THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS. DO NOT READ IT IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE AND DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED.
Click Here to Read, but be warned: This DOES contain spoilers for The Force Awakens!
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has broken all sorts of records at this point, and has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Fans everywhere are declaring “Star Wars is back!” and, yeah, I am among them. If you read my previous spoiler-free review, you already know I like this movie. I thought it was exactly the Star Wars movie we needed right now, but that doesn’t mean it is perfect. In this review, I want to talk about what I really liked, and what maybe I thought they could have done a bit better. I will not be discussing (at least not in great depth) theories about things we don’t know. I LOVE doing that, but that’s just not what this review is for. If you want to strike up a conversation about who Rey might be, or any other theory, in comments, I will be glad to participate. For now, though, let’s talk about how this movie holds up and why.
First and foremost, you might remember that in an earlier post, I theorized that one of the reasons that the prequels failed was that Star Wars is, at its core, a kind of superhero story about a rise to power and the struggle to overcome a clear evil. The prequels weren’t about this. They were about a fall from grace, and, at the time, audiences weren’t really into that. But, maybe even more importantly, it didn’t feel like Star Wars. The Force Awakens, though, returns to that classic narrative (so much so that many MANY people have pointed out that it is effectively A New Hope again). Rey is a scavenger who lives on the desert planet Jakku where she was abandoned by her family and is struggling to get by. That is, until she is swept away on a grand adventure where she learns she has a mythical power and then harnesses that power to defeat the villain. That is Star Wars! It is that return to the hero narrative combined with the use of practical effects and the return of the old cast that makes this movie feel so familiar and nostalgic. I can’t tell you how much of my love for this movie is nostalgia and how much is genuine film criticism, because I am unable to separate myself from my childhood love for this franchise that has suddenly been rekindled, but I CAN tell you that while I don’t HATE the prequels, they never made me feel like this.
So the movie does a great job of making it feel like I’m watching Star Wars again. Great, but what about the new stuff, right? I mean, we all HAVE copies of A New Hope, surely. If we wanted to watch that again, we would. Okay, so let’s talk about what’s new. The most obvious new thing to discuss is the characters. Disney is very clearly setting up a next generation of Star Wars characters to build this franchise around (sometimes literally. We’ll get to that), and I discussed in my spoiler-free review that THESE characters were behind much of the driving force that made this movie work, so let’s discuss them.
Regardless of if people’s theories are right about her lineage, Rey is definitely our Luke Skywalker analogue in this film. She is the one who is discovering this galaxy for the first time with us, she’s the one who has the mysterious power, and it is her who is the “new hope” as it were for the Jedi and the resistance. Daisy Ridley does a phenomenal job with this character. She’s charming when she needs to be while not seeming disingenuous, she is independent, she is knowledgeable, and she KICKS ASS. I love that she touched Anakin’s lightsaber, got a vision of Luke and all the things that had happened, realized that she has this power, but wanted no part of it. That’s something we haven’t seen before. We’ve never seen someone who discovers that have the force and is just like “Nope! Not dealing with that!” And I think that’s awesome. Rey may very well be my favorite Star Wars character ever. She is CERTAINLY my favorite in this movie. Moving on…
I remember when I saw the first shot of Finn in an early trailer and I thought “A Stormtrooper! We get an inside look at a Stormtrooper!?” It was all very exciting. Then, for a while, it looked like maybe Finn was a Jedi (because of the scene with him fighting Kylo Ren with a lightsaber). I am SO GLAD that we were all right the first time. Not only does this humanize Stormtroopers, it gives us a look at a character direction that we haven’t seen in a previous movie. Someone who was on the evil side (the Sith, the Empire, etc) and then defected to the heroes’ side. This happens in comics all the time (I mean like superhero comics, not necessarily Star Wars comics, which, I confess, I have not read many of to date), but it hasn’t happened in a Star Wars film yet, and it gives audience members a whole new perspective. Sure Finn, like Rey, could have been presented in a slightly stronger way if maybe he had some struggle with the fact that he was killing his former comrades or had to take some time to acclimate to NOT being a soldier, but what we have of Finn is still amazing. He’s funny, he’s surprisingly human, maybe the most human of any of the cast, really, and he has his own hero’s quest throughout the movie. This is really a film that is half the story of Finn and half the story of Rey, and they just happen to intersect. He’s lovable, he’s funny, and his interactions with other characters provide some of the most charming dialogue in the movie.
