There are two ways to judge Star Wars: The Force Awakens. First, by the Star Wars franchise issues: Does it respect and nod fondly to all that has come before, give each popular character his or her moment in the spotlight, move the plot ahead and set up the next sequel nicely?
Or secondly, you can simply ask: “Is it a good movie?”
The Force Awakens is a home run by the first measure, a solid single by the second. It’s not transcendent but it’s a fun film, action-packed and a good night at the movies. It would get more stars if weren’t for a grotesque error which is discussed in the spoiler section below.
But by the first measurement, this movie really is impressive. When you look at the whole history of Star Wars and just the sheer number of characters that need to be acknowledged, they’ve done a miraculous jigsaw job here of working in everything and everyone. Even minor-but-memeish characters (whom I will not name) show up in appropriate spots, if only for a flash.
To do all that and still tell any sort of coherent story is a quality professional-grade miracle. So hats off to J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and the team.
With that in mind, here are four spoiler-free thoughts, followed (after an appropriate alert) by four spoiler-laden ones.
1) I am absolutely impressed with Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, two unknowns who just parachute into the lead roles in one of the biggest series of all time… and do great. Ridley has really got nothing in her film acting background, and Boyega has basically one indie film, the cult fave Attack the Block. (Great trailer, admittedly!) But they both fit right in like naturals. Ridley fights and cries on camera, Boyega plays scared and blustery and brave, and it’s all good. She’s good-looking, but his face is made for the camera.
Welcome to the all-access generation. These two youngsters drop into the franchise, not just the filming but the premieres and flying around the globe with the stars on the Star Wars premiere plane and their response is “This is awesome, I belong.” There’s an attitude there that is a million miles away from the old Hollywood model, where stardom was all a galaxy far, far away (so to speak).
Oh, Mark Hamill was also a theoretical “newcomer” for Star Wars in 1977, but in fact he had been busy in TV for 7 years. Cannon! Night Gallery! He was in the regular cast of the series The Wheelers (as “Doobie Wheeler”) from 1974-75. He played Schneider’s nephew on One Day at A Time. Etc, etc. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford had been in American Graffiti and The Conversation and had also done a ton of TV (even Love American Style!).
Boyega and Ridley are much more raw, so kudos to them for being so smooth.
2) Certain parts of The Force Awakens made me appreciate the original all over again. For example, it’s no secret that Adam Driver plays a Darth Vader disciple of sorts named Kylo Ren. He does walk around in a Vader-like costume, but when you see the film it’s so different from the original Vader because of his slender frame. No WONDER they had this huge bodybuilder do Vader’s body in the originals. That was genius! They should have done the same here; Kylo Ren’s caped body just isn’t imposing enough.
4) John Williams‘s score is, surprisingly, a disappointment. I don’t normally pay much attention to film scores, but there were moments where I felt like the music here was simply not giving things the push they needed. There certainly aren’t any great new themes along the lines of the Darth Vader march.
It’s easy to see the difficulties and limitations Williams had to deal with, of course. The basic themes already exist (he wrote them himself 40 years ago) so he can’t stray too far from that ranch. It’s like Led Zeppelin playing “Stairway to Heaven” in concert for the 500th time; you can’t vary the guitar solo much. That’s not his fault. (Or maybe the problem is that he didn’t use the London Symphony Orchestra.)
Certainly you can understand how he was a lock for this job from the get-go. If jittery Disney execs were worrying about their $4 billion investment, he’s the ultimate security blanket. I would have hired him myself. Anybody would have.
That said, it would be very interesting to see this movie again with a completely new musical treatment, with some 33-year-old composing whiz putting an urgent new spin on the classic old Williams themes.
OK. Now for the spoilers, after a photo of John Boyega in a tuxedo with stormtroopers to provide a buffer.
OK, on to the spoilers!
1) Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son.
Noooooooo! Say it ain’t so.
I will always believe that the entire Star Wars franchise went off the rails when Darth Vader uttered those four little words: “I am your father.”
