Note: I wrote this review on December 21, too late for publication at Flickchart.com/blog, but as a professional film critic I can’t not say my piece about the biggest film of all time.*
Though I waited four days to see it, further diminishing my already faded Star Wars fan cred that half a lifetime ago was beyond question, I’d heard just a few things about The Force Awakens before I saw it. I’d heard it closely mirrored the plot of the 1977 debut film, my favorite in the franchise, and I’d heard that Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts were in question. I wasn’t excited, though. These tidbits didn’t whet my appetite. I wasn’t curious about Kylo Ren’s identity or what sort of characters Ex Machina’s Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson would be playing.
As a kid in the 1990s I’d dedicated too many brain cells to the names of quaternary Star Wars characters like Salacious B. Crumb and Elan Sel’Sabagno, names I’ll know decades from now even if I forget my own. And however tattered my fan card became when I moved on from the “expanded universe” novels and LucasArts games of my youth, I knew I still couldn’t do Star Wars halfway. For a nerd like me, even one substantially reformed, welcoming a new trilogy to the world just meant more work, more misspent days on Wikias and YouTube video dissections.
Yet dutifully I went to The Force Awakens, not on opening night but on opening weekend — a compromise with and small triumph over the Force-addicted part my brain. My resistance to Star Wars’s charms lasted at least several seconds, through the LucasFilm logo and the Star Wars icon, but it broke down at the first sentence of the text scroll: “Luke Skywalker has gone missing.” What a line. It has overtones of the dramatic old space serials that originally inspired George Lucas. It reminds us that, indeed, Luke Skywalker has been missing from movie screens for a while now and maybe we kinda miss him. Best of all, it’s the right twist for the story: Luke’s arc in the original trilogy saw him grow increasingly distant, almost as sagacious and contemplative as his Jedi trainers, and somehow “missing” — off on some spiritual quest, people say — seems like exactly where he would be thirty years later. This, I was instantly sure, is the best text crawl in the franchise.
By the end credits I was equally sure that The Force Awakens is not the best at anything else. Nor is it the worst (the prequels have not been erased from history, though I trust top scientists are working on it.) Instead it is a very good imitation of the original movies. Movies plural; it is not only Star Wars ’77 that is paralleled, but the high points of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, too. Rey (Daisy Ridley) takes Luke’s journey from desert scrounger to hot-shot pilot to hero. On her second backwater planet she meets a tiny, wizened creature who speaks to her of the Force, and she experiences a hint of the mind-bending hallucination that Luke encountered in the tree on Dagobah. (Rey does a bit of the work of Leia, too, in a torture scene that’s aesthetically similar to but longer than the 1977 one in which Darth Vader used a needle-bearing orb.) Though Rey seems not to know her parentage or her relationship to wanna-be Sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver; Ren is the son of Han and Leia, reprised by Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher), the audience is left with no doubt that they are both the grandchildren of Vader and probably full-blooded brother and sister. We can also have no doubt that Ren will be redeemed in the end, as Vader was before him; his redemption has already been given a dry run and was the subject of much discussion between Leia and Han. We have met Emperor Palpatine’s analog, Snoke, holographically pulling the strings of a surprisingly strong Imperial freikorps called The First Order. (Snoke is played by Andy Serkis, but creature CGI has gotten worse since Gollum; he and some creatures called Rapthars look puttyish.) We have seen Han Solo and pals bring down a shield generator and penetrate a new, more powerful version of a Death Star in a two-front fight more reminiscent of Jedi’s climax than Star Wars’s. At the end of Episode VII the characters and the audience are further along than they were after Episode IV, because The Force Awakens impinges into parts of the cycle formerly withheld until the second and third installments.
Imitation is not a bad thing in and of itself. It makes for a fun theatrical exercise in awakening collective memories. Still, if director J.J. Abrams and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have frontloaded the new trilogy with the choicest references from the old, follow-ups may be thinner.
Speaking of references, they are a two-edged sword in The Force Awakens. (No lightsaber puns here, folks. Move along.) It’s one thing to hew to a familiar story arc that works, but when references are explicitly articulated they feel forced. (No Force puns, either. Move along, move along.) Rather than add to the legend of the Millennium Falcon, the script calls back the ship’s legendary 12-parsec Kessel run. A character named Phasma is barely introduced, but Solo and Finn see fit to giddily threaten her with a trash compactor. In-jokes get easy laughs in an appreciative theater, but in the cold light of home viewing the missed opportunities for fresh concepts will be regrettable.
The likeliest sources of new material may be the characters Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Demaron (Isaac). Neither are perfect replicas of original trilogy types, and Poe was reportedly going to die early in The Force Awakens before a script change. Finn, an ex-Stormtrooper, is Rey’s love interest so far, but it’s played lightly enough that they could turn out to be brother and sister by the time it’s all over. Poe may prove to be a glorified Wedge Antilles, popping in for major battles and then popping out, but as the owner of the extremely cute droid BB-8, whose merchandise will generate more revenue than some nations, Poe may get more to do than Wedge. For now Finn and Poe remain unknown quantities.
Of course, truly novel material is a risky proposition. Any deviation from the cycle as it previously played out will have to hold up to the close scrutiny of Star Wars’s true believers. I quibble with the use of lightsabers in The Force Awakens. It is convenient that Rey is far better at swordplay than Luke was to begin with, but is it any more than narrative convenience? Finn, unless he has hidden talents, should have been all thumbs with a Jedi’s weapon, but he handled it remarkably well against a crack Stormtrooper.
The biggest misstep in The Force Awakens, though, is not a corny reference or a narrative shortcut, but Abrams’ tone-deafness on the matter of Han Solo’s demise. It is not so much the death itself that feels wrong, though it certainly does not feel right to lose such a beloved character (and to lose him so predictably; Abrams and Driver telegraph it throughout the scene). It was what happened over the next several minutes that troubled me. Chewbacca instantly goes berserk, which is the right reaction for him, but he shoots and seriously wounds Solo’s murderer Kylo Ren, which is the wrong reaction for the character. This isn’t Lando Calrissian, a no-account double-crosser — this is Solo’s son, and Chewie knows that Solo has all but died voluntarily rather than go back to Leia emptyhanded. Chewie knows that Solo would not want Ren harmed. Chewie broke a long-established trust by shooting at Ren, and I don’t think Abrams or even Kasdan realize it or are prepared to address it. If Leia chews out Chewie (this is the pun you’re looking for) in the next film, I’ll stand corrected.
Next, instead of giving us a few moments of relative quiet in which to grieve and process what we have seen (think the Fellowship crying on rocks and straying into Lothlorien after Gandalf’s fall in Moria), Abrams throws us into a lengthy lightsaber duel between Ren and Rey. Rey taps her Force ability but uses it to wail on Ren, giving in to the aggression of the Dark Side in a way I hope the next movie will critique. Until the credits roll there are only fleeting reaction shots of Leia and Chewie in which we are allowed to digest Solo’s death. It’s not enough, and if the pace of the new trilogy cannot moderate when appropriate, it will be difficult for the possible deaths of its own characters to resonate. Perhaps Rian Johnson will prove more adept at handling such moments in Episode VIII, but Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow is not likely to be if Jurassic World is any indication. (See my Jurassic World review here.)
The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars since Return of the Jedi by no small margin. Nevertheless, excessive references, weak creature CGI, and an off-putting death keep it solidly below the original trilogy. I have a bitter taste going forward, but I’m back in. And more than that, when I finally saw the missing Luke Skywalker, I felt a surge of excitement to see what comes next.
*unadjusted, of course, and until the next one