Okay, so here’s the really spoilery bit, right? I mean I warned everyone, but seriously… The revelation that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son adds needed depth to this character. You remember when I talked about how a fall from grace isn’t really Star Wars, and that’s why the prequels never REALLY worked? Well that’s mostly true, BUT if Anakin was more like Kylo Ren, I think the prequels would have worked a lot BETTER. There are so many ways in which Ren reminds me of Anakin except handled way better. Is it a little ridiculous that he throws tantrums and slashes the walls up with his lightsaber? Yeah. Just like it was ridiculous when Anakin threw tantrums. The difference is that The Force Awakens KNOWS it’s ridiculous. Those tantrums are the source of jokes. Sure, they make Ren kind of scary and unpredictable. You see how impulsive he is, and you also see that he’s just a kid.
So sure, when Leia tells Han to bring him home, we all kind of have a feeling that it might mean Han is going to die, but we ALSO see why Leia would want that. Ren isn’t a dark, evil overlord, as much as he tries to me. Sure, his men are terrified of him, and sure he’s insanely powerful (force holding that blaster bolt? HOLY CRAP that was COOL), but he’s not Darth Vader. Not yet. And even when he kills his father, he legitimately struggles with it in a way that we just don’t see from Anakin in the prequels. Ren’s story doesn’t FEEL like a fall from grace, because we don’t see any of the fall part. Instead, it feels like the start of a redemption story. This is a kid who is trying so hard to be evil, because he wants desperately to impress his mentor and live up to his ancestor, but he is struggling with it, because he can feel somewhere deep down that it’s wrong. He has a pesky conscience that is getting in the way of him completing his journey to be a dark lord. Kylo Ren is NOT Darth Vader, at least not yet; Kylo Ren is Draco Malfoy.
Here’s a character we see far too little of in the movie. Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac is the best pilot in the resistance, but, more importantly, he is the character out of the main cast that has his shit together. As much fun as it is to see Rey and Finn figure things out and struggle, or Kylo Ren deal with his intense emotional problems, we need a character like Poe to provide some balance, and he does that. He provides normalcy. He refuses to call Finn FN-2187, so he just calls him Finn, because that’s normal. Sure, he does some reckless stuff when flying, but it’s all stuff he can handle. I am sure we will see more of him, and he will get more complicated in later movies, but in this one, at least, he did a good job providing a baseline for what the status quo looks like for the resistance.
I couldn’t leave this guy out. Sure he’s funny, and cute, and he will sell a zillion toys, but he’s actually really fantastic. It never feels like BB-8 gets in the way, he makes every scene that he is in better. He’s more R2D2 than Jar Jar Binks, and he manages to make you really sympathize and fall in love with a character who a.) Is not human, and b.) Isn’t even speaking a language you can understand. Being able to elicit that kind of emotional response from an audience from a character like BB-8 or R2D2 or Wicket is something that the original trilogy nailed and the prequels never really did in quite the same way, and this movie nails it, too.
So one of the advantages to doing a spoiler full review is to talk about plot. There’s a lot to discuss here. I’ve talked about much of it when discussing the characters above, but here a few things I didn’t touch on that I feel are important.
The world feels old. This is something that has always been really unique to Star Wars as far as sci-fi goes. The world feels old and lived in and beaten down. Sure it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but there are things that happened even LONGER ago, and those things left their mark. The extra cool thing in this movie is that many of those things are the events of IV, V, and VI. Rey is living in a downed AT-AT. She has junk from crashed Star Destroyers. You immediately get the feeling that time has passed, and those things that were so fresh to us in Return of the Jedi are ancient history to those living in the galaxy now. As ancient history as thing that happened thirty years ago are to us. This is a really cool spin on an important Star Wars theme, and it works very well.
