Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens Review (Spoilers!)

 

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This review was written after one viewing. I will add notes to wherever my thoughts change after a second viewing with the tag – “Second Viewing:” [Note: I was only able to post this review after my second viewing, but I kept this anyway to show how my thoughts evolved on the topics.]

 

The Short of It

This is a great movie. I liked it a lot, and I think that most people will generally like it too. It is not an excellent, or fantastic movie as it has plenty of flaws. It has too many parallels with previous Star Wars films, and it could use some more connective tissue between plot points, but I still recommend you go see it!

 

The Long of It

The Premise:

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” takes place some thirty years after the battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star. The Rebel alliance has become the New Republic, and the Empire is in shambles. From the scattered pieces of the Empire a new threat called The First Order has arisen, but the New Republic doesn’t take them seriously. The Resistance, a private military force headed by General Leia Organa sees the true threat of the First Order and attempts to thwart them with the unofficial support of the New Republic.

Luke has gone missing after tragic events that happened in the time span between “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” and Leia feels that finding him is the best shot they have at defeating the First Order. Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the Resistance, has gone to retrieve a missing piece of a map that is said will lead to Luke Skywalker’s hiding place. He retrieves the piece but is captured by The First Order who are also looking for Luke to kill him and wipe out the last of the Jedi.

His droid, BB-8, escapes with the map and runs into a scavenger named Rey who is later joined by Finn, a Stormtrooper who has defected after he witnesses the evil of The First Order in his first combat mission. What follows is a race to get the map back to the Resistance, destroy the First Order’s new super-weapon, and find Luke Skywalker.

First, I’m going to talk about what I really liked. Second, I’m going to talk about what I didn’t like, and then I’m going to wrap up by addressing some “Debatables,” by which I mean some things that I am torn on and also things that other people seem to hate that I think are fine. Let’s begin.

So, what I loved. I loved the tone and feel. This movie felt like a Star Wars movie much more than the prequels. It does feel updated – a Star Wars for a new generation – but it retains the dramatic and thematic underpinnings of the original trilogy.

It was fast and action-packed, but the biggest change is the return of good humor. Gone are the “Bantha Poodoo” jokes. Much of the humor is similar to the dry, even sarcastic humor of the original trilogy, but some of the funny imagery has a modern flair.  This new humor is best exemplified by the stormtroopers who do a 180 when they see and hear Kylo Ren having a tantrum. Still, I can understand why some people wouldn’t like it. The humor is a bit updated from the original trilogy, after all. But I think it is a nice new touch. This is genuinely the funniest Star Wars movie so far.

The humor could have undermined the film, however, if the characters and actors were no good. Thankfully, all of the characters were great, as were the actors and actresses who played them.

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I enjoyed the old characters, who were still good in their roles. Harrison Ford as Han Solo was an especially strong returning performance, which was a massive relief. I was worried that he would drag the movie down after he looked like he was sleepwalking his way through Indiana Jones 4. Carrie Fisher was another worry after all her real life problems with drugs and such, and she does feel stiff a bit in the movie, but she did well enough, considering.

Second Viewing: This is really more a funny anecdote, but my dad noted afterwards that he could have done without Leia’s return because it more or less ruined the mental image of her in Return of the Jedi. Mom wasn’t pleased.   

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As much as I liked the old characters, the film is carried by the new characters, and for the film to succeed in resurrecting the film franchise they had to be great. Thankfully, they were. I loved the new characters.

Poe Dameron is a badass and has that cool, self-assured swagger that made Han Solo so interesting in the original film, despite his low amount of screen time. Finn, meanwhile, is conflicted, funny, and complex. He has an interesting character arc, going from a runner and a coward to a sort of brave fool. He has a lot of room to continue to grow in the next film. Besides that, he provides a little bit of a window into the new storm troopers’ lives. I know that some people found him to be overly energetic and annoying at times, but I think this comes from his background. He was taken as a child and raised in the First Order as a sanitation worker and stormtrooper trainee. He’s completely new to just about everything. He probably doesn’t have much in the way of real social training, so he likely has no real inhibitors for expressing emotions. In some ways he’s a grown man, and in others he is like a child.

Poe and Finn’s friendship is an unlikely one, but it just seems to click the moment they end up on screen together and it works very well. I do not doubt that “shippers” are already shipping these two like no tomorrow, but I view their relationship very much like brothers. Finn looks up to Poe and, if I had to guess, will learn a lot from Poe in the next films. Finn is very inexperienced in many things, and Poe could gain some complexity in the process of helping Finn gain that experience. If Episode VIII doesn’t have these two going on adventures together it will be a missed opportunity.

