Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens is on pace to becoming the highest grossing movie of all time. Few films have ever been awaited with such excitement and trepidation. After the failure of the George Lucas Prequels, many of us were not easily sold on the idea of more Star Wars films; we wanted it to be good, but were very afraid it would be terrible. Where did Episode VII fall? In my opinion, somewhere in between. It was not at all as bad as the Prequels, for sure. But it was not awesome, either. It avoided the problems of the Prequels, but it had some interesting problems of its own.
Some Ground Rules
First, I presume that if you are reading this review you are probably familiar with the plot, which centers on the attempt to locate Luke Skywalker, who has become a recluse. This review is going to be quite lengthy, so I am not going to spend any time summarizing the plot. I assume you have already seen it or have heard enough about it to understand the basic concept.
Second, I don't care about "spoilers" or "alerting" people to them. This review is full of them and I'm shamelessly going to give away parts of the movie without any consideration for your feelings. Deal with it.
Third, I know that there is a lot more to Star Wars than the films. I know there is a series of books, with stories being deemed "canonical", "non-canonical", Expanded Universe, and what have you. I know that some of the objections I will bring up about the film will probably meet with retorts about "that's how it was in the books" or whatever. Listen, I know there is a small nerd contingent that geeks out over the Star Wars novels, but please, understand, the vast majority of Star Wars fans don't give a damn about the books. They might as well not even exist. For most Star Wars fans, the movies are all there is. I am operating within that framework. I have never read the novels. Will never read the novels. Don't care about the novels. I am your average Star Wars fan.
Now let's dig in!
The Shadow of the Prequels
In the build up to the release of The Force Awakens, many of my friends online were using the hype to make humorous little jabs at the Prequels. "I'm glad they're finally making another Star Wars film in addition to the original trilogy!" The implication being of course that the Prequels were so embarrassing, so horrendous, so poorly done that it is best to forget they ever existed. Even so, it is clear that the shadow of the Prequels was hanging over The Force Awakens from the beginning. Everybody hoped against hope that it wouldn't be awful - like the Prequels. That it would not have an over-reliance on CGI effects - like the Prequels. The the characters would have more emotion and humor instead of dry stoicism - like the Prequels. In other words, everything we all feared this film could be - and hoped it was not - was in reference to the debacle of the Prequels.
That was unavoidable. The degree to which the Prequels tanked the saga has still not fully been appreciated. Some object to the Prequels because of the over-reliance on CGI, because of Jar-Jar, because of the casting. These are all issues; but the real problem with the Prequels is simply that they were made at all. The story simply did not need to be told. Darth Vader's fall is not nearly as interesting as his redemption. But by the late 1990's the Star Wars franchise was such a cash cow that George Lucas could not resist trying to milk Star Wars teat for some more millions, much to the consternation of the whole world.
This fan mortification at the Prequels carried over into our attitude towards The Force Awakens. On the one hand, we were willing to give it a fair shot but could not shake the sinking suspicion that it would suck. The fact that Lucas was out of the picture, Disney in charge (who, to be fair, makes some decent movies), and J.J. Abrahms directing seemed promising. Even so, we were so let down by the Prequels that it was like we lost the ability to even imagine that a new Star Wars movie could be good - like even in concept we were not sure it was possible. Our minds wanted to believe, but our hearts told us it would suck.
This means that - on the other hand - we would be overjoyed if it did not totally suck. And in fact it didn't. The Force Awakens lacked many of the flaws of the Prequels and was much more faithful to the tone of the original trilogy. We were so totally elated that the movie wasn't terrible that we kind of got that elation confused with the movie actually being great. The film is not bad; but it's not excellent, either. It certainly does not deserve the accolades it is getting, with some calling it the best Star Wars movie ever, others going on about how spectacular and fulfilling it was, how Abrams "saved" the franchise, etc. I think this is simply a case of excitement that the movie was better than the Prequels. Of course, there is a big difference between a movie not being terrible and actually being good. In my opinion, this difference has been lost in the hubbub. Yes, it was better than the Prequels; but then again, that's not saying much.
