Written PostJosh Reviews Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

I don’t remember a time in my life in which I didn’t know about and love Star Wars.  I was a little kid when the original films came out, and by the time I really remember it, Star Wars was already a complete thing.  Three films: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  I read lots of articles about Star Wars as a kid and I of course knew the story that George Lucas had at one time pictured a Star Wars saga consisting of nine films… and obviously I was aware that those three Star Wars films that had been made were numbered Episode IV, V, and VI, but it didn’t seem like there was any prospect of additional Star Wars on the horizon.  I just accepted that, and I was all right with that.  Those three films painted a complete story, and I was satisfied.

I still remember the excitement when word trickled out that George Lucas was actually going to go ahead and make his fabled prequel films.  Like, I think, almost every Star Wars fan on the planet, I was hugely excited to see the backstory fleshed out.  A chance to see the Jedi in their prime?  To learn about what the heck the Clone Wars were?  And to finally discover just how the Emperor and Darth Vader were able to destroy the Jedi?  It was tantalizing.  Well, we all know how that turned out.  Watching Episode I in theatres that opening night was the most crushingly disappointing cinematic experience of my life.  I’d never really considered the possibility that the movie wouldn’t be great.  Episode II felt like a step forward at the time but that film has aged terribly.  There’s a lot that I like about Episode III — it’s the only prequel film that I can say I enjoyed — but it was too little, too late.  To me, the prequels are best forgotten.

And so, again, in my mind that was it.  George Lucas didn’t seem interested in making any additional Star Wars films, and after the disappointment of the prequels I was totally fine with that.  The Star Wars story was finished.

And then Mr. Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney and immediately the announcement was made that Episode VII was in development.  I of course followed those developments with great interest.  While I can’t say I was surprised that the decision was made to make more Star Wars films, I truly never expected to see Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher ever again reprise their roles on-screen.  I was stunned when that was announced, and even now after seeing The Force Awakens I am still stunned.  I really never thought that would happen.

So, enough preamble, eh?  I have seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  I have been saying for years and years that I would love to, someday in my lifetime, get to see a truly great new Star Wars film on the big screen.  Is The Force Awakens it?


Well, sadly no, but it is nonetheless a very entertaining film and a great time in the movie theatre.  I have quite a lot to say about the film, but if you want my thoughts in a nutshell it is that The Force Awakens is good, but not great.

What’s astonishing is that my thoughts about this film almost exactly mirror my thoughts of J.J. Abrams’ OTHER relaunch of a venerable sci-fi franchise with “Star” in its name.  I thought Mr. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film was a tremendous amount of fun.  It got the tone exactly right, telling a gripping adventure yarn that had stakes but that was FUN.  It had gorgeous visual effects and terrific pacing.  It had a spectacular cast.  But it was hamstrung by a script filled with mis-steps and plot holes.  (Click here for my full review.)

I have almost the exact same view of The Force Awakens.  After the stodgy formality of the prequels, The Force Awakens beautifully recaptures the tone of a fun adventure that the original Star Wars had.  While going into the film I was most excited to see the old characters — Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, etc. — again, when coming out of the film what I was most impressed by was the amazing cast of extraordinary new young leads, all of whom were absolutely tremendous.  The film looks amazing, using a combination of practical effects and the most cutting-edge CGI to bring a universe of alien planets and creatures and space-ships to life.  But the story is very wobbly, and after a terrific first half the film sags tremendously in the second half.

Let’s start with what’s great, and at the top of that list is the amazing new cast.  I absolutely LOVE each and every one of these new characters.  LOVE them.  I am so impressed at how well Mr. Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt were able to conceive and bring to life these new characters.  Each one of them feels distinct and very different from previous Star Wars characters, and yet very much of the Star Wars world.  Each one is perfectly, and I mean perfectly, cast.  I love these characters, and over-all these new characters were far more successful than how Mr. Abrams and his team handled Luke, Han, and Leia.

John Boyega made an impact on me when I first saw Attack the Block years ago, and so it’s great to finally see him step into stardom here.  I love that one of the main characters in this new film is a stormtrooper.  What an interesting twist to follow the journey of a stormtrooper, bred for obedience but who rejects the path of violence and evil.  I love how Mr. Boyega invests Finn with a fast-talking brashness but also a reluctance to get involved in any sort of galaxy-saving nonsense.  Finn’s main interest is in getting as far away from the First Order (this film’s version of the evil Empire) as he can.  There’s a simplicity to the way he finds a different path in this film, but a sweetness to it as well that I was quite taken by.  I love Finn’s arc in the film.  Mr. Boyega also gets to be very, very funny.  He gets most of the film’s biggest laughs.  I love how naturalistic and casual he plays the role.  This is a breath of fresh air for Star Wars.

