detail here – was far too predictable, and is essentially a beat-for-beat retread of A New Hope with a couple elements borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Given that the spectacular artistic and critical failure of the prequels is still pretty fresh in everyone’s minds, I can certainly understand why J.J. would stick to such familiar territory and hedge his bets, but surely he could have come up with something a little more original than a 3rd iteration of the Death Star.
Honestly, I think that was a big mistake and I’ll elaborate on how I think the plot and a couple of the character relationships could have been improved in the section below, but the bottom line is this: “The Force Awakens” is an excellent return to form for the Star Wars universe. It’s derivative and nostalgic, sure, but beautifully done and got the tone of Star Wars exactly right, wildly exceeding the low bar set by the prequel trilogy and proving that the franchise is in good hands.
In case you have been living under a rock the last 6 months, here’s all the trailers:
WARNING: SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!
Seriously. If you don’t want to have any plot or character details for this film spoiled, pull up now. You’ve been warned.
Let’s start with the plot.
The basic gist of it is that a new evil called the First Order has emerged from the remnants of the Galactic Empire from the original trilogy. The First Order is led by a giant hologram, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who is clearly a Sith Lord powerful with the dark side of the Force. The New Republic doesn’t seem to have any real control over anything, and Leia Organa is back to being a general in a Resistance army doing the best they can to prevent The First Order from taking power.
No word on how she’s a “Resistance” fighter when she is actually supported by the government currently in power, or how the First Order seems to have gained such a strong presence… But while the politics of this movie are indeed an utter mess, at least we don’t waste any time on it (*cough* prequels *cough*).
In any case, the one person we need most to stop this new threat – none other than the last Jedi Master Luke Skywalker himself – has vanished to the farthest reaches of space after a former student turned against him. No one has seen or heard from him in years.
The victory from Return of the Jedi against the Empire is unraveling fast, and the galaxy is in peril once again.
From there, as I said above, the plot of “The Force Awakens” lines up nearly beat-for-beat with “A New Hope”, with a few minor changes cribbed from Empire and Jedi. I thought a graphic might help make the point, so consider the following:
In spite of all that, I actually don’t mind that the film is so derivative in general. In some ways, I think it needed to be, given how important it was for this iteration of Star Wars to really feel right.
That is, I don’t mind most of it with the major exception of creating yet another Deathstar.
Leaving aside the obvious problem that it’s a nonsense weapon that would only be counterproductive from a political standpoint and which has been defeated by the Rebellion twice already in this universe, it also functions as little more than a big dumb action set-piece in this film, since it’s never used to kill anyone we actually meet or get to know.
What’s worse, I think it’s a distraction from a much more emotionally climactic sequence we could have had in the third act instead.
The crux of any good hero story is actually the adversary at the heart of the conflict. In this case, the villain is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who – it turns out – is really Ben Solo, Han & Leia’s son.
Unfortunately, we learn this fact really early in the film out of necessity more than anything else.
We need to know that he’s Han’s son to understand the bigger context around what’s going on with all the older characters. It answers the question of why Han Solo is back to being a smuggler for hire, why he’s no longer with Leia, and why Luke disappeared to the ends of the galaxy. This makes for a pretty weak reveal (datapoint of one and all, but I heard zero gasps in either of the two screenings I’ve attended so far), when it’s actually really important to the story.
And here’s the thing… Beyond the fact that Kylo Ren did betray his family and everything they stand for, we know absolutely nothing about him or his motivations.
Leia claims that it was Supreme Leader Snoke who “seduced” Kylo Ren to the dark side, but where did they even meet and why would he fall for it? Surely, of all the people in the galaxy, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa and the nephew/student of Luke Skywalker knows the story of Darth Vader – his own grandfather, no less – better than anyone. He’d know everything there is to know about the dangers of the dark side.
Point is: This betrayal is a huge deal that goes completely unexplained in the film. And it should have been explained – especially because it would have made the confrontation in the 3rd act truly meaningful beyond the meta-context of fan service.
