I would be glad to agree with the eyerollers that Star Wars has reached a nausea-inducing threshold. It should be by now, shouldn’t it? But I’m still a sucker for more content. I am a fan of the online game Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMORPG that takes place in the pre-movie world of Jedi and Sith forces at odds. I find it is immersive and fun, and the game squeezes in some good storytelling content. So Star Wars is still fresh in my mind with stories to tell in that world.
The less personal and more universal reason that Star Wars still sells a tsunami of output has to do with it being a perfect pastiche of other genres. It has a clever resonance that vibrates as universally as any fictional world ever has. Star Wars, from its conception in 1975, must have been a very weird film when they were putting it together. The effort is as much a collage as anything Tarantino does today. This long article is so wonderful about the pastiche of styles that Lucas incorporated, that I won’t add anything more to it.
The original movie also worked splendiferously because of the right kind of collaboration Lucas had when he made it: from the model makers to the costumers, creature molders, sound design, and a legendary musical score. It also succeeded by being made in England, with a superb supporting cast of Hammer studio veterans who knew how to deliver lines. It spawned a million imitators, and while great sci-fi and great fantasy films have been made since then, I don’t think any have ever happened hit the right note at the right time to become as iconic as the first Star Wars has.
Episode VII, The Force Awakens (TFA) gets certain things right that satisfy my nostalgia for the originals. It also hits the right beats for telling a new story. With those basic things going for it, I say the bottom line is that, yes, it’s worth seeing. It will be compared favorably, inevitably, to the prequels – the poor prequels – I say with regret and pity. (I’ll have more to say on that, later.) The best Star Wars movies to me are still the first two that were made: Episode IV, A New Hope (ANH), and Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back (ESB).
I put TFA on par with Episode VI, Return of the Jedi (RoTJ), which I’ll call the weakest of the first three movies. In RoTJ, I really like the Jabba’s palace sequence in the beginning, and the coda of Luke vs. Vader vs. Palpatine. But the Ewoks and the second death star sequence are parts of the movie where Star Wars starts to flatline for me. The reason for this is because both sequences could be excised from the film, replaced with almost any other side stories, without losing any of the impact of the denouement involving Luke. The two first films have story beats that all move the story forward to the final act, and each part feeds into the rest of the story, moving it forward. RoTJ and TFA are on par, then, for me, as the good parts are iconic and as good as it gets, and then there are parts I felt were there to fill time and justify a lot of effects being used.
I’m keeping this review opaque to avoid spoilers, so I’m going to talk about broad plot points, but I’m avoiding specifics on which character in context something happening might refer to.
What the movie gets right: the idea of the Force. There are no midichlorians in this one, thank the maker. The Force is mysterious, but it is a relatable fable of faith. Relatable, I mean, because whether you are Christian, Muslim, or believe in ineffable existentialism, etc., the Force is a metaphor for a deeper meaning to existence than merely existing. There is a power fantasy to the protagonists and antagonists being able to use the Force to do amazing, even supernatural things, and to continuously overcome unrealistic odds. The Force being mystical is what raises this story approach above just a matter of characters randomly having super powers with no context. The Jedis are not super heroes, but remain grounded in an older, chivalric idea of heroism.
The new characters are defined and contrasted well, distinctly drawn with personalities, and I think they all have staying power for future films, if they return. (No spoilers!) I find I can care about what happens to the new characters: Poe, Rey, and Finn. Rey is the seemingly orphaned girl was left behind on a desert planet, who exhibits a terror of being abandoned, which makes her plight heartening, and one with which the audience can clearly sympathize. This is a heroine with an arc. Similarly for Finn, who makes a momentous decision to leave behind the life he knew as a stormtrooper to on a journey of discovery as well.
The pacing is very fast, but that is how it was in the original films, too. We barely get to know Poe, Finn, and Rey before they are out having adventures. I liked that. I liked the way the ships looked. I liked how the world felt a little worn and lived-in. These are characters that are relatable. It’s the simplest concept to understand, but it’s no small feat to pull off on a scale like this.
