Long Form Review: The Force Awakens

So it’s been four months. I’m finally going to post my long-form review of Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. I wrote a lot of this back in December but didn’t post it because … well, because I didn’t trust it. I was so excited to have a new Star Wars movie, least of all a good one, that I needed to take some time for my impressions to set. I just bought in on blu-ray and watched it again with Abby. And my impression is largely unchanged.

It’s a good movie. It’s a very good movie. It’s not quite as good as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, which I rate as rare 10’s on IMDB. But it’s better than Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, which I rate as 8’s or 9’s, depending on my mood. Right now, I have it rated an 8, but it’s a strong 8 and could become a 9 in the future, depending on how Episodes VIII and IX shake out.

Spoiler warning for the movie that everyone saw four month ago:

Reviewed as just a movie, The Force Awakens was one of the better movies of 2016. It’s exciting. It has great characters and dialogue. It has its share of moments that are thrilling or dramatic or even touching. Abrams’ direction is solid and the acting is very good all around.

Much has been made of Abrams’ use of practical effects and I will say, in contrast to the CGI mess that is Jurassic World, the practical effects are a welcome touch. It’s not just that they look better. It’s that they bring a limitation that the narrative needs and returns Star Wars to the grungy, lived-in look that was such a big part of its original appeal. The documentary Empire of Dreams notes that pre-Star Wars sci-fi movies tended to have a very clinical appearance. By creating a universe that looked lived in, Star Wars set the tone for all science fiction that followed. Practical effects, even if they don’t look as good as CGI, are the right look for Star Wars.

But The Force Awakens isn’t just any movie. It’s a phenomenon. It’s now the most successful movie in American history and the third most successful worldwide. The buzz for the movie was off the charts. Hell, just the trailers were talked about more than some $200 million productions. It came into an unreasonable amount of expectation and yet delivered. Abby and I went the first weekend and the movie theater was packed. The excitement was palpable and when the movie ended, people cheered. I hadn’t had as memorable a movie experience since I saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 (or maybe ET in 1982). A week later, I went with my brother and nephew to a late night showing on Christmas Day and the theater was still packed with excited cheering people. And for young people, it was even more exciting. Before the movie was even released, Abby told me it was her favorite. Because as much as she loved the old Star Wars movies, this was the first one that was hers.

It’s rare to have a movie be such a culture phenomenon. And seeing it again with my daughter and nephew, enjoying their excitement was like passing the torch on. In that context, does my opinion about the cinematography really matter?

Well, yeah, because ultimately the hype fades and the movie has to withstand the test of time. Four months in and it’s holding up quite well. We’ll see where we are in ten years.

Not everyone loved it, of course. There were a few people who criticized the plot for being unoriginal or Rey for being a “Mary Sue”. But here’s the thing about watching The Force Awakens for the fourth time. After reflection, I agree with a lot of the criticisms of the movie: it does borrow a lot from the earlier movies and the main character is a bit Mary Sueish. But … that doesn’t really bother me. The movie is still very good and can still hold its head high in the Star Wars canon.

People forget that Star Wars wasn’t terribly original itself. An evil sorcerer kidnaps a beautiful princess and hides her in his invulnerable fortress. A farm boy and an aged wizard recruit a pirate to help rescue her, then lead the rebels to destroy the fortress. That could be part of the Arthur Legend. And that’s just the story. As far as film goes, if you’ve watched The Dam Busters and The Hidden Fortress, you’ve basically seen Star Wars. Originality has never been a big part of the Star Wars universe. It’s success has been about telling old stories in fresh and exciting ways.

And as far the the supposed Mary Sue … well, Luke was a farmboy who destroyed the Death Star the first time he touched an X-wing. He later was able to take on the most powerful Sith in the universe after a month spent being taught how to lift rocks by a muppet. Leia was a sassy beautiful girl who was a great shot, was unfazed by Vader and was leading a Rebellion at … what, 19? It wasn’t really until the second movie or the third that the characters developed the kind of depth we now attribute to them.

