A brief preamble regarding spoilers: I intend to review this movie in the same fashion I would review any movie; discussing the setup including basic premise and character motivations while doing my best to avoid spoiling any major turns, reveals, or resolutions. That said, knowing how shrouded in secrecy this whole thing is, those basic setups might be more than you’re interested in hearing, so it’s best to bow out now and read this after you’ve seen the film. You have been warned.
There was only one thing I really wanted from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Having grown into the realization that the Star Wars prequels are incredibly bad movies, and having a formative lesson in absolute crushing disappointment courtesy of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I knew all too well not to set my expectations too high for this new Star Wars film. There were many things I hoped it would be – a triumphant return to a beloved universe, a rousing tale of good versus evil, and a genuinely excellent time at the movies – but I knew better than to expect any of that. No, the one and only thing I wanted from this film was to be surprised, even in some small way, and that’s the one thing it didn’t give me.
The Force Awakens kicks off with the traditional opening crawl informing us that after attempting to train a new generation of Jedi, Luke Skywalker has gone missing! In his absence both the remnants of the Galactic Empire, now known as the First Order, and the Resistance, backed by a new Republic have been attempting to locate him, each for their own agendas, and as the film opens that search has taken both parties to the desert planet of Jakku. Ace Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), recovers a piece of information that might lead to the elusive Jedi, but with the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) hot on his tail, he entrusts the intel to his droid, BB-8, and sends the little sphere off into the desert (it’s like poetry…). Poe is captured and tortured by Ren, but FN-2187 (John Boyega) – a stormtrooper, fresh on the front lines, who is having a hard time squaring with the work he’s been ordered to do – springs Poe from his cell, and the two make a break for it aboard a stolen TIE fighter bound for Jakku to retrieve BB-8 and the information he carries. Meanwhile, BB-8 has run into a scavenger out in the wastes named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and though she looks to the sky searching for the return of the parents who abandoned her on this rock, she ends up being caught in the middle of this larger conflict, one to which she might be inextricably linked.
The best way I can think of to describe The Force Awakens – summing up both its strengths and its failings – is by saying that it’s a J.J. Abrams movie. In other words, it’s a beautifully shot, expertly cast, impeccably directed film with a script that doesn’t totally work. The good news is that it’s not the reprehensible trash Star Trek Into Darkness was, but is instead more akin to the way Star Trek ’09 breezes past logical fallacies and missing connective tissue in order to keep the action moving at a breakneck pace. It opens with a magnificent first act, but kind of starts to run out of gas around the halfway point and ends up leaning a bit too heavily on story beats from the original trilogy without justifying their purpose in this film beyond “hey, this is just like that other thing you liked!”
Let’s start with that opening though, because it’s truly something worth talking about. Everything up until our heroes depart Jakku is pretty much perfect. The allusions to the past are obvious (desert planet, orphan who yearns for a better life, droid carrying important information, etc.), but they work because they are couched in an introduction to a whole new set of characters. And these new characters are capital-T Terrific. However you feel about J.J. Abrams as a filmmaker, it’s undeniable that the man knows how to cast a movie, and The Force Awakens is no exception. For months now this cast has positively oozed charm in all of their off-screen appearances and none of that is lost in the film. The moment each of these characters make their initial appearance, it’s magic. Everyone’s already fallen in love with BB-8 but every hero character in this goddamn movie is just as lovable.
Having seen Attack the Block, I was thrilled to death when John Boyega was cast in this film, and his performance as FN-2187 (or “Finn” as he is nicknamed by Poe Dameron) does not disappoint. Even before his face is revealed, he manages to craft a compelling, readable character beneath his stormtrooper armor. He’s a character who was raised from birth to be a tool of the First Order, and now that he’s finally reached the moment his whole life has been building toward, he finds himself unable to carry out the unfeeling acts of violence his commanders demand of him. When he frees Poe from captivity and is questioned on his motivation, he replies simply that “it was the right thing to do” and I had to restrain myself from standing up in the theater and applauding. That is literally everything I want from a hero in a movie like this – someone who chooses heroism not because it’s forced on them or it’s a pre-established destiny, but because they simply, earnestly want to do the right thing. I also love, love, love the fact that Finn and Poe are instantly buddies. There’s no handwringing over the fact that Finn is a stormtrooper, Poe is merely grateful to have been rescued, and bonds immediately with his rescuer. It harkens back to the original Star Wars and the way these characters convincingly feel like the best friends in the galaxy even though they’re thrust into this situation in a fairly short amount of time. There are few things that give me more pleasure than seeing characters that I like like each other.