Han Solo was used well. Harrison Ford got to play the character as an old grizzled cowboy, and it was tonally perfect. This is Han with the right motivation to be doing what he is doing, for getting in the trouble he does, and perfectly understandable for why he heads into a fight and adventure without looking back. I was surprised at how much Han and Chewie there were in the film, but it’s what the fans wanted to see, and I found every bit of it worked.
As far as Kylo Ren, I thought the new villain was handled perfectly. Going back and watching ANH, Vader is kind of an enigma in the film. He is a mostly quiet, armored badass who spends much of the time sulking in the corner. He is clearly intimidating, but also someone that the Imperial military commanders feel comfortable in talking back to, or arguing with – even if Vader gets a little force-chokey. Ren is a very well-conceived villain that calls back to this early relationship that Vader had with Tarkin. He is not a single dictator, nor is he just a cool-looking character with no personality like Darth Maul. He’s a powerful villain: scary, but also unstable; he’s young, angry, troubled, and unsure whether he can measure up to Vader’s legacy. This was the best approach I think could be taken for this character.
Okay, being spoiler free: there are deaths. I thought they were handled as well as they could be. We want to see deaths have meaning, and when heroes die heroically, then it is all the better.
A good review which I pretty much entirely agree with by the panel at RedLetterMedia points out that this movie could be considered what Hollywood is calling a “soft reboot” much in the way the Jurassic Park movie this year similarly was not a full reboot, but a fourth sequel to an original trilogy, leading to a new trilogy. In that sense, TFA left me a little deflated. For one, in order to propel the story forward, and to even have an existential threat of an evil empire, there is the implication that what was so hard fought and won in the first trilogy didn’t work out, which is a downer. This reviewer at io9 pointed it out, and I agree, that it does leave one a little disappointed that it is implied that the main characters had an unhappy resolution at the end of RoTJ. Nevertheless, it works. Forward, we go.
::|:: Nerdy Nit-Picking ::|::
So, on disappointments, I have some. For one, the whole obvious call-outs to previous movies just was a little dull. Another super weapon, semi death-star kind of thing? I couldn’t help but think of J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek – another soft-reboot – and Nero and his planet-crunching mining vessel. Beat-for-beat, they are so similar, that I believe that if you were to see this movie without knowing that it was directed by J.J. Abrams, you might guess it from the shockingly repetitive motif here compared to Star Trek.
The biggest gripe I have with the super-weapon is that when you keep upping the ante of super-weapons being more powerful and more intimidating, the less tension you have to play with for the next one. It’s the old “turn it up to 11” conundrum when you want to get louder than loudest.
None of these super-weapons will ever pack the emotional impact of the Death Star in ANH. When Tarkin started blowing up planets, it was a direct reference to fears in the real world. It was a specific callback to the massacres of World War 2, and a very clear analogy to threats of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads in the 1970s. In ANH, we got not only the cries of Leia when Alderaan is destroyed, but we also see Obi-Wan become instantly upset from feeling the genocide of Alderaan through the Force. All this happens while Tarkin chews the scenery just right – he is practical, rational, so seemingly civilized – and he practically twists his mustache with delight.
In TFA, I don’t get exactly why the First Order wants to destroy planets, and I don’t feel invested in deaths here at all, even though one has to assume they are way up into the millions. If we see the same plot device hit over and over in each movie, each time supposedly raising the stakes, the amount of destruction in this fake world gets depressing, and rather than get invested in it, I just start feeling numb and realize “it’s just a movie.”
It’s ironic that it takes this turn, because otherwise the movie starts out treating deaths very well. The movie establishes in the first scene that deaths are individually a tragic thing, and we see how a single death in the context of a battle is still devastating, even while hundreds of deaths occur around it. I found the cruel, personal deaths, such as the stormtroopers killing innocents in a village as a matter of policy, all made it very clear that the First Order were the bad guys. I was more moved by this than the super-weapon sub-plot.