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BB-8 is predictably adorable and by far the most memorable droid since R2-D2. It’s fairly amazing how much emotion they were able to eek out of that droid with a combination of the beeps and whistles and the movements of his head. Probably the best moment was his lighter thumbs-up he gives Finn in the Millennium Falcon, but I also loved his reaction to Rey when she allows him to come along with her. He’s officially the new mascot of the franchise and I want a plushie right now.

Rey is one of the more polarizing new characters. To some degree this baffles me, as I think she is probably the best new character, or at least my personal favorite of the bunch. She is accused of being a Mary Sue and her journey in the force is seen as way too easy but I feel that, while she is very good at a lot of things, or becomes proficient quickly, there are some very good arguments against this. I won’t retread the same ground I feel was covered well enough by Erik Kane at Forbes.com and Caroline Framke at Vox.com. Instead I simply suggest you read them both. I will add, however, something that neither article really went into with too much depth is that Rey is a conflicted character. Mary Sue characters almost never struggle with anything, never run from destiny or the call to adventure. Rey does all of these things. She just wants to go back to Jakku and wait, even though she is constantly being called to adventure and destiny.

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Even her journey of discovery in the force (which is admittedly quick) is not without trial. She has her mind probed by a sith-in-training and at first isn’t able to do anything to stop him from rummaging about in her brain. As she struggles against Kylo Ren, her latent abilities begin to awaken and she slowly fights back using the same techniques she is feeling all too keenly wriggling through her brain. Honestly, it felt right in line with what we already know of the force. It isn’t long before Luke is catching training droid bolts on his lightsaber and firing missiles where no computer can to destroy super-weapons, after all.

So in the end I don’t find arguments against her very compelling. Instead, I am utterly taken in by Daisy Ridley’s performance, with her expressions and interactions with the others. She is certainly the breakout star of the film, and if she doesn’t get a major boost in demand for other movie roles, it will be a crime.

Second Viewing: Another note regarding the fact that Rey isn’t perfect, she is totally overpowered by Kylo Ren the first time they meet. It actually takes a while before she can really beat him.

Kylo Ren is another character that has been somewhat criticized. Some say that he isn’t evil enough, or rather that he isn’t intimidating enough. He is no Darth Vader. He is emotional and prone to outbursts that can come across as tantrums. There is an excellent parody twitter account called Emo Kylo Ren that plays off of Ren’s emotional nature.

The Force Awakens 5.jpgI don’t entirely disagree. Kylo Ren does come across as unstable, and ultimately a bit weak and unintimidating. However, I like the fact that he is complex. He isn’t just bad, he struggles with the light side and the dark side. Some part of him calls him to be good, and he struggles against it. This is far more development than we see in the villains in the majority of the original trilogy, and it is a better written and acted part than the fall of Anakin in the prequels.

Second Viewing: The second time through, I found that Kylo Ren is more intimidating than I remember. The beginning, when he has the village killed, when he holds the blaster bolt in midair, are pretty impressive in terms of intimidation. He has several moments where he stalks a character, like when he hunts Rey and overpowers her in the forest.

Another thing I liked was that the lower-tier bad guys actually felt dangerous for a change. Stormtroopers actually hit things sometimes and killed people. TIE Fighters felt sturdier and more lethal. I know that we had three movies of stormtroopers not hitting their targets to create the impression that they were worthless, and that the opening scene from Episode IV has stormtroopers killing people, but I still think I felt more threat in this film than previously.

I also  liked the various locations. Jakku may be very similar to Tatooine, but it has elements that make it interesting in its own right. The hulking wrecks of past battles, the dangerous sand-pits, the creature that pops up out of the sand to watch BB-8, all contribute to make it feel like its own place. I also liked Maz Kanata’s place. Of course it harkens back to the Tatooine cantina in many ways, but it also feels unique. The cross between the architecture and age of Yavin IV and the cantina really worked for me. The winter forest at the end of the film gave a suitably dark and foreboding backdrop for the lightsaber battle between Kylo Ren, Finn and then Rey.

The locations are made, however, by the fact that J.J. Abrams did on-scene shooting, and not endless blue-screen work, not to mention the wonderful practical effects for the majority of the creatures and characters we meet. I can’t get enough Jim Henson, and I’m so glad we went back there.

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The lightsaber battles were another highlight for me, particularly the final battle between Rey and Kylo Ren. The prequels’ lightsaber battles were flashy, but had little or muted emotional impact. The originals had some fantastic lightsaber battles, and one that was kinda meh, if understandable for the time (I’m looking at you, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader). This film’s battles are much closer to the original’s in terms of execution and dramatic impact. The final battle between Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren is, for me, the third best lightsaber battle in the entire series. It has great cinematography and a real ambiance along with powerful emotions and character moments.

