I don’t know if there’s ever been a movie with higher expectations than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Okay, maybe The Phantom Menace, but that’s the black sheep of the family we don’t talk about. The pressure to get things right must have been extreme. I’m pretty surprised director JJ Abrams even survived the ordeal.
Still, the film was completed and released, and wasn’t a complete failure. And it’s not the perfect film. It has a lot going for it, but I have a few gripes with details. The action scenes, for example, simply aren’t thrilling, exciting, or special enough. I enjoyed the “best pilot in the galaxy” bits, as this is something we haven’t seen before (even though Luke and Anakin were billed as great pilots), and the action scenes were cool and slick. But from Star Wars, I kinda expect something more.
Speaking of action sequences, this movie is chock-full of them. While Star Wars films are traditionally action-based, it felt like this one had way more Wars than Star. Especially the first act on Jakku essentially felt like one 40 minute-long chase scene. And not in the brilliant way that Mad Max: Fury Road pulled off that particular stunt earlier this year. Rather, in places this movie felt like it was held together by spectacular action rather than plot. It did succeed in heightening the stakes and urgency, but I would’ve appreciated a slightly more toned-down approach. Maybe something similar to 2009’s Star Trek (also directed by JJ Abrams), which kinda ironically mirrors the original Star Wars quite well.
Yes, I’ve been negatively pointing out what I regard to be Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ weak points. But that’s only to highlight the big thing it did right, and that’s where it fits into the world and film series. The Phantom Menace had a difficult job of jumping backwards in time in a familiar universe – it had to set up a lot of backstory, and probably went too far into the details of political systems, taxation, trade routes, treaties, and Jedi training. The Force Awakens has the advantage of familiar characters and relationships, but also skips over 30 years of history and, just like A New Hope, refuses to fill in all the gaps. I’m pretty sure that the vast expanded universe of Star Wars stories in the form of books, video games, comics and spin-offs wouldn’t have existed if people watching the film had not been given sc-fi concepts to wonder about: What are those creatures? Where is that guy from? What is the “Kessel Run” and why is time measured in parsecs?
Just like in 1977, viewers leaving the cinema after seeing Star Wars will have questions. About Supreme Leader Snoke. About the Knights of Ren. About Max von Sydow’s character. About Captain Phasma. About the battle that left Jakku strewn full of starship wrecks. About the details of Leia & Han’s post-Return of the Jedi relationship. EVERY POSSIBLE DETAIL ABOUT THE FASCINATINGLY INTRIGUING MAZ KANATA (portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o). [I would be first in line to watch a movie with Kanata as the main character] But none of these answers are necessary to understand the plot.
JJ Abrams also continued Lucas’ tradition of film trilogies “rhyming” with each other. The film is filled with similar characters and situations, or subtle callbacks to earlier episodes. While some similarities may bother viewers, I think the whole thing is very well-balanced. There’s enough fresh new ideas to set this film apart, but enough familiar feelings and motifs to make it feel like a part of the same series. There are ideas that are repeated from A New Hope, but not the same ones that were used in The Phantom Menace.
While a lot of people (myself included) are still madly in love with the heroes of the original trilogy, The Force Awakens successfully hands over the torch (lightsaber?) to a younger cast. And they’re a wonderful, charming, and exciting group. Poe (Oscar Isaac) is witty and charming in a Han Solo-kind of way (but that’s where the similarities end). Rey (Daisy Ridley) has a fascinating innocence, unstoppable optimism, mechanical know-how that rivals that of Chewbacca, and a compelling, mysterious backstory. Finn (John Boyega) is unintentionally funny, ultimately likable, and entertaining as hell. And lastly, new droid on the block BB-8 is way cuter and more entertaining than R2D2 could ever dream of being.
The villains are also amazing. Kylo Ren, specifically, is a fascinatingly scary loose cannon. His unpredictability is a step up from what made Darth Vader so scary in the 70’s, and it’s a trait that makes a villain well-rounded and fun to watch.
The Force Awakens is funny, exhilarating, touching, heartbreaking, scary, and magical. It’s a real, proper, Star Wars film, albeit a slightly modernised, JJ Abrams-infused one. It delivered what it should, set up a lot of excitement for the next two episodes (to directed by Rian Johnson & Colin Trevorrow, respectively), and continues some amazing 38 year old traditions. The film is perhaps slightly too self-aware, but uses stylistic features and motifs to neatly slot into the series that came before.
Having thought everything through thoroughly in the 24 hours since I saw the film, my overall biggest criticisms are only these three things:
- Unless I missed something, no-one lost a limb to a lightsaber.
- We didn’t see nearly enough of Admiral Ackbar.
- We’ll have to wait another 18 months to see the next episode. [Not counting Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, coming December 2016]