Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is an amazing movie.
There, I said it.
Most publications agree with me, but several of my friends on social media and elsewhere disagree. Many have called The Force Awakens “recycled”, “too derivative”, having “zero creative ambition”, and basically being terrible, largely because they think it cribs too much from A New Hope and that it’s uninspiring. Many don’t like the characters. Many think the plot is stale. And at least one has actually said that it’s worse than the prequels.
This is all utterly bunk.
I am not going to say that The Force Awakens is some marvelous exemplar of serious cinematic quality and technique. Well, actually, it kinda is, but just not like a serious, Cannes Festival, critic type quality. That’s because Star Wars itself, while imaginative and creative, speaking to our inner children, it’s still a schlocky comic book story. Yes, it relies on deep mythological themes, but just how deep is Star Wars, really?
In other words, people have seriously missed the point about this movie, and perhaps, the series in general.
I’ve now seen The Force Awakens three times (all in 3D, I might add, and twice at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, which has a six story tall IMAX 3D screen powered by laser beams and radness.) Now that’s it been out for two weeks, I think it’s okay to mention spoilers, so there will be some in here. To be courteous to those who haven’t seen it, I’m going to use a snippet cut here, but beyond there, spoilers abound. Tread carefully.
People really hated the prequel films. After watching the Machete Order (IV, V, then II, III, and finally VI) to prepare for The Force Awakens, I think II and III get too much hate (outside the godawful love scenes, that is.) Yet there is still good reason to be let down with the prequels, as they don’t really capture the feel of the original trilogy (praise be to it in the highest.) Coming to this situation, with this fanbase, JJ Abrams had one goal: to redeem Star Wars. He had to prove to the fans that the franchise was in capable hands, hands that understood just why we loved the original trilogy so unreasonably much; so not just technically masterful, but creatively true. As one of my friends put it, JJ Abrams had to engage in a “faith-restoration exercise”, as well as making a fine movie.
So of course, Abrams cribbed a bit from A New Hope. He had to throw in the nostalgic references, but also picked up some story beats from the originals and used them here. To some of my friends, this is recycling and is just so terrible. But ask yourself: how many plots are really out there? I have a book on my shelf that says there are 55 dramatic situations that create plot, there’s a famous book that says there are only 36, I have another book on my shelf that says there are just 20, and finally, there are some who say there are only seven.
And to be quite honest, The Force Awakens plot is not a rehashing or copycat of A New Hope. I don’t see it. Yes, Rey and Luke both come from desert planets in the beginning of the movie. Both want to leave yet also are reluctant to actually go, Luke out of loyalty to his Uncle Owen and Rey because she’s waiting for her family to come back and get her. They are searching for the Rebel Alliance analogues – now called the “Resistance” – to deliver information stored in a droid. And yes, they do go to blow up a giant spherical space battle fortress. But aside from these points, the plot isn’t a copycat. The driver of the plot is Finn, who is a freaking turncoat stormtrooper. (Rey doesn’t even seem to become the protagonist until after they get to Takodana and Maz’s bar.) There’s really no analogue to Obi-Wan here, and while Leia is in the film, she has a different role, and no one took hers from A New Hope. (Rey getting captured and brought to Starkiller Base is different.) Kylo Ren’s plot in the movie is definitely different from Darth Vader in A New Hope, although I guess it shades into The Empire Strikes Back a teeny-weeny bit, in that he’s related to another character. (Oh dear! So unoriginal!) Aside from a few beats, it is a new beast.
And really, you got to ask yourself: if I’m complaining that a Star Wars movie is too much like Star Wars, am I comically missing the point?
The one thing I will grant people is the Death Star analogue, Starkiller Base. Okay, look, even I think the whole “giant battlemoon” thing is played out in Star Wars. That is starting to get stale. Three of seven movies end with fighters executing a daring attack run on such a thing, and if we count the droid control ship from Episode I, then that’s four of seven movies. I’m really hoping we don’t get any of that in VIII or IX, but you never know. Yet despite this, Abrams pulls it off with such aplomb and skill that I kinda don’t mind. Though please, for eff’s sake, Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow, don’t do it for your films, okay? Although it does give us this great joke:
Aside from that, the plot is groovy. And the characters are pretty groovy too. Gone is the unnatural, wooden dialogue from the prequels. Returned in full glory is the lovely banter between characters (especially Han, Chewie, and Finn, but Rey, Poe, and even Kylo get in some snark) and natural reactions. They all feel like they belong there. Abrams does insert some milennial-isms into Finn and Rey’s dialogue at points (mostly with Finn), which aren’t bad, but you do notice them. Kylo annoyed me at first, and was one of the down points in the film for me, but the more I watch, the more I realize how intentional his annoyances are. Yes, he’s a tempestous, arrogant, not really in control of himself boy. Much like his grandfather. But he’s also much more deliberate about what he’s doing, and his whining feels…I don’t know, but more realistic? Honest? Less artificial? He’s clearly going to develop in the next two films, and it’s going to be very interesting. Also, whenever I saw him on screen the third time I went, all I saw was Alan Rickman.
Rey is perhaps the most interesting character. There is clearly a lot of stuff going down with her. Some have complained that she gains her Force powers way too quickly, and that she’s a Mary Sue. First of all, no, she is not a Mary Sue, drop that nonsense immediately. Secondly, Abrams actually weaves in some clues that she’s more than she thinks she is. The Force vision was one of them. The other was when Kylo Ren was interrogating her on Starkiller Base, and he looks into her mind:
“You dream of an ocean. I see it. The island in the middle.”
