Spoilers! Spoilers! Spoilers!
Are we clear on that? If you read further, I will likely spoil key aspects of the movie for you.
Everybody’s view of the film is influenced by their past experience with the franchise. I have yet to read a review that wasn’t in somewhat tainted by the relationship the writer already had with the series, though I have seen more than a few that refused to own up to the baggage the author brought with them.
I will try to explain my own baggage. I didn’t mind the prequels. I wasn’t one of those people who raged about how George Lucas had destroyed my cherished childhood memories. Yes, there was a lot to dislike about the prequels. But I had already had my moment of hate when it came to GL, because I felt Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was the big betrayal. After Star Wars: The Muppet Movie, I was never as big a fan of the series. So midi-chlorians were a kick in the nuts, but not the deal breaker it was for a lot of fans who had no problem with Ewoks defeating Storm Troopers with bows and arrows.
I like it. I liked it a lot, enough for my daughter and I to go back and see it a second time.
That isn’t to say I liked it uncritically. There are aspects of the movie than make me shake my head and groan, choices that I clearly would not have made. But in the totality of the film, I liked a lot more than I disliked, it far exceeded my low expectations, and I had a lot of fun.
I’d go see it again.
I will admit that having watched the George Lucas prequels and remastered original trilogy, where the added CGI bits get more annoying with each viewing, in the run up to this movie helped set up a situation where The Force Awakens was going to sit favorably with me.
After the cut, some more specific thoughts. Last chance to avoid spoilers.
I did say SPOILERS didn’t I?
Scale: I think the primary reason that this movie worked for me better than any of the prequels is the sense of scale. Everything was kept on a very personal level. No masses of indistinguishable Clone Troopers marching headlong into an equally indistinguishable mass of droids. Instead we stayed focused on a few characters throughout the movie… basically Finn and Rey. That made the whole thing work, as you could feel some attachment to them and follow them on their voyage of discovery.
Pacing: The whole thing moved at about the right pace. Unlike the prequels we did not spend a lot of time talking about things than happened off screen or trying to force some back story for some bit of CGI.
Rey: There has been a lot of criticism of her and her sudden abilities. The thing is, she is a mystery in the movie. She has lived a hard life on Jakku and has had to fight to stay alive. That we’re discovering her talents without preamble is part of her mystery. Also, you saw the way she could use that staff of hers, she could fight already.
Finn: Storm trooper who runs away, conflicted about what to do, more real than most characters in the series so far. He wasn’t just a janitor. That was, according to the not-in-the-movie backstory, part of his duties as a recruit when he wasn’t actively training. I know, what bizarro world military makes soldiers wash dishes or police up cigarette butts?
Han Solo: Gave us exactly what we wanted. Still though, I find it tough to believe that he never once shot Chewie’s bowcaster before.
BB-8: Cute but not too cute. I still wonder whether droids are sentient though and what implications that has on their being property.
The First Order: Oh yeah, the bad guys are back and they are pissed. Space Nazis in full force. General Hux especially.
Kylo Ren: Conflicted dark side force user barely able to control his temper. Teenage angst sith, fighting off the influence of the light side of the force and pissed off about his parents. It is refreshing to see some force user somewhere that isn’t completely self-assured about their place in the universe. If Kylo turns to the light or goes rogue, it will be completely in character.
3D: My daughter and I saw it the second time in 3D and it was pretty good. They didn’t do any of the cliches, like throwing stuff at the camera to see if you would duck or anything. I didn’t even think about 3D a lot of the time, and then there would be a scene like the Millennium Falcon taking off from a planet or a Star Destroyer in space, and I would suddenly think, “Whoa, that looked really good with the depth that 3D gave it!” Also, I wasn’t the only one in the theater who tried to reach up and touch that Star Destroyer.
The Force: Nobody said “midi-chlorians” even once.
Starkiller Base: Back to context, I was a bit annoyed that they went back to the Death Star well for Episode VI, so the fact that they went back there yet again is probably my biggest gripe with the movie. Only this time it is bigger and more nonsensical.