The final sequence of the movie – Rey climbing up to find Luke Skywalker, is one of the best shots of the film, and a great moment in the series. This is at least partially because of how unique an ending it is in the Star Wars films. Almost all of them have some sort of celebration group-shot, whereas this one is poignant and artistic. It is also excellent for how well it sets up the next movie. It implies a lot about what we will see, and what we can expect. It made me want it right now.

Ultimately, the film does a lot to set up the galaxy for the future. We’ve been given a lot of pieces that could be greatly expanded on for the future. There is a lot of ground to cover and a lot to do. This is exactly what the franchise needed. It needed a reason for there to be more. It needed a film that would rev the engine, and this did so admirably.

For a final note of what I liked about the movie, as much as just about everything else I’ve said – it did probably the most important thing it had to do. They made it so much better than the prequels.

Now, as much as I liked this movie, there are still several flaws that I need to go over. Let’s get the big spoiler out of the way: Han Solo’s death. Now, I don’t actually have a problem with him dying. Harrison Ford is ancient right now, and he wanted Han to die all the way back in Return of the Jedi. He only came back under the condition that Han would die, and so it all made sense. The death scene itself was also well done. It was a bit obvious what was going to happen the second he stepped up to the bridge and called out to his son, Kylo Ren (the other spoiler), but the cinematography was good, the lighting was great and timed well with the changing beats of the scene, and it was a great character moment for everyone involved.

So what was wrong with it? For one thing, I felt the emotional impact of it was unearned in a dramatic sense. We hear a little bit about Kylo Ren’s past as Han’s son, and we know that their relationship went south, but it’s just told to us. The first we see the two together is also the last time we see them together. The past is told to us, but I don’t think I ever really felt it. Because of that, it seems that this Kylo Ren guy just shows up, acts obnoxious, and then kills a fan favorite character. It also makes Han’s life feel like a disappointment. I mean he has his heydays in the original trilogy and then afterwards he screws up being a father, runs off to become a smuggler again, and returns just long enough to get killed by the son he couldn’t reach. It’s tragic and disappointing, like so many real-world deaths. It got a little too real in my space-fantasy is what I’m saying.

I felt it could have been pretty much all fixed with even one scene showing a confrontation between Han and Kylo Ren before the final death scene. A prime spot would be on the First Order’s assault on Maz’s Castle. Imagine a scene where Kylo is making off with Rey, Han shows up and they have a brief exchange of words. Han tries to reach out to him, but Kylo brings up the past, they argue about it while Han pleads for him to come to the light. They are interrupted by a squad of stormtroopers or TIE fighters or something and Kylo Ren leaves, not yet ready to finish off his father. Boom. The scene feels earned.

Second Viewing: On a second viewing, Han’s death felt a little more meaningful than I initially gave it credit. I forgot or skimmed over the interactions between Han and Leia that lay the groundwork for it a bit, and Han does have some meaningful moments when he sees his son and emotions play across his face. I stand by my opinion that one additional confrontation would have made the moment stronger, though.

The biggest problem I have, and many people have with this movie is how similar it is to the original Star Wars movie. I won’t go into specifics, as I feel it is being examined ad nauseum online, but elements like Starkiller Base do make the film feel like a bit of a retread. Still, it isn’t just a reboot, and it doesn’t ruin the film. I would have liked it if they had taken just a few chances, though.

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Second Viewing: The similarities were a little bit less prominent on the second viewing, but they were very much still there and still a problem. If Episode VIII is a retread of Empire Strikes Back too, then there will be some serious problems. If Episode VIII charts a new path while being a great movie, then The Force Awakens will be largely forgiven for its parallels, I think.

In the opposite direction, there was some stuff that should have carried over from previous films but didn’t. Where are the B-Wings and other advances? Why is this military so pared down?

Outside Sources: Okay, so after consuming related media, I’ve found out more about who the Resistance are, why they are such a small group, and why they don’t have fancy things. They are, essentially Leia’s tiny force who believe in her warnings about the First Order. They are small because few people believe here. They lack resources because they don’t have a great many backers in the New Republic. I just wish I didn’t have to go to outside sources to figure these things out. That should be in the movie somewhere. I bet there is a scene on the cutting room floor that gives some context for this.

Another thing I didn’t like was the map to find Luke Skywalker, and the miraculous awakening of R2-D2. The map is just hokey, and doesn’t really make sense. I’ve seen similar 3-D maps that are built to not make sense unless you have all the pieces and they don’t have to look like a freaking jigsaw puzzle. It just seemed lame. R2-D2 waking up when he seems like a bit of a Deus Ex Machina moment. It just didn’t work for me, and I wish there was a good reason for it.

