Star Wars is back with The Force Awakens, and while it is really good, often great at times, it’s held back by trying too hard to be A New Hope.
***SERIOUS SPOILERS BELOW*** Come back after you have seen the film.
Following a new batch of faces; Rey, a scavenger on Jakku, Finn, a stormtrooper “traitor” of the First Order, BB-8, an astromech droid, and Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the Resistance; The Force Awakens sets these guys off on a familiar adventure with the help of Han Solo and Chewbacca. They are battling a new threat to the galaxy, the First Order’s Starkiller Base, lead by Kylo Ren, General Hux and Supreme Leader Snoke. Everyone wants to know where Luke Skywalker is, and a map in the hands of BB-8 is the key.
Now, let’s just get this right out there, I like the prequels. All three of them. And I would go as far as to put Revenge of the Sith as my number 3 Star Wars movie; above The Force Awakens. I know this is sacrilegious to many fans of the franchise, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that The Force Awakens loses its steam once Han and Chewie show up. Now, Han and Chewie are pretty great in the film on their own accord, but the best parts of the film are when all of the new faces are front and center. When there is a sense of discovery, which is what makes Star Wars great.
The first 30 minutes of the film, as we are introduced to Kylo Ren, Rey, BB-8, Finn and Poe Dameron, is so great. Some of the best Star Wars’ has to offer as a franchise. The film is funny, moves at a whip pace, and is full of beautiful shots among fun set pieces. BB-8 might be the best thing to happen to Star Wars since R2-D2, with her thumbs up to Finn being, quite possibly, the best laugh in the entire series. Finn’s banter is great (“Droid, please!”), Poe becomes an instant classic character in just his first scene, Kylo force freezing the laser bolt is so freaking cool, I could go on, and on, and I haven’t even mentioned Rey. Rey is legit, and Daisy Ridley is fantastic in the part. Rey is, easily, the most affecting part of the movie. Some of the looks she gives just got right to me and she is a badass through and through. Plus, she is the one with the force sensitive skills of the new faces (besides Kylo Ren) and the film has a ton of fun playing with that role reversal from the male dominated landscape. Kylo is almost just as great as Rey, but I feel like we might have needed one or two more scenes with him so that he could match her.
The first order is an intriguing group of individuals, but they are clearly being set up for the future of the franchise. Snoke is only ever seen on a hologram, while Hux gives a couple of big speeches and some dirty looks to Kylo Ren and nothing much else. Andy Serkis and Domhnall Gleeson are both solid in their respective parts, but I don’t really feel like we got to know a whole lot about them and who they are. Snoke in particular opens a lot of questions, as he was apparently training Jedi along with Luke and ended up turning Ben Solo to the darkside, becoming Kylo Ren. It was so obvious once Han said it, yet so perfect that Kylo Ren was named Ben in his past life. Han’s death isn’t what affected me in that scene though, that would be Adam Driver struggling with Ren’s decision to kill his father, basically as a last ditch effort to turn full Dark Side. He doesn’t want to do it, but he feels like he has to if he is to fully wipe the light side from him. The pain this is going to cause him when it doesn’t eliminate that pull from the light side is going to be intriguing to watch in the future.
The film almost gets there with paying off Han and Kylo’s relationship, especially since we didn’t even know it existed until almost halfway through the film, and this plays a lot into my reaction to Han Solo’s death scene. Yes, Harrison Ford finally got his wish, and the death of Han Solo was executed about as perfect as I could imagine. The scene firmly establishes Kylo’s conflict over the course of this trilogy and Harrison Ford is fantastic in those final moments. Han showing the power of the light side, forgiving his son as he spends one final moment with him after Kylo has plunged his lightsaber through his father’s heart, will surely shake Kylo’s worldview. That, along with getting his ass handed to him by a rookie Jedi in Rey, who is flowing with raw natural force talent he might not have. And Kylo, man, he gets f’d up by Rey, one of the highlights of the film.
