STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Review
“It’s another Death Star,” says an X-Wing pilot at a briefing, talking about Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Starkiller Base. He’s immediately told it’s not - this thing is 17 times bigger than the Death Star, and it's not a space station, it's a whole planet. This sort of functions as a metaphor for the entire movie, which is kind of a reboot of A New Hope, but bigger and more sprawling and also containing elements of Empire and Jedi.
The Force Awakens is the Star Wars movie for remix and remake culture. It’s not a remake or a reboot, but it’s a movie that tells a story not entirely dissimilar from the original Star Wars, except that many of the familiar beats and moments have a spin put on them. It’s not a princess who hides valuable data in a droid and is tortured for it, it’s an X-Wing pilot. This time it’s a Stormtrooper dressing up as a rebel. And the kid growing up on a backwater desert planet would rather stay there waiting for her family than escape and follow in their footsteps.
“It’s like poetry, they rhyme,” George Lucas famously said about the Prequels, and that may be the only thing that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan took from Episodes I-III when writing The Force Awakens. This movie rhymes, and it rhymes hard, so hard that sometimes scenes feel less like organic moments of storytelling than attempts to revisit concepts from the Original Trilogy. As I watched a squad of X-Wings attack a planet-destroying superweapon that they could only approach after a group of intrepid heroes on the ground disabled the shields I wondered how a universe of infinite possibilities had brought us to this scenario yet again.
The Force Awakens doesn’t take us to familiar locations from the original films, but that’s a formality. The desert planet of Jakku is Tatooine in all but name. The Resistance base isn’t on Yavin IV, but you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Space pirate/Yoda figure Maz Kanata lives in the jungle temple this time, and Starkiller Base itself is kinda Hoth-y. There’s a cantina and a bad guy base with deep trenches and no guardrails. While The Force Awakens feels like the Original Trilogy in design and spirit it misses one of the things that made the OT magical in the moment - a sense of discovery from film to film, a universe that constantly showed us new weird things. The Force Awakens contains little that’s original, just familiar elements slightly remixed.
At least when it comes to story. When it comes to character The Force Awakens delivers on a massive level. Every single major new character is an instant classic, and every single one of them is a character I want to follow through many films, just as we followed Luke and Han and Leia. Very often during the course of the movie I would roll my eyes at some kind of callback or on-the-nose reference to the Original Trilogy only to immediately start smiling ear-to-ear at how magical and alive these characters were.
The Force Awakens is completely and totally a JJ Abrams movie, with all that entails, good and bad. Abrams is, for me, a frustrating filmmaker because he has an eye that is strong, a knack for casting that might be unparalleled and an ability to pace his movies at a rate that sweeps you along faster than you can notice the narrative chasms that he’s leaping. All of these elements are on display in The Force Awakens, a movie that shamelessly panders to nostalgia while also charting an extraordinary future for the franchise, a movie that is great fun but whose sequences are held together by outrageous coincidence or through a complete disregard for narrative connective tissue. The film it most resembles, in the largest sense, is 2009’s Star Trek, a film with a killer cast having a great time in the middle of a stumbling, sometimes moronic story. Like Star Trek 2009, The Force Awakens exists best in the moment when you’re watching it, and is not well served by any sort of deep thought or analysis or consideration.
That’s the bad of Abrams. The good is the miraculous cast and monumental new characters, all having fun and being fun in a story that is slightly below them. I cannot tell you which of these characters is my favorite, as every one of them was dear to me by the end, and each was so well defined that I loved them all for different reasons. But I suspect that if pressed, if forced to truly pick one character, I would go with Kylo Ren as the most intriguing, the most fascinating and the most unexpected of these new characters.
Poe Dameron is the first new lead we meet. He’s a great, straight down the middle hero - an ace pilot, a loyal servant of General Leia, a brave man, kind to his droid and steadfast in the face of torture. Oscar Isaac finds the two-fisted pulp basis of Poe and makes him pop alive in an array of colors that are blazingly bright. Poe’s a guy who just does the right thing, who is loving to his friends, who has an internal strength that could be cheesy without the twinkling wryness in Isaac’s eyes. I don’t know that there’s ever been a hero as straight ahead as Poe in Star Wars, as much an uncomplicated good guy.