So, like it or not, our experience with the Prequels is what has colored our whole attitude to this movie, from the very day we heard about it up until today.
It has been noted by many reviewers that this film was not so much a sequel as a reboot; that is, it lifted the themes, character arcs, imagery, and plot from the original trilogy and simply represented them in a different light. This is not necessarily bad; Hollywood does reboots all the time. Old films get reinvented by new directors. But that doesn't mean it always works, especially if the reboot is doubling as a sequel. Star Wars The Force Awakens is not sure whether it wants to be a reboot or a sequel. This is problematic, because the elements that would have made a good sequel would not necessarily make a good reboot, and vice versa.
For the film to work as a reboot, it has to essentially recreate the plot and mood of the originals. The Force Awakens was very successful in doing this. I am not going to elaborate on how this was done; I am assuming if you have seen it you noticed immediately the similarities between it and the originals. Once again, Han and Leia find themselves working for an underdog group of scrappers ("the resistance") challenging the big bad First Order, successors to the Galactic Empire. Once again there is a weapon of mass destruction. A force-master of the Dark Side, and his apprentice. A droid with sensitive information. A Jedi master in seclusion (Luke, this time, not Yoda). An attack on said weapon of mass destruction than involves landing on a planet to disable its shields. And so on and so on. It is a total and complete rehash of the originals.
Which is fine - except that, well, for one thing, I don't think fans were expecting a reboot. But more importantly, rebooting all these elements necessitates ignoring the consequences of the original trilogy. At the end of the original trilogy, the Galactic Empire was destroyed and the Republic was restored. With the complete and total annihilation of the Empire's greatest weapon (the Death Star), destruction of the imperial command ship Executor that contained the whole administration of the Galactic Empire (remember, the one that crashed into the Death Star in Return of the Jedi?), and the death of Palpatine, we all were fairly convinced that Republic was restored after Return of the Jedi. From whence then came the First Order?
Yes, I understand that the leadership of the Galactic Senate is inept and that the government of the Republic is probably as beset by administrative problems as our own Republic. But still, despite their faults, presumably they are still in charge? Presumably they still hold power in the galaxy? Presumably the Republic still had a legitimate hegemony? Given the destruction of the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, I think these are the assumptions everybody had.
Therefore, the First Order would be a kind of fringe restorationist group within the Galactic Republic. At the very best, we could assume they are a minority, since we have not been told at the outset that the Republic is not still in charge. If that's the case, how on earth could this group come up with a weapon of the magnitude of the ridiculously named Star Killer - many times larger than the Death Star and capable of harnessing the power of the sun to destroy, not just planets, but whole star systems - under the nose of the Republic? How can this group build a weapon that is many times more powerful than what the Empire was capable of producing at its height? And what exactly is the relationship between the First Order, Republic, and "the Resistance"? Or, as Seth Abramson at Huffington Post put it in his article "40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'":
"What is all this nonsense about the First Order only wanting to destroy the Republic because the Republic is supporting the Resistance? First of all, isn't the Resistance part of the Republic, not a separate operation? And if it is separate, why has the First Order only just now discovered the not-very-well-hidden fact that the Republic is supporting the Resistance? And if the Resistance is in fact a part of the Republic, why didn't Starkiller Base destroy the Republic's planets and moons much, much earlier? In other words, what is the status of the war between the Republic and the First Order at the beginning of The Force Awakens, such that this precise moment is when General Hux decides to simply press a button and destroy the Republic?...And another thing: if the Republic is in power, why is the Resistance the "Resistance"? What are they resisting? Isn't the First Order the "Resistance," as they're resisting the hegemony of the Republic? It's like someone on-set said "the Rebels need a new name," without realizing that the political situation in the Galaxy had totally changed since the events of the previous films."
