I won’t waste time talking about how much STAR WARS has been a part of my moviegoing life. I’m fond of saying JAWS brought me to the dance, but STAR WARS kissed me goodnight. But we all have our own experiences and memories of this franchise, and it is unfair to any new movie of this series to expect those same feelings. It’s also not fair to the audience who will be sitting down to it, chasing that familiar joy they’ve been hunting since childhood. No movie can hold the weight of all that anticipation and promise, so in order to properly review THE FORCE AWAKENS, the best avenue is to step back from all that history and simply judge it for what it is, which, for me, is actually more difficult than I’d like.
So, here it is – while the cast does terrific work, and while there are certainly some wonderful moments that are reminiscent of the original films, THE FORCE AWAKENS cannot reach the lofty heights of its predecessors, and that’s perfectly fine. Like far too many franchise films today, THE FORCE AWAKENS is too invested in planting seeds for future movies instead of telling its present story succinctly. With convoluted plot threads scattered haphazardly throughout, the movie becomes frustrating, because the new characters and old favorites are honestly interesting and all the actors are invested, including Harrison Ford, who steps back into the role of Han Solo with authority and grace. It’s discouraging to try to decipher the galactic politics of THE FORCE AWAKENS, and it’s discouraging because there are hints of a very interesting movie that took place before the events of this one. This feels more like Episode VIII than Episode VII, and that doesn’t do THE FORCE AWAKENS any favors. This new generation of filmmakers have a responsibility to this franchise – if you’re going to play with these toys, you best damn sure put them in their proper places when you’re done. J.J. Abrams is having fun with this set of trains, but he seems to be enjoying smashing them together instead of keeping them on the track. THE FORCE AWAKENS is entertaining, but I do not believe it will capture the imagination the way the original films did.
The original STAR WARS films – and yes, I’m including the Prequels – were self-sustaining. At the end of them, something felt changed, the pieces had properly shifted on the board, and although we can complain about George Lucas’s “faster, more intense” mode of directing, at least he established clear lines of plot movement. We knew exactly what the stakes were at the end of each film. Even THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which ended on one of the most memorable cliffhangers of all time, felt like a complete movie. THE FORCE AWAKENS does not. There is so much mentioned of events that happened between RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE FORCE AWAKENS, important pieces of plot and character, that THE FORCE AWAKENS has a distinct feeling of in medias res. And while even the original STAR WARS threw us headfirst into the pool of its universe, it never felt like we were lost in the story. THE FORCE AWAKENS has no such grace. It uses familiar plot tropes to clumsily move the story forward, and THE FORCE AWAKENS is so indebted to the first STAR WARS film in plot structure that it feels like a cover song. There’s even a new Death Star-like superweapon, but bigger and more formidable.
All of the actors, old and new, do genuinely terrific work. I love the earnest joy of Oscar Isaacs’s Poe Dameron, the heroism and nobility of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the humor and heart of John Boyega’s Finn, and the wounded fury and ferocity of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. I love how Kylo behaves like a petulant child when he doesn’t get his way. I love how for a few moments in THE FORCE AWAKENS Poe Dameron becomes, basically, Princess Leia. I love Rey’s determination as she takes her first steps into a larger world. I love Finn’s camaraderie with Han Solo and Chewbacca. I adore the new droid BB-8, who has just as much personality as the droids of old. BB-8 is reduced to a MacGuffin for much of the running time, but the droid has so much charm and humor that the film gets a boost whenever it’s onscreen.
Of the new characters, Kylo Ren was the most compelling to me – his rage, once we understand who he is, feels justified, and Adam Driver gives Kylo Ren an emotional heart that betrays his dark, threatening exterior. John Boyega gives so much heart and charm to Finn that you can’t help to root for him. The same goes to Daisy Ridley’s Rey, saddled with a mysterious past, but imbued with innate goodness and light. Rey is as much a heroine as Leia was, and a joy to watch. Same for Oscar Isaac, who takes as much excitement flying an X-Wing as Han Solo does flying the Millennium Falcon.
As for the old cast, Harrison Ford is wonderful as Han Solo. He eases back into the character as comfortably as ever, and Ford is as invested as I’ve ever seen him. His fun is infectious, and Han and Chewie get many of the movie’s best moments. It’s almost as if they’ve never left. This is when THE FORCE AWAKENS feels the most like STAR WARS, and the new cast interacts with Ford with vigor and enthusiasm. Carrie Fisher is also great as Leia, and the moments between her and Han are full of emotion and memory, but Leia also holds her own as the leader of the Resistance. I love how Fisher and Ford play off each other, both wounded by their relationship, but still caring for each other very much. It is also very welcome to see Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 (although briefly).