I’ve touched on a lot of the good stuff above and didn’t even get into some of the other great bits. Watching Poe fly is a delight, and the single take of him flying around Finn and taking out every ship and stormtrooper in his way was one of my highlights. As was his final trench run, yes there is another one. The first reveal and flight of the Millennium Falcon was also executed perfectly, found a lot of laughs and was so much fun. Like I said, a lot to like in this new Star Wars film.
So why just “pretty good”, Zac? Well, and maybe I am nitpicking after only one viewing, there were some things that just weren’t working for me. The sequence at Maz Kanta’s was mildly interesting, but really messes up by sending Finn and Rey on “rejecting the call” paths for no apparent reason other than to force them apart for the sake of that is apparently what you are supposed to do in a Star Wars movie. The way Rey runs away isn’t handled all that well either, as she just runs all the way into the woods,…why? The film’s slowest section is from when Han shows up and gets him and his young crew out of a financial pickle, till the Resistance shows up at Maz Kanta’s to save the day. Which leads into the film’s weakest link, Han & Leia.
They don’t work together for me anymore, and they kind of didn’t in Return of the Jedi once they leave Tatooine to be honest. I bought none of the emotions between the too of them (yet, Leia and Chewie’s reunion got to me) and that is where the emotional fulcrum of the film lies. I know they were estranged because of Ben, and they aren’t going to be all warm and bubbly, but I just felt a disconnect between the two of them. This is another big reason I wish we got more of the new crew, instead of the old.
I also thinks Han’s detachment to anyone but Chewie is why Han’s death isn’t that emotional on his end. It is telegraphed pretty strongly, and even though this was spoiled for me years ago (bummer, I know) I didn’t feel the feelings they want you to feel, I imagine. Sure, Finn and Rey are sad for Han when they see him die, but they just met him so it doesn’t totally resonate; especially for Finn. Chewie going off on Kylo and the stormtroopers was great though, and while I thought Chewie suicide bombing himself would have been a valid way to go out, I was glad to see him in the Falcon at the end. Chewie and Rey are going to make a hell of a team going forward.
Another disappointment was John Williams’ score. He integrates a ton of original trilogy tunes really well, but I couldn’t hum any new themes for you, which is something the prequels had in spades. I also think JJ Abrams’ desire to hit so many A New Hope homages and plot points did the film no favors. It was cute when Poe is giving secret plans to BB-8 in the first scene, but once we see the chess holograms, the training probes, another Death Star, Rebel base (on a planet that looks a lot like Yavin) almost getting blown up, the mentor dying, X-Wings diving into a trench run; I don’t come to a Star Wars movie to get the same movie I got before again. I think the film were serve as a real litmus test for what I think of you as a Star Wars fan. If you are championing how much that you love the film because it is “just” like the old ones, I’m not going to really think that much of your opinion. I think this retreading failure of The Force Awakens actually even furthers my appreciation of George Lucas’s prequels. The prequels expanded the world of Star Wars in every installment, and while The Force Awakens adds a bunch of new locales, they all feel like retreads themselves.
Also, what the hell was the point of Captain Phasma in this movie!
Ending on a positive note, I can’t wait to see Episode VIII. The Force Awakens feels like a transition from the old guard to the new, and on that level I think the film works in spades. Yes, Luke (who has never looked more awesome) will be a prominent presence from here on out, but the story of Star Wars feels like it has been handed over to Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8 and Kylo Ren. And that is a very good thing. Especially in the hands of Rian Johnson, who I think has the potential to give us a film of the highest caliber possible for a Star Wars film; especially with this amazing batch of characters at his disposal. JJ Abrams certainly deserves a ton of credit for laying that groundwork, even if I take issue with some of his idolatry for the OT, but I hope Episode VIII takes us back into the world of exploration, adventure and discovery Lucas was so great at delivering.
The Force Awakens probably sits as my fourth favorite Star Wars film at the moment and I look forward to seeing it again. There are many moments of greatness throughout, and it sets up a future for this franchise that is extremely promising. This 17 month wait for Episode VIII is going to be brutal.