Michele and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Thursday evening. We both wanted to go ASAP in order to avoid the inevitable spoilers that would soon be proliferating the Internet.
What did I think of it? Short answer: I liked it. Long answer: read the rest of this review.
Be advised: there are MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you have not seen the movie yet and do not want it ruined for you then do not proceed any further.
1) First things first
In many ways the set-up of The Force Awakens is similar to the original trilogy. Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the remnants of the Empire have reorganized as the fascist First Order. Opposing them is the Resistance, a movement made up of both veteran members of the Rebel Alliance including General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and a younger generation of freedom fighters. The Republic has begun to reform and is providing backing to the Resistance. Both the Resistance and the First Order are attempting to locate Luke Skywalker, who vanished years before.
Elsewhere in the galaxy, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have gone back to smuggling. Due to personal tragedy, Han is once again a man who wants no part of any noble cause. He’s looking to stay as far away from the war between the Resistance and the First Order as possible. However, once again, despite his wishes, Han and his Wookie best friend are reluctantly drawn into the conflict.
2) New faces
Writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt introduce several new characters in The Force Awakens.
The main protagonist is Rey (Daisy Ridley) a teenager eking out an existence on the desert world of Jakku. She comes across the droid BB-8, whose owner is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance pilot captured by the First Order. (For those who didn’t catch it, Poe is the son of Shara Bey and Kes Dameron from the Marvel Comics miniseries Star Wars: Shattered Empire.)
BB-8 contains part of a map Poe located, a guide to Luke Skywalker’s location. Rey and BB-8 soon encounter Finn (John Boyega), a young Stormtrooper who defected from the First Order and helped Poe escape. Crash-landing on Jakku, Finn is separated from Poe. Looking for a way off the barren planet and away from the First Order, Finn joins Rey in attempting to return BB-8 to the Resistance.
On the opposite side of the fence, the First Order’s efforts to locate BB-8 are spearheaded by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force. Accompanying him are the ruthless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and armored officer Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Ren and Hux report directly to the Supreme Leader of the First Order, the mysterious Snoke (Andy Serkis), who only appears as a hologram.
3) The Good, the Bad, and the Whiny
Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt do a good job introducing the new heroes in The Force Awakens, making them compelling characters. I definitely became very interested in Rey, Finn and Poe as the movie progressed. The fact that Ridley, Boyega and Isaac all turned in solid performances certainly helped to sell this next generation to me.
I did think Finn had a few too many humorous “Aww yeah” lines of dialogue. You would think someone raised by a militaristic dictatorship might be a bit more socially awkward and have some trouble coming up with snarky remarks.
There’s also the breakout “star” of the movie, namely the droid BB-8, who looks across between R2-D2 and a soccer ball. The SFX and sound people gave him a fun, mischievous personality.
Wisely, much of the movie was devoted to introducing these new heroes. Other than Han and Chewbacca, all of the original trilogy characters have small roles. That was a good way to establish ties to the previous movies without overshadowing the new characters. Ford and Ridley definitely work well together, as we see the world-weary, mournful Han begin to once again lower his guard and become something of a reluctant father figure to Rey.
On the other hand, the villains Hux and Phasma are both very one-dimensional and don’t have too much screen time. Well, most Star Wars antagonists are unfortunately underdeveloped, so this is not too surprising.
And then there’s Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. He reminds me of a brooding Goth teenager who wants everyone to take him seriously. Ren idolizes Darth Vader and wants to follow in his footsteps. One gets the impression that the reason why Ren wears a sinister black mask with a voice modulator is because he is so desperately attempting to emulate Vader. And if you thought Vader had a short fuse, well, Ren is worse. Something goes wrong, next thing you know he’s furiously hacking up equipment with his lightsaber. I don’t know how the heck the First Order can afford a weapon like the Starkiller if they have to repair all the property damage caused by Ren!
It appears that Ren’s weakness as villain is actually deliberate. Han Solo suggests that to Ren that Snoke regards him as nothing more than an easily manipulated pawn that can later be discarded. Certainly Ren would not be the first hotheaded bully attempting to mask an inferiority complex with a façade of strength.
4) Take this job and shove it
In the past I touched upon a question occasionally asked by fans, namely who would actually want to work for the Empire. That query is especially raised in regards to Stormtroopers, who appear to have the most thankless job of all, typically serving as cannon fodder.
The Force Awakens addresses that particular question, and the answer is very unpleasant. Stormtroopers are conscripts who are kidnapped while only infants, who are then indoctrinated with the ideology of the First Order throughout their childhoods, emerging as adults who mindlessly follow the orders of their commanding officers.