These relationships lift THE FORCE AWAKENS, not the plot. We care about all of them, old and new. It was during these character moments that I truly felt the work of Lawrence Kasdan. The banter and give-and-take dialogue between all the actors was a pleasure to watch and hear, and THE FORCE AWAKENS comes alive with fun when these people interact. The performances are fantastic – the STAR WARS films have never been praised for their acting, but here they feel true and fit right into this world. I also admired how Finn and Rey were front-and-center heroes, giving STAR WARS a much needed diversity. These films are for everyone, and THE FORCE AWAKENS feels especially inviting in that respect. One cannot help but notice that this new batch of actors seem very thrilled to even be there, and I’m sure that helped inform their performances.
I’m deliberately being vague about the story – mostly, because the plot is so similar to A NEW HOPE that the few surprises there are in THE FORCE AWAKENS should be experienced by the audience for the first time. But the galactic dynamics are so elusive and difficult to follow that I still have no idea of the significance of the Resistance and the First Order. The First Order’s Supreme Leader, Snoke (Andy Serkis) is obviously knowledgeable in the Dark Side, but THE FORCE AWAKENS never reveals how he knows the Force or where he comes from. Ordinarily I would have no issue with this – the original trilogy only truly acknowledges the Emperor in RETURN OF THE JEDI – but because the film is so unwilling to answer so many questions, it becomes one more aspect of the plot to become frustrated about. What does it mean when the Force awakens? How does Finn overcome his training and programming as a stormtrooper for the First Order? Why was Rey abandoned on Jakku? How does Kylo Ren become consumed by the Dark Side of the Force? That question, in particular, forms much of the emotion and backstory of THE FORCE AWAKENS, and Adam Driver is very effective as the enigmatic dark enforcer of the First Order. But it’s also something I really wanted to see explored more than the movie was willing to go. The original films, while holding certain key plot points close, never teased the way THE FORCE AWAKENS does. Each new piece of information expanded the STAR WARS world; THE FORCE AWAKENS seems to make this universe that much smaller, especially considering the coincidences that plague the movie (granted, the original films had similar wild coincidences).
I lay this squarely at the feet of J.J. Abrams, who with his Mystery Box mode of storytelling, forgets that you actually have to have a story inside the box when you open it, and not another rehash of story tropes we’ve seen in previous films. Abrams is also missing that sense of spectacle – not only is the cinematography bland in comparison with the films we’ve seen before, but we move from action sequence to action sequence with little sense of wonder, only the need to fill a scene with motion when the plot ceases to be compelling. Again, and I hate to keep harping back to this, the original films were slower, deliberately paced, more contemplative by comparison. There were character moments that were allowed to build. We get those to a lesser extent in THE FORCE AWAKENS, and Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe are compelling new additions to the STAR WARS Universe, but I would have liked to have spent more time with them instead of being rushed from setpiece to setpiece. These performances deserve more than just filling in an empty slot or character template.
A lot has happened in popular culture since the original trilogy. It has shaped Hollywood profoundly and for all time, but THE FORCE AWAKENS illuminates just how much has truly changed since the STAR WARS films shaped the cinema landscape. For its time, STAR WARS is rollicking entertainment, along with EMPIRE and JEDI. Now, it seems positively sedate in this entertainment glut of superhero movies, shakycam action, and franchise building. But we fell in love with STAR WARS in those quiet moments. These films took flight in our imagination, because they gave us room to play with them in our mind. It wasn’t only about Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Chewie, Darth Vader and R2-D2 – it was this new universe that we took delight in, exploring it in the expanse of our childhood minds.
I don’t want STAR WARS to lose that. I don’t want STAR WARS to become just another IP in a corporate roster, boosting stock prices every year. STAR WARS is more than that. There are moments in THE FORCE AWAKENS that absolutely feel like STAR WARS, where the joy and the wonder take flight and show us through the door into our dreams. But those moments don’t happen as often as they should. I’m excited to see what Rian Johnson does with these characters – in a way, he is free of the burden that Abrams had to carry, although I’m certain he has a lot of work ahead of him. Perhaps Abrams was the perfect director to bring this franchise back from the Prequels, because regardless of the quality of THE FORCE AWAKENS, there is a solid foundation to build upon. But I want Episode VIII to take its time, let us enjoy this universe that we all love so much, and not get lost among the noise and cacophony. I’ll absolutely see THE FORCE AWAKENS again, and it will likely grow on me in time. For now, I wanted more – more story, more time with these characters, and definitely more Luke Skywalker, which will likely be a chief complaint once more audiences see the movie. We’re not done with this story, not by a long shot. Sometimes leaving the audience wanting more is a good thing, as long as they feel somewhat satisfied with what they got. And while I wasn’t completely sated, I can’t complain too loudly – STAR WARS is back, and back for good.