Star Wars: The Force Awakens and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios
Directed by JJ Abrams
Alright, look. This review is going to have spoilers and if you’re worried about that, then here are my thoughts real quick.
The movie is fantastic. The bad guy stuff is the best, the good guy stuff is bogged down a bit by the references they’re trying to fit in, but overall it’s a fun ride and a worthy successor to the original trilogy.
You got that? Okay, here comes the rest of the review.
The movie starts off with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) getting a sci-fi USB stick that contains the location of Luke Skywalker who has been missing for a very long time. Before he can take the flash drive to The Resistance however, the village he’s in gets raided by the new bad guys named The First Order who are the Empire in all but name. Kind of like how Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their name to KFC. Nothing’s changed, but now they have a less obviously evil/unhealthy name. Anyway, Poe gets captured by Darth Vader 2.0, also known as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) but not before Poe gives the USB stick to R2-D2 2.0, also known as BB-8. The droid makes his way to a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who takes it in while simultaneously A Storm Trooper named FN-2187 (John Boyega) breaks out Poe from the evil starship. Their escape is cut short when they get shot out of space and crash land on the planet below (the one BB-8 and Rey are on) and FN-2187 (also known as Finn) is the sole survivor. His deal is that he wants to get as far away from The First Order as quickly as possible, but now that he’s on the dirt planet he doesn’t really have a way to do that. Fortunately, he eventually finds the droid and Rey, poses as a Resistance fighter, and convinces them to help him escape the planet and drop off the droid (with him escaping to wherever the hell he wants to in the process). Can these two make it to The Resistance before The First Order can capture them? Will Finn step up to the plate when the time comes, or will his self-preservation instincts kick in before he has a chance to play the hero? Is Rey more than what she appears to be and is the she the key to stopping The First Order once and for all? WHERE’S HAN SOLO!?!? Oh wait, there he is.
The movie is as good as it damn well should be considering how much hype and merchandising that Disney has generated in the three years since they bought the Star Wars license. It’s not only a wonderful continuation of the series, but it also updates it in ways that the prequel trilogy never managed to accomplish. In addition to that, it’s a HUGE step up from what Abrams did in Star Trek Into Darkness and while it has a BIT of the same issues that one had, there’s a clear evolution here in terms of understanding WHY people like these franchises instead of just WHAT they liked in them.
Getting into what doesn’t completely work in this, I’d say that the references to the previous films, while enjoyable, can sometimes get in the way of the story they’re trying to tell. For about twenty minutes in this, the movie goes from Finn and Rey’s quest to stop The First Order into the Han and Chewie Smile Time Variety Show and it stops the plot dead in its tracks. It’s fun to see these two and they do end up fitting more organically into the movie’s story later (they are SO great in those scenes), but the scene where it’s simply supposed to reintroduce them into the series takes up just a bit too much of the running time to the point that it ends up falling into fan service territory. It’s probably the most prominent example of the references getting out of hand, but it’s by no means the only one. The R2-D2 reveal is almost laughable in the amount of reverence it gets as well as Luke’s lightsaber from Empire Strikes Back (the one he lost along with a limb) and it’s something I hope they cut back on in the next movie considering how well they’ve established the new characters and setting. I get the temptation to use that as a crutch when bringing the series back and selling it as a TRUE Star Wars movie instead of what the prequels were (and they didn’t overdo it TOO much here), but it ends up feeling unnecessary. Also, if they’re going to have THIS many references and callbacks to stuff from the first film, they seriously couldn’t throw Billy D Williams a bone and have Lando make a cameo?
There is one more major issue with this movie and I feel that it’s going to end up being the catalyst for the inevitable OVERRATED snark pieces we’ll be seeing in the coming months. The story is fine with great characters, emotional moments, and thrilling action… but the plot makes almost no god damn sense. Every twenty or so minutes, I ended up asking ‘why’ or ‘how’ to something that was going on onscreen and while I guess a space opera isn’t exactly hard sci-fi, I wish they’d fill in SOME of these gaps. Rey is on the desert planet of Jakuu, but from what I can tell the entire economy is based on scavenging. Hell, it doesn’t appear to be a planet with any semblance of architecture or renewable resources, so why the hell is ANYONE living on here? None of the species we see on this planet really seem like they’re natives of this world (again, all scavengers looking to make money off of downed ships) but even if we ARE supposed to belive that this is the homewolrd for so many people, why is there one god damn trading outpost with a surley fucker handing out the only rations instead say a town or civilization of some sort? Even if you can get past that, I still can’t get past the fact that Rey after, what, TWENTY years on this planet? That she still hasn’t gotten a house or something? She’s still living in a downed AT-AT? Hell, why are they’re so many wrecked space ships here anyway!? It reminds me of that Red vs Blue bit where they’re trying to figure out why the hell they’re fighting for a base in a dirt canyon.
