Before I get on with the review, I have to preface this with some personal trivia. I was only one years old when my parents took me into the theater to see Empire Strikes Back. One of my earliest childhood memories, the one seared onto my brain, is the fight scene between Darth Vader and Luke in the carbon chamber in Bespin, i.e. Cloud City. That microcosm of a dark, damp hell set within the confines of a heaven, was forever implanted into my young brain.
I may not remember the name of my first kindergarten teacher or any of my playmates from when I was a small boy, but I remember Star Wars like it was a family member. When the VHS tapes came out, my family watched Star Wars, that is episodes 4, 5, and 6 at least once a month. By the time I entered high school we had worn the tapes out so severely that the sound had faded off the tape entirely and the picture would fade in and out at random. We replaced those tapes, and then between my own obsession with the series and my family's ritualistic watching of the series, we wore those tapes out too.
Like many die-hard Star Wars fans, I have nearly every line of dialog memorized, every scene, in chronological order, stuck inside my brain. When I was a child, my brother and I were lucky to have a large collection of the Star Wars toys. I remember in high school how devastated I was when I accidentally knocked one of my favorite Star Wars glasses off the table and it shattered on the floor. I about cried. It was a special from Burger King back in the day, which had the movie posters printed on the drinking cups. I loved those cups.
My affinity for Star Wars continued on into college when, dissatisfied the graphic design program at my university, I switched majors to become an English Literature student and enrolled into several mythology classes because I knew they were teaching Joseph Campbell, who was a professor of George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. If Lucas was the student who became the master, then I wanted to learn from that same master teacher and dove right into the works of Joseph Campbell.
So, Star Wars played a guiding factor not only in entertaining me and helping to form me in my formative years, but it also was a big factor in helping me decide what college major I chose and what path I took.
Now I'm a writer, a novelist, and have had two commercials made based of short conceptual spec scripts I have written. And I'm just getting started. I still haven't yet achieved my own goal of writing a brilliant space opera, but there's still time.
At any rate, I just wanted to preface this review by saying that -- like many who were influenced in deep and profound ways by the Star Wars films -- I too have an intimate relationship and deep appreciation for this part of cinema history, in a galaxy, far, far away.
Alright, I know you're patiently waiting for my thoughts and opinions on the series, but before I get on with it I must do away with the most common criticism and complaint of the film I've seen so far. Here is a screen-cap I took from a conversation on Facebook that highlights the criticism that bothers me (mainly because it's a non-criticism, but more on that momentarily).
It is surprising to me that this is even a complaint. As the second commenter observes, mythic archetypes and mythemes are the driving force (pardon the pun) behind the Star Wars mythos and story-telling.
If this wasn't already abundantly clear by watching the films, which it totally is, George Lucas makes this explicitly clear in all of his commentary tracks (which only makes it that much more painfully obvious) on the DVDs and Bluray releases.
As I stated in my initial response to this criticism, the recurring mythemes is a huge part of the Star Wars mythos, and to say they repeated it again here (with episode 7) but not the other films is simply a sign that you're not a genuine fan of the original films -- since you failed to notice the obvious, let alone fully appreciate it. I'd recommend these people (if they think of themselves as fans) go back an rewatch the Star Wars films again. That way they can see that A New Hope sets things up, Empire restates the mythemse and inverts others, but builds on them overall, only to continue this with Return of the Jedi, which borrows from both A New Hope and Empire.
"Well, how many times are they going to tell the same story?" I hear.
This is just sort of the same complaint re-worded. (I say complaint because it's not a criticism of anything wrong with the film or storytelling -- at least not one that is valid).