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Second Viewing: The map still sucks. Sorry. The R2-D2 thing might be forgivable, but it depends on if it is explained in future movies. It might be that he was programed to wake up when Rey arrived (assuming there is some historical connection there, which we all suspect). It might be that Luke woke him up with the force from a distance (unlikely). I’ve heard that another explanation is that R2-D2 was trying to compile all of his data that he had accrued since the Phantom Menace (he had never shut down or compiled in all those years), and he finished around that point in the movie. Hard to say, but if we get a half-decent explanation in Episode VIII I’ll forgive this.

I didn’t like the smallness of the universe. It feels like all of the planets, bad guys, everything is hanging out in the same solar system, not galaxy. When does the Starkiller Base move around to find targets? I looked it up later, but the planet Maz was on is in another part of the galaxy from Hoznian Prime (the planets blown up by Starkiller Base). No, you can’t see the planets blow up from there! This is something that J.J. Abrams has done before. In the Star Trek reboot film, Spock is on a planet far from his home planet of Vulcan, but he can see its destruction from where he is. It seems to be a thing with J.J., and it makes no sense.  

Second Viewing: Okay, this time around I caught the fact that it is a hyper-light weapon that essentially fires its beam through Hyperspace, meaning that it could, theoretically, shoot any planet from anywhere in the galaxy in a relatively reasonable timeframe. That really is a horrific sort of weapon, though there is no way the Hosnians would see it coming. Honestly it still stretches the limits of my suspension of disbelief. The characters seeing the planets blow up from Maz’s place still makes no sense and is a real point of frustration for me, even if it makes dramatic sense.

I’m not a fan of the fact that the New Republic is already wiped out. I feel that there was more there that could have been done, and it feels a little bit like Disney trying to say “no really, the Expanded Universe is gone. Go cry about it.” After all, the New Republic was an important part of most post-Return of the Jedi  stories.

Another fault I had with the story was that none of the bad guys feel self assured and intimidating in the same package. Kylo Ren, while interesting and complex, wasn’t particularly interesting and his lack of self-confidence was an important part of his character. Snoke was a hologram, Captain Phasma was barely present, and General Hux was, well, just a general. You didn’t really have a Darth Vader figure of some kind. I felt like the movie needed at least one of the bad guys to fill this niche.

Second Viewing: It was less important for me the second time around that there be this kind of bad guy. Besides, as I said earlier, Kylo Ren was more intimidating than I remember, despite his weaknesses and insecurities.

 

Now, on to the debatables. The Rathtars seem to be a generally disliked portion of the film, and are seen as unneeded. I can definitely see this point, but I think the major problem with this portion of the film is the design of the Rathtars. The confrontation between Han and the two groups after him are very funny, and the accidental release of the Rathtars by Finn and Rey was a good way to interrupt the confrontation. I think it provides a much needed action-adventure-comedy scene to the film. However, the CGI nature of the creatures, combined with endless flailing tentacles and rolling around like balls, just makes them look silly. If they had a better design, the scene could have still had the same feel, but it could have been truncated, and more impactful.

Second Viewing: Yeah, I still stand by this. I don’t think it brings the film down much, though.

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Han’s plan to get through the shield can make some sense in the Star Wars universe all it wants, I still think it’s one of those ridiculous moments that stretches plausibility. He’s going faster than light. How the heck are you going to have the reaction timing for that? Rey didn’t do it and we don’t have any other force-sensitive people on board that we know of. That’s some serious luck.

The CGI characters were a bit mixed. I liked their design and implementation, generally (though I’m not sure how I feel about Snoke yet), but in a film of wonderful practical effects they stick out quite a bit. This is another one of those things that I recognize brings some incongruity but it doesn’t really matter to me much.

On another topic, Rey’s quick learning of Jedi skills are a deal breaker for some people. In this case I’m referring to the in-world lore and consistency, not the charges of Mary Sue, etc. She does come into her powers fairly quickly. She clearly has been leading a lifestyle where force sensitivity has helped her survive, though its use has been unconscious and unfocused until now. Shouldn’t she have faced more struggles when figuring out how to use the force? Shouldn’t she need training?

For me, this isn’t such a big problem for several reasons. It has been established in many places that untrained force-sensitive people incorporate the force into naturally competent skill sets all the time without training. Luke is a natural shot and pilot, and within the same day as finding out he has access to the force he is able to catch at least one mini-blast from the training droid on his lightsaber (the scene where he is beginning his training in the Millennium Falcon on the way to Alderaan) and he hasn’t had to lead as hard a life as Rey has. And though I shudder to mention it, it is canon that Anakin was able to pilot Pod-racers which were too fast for normal human reflexes long before any formal training.

