Yes, it’s better than the prequels, can we please move past this now? OK? OK. And no need to worry, The Force Awakens is perfectly fine. It’s not bad, it doesn’t have any of the problems that plagued the prequels and it delivers in all the ways that it needed to. The keyword is “needed” as the movie does have some problems. I don’t think it’s a great movie. It simply gets the job done, which is what the movie needed to do, no more, no less. I won’t spoil anything, but I will discuss the story in very general terms and allude to some of the big twists and turns.
After a member of a resistance force, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), gets caught by the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) a leader for The First Order. However, before getting caught he puts in a map into his droid, BB-8, a map that can help The Resistance find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has gone missing for a long time. He is given help to escape from Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who abandons his position, but they ultimately crash land onto a nearby planet where the two separate and Finn meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the planet. The two end up working together and finding themselves in the war between The Resistance and The First Order.
If any of that sounded suspiciously like A New Hope to you, then you are right. The film is practically a remake of A New Hope with elements from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi sprinkled in for good measure. It shouldn’t be that surprising for two reasons. For one, Disney has basically been selling the upcoming films as a return to the feel of the Original Trilogy to the point of even pushing the original cast members and the practical effects work in your face. The second reason is because Disney even hired J.J. Abrams to direct, a director whose personal stamp is less personal and more of a mediocre impersonation of the Spielberg/Lucas school of filmmaking. No matter what The Force Awakens was going to be the kind of film that is designed to the bone to satisfy the nostalgia itch of fanboys who were oh so heartbroken by the prequels. And I guess that’s not inherently a bad thing.
However, nostalgia is fine in small doses. The Force Awakens, while most definitely a Star Wars film, is still totally a J.J. Abrams film, and it’s a culmination of all his best and worst traits as a director and storyteller. He’s one of those directors that I can appreciate aspects of, particularly his ability to pull together a great cast with fun characters, and the way he can really sweep you up in the moment and take you on an adventure. Unfortunately, his films have consistently delivered mediocre to straight up horrible stories and his skills as a storyteller only gets worse and worse upon more examination. The bad news is that The Force Awakens is really no different. When you break down the plot, even with retreads of the Original Trilogy aside, it’s full of details that make no sense of completely lack function, jumps in storytelling logic, characters constantly saying how they’re feeling out loud, big twist moments that feel telegraphed ahead of time and little to no genuine growth for the characters with them going from one state to another without being shown the struggle and the learning to get there. Granted, as I said, this isn’t really something you notice as you’re watching it (unless you’re already aware of Abrams’ tricks), and in a way, it shows how much of a stellar director he is because he has so much love and enthusiasm and energy for the material that you don’t realize how bad the story is until you walk out of the theater and think, “Hey, wait a minute…”
And then there’s the fan service, there…is…so…much…fan…service. I can basically sum up my issues about the fan service with a particular scene on the Millennium Falcon. Finn is talking to Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and he sits down on the Dejarik table (that hologram, chess-like game from A New Hope). It’s a nice bit because I’m sitting there like, “Oh, that’s where Chewbacca played with R2 and C-3PO was all like ‘let the Wookie win,’ oh my God, that’s so cool.” However, that’s not enough for good ‘ol Abrams, no, Finn has to accidentally turn the game on and the camera continues to linger on the game for what felt like a solid 30 seconds before Finn finally figures out how to turn it off. The fan service in the film had it’s charm, but it grew tedious, especially considering that not only does the whole structure of the film was basically a big giant reference-fest of the Original Trilogy, but even the film’s subtext involves characters like Rey and Kylo Ren trying to live up to the legacy of the past that they consider legendary (Han Solo and Darth Vader, respectively). It isn’t unlike the recently released Creed in that regard, but at least in that film, it felt like the familiar structure was used appropriately and tweaked just enough to work in a way that felt fresh and the references to the older films were never used to the extent that they were used here. Even the big battle is on what is basically a planet-sized Death Star, which is the now the third time a Star Wars film has dealt with a planet destroying weapon (fourth including the upcoming Rogue One. The Force Awakens never feels fresh until maybe the last 15 to 20 minutes, and even then I had issues. There is a really big scene involving a big character that is meant to be a seriously big moment, that was ultimately undercut by how the moment was so painfully telegraphed that a lot the emotional weight was lost. Even the final shot of the film goes on for way too long before finally going to the credits. Look, with Abrams at the helm, I don’t think anyone should have expected this to be perfect, especially with the fact that he practically slipped in a co-writing credit while everyone was going crazy over Lawrence Kasdan returning. I know this may sound brutal and harsh, but I’m only showing a franchise that I’ve grown up with some tough love.
