I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Thursday with a theater full of fellow fanatics, and it was pretty awesome.
Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about it and talking with people. As quite a few people still haven’t seen it yet, I’ve had to tailor my conversations somewhat so as not to provide any spoilers. This post is the result of those thoughts and conversations, with no spoilers for those who have not seen it yet.
I do plan to do a spoilery review as well, so keep an eye out.
I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie in 3-D before. I did this time, and I was not disappointed.
This is saying a lot, because in general I am not a fan of 3-D. I don’t know enough about the technology to know whether it was something technical the producers did to make it look as good as it did, or whether it was just my excitement that helped me to ignore the issues I usually have with 3-D films. Probably, as with most things, it was a bit of both.
There was only one at which I really felt the 3-D was a bit overbearing – when a Star Destroyer looked like it was basically about to poke my eye out with it’s pointy prow. However, upon reflection, I kind of like how that happened, because it gave a more visceral sense of the domineering presence of such a ship, and perhaps offered a ghost of the dread that characters in the Star Wars universe must have felt upon coming face to face – or rather, bow to bow – with such a vessel.
That for the most part I didn’t notice the 3-D aspect, however, is actually a rather big compliment from me. Also, I was able to wear the 3-D glasses over my regular glasses without any major discomfort, so that’s a bonus.
Many people have noted already that the new Star Wars film is a throwback to the old one. If you disliked the prequels, or never even saw them, that’s perfectly fine: You don’t need to. None of the storyline of the prequels matters to the thrust of the plot, characters and other developments in The Force Awakens.
Overall, I think J. J. Abrams nailed it with respect to the tone. From the opening crawl, which provides a framework that establishes the story of the last 30-odd years and braces us for the developing situation, to the cinematically stunning and dialogue-free ending, which sets up the next installment of the trilogy, this is every bit
—all caps, bolded and centered in a large font.
The music, effects, sets and even costumes – some of which return to the admittedly campy, but also somehow more realistic, rubber mask variety – are all exactly what you’d expect from a post–Return of the Jedi galaxy that is still battling remnants of a dominating and militant organization.
This is spoiler free, so of course I’m not going to get into the details of the story. But what I will say is that, in concert with my comments about tone above, the storyline is very comfortable for anyone who loved the first trilogy. As one friend commented on Facebook: Joseph Campbell would approve.
One thing that I really liked is that throughout the story there are a number of parallels to the originals, but they are delivered in somewhat unpredictable ways. Again, no specifics, but I am happy to see that Abrams did not simply replace characters and events whole cloth with other characters and events. There’s a healthy dose of mixing and matching elements, with enough tweaks, additions and variations to make the elements recognizable without feeling like they were simply copied and pasted.
The effect of all this is to give a sense of history repeating itself, while taking into account the different circumstances, people, and technology – the latter two of which I will get to below – and how the galaxy in general has changed from having been a long time at war, first with the Clone Wars, then under the military rule of the Empire, and now under the harassment of the First Order. To bring in a different science fiction story, it has very much the feel of the mantra from Battlestar Galactica (the 2003 reboot): “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” This is the again part.
One observation, and possibly complaint, that I’ve seen from others is that the storyline in this movie is less standalone than either A New Hope or The Phantom Menace. As an observation, I agree; as a complaint, I do not. A New Hope is a standalone story largely because nobody knew if there would be a sequel – it was experimental and untested, and nobody knew if it was going to work. The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, was part of a planned trilogy, and I think that part of its problem is that it feels so out of touch with the other movies in the trilogy. There’s a large gap between Episodes I and II, not to mention a major actor change, that is more jarring than anything. I don’t know that comparing The Force Awakens to either of these first-in-a-trilogy stories makes much sense.
Really, though, I think a lot of it simply has to do with differences in how franchise storytelling is done now versus fifteen or thirty years ago. Consider Marvel, that other Disney franchise property, and how pretty much all of its movies set up future stories as well – some better than others. To expect that The Force Awakens wouldn’t have untied threads hanging at the end of it seems a bit naive to me. And even with such threads hanging loose, I don’t think it diminishes the story that is told here.
That said, if those threads are still hanging at the end of the whole trilogy, then there will definitely be a problem.
The Science & Technology
Likewise, the familiar technology is all there, from lightsabers and X-wings to Tie Fighters and Star Destroyers. However, a lot of it has gotten some upgrades. Nothing major, but for example the ships look like a bit newer models, say the different between a 1999 car and a 2009 car. You would expect incremental improvements, or at least changes, in design over a few decades, and I think Abrams and his design team did a good job of making the tech recognizable without it feeling stale or stagnant.
However, if there is one complaint that I have, it has to do with things traveling through space. In the original Star Wars series, there was more of a sense of a larger universe. Even traveling through hyperspace, it took time to get places, and during that time there was important exposition and character development. You may remember that Luke’s first training with a lightsaber took place while he, Obi-Wan, Han, Chewie and the droids were traveling through hyperspace to Alderaan. In that same scene, we get Ben’s instructions about the Force, and Han’s classic line about “hokey religions and ancient weapons.”
However, in The Force Awakens, the galactic sense is somewhat diminished. Not only does this excise opportunities to do some good character development, but it also makes the pacing feel a bit off in a few places. A similar complaint can be made with respect to the mechanics – or rather, astrophysics – of a major plot device, but I won’t say any more than that here.
All in all, however, the technology is well done, and the science is still the science of a galaxy in which the Force exists. My minor nits above aside, it’s as enjoyable and recognizable as the rest of it.