Finn was one of these children. In fact, Finn isn’t even his real name. All he knows is his serial number, FN-2187. The capture of Poe on Jakku is his first mission in the field, and despite years of brainwashing FN-2187 is shocked at the slaughter of innocents. Horrified at what the First Order is doing, FN-2187 helps Poe escape from them. It is the Resistance pilot who gives him the name “Finn” after the letters in his First Order ID.
There are obvious real-world analogies at play here. The most obvious is Nazi Germany, with its Hitler Youth program, which indoctrinated young children into serving the State first and foremost. At one point in The Force Awakens there is an assembly of First Order military forces that is reminiscent of a Nazi rally, with General Hux giving a Hitler-esque rant against the Republic.
Of course, other totalitarian governments have utilized this technique, such as the various Communist regimes of the mid-20th Century. More recently various terrorist groups like Boko Harem have kidnapped large numbers of children to mold into future members.
5) Build a better Death Star
Seeking to outdo the Empire, the First Order has created an even more insanely dangerous superweapon. Instead of a moon-sized battle station, the First Order transformed an actual planet into the Starkiller (no doubt a nod to George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker in the early drafts of Star Wars). Rather than merely destroying nearby worlds, Starkiller can obliterate multiple targets on the opposite end of the galaxy.
The Starkiller is also a hell of a lot more fortified than the Death Star. Even after Finn provides the Resistance with the location of the Base’s obligatory weak point, destroying it still proves to be an almost-impossible task.
6) Go Snoke yourself
Sorry, but Snoke is just too ridiculous a name for a character who is supposed to a dark, menacing villain. Yes, I know, nearly all Star Wars character names are strange: Obi Wan Kenobi, Boba Fett, Mace Windu, Padme Amidala, etc. But most of the time George Lucas devised names that were odd but still cool. Snoke just sounds goofy. I mean, that’s the thing you get at a fast food place when the management is too cheap to supply both spoons and forks, right? No, wait, that’s a spork. Never mind.
Maybe in this particular case Abrams should have asked Lucas for a favor. “Hey, George? Look, I know that you sold Star Wars to Disney, and that we then decided not to use any of your ideas for the new trilogy of movies. But could you help us out on one thing? We’re having a hell of a time coming up with a really cool, evil name for our Big Bad. Got any ideas?”
7) There’s no service like fan service
Michele expressed the opinion that The Force Awakens was much better than the prequels, stating “They made the movie that the fans wanted.” I responded that the prequels were better than most people give them credit, and that sometimes it is not a good idea to give the fans exactly what they are asking for.
The late Marvel Comics writer & editor Mark Gruenwald once observed “The writer’s job isn’t to give the fans what they want. The writer’s job is to give the fans what they didn’t even know they wanted.” Another comic book writer, the very talented Steven Grant, has expressed similar sentiments, and also offered the view that “The best ideas are usually the ones that are almost obvious, the ones that when you get it you stop and wonder why no one ever came up with it before.”
As much as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, as well made and visually impressive a movie as it was, in a certain respect it was by-the-numbers. One can visualize Abrams and his collaborators literally going through a checklist of what to include…
Appearances by a whole bunch of the original trilogy characters? Check! A ragtag group of freedom fighters struggling against a monolithic adversary of pure evil? Check! A massive superweapon that can destroy entire planets? Check? A hero who grows up on a desert world and who discovers that it is her destiny to embrace the Force and become a Jedi? Check! Another hero who is concerned with self-preservation but who gradually comes to believe in a cause bigger than himself? Check!
As I’ve observed before, the prequels were flawed, but they were still enjoyable. What Lucas really, REALLY needed to have on those three movies was a strong co-writer on the screenplays, someone like, well, Lawrence Kasdan, who previously worked on The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi. I expect that the reason why the dialogue in The Force Awakens is so well written is due to Kasdan’s involvement.
Because of weak scripts, as well as the fact that Lucas was attempting to tell a story that was somewhat different from the original trilogy, the prequels were not well received by many.
Imagine a scenario where you enjoy a new music group because they do amazing cover versions of old songs that you love. In fact, you like this new group even better than the more recent work of the original artists, whose later albums weren’t as well written, and who no longer can hit the high notes as often, or play the guitar as fast.
That’s sort of how The Force Awakens came across to me, as J.J. Abrams doing a cover album of Star Wars Greatest Hits. But the thing is, no matter how you play around with the material, tweaking it, speeding it up, emphasizing certain things over others, no matter how fantastic it turns out, at its core are still the same notes & lyrics Lucas wrote over three decades ago.
As I said, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun, well-made movie. It is also a movie that plays it very safe. Obviously Disney was not going to allow anything too experimental or offbeat on their very first Star Wars movie. I hate to think that they are going to require the entirety of the franchise to remain so formulaic. Hopefully in the future, in some of the spin-off movies that are in the works, Disney will let the directors & writers strive for a different tone and go in new directions. We shall have to see.