Oh, sure, someday when the American Film Institute does its list of the 100 Greatest Plot Twists, “I am your father” will be in the top 10, right behind Janet Leigh getting stabbed in the first act of Psycho and just ahead of Keyser Söze and the big “She’s a man!” reveal in The Crying Game.
But doesn’t make it a good plot twist. Nothing good has ever come out “I am your father.” A lot of terrible things have — including all three of the prequels where we had to delve into the idea that our super-villain was once a cute li’l kid with a binky and a smile and the hopes and dreams of the world in his hand. Hey, so was Hitler, but nobody wants to write a musical about his kindergarten years.
And we were finally free of all that! The Force Awakens offered the chance to wipe the slate clean. It was like a chance to go back to Eden and get rid of that little problem with the apple. A fresh shot at paradise!
Instead, the new Star Wars team doubled down and made the same terrible choice all over again! What a gaffe.
Why is it such a big problem? Here’s one easy example: It means that when Han Solo and Leia get together again in this film, apparently for the first time in ages, they spend 2 minutes in gloomy blather about Their Son The Monster instead of 2 minutes of snappy byplay, a romantic smooch, or any other number of fun, movie-movie moments. How I longed for Leia to have a funny-irritable “Somebody get this walking carpet out of my way!” moment in this film, instead of the Queen of Melancholy moments she was given instead. Ugh.
It’s just such a grotesque error, I can’t understand it. Presumably everybody at Lucasfilm, Disney and everywhere else signed off on it… why? Every one of them said, “Let’s turn Star Wars into Keeping Up With the Kardashians in Space, with lots of family squabbles.” Why, why, why?
Alas, now we’re in for movie after movie of it. It’s not just a colossal error, it’s a franchise-destroying error in many ways. It means all the sequels to come are going to be brooding, not fun-loving. Alas!
2) Could this movie have been any more of a reboot of the original Star Wars? Let’s try to construct a narrative that covers both movies at once:
Struggling youngster from a remote desert planet finds a cute droid which is carrying secret data that is vital to rebels who are fighting an evil empire. After stormtroopers attack, the youngster and droid leave the planet in the Millennium Falcon, closely tracked by a terrifying bad guy in a black suit and helmet, who works for the evil empire. Youngster is captured and taken to the villain’s home base, which is also a planet-sized superweapon. (Oh incidentally, the superweapon is used to wipe out a few planets loaded with good folks.)
While at the villain’s home base, the youngster’s aging mentor sacrifices himself and is killed by the black-suited guy. The youngster discovers hidden powers and pluck in escaping inside the station. The youngster’s allies manage to lower the impenetrable shields on the superweapon and fighters from the resistance swarm in to attack. The unbeatable superweapon is destroyed and the good guys win. The youngster, who has discovered he/she is strong with The Force, looks to the future.
There are so many similarities that you have to think that Abrams and Disney openly discussed this as a reboot of the original. Perhaps it was their way of saying “Let’s just pretend the last 3 or 4 films never happened,” or maybe something else was in play. Sure, everything is done a little bigger: the Starkiller Base is planet-sized where the Death Star was just moon-sized. The giant laser beam blows up five planets, not just one planet. Etc. But that just shows how weirdly similar this movie is to the original.
3) What happened to Carrie Fisher‘s face? It seems to have frozen in place. Harrison Ford looks older, and not always flatteringly so, but he’s definitely familiar old Han Solo. She’s just unrecognizable. You peer at her features, searching in vain for some glimpse of Princess Leia.
It doesn’t help, as noted, that all she’s given to do is basically be gloomy. (And apparently I’m not the first one to ask this question.) The woodenness of her face really affects her scenes, I think — you just don’t get the delight of reconnecting with an old movie friend. It’s a bummer.
4) Anyone who expected Mark Hamill to remain unseen until the last 20 seconds of the movie, raise your hand. Well hidden and well played, Star Wars team!
It looks like they’ve been putting out misinformation for years: remember Mark Hamill’s friend Robert Englund “leaking” word in 2013 that the producers had Hamill in the gym, doing situps and getting fit for the rigors of his role? Ha! And Hamill’s recent social media teases take on a new meaning.
Again I must say: well played. Secret well kept.