When Han Solo steps out onto the bridge over the chasm of obvious doom, we know he’s going to die at the hands of his son. We also know – or should assume – that as a father and good man, he had to try to bring his son home. As it is in the film, it’s still a pretty good moment, but I can’t help but feeling like Han Solo’s death was mishandled.
In earlier scenes, we’re told by both Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren himself that he is uncertain whether or not he has the strength to resist the call to the light side. This is basically the dark mirror version of Luke’s confrontation with Darth Vader in Empire and Return of the Jedi, though Ren isn’t the main protagonist here. The idea that Ren feels that he must resist the temptation to abandon the dark side and believes that resisting is actually the right thing to do is a spectacularly interesting development… But for it to make any sense at all, there should be some motivation – some reason – for why he believes the dark side to be superior.
So it seems to me that the moment with his father on the bridge was the perfect time to reveal Kylo Ren’s true backstory – or at least a piece of it.
Instead of the obvious fake-out “come give me a hug so I can stab you with my lightsaber” moment we got, how much better could that scene have been if Kylo Ren first lashes out at Han, telling him he’s wasting his time. Han could then respond as a loving father, apologizing for his missteps and pleading with his son to forgive him for contributing to the anger and resentment that led Ren to abandon his family. And what if Kylo Ren had actually been moved by Han’s sadness and humility? What if he – like Luke when driven to lash out in anger by Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi – had a brief-but-real moment of conversion that scared him? What if (again, dark-mirroring Luke) his resolve in the righteousness and value of the dark side was the thing that kept him from coming home, and allowed him to take that fateful last step to the dark side by murdering his own father?
In that moment we would learn why Kylo Ren rejected his family and Luke’s Jedi teachings. We would get a much better sense of the heartbreak Han, Leia, and Luke felt and thus why they would each retreat into their own forms of isolation. We would see a flash of the good in Kylo Ren that Han Solo wants to believe is there. We would see that Kylo Ren’s devotion to the dark side isn’t just some kind of teenage rebellion, but the choice of a man who believes in what he’s doing.
And most importantly, when he ultimately decides to put his lightsaber through his own father, we would all feel that pain together and we might have actually been surprised when it happened.
From there, I’d love to have seen the beats play out basically the same – Chewbacca shoots Ren in an attempt to avenge his best friend and triggers the detonators blowing up the enemy base (but not a Deathstar), with one other major exception.
Even wounded, there’s absolutely no excuse for Kylo Ren losing in a lightsaber battle with Rey.
I get – and actually love – that Rey is a powerful force-user. I think Daisy Ridley’s performance and her overall character is one of the best things about the film. But let’s be serious… She is completely untrained and has no idea what she’s doing at all.
By contrast, Kylo Ren is not only a Sith Apprentice, he was previously trained by Luke Skywalker himself. He grew up in a family strong with the Force. He has experience and skill, and we see him doing amazing things from the first scene he’s in–omg, guys, Force holding a blaster shot?!–so we know he’s dangerous. If he can be challenged by an AWOL stormtrooper and then bested by a scavenger girl, his credibility is pretty questionable. That’s not to say I don’t think Rey could or should not have won the fight… It’s just that she couldn’t have won it with her non-existent skill with a lightsaber.
Again, allow me to offer one simple change.
Instead of beating Kylo Ren with a lightsaber, what if instead she had beat him with a powerful and uncontrolled force push that knocks Kylo Ren back? What if at the moment she’s in the most danger, it’s her connection to the Force itself that protects her instead of skills that she obviously hasn’t earned yet?
It’s a small change, but it would have made a big difference by not undercutting Kylo Ren’s demonstrated power while showing Rey to be the powerful young Jedi that deserves to find and study with Luke Skywalker–which I think is safe to assume will be the plot of Episode VIII.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is not a very original film, but it is an absolutely beautiful expansion of a world we’ve all wanted to see for decades that managed to avoid all of the trainwreck moments from the prequels. The new characters are multi-dimensional and worth following into new stories and spin-offs, and everything about the tone – from John Williams’ reliably fantastic score to the locations and the production & creature design – are just perfect.
It completely revitalized the franchise and I can’t wait to see more.