Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The overview is largely spoiler-free if you have been following the general media surrounding the movie, but the section where I start breaking down specific aspects of the film (character, story, vision, personal enjoyment, and style) I go into spoiler heavy territory.

swtfa poster

Overview

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh movie in the main Star Wars saga. It takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi and introduces us to new characters who become our entry point to reconnecting with the characters from the original Star Wars trilogy as well as giving us glimpses into what has happened since we last saw those characters.

Sadly, they did not live happily ever after. The Empire was not completely defeated at the Battle of Endor, and the Imperial remnant has come together as a unified group called The First Order. They are led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the latter is a dark figure who can use the Force and wields a lightsaber.

Our heroes are the newly introduced Rey, a young scavenger from the desert planet Jakku; Fin, an ex-First Order Stormtrooper; Poe, a cocky but gifted Resistance pilot; and many of the characters we know and love from the original trilogy.

The Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film released under Disney, who acquired the rights from George Lucas for a hefty $4 billion. And so far, this purchase is paying off quite well. As of this morning (Sunday), The Force Awakens is sitting at a weekend gross of over $230 million. It’s likely that it will remain in the number one slot at the box office through the next three weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hits six weeks. This film was highly anticipated, and it has already been received well by Star Wars fans and general audiences alike.

I would have loved to watch the movie a second time before this review. General impressions are usually not indicative of where I will eventually fall with regard to a movie. Some films I’ve loved on my first viewing but grew to dislike with each subsequent view. Others took years before I grew fond of them because something kept bringing me back, and I had to keep watching to figure out just what it was that caught me. The Force Awakens is somewhere in the middle for me. It was a great ride and a compelling watch, but I had an inkling of disappointment, and in the end, the movie left me slightly unsatisfied, though still excited to see the next chapter. With The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams has put all the pieces into play, setting up Rian Johnson to deliver what I hope will be a big, visionary, and original episode VIII.

Below is a new review system (for me) in which I break down various aspects of the movie. I hope to continue refining this system as I write more posts (if and when my work schedule allows it).

Rey-BB8

Character                10/10

This is where The Force Awakens really shines. At no point did I get bored with any of the new characters. This was even more their story than it was the story of the original trilogy characters. It is through Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren that we start to see the legacy the original trilogy characters left the galaxy with. And that legacy is still a very uncertain one. Each character is well-written and performed. In fact, I don’t know that Star Wars has ever been as consistently well-acted as it is in this movie. Everyone takes it seriously, and everyone delivers.

Story                         8/10

This is where The Force Awakens struggles. (though “struggles” is a misleading word. I’ll try to come up with a better one.) While the story is actually good, its problem is that we’ve seen large chunks of the story before. In many ways, TFA is a reboot/remix. This movie isn’t mere homage to A New Hope; it is full-on retelling. The visual style and pace are modern, but the overall story is the same. TFA actually reminded me a lot of NBC’s Hannibal, a strange comparison, I know, but bear with me. Hannibal took the already-adapted and familiar stories of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, and recast the story beats and events in very different contexts. So while the overall story was the same, you never quite knew how the pieces would be used or where they would appear. Hannibal played on your expectation of the familiar and gave you something new.

The Force Awakens doesn’t quite do this, except in small ways: going to Starkiller Base to shut down the shield generator (Return of the Jedi), Starkiller Base is an ice planet (The Empire Strikes Back). Those moments were somewhat clever and fun. But where The Force Awakens isn’t so original is its almost beat-for-beat recreation of A New Hope. The story starts on a desert planet, a crucial secret is hidden in a droid, a young hero/skilled pilot who longs for something more encounters a legendary hero from another era who helps her take steps into a larger world, the legendary hero confronts a haunting failure from his past—which ends in the legendary hero’s death, a planet-killing base has to be destroyed before it reaches the rebel base on the jungle planet. I don’t think this recreation would be so disappointing to me if it wasn’t for Return of the Jedi, which resorted the same Death Star threat. The specific details of Starkiller Base don’t really matter in this case. It is the same old threat, trotted out yet again.