This is the fundamental problem with the plot: It negates the consequences of the original films in order to recreate the situation at the beginning of A New Hope, which is necessary for the film to be a successful reboot.
If Luke restored balance to the Force and destroyed the Sith, where did the absurdly named Snoke (played by Andy Serkis) come from? And how does he amass an army and bureaucracy that seems to be even better equipped and trained than the Galactic Republic? And how do they have the technology and power to build the Star Killer right under the nose of the Republic? How did the Dark Side get into power again after only thirty years, powerful enough to not only infiltrate the Republic (like Palpatine) but physically destroy it? It's like the rebel victory in Return of the Jedi just never happened.
Speaking of the Republic, this was the biggest let down. Throughout the original trilogy, Leia, Luke and the rest labored for many years and terrible sacrifice for the restoration of the Republic. In Return of the Jedi we are told that many good men were tortured and killed procuring the plans for the Death Star, giving their lives in the hopes that the Republic would be restored. All the striving and hardship of the first three movies was to destroy the Empire and restore the Republic. Unfortunately, in The Force Awakens, we never get to see the Republic. It is mentioned only as a lead in to having it destroyed. And after it is destroyed, it is never mentioned again. No one sheds a tear for it. Leia at least winces when she senses Han Solo has died; in A New Hope, Obi Wan is profoundly shaken when Alderan is destroyed; but when the whole Republic is annihilated in The Force Awakens, everyone just moves on. It is not mentioned again, and its like all the aspirations of the first trilogy are simply negated.
Essentially, the purpose of all this is to hit "reset" and return the state of things to where they were at the beginning of A New Hope. Han is back to smuggling; Leia back to leading the rebellion er, resistance. Everything is reset, ignoring the fact that the events of Return of the Jedi have totally changed the political situation in the galaxy. This is the fundamental proof that Abrams was looking for a "reboot" rather than a sequel. We will examine this idea more when we speak of the characters
That's not to say everything about the plot was bad. What worked about the plot? Throwing a bunch of diverse characters together in a pinch and forcing them to figure out how to work together on the fly was what contributed so much to the great dynamic of the originals. And we have that here again with the unlikely pair of the scavenger Rey and renegade storm trooper Finn. More on the dynamic of these two later, but it is sufficient to say that it worked - kind of.
The mystery surrounding the parentage of Rey also kept one interested enough in the film to build a bridge of suspense to hold us off to the next film. She is strong with the force, so she is clearly of the Skywalker line. But how? Through Han and Leia, and thus as an unsuspecting sibling to Kylo Ren, even as Leia was a "surprise" sibling to Luke in Return of the Jedi? Or possibly the daughter of Luke Skywalker himself through some yet to be revealed wife? This sort of thing echoes the very successful lineage mystery of the original Star Wars.
But these elements are not the plot proper, but rather sub-aspects of the plot. And unfortunately, the larger plot - the story's central narrative - is what I found to be so disappointing about The Force Awakens.
In some sense I was happy with the various settings. The outrageous blue screen/CGI effects that marred the Prequels was largely avoided. I was happy to recognize the Irish monastery of Skellig Michael at the end, which was used for the scene where Rey discovers Luke.
I did notice that it seemed like Abrams was trying to work in every setting from the entire original trilogy into this one movie. We had the desert, the ice world, the forest, the cantina, the imperial command station, the Death Star, Jabba's palace, the Falcon, the torture chamber from A New Hope, the platform where Vader tells Luke he is his father, and so on - of course, these all have different names in The Force Awakens, but the basic settings are all the same. This was one of the ways that Abrams wanted to immerse the audience in the "feel" of the Star Wars universe. I question whether so much of it needed to be stuffed into a single film; literally, almost every scene from the original trilogy is replicated in some sense. It gave the impression of trying too hard - imagery ought to be subtle, to work on the mind in a gentle, subconscious sort of way. The shoving of too much into this one film pushed it too much to the fore.