I knew of John Boyega so I wasn’t surprised that he was great.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen Daisy Ridley in anything before, so she was the huge surprise of the film for me.  Her character, Rey, is sort of an inverse Luke Skywalker.  Both grew up on a desert planet and wore similar-looking beige clothing.  When we see Rey looking wistfully at a ship launching into the sky early in the film, we at first think that she shares the same sorts of dreams of leaving home that Luke had.  But Daisy, we learn, has a different make-up, and a reluctance to leave her home planet that is a critical element of her story.  Ms. Ridley is magnificent in the film, creating in Rey a character who is heroic and brave and smart and fun.  She commands the screen, and I loved following Rey’s journey throughout this film.  When that you-know-what flies into her hand in the film’s climax, it’s the best fist-pumping moment in the film, and it’s spectacular.  Star Wars has never been strong in its female characters, but that has all changed now.

Anyone who has been reading this site lately knows how much I have grown to love Oscar Isaac this year, after his amazing performances in Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, and Show Me a Hero So, no surprise, he is also great here as X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron.  Poe isn’t quite as well-developed as Finn or Rey, he’s very simply noble and heroic.  But Mr. Isaac brings such charm and charisma to the role that it’s hard to mind.  I’m excited to see this character continue to develop in future films.

I wasn’t sure if Adam Driver would work in the film — it’s hard for me to see him as anything other than his very contemporary, very weird character that he played in Girls — but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed him in the film as the villain Kylo Ren.  Ren is a very different type of Star Wars villain than any we’ve seen before.  I was impressed by the emotional complexity woven into this character’s twisted story.  This is sort of what Anakin Skywalker was supposed to have been like in the prequels but wasn’t — a brash, arrogant young man with amazing powers, twisted to darkness.

Of the main original threesome, it’s Harrison Ford as Han Solo who gets by far the biggest spotlight in The Force Awakens.  I am happy to report that Mr. Ford — who has often felt like he has been sleepwalking his way through every film he’s made since the mid-nineties — is pretty terrific back in the role.  He’s having fun, and it shows.  He’s also able to bring a weight and emotional resonance to his scenes that serves the movie well.  When he talks to Fin and Rey about the Force, midway through the film, telling them that the rumors and legends they have heard are all true, it’s a powerful moment because Mr. Ford sells it with his performance.  (It’s also a great full-circle moment for the character of Han, who of course in that same room in the Falcon declared in Star Wars that he didn’t believe in any of that religious nonsense.)

There are lots of other aspects of the film that I enjoyed.  The new droid, BB-8, is amazing.  What could have easily been an overly-cutesy Ewok-like mistake instead becomes a wonderful character in the film, emotive and lovable, just as R2-D2 and C-3PO were in the original films.  I loved loved loved the wise old orange alien to whose bar Han takes Finn and Rey in the middle of the film.  I wish the movie had better impressed upon me the character’s name (I looked it up: she’s Maz Kanata) but she is absolutely wonderful.  A great design beautifully brought to life by Lupita Nyong’o and a team of talented CGI artists.  (I love that she refers to Chewie as her boyfriend!!) I enjoyed Domhnall Gleeson as General Nux, a jack-booted lackey in the evil First Order.  I loved getting to see glimpses of Admiral Ackbar and Nien Numb.  There are so many great sequences — like the crazy monster fight on Han’s freighter, or all the new wacky aliens in Maz Kanata’s cantina — that I can’t wait to revisit.

So what didn’t work?

SPOILERS ahead gang, so beware.

The whole business with the “Starkiller Base”, a planet-sized version of the Death Star, was totally stupid.  Come on, ANOTHER Death Star?  One character actually says “another Death Star?” in the movie, and is immediately told, no no, this is totally different from the Death Star.  But come on.  It’s exactly the same.  A planet-destroying super-weapon that our heroes attack in X-Wings while another group of heroes on the surface tries to disable it?  We have danced this fandango before.

The script to The Force Awakens is filled with unanswered questions and what feels like missing information and connective tissue.  The original Star Wars had a propulsive simplicity.  While that film hinted at a world of backstory and a huge unexplored universe outside of the edges of the film, we as an audience were told exactly what we needed to know to follow the story.  But The Force Awakens often felt to me like a mess of confusing backstory and situations.