Moreover … this is attacking what I see as the film’s greatest strength. What crosses me after four viewings is just how much I like the new leads. Call her a Mary Sue all you want, but Daisy Ridley is just fun to watch. John Boyega does a great job with Finn. There was way too little of Oscar Isaac in the movie but what little we see of Poe Dameron is great. Adam Driver is wonderful as Kylo Ren, making a good character out of something that could have been maudlin. I really like the way he plays the final confrontation with Rey and Finn.

(Ren is also interesting as a reflection on the prequels. Kylo Ren is basically following the narrative arc that Anakin should have followed. I don’t know if it’s Driver being a better actor or Abrams being a better director, but Ren’s turn to the dark is far more believable than Anakin’s was. The Dark Side should be something people turn to because of deep flaws in their character not because, in the words of James Lileks, they have a better healthcare plan.)

There’s one sequence in the movie that I just love. After the First Order attacks Takodana, the Resistance counter-attacks. There’s a glorious continuous shot of Poe Dameron flying his X-wing, taking out a half dozen tie fighters as well as some ground troops. While he’s doing this, Finn is in the foreground, fighting his way out. He sees the X-wing and cheers it on, not knowing that the pilot is his friend Poe, whom he thought lost. It’s a great sequence that combines good action with a good character moment. And made all the better because of the way Boyega and Isaac sell both that moment and the earlier moments when they were becoming friends.

I just love the new cast. I see pictures of the four young leads together and I think we’re seeing the beginning of something wonderful. It’s not just that they’re good, it’s that they can carry an action movie, which requires a slightly different skill set than carrying a drama. Sean Connery is not a great actor, but he could carry ridiculous action movies. Harrison Ford is not a great actor, but he could carry ridiculous action movies. All four of the young leads hold their own, making the ridiculous plot and absurd premises work. It bodes well for the future movies. Because a good cast can carry a mediocre script if they need to (see Jedi, Return of).

That’s not to knock the old cast, who bring a gravitas to the proceedings. And, to the movie’s credit, are allowed to look and act their age. Having Han Solo anchor the movie only to be killed at the end was a wise choice, linking the past movies, letting Ford carry the absurdity but then passing the torch on.

To me, that really is what the movie was about: passing the torch on. Building a new story on top of the remnants of the old one. Toward the end of the movie, R2-D2 displays a map of the galaxy. But a piece is missing. And BB-8 rolls up and provides the missing piece. That shot, to me, perfectly sums up the movie: “Here is this universe; here is something new.”

I’m hoping that the next two movies build on this establishment. There are a lot of unanswered questions about Rey’s origin and Snoke’s origin (and possibly Finn’s). There’s a lot of narrative territory to explore with Kylo Ren. We have yet to see how badly the New Republic and the First Order have been hurt and just how extensive the new civil war will be. My hope is that the next two movies will open the Star Wars universe even further, rather than folding back on itself. For example, I hope’s Rey’s story turns out to be something interesting that unfolds entirely new aspects of the Star Wars universe and new characters rather than folding back into her being Anakin’s long lost love child or something.

This uncertainty is a good thing. It’s nice to be going into the unknown again. One of the many beauties of The Empire Strikes Back was how it ended. Luke was wounded, Han was captured, the Rebels were defeated and on the run. We didn’t know what was going to happen. And it was wonderful. Even as an 8-year-old kid I could appreciate how hefty that narrative was. Return of the Jedi tied things up a little too neatly, but anticipation of it was off the charts because Empire did such a wonderful job expanding the universe and creating uncertainty. The biggest problem with the prequels was that there were no mysteries. They took a lot more chances and, in many ways, had a much more interesting narrative than The Force Awakens. But we knew where it was going to end up. Now we’re back to the point where anything could happen.

And, when you boil it down to one sentence, that’s why I enjoyed the Force Awakens. It’s not just because it’s a good movie. It’s because the Star Wars universe is open once again and anything could happen.

Maybe they’ll drop the ball with Episode VIII. I was excited about the Star Trek reboot initially but the second movie had huge problems and the third looks even worse. But, for the moment, I’m optimistic. And, if nothing else, I have one more great movie to pass on to my kids.