That lack of complication makes Poe stand out among the new characters, all of whom are questing for themselves. Finn doesn’t even have a name - he’s FN 2187, a Storm Trooper taken from his family before he can remember and conditioned into perfect obedience. But on his first combat mission he experiences the twinge of conscience and cannot take part in the massacre of a village. He escapes the evil First Order and pretends to be a Resistance fighter to impress a girl... and slowly grows into the role.
John Boyega is a marvel as Finn (Poe gives him that name), playing the character as equal parts terrified and heroic. He’s a guy cursed to give a shit, a guy who can’t let bad things happen to others, a guy who clearly has no future in the Stormtrooper ranks. He’s blustery, full of big talk he can’t always back up, but he’s also heroic in the most fundamental way - he will charge into a bad situation to help even if he’s hopelessly outmatched. In a film full of very funny moments, Finn has the funniest ones, and they all organically come from his character.
One of the great recurring bits involving Finn are his attempts to save Rey, a woman who very, very much never needs any saving. If the script insists on remixing familiar elements to give them new twists none are as welcome as this one - Rey is the single most capable and self-sufficient character in the film. Her journey is rushed, for sure, but it’s so goddamned satisfying that it’s hard to hold it against the film.
Daisy Ridley is an extraordinary find, an example of the kind of casting that is peak JJ Abrams. All but unknown before this film Ridley leaves The Force Awakens an honest-to-god star, the actor who carries the film’s biggest cheer moment and possibly the best addition to the Star Wars universe since the days when Luke Skywalker was wearing all white. She’s a scavenger on Jakku, abandoned there long ago and waiting for her family - who she doesn’t know - to return for her. She’s afraid to move on, terrified that if she ever leaves the sands of Jakku she’ll miss her chance to be reunited. That fear paralyzes her, and the only way she can overcome it is compassion - first her own for the lost droid BB-8, and later the compassion she gets from Finn and her new surrogate father Han Solo.
Rey is a fighter, used to surviving on her own. She has a genius level mechanical mind. And, it quickly becomes apparent, she’s Force sensitive. That might actually be too soft a word, as the film has her blasting her way to very high level Jedi abilities with no training or time. Imagine if A New Hope ended with Luke taking on Vader and you get a sense of where Rey is about halfway through this movie. But Ridley is so incredible, and plays her Force discovery so well, that you feel like a nitpicker for even noticing it.
Ridley and Boyega share incredible chemistry; their every scene together is a blast, and when the plot separates them you can’t wait for them to find one another. Boyega and Isaac also have great chemistry; the Star Wars films demand that you believe characters become lifelong best friends within moments of meeting each other, and Boyega and Isaac make you feel that spark and connection in their first act scenes together. I love these three new leads, and I cannot wait to see what happens to them next. I can’t wait to explore these wonderful characters more, to really get into their adventures and their histories and have them become familiar old friends like Luke, Han and Leia.
Then there’s Kylo Ren.
The heroes are wonderful additions to the Star Wars universe, characters I have come to love completely after just two hours, but they feel like Star Wars characters. They’re characters written in bold strokes, characters who popped off the pages of a comic book. Kylo Ren is different. Kylo Ren is a character with psychological underpinnings that are complex and thrilling. Kylo Ren has a depth to him that George Lucas wanted to get at with Anakin Skywalker in the Prequels, but failed. Kylo Ren is Anakin done right.
He’s petulant. When an officer brings him bad news Ren lights his ragged saber and slices and dices a computer console while crying out. He’s cocksure. Ren is filled with an outer confidence that masks a terrible lack of self-esteem. Most of all, he’s torn. He worships the Dark Side and wants to follow in the path of Darth Vader, but he feels the pull of the light side within himself. He prays to Vader to take away this internal conflict, to let him extinguish the light and be consumed by the darkness… but that light will not go out.
I love Kylo Ren. I was fascinated by him and his struggle. The First Order is not particularly well explained in this film - it’s just Empire Too, basically - but you get a sense that Ren’s position within it is perhaps tenuous, that he might be a pawn himself. And he knows it, which feeds into not only the brutality of his actions but also his rivalry with Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux. It’s a very different relationship than any that Vader had with any Imperial admirals. But within this tenuous position is a man, one with softly good looks under his mask, struggling to find himself in the universe, to define himself within a legacy and to eradicate the parts of himself that still feel things, despite all the atrocities he has committed.
