Mild spoilers ahead… but no major secrets or plot points given away….
You’ve been warned….
Are you still here?
If you’ve read this blog with any regularity, or follow me on social media, you’d know that I’m a big Star Wars fan. In fact, when it comes to gaming, I prefer to play rpgs set in the world of SW over those set in the fantasy kingdoms of elves and dwarves. I love SW, but for the past decade I’ve been unable to enjoy my fandom too much because I just could not get into the prequels or The Clone Wars. I’m not going to use this review to bash that material, I’ll simply state that it wasn’t for me. So when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced that they were working on Episodes 7-9, I was elated. And today, here we are. After seeing Episode 7, I can tell you that yes, I loved it, yes, it’s a fun film, yes, it has issues, and yes, it is no doubt a very strong addition to the continuing Skywalker saga.
“This Will Begin To Make Things Right.”
That line opens the movie, setting the story in motion, and also perhaps serving as a message to fans of the saga who sat on the sidelines during the prequels. Fans like me who felt no attachment to the world of the prequels, who found it perhaps a bit too unfamiliar from what Star Wars was. But as you watch Force Awakens, many things will seems familiar, because this is a film that’s shamelessly tapping into the sense of familiarity to get you invested in the characters and situations. We have a droid carrying vital information, a kid wasting her time on a desert planet, a hot shot pilot leading an attack on a super structure, and a guy in dark robes wielding a red light-saber. We’ve been down this trench before, but it’s all new again. JJ Abrams has managed to give us a remix of a formulaic Star Wars story using fresh and likable new characters, while slipping in heavy doses of nostalgia along the way. The skeleton of A New Hope holds up the skin and muscle of this movie, but it’s such an entertaining romp that looking the other way and going along for the ride doesn’t feel apologetic.
JJ Abrams did a fantastic job casting this film, and the new leads all bring a sense of fun and energy to the party, that they’re destined to become instant classics just as Han, Luke and Leia were.
We first meet Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in the desert planet of Jakku (Tattooine 2.0). A pilot for the “Resistance”, he’s in Jakku picking up information vital to the Republic. When all hell breaks lose and the “First Order” comes looking for it, he hides it in his droid, BB-8, and the story gets rolling. Literally. Poe is a FUN character. Poe is a good man. He’s a smartass, he’s a hot shot, he’s brave, and throughout the movie you could tell that he’s having a good time just being there. And I’m talking about the character, not the actor.
Finn, a stormtrooper with a heart, is the fish out of water every-man caught up in something bigger than him. John Boyega’s portrayal of Finn as a guy who wants to do the right thing but is a little scared of the world outside of his Star Destroyer hit a lot of good notes for me. I loved it. He’s a storm trooper asked to commit atrocities, but his humanity kicks in and puts him on a different path. Of the three leads, it’s his story and arc I’m most interested in following and seeing where it all leads. Why? it can go anywhere. Poe is a pilot, there’s not much more to his journey. And Rey? Well, Rey’s destiny is fairly well spelled out throughout the film.
We meet Rey (Daisy Ridley) living in an overturned At-At (please pay attention to the set dressing inside her home, it may offer clues about who she is). There, she spends her days scavenging, and counting the days until her family returns to pick her up from that sandy wasteland. Unlike Luke in a New Hope, she’s not yearning to leave, but rather she yearns to stay in place and reunite with the family she’s never really met. Rey is a beautifully written character. She’s strong, she’s not a damsel in distress, she’s smart, resourceful and as she quickly discovers, there’s way more to her than meets the eye. Her path is obvious, and her innate abilities offer a glimpse of untapped greatness that may even eclipse Luke’s in the original trilogy. She’s the best of Han and Luke rolled into one with a bit more to spare.
And finally, Kylo Ren.
What a villain.
He’s a petulant dark sider with a Vader fetish. A young man who destroys things when he doesn’t get his way and a true, three dimensional character with layers of nuance that make him a remarkable addition to the saga. He leads this “first order” and receives his dark side training from a “Supreme Leader Snoke” (two entities we know little about by the time the film ends), and carries with him an internal conflict unseen in previous SW films.
This is the young man Anakin should have been.
Kylo Ren isn’t whiny. Kylo Ren is torn, he’s hurting, and his teetering between his dark side ambitions and the light he feels tugging at him make him dangerous and unpredictable.
Kylo Ren as a character is the real deal.
And there is a scene set in a village where we see Kylo use a Force power never before seen that BLEW. ME. AWAY.
I wish I could say the same of Captain Phasma, the Boba Fett of the film. Gwendoline Christie is underutilized, we never see her face, and her character isn’t as menacing as marketing promised us that she’d be. Underwhelming and a waste of talent. She’s there to sell cool looking silver storm-troopers, nothing more.
Along for the ride and to pass off the baton to these characters are the old guard, and once again, that sense of familiarity puts them right back to where they were when we met them. Leia is behind a piece of glass commanding a battle while Han and Chewie travel the space lanes doing what they do. And Luke? Well, Luke’s place in the galaxy is what this whole thing’s about, and I won’t get too much into that here. There are chucks of backstory missing here, things that I’d love to know about Han and Leia that perhaps down the line I’m supposed to buy a novel or comic book to learn about, but that’s a bit unfair to the audience.
Harrison Ford gives it his all. Han is fun to watch, and his banter with Finn brings a lot of genuine humor to the film. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments here between these two, sometimes unlike anything previously seen in Star Wars. It’s welcome, given how dour and dry our last few outings in the galaxy far far away were.
Do I have issues with the movie? Yes. And they revolve around the world building aspect of storytelling, and around coincidences that move the plot along. At the end of Jedi, the good guys won. We get no answers as to who this “First Order” is or how they developed. it’s obvious that it is an imperial remnant of some sort, but who they are, who Snoke is, how they came to be, etc. is left unanswered. And the resistance? Where is the Republic navy? Why have this small “resistance” to deal with the New Order? Is Leia a general in the Republic Navy, or just the Resistance? There are too many unanswered questions there, and again, making me skim a comic book or a novel for answers feels disingenuous.
And coincidences ? There are several, where sometimes the plot strings along from point A to point B thanks to coincidence rather than character actions, and while they are not nearly enough to dismiss the story, they do stand out in certain spots. I’m looking at you, intro of a beloved character from the original trilogy….
So does the film succeed? I go back to the opening line.
“This Will Begin To Make Things Right.”
I believe it does. It doesn’t break new ground, and it doesn’t go off in unfamiliar directions (quite the contrary), but it does set a course for a fun adventure with great new characters and true continuation of the Skywalker saga.
Again, same skeleton as the new hope, repackaged, re-skinned, and resold for a new generation. But fun enough for a fan like me to lap it up and hop on for the ride and make me forget the prequels and the bad taste they left in my mouth as a SW fan.