Many have tried to explain the legacy behind Star Wars. Many have tried to understand how this has become such a multi-decade phenomenon despite it’s creator’s seeming ambivalence towards the series for nearly two decades. No matter your feeling about the prequels, it’s impossible to deny that the prequels failed to fan the same flames that the first trilogy ignited. Yet despite all of those set backs, the fandom continues and has re-emerged in a way that has so far been impossible to replicate in the dozens of Hollywood rebates that have emerged over the last 15 years. Only Disney, by carefully appealing to the egos of comic book fans, has emerged with any measure of success. But even Marvel had to prove itself. With Star Wars, only the promise of a new movie is needed to bring fans into uproar.
I have my own theories about this phenomenon. About how good casting and a troubled production combined with George’s passion for good science fantasy. Good characters make any story, and good acting and good writing and good directing all are needed for good characters. Somehow, that original trilogy had it. Even with Irvin Kirshner’s monstrous need for perfection, or George’s questionable toy-focused changes for Return of the Jedi, we loved the characters and wanted to see them succeed against the equally well made villains.
I think this explains how despite how impressive the prequels look, and despite the impressive scope of it’s story, they pale in comparison to the originals. Lawrence Kasdan, the genius who wrote the last two of the original trilogy, abandoned George’s vision for the prequels. With a single man writing and directing, and with his legacy pushing away his critics during production, good characters have a hard time emerging. I don’t blame Hayden Christianson, or Natalie Portman, or Ewan McGregor, or Jake Lloyd. I don’t even blame George. I blame everyone around him for not saying a damn thing. Stories are collaborative, not a dictatorship.
With The Force Awakens, I think we’re seeing Hollywood’s first successful attempt at relocating that formula again. Sure, we have the original actors, but Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, and Gwendolyn Christie are great actors in their own right who aren’t yet successful enough to have an ego. J.J. Abrams is showing the kind of single-minded dedication and passion that George did in the original trilogy. We’ve even got Lawrence Kasdan back writing and John Williams making the music. By all rights, the formula is there, but they’ve got a shit ton more money now. So, does the formula work? Has Disney recaptured the essence of Star Wars?
The short version: Yes.
The long version: Well, sorta, and let’s get into that.
**A note for those avoiding spoilers, the below should not spoil you on the movie at all. There are no plot details, only character names and a general feeling for what the character is and how it works in the movie. That said, if you are on a media blackout and don’t want to know a damn thing about this movie, even things that were officially released by Disney, then stop here. For that matter, why the hell are you reading this review. Go see the damn movie already.
This review is crafted for those who might have seen the trailers, but are unsure of whether this is the next Phantom Menace or not. If you want to know more about whether the movie is worth it for you or not before you see it, keep reading.
The New Heroes
©Copyright Lucasfilm 2015
John Boyega’s and Daisy Ridley’s performances of the new heroes, Finn and Rey, is genuine and delightful. When combined with Harrison Ford’s older-but-not-necessarily-wiser Han Solo and the same-as-always Chewbacca, I feel like the magic of those simple interactions, the witty banter, the teamwork of ideas, and the sheer luck of their survival, is back.
And while the characters fall into similar molds as the original cast, they’re also differentiated enough, and fresh enough, to carry their own weight. Rey seems to be the new series’ Han Solo, yet I find her falling back and forth within the role of a Luke Skywalker. Finn dangles between the whiney and idealistic Luke, the selfish survival instincts of a Han Solo, and the determination and motivation of Leia.
That said, I felt like Finn suffered a bit from the breakneck pace of the movie. We’re not given enough time to sympathize with the character, and so there are some moments when we are supposed to sympathize with what happened to him, and it didn’t work for me. That said, I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of this character in the future, and they do have three movies to make it happen.
There are a few scenes in which Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron work together, and it gives me great hope for the future of the series. Their interactions are delightful, undeniably funny, and offer a sense of comradery that we never got a lot out in the original trilogy. Mostly because Luke’s friends all died pretty quickly when they fought with him. We don’t see a lot of Poe Dameron, but I found myself intrigued with his character and wanting to see more of it in the future.
I won’t go into Lupita Nyong’o’s character here, because it’s kinda spoliery, and there’s not much to really talk about anyway. But I will say that because of a conversation between her and Rey, this movie actually barely passes the Bechdel test.
The New Villians
©Copyright Lucasfilm 2015
Adam Driver undeniably steals the show as Kylo Ren. This character is as complex as I hoped, and maybe even surpassed my expectations. Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams do a great job of creating a new and fresh version of Darth Vader that is, in my opinion, actually more terrifying than Darth Vader ever was. This was most likely a difficult performance for Adam Driver, as the character is always teetering on the edge of chaos and madness, and that requires just as much attention to small details, little facial expression, the way he walks, his arms stride, the quickness of his reaction. And yet, he has to be able to explode with authenticity. Adam Driver perfects this character, and is easily the most memorable performance in an already strong cast of characters.
