Three years ago, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney and it was announced that new Star Wars films would be made, beginning with Episode VII. Well, the film is here now in the form of Director J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. Is the film the second coming of The Empire Strikes Back or does it recall a darker time – The Prequels?
[There will definitely be MINOR SPOILERS throughout this review as I sum up the plot, but I’m going to attempt to steer clear of major spoilers here. For those major spoilers, be sure to listen to our upcoming episode on The Force Awakens.]
The Force Awakens starts out with the best opening crawl since the Original Trilogy. It immediately put me in the mindset that Star Wars films should put the audience in: that this is the next episode in a long-running serial. It turns out that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared and a lot of people are looking for him. His sister, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) wants to find him so that he can help the Resistance fight against the remnants of the Galactic Empire, now known as The First Order. The First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), wants to find Luke so that they can wipe the Jedi from the galaxy once and for all. Snoke’s primary agent in all this is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Darth Vader-like villain who has a lot more going on underneath his mask than the audience could ever know. Leia has sent her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), on a mission to retrieve a map that supposedly leads to Luke’s location. The First Order is also aware of this map and they arrive on the planet Jakku in time to intercept Poe, but not before he stores the map in his faithful droid, the adorable BB-8, and sends him off to find safety—sound familiar? Among the Stormtroopers attacking Jakku, is Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who is having a crisis of conscience. He helps Poe escape and eventually runs into BB-8, who has befriended a desert scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey was left on Jakku many years ago by her family and she still holds out hope that they will return for her one day. However, meeting BB-8 and subsequently Finn, sets her off on an adventure she could never dream of. The trio eventually runs into legendary smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his stalwart companion Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). The two adventurers attempt to help Rey and Finn get BB-8 back to Leia and the Resistance before The First Order can unleash their ultimate weapon, The Starkiller Base.
I really liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I didn’t love it. I kind of felt the same way about this film as I did about Guardians of the Galaxy: love the characters, but the story around them is kind of lacking. This film is essentially a soft reboot of the Star Wars saga and it serves as a kind of remake of the original film, A New Hope. There are several echoes of that film and the main plot is pretty much the same, but there are callbacks to the other Star Wars sequels as well. Some of those callbacks are cute and work, while others were a tad glaring. While the film felt more like Star Wars than even the Prequels, there were times when I felt I was watching a Star Wars cover band. Granted, it’s a very good cover band, but there were just little moments here and there that didn’t ring true to me, whether they be dialogue choices or actions. They never derailed the film, but they kept me from totally loving it. I will say that the film was much better for me on a second viewing after all of my expectations had been stripped away and I was able to enjoy the film for what it is.
For better or worse, J.J. Abrams was the best man for this job. As a filmmaker, he’s kind of a great mimic in that he can make films that feel like other filmmakers’ films, but something always feels a bit “off”—see: Super 8, a very good Spielberg film that is only missing Steven Spielberg and that Spielberg magic. However, in the case of Star Wars, Abrams was able to deliver on an impossible task: free the Star Wars brand of the stink of the Prequels and forge a path to the future and make an enjoyable film that was fun and appealed to both new fans and old. Is The Force Awakens perfect? Hell no, but it did what it was supposed to do, which was kick off the Disney era of Star Wars films with a bang.
There is a lot of humor in this film, which is a relief after the stoic and bland Prequels, but at times, I felt that the film overcompensated for those films with too much goofy humor. The original Star Wars had a lot of humor in it too, but it was more organic and flowed from the dialogue—mainly from Han Solo—but with The Force Awakens, it felt like the filmmakers tried too hard. Now, there’s no stupid humor like Jar Jar stepping in shit on the street, but at times things get a little goofy.
