Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Review
It’s rare that I get to comment on such a big movie THIS CLOSE to its release, but some friends decided to kidnap me for a spontaneous movie date and so here I am, fresh from the new Star Wars movie and chock full of THOUGHTS!
I’m going to keep it simple because, really, I don’t have time to be doing this… but it must be done.
This is a wonderful movie that both resurrects the energy of the classic Star Wars films and, I don’t care what anyone says, captures what was GOOD about the prequel trilogy. Modern CGI technology is used for the forces of good here, homages to the larger Star Wars canon are (for the most part) a delight, and the intensity and visual flare that comes with modern cinematic storytelling are on full display.
At the same time, it almost feels like this movie is digging deeper, pulling elements from even before the original movie; from the raw vision that originally sprang from George Lucas’s mind. This, for all its commercial appeal and conventional storytelling, feels like a more faithful translation of the ideas that gave Star Wars life. (or maybe I’m just thinking about the lightsabers)
The cast is (for the most part) fantastic; the script is funny and exciting and (mostly) well constructed. It is not a perfect movie, but it perfectly captures what we love about Star Wars and gives me (sorry) a new hope for the continuation of the series.
It must be seen, and it must be seen on the big screen.
Here ends my spoiler-free review!
Beyond this point lies SPOILER TOWN, USA!!
What I Loved
Kylo Ren – aka Adam Driver, star of things I have apparently not seen because this dude was an absolute revelation to me! What an amazing actor — what an amazing FACE! What an amazingly perfect face and actor to be paired with that character. There is an otherworldly beauty to that face, but one that has been warped by the dark side. It feels like a cartoonists’ masterclass in character design, but he’s an actual person who was just perfectly cast in his role.
There are a lot of set-ups and introductions to be made throughout this movie, and because of that many of the main cast are left to lend depth to their characters through their performances alone — but Abrams and Kasdan write the HELL out of Kylo Ren, as well they should! Because he’s the villain here. He’s the Big Bad. He’s Vader. We have to be invested in his downfall for at least two more movies, and boy do they give us reason to be. He’s a brash, magnetic, ticking time bomb of aggression; both fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. (I wonder if this is how people felt about Darth Vader back in 1977?)
He is everything Anakin Skywalker AND Darth Maul should have been in the prequel trilogy.
The New Lightsaber – I’m quite proud to find that just about everything I predicted about the new lightsaber and its wielder turned out to be true.
The Marked Trooper – There’s something very visually striking in the opening sequence, with Kylo Ren and the one blood-streaked Storm Trooper spotting each other across the burning village. I wish more was made of this connection between them, but the moment does a perfect job of setting this one trooper apart from the others.
Daisy Ridley and John Boyega – The new cast has got it! They are distinctive from the heroes of trilogies past while still maintaining that integral drive to seek, escape, and do right. They both have intriguing back stories which are left, hopefully, to be explored in later movies. They are fully invested in their roles and bring heaps of gravitas and charm to the proceedings.
Maz Kanata – Who? Remember that short, elderly CGI character who owns the new cantina and is kind of the surrogate Yoda to Finn and Rey? That character is played by 12 Years A Slave‘s Lupita Nyong’o. One of the most beautiful and talented young actresses of the current generation, and she is chosen to play a thousand year old computer generated character… I love that. I love that she was cast for her ability to inhabit a role rather than for how she looks.
Maz’s Cantina – Looking at the way the (castle?) where Maz runs her saloon was designed, the first thing I thought of was actually the Troll Market from Hellboy 2. (Of course, the Troll Market was at least partially inspired by the Mos Eisley Cantina, so it all comes full circle)
Han Solo gets Raided – It was a tiny rush to see Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, and Cecep Arif Rahman, stars and stunt choreographers of the mind-blowing Indonesian action flicks The Raid and The Raid 2 show up as intergalactic smugglers in one quick scene. Yeah, we didn’t get to see them bust out any of their crazy martial arts moves, but considering they made the Raid movies in the first place to prove that they could act, it was nice to see them cast as actors first, stunt men second.
BB-8 – Yeah, I know, it’s trendy, but it’s also the cutest damn character in the movie. A worthy successor to R2D2 and C3P0’s throne. (Btw, I fully believe that wasn’t a thumbs-up… it was a middle finger.)
The Locations – Aside from the typically overlong stay on a desert planet, this movie features some of the most gorgeous outdoor settings I’ve seen in a Star Wars movie. From the blue and green river-streaked planet where Leia’s Resistance hides to the cyclopean island hideaway where we finally find Luke Skywalker, I haven’t wanted so badly to step foot in a Star Wars setting since the cloud city of Bespin.