Also, while the basic plot of this movie is extremely similar to A New Hope, what they DO what that plot structure is actually very cool. There IS a rescue of an important resistance member by a guy in a storm trooper uniform, but that important resistance member is Poe Dameron, who is the best pilot in the resistance, and the guy in a storm trooper uniform is an ACTUAL storm trooper. Yes, the protagonist grew up on a desert planet and eventually escapes to join the resistance, but she doesn’t WANT to. Yes it ends with X-Wings flying through a trench and blowing up a Deathstar (effectively) again, but THIS time, that comes at a cost that we, as audience members can feel. They are only able to get in and win because Han set those charges, and it’s because he stayed to set the charges that he confronted Kylo Ren and was killed. We feel the cost of that victory in a way we just don’t in A New Hope or Return of the Jedi. It’s like Disney took the blueprints to A New Hope, but they used them to highlight just what was different about their trilogy. And it works extremely well as a device.
There is so much nostalgia, and I just kind of want to nerd out a bit here. This isn’t going to be in-depth or thoughtful. I just kind of want to get my fanboy on. It was awesome to see the Falcon again! And the scene when Han and Chewie came on board almost made me scream with joy. Harrison Ford stepped right back into that role like he never left it, and his scenes with Leia are so touching and really demonstrate growth for both of those characters while making me feel like I am seeing old friends again. Everything just feels both fresh and also familiar. I am still a little annoyed that we don’t get a scene with Luke in it until the VERY end (Mark Hamill got second billing in the movie! He’s in it for like 30 seconds!), but because of that we get that final shot, which is such a GREAT final shot. It has me so eager for Episode VIII that May 2017 just seems SO FAR AWAY.
This is a great film, but if you are reading this, you already know that. It’s NOT perfect, but it also doesn’t really do a whole lot WRONG, there are just things about it that I feel COULD have been stronger if they went another direction, but it doesn’t make me dislike the direction they went. I have been thinking constantly about where I put this film in my “favorite Star Wars films” order. When I walked out of the theater the first time, I was pretty sure it was between the original trilogy and the prequels (so that would make my order, VI, V, IV, VII, III, II, I. I said favorite not “best.” Empire Strikes Back is the BEST film, but it’s not my favorite, just to be clear). But after seeing it a second time, I actually think it’s better than that, I feel like it took A New Hope and made it deeper and more interesting. I think my order now from my favorite to least favorite is VI, V, VII, IV, III, II, I. This is pretty close to what I would say is the order of “best” Star Wars films, too, but I would just swap V and VI. Anyway… those are my thoughts. Thanks for reading. Feel free to continue the conversation in comments!
Interesting, you’ve picked on a few character beats that I didn’t directly catch despite repeated viewings (I fell into three sets of tickets, I’m officially no longer in a part of my life where that makes sense, but was a bit of a call back to my college days). You also nicely get at some of the nuances and areas where the film didn’t quite hit the mark, like Finn not really having to grapple with taking down his former comrades which undercuts the ability of the film to humanize stormtroopers rather than a stormtrooper.
However, I do disagree with your assessment across two posts as to why the prequel trilogies failed. My take is the converse, Star Wars does not handle fall from grace well because the prequels failed. Audiences were prepared for, hyped for, the story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall. We knew it was coming, posters showed Darth Vader’s shadow, Weird Al made a song about “Maybe Vader some day later,” and the story has been a prominent implied part of Star Wars since Empire Strikes back. I subscribe to the theory that the problem was just that Lucas was unchecked, he needed partners with more latitude to stand up to him, see for example the way that actors with more reputation going in were able to do more with their roles.