Another thing is that it makes no sense at all that the resistance is still called The Resistance thirty years after blowing up two god damn death stars and killing the FUCKING EMPEROR!!! There’s an established Republic government, and yet it doesn’t appear that The Resistance has been integrated into their armed forces or even if The Republic HAS armed forces at all! Also, in thirty years they haven’t gotten any bigger than they were in the Return of the Jedi? In thirty years their entire fleet still consists of about a baker’s dozen of X-Wings? I mean The First Order is bad ass and all, but there’s no reason why they should be as massive and powerful as they should be considering the beating the Empire took after the last movie! If they had spent just a little bit of time explaining how The First Order became so powerful under everyone’s noses (to the point of building the Death Star 3.0), I wouldn’t mind this as much, but as it stands it just paints THE RESISTANCE as woefully incompetent. The Republic just get wiped out from the face of the universe without a fight and I just don’t get how they would let The Empire resurrect itself so thoroughly in a post Alderaan galaxy as to allow that to happen.
Despite how much The First Order manages to wreck shit throughout the movie, they aren’t spared from this issue either. Once again (and this is where the references become detrimental) we have the bad guys spend untold amounts of time and resources to make a giant ball of death and yet forget to adequately cover up the ONE SPOT that can blow the whole fucking thing to pieces. Did they not remember what happened to the LAST two death stars? Also, they’re new Death Star is powered up by sucking up an ENTIRE SUN and then using that to shoot about five or six beams. You know the other death stars were able to do that WITHOUT blinking out a star, right? Also, if you suck up an entire sun… doesn’t that cause ENOUGH damage on its own? For crying out loud, wouldn’t it kill off everyone on that new Death Star simply because there’s no more heat and the temperature would become absolute zero? Nah… it just starts to snow and gets a bit dark.
Getting back into smaller issues (we’re in nitpick territory here), I thought that Captain Phasma was woefully underused considering how prominent she was in the marketing. She only has two scenes in the movie and they do work, but she’s not used enough and we can pretty much assume she’s dead by the end of the movie. She is indeed the Boba Fett of the movie. Also, I know this is a Star Wars movie and this is basically a tradition at this point, but do the Stormtroopers REALLY need to wear armor if every last one of those mother fuckers dies from a SINGLE blaster shot?
That’s enough negativity! Let’s get into what’s good! I absolutely loved Kylo Ren as a villain in this even though he’s OBVIOUSLY modeled off of Jacen Solo (I really hope Timothy Zahn got a nice big Disney check over this). He’s full of menace, he’s a badass, but he’s also complex and un-glamorous at points. He feels more like a person we may know who doesn’t see himself as a bad guy, but is so selfish as to not even be aware of what he’s doing to others. He’s in a bubble built of his own white boy angst and he pretends to be a hard ass behind a mask but still feels inadequate and weak. It’s definitely a villain that fits well in today’s world, the same way that David Tennant’s performance as Kilgrave resonated with so many people in the Jessica Jones series. He’s also how the Anakin Skywalker story SHOULD have played out. In a way, he’s the embodiment of this series’ intent to do right what the sequels did so wrong. Anakin’s fall from grace was ham handed and his characterization was too shallow for us to care why he does eventually go to the Dark Side. Here? Man, Adam Driver is SUCH a better actor than Hayden Christensen which I know sounds like damning with faint praise, but the way the guy just conveys his inner turmoil and angst is leagues above what Lucas was able to pull out of… well ANYONE from the prequels. Also, that dude’s voice is AMAZING! In the helmet, the modulation gives him a commanding delivery that could even rival that of James Earl Jones’s iconic performance of Darth Vader. Outside the mask, he also succeeds at sounding like he’s trying to fight back the urge to cry or whimper, yet only marginally succeeding; Cocksure without any of the confidence to pull it off; Sniveling and winey while still trying to act tough. The best part though is that as dichotomous as these two versions of the character sound, you still buy that it’s the same person. You don’t buy that the obnoxious Anakin turns into Darth Vader which is yet another fault of the prequels. I think a lot of the success here though, as far as his character, is due to how the movie frames him. This is a guy who as far as we know has not had tragedy lain upon him or even has any flaws, disabilities, or ANYTHING to explain why he’s doing this. He’s the embodiment of The Angry Young Man as we’ve known him for decades, but has really been brought to the forefront in recent years due to their prominent presence on Social Media. Rather than paint him as an overly tragic figure like they did with Anakin, the true horror is how it has affected others. There’s lip service in the prequels about killing the younglings (that we’ve never seen or heard of until now) and how much it hurts Padme and Obi-Wan, but it’s the tragedy seems much more focused on how much it sucks for Anakin, especially with the iconic NOOOOOOO in response to Padme’s supposed death. We see how much Kylo’s turn has hurt Leia and Han and we get more than just passing glances at his violence towards others. The movie gives us small twinges of sympathy for the guy, but it never feels like we should at some point absolve him for his sins. Later movies may bear this out differently, but for now it feels like the movie doesn’t want us to excuse him for anything he’s done which is not what you usually get for stories about Angry Young MenTM which I found incredibly refreshing.
