Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens Review
I will answer the two most important questions about this movie first. Is it a Star Wars movie? Yes. Is it a good Star Wars movie? YES! Almost a decade after George Lucas concluded his now widely reviled Star Wars prequels with The Revenge of the Sith, Director JJ Abrams manages to return the Star Wars franchise to some of their former glory. Are their problems? Some, but not enough to say you shouldn’t see this movie. If you want to know more, read on below.
The movie starts with the expected title crawl telling us that Luke Skywalker has disappeared 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi and a new version of The Empire called The First Order has appeared attempting to reinvigorate the former Empire by destroying the Republic and crushing The Resistance. After this, we cut to a village on Jakku (which should just be Tatooine, but whatever) where a Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), is accepting some info which is key to finding Luke. A bunch of Storm Troopers, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) show up and take Poe prisoner and kill everyone else. Kylo Ren wants the information Poe received, but he sent it off with his droid, BB8. During the attack on Jakku, one of the Storm Troopers, FN2187 (John Boyega), has a crisis of conscience and both refuses to kill during the attack and rescues Poe to get his help escaping the First Order. At this point, Poe gives him the name Finn as they attempt to escape the Star Destroyer but are shot down and crash on Jakku. We then cut over to a wrecked Star Destroyer on Jakku where Rey (Daisy Ridley) is scavenging parts from the ship to sell for food on this desolate planet. Rey then comes across BB8 and eventually Finn and is forced to flee with them into space because she thinks Finn is an important member of the Resistance and Storm Troopers show up to kill them.
Discussing any more of the plot would constitute spoilers, so my last thing on the plot is a criticism of the movie as a whole: this film owes far too much to Episode IV: A New Hope. Too many of the plot beats in this movie are going to feel VERY familiar to anyone who has seen that movie. The climax, the story structure, and many of the character beats borrow heavily from it. To a certain extent, that’s fine because a thematic through line in Star Wars is the cyclical nature of history and the repetition of story arcs over and over again is built into the franchise, but I do hope that this trend doesn’t continue too much in the subsequent movies. Luckily there are enough things that are different in how the characters are set up and the way these characters appear to be set up for future development is somewhat different, and the introduction of three main characters on the protagonist side from almost the outset does differentiate this from Episode IV. There are, however, some things related to how this movie is similar to the original trilogy that pose potential problems later on.
The major issue that may exist going forward is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Just based on this movie, he is not a very intimidating villain. He whines constantly, he throws several temper tantrums, and he is just far less effective and menacing than Darth Vader. Also, his design is far less memorable and threatening than Vader’s. Granted, the fact that he is not as intimidating or effective is kind of the point. This character idolizes Darth Vader and hopes to emulate him, but he is not as emotionally cold or as well trained as a Sith as Vader was and is far more emotionally confused. This could be remedied in later movies since his character seems set up to develop further based on how this movie ends, but it would have helped if they didn’t have the character attempting to mimic a lot of the most memorable Vader scenes from A New Hope. Still, it could be remedied in future movies.
That last statement sums up a lot of my problems with this movie, as well as why I have trouble judging it after initial viewing. There is so much of this movie’s plot structure that is clearly setup for future movies. Character arcs are set up and developed, but not concluded. Several plots are left unexplored or merely started, and the very ending of the movie is clearly setup for Episode VIII. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it makes it difficult to critique a movie independently of the two subsequent sequels yet to occur. Also, I’m firmly of the opinion that any movie, even one that is part of a planned series, needs to stand on its own and cannot simply rely on its sequels for its own quality. I feel I need to complain that, as much as I don’t like the endless exposition and explaining in Lucas’s prequels, I could have used some more explanations for the world as it exists at the beginning of this film. The political structure of the Resistance, the First Order, and the Republic is difficult to comprehend and the existence of the new Sith Lord in this movie is inexplicable. This will probably be remedied in subsequent films, but some explanation of the universe’s current structure would have been appreciated.
Luckily, with those problems acknowledged, this film does stand on its own. The characters are well written, developed, and thoroughly entertaining. As someone who still painfully remembers the bad dialogue and awkward attempts at humor in the prequels, I was overjoyed to laugh as much as I did during this movie. All of the new cast on the protagonist side are wonderful characters and they work well off each other in terms of dialogue, banter, and camaraderie. Probably one of the funniest scenes in the movie is between Finn and BB8 where he needs the droid to help sell his lie about being part of the resistance to Rey and the two have a hilarious argument/bonding moment as a result. BB8, despite being a clear toy advertisement, is a wonderful character that I wish to see more of in the sequels. Also, and thank the Force for this, in a movie about legacies and passing the torch, both the returning cast and the new cast get to shine in this movie, and neither overpowers the other. Furthermore the action sequences, sound work, aesthetic design, and other film effects all evoke the classic Star Wars design sensibilities while updating them just enough to not feel like a nostalgia showcase of Lucas’s original trilogy. I may have problems with JJ Abrams as a director, but he’s clearly a fan of the franchise and has proven himself quite capable at aping the directorial styles of iconic ‘80’s directors (Super 8 was basically his love letter to Spielberg). I am glad however that he won’t be directing the subsequent films as his obsession with mimicking the past would become a problem for this franchise going forward.
I will end this the way I think it should end: Star Wars is back and I’m glad to be a fan. The Force Awakens may borrow a tad too much from A New Hope and a lot of the plot is just setup for subsequent movies, which makes it somewhat difficult to judge on its own merits, but the movie is still a lot of fun on its own. The action sequences are entertaining, all of the new characters are instantly memorable and lovable, and you get plenty of the things you remember loving from the original trilogy without it feeling like it is dragging down the film. My appraisal of this film may change once its sequels are released, but for now, as a Star Wars fan, I am still very comfortable recommending you drop some holiday money to see this at the theater. Totally worth the money.