The Force Awakens, is not the same story. It's a new, different story, that uses some of the same mythemes and archetypes that are present in the previous films and borrows from the previous films. I mean, yes, they hide a map inside a droid which reflects hiding the Death Star plans inside R2-D2 in A New Hope. Yes, there's a Star Killer mega Death Star they must battle which they do, just like they do in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. Yes there's a desert planet and there's a young hero in search of her destiny. But having similar themes or even being self-referential, as all of the Star Wars films are, doesn't mean they are telling the exact same story. If these people would have read up on their Joseph Campell, they'd realize there are no new stories. Just stories waiting to be told in new ways. So this isn't even a valid critism for me. But it is a highly annoying complaint.
Really, it's the equivalent of saying... "I'm a fan of Michael Bay films. I've watched all of his films. But I have to say, it seems his latest film had one too many explosions in it."
Only to be pointed out... that's sort of the nature of Michael Bay films. Saying that Michael Bay films have one too many explosions sort of defeats the claim to being a Michael Bay fan in the first place.
And the same goes for Star Wars and its use of recurring mythemes and interplay between mythical archetypes, which all the films use, borrow, and build on. To say The Force Awakens does this too much is exactly like saying Michael Bay films use too many explosions when that is the hallmark defining feature of those particular types of films.
And I really don't feel sorry for people who don't get it and then wonder why the real fans rush to the film's defense and are quick to jump down their throats at such a complaint. The reason Star Wars fans get upset by it is that it's the very NATURE of Star Wars. If you don't get that, then I don't see how you can be a fan.
To me, it sound a lot like a bunch of people are jumping on the episode 7 hate bandwagon to say how unimpressed they were, as if that were the hip and cool thing to do. Let's be counter-culture and fight the Star Wars commercialism running rampant! Well, fine. If that's your cause. But then don't pretend shocked when we call you out and say that you're no true Star Wars fan.
You see, there are those of us who get it, who understand Star Wars for what it is, and we will not hesitate to call you nerf herding posers, and we'll likely tell all of you keyboard warrior hipsters who are trolling Star Wars fan-sites and blog posts to go get a life. Contrary to what the naysayers think, being anti-Star Wars does not make you cool in the same way being anti-Geek culture does not make you tolerant. So grow up.
If it really wasn't your cup of tea then, fine, say that. But don't pretend to be a Star Wars fan and then say something as asinine as "It had too much Star Wars in that there Star Wars film."
(Okay, reactor core meltdown over.)
THE FORCE AWAKENS: SUMMARY
In a galaxy, far, far away...
We open with a massive shadow of a Star Destroyer flying over a planet. This is an inverse of the opening scene of the original Star Wars (yes, I will be calling it "A New Hope" as that was the title before 20th Fox stripped it off the film against George Lucas's approval -- which he later put back on for the 1981 theatrical re-release of the film -- of which my parents took me to when I was two years old). It is also a nod, some might say, to the similar shot done in Empire Strikes Back, which has a shadow of the Star Destroyer flying over the planet. And, I must say, I felt it was beautifully done.
I think J.J. Abrams excels at paying homage to the franchise by taking what works and using it again, but doing it in a new way that puts an original twist on it, such as keeping the angles the same as the opening of A New Hope but inverting it with the negative of the shadow.
Hey, if it ain't broke, don't try and fix it. It's a good rule of thumb, and this is probably one of the reasons The Force Awakens works so damn well. The fans wanted a Star Wars film that felt like Star Wars again (getting back to roots, so to speak) and, to his credit, Abrams did just that. He didn't try to mess with the mythos, rather, he merely had a blast (may or may not be a pun) playing around in the Star Wars sandbox.
After the massive shadow passes a squadron of Storm Troopers get dropped onto a planet and literally storm the small encampment of settlers -- blasters firing. Apparently they are hunting down some rebels (in this film they are called the resistance, meanwhile the Empire has evolved into The First Order). Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) makes his presence known and is in search for a piece of a map that is vital to his mission -- of which he says is to finish what Vader started (as seen in the numerous trailers for this film). Without spoiling anything, the map acts as a McGuffin, just as the droids did in the first film by holding the plans for the Empire's battle station. That's what sets the ball rolling. I won't go into any further details, because it would be giving away too much, but you'll know exactly what I mean when you see the film for yourselves (if you haven't already).
