I am a book person, for better and worse. I even have a bad habit of dismissing things designed for visual representation because I read them rather than seeing them performed. In the case of Star Wars, I have read both a lot really good novels set in the expanded universe and read a lot of dreck. I went into the The Force Awakens hesitant, but cautiously optimistic that Abrams and co. would make a fun, watchable film. I was not wrong, but neither was I completely swept away. My verdict is that The Force Awakens was good, not great. With that in mind, what follows is a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the film (format adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe), and contains mild spoilers.
- This is definitely Star Wars. Obviously it is an installment in the franchise, but the scrolling text fit, the scope was right, and the tone was right. Even the music, which wove together old and new themes was right. This is Star Wars in a way that the prequel trilogy simply wasn’t.
- Similarly, the dialogue was largely good, both fitting with the original movies tonally, and transcending them in terms of speaking parts and giving a wide range of characters personality and humor. The story was more complicated than the original trilogy, but that complication didn’t make it any better. I think that one of the virtues of the original Star Wars films are that they a fairly straightforward version of the hero’s journey, with the call to action, refusal, mentor, trials, etc. and, while there are multiple characters, there keeps a tight structure that grows over the course of the trilogy. The Force Awakens has many of the same elements at the individual level, but thrusts the audience into the stories of a bunch of different characters and plot-lines, for both better and worse. My problems with this story continue in the next few points.
- I have seen The Force Awakens praised for its fan service, easter eggs, and resonances with the original trilogy, Star Wars meta-lore, and (to a lesser extent) the books. These all helped make the movie feel like Star Wars, but it went too far. Too many shots, from a dramatic familial showdown, to the lightsaber fights, to a holographic villain in super-size, to flight scenes, to a force sensitive individual slumping at the sensation that something momentous happened, just came across as a mishmash of the original trilogy, stitched together with new material built from call-backs and with the barest of plots. It is as though Episode VII was a two hour introduction to a handful of new characters [slash] announcement that Star Wars is back.
The ideas behind the First Order (heirs to the Empire) and Resistance (heirs to the Rebel Alliance) are quite interesting. Abrams suggested that seed for the First Order is the contrafactual thought exercise of “what would happen if the Nazis had been able to flee, regroup, and rebuild in Argentina?” The parallel doesn’t quite work, but the idea that a new Republic came into being, decentralized enough to tolerate a military organization like the First Order, but generally looking favorably upon the poorly-named “Resistance,” which basically functions as a militia dedicated to countering any action taken by the First Order, is plausible. The films are a bit hand-wavey about these relationships, but the setup allows the movies to side-step galactic politics in a way that was mostly welcome. However, I didn’t like the execution of this setup.
For instance, I thought Starkiller Base was a) a poor rip-off of the Death Stars and b) raised all sorts of questions about the resources of the First Order, since this is supposedly an organization with only a small percentage of the Empire’s reach and yet they are capable of building something significantly larger and more powerful than the Empire did. (Sidebar: does the First Order just have one Star Destroyer? The Resistance seems to have about 36 (assuming squadron is 12) star-fighters, which makes sense given their setup, and the First Order might have other resources elsewhere. But what about the Republic fleet? So sue me, I’m a nerd for warships of all sorts.) Then, after Starkiller Base becomes active and destroys five(!) worlds with the goal of destroying (not overthrowing) the Republic, the only group that does anything is the Resistance. Or were those warning shots? Wouldn’t the Republic, I don’t know, fight back? There is even a reference to the Republic Fleet in the film. Even blowing up five(!) worlds seemed to me like a cheap way of showing how bad the First Order is akin to Kylo Ren simply lashing out at whatever was within reach. Finn’s backstory is, frankly, more interesting as a way of demonstrating evil, where it isn’t sufficient for them to be xenophobic or racist, but conditioning individuals to commit horrific acts. More on this below.
- Kylo Ren is not a good villain. This is not per se a criticism of Adam Driver who was fine and his relationship with the heroes was more or less expected. I did like the presentation of Kylo as “tempted” by the light side of the force in the same way that those dedicated to the light are “tempted” by the dark, which offered a thoughtful extrapolation from the rigid morality wrt good and evil from earlier Star Wars films. My problem is that as a villain Kylo Ren doesn’t hold a candle to Darth Vader (or even the Emperor), as he himself worries. He is, at best, reminiscent of the petty, petulant, angry Anakin from Revenge of the Sith…just without the minimal explanation given for Anakin’s behavior. Kylo Ren is set to a level just above the heroes (with years more training!) with the idea that he, too, can grow and develop across films, but this is sort of at odds with him also being the one tasked with hunting Finn and Rey. It is hard to follow up one of the all-time iconic movie villains, but I had higher hopes.
- Like Kylo Ren’s being tempted by the Light, one of the more interesting aspects of The Force Awakens was that the film went out of the way to give personality to the previously faceless bad guys. This was critical to the story arc of the former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), but extended to the movie more generally, showing both relationships between the First Order people and that they had a genuine self interest in escaping certain death.
- Rey (Daisy Ridley) was a fun character and should serve the franchise well going forward, but where she was introduced and forced to run from point to point trying to escape certain death, I disagree with those who say this was her movie as much as Finn’s. The Force Awakens was Finn’s movie and the audience is given just enough about Rey’s background and upbringing to know that there is more there and certainly more potential for her going forward. (Sidebar: it was refreshing to not get a training montage while Rey learned about the force, but it was a bit jarring for her to gain so many skills so quickly when she thought it was nothing more than a myth just days earlier. I don’t mean clumsy or brute force skills, but fairly subtle things like suggesting actions on just her second try.) I suspect that the second movie will more aptly be described as Rey’s.
- Call it a personal bias, I liked having a bearded Jedi Master.
I’ll certainly see forthcoming installments at least for the foreseeable future, but I was decidedly more lukewarm on this film than the consensus is. Part of this is lingering sadness at the sweeping away of a lot of (IMO) interesting stories in the Star Wars universe, but that is a separate critique of the new movies writ large, not of The Force Awakens. Star Wars is back in a film that surpassed the original material in some ways, but jumped right off a high, un-railed catwalk in others. It was also nice to (in some ways) skip the origin story that seems to dominate blockbuster movie and the decision to create physical settings and props paid dividends, but this was a film about priming the pump and telling people to come back next year to see the continuing adventures of our new heroes rather than itself telling a new story.