I’ve been busy, as evidenced by how little I’ve been posting. I’ve even been neglecting the other site I own and manage. However, I couldn’t just let something like Star Wars go by unwatched, particularly not before Christmas. What will my relatives think?
This review will be in two parts, and not very long, because there’s not a whole lot to say. The first part will be completely spoiler-free. When you see the spoiler graphic come up, that is your only warning. Beyond that, and especially in the comments section, will be hic sunt Sithae.
When I went to see the movie, I joked that I was going to see the latest Abrams film, and maybe it would be worthy of the name Star Wars. So is it? Is it a worthy member of the franchise? Did Abrams mess up another one?
Yes and no. That isn’t two separate answers. That’s one answer to two questions.
Is it a Star Wars film? Yes. But I’m not sure it’s a “worthy” Star Wars film. Now, I’m not hung up on the original trilogy. I’m hung up on the fact that Timothy Zahn’s books have been discarded. Those books told a far, far superior story to this film. Even if you compare The Force Awakens (a film clearly designed to launch a new chapter and so should be looked at as such) with just Heir to the Empire (a book clearly designed to launch a new chapter and so should be looked at as such), you can see that the former doesn’t measure up to the latter.
But okay, let’s shove that aside. (With tears, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Hashtag #ZahnPlotFirst.) Let’s look at it all as only a movie franchise. Did it measure up?
It does. It clears the low bar of the prequels but misses the majesty of the originals. It’s definitely Star Wars, and has everything we’d expect from that standard. What it misses are the memorable scenes that amount to two people talking with each other, and yet you can feel the weight of the world on each word. Luke and Obi-wan, talking about the Force. Obi-wan and Darth Vader on the Death Star. Luke and Vader on Cloud City. Luke and Yoda during training. Luke and Leia on Endor. Han and Leia, pretty much every time those two open their mouths.
There are a few scenes that start to approach those, but they fall short. And it’s clearly not a matter of characterization, like what happened in the prequels. The movie felt rushed. The first five movies never felt that way; only Revenge of the Sith did, at the end, because Lucas was clearly going “Crap, I need to set up all these plot points in twenty minutes when I should have done over half of them by the last movie.” In that, you can feel Abram’s style. Abrams likes to keep things moving, and let you sit and consider things after the credits roll.
But it is Star Wars. This is the kind of film we were expecting when The Phantom Menace came out. A film that wasn’t really as good as the originals, but still deserving to sit on the shelf next to them. If you take away anything from this review, that is what I want to leave you with.
And now we come to the spoiler part of this post.
This is your only warning.
I mentioned the lack of iconic moments already. Aside from that, the most major flaw in the movie was that the first half felt very properly epic. The second half just didn’t continue building up from there.
Yes, the Empire (or First Order, whatever) always loves superweapons. Fine. And I would actually argue that it’s something that can help sell a connection to the previous films. But the very fact that it connects us to the previous films shows us that it just isn’t enough. The tension isn’t there. It’s another giant superweapon.
When the first Death Star destroyed Alderaan, we’d never met the people who lived there. Our only connection was Leia. We got to know her, we got to like her, and it was her reaction that we fed off of when the planet was destroyed.
When these worlds were destroyed by the Sunkiller, we had no such connection. All we had was “the Republic.” Well, the only Republic we saw in the movies was the Old Republic, which wasn’t all that great as a place to anchor emotions. Plus, it’s gone. One of the early lines in A New Hope was “The last remnants of the old Republic have been swept away.” It’s been gone for as long as there’s been a Star Wars fanbase. And since the New Republic of the Expanded Universe novels (all hail Zahn) have gone the way of the Imperial Senate, what’s to cling to? It just lacked punch. It felt like a boss in a World of Warcraft raid. “Never mind the story. How do we kill it? I want my loot.”
As a sci-fi film, it was good. It was actually excellent as a space opera. Star Wars is iconic, and it requires a higher standard precisely because it set standards.
