A Star Wars: The Force Awakens review and analysis from a long-time fan.
The Force Awakens is a fun blockbuster movie, on par with Disney’s other tentpole movie of 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Worth seeing in the theater for the cultural gravitas alone, but in the end, unremarkable. It sets us up nicely for a sequel that has a lot of potential to be great, but after the emotions calm down, I think others will view this movie as nothing but a mediocre stepping stone. In ten years, no one will be calling this a classic.
I wanted to like it. Heck, I wanted to love it. I was ready. Willing. I’ve been a Star Wars fan for as long as I can remember. I read all of the Extended Universe books, no matter how mundane. I played the Star Wars Customizable Card Game when everyone else was playing Magic: The Gathering. I knew all of the hard questions to Star Wars: Trivial Pursuit. Instinctively. My room was full of posters and toys.
I waited in line almost 18 hours for The Phantom Menace to see it at midnight, and I ended up seeing it 6 times in the theater. I was so desperate for a new Star Wars, that I sat through that boring mess 6 times before I finally realized I was only there to see the last 10 minutes. I think many are wearing the same nostalgia glasses for The Force Awakens. Fortunately, it is a much better movie than all of the prequels.
So, first the good.
WARNING: Spoilers below.
What I Liked
It sort of felt like Star Wars. The music. The set pieces. Parts that genuinely made me smile. Abrams and company knew how to play certain chords so well that it brought up deep memories of childhood moments long ago. The framework was there and recognizable, like reading what your friends wrote in your old yearbooks. The moment the X-Wings come soaring across the water, you feel it.
The practical effects went a long way toward establishing this feel, with actual models and animatronics as opposed to the green screen shenanigans of the prequels. The universe felt real and lived-in again.
This is part of what made the movie so disappointing. It could have been a contender. It has so much promise. But instead of a leap to lofty heights, taking some risks, it hopped along a safe, well-trod path.
Rey, Finn, and Poe have some good dialogue to banter with, are well-acted and likable, and I’m looking forward to what the saga has in store for them. Finn and Poe, in particular, have some good chemistry, and I hope they get a friendship that we get to witness that is on par with Han and Luke’s.
What I Didn’t Like
I could go on and on about the plot being moved by spectacular coincidences, the vague political situation (why is there a Resistance, exactly?), the lack of both scope and of clearly defined stakes, and a sundry other annoyances. But I’ll focus this on what were, in my mind, the worst sins.
Destruction and Rehash of the Original Trilogy
Many gigabytes have already been filled about how The Force Awakens is a shot for shot remake of Episode 4, hitting the same thematic beats and using many of the same props to do so, so I won’t retread that ground. I want to bring up something more serious, and in the long run, more damaging. As it turns out, nothing our heroes did in the original trilogy actually mattered. This new movie essentially destroys any of the hard fought gains that made us cheer in the earlier movies. It conveys a strange sort of nihilism, which is odd for a movie that’s supposed to be a fun space opera.
The redemption of Anakin Skywalker? It didn’t really mean anything for the Skywalker family. Luke coming into his own as Jedi? Luke’s now hiding all alone, similar to another crazy old hermit. The death of the Emperor? Don’t worry, there’s another disfigured guy pulling the strings. The Empire was dealt a crushing blow? Now we have the First Order, just like the Empire (though maybe a bit less imperial in the true sense of the word), but now with more overt references to Nazism and Hitler Youth. Oh yeah, and there’s still a resistance, for some reason. I guess good guys can’t be part of a recognized government?
Then there’s that whole movie titled Return of the Jedi, but now we learn that it didn’t actually result in the returning of any sort of recognizable Jedi. Heck, there are less Jedi in Episode 7 than there are in Episode 6.
The biggest culprit, however, is the character of Han Solo. While Harrison Ford steps into the role of the character just fine, and its thrilling to see him again, we see Solo as a smuggler with some outstanding debts. This is exactly how Solo was introduced in Episode 4, except now he’s more of a bumbling old man. All of his character growth from before…gone. Vanished. He went right back to his old lifestyle, but now it seems he’s a little worse at it than before. There’s a throw away line that tells us the “reason” for it (covered later in this article), but the line is there solely to explain this vast regression that makes no sense from what we know and love about Han, and it doesn’t do the character justice.
Han says he went back to “the only thing I was ever good at.” Good grief, he was made a General in the Rebel Alliance. I guess they just give those titles out like Halloween candy? We deserved to see an older, wiser Han, one who is actually a mentor. But he can’t actually be a mentor to Rey, because Rey already knows how to do everything. The only place Han comes close to a mentor role is when he gives Finn some dating advice.
Instead, the Han who risked his life for his friends, several times, ends up turning his back on them because “reasons.” Perhaps if we were given time to actually learn about his relationship with his son, rather than it being treated as some throw away plot device, this could have worked. But we weren’t, and it didn’t.
It’s been 30 years chronologically, and things haven’t really changed. In fact, they’ve gone backwards. It should have built on what had come before, offering new challenges, rather than stripping the previous trilogy to the bone and using the flesh for scraps. I’m glad Luke didn’t show up until the end, because I’m afraid they would have had him whining about power converters at Toshe station.