The New Characters
The Force Awakens introduces a well-rounded cast of new characters. In a way, this movie is one of transition to a younger set of actors who can carry on the story – not that the old characters are necessarily going away completely, but the story centers around these new people.
Rey is awesome. Having seen and enjoyed Alias, LOST, and Fringe, it’s no news to me that Abrams is capable of writing great female characters, and without a doubt he’s done it again: Rey certainly channels bits of Sydney, Kate and Olivia, not to mention probably others. Those who have been looking for a well-written female hero with agency – well, of course there are others (says the guy who does a Buffy podcast), but Rey is a solid addition to that still rather small group. I’ve even read at least one review which says she “corrects” all the gender problems of the previous movies (*SPOILERS*) — though I’ll leave it up to folks to determine for themselves whether that claim is true.
It’s hard to talk much more about her without treading the line into spoilers, so all I’ll say is that I like that, while her part of the story is definitely one of discovery, it’s also one she seems to have been on for some time. There’s a sense that we’re coming into her life at a liminal moment that has been brewing for many years. That feels vague, and it is since I can’t discuss the specifics of what I mean here (and I’m wary of even comparing her to characters from previous movies), but suffice to say that I like the effect.
Finn is pretty awesome, too, but it has to be pointed out that a lot of his awesomeness comes due to his interactions with the other characters. I don’t mean to say that he’s not cool on his own, but it’s his ability to relate to and support Poe, Rey, Han, Chewie, and so on that really make him stand out.
In fact – and I didn’t think of this until I was just writing here – I think Finn’s major characteristic is empathy. It might not always play out in the most expected way, but when I re-watch the movie, I’m going to be looking to see if the story supports that thesis. Finn is, in a very real way I think, Sam Gamgee.
I was a little bit disappointed in the handling of Poe, not because I disliked him, but because I wanted to see more of him. It’s like, “Oh, hi, I’m Poe” and then just when you forgot about him, it’s like, “Oh, hey, remember me? I’m Poe.” I hope we get more of him in future movies, especially given the interactions between him and Finn. He is the new Wedge Antilles in a way, but I hope he gets more screen time than Wedge ever did.
BB-8 is adorable. Kind of kittenish, he is curious and chatty, and seems to have as many (if not more) surprises stored away in his rotund body as R2-D2. A fan favorite since before the movie even came out, I think I heard more laughs and cheers in the theater from him than any other single character in the movie. I think Abrams crafted BB-8’s personality well, dividing the line between the almost incidental humor (at least, at times) of the droids in the first movie and the slapstick buffoonery of the droids in the prequels.
A worthy villain, but I do feel like the trailers misled us a little bit. Perhaps rightfully so. He’s hard to discuss without getting into spoilers, but his drive, anger, ego and even fear all seem very believable. If anything, I think he was maybe a bit too predictable – nothing he did was that surprising, unlike most of the other characters, which each had at least one or two unexpected moments.
Some reviewer I read called her the first female villain of the Star Wars galaxy – she’s not, of course, even if you exclude all the Extended Universe stuff. Ventress from The Clone Wars (which is canon) comes immediately to mind, and there are others. But of course, I don’t suppose you could expect some random reviewer to have actual knowledge about the full breadth of story.
The fact that I’ve spent more time discussing other people in the last paragraph than Phasma herself should tell you something, though. There’s just not a lot to go on. Maybe more in the next movie?
Maz was an unexpected joy. She’s loosely in the same category as Yoda of aliens-who-embrace-their-idiosyncracies, but definitely has her own unique style of weird – and it’s very engaging.
It was nice to see a couple Abrams-verse staples, including Ken Leung (Miles from LOST) and Greg Grunberg – who delivered what is hands down my favorite line ever in Alias (“Balls of Steel. That’s what I’m gonna call you from now on. Hey, have you met Balls of Steel?”) and who also was the quickly killed pilot in LOST. Both have bit parts in Star Wars, but they’re there, and it’s possible they’ll both be back in future episodes.
The Old Characters
In general, all of the returning characters have bits of their old selves, but of course they’re 30 years older than when we last saw them, and Things Have Happened. Those Things lend a rather interesting vulnerability to the characters, which I won’t detail, but it’s worth pointing out that these are no longer young leaders of a rising rebellion – but rather old leaders of a protracted resistance. The decades have taken their tolls.
Same old Han, scheming and being a rogue. The theater burst into applause when they saw him, and his was the loudest clap of any character.
In concert with my statements above about the movie having a feel of “All of this has happened before,” Han definitely fits that mold. The events of the original trilogy worked on him, as did things in the interim, but in the end we are who we are. Once a smuggler, always a smuggler, staying a step ahead, but not much more, and always talking, shooting, running or flying his way out of the situations he gets himself into.
Likewise for Chewie. He’s Han’s faithful copilot, then, now and forever. The biggest thing I noticed is that they seemed to amp up the humor of Chewie a bit – not that he didn’t have his moments in the first films, but he’s definitely a bit more playful and sarcastic in the new movie. It will be interesting to see if they sustain his humor throughout the new trilogy.
General Leia Organa
Tough and competent, yet kind and vulnerable. Without getting into specifics, the fact that she’s a general now certainly plays into her character. She’s no longer pretending to run diplomatic missions while actually carrying out a covert operation – that’s a job for the newbies. Instead, she’s a war-hardened leader who has nonetheless managed to retain her sense of what they’re fighting for. She’s a strategist through and through, and her experience and dedication to a cause she’s given her whole life to really shows.
I literally cannot say anything about Luke without spoiling something, so instead I will share this tasteless graphic I saw on Facebook:
Go See It
So that’s my spoiler-free review. Now, what are you waiting for? Go see it so you can read the spoilers!