The first thing that struck me as The Force Awakens began was how very different it was from the execrable prequel trilogy. Gone are the interminable politics, the bland, uninteresting storylines, the skin-peelingly bad dialogue, and the over-complicated, over-long plots. Back to straightforward good vs. evil space adventure.
The opening crawl lays out what we need to know in direct, uncomplicated language: Luke Skywalker has disappeared, Leia is trying to find him, and we open with an agent of hers following up a clue. Then the evil ‘First Order’ arrives and slaughters the innocent villagers while the good-guy sends the information away hidden inside his cute droid. All this is good stuff: establish that the bad guys are really bad, kick the plot off within the first five minutes, establish the Macguffin, nice and straightforward.
Things keep moving along as we meet our new protagonists: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger selling bits of crashed spaceships on a desert planet (my first thought on seeing her was “yeah, she really looks like she lives in the desert and endures the blazing sun day after day”); Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs), the ace pilot serving as Leia’s agent; and Fin (John Boyega) a defecting stormtrooper. The way the three (okay, really the two, since it’s mostly about Rey and Fin) end up crossing paths is contrived, but acceptably so. It’s a space opera: who cares about coincidences.
I don’t want to give too much more away about the plot. Let’s see; the First Order is basically the Empire again (really playing up the Nazi imagery this time: were they really the only evil organization to choose from?). We of course meet Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids again (Han has the biggest role to play, though more on that later). There’s another planet-destroying superweapon that needs to be destroyed, only this one’s even bigger than the Death Star and can take out multiple worlds in one shot. There’s a bar full of creative aliens, there’s space dog fights, laser battles, lightsaber fights, etc. etc.
Okay, maybe you can see what the problem is. It’s good: it’s entertaining and certainly miles beyond the prequels, but it’s just not very satisfying. It feels too much like a retread, and when it isn’t, just like it’s going through the motions.
Like, for instance, there’s a part where a group of planets gets blown up. The trouble is, we haven’t been on those planets this time. We don’t really know what’s going on with them. This is the first time we’ve seen those planets in this film. It felt rushed, like they were just trying to get it out of the way. There’s no real emotional connection to the worlds as they get blown to smithereens.
Now, in the original, we’d never been to Alderon. But Leia is right there watching it, pleading for its safety. There’s a lead in to it where characters are trying to get there, Tarkin threatens to blow it up, then does it anyway after he thinks she’s given in. Basically, you felt the destruction of one world much more in the original film than you do the destruction of several in this one.
Moreover, the story choices they make just don’t work a lot of the time. Like the way they deal with the Millennium Falcon had a definite “wait, what?” quality to it. I really don’t buy the set up they present for it. I also didn’t like Han’s backstory (for lack of a better word: their explanation of what happened to him between the series). Look, by the end of the original series, Han had clearly grown beyond his smuggling days: forcing him back into it felt like a gyp. I want to see the characters I knew having grown beyond what they were when I left them, not reverting to how they were when I first met them.
In fact, that’s a problem throughout the film: it doesn’t feel like we’ve moved on from the originals. It feels like they’re trying to force things back into how they were instead of providing an interesting tale of what came next.
Then there’s the issue of the Republic, the Resistance, and the First Order. Okay, what was the point of splitting the Republic and the Resistance? I mean, they’re the same side, as established in the film, so why call them by different names? What was the point? Moreover, as I understand the story, the First Order is essentially the rebellion this time around, trying to overthrow the legitimate government and reassert the Empire. So, why is the military force of the standing government that’s fighting the rebellious forces called ‘the Resistance’? It makes no sense!
What I think they wanted to do was to keep up the ‘good rebellion, bad empire’ theme, but it doesn’t work! It’s a sequel: the good guys won and reestablished the Republic. It would have been frankly more interesting I think, not to mention straightforward, to play it straight with the Republic being the good guys and the First Order a terroristic rebellion.
Oh, this also brings up another major plot whole: just how did the First Order manage to build their giant superweapon? In fact, where are they getting all their resources? I know it’s a fantasy, but what’s going on here? In the original series, this question didn’t come up because it was the Empire: they were in charge, they could pretty much build whatever they wanted. But the First Order isn’t in charge; again, they’re the rebellion. So, how did they convert an entire planet into a giant superweapon without anyone noticing? Not to mention that the superweapon kind of comes out of nowhere. It isn’t established or anything prior to its first appearance, it’s just “hey, we have a giant superweapon and we’re gonna destroy some planets now.”