Many novels of the Extended Universe, most notably Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, did a great job of moving the story forward, using the previous stories as a launching pad, rather than tearing them up for spare parts. It could have been done, and done well. The potential was there. The potential was wasted.
Fast Pacing and Lack of Emotional Weight
We are never given any time to stop and reflect. The story is always trying to rush us to the next scene, to the next tug at audience nostalgia, to the next moment deliberately crafted to draw forth an applause from anyone familiar with the Original Trilogy.
This all resulted in a severe lack of emotional investment. A few examples.
The First Order destroys the Republic with its Starkiller base. However, we don’t know what the Republic even is, other than the fact that they fund the vaguely defined Resistance. Several planets are destroyed, and we are told the Republic is now gone. And we’re supposed to care, because we saw a bunch of people look scared, and the music swelled at the appropriate time. But there were no stakes involved. We knew nobody who died. We are barely told one of the planet’s names. Anyone remember it?
And what happened as a result? Was anyone, that we know of, actually inconvenienced by these particular planets being destroyed? I don’t even think any of the characters on screen cared very much.
Compare that with the destruction of Alderaan in Episode 4. That was ominous. That was evil. We immediately cared about that planet, even though we didn’t know anyone on it. It was a bunch of anonymous deaths, and yet we felt the weight of them. Why?
Our heroes were on the way to Alderaan. That was their mission. Leia was from Alderaan, along with her (adoptive) family. It is used as leverage to get Leia to give up vital information. We have heard the name of Alderaan several times and it has been important to both the plot and characters. And then, after Leia pleads that they are peaceful and have no weapons…the planet is just gone.
And then we are given the opportunity to reflect on it some more, as the Millennium Falcon comes out of hyperspace into an unexpected asteroid field. But we know it’s no asteroid field. We then are treated to a slow creeping doom as our heroes realize that “that’s no moon.”
The other example is the death of Han Solo. It should have had some emotional resonance, but it fell flat. Instead, it decided to rely on the familiarity of the character, along with a surprise twist, to provide the emotional heft. But the death of Solo, both how and when, was predictable. And as already mentioned, the character of Solo in this movie was a vast regression, an old man parody of Solo before the events of Episode 4.
The movie had earlier given us, literally in passing, the revelation that Kylo Ren was Solo’s son. And then…on to the next scene! It feels like it was added as an afterthought in the editing room. Again, no time is given to reflect on that relationship. When Han and Leia talk about their lost son, its in vague platitudes. We literally have no idea what has happened, what has been lost. When Han confronts Kylo on the bridge, Harrison Ford tries to inject every bit of emotion he can into the scene, but there is nothing really at stake. We still know hardly anything about Kylo, we know absolutely nothing about what his relationship with Han was like. This is literally the first time they have interacted on the screen. We’re supposed to care because it’s Han freaking Solo…but its not really Han Solo.
We should have had an earlier scene (maybe replacing the awful, goofy sequence where Han’s CGI monster cargo gets loose in the ship) where Han sits and talks with Rey about why he’s still a smuggler. About regrets. About family. About missed opportunities. About a son who died. Give them something real to bond over besides her magical ability to fix the Falcon. Have more scenes where Han treats Rey more and more like an adopted daughter, so we get a hint of what he would have been like with his son. We also should not have learned of Kylo Ren’s parentage until that fateful meeting on the bridge. This would have done a few things:
- When Han dies, it makes Rey’s sorrow and fury at that moment more real.
- Kylo Ren tells Rey at one point “You think Han Solo was the father you never had…” This line would have actually made more sense.
- When Han calls Kylo out by his real name, and starts asking him to come home, that would have been a huge moment. Han’s son was only “dead” the same way Obi-Wan had said that Anakin was “dead,” and its invested with the weight of what we had learned before. It could have been a scene as momentous as Vader and Luke in Episode 5.
But that’s just a “what if.” Instead, we are treated to Han dying a sucker’s death. And it was met with a “meh.” Not even Chewbacca gets time to properly mourn his life-long friend and companion because…on to the next scene!
Rey, the Mary Sue
The character of Rey is magically proficient at everything she touches, better than anyone else, regardless of experience. Rey is a lot more interesting when she is struggling to get by on a desert world, but as soon as the action starts, she becomes tiresome. Each occurrence took me further out of the film, lessening the potential stakes the character faced, and raising my sense of boredom.
Rey can fight two goons off with a staff, and the whole scene is obviously framed to convey that this is a girl who doesn’t need rescuing. Then she can fly the Millennium Falcon, a decades old freighter, so well that she can maneuver a damaged and stationary gun into perfect position to hit a highly agile fighter. As far as we know, she has never piloted a starship before.
One of the best scenes of the movie is after Rey and Finn escape into space on the Falcon, and they both jabber at each other in excitement and incredulity. We can’t believe they just pulled that off. Neither can the characters themselves. We get swept up in the moment. If this is where Rey’s proficiencies had stopped (at least until closer to the end of the movie), it would have been perfect. Now its time to see these characters in over their head, in a universe far bigger than either of them could have imagined.