Speaking of Poe, he’s great too! On a first pass he seems to be cut from the same roguish cloth as Han Solo, but his cocky, devil-may-care attitude belies someone who is really more of a straight-down-the-middle hero character. He’s the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure hero – the kind of hero that could be irritatingly vanilla, but Oscar Isaac plays him with a charm and a charisma that is just so damn likable. Poe is such a joy of a character that it’s kind of a huge bummer that he’s barely in the movie. He only gets two big scenes, which makes complete sense on a story level, but it’s almost tragic that we don’t get to hang out with a character this good for the majority of the running time, which I suppose is the best possible complaint you can have about a character.
A character we do get to spend a satisfying amount of time with is Rey. After being somewhat unclear from the marketing, it turns out that Rey is, in fact, the lead of the film, which is an incredibly bold statement for Star Wars to make for a new generation. This is a series that has long been dominated by boys both on and off the screen, and now the lead of the biggest movie series ever is a woman. What’s even better is that no one makes a thing of it. There’s a clever moment where Finn attempts to rush to her aid in typical damsel in distress fashion, but before he can even close the distance between them, she’s already gotten it sorted. That’s it. That’s all we need. Rey may be the Luke stand-in in this movie, but she’s way more collected and competent than he ever was. Her situation when we meet her is incredibly tragic – an orphan living alone in a barren wasteland scavenging parts to trade for food while she waits for the parents who left her there to return – but she’s not broken by it. She maintains a spark and an innate goodness that makes her irresistible to root for, and we’re so excited for her to become part of this new surrogate family. Almost as excited, I should say, as she is. Half the fun of Rey as a character is seeing how excited she is by her newfound friends, and Abrams’ genius in casting achieved perhaps its greatest victory by casting the relatively unknown Daisy Ridley. This girl is going to be a movie star, there’s no question about it. She is the absolute beating heart of this movie, which is impressive because all of these new characters are instantly classic
Which leads us to Kylo Ren. While the heroes in The Force Awakens are classic Star Wars – broadly sketched archetypes filling mythic hero roles – Kylo Ren is a vastly different animal. We’ve never seen a character like Ren before in Star Wars and it’s fascinating. He’s a man who has modeled himself after Darth Vader in religious devotion, but instead of being the cooly unfeeling monster Vader was, he’s a volatile bundle of raw emotion, prone to having fits and throwing violent tantrums when things don’t go the way he planned. He’s a character who is almost shockingly proficient with the Force (he halts a blaster bolt in midair and keeps it in place even as his focus is directed to other things), yet his greatest fear is not being as strong as Vader was. While this initially came across as a weird contradiction, upon further analysis it’s clear that it’s not physical strength he’s worried about, but emotional strength. He wants to commit to the Dark Side, to become an unfeeling master of evil, but it’s the feelings that are the hard part. He wants nothing more than to carve out his own human heart and be rid of the connection he has to his past life. And though he’s in many ways a mirror of the petulant, whiny Anakin in the prequels, you sympathize with this guy in a way you never could with Anakin.
It’s these characters meeting, forging alliances, and coming into conflict that makes the first act of this movie so incredibly satisfying. In a relatively short span of time we meet these characters, learn what makes them tick, and then see them forced into action together. It’s perfect, efficient storytelling where no time is wasted on extraneous details and we’re just thrown in headfirst to the good stuff.
The problem with the movie comes when this perfect efficiency evaporates almost the moment our heroes leave Jakku. The movie stalls out as we make a series of pitstops that feel unmotivated by the flow of the narrative, and instead feel solely motivated by the need to deliver certain bits of exposition and artificially hit specific plot beats. Our heroes are intercepted by a smuggling vessel just so we can catch up with Han Solo and have an action scene with a group of space vagrants who have no bearing on the story or its character arcs. Next, they stop on a planet home to a band of pirates for no other reason than the fact that this is where Luke’s lightsaber ended up, and the plot needs out heroes to get ahold of it. Even more egregious than this are the character turns that are kind of unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the movie without much in the way of setup or fanfare. Finn and Rey both get their own moments of “refusing the call” but it’s not brought on by any particular event in the story, but instead seems to exist out of a begrudging obligation to tick off boxes on the Hero’s Journey check list because Star Wars is such a famous textbook example of that model.
