To review this movie I am going to go into some general non-spoilery stuff and then get into some real spoilers. Since Lucasfilm kept a pretty tight grip on story leaks, it is only fair that I keep the plot from people who haven’t seen it. So when I say spoilers are coming up, stop reading if you do not want them.
I very much enjoyed this newest installment of Star Wars. It is not perfect, but it is a welcome return to the galaxy far far away that shows the Lucasfilm team realizes what they need to do to make good movies. From the very beginning until the end it felt like a Star Wars movie. The plot was exciting, fast paced, and thrilling. Characters were warm and interesting. The special effects looked great.
The biggest strength of the movie is the new cast. Daisey Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn get most of the screen time and have a wonderful chemistry together that is intoxicating to watch. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is sorely underused, only appearing in the first and last act. What we saw from him was fun, but I could definitely use more Poe Dameron. There is good reason to believe that we will see more of him later which I will get into in the spoilers section.
A constant criticism of the movie is that it retreads too much of the material from A New Hope. Now that is true, but the movie does feel like its own movie. There is enough unique and interesting plot elements that make it unique, so do not buy into the cynicism that says it is just a remake. While the fan service is a tad overwhelming, the biggest problem of the movie is not in its fan service.
Rather, my biggest complaint with The Force Awakens is that it moves way too fast. J.J. Abrams movies have always been faced paced affairs, but this one charges it up to 10. Plot elements whiz by so quickly that it sometimes it overwhelming to try to keep them together at once. The set pieces are interesting, but when they happen in such rapid fire succession it is really draining. Fortunately, the events themselves are good enough to overlook that small flaw. And with that we get into spoilers.
The quickness of the plot really takes away from ideas that are essential for understanding the galaxy 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. For example, Rey spends the first act of the movie on Jakku which has the wreckage of starships from a battle that took place. But nobody seems to acknowledge any of it and we never quite learn how everything got their or why Jakku was so important to call for a huge battle. From what it seems, it is just an insignificant desert planet.
Another detail that is glossed over is the state of the governments in the galaxy. The First Order is really well established as the successor to the Empire, but the Resistance and the New Republic are both very vague. When the First Order fires the Starkiller Base, they knock out the capital of the Republic for some reason. It is clear that the Resistance is only loosely affiliated with the New Republic, so why would the First Order not attack the Resistance? Also, what exactly is the relationship between the Resistance and New Republic? When this stuff is not explained, it is hard figuring out exactly why we should care about the destruction of the New Republic capital.
World building in the movie is cut short to give more time to the middle act, which is by far the most muddled part of the movie. During the middle act, Rey and Finn find Han and Chewbacca. Han is now using a freighter not the Millennium Falcon and transporting exotic monsters. He gets attacked by pirates and then the monsters get loose and start killing the pirates, forcing Han and Chewbacca to escape in the Falcon with Finn and Rey. Not only is this scene pretty pointless, it takes away from critical world building that is needed. Afterwards they hang out with Maz Kanata on a planet and get attacked by the First Order, which is good, but should be cut down.
Ok, onto the stuff I liked. The first 45 minutes of this movie were amazing, easily on par with the best moments of the original trilogy. We get to know our characters and see an exciting escape from the First Order and nothing seemed rushed. It all flowed smoothly. John Boyega is absolutely wonderful as Finn and seeing him and Oscar Isaac flying together was thrilling. Couple that with the Falcon dogfight soon afterwards and you’ve got a really exciting opening act.
The last act was also good, but tainted by the blatant reusing of the Death Star plot. They changed it up by having a lightsaber fight on the surface of Starkiller Base, but it is hard to forget that we have already seen the X-wings blow up the Death Star, now we are seeing it for a third time.
But, critical to that third act is Han Solo dying, which we all pretty much knew was coming. After the show early on that Kylo Ren was Han and Leia’s son it was pretty obvious that he would die. It was a good moment and showed that the stakes are high. What was really interesting was the conflict in Kylo Ren, who asks Han to help Kylo complete his task of killing his father. It’s touching and depressing, and is a good emotional moment.
The tension is this scene was palpable, better than anything the Prequels has ever done, and one of my favorite scenes in Star Wars. With Han and Kylo on the bridge, it seemed like the rest of the movie melted away and we were left with these two characters, one that we have grown to love and the conflicted newcomer. In that moment we learned so much about Kylo. He’s frightened and insecure and does not feel resolved to follow the darkness, but is forced to kill his father out of fear of turning to the light. Heartbreaking, but wonderful.
Then we get to the lightsaber battle. The battle itself was great. Slow moving and more in line with the OT battles that the PT lightsaber dancing. What most stood out was that Kylo Ren himself seemed relatively untrained, which will make an interesting dynamic in the next movie as he is trained further by Snoke while Rey is trained further by Luke.
Kylo Ren is an interesting character, and one that grows on me the more I think about him. He is basically what the Prequels tried to do with Anakin Skywalker. Kylo is incredibly insecure and moody. He is not very good with the Force, as we see him fail on multiple occasions to use it. His lightsaber technique is just terrible, so bad that untrained Rey can keep up with him. But he wants power and he believes that power will come from impersonating Darth Vader. Yet still, he acknowledges that his tempted by the light and even has a hard time killing his father. That sets up an interesting arc and is something quite different than we have seen in Star Wars.
What also makes him so interesting is that despite his seemingly unstoppable power, Kylo is really not better than Rey. Rey has natural ability to use the Force, while Kylo had it trained into him. I am curious to see what happens with that in the future.
What impressed me most about this movie is that it left key questions unanswered. We get glimpses of what happened with Luke and his Jedi academy, but nothing is spelled out. It is also interesting that everybody seems to know who Snoke is. He is not the man in the shadows like Palpatine, but a key galactic player. Rey’s family relations are not revealed, leaving some mystery for the next movie.
This really impressed me because it showed some restraint. Instead of giving the audience everything that they wanted right in one movie, the writers are letting some mysteries wait until further movies. As Maz says when asked about how she got Luke’s lightsaber: “That is a story for another time.” And that is good, because it makes me want to know where the story is going. I am actually looking forward to Episode VIII.
END OF SPOILERS
Overall, it’s a great time. Not perfect, but it is nice to be back in the galaxy that we love. With Episode VIII I am hoping that Rian Johnson slows down the pace a little and gives the characters time to breathe. The Force Awakens had to do a lot of heavy lifting. It had to reintroduce lots of old things and set up events for the future movies. It is a transitional movie, and one that J.J. Abrams was well suited for, even if his ADHD style of film making leaves the plot feeling compressed and rushed. There is a lot packed into this movie, and I am excited to see it again.