But no. Her proficiencies continue. It seems she both knows and can fix the Falcon better than Han. It gets to the point where she’s literally finishing Han’s sentences before he does. She also knows how to work the freighter controls perfectly to save Finn from a rampaging beast.
She does get captured, but not for long. She sends the big bad Kylo Ren running back to his surrogate, hologram daddy, full of excuses. Then she successfully alters the mind of her guard to get him to unlock her restraints, something that Luke didn’t do until Episode 6. How does she even know that its a possibility?
Last, but not least, the final battle with Kylo Ren. She force pulls the lightsaber to her, something Luke couldn’t do until Episode 5, and even then it was a great struggle for him. And then Rey, who has never picked up a lightsaber before, who has never had any Jedi training, is able to best a man with years of training. And physically overpower him.
I never felt like Rey was in any actual danger. She literally makes no major mistakes, and when she needs to get out of jam, she discovers a new magical power. What is she, the Dungeon Master’s girlfriend? Was she slipped a weighted dice that rolls natural twenties?
Sonny Bunch from the Washington Post makes the astute observation that the character of Rey does make sense when you consider that The Force Awakens is essentially a big budget fan film. She is every fan’s wish fulfillment injected onto the screen, and therefore perfectly matches up with the Mary Sue trope. How does Rey even know that altering someone’s mind with the Force is a thing? Because we know a Jedi can do those things, and if we were a character in Star Wars, then by golly, we would be able to do it.
Truth be told, if Rey had lost her hand in that final battle, giving her something real to overcome, giving her actual stakes, it would have improved the entire arc of the movie. And it would have made sense because, you know, she had absolutely no clue how to wield a lightsaber.
Or, I don’t know, give Chewbacca something else to do in the movie besides get shot and lend Han a weapon. Let the wookie win the last fight for them. He’s probably pretty angry at that point, and the audience needs a more cathartic release after Han’s death. There would be some actual emotional stakes in that fight. Bonus points if he ripped someone’s arm off. What a payoff that could have been.
In the end, Rey never undergoes any real struggle or change. There is no arc. There is a vague emotional problem that is temporarily set aside, one that is left unresolved, and with unknown stakes. It’s a good thing Daisy Ridley was able to inject so much into the performance, because right now, its the only thing interesting about the character.
The movie really, really wanted us to see Captain Phasma as threatening and important. As it turns out, her whole point in the movie was to show us that girls can be stormtroopers too…but with more flair! The silver paint for the armor must have been on sale at Hobby Lobby.
Not only that, but it turns out she’s also incompetent. She lets down the shields for Starkiller base because of one threat, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. By the end of the movie, we know that she’s a woman, a Captain who shows up in scenes to sound authoritative, and that she’s pretty horrible at her job.
At one point, Finn ignites a lightsaber and goes up against some random stormtooper with a taser. Why in the world was this not Captain Phasma? If she is supposed to be an ongoing villain for the next movie, why not show her doing something of actual significance, other than betraying everyone in the First Order?
And then there is Kylo Ren. He started out with such menace and promise. He stops a blaster bolt and holds it in mid-air. He orders the slaughter of a whole village. Everyone seems scared of him.
But Ren gets less threatening the longer the movie goes on. It turns out he’s prone to temper tantrums. He’s also wearing that helmet just to look and sound cool, like a hipster who wears non-prescription glasses. And then he can’t even best an untrained person in a lightsaber duel. Why are we supposed to be scared of this guy again? By this point, I’ve forgotten.
There is one moment towards the end where he stands up and pummels himself in his blaster wound, spilling his own blood. He has just killed Han Solo, his father. He is ready to kill some more. He has built himself up to it. The evil promise from the beginning shined bright. Was this actually a villain worthy to shape a story around?
Alas, it was not to be. Turns out he’s not that good with a lightsaber, I guess? And in the heat of the moment, he forgets he can paralyze someone with the Force. What a waste.
By far, my favorite scene is the surprising introduction and greeting of C-3PO. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. And it had me laughing harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.
It was both true to the character of the droid, and it made a subtle dig at some of the awful placement of the new CGI effects in the Special Edition of the Original Trilogy.
In the end, the only thing The Force Awakens awoke in me was a strong desire to see something better. It only reminded me of why I liked the Original Trilogy so much. That’s not really a bad thing, but it doesn’t make for a great movie. Spiritual successors of Stars Wars, like Serenity, The Fifth Element, and Guardians of the Galaxy, all did a better job at what Episode 7 was trying to accomplish. And while better than the prequels, The Force Awakens didn’t surpass any of the Original Trilogy films.
That being said, I’ll be in the theater for Episode 8. It has the potential to be something great.
May the Force be with you.
UPDATE: Now that I have seen and reflected on The Last Jedi, I need to modify the score of this movie. It’s now blatantly obvious that the makers of The Force Awakens just threw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what would eventually stick. There was no grand plan. There were no thoughtful character arcs or revelations up their sleeves. And it shows.
The Last Jedi came in and wrecked the wall completely, and the shadow it casts darkens some of the more redeeming aspects of The Force Awakens.
New Score: C