I suspect that ten extra minutes of story could have set it right. Instead, I felt like I was just infodumped on in the second half, which left me plenty of time to wonder why Kylo Ren’s ship had those huge wings and how it could fit in a docking bay, contemplate the stupidity of being able to see the destruction of a planet in a distant solar system with the naked eye, or wonder how even a hollow planet could absorb the mass of an entire star.
And before you say it was just a small star, try to imagine a planet absorbing another planet of its own size. And after that, contemplate the fact that our star, big as it is, is actually on the small side as stars go.
But that’s sciencey nitpicking, and this is space opera. As I said, I would be willing to ignore it for a good story, but it didn’t really feel like a story from pretty much them arriving at the Resistance base until Han Solo confronted Kylo Ren.
Speaking of which, I predicted who Kylo was. I didn’t spend much time on contemplating the movie before going in there, but from a writing perspective I knew who it was from his arrival on Jakku. I thought that was poor writing until I heard the gasps from the audience at the reveal. I guess I’m just to used to how the sausage gets made.
Similarly, from the editing perspective, I also knew that Han was going to die. He had to. This one is a metastory thing; Harrison Ford is just getting too old for the role. It was still great to see an aged Han Solo, though. If it weren’t for him, I don’t know if it would have really felt like all those years had passed since Jedi.
That’s also why Harrison Ford got paid so much more than his fellow actors. “Gender gap” my leaky fountain pen. Carrie Fisher is barely in the movie. Harrison Ford is a household name; in fact, one of three of the original cast (the other two being James Earl Jones and Alec Guinness) who were truly household names as themselves, independent of any one character. Big name, more screentime, and his last Star Wars film? If I were in charge of the budget for the film, I would have thrown money at him too. And Disney got a lot out of him besides acting, such as personal promotion appearances that really only he could pull off.
The first half of the movie was really excellent. I was particularly impressed with Finn’s introduction. We see a stormtrooper showing a bit of compassion for a fallen comrade, and the latter’s blood on his helmet let us track him visually among all his identical squadmates. That one moment keeps building, and we see him seize his chance to escape.
I didn’t expect to like BB-8, but I did. That rolling body looked ridiculous in previews, but in the movie it was almost as expressive as WALL-E. I figured he was put in as cute comedic relief. Instead, he was actually the most empathetic character in the whole cast. I hope they build on that in future movies.
Rey was also very likable. It doesn’t hurt that she’s played by a gorgeous woman, but that beauty shines through the character in a natural way rather than seeming out of place, even on a desert planet. Finn’s actions make it obvious he sees her beauty too, but you’re not force-fed it. It was nice. And as for the rest of her character . . . well, I was expecting to get answers about her family (heck, I was expecting Luke to greet her as his daughter), but I like how she’s been using the Force all this time and not even realizing it. I like how she’s been thinking of the Jedi as a story, and that she’s more than halfway through a lightsaber duel before she realizes she’s been using the Force pretty much every step of the way, even on repairs and piloting.
The final note is one I’ve been seeing a lot: that it’s not an original story. I can see where that comes from. Missing droid holding vital information finds new allies on a desert planet, eventually leading all the heroes back to the secret rebel base where they launch a smallcraft attack against a big superweapon about to destroy said base, which strangely wasn’t accompanied by an escort fleet.
However, much as I would have liked a different approach, I can also see what the movie was trying to do. It was attempting to reassure the existing fanbase that this movie really was part of what they already loved; part of where Lucas went wrong in the prequels (a small part, but obvious from the first scene) was the disparity in visual style. Here, even the targeting computers on the Falcon and the TIE fighters remained visually the same, despite the 70s-style graphics. (Which, in turn, makes them more realistic. Simple simulations take less processing power to render and also are easier to absorb by the user, both of which matter in combat.)
The Force Awakens is attempting to show that it, too, is Star Wars, and does it in a way that practically apologizes for all three prequels. I can live with that. But a lot of it depends on the next movie. Or, perhaps, the second half of this movie, because things were left very unfinished and kind of unsatisfying. It makes me wonder how the audience reacted to the end of The Empire Strikes Back, which was just as clearly a “part one” story. From where I sit, it did its job a lot better; but that might just be with the convenience of being able to load the next tape (or disc, today) in seconds.