Wow. Now THAT was a Star Wars movie! In fact, it may be the best Star Wars movie yet. It is certainly better than any of the prequels. It does so by harkening back to the original trilogy, both in look and feel and story-wise. Indeed, it is definitely the best looking of all the movies. And it wisely introduces new characters who will carry the franchise going forward, and the filmmakers wisely hired remarkable young actors to play those characters.
My non-spoilery thoughts are below the fold. I will post a spoiler-review later this week (probably). As I mentioned in my reviews of the existing films, I just re-watched the original trilogy for the first time in many years and watched the second and third prequels for the first time, period.
The Force Awakens is absolutely the best looking of ALL the movies. It retains the look and feel of the original trilogy (with a touch of the diesel- and atompunk affectation popular in the prequels), but the FX is far superior to any of the previous movies. There are some soon to be iconic shots—X-wing starfighters coming in low across the water, a final showdown in a snow-covered forest, Rey rappelling down the derelict Imperial Star Destroyer, a desert planet (Jakku, not Tatooine) strewn with vestiges of the wars of the past decades, including a downed Imperial Star Destroyer and AT-AT walker. It’s really gorgeous, well designed, and superbly rendered all around.
I’m hesitant to say much about the trio of main characters from the original trilogy—and it was a trio—since this is a non-spoiler review, but Leia doesn’t have much to do, even in her time on screen, and Luke appears very little. It’s Han who has the most screen time and the most to do, and Harrison Ford takes every bit as much advantage of it as you would expect.
But the filmmakers don’t dally about this being a passing of the torch. It’s not Leia and Luke and Han’s move. The stars are Rey and Finn and, to a lesser extent, Poe. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are phenomenal, as is Oscar Isaac in his smaller role (Oscar Isaac is amazing in Ex Machina and great in A Most Violent Year as well). Ridley and Boyega have really tremendous chemistry. And that’s good, because it is rightly Rey and Finn’s movie, and they will need to carry the series going forward. Ridley should be a breakout star and it looks like she is set up to be the main character. It will be interesting to see whether Finn stays roughly equal to her or recedes a bit. Hopefully we see much more of Poe.
The movie is more than a little openly nodding toward A New Hope, but any accusations that is simply a retread should be dashed against the fact that Rey, Finn, and Poe are very different characters from the original trio, and interesting in their own light. As is, for that matter, Kylo Ren, who is a different sort of villain than either young Anakin or old Vader.
Oh, and I would be remiss to mention new characters without talking about BB-8. Totally a marketing ploy—buy an officially licensed remote-control BB-8 at this affiliate link!—but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. The design isn’t just aesthetically attractive; it allows BB-8 to be more expressive that R2-D2 ever was. The film takes full advantage of that. BB-8 provides some of the funniest moments in the entire film.
And the film is very funny. Rey, Finn, Han and Chewie, BB-8, even C-3PO—they all get their moments. Between that and a certain amount of exuberance from Rey and Finn it’s generally a very upbeat movie, which helps even out one very big downer at the end. In that way, there is a little The Empire Strikes Back in The Force Awakens, not just A New Hope. A New Hope, in first movie fashion, could have been an entirely self-contained story ending with victory. The Force Awakens leaves more plot threads untied and mysteries unsolved. And it isn’t afraid to go ahead and hit us in the gut.
The Force Awakens is also like unto The Empire Strikes Back in that it introduces big bad behind Kylo Ren’s Dragon. Supreme Leader Snoke, played by Andy Serkis in motion-capture, is wonderfully creepy and enigmatic. Whether a remnant of the Empire or something new, the First Order makes for a sinister update. And it’s kind of nice to see evil military bureaucrats again.
The Force Awakens is by all indications a conscious rejection of the prequels and return to the original trilogy. Which should really be to the surprise of no one considering the opprobrium directed toward the prequels, although they have always had their partisans (at least some of whom were opportunists looking for a way to attack Star Wars fans). It might also be unsurprising after Lucas sold to Disney, but I came away from watching the prequels over the weekend thinking that the real problem with them was modern moviemaking, not Lucas. But The Force Awakens has none of the overlong action sequences of the prequels. In fact, it has perhaps the best lightsaber duel of any of the movies.
And after prequels that were dragged down by endless backstory, exposition, and minutia, The Force Awakens swings the pendulum all the way back. But I’m generally a big fan of keeping it subtle and letting people’s imaginations fill in the blanks. I will get more into what we do know about the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens in my spoiler review, but I think it gave us what we needed regarding why the main characters from the original trilogy are where they are and are who they are when the movie opens.
The Force Awakens is also unabashedly fun.
I have just a few gripes. It’s great that they’re having fun and that they’re excited to be in a Star Wars movie, but it’s a bit much at times. The story is too much like that of A New Hope. There are some plot holes. You can’t make a Star Wars movie without disregarding physics, but The Force Awakens disregards it to an extent remarkable even for a Star Wars movie, and in one case in a really stupid way.
Finally, there are no cool new planets (new planets, yes, but not cool ones). It’s obvious that the filmmakers were self-consciously trying to recapture the magic of the original trilogy, but I think it’s obvious that they were looking to the trilogy (and probably Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey) but not some of the source material. Just as D&D books and other fantasy books inspired by D&D pull superficially from Gygax’s original creation but don’t show the influence of the science fantasy roots Gygax drew from and featured in his famous Appendix N, The Force Awakens pulls superficially from the original trilogy but doesn’t show the influence of the pulps that inspired Lucas (although, as sad as this might make Jeffro over at Space Gaming Blog, that’s ok).