In 1979, while filming The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas first indicated to Alan Arnold, the film’s publicist, that the Star Wars saga would actually be three trilogies, totaling nine films. While a lot has happened since then – two acclaimed Star Wars sequels, special editions, a prequel trilogy misstep, and the sale of Lucasfilm – the fact remains that the most devoted and rabid fan base known to man has been anxiously awaiting Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) for 36 years.
The pressure is on. The stakes are high ($4 billion high). The expectations are intimidating.
And J.J. Abrams knocked it out of the park.
According to the Roger Ebert School of Movie Reviews, this is where a brief plot summary goes. That seems unnecessary – and potentially inflammatory – to do for such a highly-anticipated movie. The plot is this-is-a-Star-Wars-movie. ‘Nuff said. Rest easy, spoilerphobes.
When I say that J.J. knocked it out of the park, I mean that The Force Awakens is a straight-up good movie. I grew up loving the Star Wars movies – and I still love the Star Wars movies – but I’ve always thought that the original trilogy wasn’t quite as perfect as the Internet says it is (i.e. they’re not the best movies ever made). On a related note, the prequel trilogy isn’t quite as bad as the Internet says it is (i.e. they’re not the absolute worst movies ever made).
I say that to contextualize my opinion. An enthusiastic endorsement doesn’t mean as much coming from a fanboy or someone who’s possibly blinded by nostalgia or expectation (or denial). I’m not saying The Force Awakens is a good Star Wars movie (though it’s that too); I’m saying it’s a damn good movie. It strictly adheres to the number one rule of film-making: Don’t be boring. It’s compelling, extremely well-paced, and very worthy of the audience’s investment.
This begins, as it always does, with characters. Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren all bring something new and exciting to the universe, and the returning characters all honor their former greatness and build upon it. The parallels between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and young Luke Skywalker are apparent (more on that in a second), but she really feels more like a combination of Luke, Han Solo, and Princess Leia all rolled into one, in addition to entirely new qualities. However, Finn (John Boyega) is possibly the most compelling new character, as someone who finds a moral center, wants no part of this galactic struggle that he doesn’t understand, but becomes a reluctant hero.
But this leads me to what I know will be the biggest criticism of The Force Awakens. Yes, there’s a lot of overlap with Star Wars (1977). Sometimes it’s a nod, sometimes it’s an homage, sometimes it’s a retread. But it’s far from the same movie, as I’m sure some will try to claim. Most importantly, it’s not predictable; the mirroring of A New Hope becomes obvious after plot points happen, but it diverges more than enough such that you can’t use the parallels to anticipate what’s going to happen next. The parallels only reveal themselves in hindsight.
It has the same barebones skeletal structure as A New Hope but very different meat on the bones. The characters have different motivations and different goals. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is definitively not Darth Vader (as much as he wants to be), and the movie makes clear, in no uncertain terms, this is not the Vader you’re looking for. It strikes a good balance of mixing old (familiar) and new, which is a good thing to aim for in a sequel (see also: Creed). My thought is that people who are looking for reasons to dislike the movie and dismiss it as a failure will latch onto this in order to do so.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. First and foremost, the narrative isn’t quite as cohesive as the best the franchise has offered in the past. The goals of the protagonists in A New Hope, for instance, remain focused throughout the runtime; here, they seem to waver a bit – what the movie was about in the beginning gets a little muddled in the third act. Also, the supremely-talented Oscar Isaac is painfully underutilized as Poe Dameron (man, I wish I could go back to 2011 and buy Oscar Isaac stock). And while the Star Wars films have never been known for their subtlety, they’ve basically dropped all pretense here and said “Oh yeah, our bad guys are totally Nazis and we’re not even going to try to hide that anymore.”
But that’s all completely forgivable, because The Force Awakens has everything you want in a Star Wars movie and then some. It’s exciting. It’s funny. The stakes are high and clear. There’s internal moral conflict in the characters. The characters’ motivations are clear (for the most part), and so the actions they take actually make sense. Their actions are a result of who they are as characters and help further define who they are as characters. And while there’s fan service, it’s harmless nods (e.g. a Star Destroyer – among other things – buried in the sand in one shot), not lame plot points (e.g. Yoda fighting Count Dooku…ugh).
Expectation is a tricky beast. It’s why The Phantom Menace (1999) holds the title of the Most Disappointing Movie Ever (it didn’t help that it was a bad movie, but a lot of movies are bad). It can cloud judgment upon initial reaction (which is why I vehemently defended Spider-man 3 (2007) to my friends when I was 17). But in this instance, my cautiously-optimistic-but-secretly-sky-high expectations were blown away, and now I’m an immensely satisfied Star Wars fan.
J.J. Abrams has passed all that pressure, all those stakes, and all that expectation onto Rian Johnson. Now, I can’t wait for Episode VIII. Mission accomplished, J.J.