The Accidental Millennium Falcon – I loved the way we (and Finn and Rey) are reintroduced to the most important ship in the SW universe — as an accidental detour when the ship they WANT to commandeer gets blown up. It’s the perfect kind of coincidence and great for a laugh.
The Death Scene – Everything about this scene, from its foreshadowing in earlier conversations, to the aftermath, in which an enraged wookie goes full-Rambo and single-handedly blows up the control tower, was handled beautifully. Yes, it was predictable — especially if you know that Harrison Ford had wanted Han to be killed off way back in Jedi, which Lucas refused; it’s likely that this particular plot twist was the only reason Ford agreed to do this movie at all. I’m glad he did, though! It was a proper tragic sendoff for the character, and an important evolution for the character of Kylo Ren. This was his “younglings” moment. If nothing else had been executed as well as this scene, it honestly still would have made the movie worth seeing. I just wish I’d been ignorant of the behind the scenes history (and general craft of storytelling) enough to be fully surprised by it.
The Climactic Battle – We had to wait the entire movie for a proper lightsaber battle, and when it finally happened, it did not disappoint. It was vicious and visceral — more Akira Kurosawa than Yuen Woo-ping — with the characters less concerned with technique and finesse and more with f’ing killing one another. I’ve already seen people complaining about the heroes’ ability to defeat a trained dark side apprentice with weapons and abilities they’ve never used before — and to some degree I see their point. The scene is undoubtedly played for that wish-fulfillment factor of having newfound power and knowing exactly what to do with it. I love that moment in some stories, but I understand why some staunchly logical people will reject it.
Consider this, though: as I said in my last point, Kylo Ren has just made his full transition to the dark side. He’s murdered his own father in cold blood. And, unlike Anakin in Episode 3, we get to see the immediate aftermath of that event. With Anakin, we saw him ignite the lightsaber, and the next time we see him he’s on another planet, doing more dirty deeds. He’s had whatever travel time exists between Coruscant and Mustafar to process what he’s just done and steel himself for his next task. Not so with Kylo Ren. As soon as he delivers the killing blow, he goes to confront the heroes in the snow. Yes, he’s dealing with the injury Chewie dealt him, but he’s also dealing with the inner turmoil of what he’s done, the corruption of the dark side in his mind and soul. He’s more “torn apart” than ever, and it’s all he can do to pound his injury, ignite the pain, get angry, get aggressive — how many Jedis, even fully trained ones, have ever won a fight in that state? Yes, Rey is the most powerful force adept anyone has seen in a long time, but Kylo is the agent of his own defeat.
The Small Stuff – J.J. Abrams has adapted, updated, and added to the visual vocabulary of Star Wars in much the same way he did with Star Trek. Things like Kylo Ren freezing the blaster fire in mid air, or the invisible binds locking force-held people into place. The crackling, barely contained power of the lightsabers is also truer to the original concepts than Lucas was ever able to capture on screen. Even something as simple as the implied weight of Kylo Ren’s helmet, the way it drops like an anvil, One Ring-like in its absolute refusal to bounce or slide. All of these things are so meticulously conceived, and have the potential to become as iconic as the stretching stars when ships enter hyperspace, or the “vwoomm” sound when a lightsaber ignites. I sincerely hope they’ve all been communicated as “the new way to do things” to the directors who follow Abrams on the series.
What I Didn’t Love
Domhnall Gleeson – Domhnall Gleeson is a fine actor with oodles of talent, but someone really needed to tell him to dial back that Peter Cushing impression. He huffs through the entire movie with the trembling frown of someone simultaneously hating the world, his parents, and the fart he’s trying to hold in.
Not Enough Oscar Isaac – Poe Dameron is a breezy, charismatic character who feels like he was supposed to be the Han Solo of the new trilogy, but he’s so underused in the movie he really feels like a glorified extra. It’s come to light that his character was actually supposed to die early in the movie, and that anything we see from him past that point was added in because Abrams & co. liked Isaac so much they just couldn’t bring themselves to bump him off. That speaks well for his contributions to future episodes, but it doesn’t speak so well of the screenwriters who thought it would be a good idea to spend the first act investing the audience in a red shirt. That’s just a little too much narrative trickery for a movie already bogged down by it. Just as there wasn’t enough of the live Dameron in the finished movie, there wouldn’t have been enough of the soon-dead Dameron in the first act to make him feel anything more than a plot device.
