The good news is that Star Wars: The Force Awakens works. It largely succeeds at the many monumental things it needed to achieve. JJ Abrams has delivered a new Star Wars movie that blows all the prequels out of the water, offers new characters that are fully-formed and alive enough to carry this franchise into the future, and above all, is mostly a blast to watch.
That’s no small achievement. There are so many ways a new Star Wars film could have disappointed us. We could have been stuck with too much fan service, too much focus on old characters. Instead, The Force Awakens is bold enough to insist (when it comes to characters anyway) we invest in its own inventions. Who needs R2-D2 when you have BB-8?
But just as BB-8 is kind of just an amended copy of R2-D2, The Force Awakens is largely an amended copy of A New Hope. Devin already went into this in his spot-on review, but Abrams’ answer to extending the Star Wars story is basically to put new paint on what came before. The film is structurally so similar to A New Hope that knowledge of the older film is almost a preloaded spoiler.
That’s a demerit, but some won’t mind. There is so much to see and feel in The Force Awakens, familiarity actually provides a bit of comfort. The picture is largely the same, but the similarity offers a greater focus on what’s different. That helps get you through a first viewing without being totally floored by the fact that you’re seeing a new Star Wars movie. It probably hurts the film in the long run, though.
Above all, The Force Awakens’ primary success arrives via the four new characters it introduces. Poe Dameron, Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren are all-timers. I couldn’t tell you which one I loved more. And unlike most other elements in this film, none are direct parallels to our older Star Wars crew. Kylo Ren’s surface similarity to Darth Vader is really just an affectation that confirms the uniqueness of this very interesting and original character. Our new heroes feel like Star Wars characters, but have their own characteristics and share an earnest heroism that’s infectious.
But once all that enthusiasm wears off, many frustrating little things begin to nip away at The Force Awakens. Abrams has effectively carried Star Wars into its new era, but he’s also infected it with characteristic issues. The Force, for instance, now seems like something that requires no training to control. It leads to a great amount of badassery, but once you get home from the theater, it feels a little wrong. The New Order and the Resistance (and the Republic, for that matter) get introduced with almost no explanation, making us feel like we missed a movie. We have a new, shadowy puppet master figure, but have to save figuring him out for a later film. Coincidence (I suppose with Star Wars you could chalk it up to fate, but still) abounds to an almost comical degree.
Ultimately, The Force Awakens is a success. I actually think everything up to the disastrous introduction of Han Solo is nearly perfect. After that, however, it becomes a mixed bag. Abrams gets in there and ensures we all have a ton of fun, but his relentless drive toward that goal creates narrative issues that will increasingly bug fans over time. People who walk out of this movie with hearts in their eyes don’t have a Phantom Menace awakening in their future, but this is a film you want to be friends with rather than marry.