On a more cynical note, as I watched yet another X-Wing going into trenches to blow up a MacGuffin, I sensed that this was showing me exactly what the video game that comes out eventually will involve. I won’t quibble that it looked very good. In another way that it stands out as superior to the prequels, it didn’t try to go over the top by shoving hundreds and hundreds of ships on screen. Special effects and CGI-wise, it was very well done, because it the right amount of minimalism to be enjoyable. No complaints, technically. Full cheers. However, this part of the storyline just didn’t introduce anything new to me. So I was fine in watching a repeat, but that toe-hold to realistic danger just wasn’t there for me.
The cold war and WW2 analogies from the first movie are a little stale now. The unhinged, unpredictable, violence of a group of fanatics is the kind of thing which is truly scary nowadays; ISIS is a more unnerving threat than a fascist empire. And the storyline filled that role perfectly with an unhinged Kylo Ren. That was already accomplished. A super-weapon sub-plot in the movie added nothing to the tension for me.
A note here on Rey, and I say this isn’t a spoiler beyond what anyone has seen from the trailer. As others have pointed out, I found that there wasn’t much tension with her scenes given that she was just very good at everything that she did. Look, I’m all for “grrrl power” in sci-fi, and enjoyed Rey just for the character that she was. I could accept, for instance, that she was very good at tinkering with gizmos, given that she was a scavenger and mechanic. I bought that she was a skilled fighter and survivor, and she could defend herself from attackers with a melee staff. Still, it was a bit too much that she was also an expert pilot right away. I could have used a throw-away line that she had worked as a freighter pilot on weekends or something, just to make it a little more believable that she could jump into a pilot seat and do barrel rolls in a spaceship.
Much has been made of Luke being a whiney kid in ANH, but that was part of the journey: Luke had to earn Han Solo’s respect. Having Rey show up and instantly earn the respect from other characters because she is so very good at her job was a little weak, story-wise.
::|:: Post-Credit Thoughts ::|::
A last word on the prequels. Walking out of the theater last night, I reflected that I was glad they got the Force right in this one, and then I felt an immense sadness. What a waste of an opportunity the prequels were. I will just note that after seeing TFA, the prequels really come through as just not actually proper movies, but at best could be called experimental films.
I keep thinking, again, how this movie will be constantly compared to the prequels. I kind of wince at that. George Lucas probably feels very hurt and defensive how much more this film will be adored, compared to Episodes I-III.
Quibbles with the prequels are an art unto themselves. Yes, Lucas should have invited more draft revisions to his script, and yes, should have asked someone else to direct, and yes, should have used practical sets and locations to add a sense of reality. Those drawbacks are all on him and maybe his handlers. I feel bad, because, after seeing TFA, I reminded again at how much the original movie was a triumph of using pastiche so successfully, so George Lucas still gets more credit for creating Star Wars than I would give J.J. Abrams for refining it.
There is no character design as “cool” looking in TFA as Darth Maul or General Grievous. But the new characters, Finn, Rey, Poe, and Kylo Ren, all have arcs in which we feel invested, which was completely missing from the prequels. I can easily imagine the prequels being cut up an interspersed as cut scenes for a first-person shooter game wherein you play the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi. I grieve for what a waste it was with Ewan MacGregor playing Obi-Wan, that he wasn’t given a proper journey with which we in the audience could relate to.
The prequels contained beautifully rendered worlds, spaceships, and underwater cities. As digital art, they were magnificent. As settings for a drama performed in front of green screen, they were just flat. This isn’t for lack of any talent Lucas’ team had in creating worlds, but a lack of foresight that the movies weren’t going to work being done the way they were being attempted with purely digital settings. The prequels would have worked better just as cartoons, or produced as video games.
::|:: Bottom Line ::|::
The Force Awakens is easily the fourth best movie in the franchise, and it could be argued it is above Return of the Jedi. I happen to think not, though. RoTJ is crucial to paying off the storyline of ESB. And any Star Wars movie is going to exist in a tough creative space to judge, seeing as it will exist somewhere between The Empire Strikes Back, which is simply one of the best movies of all time, and above the unfortunate prequels.