The story shines, however, when it recasts the context (such as the shield generator parallel above, or the stormtrooper going undercover as a Resistance fighter) or outright does new things: Finn’s crisis of conscience, Finn and Poe’s escape, Poe getting the star map, Han and Chewie’s latest smuggling scheme, Kylo Ren’s . . . everything. But even when the story was going places we had already seen, we were accompanied by characters who were a lot of fun, and I want to see them again.

star-wars-force-awakens-character-posters

Vision           9/10

What was it trying to do?

On some level, it was trying to relaunch the Star Wars franchise under the Disney brand, and to exhibit comfort that it was not the Star Wars prequels. But more than that, it was a movie that sought to continue the Star Wars story of galactic conflict, the quest for freedom against oppression, and the story of the Skywalker family.

Was it successful in doing it?

Absolutely.

Was it worth doing?

This is harder to quantify. Star Wars was not a dead franchise. However, the prequels were divisive, and they caused a major hit to the storytelling credibility of the franchise. While there are good things in the prequels and each of them gives us something new that expands the Star Wars universe, the movies are average at best. While The Force Awakens doesn’t expand the universe much, it is a much stronger movie than any of the prequels, and it accomplished exactly what Abrams and Disney set out to do: it revitalized an already strong franchise by forging a new direction and vision.

Personal Enjoyment       8/10

There were many parts of the movie that I enjoyed: from the opening sequence with Poe’s capture, to the escape from the Star Destroyer, to catching back up with Han and Chewie. I enjoyed all the new characters, thought Maz Canata is an interesting new character that I want to see more of, and want to know what happened with Luke, Kylo Ren, and Snoke. There are plenty of intriguing possibilities moving forward for this story, and I look forward to seeing them. The only detraction I have is the rehashes mentioned above. In many ways, TFA is a remake/remix of A New Hope, though with some new bits added on. But it is also a remake with style and enthusiasm. It works, but I would have liked to see something different.

And I admit that, in spite of it being the right storytelling choice, I am having trouble forgiving this movie for what it did to Han. But that may just be me and my own personal father issues. Apparently I connected with Han in this movie in the same way Rey did. Her pain was my pain, though I saw the death coming. I hoped it wouldn’t happen, but knew it would because it fit the story.

But that doesn’t mean I liked it.

Style/Craft              9/10

A friend described J. J. Abrams as a Xerox director: He can successfully emulate style. We’ve seen this in Super 8 and his two Star Trek movies. Thus, he was a good choice for replicating the style and feel of A New Hope for a new generation (and to reignite the imaginations of the old). In spite of this emulation, Abrams still added quite a few shots to the Star Wars bag of tricks, shots that were new and interesting. The tension as Poe’s blaster bolt hung in the air was extremely unnerving. The effect was perfect and the sound design with the hot crackle was masterful, and to end the scene with an overhead shot that resolved the blaster bolt was a great choice. This entire scene was like listening to a piece of music that swooped close to resolving, but always flowed back out to add more tension. Likewise, I loved seeing Kylo Ren pull the Imperial officer across the screen to lock his hand around his throat. It showed the visceral anger and petulance of Ren. He has great power and is prone to sudden outbursts. He is unpredictable. Vader was the picture of calm restraint next to Ren. But that also gives the impression that Ren is more conflicted, less resigned to his fate as he struggles to find his path, which at the moment is the Dark Side. I want this man’s story. I want to know what happened to bring him to this point.

The shot of Leia and Rey after the Starkiller Base battle, with the two women in grief on one side of the frame and the celebration on the other, is beautiful. In the midst of victory is great sorrow over those who were lost. It is one of the single most heart-wrenching shots in the saga.

And finally, the final shot of the film, the camera spinning around Rey and Luke from above as we move away from this story for a time . . . there is no shot quite like this in Star Wars. It is a new technique for the trilogy. And while so much of this film was a rehash, ending with this technique signals, to me, that we are now moving into something new. It’s like Abrams is saying “You haven’t seen a shot quite like this before. And as we move on to the next film, you are going to see new things.” I look forward to it.

Final Rating: 8.8/10

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