Speaking of villains, The First Order isn’t that much smarter than the Empire what with this being the THIRD god damn Death Star, but we get a lot more of them and have plenty of moments where they show just how evil they can be. The Stormtroopers actually have some personality in this which makes them all the more interesting to watch, and I LOVE the detail where we find out they’re not allowed to take off their masks without permission. It definitely gives them some dimension that we haven’t gotten from the regular drones until now (especially compared to the stupid robots from the prequels). That said, I thought that the Emperor replacement was pretty weak. He’s gonna have at least two more movies to be expanded upon, but he’s in this too much for them to do as little as they did with him.
As much as I loved the bad guy stuff here, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are the real MPVs and basically carry this movie whenever we aren’t watching the bad guys do bad things. They’re interesting contrasts in ways that Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth can be applied, where Finn is much less competent but feels the most drive to be the hero (which is why he’s fighting against it so hard), and Rey is much more skilled and more or less has a destiny thrust upon her, but doesn’t feel confident enough in herself to realize how amazing she really is. John Boyega has legitimate reasons to be terrified and to want to escape from The First Order, but he’s also kinda short tempered and doesn’t have much experience in the real world, so he’s gripping a lot and has trouble getting things done, especially compared to Rey. Still, throughout the movie he sees opportunities to do the right thing, but even then he’s usually proven wrong about them and just kinda fumbles his way through the situation. That works so well here because it’s not only hilarious at points (“I know how to run without you holding my hand!”) but similarly to how Kylo Ren is a villain for today’s world, Finn is rejection of heroes as they’ve been defined for so long. That’s not to say that he isn’t heroic and doesn’t have his moments to shine, but they’re also not in the ways we normally see heroism in these kind of movies.
Rey on the other hand does have the talent to be a legitimate hero, but that doesn’t really interest her either. While Finn (i.e. men) tend to be EXPECTED to play the hero, it’s something that isn’t as often expected of women (i.e. Rey) so she spends the movie constantly doing heroic things, but it never really comes across to her as anything more than what should be done. She doesn’t want to be a hero; she just wants to do what’s right, so much so that when heroism is thrusted upon her once she realizes that she’s a Jedi, she rejects it. Her character arc is about her coming around to realizing what she really can do and accepting her role as the Hero, and Finn’s character arc is about realizing that what he THINKS he needs to be in order to become a hero isn’t true and he can still contribute in his own way. Now I don’t know if any of that makes sense (I’m sure much smarter people can explain their characters better than I can) but it definitely feels like the kind of protagonist dynamic that we should see more of in modern cinema.
On top of all that, we have the stuff we all basically assumed would be good. The CGI is very convincing, the sets, characters, props, and costumes all look authentic, and the acting from everyone else in the cast is top notch. Harrison Ford has a lot of fun playing Han Solo again and his chemistry with Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca is fantastic, though it’s a bit odd that they didn’t bother aging Chewie AT ALL. Carrie Fisher is spot on as an older Leia who’s still just as strong and commanding as she was back in the original trilogy and it’s nice seeing her in something where she isn’t constantly ridiculed (*cough* Family Guy *cough*). While I did complain about the cameos earlier, I did really like seeing Admiral Akbar make an appearance. That guy is awesome!! So is Oscar Isaac by the way. He has a pretty small part (and his reappearance in the third act makes no sense) but he makes the most of what little screen time he ends up having.
What else is there to say? It’s one of those movies like Avengers or Transformers where the sheer gravity of its release makes it almost a moot point to review it at least in terms of trying to convince people whether or not to see it. Still, I will give Disney ALL the credit in the world for always putting the effort into their tent pole releases and this is no exception. Does it always work for the studio? Nope. All you have to do is look at Lone Ranger to see that. Still, JJ Abrams and everyone else who made this movie did their job in bring Star Wars back to the forefront of people’s minds and actually put in the effort to make it a positive presence in pop culture, what with the diverse cast and strong characterization for the new characters.
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