I have to say the action in this film was paced just right. The Prequels were characterized by action sequences that were way, way over the top; recall the coliseum fight in Attack of the Clones or the absurd final battle between Anakin and Obi Wan at the close of Revenge of the Sith. The Force Awakens is much more restrained in this regard. The light saber fight between Kylo Ren and Rey was perfect - no crazy stunts, nothing fancy, just straight up sword fighting. They got knocked down, they were sweating, they got injured; you could tell it was real. This was one of the most successful aspects of the film.
I was mildly annoyed with the way the storm trooper combat scenes were handled; since when did blasters cause bloodshed? I always assumed they worked by some sort of electronic pulse or trauma. I never imagined they caused bloody wounds. I suspect this was only utilized as an excuse to get blood on Finn's helmet and facilitate his questionable "conversion." Was this a deal breaker? No, not by any means, but it certainly was a disruption in Star Wars convention, one I think could have been done without.
A word on the characters in general, and then on some of them in particular. I liked the cast overall. Rey was perfect, but more on her below. Finn - meh, he was kind of weird, but it worked. I question the wisdom of bringing back Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, but granted that they were brought back, I guess what you see is what you get. The Kylo Ren character was very interesting, much more so than Darth Maul, Count Dooku or the one-dimensional villains of the Prequels. I was bummed that Oscar Isaac didn't have more screen time, but I'm sure Poe will be back in the future films.
J.J. Abrams seemed intent on reintroducing a little bit more humor as well as discord into the characters relations. If we watch the original trilogy, one is struck by both the amount of fooling around and the amount of bickering that goes on among the protagonists. When we get to the Prequels, the characters are emotionless, stoic, dry, and hyper-serious - they are also slow, physically. Unless they are performing unrealistic, digitally enhanced stunts, they are walking, talking, standing, walking, sitting, etc. The Prequels were much criticized in this respect. Abrams seemed determined that this would not happen in The Force Awakens, for there is much more humor, playful banter, and the sort of character interaction we remember from the originals. And there is precious little of the "walking and talking" from the Prequels. This was great.
Sometimes the humor was a little forced; there were some awkward scenes with Finn and Rey that seemed unnatural. Han Solo's attempts at humor fell flat. But still, I'll take the so-so humor of The Force Awakens over the stoicism of the Prequels.
One last thing - one reason the Prequels failed is because of the lack of a clear protagonist. Was it Obi Wan? Was it Anakin? Was is Padme-Amidala? Each of the characters in the Prequels was tormented by major moral failings or naivete. They were difficult to identify with, at least as protagonists. What was so attractive about the original trilogy was that, whatever the faults of the protagonists, their moral goodness ultimately carried them through. Leia's devotion to the cause. Luke's commitment to his friends. Han's fundamental goodness despite his selfishness. In the Prequels, the characters were flawed but without any underlying moral goodness to see them through. In The Force Awakens, we are once again introduced to basically good characters whose moral goodness and devotion to each other see them through their challenges and lead the viewer on to a more or less satisfactory conclusion.
Let's look at some of the characters in particular.
I really liked Rey. I mean, it took awhile for her to come alive, but she was the best part of the movie. She provided the underlying moral goodness that serves as the lodestar of the protagonist group; Rey has been described as the "Luke" of the new movies. I connected with Rey fairly easily, though it took a little while. It was a little suspicious that she was able to advance so far in the Force so quickly; she is able to do in only a few days what it took Luke years of training to accomplish. That she could stand her own in a light saber fight with Kylo Ren suggests either an amazing - almost unbelievable - aptitude with the Force on her part, or else Kylo Ren is the most bumbling and inept leader to ever serve the Dark Side.
I particularly like that there was no attempt to make Rey "hot." She was certainly physically attractive, but in a modest, tom-boy sort of way. Compare Rey's demeanor and dress to the way Natalie Portman was portrayed in the Prequels. Remember these outfits?