Besides that, this is part of who she is as a character. She has all the markings of a “destined” one. The trilogies are all about destiny. This time around it is Rey’s destiny. She is quite literally being used by the force. It is calling out to her through Anakin’s lightsaber, for crying out loud. It’s so arthurian I’m surprised Maz didn’t try to hand it to her out of a lake. Her path feels very much like other main characters from fiction who are “destined.” Their struggle isn’t necessarily to be skilled – they usually already are. Their struggle is to accept the path laid out for them or reject it. This is the role given to Rey.

If you want a struggler there are other characters who fit that pattern. Specifically, Finn is the struggler. While Rey is naturally good, Finn seems to fail at everything he does. He doesn’t get to play the white knight to Rey’s distressed damsel, because she isn’t one. He can’t match anybody in a lightsaber fight, including a wounded Kylo Ren and a stun-baton wielding stormtrooper. He is wishy washy on actually trying to help people. Meanwhile, Rey is like Rand al’Thor from the Wheel of Time series. They are naturally good at the whole magic thing even though they are not technically supposed to be able to do the things they do, which seems to be tied to a past they cannot remember. It’s a mythological type at this point, and you know how much Star Wars loves it some mythology.

Finn using a lightsaber and Rey besting Kylo Ren in a duel is a related element that people debate a lot. First off, the whole Finn and lightsaber thing is a silly problem to have. Clearly you don’t have to be force sensitive to use it. Han used the exact same lightsaber to cut open a tauntaun on Hoth. Just as clearly, Finn doesn’t know how to use it. Yes, he has some stormtrooper training, but he loses both lightsaber fights he finds himself in. In the first one he gets beat down by a stormtrooper [Edit: TR-8R! 😀 ] and he is very nearly killed by Kylo Ren, though he gets a lucky hit in because Kylo Ren is both injured and arrogant to the point of letting his guard down. He is never portrayed as being capable in that manner, and the fact that he managed to block one or two swipes of Kylo Ren’s blade means diddly squat.

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Let’s be honest, though. TR-8R is a badass.

In Rey’s duel, Kylo Ren is doing much better than people remember, especially considering and he is injured by both Chewbacca’s bolt, Finn’s lucky hit, and he has just killed his father which had to take an emotional toll on him. Besides that, he seems very much untrained, and we find out that indeed his training is incomplete. Despite all of these things, he is practically toying with Rey up until he offers to teach her the ways of the force, at which point she turns around and fights back.

Second Viewing: I caught a little more of the nuance of the scene the second time around. Once she is reminded of the force by Ren, she does what Maz told her to do ages ago; she closes her eyes and joins with the Force. It’s much like what Luke was able to do at the end of A New Hope when he turns off his computer and fires the missiles accurately using the force. It is Rey’s “Use the Force, Luke” moment. This is one of the few moments of their blatant attempts at paralleling the original trilogy that just worked for me. I felt it was very well done.

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Conclusion and Star Rating:

I feel like I’ve gone on forever, so while there might be a few more things I could talk about here and there (like the lack of a real mourning period over Han’s death, or my feelings on Luke’s hermitage), I think I’ve covered most of the stuff I really wanted to talk about.

In the end, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is a great movie. It isn’t perfect and some aspects of its story will either be justified or made worse by the next couple of movies, but right now it does what it needed to do, which is resurrect a dormant franchise with fun, excitement, and fresh new faces that we can follow into the future. I want to watch it again.

And after a Second Viewing, I still want to watch it again!

Finally, the question that everyone asks, where I would rank it among the other Star Wars movies. This is my order: The Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, The Force Awakens, Return of the Jedi (I have more nostalgia for RotJ than the other two in the original trilogy but having re-watched it recently I have to admit its weaknesses), Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars Animated movie, [a few blank spaces], The Clone Wars, The Phantom Menace.

I give this film four out of five stars.

4 Stars

Four out of Five Stars

“Second Viewing” – The rating stays the same because, while I enjoyed it more the second time around, there is no getting over the repetitious nature of the plot.

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One thought on “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens Review (Spoilers!)

  1. glenchen says:

    Well, you beat me to the punch on doing a review, and I am glad. You’re so much insightful in doing movie reviews that I could ever be. And I have seen it twice too. I pretty much agree with you on everything, although I thoroughly enjoyed the scene when they let the rathtars out, but that’s just me. After all, it’s just entertainment…

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