John Williams – While I enjoyed the music in this movie overall, and his signature sound went a long way towards making this feel like a classic Star Wars movie, the score here lacked any of the strong themes the composer is known for. (Rey’s theme is pretty good.) More than that, though, I had a big problem with the score overpowering the visuals at the beginning of the movie. When we’re shown shots of storm troopers in the shaking ship as it descends to the planet, that scene is very clearly filmed to be about the experience of BEING in that moment. The shaking of the ship, the sounds of everything rattling around them as they break through atmo. It looks like it’s supposed to put the audience in the head of the storm troopers, and in Finn’s head in particular. Unfortunately, rather than let the visuals and foley tell the story, Williams lays a thick layer of generic “villain” music that kills whatever tone Abrams was trying to build. He doesn’t let the visuals speak.
The All Too Convenient Speed of Plot – When Finn and Rey discover the Millennium Falcon, it’s a funny coincidence. The rate at which Rey’s powers develop is an aspect of her character. And if those had been the only instances of convenient plot development in the film, I would have nothing to complain about, but too much of the movie relies on contrivances like this to connect its acts together. Almost immediately after they’ve discovered the Falcon and escaped from the badguys, Finn & Rey are picked up by a smuggling freighter which just so happens to be piloted by Han Solo and Chewbacca. It’s explained away by Han saying he had a tracker on the ship, but it took less than ten minutes for them to locate and catch up with the Falcon from wherever else in the galaxy they were working. And then it takes another ten minutes for their freighter to be found by the two smuggling gangs who have it out for Han & Chewie. At the end of the movie, R2D2 is in low-power mode waiting for Luke to return… except, no, he’s actually waiting for the movie to be over, because there seems to be no other reason that he would suddenly reactivate and reveal to everyone then that he’s had the rest of the map to find Luke all along. (Mind you, nobody else knows that R2 has the full map, because everyone is surprised to learn BB-8’s map is incomplete.) This is the kind of sloppy plotting Abrams gave us in Super 8, and I really wish Kasdan could have been someone to make him connect those dots in a more satisfying way.
We’ve Been Here Before – The overall plot hews just a little too closely to the first Star Wars, with just enough changed for us to be able to point out that it’s different, but not enough to fool anyone. “THIS is the Deathstar — see how it’s small? Starkiller base is bigger.” I’m paraphrasing here, but the actual scene dialogue isn’t so different from that. And so what? It’s our third time around this particular racetrack and it really didn’t need to be. Maybe there’s some mystical underpinning to the cyclical nature of it all that will be revealed next episode. Maybe… maybe? Maaaayyyyybe…
To Be Continued – For all that this movie took from A New Hope, I wish it had also inherited that sense of completeness. One of the coolest things about the first Star Wars is that it is a satisfactory stand-alone story. Here, so many questions are unanswered and there’s so little resolution in the end, that it feels more like Empire than A New Hope. (Which would, I guess, make that another misplaced homage to the original series.)
A Few Too Many Mysteries – Look, I love the Mystery Box. J.J. Abrams is famous for always leaving some element in his stories that are never meant be answered. Something to intrigue and fascinate, without the need of never going beyond that. I like this theory, in general. But by the end of this movie, I felt like he had lost track of what those elements should be. There were so many unanswered questions, I didn’t know what to focus on, what to invest in. It all felt haphazard, rather then intentional and precisely calibrated.
Obviously Rey’s past is a mystery waiting to be unlocked — it would have been WITHOUT the mysterious hug between her and Leia at the end. But did that hug mean something? Will it mean something n a later movie? Or will it just be some weird element never again visited (is this the new Leia kissing Luke?). And what about Maz? She’s one of the most fascinating characters of the new movie and I want to know more about her! But when I look her up on the web, I learn that all of that cool stuff will be filled in via extended universe lore? Well, that completely changes the nature of the character! She feels like a new main character, but when Episode 8 comes out, if we never touch on her again, then all she will ever be is an incomplete concept — because, if the death of the old Extended Universe taught us anything, it’s that whatever’s not on camera is expendable.
So much of the movie feels played so close to Abrams’ chest that it leaves little stable ground for audiences stand on. We’re given plenty of sweets, but nutrition seems needlessly withheld from us.
In the end, this IS a flawed movie. But, it’s also a really enjoyable one, with superb characters and tons of promise. There has never been a perfect Star Wars movie. There still isn’t. But it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what we have and look forward to the future.
That’s how I’m treating it.