A planet-sized Death Star that eats an entire sun for every shot and can blow up things across light years with an exposed weak point on its surface? I don’t want to get all Neil deGrasse Tyson here, but fuck that noise. Even avoiding the magical space technology discussion, logic still screams out that if you could suck an entire star into your weapon, you probably have the ability to just call out a solar flare and cauterize whatever planet out there you want. Or just this:
And, of course, this:
Also, can we just once destroy the enemy super weapon a couple days before it is aimed at our head and not just at the last minute?
The New Republic: Actually I don’t have any problem with the New Republic. My problem is that the New Republic had about 20 seconds of screen time before it was destroyed. Seriously, WTF? Okay, yes, there is a whole backstory there in the book they put out, along with some on the cutting room floor, that people know about. But in a movie I shouldn’t have had to read the book to get what is going on.
The Resistance: First, you won at Endor. You established the New Republic. You don’t get to call yourself “The Resistance” or anything that implies you aren’t part of the new establishment. You’re part of the new power structure, so you should really be just part of the New Republic Navy or some such… except of course that all got blown up.
Second, what are you even? A couple dozen X-wing fighters based out of Greenham Common?
Yeah, yeah, I know, read the book with the back story.
The Empire: It didn’t just go away. It is still out there, and The First Order and The Resistence are part of some sort of proxy war to get around the treaty it signed with the New Republic. Or so I was told after the fact, because the movie didn’t spend any time bringing me up to speed there.
The Size of Space: The movie really failed to give a sense of scale to the vastness of space. I mean, when we get to the end it takes Rey and Chewie what… maybe two minutes to get to Luke in the Millennium Falcon? Where was he, at a bar around the corner all this time and nobody could find him?
Likewise, Starkiller Base fires the big gun at the New Republic and Han Solo, on another planet no doubt light years from either the weapon or the target, can see the superluminal weapon hit its target? Seriously, WTF was somebody thinking right there?
Space is pretty much only as big as it needs to be at any given moment to suit the plot.
The series has never been great about giving space a sense of vastness after establishing that that was no moon, but this time around it feels like they just gave up.
Call Backs: A Desert planet. Han Solo. The Millennium Falcon. A giant planet killing weapon. TIE fighters. Chewbacca. C-3P0. X-wing flying down a trench. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Some of this was clearly to get us invested and comfortable with the story while other bits seemed unnecessary. It did add up to the whole thing feeling a bit like Episode IV being replayed from a given point of view. But we had new characters with new stories to help us overcome that.
Princess Leia: I don’t care that Carrie Fisher has gotten older or heavier or whatever. Who hasn’t? Some of you reading this were just a single cell when Carrie Fisher was wearing that gold bikini, so look how much weight you’ve gained.
All I wanted from her performance was to feel that she was the same person, old, wiser, and many miles down the road, changed, but still the same at her core. There is one point, a silent flash of a moment, when the camera is close up, and you can see it in her eyes, deep and brown, that she is the same person. I saw it and thought, “There! There is Pincess Leia!” and then it was gone. But for most of her performance they could have used a different actress and it wouldn’t have changed anything. I don’t know if it was her, the director, how they edited, or what, but I didn’t feel like I got the right tone. Didn’t hurt the movie all that much, but I felt like something was missing.
The Force: Still a capricious son of a bitch. One day you can sense another force user on a transport shuttle a million kilometers away or the death of a populated planet light years away, the next day an 800 year old jedi master can sit in the same room as a sith lord and not notice anything is wrong. One day you have to struggle to pick up a rock or grab your light sabre, the next day inanimate objects fill you with visions or you get special mind control powers just exactly when you need them.
Snoke: Mr. Homn meets the force. Okay, this isn’t the first mysterious dark side force user to show up, but if they have to get the guy who played Gollum to do the role, I wonder what he really is.
Luke: I’m speechless.
As noted at the top, I liked it. I’ve seen it twice. Each time I left happy. There are bits that annoy me, but they were not enough to topple the whole. I think J.J. Abrams accomplished what he set out to do, to create a Star Wars movie that was spiritually much closer to the original than anything else. I am really looking forward to May 2017 when the next movie in the series is slated to premier. Until then I will make due with the Emo Kylo Ren Twitter feed.
Meanwhile, if you want to listen to some real fans talk about the movie, the Cat Context podcast episode 90 has all you could want. Totally on Team Aro after that. I wrote most of this before listening to that podcast, then had to go back and make some edits, usually about where backstory was left out.