The worst though is a pretty significant reveal regarding on of the villainous characters that is revealed to the audience in the most inexplicably offhanded way possible. Imagine if “No, I am your father” never happened, but instead the monkey-eyed Emperor just sort of casually dropped that bomb when conversing with Vader during the midpoint of the film; that’s almost literally how this reveal plays out. I just don’t get it. Is Abrams overcorrecting after Star Trek Into Darkness’ absurd amount of fanfare for its silly non-twist? Now that I mention it, it is kind of the exact opposite of the Khan reveal – in Into Darkness Abrams made a big thing over this reveal that meant less than nothing to the characters in universe, but in Force Awakens this is significant both to the audience and to the characters, but it’s just kind of treated like it’s no big deal. It’s also extremely frustrating that the ramifications of this reveal and the huge impact it has on character motivations later in the movie are delivered through exposition. This revelation is the fulcrum around which the rest of the story turns, but instead of being shown how this is a huge deal for everyone involved, we just get a lot of people standing around talking about what it means to them. It even undercuts what should be a big moment late in the film because outside of that one moment, we don’t have any emotional context for the relationship between the characters involved.
That’s a big part of the problem with that back half of this movie. Once we leave Jakku and the original trilogy characters begin to trickle into the story, it seems as if the film kind of stops trying to earn its own story beats and instead relies heavily on imagery from the previous films as a sort of narrative shorthand. People have accused this film of being a beat-for-beat remake of Star Wars, but in reality, this film is pulling in references and story moments just as heavily from Empire and Jedi as it is the ’77 original. It could be more accurately be described as a greatest hits montage of the original Star Wars trilogy, and because of this the movie can come across as feeling very fan fiction-ey at times. What takes the fanfic cake, however, is Starkiller Base. As Han Solo himself observes in the film, it’s literally just a bigger Death Star, one that can blow up a whole star system instead of just a single planet. It’s easily the most creatively bankrupt thing in this whole film, made worse by the fact that there’s not even an interesting narrative wrinkle to justify its existence. Its entire function in the movie is the same as the original Death Star’s in Star Wars and I have to wonder how something so clearly misguided made the final cut of the film. As hit or miss as they are, there’s almost always an interesting idea at the heart of every major aspect of this film, but Starkiller Base is just an irredeemably stupid thing and it sours other, better things that are going on in that same segment of film merely by proximity.
And there are still really good things that happen up to the end of this movie! There are great character moments and harrowing battles with Rey and Finn and Poe and Ren, and there’s even a scene or two that will certainly become iconic fixtures of the larger Star Wars myth in the same manner as Luke igniting his father’s lightsaber and Han Solo being frozen in carbonite. All of that is aside from the Jakku segment at the beginning which, I must once again reiterate, is basically perfect. In fact, this movie is consistently at its best when it’s focussing on the new characters instead of the returning favorites, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. It’s certainly not because these classic characters don’t belong in the film – though the film does end two minutes later than it should have – but if I had to guess, I’d guess the reason why the stuff with the new characters sings in a way that the scenes with the legacy characters don’t comes down to a simple matter of Abrams perhaps being too reverent to the material. With these new characters he and Kasdan invented, he had all the freedom in the world to allow them to be whatever he needed them to, but when it comes to Han, Leia, and Luke, these are characters he grew up with and it kind of makes sense that he’d fall back on ideas that are lifted from the original films so as not to mess up the formula he is so in awe of. Again, that’s all purely speculation, and I kind of hate playing the game of psychoanalyzing a filmmaker in a review of their film, but that’s the only reason I can think of for why there’s such a clear generational divide between the stuff that is genuinely spectacular and the stuff that is merely pretty good.
The Force Awakens is a movie that I liked enough to wish I had loved. It’s a movie with such great potential, and potential that is reached just frequently enough to prove that it can be done, but not consistently enough to make for a truly great film. It certainly clears the low bar of the prequels by miles and sets the stage for future movies with an all-time great cast, but ultimately it’s frustrating to have a film that dabbles in greatness while largely choosing to go for the most obvious, overly reverent, ideas. The only thing I wanted from The Force Awakens was to be surprised. Not in the sense that it would knock my socks off with some big twist that I never saw coming, but in the more simple fashion of presenting an idea that I would not have thought of myself. Even though I had a ton of fun with it, the thing that ultimately holds the movie back from true greatness is that it lacks the ambition to be surprising.