Let’s start with, what exactly is the connection between The Republic and The Resistance in the film?  I’d assumed after Return of the Jedi that Leia Organa led the re-establishment of the Republic that had been destroyed by the Empire, and that the Rebellion of the Original Trilogy became the leaders of the New Republic.  But in The Force Awakens the Republic and the Resistance (which feels exactly like the Rebellion and features many of the same characters) seem to be separate entities.  What is the Republic exactly?  Was the Republic those handful of planets wiped out by the Starkiller Base?  Wouldn’t the Republic have been comprised of hundreds of star-systems?  Surely the Starkiller Base didn’t destroy the entire Republic, right?  Well then why does Leia and her “Resistance” seem to be such a tiny, isolated group of fighters?  Where is the rest of their military might?  Does the First Order — which seems to be what remains of the old Empire — control much of the galaxy now?  Or did they just have that one big Star Destroyer and that one planet-sized base?  I’d at first assumed that The Republic spread over much of the galaxy, as it had for centuries before the Empire, and that The First Order was a small push-back against that.  But if that’s the case, what was “the Resistance” resisting?  Did The First Order control more of the galaxy than I’d thought?  If so, how had that happened?  Understanding the relationship between these political entities is important to understanding the backdrop to the story, but I didn’t understand these things at all.

Just as the film dropped the ball on explaining to us what happened to the galaxy following the events of Return of the Jedi, it also fails to adequately explain the personal stories of what happened to our beloved Original Trilogy heroes.  Am I really to understand that after whatever went wrong with Han and Leia’s son, that both Han AND Luke ran off to hide?  I am all for our heroes having flaws.  In the Original Trilogy, a main thematic point was how the older generation (Ben Kenobi and Yoda, etc.) had totally screwed things up and they needed the younger generation to fix things.  I love the idea of seeing a similar dynamic here, and learning that Luke, Han and Leia hadn’t succeeded in making everything hunky-dory in the galaxy following the events of Return of the Jedi.  But I need a few more answers to what happened than we got here.  What flimsy answers we did get are deeply unsatisfying, because the film seems to suggest that Han ran out on his wife and that Luke decided to abandon the galaxy to evil.  Both men wind up seeming like selfish assholes when you stop and think about it!  I don’t think that’s what the film was going for.  We’re supposed to sympathize with Han, and I guess also Luke, in a way that I really didn’t.  (This also undermines Han and Leia’s reunion, because if Han did what I think he did, I’d think that Leia should have been a whole lot more pissed at him!  I’d have liked to have seen Han have to work harder to win back Leia’s love and respect than he did.)

The film left me with all sorts of more minor questions that also added up in a way that bugged me as I thought about the film after leaving the theatre.  If Luke wanted to hide from the universe, then why the heck did he leave a map to his location?  And how did the First Order get ahold of most of that map?  Who was the character played by Max von Sydow in the beginning of the film, and why did he have a piece of that map?  Why has R2-D2 been deactivated all these years, and why does he come back to life when he does?  Who are Rey’s parents, and why did they abandon her?  I’m all for leaving more story to be told in the next two films that we know are coming (note that I am not at all complaining about the amount of screen-time that Mark Hammil has in the film, or the place where the film leaves Luke Skywalker when the credits role), but I needed some answers to these questions in order for the story being told in the film to hang together in a meaningful way.

Some other thoughts:

I wasn’t hugely impressed by the goofily-named Supreme Leader Snoke.  He seemed silly, in contrast to the way that The Emperor was threatening and mysterious when we first glimpsed him.  On the other hand, I must admit that I am intrigued to learn more about this character in the future.  Is he a Sith?  What size is he like in person, rather than how he is represented in his hologram?

I didn’t understand the title The Force Awakens when it was first announced, and I don’t understand it any better now.  Snoke and Kylo Ren refer to an “awakening” at one point in the film, presumably in reference to the Force-sensitive Rey, but how does one character beginning to use the Light Side represent an awakening of the entire Force?

I do love that, in contrast to the prequels, all the marketing of this film has called it Star Wars: The Force Awakens as opposed to Star Wars: Episode VII.  This is the classic Star Wars style of the Original Trilogy, when the films were known by their title rather than their episode number, and I love it.

I love the moment early in the film in which Kylo Ren uses the Force to stop a blaster bolt mid-air.  That was awesome!