This isn’t Darth Vader. This isn’t the in control badass who defined the OT. Kylo Ren is a ball of emotions, lashing out at those around him, reacting strongly to the revelation that Rey is strong with the Force, full of shame and self-loathing. Adam Driver is incredible in the part; his voice through the mask comes through a fuzzbox, but when that mask comes off - in two incredibly emotional scenes - he is a cauldron of turmoil. Star Wars has never had a villain like this before.
It’s not clear how strong Ren is. Abrams shoots his Force abilities with a very different eye than any of the previous directors; in one scene Ren stops a blaster bolt coming at him AND the shooter, and Stormtroopers drag the astonished shooter past the still motionless bolt. In another Abrams positions Ren and a First Order commander on opposite sides of the wide screen and has the Dark Sider use the Force to whip the fascist across the room to him. There’s a dynamic style to this that sizzles.
Ren is involved in a final saber duel that is tremendous. Much of the CGI action in The Force Awakens left me cold - while the aerial battles are well done they felt essentially uninspired - the last duel is perhaps second best in the whole seven film series (say what you will about the Prequels but that Darth Maul fight is an all-timer). It’s great not because it’s full of incredible choreography or unusual use of lightsabers but because there is so much emotion in it. I have complained that The Force Awakens has a dearth of original ideas, but this fight is original in every way, and possibly the absolute best part of the film. And perhaps for the first time in the entire series I found myself as invested in the villain as the heroes. This is what Lucas wanted me to feel in the final battle in Revenge of the Sith. Abrams accomplished what Lucas couldn’t.
These new characters are joined by a handful of the old favorites. Leia isn’t a princess anymore, she’s a general. Carrie Fisher is fierce in the role, but I found myself disappointed that in many ways Leia hasn’t evolved past where she was in The Empire Strikes Back. She’s still standing around a holo display giving orders to soldiers. Her title has changed, but little else has. It’s like coming to your 20th high school reunion and seeing the same teachers are still there and wondering why they haven’t moved on yet.
Han Solo and Chewbacca are back in the smuggling game. Ford is engaged again, and he’s having fun back in his old role. He has terrific chemistry with the new actors, and their scenes together are often joyful, even if some of them are kinda stupid. There’s a big chase in Solo’s smuggler freighter that involves two groups of bounty hunter types, Han and Chewie, Finn and Rey and a trio of glaringly CG ravenous tentacle monsters that works because of the actors, not because of the filmmaking. And it’s Ford (along with a very game Ridley) that makes the most of that scene.
I can’t say much about Han - this is where we start to get into legitimate spoilers - but I will say that I couldn’t help but feel the same sadness about him that I felt about Leia. Both these characters are back where they started, and I can’t quite figure out how much of that is an attempt at thematic melancholy and how much of that is an attempt to return these characters to their most familiar positions. The Force Awakens is blindingly fast paced, and I feel like a lot of narrative tissue was brutally cut from the film, but these two returning original cast members are the only place where I felt like emotional tissue was lost for speed.
Yeah, I haven’t mentioned Luke Skywalker. The first sentence of the opening crawl is “Luke Skywalker has vanished,” so you shouldn’t expect much of him in the film, although I would have liked to have more of his presence hanging over the main plot, which is ostensibly about getting a map that leads to his location. Having Luke reduced to a MacGuffin is, honestly, a little weird.
Here’s what Star Wars: The Force Awakens needed to accomplish: it needed to be better than the Prequels, and it is. It needed to introduce an iconic new set of heroes, and it did. Finally it needed to be at least a good movie, and it pretty much squeaks to this level. The Force Awakens is not a great movie by any means, especially in a year where two other returns to 70s franchises were absolute home runs. It’s not as good as any of the Original Trilogy, but it’s better than all of the Prequels. It’s got all the flaws that make JJ Abrams films frustrating to me, but it also has all of the positive aspects that make his best films very watchable. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is okay, and it leaves us in a place that makes me hopeful for the future of the series.
For most of its running time The Force Awakens is content to riff on and remix elements and story and emotional beats from the Original Trilogy - right up until the final saber duel in the snow. It’s there, after about 100 minutes, that The Force Awakens finally comes into its own, that it finally spreads its own original wings, and then the film barrels towards a final shot that is visually small but emotionally enormous. The film traffics in nostalgia until the ending, when it begins blazing its own path, one that I’m excited to follow to Episode VIII.