Where is Luke? On an island in the middle of an ocean. In other words:
REY HAS BEEN TO THE FIRST JEDI TEMPLE BEFORE.
See, told you there would be spoilers.
She knows the place, she’s seen it, she’s been there. But how? Why? Was she Luke’s student there? Perhaps after Kylo killed the others? Or did she escape the slaughter? But if she’s been there, that could easily explain her Force abilities, right? Or at least, partially?
See, there is in fact a lot of great storytelling going on here, but people aren’t noticing it and only think that it’s some dumb action film aping the original movie. What they don’t understand is that this is explicitly part of a trilogy. A New Hope wasn’t; in fact, it wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters that it was even called A New Hope, before it was just Star Wars, not even an episode number. This, though, is explicitly built with the assumption that two more movies are going to be made that will tell the rest of the story. So they’re going to be subtle. They’re going to hide stuff. They’re going to layer things in to fill out three movies. So, in this case, you might not be able to judge The Force Awakens on its own.
And let’s be honest, at the end of the day, what you want from Star Wars is an entertaining and fun adventure in a world of high technology and mythic level magic. And what do you get from the new movie? An adventure that is entertaining and fun. What more do you really need?
I think the urge to really say this movie is trash comes from two motivations:
- Fans who really, really want to have the Original Trilogy again, the identical magic, the same kind of cinematography and effects and whatnot. For these people, well, I’m sorry, but that is never coming again, and you need to get over it. The Original Trilogy was a product of its time and place, and that’s basically that.
- People who feel the need to be edgy and criticize something popular and that most people like. You know the old adage, “Everyone’s a critic”? Well, here it is being played out. Everyone wants to be a critic and try to point out flaws, to be sophisticated, elevated, whatever. But as I said before, their criticisms just make them look like they’re comically missing the point of Star Wars. And it’s just silly. Sometimes, a new addition to a popular franchise really is a great movie!
And let me tell you, there have been some rather silly comments, like:
“ This was actually the worst Star Wars movie yet; it accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of making me actually remember the prequels fondly”
Nope, sorry, nooooooope. Even though as I mentioned above I’ve softened on the prequels, there is no way that The Force Awakens is the worst movie in the series. I mean, excuse me, have you heard of The Phantom Menace? I said I softened on the prequels, but Episode I is still awful. I mean, awful. And while I have softened a little bit on Episode II, that’s still a snoozer overall. Frankly, I think anyone who would rank Episode I above Episode VII is in dire need of psychotherapy.
Do I have issues? A few. I quibble on whether or not the setting should be more expounded upon. After Return of the Jedi, the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead, the second Death Star is destroyed, and if you accept the Specialized Editions, there were even celebrations on Coruscant. So why is there a Resistance now, how is it related to the Republic, and why do the First Order seem like they’re in charge of things, the big bad empire all over again? A quick scene that at least made gestures towards the Republic-Resistance relationship would have been nice. But still, does it detract from the movie? No. Things are weird, the setting is wide and expansive, and we’ll figure it out eventually.
I also worried about Rey’s accelerated growth in Force powers, but if we accept that she’s already been to the First Jedi Temple – and possibly had her memory erased, and possibly been trained by Luke Skywalker – then it makes sense. And besides, regarding the lightsaber, she was A) not that good with it and B) she had trained with her metal staff on Jakku, so she could pick up the basics easily.
Some people thought that Abrams should have adapted the Thrawn trilogy instead of coming up with this story. The Thrawn trilogy was the first serious entry into the old Expanded Universe (now called Star Wars Legends) after Return of the Jedi. It was three books written by Timothy Zahn describing how the one alien admiral in the Imperial fleet, who is a tactical and strategic genius, comes back from the Unknown Regions to launch a highly effective war against the New Republic; meanwhile, a Dark Jedi Master from the Old Republic days attempts to seduce Luke to the dark side, while the last Emperor’s assassin is tracking him down. It’s actually really good, although I think overrated, but they would never have adapted this for the screen. There are many reasons: the actors are too old (the books took place five years after Jedi rather than thirty; they could have pushed it back, but still, the actors are too old.) Secondly, it would have required Harrison Ford to sign onto three films, and that was just not happening. Ford isn’t the biggest fan of Star Wars and wanted out, multiple times. He would have demanded to be killed off. And that’s why I’m at peace with Han Solo’s death.
Why was Han Solo frozen in carbonite on Bespin? Because Ford was starting to dislike the character, thought he was getting soft by falling in love with Leia, and wanted to kill him off. Lucas still brought him back for Jedi, although he tried to get Lucas to kill Han at the end. So the only way Han Solo was ending up in this movie was if he died somewhere along the way. And you know, even though Solo is my favorite character, I’m at peace. His character arc was, let’s face it, over. If after your son turns to the Dark Side and instead of going after him, you “go back to what you’re good at,” you’ve stopped developing. Han was done. I hate to say it, but he was. On top of that, you needed to mark a change from the original generation to the new generation, and what better way to do that by killing off an original character?
This review has been way too long, but I felt it was worth it. I did not just enjoy Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, I loved it. It was the film I’ve been waiting for for years. It was an exciting addition to the (new) Star Wars canon, and I await Rogue One and Episode VIII eagerly.
I mean, a new Star Wars film every year for the rest of eternity. What more could you ask for?