I was bummed that the great Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma didn’t have more to do in the film.  She has a cool design but she wound up being something of a pushover at the end.  (Though John Boyega is a riot in that scene as Finn confronts Phasma again, now no longer in terror of her.)

Funny to see J.J. Abrams stand-by Greg Grunberg as a Resistance pilot!

How great was that final lightsaber battle in the snow?  Gorgeous, exciting, and with deep emotional resonance.  And Rey kicks ass??  Absolutely perfect.

I suppose we need to talk about the fate of Han Solo.  Seriously gang, major SPOILERS now so if somehow you’ve read this far without having yet seen the film, you should stop now.  OK?

I made a lot of guesses about The Force Awakens to my friends in the last year, but there was one prediction that I made solidly, without any doubt in my mind.  That was that I was certain that Han Solo was going to die in this film.  I wrote in my introduction to this review that I never ever expected to see the main Original Trilogy characters ever playing these roles again.  Of all of them, Harrison Ford seemed the least interested in ever again being in a Star Wars movie.  So, I wondered, what had changed?  What had gotten him to agree to be in this movie?  The answer seemed clear as day to me from the very beginning.  I knew the story that Harrison Ford had wanted Han Solo to die at the end of Return of the Jedi.  So I was sure that he’d agreed to do The Force Awakens because he’d been promised to give Han a glorious death.

So I wasn’t at all surprised by that moment in the film.  Did it work despite that?  Well, yes and no.  Yes because both Harrison Ford and Adam Driver were terrific in that moment.  They really sold the emotions of it.  But the scene was weakened by three things.  First, the ridiculous staging with Kylo Ren standing along on that silly tiny bridge to nowhere.  Second, even if you hadn’t really thought about it and guessed this twist like I had, surely anyone casually familiar with Star Wars knows that the father-figure/mentor has to die in the third act, right?  Obi-Wan died in Star Wars and Qui-Gon died in Episode I.  So was this really a big surprise to anyone?  It might have been better had the film played up the tragedy of Han’s impending doom rather than playing it like a twist.  And third, by the way the film sort of stranded Luke and Leia in the story.  A heroic death needs to be unavoidable, something that despite all the efforts of all our heroes there’s just no way out of, no escape.  Had all of our Original Heroes been fighting together, in my opinion the story would have been stronger.  But as I’d noted before the film paints Luke as something of a cowardly jackass who abandoned Han and everyone else, and while Leia is treated better, the film doesn’t really give her anything to do.  Why isn’t Leia on that mission right along with Han, trying to save their son?  The feisty courageous Leia from the Original Trilogy would have been there.  This old Leia isn’t given anything to do in this film except stay in the Rebel base and wait to get blown up by the planet-destroying machine.  That’s a bummer in and of itself and to me it also weakens Han’s last stand, because it doesn’t feel like an unavoidable tragedy, it seems like something that wouldn’t have happened had his friends Luke and Leia been with him.  (The film could have played up the angle of their absence being the central tragedy of the story, but the movie doesn’t go in that direction.)  In the end, part of me doesn’t ever need to see my sci-fi heroes get old and die.  It wasn’t successfully done for James T. Kirk in Star Trek: Generations and I’m not hugely satisfied by Han’s death here.  It’s almost impossible to show the death of a mythical heroic character and not leave some disappointment.  But, on the other hand, I really did enjoy Harrison Ford’s performance as Han in this film, and if that’s what got him back then I guess I can live with it.

OK, whew, this review has gone on for quite a while.  What can I say, it’s a new Star Wars film!!  There was a lot to digest!  This is definitely a film I’d love to see again.  I’m sure after continuing to think about it I’ll have a lot more to say.  For now, let me say that it was certainly fun to see a new Star Wars film on the big screen.  J.J. Abrams and his team had an enormous challenge before them.  While I don’t think they were entirely successful, I love that this film was clearly made by a huge group of men and women who loved the original Star Wars and who wanted to honor its legacy.  In many ways, Mr. Abrams and his team have done a remarkable course-correction for big-screen Star Wars adventures, bringing the series much closer to the tone of fun and adventure of the original films.  I am certainly eager to see where this new trilogy goes in Episodes VIII and IX, and of course I’m curious about the other stand-alone Star Wars films in development.  We’ll all be getting to see a lot more new Star Wars films on the big screen in the coming years, and for me that is very exciting.

I’m still hoping, though, that one of these new films will really blow my socks off.

Maybe the next one.