But because of the sheer breakneck pace of the action in this movie, many new characters are forgettable, even to the extent of seeming pointless. Despite the marketing campaign pushing Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma as something special, her presence seems utterly pointless in the movie. She could have been replaced by a random Stormtrooper or even a black clothed officer, and it would have made just as much sense.
Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux is equally as forgettable, although he gets more screen time. That said, Gleeson does as well as he can in the roll he’s given. The only reason his closest analogue, Grand Moff Tarkin, was memorable was because of the gravitas inherent in Peter Cushing’s performance. Domhnall Gleeson can’t compete with the powerhouse performances of the other characters.
The Old Characters
Harrison Ford does a decent job of reigniting his role as Han Solo. Han is just as much of a scoundrel and kick ass blaster wielder as he was in the original trilogy. Some may complain at his spryness at his advanced age, but I feel he earns it, and to be honest, Han Solo was never as much of a physical character as Luke. Han and Chewie are back, and I feel like the two of them are picking up exactly where they left off.
To talk about Carrie Fisher’s portrayal of Leia gets a little too close to spoilers for my comfort. But I will say that I was actually disappointed in Han and Leia’s interactions. I think Carrie did as well as she could for what was given to her, but the writing for their interactions didn’t make sense on an emotional level.
The New/Old Story
I’ve eluded to this throughout my review of the characters, but the complaint that’s erupting through the internet right now is that this story is a rehash of the original Star Wars: A New Hope. This is only partly true. Yes, the film is annoyingly self-referential at times. Even the little things, like scene that feels very much like a Leia-slipping-Death-Star-Plans-to-R2 moment. It’s J.J. doing J.J.
That said, this film was never supposed to be anything but a glorious return to form. The film is different enough in enough ways for me to forgive some of the distracting homages, and maybe it helps that when those homages happen, they don’t last too long. There’s no Spock-yelling-Khan moment in this movie, thankfully.
The New Unknown
But while I’m willing to forgive a few of the J.J. Abrams-isms, I’m rather conflicted about the plot. The plot seems mostly non-existent at times, as we get tossed from one battlefield and scary situation to the next, almost like an arena of constantly spawning opponents. The story points to greater mysteries at times, enticing you to stay, but then thrusting you forward to the next scene before you can even get out of the cart. The worst part is that the plot is filled with so many convenient movement devices, otherwise known as deus ex machina, that it almost feels like a Doctor Who special. Sure, it’s awe-inspiring, but I kept wanting to ask, “why did that happen” or “why was that there?” Yet the movie never responded, and that’s a bit of a shame.
I can appreciate that there are many things that will be explained in later movies, and even standalones, but I was also hoping to see that Star Wars storytelling might have evolved since the 1977 release of Star Wars, which is a movie that was actually written by George Lucas, and not Lawrence Kasdan.
But maybe I’m uncomfortable to be put into the position within a big new unknown. For decades I’ve been able to study the Expanded Universe, watch the characters grow, consider the ramifications of the prequels, and dissect every little detail about Star Wars. With this movie, there are so many things happening that are completely unfamiliar to me. Most of them will be explained in some fashion, I’m sure, but I wonder if that is what’s creating my ambivalence about the movie. The Force Awakens does everything it’s supposed to do. It re-creates the awe and sense of mystery that A New Hope accomplished so many years ago. It re-invigorated a fandom that was waning, brought people out of the woodwork to finally return to Star Wars again, and maybe there’s something to be said for that. Maybe there’s something to be said for those fans like myself, and new fans, who never saw A New Hope without context, can now point to The Force Awakens and say, “That was my A New Hope moment.” Then again, maybe I’m trying to justify a movie whose plot is undeniably flawed.
But as I said above, Star Wars movies are not made on their plot. Classically, they’ve always done well when you have intriguing and dynamic characters and a vast universe of possibility. And that’s what Disney gave us on December 18th. For me, the unknown and the endless speculation that it’ll bring forward is exciting to me. It’s not a perfect movie in any sense, and I feel like the 9.5 rating that Rotten Tomatoes gave it is a bit undeserved. I would have knocked it down to an 8.0 at least for the amount of times I got distracted by glaring plot issues.
But The Force Awakens does what it needs to do quite well. It brings us back into the series, briefly introduces us into a galaxy that has changed so dramatically, and creates compelling characters that we will grow to love as more movies come. Despite it’s sometimes shallow and convenient plot, I do recommend seeing it at least once, and probably a few times, if you actually think you might care about Star Wars. There are some gems of mystery that I’m hoping to revisit on future viewings. Regardless, the characters are what we are really coming to a Star Wars movie for, and that’s what this movie introduces quite well. If this is setting up the best Star Wars sequels ever made, then I’m okay with a Disney roller coaster.