So, the plot is shaky at best. How are the characters?
Well, they’re okay. I like Fin the best, since he had the most arc of any of the characters. The idea of a defecting stormtrooper is a novel one and they do it well. More on him below, however. Rey is alright, though I don’t know; she wasn’t an especially interesting heroine to me. It felt a bit like they were trying too hard to make her tough and competent, with the result that she felt a bit Mary Sue-ish. She picks up on things way too fast and develops new skills kind of out of nowhere as the plot demands. I like the set up with her, though I don’t know if I like where they took it afterwards. Poe is pretty cool, though he doesn’t have much screen time. He’s your classic handsome swashbuckling hero, and I think he’s probably the best used of the three new leads. His is a well-worn story role (the badass who inspires the hero with his awesomeness) and it plays out fine.
Though, I must say, none of the three leads can hold a candle to the returning cast in terms of charisma and screen-power. Really, it’s almost amazing just how much better Harrison Ford is than any of his costars. He comes on screen and he’s immediately inhabiting the world in a way that the others don’t. Next to him (and Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill), the other actors look like, well, actors. Like fans playing alongside their idol.
I think the best new character is the droid, BB-8, who is even cuter than R2-D2 and has just as much personality, despite only speaking in beeps. His design is fun too, with the little head sitting on a ball. The original droids don’t have much screen-time (R2 in particular has barely a cameo), but BB-8 makes up for it.
There’s also a kind-of Yoda like character who I actually liked quite a bit, though she doesn’t have much screen time. She had a fun, ‘tough-old girl’ feel to her: like a saloon mistress in the Old West (which is kind of what she’s supposed to be). Hopefully she’ll get more to do in the sequels.
Then there are the villains: Adam Driver as Kylo Ren has some interesting dimensions. I especially liked the reveal of what’s behind his mask. Making him yearn to be like Darth Vader was a nice touch, since that’s pretty much going to be his role no matter what. There’s also the ‘supreme leader’ seen only in hologram, who seems to be basically the emperor again (played by Andy Serkis). Oh, there’s also General Hux (Dominic Gleeson), who didn’t make really any impression at all. Anyway, they’d serviceable villains.
By the way, some hay was made in the lead up about the fact that this film boasts the first female Star Wars villain in the form of Gwendoline Christie Commander Phasm. Well, don’t expect much from her. For one thing, she has almost no role, and for another the fact that she’s female has zero relevance to her character. In fact, she doesn’t really have much of a character. She’s just shows up a few times for plot reasons.
So, again, it’s not bad. It’s a good movie: I mostly enjoyed it. It’s fun, it’s funny (the trademark Star Wars banter is back), it has a lot of the old Star Wars charm. There are some great visuals (love the X-Wings streaking across the water), and it’s good to be back with old familiar faces. It just doesn’t feel very satisfying to me.
And here’s what might be a personal gripe, but here’s another film that doesn’t seem to know how to elevate its heroine without diminishing its hero. I liked Fin, when meant I really wished he could do something! He accomplishes almost nothing throughout the film, except in support of the other characters. His big heroic act is to volunteer to do something that he doesn’t end up having to do anyway. Every scene with him has him being defeated or rescued or helped along by the other characters, mostly Rey, while he himself never really gets to return the favor.
Your mileage may vary, but I find this sort of thing annoying. The original film didn’t have any trouble making its heroine smart, brave, and competent without diminishing the heroes. This feels like the filmmakers were tripping over themselves to show that they were pro-feminist instead of just trying to tell a good story. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s irritating and it feels like they’re wasting what could be a good character.
I don’t know; I keep coming back to the fact that the film just wasn’t satisfying to me. I liked it, but it just didn’t come together somehow.
Actually, what I kept thinking of while watching this was the game Knights of the Old Republic and how that game captured the Star Wars spirit so much better than any of the later films. How they actually told a fresh, new, and interesting story without simply rehashing the movies. I guess that’s how I feel about The Force Awakens: it’s good, but it’s a little stale. It feels like we’re telling more or less the same story over again, only with different characters and a few tweaks. It’s like revisiting an old friend only to find that maybe you don’t have as much in common anymore as you thought.
Final Rating 3/5. A good return to the Star Wars universe, but doesn’t quite come together into a satisfying adventure.