Now on a more positive note, I mentioned that Abrams was really good with bringing in a great cast and a set of fun and interesting characters. I absolutely love and adore the new characters that we have. I love Rey, I love Finn, I love Poe (and was slightly disappointed he wasn’t in it more) and I think Kylo Ren is a phenomenal villain and so unlike something I’d expect from a Star Wars film that I can’t help but feel utterly entranced (he actually reminded me of Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of my all-time favorite shows). These characters are the only fresh thing about the film, they are likeable, diverse and they each have so much to them that I can see the filmmakers exploring in future installments. In a film where the structure and plot beats are so familiar, it’s great to see some characters who don’t come off as copies of the Original Trilogy characters. And the actors who play them do such a terrific job with the things that they were given, that I come out loving these people even more. Daisy Ridley is an especially a great find, with a performance full of charm, emotion and stoicism. John Boyega is just as great as I thought he’d be and I’m finally glad he gets to do his thing for the world to see after his amazing work on Attack the Block. Then of course there is Oscar Isaac, who is a born movie star and he uses his talents here effectively. There is only one who disappoints in the new cast and that goes to Domhnall Gleeson, an actor who I really like, but he sadly gives a legitimately horrible and damn near embarrassing performance as General Hux of The First Order. It’s a sneering, over-the-top, cartoony performance that isn’t the enjoyable hamminess of Ian McDiarmid from Episode III so much as it feels like he has no idea what to do so he’s just rolling with whatever comes to mind. And before I forget, I should also mention that everyone getting excited for Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, you might want to significantly lower your expectations. Her character is basically the Boba Fett of the movie, in that she has a cool look, but does absolutely nothing, and let’s just say her character ends up in a way that is just as satisfying as the way Bob Fett went down. My last disappointment, casting wise was the inclusion of Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid movies. I was excited to see them on-screen and couldn’t wait to see what amazing action they were going to do…and they did nothing. It’s a decision so baffling, it’d be like hiring Chow Yun-Fat for an action movie but never giving his character a gun or a sword, like why even bother?
Going back to positive, it was great to see some of the old cast back. Carrie Fisher was great in her limited screen time. Mark Hamill…well, I can’t say much there without giving away too much. Harrison Ford was impressive, and it felt so good seeing him actually have a good time in a movie now. He plays the biggest role fromt the Original cast in this film and I found that what they decided to do with his character a bit frustrating, but also appropriate. However, at the end of the day, I think my favorite character has to be BB-8. That droid is nothing but perfection. Speaking of returning, it’s so good to hear John Williams’ amazing music again, in fact, I’m listening to it as I’m writing this. It’s incredible stuff, and despite my complaining about how much the film constantly drops nostalgia bombs, I can admit to falling for them on occasion, and the music was definitely a part of it, as well as some of the gorgeous work from cinematographer, Daniel Mindel.
In a way, I feel like I’m being too critical to the movie for doing what it was supposed to do. So many people have experience vast disappointments with the prequels and all the fans want is a Star Wars movie that is without a doubt a Star Wars movie and gives them everything that they wanted so badly for basically 30-some years. And as derivative and full of fan-service as I found it, I think the film does earn it to a degree. It doesn’t make for a modern classic, but it’s hard to fault a movie for giving audiences what they have wanted for so long. Yes the story seems to have a lot of emotional and thematic tissue completely gone and filled with rushed and scatterbrained plotting, but it is still presented with such fun, passion and joy for the characters and the universe (which were the two things this film absolutely needed to get right) that I can’t help but end up loving so much of what I’ve been given, especially with such great and endearing characters. It’s OK to enjoy something while also being frustrated with a lot of elements, even if it makes reviewing and scoring it an impossible task. And it’s also hard to give complete thoughts on a film that is very much the first part of a much bigger story and I am genuinely excited to see Rian Johnson explore this foundation here through Episode VIII. So, whatever, it’s Star Wars. It’s good to like a Star Wars movie again (even if it does come across like the most expensive fan-film ever made), go watch it. I’m already planning on seeing it again soon. I mean, what else are you gonna watch? Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip? 75 / 100