There is also a LOT of convenience in the plot, so much so that it almost bordered on ridiculous. Yes, Star Wars has a history of this and it is explained away with, “Y’know, the Force,” but there were several moments—I won’t list them all here due to spoilers—that I rolled my eyes a bit. Also, there are a lot of easy fixes for some of the plot hurdles. While I know that Abrams and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan had a very tough job, I think one more pass on the script might have filled those plot holes that cropped up. Of course, in their defense, they were rushing just to meet Disney’s deadline of a Star Wars film by the end of 2015—word has it that Abrams and Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy were keen on pushing the film to May 2016 thanks to all the production problems they had. I was also a bit disappointed at some of the dialogue. There is one story element that the filmmakers kept secret until the end of the film that made the dialogue between Han and Leia more than a little clunky. If they had just been able to cut to the chase, I think their scenes would have flowed better, but I guess there had to be one more secret to be revealed at the end, though it was a little unnecessary.
One of the biggest things that irked me about the film was the lack of any standout themes from master composer John Williams. It seemed like the best musical moments were the callbacks to the original films, which was disappointing. If there was one redeeming element to the Prequels, it was John Williams’ scores with great themes like “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes,” but here, nothing really stood out. I’ve listened to the score in full and it’s all well done as usual when it comes to Mr. Williams’ work, but it just lacks the dynamic nature of his previous Star Wars scores. The music of Star Wars is just as iconic as the films themselves and it was disappointing to not get something that lived up to that legacy.
As I mentioned in my comparison to Guardians of the Galaxy, I love the new characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Rey is a great lead and Daisy Ridley is a revelation in her first major role. She brings a great depth of emotion to the role. Hopefully little girls will now choose to emulate Rey as opposed to the personality-deficient Katniss Everdeen. John Boyega is totally likeable as Finn, though he is the source of some of the unneeded comedic moments. That’s not Boyega’s fault, just the way he’s written, but he seemed a little too jokey for a guy who was raised to be a killing machine. BB-8 is an absolute delight and never crossed over the line from cute to annoying, which was a relief. Oscar Isaac is great as Poe, but he’s not nearly in the film enough. I’m looking forward to seeing more of him in future episodes. Adam Driver is fantastic as Kylo Ren, who turns out to be the most developed of all the new characters and he’s the villain. Another actor who gets the short shrift, though, is Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma. Her role is practically non-existent aside from looking cool, which is a shame. Lupita Nyong’o is great as the motion-capture character Maz Kanata, which turns out to be a key role in the film. Domhnall Gleeson channels Adolf Hitler as The First Order’s General Hux and is terrifying in his big speech to his assembled soldiers. I also loved his contentious relationship with Kylo Ren. Carrie Fisher is fine in her return as Leia, but the filmmakers just didn’t give her enough to do here. I liked her scenes with Harrison Ford, but as I mentioned, the dialogue was overly clunky in order to preserve a key piece of information, which was annoying. Speaking of Harrison Ford, how does the notoriously grumpy actor fare in his return to the character that made him a worldwide superstar? Great. There are a few moments in the film where it feels like Ford is playing himself and not Han Solo, but that works all right considering this is an older Solo and not the one we left 30+ years ago in Return of the Jedi. I loved his interactions with Chewbacca as they come across like an old married couple. At times, I just wanted the rest of the film to melt away so I could just watch a full-on Han and Chewie movie, but what they get up to in The Force Awakens is a great treat. Han Solo was my childhood hero and it was so much fun to see him on screen again, so thanks to Harrison Ford for coming back to do the film. I think the key thing for everyone in the cast is that all their characters have personality. The Prequels gave us a bunch of people who had less charisma than the titular clones—except for Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid, who were great—and it was such a relief to have characters that we could cheer for again. So, well done to Abrams and Kasdan for that.
Overall, The Force Awakens is very good, but it could have been great. I liked it, but I really wanted to love it. While a lot of my problems with it are nitpicks, they all added up to drag the movie down a bit for me. I’m impressed with the pieces J.J. Abrams has set up on the board and I’m very interested to see what Writer-Director Rian Johnson does with them in Episode VIII, but Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope are still solidly the two best films in this franchise. I would put The Force Awakens above Return of the Jedi and far ahead of The Prequels, which in all honesty, is what it had to do to be seen as a winner for Disney. Definitely see it, because it’s a great start to a new series of films and a solid sequel, but don’t expect it to be the best of the bunch.