To anticipate the hypocrisy in my argument, I am not a Star Wars superfan despite having played a lot of Dark Forces and KOTOR. I am a big fan of Star Trek and I have grown increasingly annoyed with the genre shift in new films. However, the first film did have fairly wide acceptance due to skilled execution and I’m not arguing that all genre shifts are appropriate for all properties. In fact, Star Trek’s greatest successes: II, IV, and VI were each different genres: classic naval narrative, comedy with heavy social satire, and admittedly naval theme intrigue.
I’d argue that fall from grace narratives are baked into Star Wars DNA. It’s not just Anakin’s story, it’s the whole mechanism of how the force works. Star Wars related media regularly deal with the how and why of people’s falls. In contrast, I’d say there are also well told Star Wars stories that are outside the core strengths of the series. Specifically, I’d instead point to Star Wars Legacy comics by John Ostrander which have interesting inter-galactic politics: the Sith and the Empire have split off from one another but the Republic and the Empire have a very challenging time teaming up against the Sith despite the strategic logic. However, while some of the extended universe gets to this sort of thing, I’d say this is genre bending and playing with expectation that probably is more appropriate to a side story rather than the main arc.
Also, for me, playing too strongly into the Joseph Campbell led to a weaker moment of the film for me. I didn’t really buy Finn’s retreat. It was prompted by Maz asking Han Solo to fight and involved no notable change in the mission plan. I realize this happens to critics all the time, but for me it showed a giant neon sign that “Hero Rejects the Call” and this subsequently undercut Rey’s moment for me because at that point I was thinking of it in technical terms “ooh.. the rare double rejection of the call, I suppose this means we have a dual heroes journey hero” but not really buying the decisions on an emotional level. This isn’t to say that it couldn’t have worked, but I think the outline provided by the Hero of a Thousand Faces can be a reason that writers don’t think hard enough about motivations so long as they follow the path.
The reason I’m making this argument is that it matters for the next film. JJ Abrams very skillfully has built an extreme amount of Star Wars goodwill and credibility with this film. For the next film, I’d argue that the writing team should tell their story rather than feeling the need to remake Empire Strikes back. They are well positioned to spend the good will they earned and surprise and confound fans. I worry that the need to maintain the Star Wars universe is something that will limit their freedom in that regard, and I want to throw my support behind them finding their own path.
So, since I’ve been a bit down, I’ll end with my favorite parts of the film. I did like the new characters, great acting there and really pivotal to the strengths of the film. However, my favorite part was an older, paternal, but still very recognizable Han Solo. I doubt I’m alone in this, but Harrison Ford’s performance reminded me of my father. Harry Sanders was no smuggler or scoundrel, but he did have a certain midwestern charm and restraint. He didn’t always feel the need to make his feelings explicit and could be grumpy at times. This doesn’t really give me any deep insights to the film, but sometimes art lets us better understand one another or connect again with a person that isn’t here anymore.
This brings me to a disagreement with your interpretation of Han’s sacrifice. Han died for the objective of bringing Ben home. Leia was explicit in asking him to do that and he walked out directly while escape avenues were still open to him, albeit escape avenues that would have but Ben at grave risk of death. It was his last great gamble, one of love, and he lost but he provided a powerful refutation to his son’s disappointment. We actually don’t yet know Han’s mistakes regarding his son, although we do know Leia’s. She sent Ben to Luke in an attempt to fix him and that spectacularly backfired. Her second mistake went the other way, sending Han to him while not acknowledging what Kylo Ren had become. She could have learned that he was a war criminal by debriefing Poe Dameron, who personally saw Kylo order the massacre of a village without providing any justification. I don’t know where this is ultimately going, but I will note that Kylo was asking to make the pain and conflict go away. Any turn to the Light Side will be a turn towards pain and overwhelming guilt. And even though I think Han and Leia made a noble loving mistake in trying to save Ben at all costs on enemy turf, I do think that that the power of that sacrifice will be haunting Kylo Ren in the next film.
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