Having stormed the beach, the contingent of Storm Troopers end up slaughtering an entire village, and I must say this is the first film in the Star Wars franchise where I really felt that the Storm Troopers were menacing, dangerous, and lethal. Not the cheese-ball characters from Empire that couldn't hit a thing with their blasters but closer to the original version of them in A New Hope when they slaughtered Jawas and burned Luke's aunt and uncle alive and left their smoldering corpses on his doorstep for him to find when he returned home.
One of the Storm Troopers seems to be having an emotional crisis in the midst of the massacre ordered by Kylo Ren, and instead of blindly following orders to slaughter innocent civilians, he puts his blaster down. Later we find out this morally conflicted character is Finn (played by John Boyega), one of our two main protagonists, who defects from the Storm Trooper ranks and flees The First Order.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of that, we cut to another story (or should I say fade-and-swipe?)
A young girl, no more than twenty, is stranded on a desert world. Her whole life consists of scavenging for old parts from the left over debris of giant spaceships from a bygone era. The obvious wreckage of a great intergalactic battle that spanned to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
This is our hero Rey (played by the talented Daisy Ridley).
In his escape from The First Order, Finn crashes onto the same desert planet that Rey is on. Surviving the wreck, Finn wonders the desert until he finds a small settlement and then bumps into Rey. Suddenly, Storm Troopers, in search of the McGuffin, rush down onto the settlement and discover our heroes. In a brilliant escape, our heroes get away, only to be thrust into an even bigger, more dangerous predicament. Obviously, this is a pattern common throughout all of the films. In A New Hope it was sneaking onto the Death Star, rescuing Princess Leia, only to get stuck in a trash compactor, only to get out but be stalked by the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader, only to lose Obi Wan Kenobi in an harrowing escape, and so on and so forth.
And that's as much as I'm going to say about the basic plot here.
WHAT I LIKED:
I found the new cast of characters brilliant. They are all charismatic actors who can carry the franchise, I am in no doubt about this. Daisy Ripley and Jon Boyega are brilliant. I like the fact that there is a subtle tongue and cheek nod toward modern day politics here. I mean, I can't be the only one who noticed that it's a story about a woman and a black man running away from a crazed zealot in a hood hunting them around while clutching onto a burning crucifix.
I really like Oscar Isaacs character Poe Dameron. I liked that he was a smart-ass and wasn't afraid to make wisecracks in front of Kylo Ren. I really enjoyed the new little droid running around BB-8. He's a very original design and he has at least as much personality as R2-D2. It really came off well in the film.
I liked that Kylo Ren wasn't a one-dimensional villain. He was layered and complex and this will make his character a fun one to follow as the series progresses.
Mostly though, I enjoyed seeing the old cast and seeing how they figured into this story and J.J. Abrams take on Star Wars. I really enjoyed the excellent balance between the old cast and new, and I liked that the old cast of characters never seemed to override the new cast of character's individual stories but fit nicely in with them.
I liked the look of the film. It's aesthetically Star Wars. I liked seeing the Millennium Falcon, and I liked the reveal to it.
I was pleased to find that this film continued with the humor in the same vein as episodes 4, 5, and 6. It was really well laced with humorous moments and scenes that didn't come off as campy or forced. Everything fell well into place.
I loved that pace of this film. It's light years faster than the originals, especially the plodding and politically bogged down prequel trilogy (although I am still a huge fan of the opening scene in Episode 3 -- that star battle and the rescue of Senator Palpatine is epic -- and probably the best part of the prequels, in my honest opinion).
WHAT I DISLIKED:
Unlike some, I didn't find much of anything to dislike about this film as a film. As a stand alone space romp apart from Star War, it's thrilling. It's adventure filled. It stars a strong young female lead who shares most of her screen time with a black co-lead. Compared to the virtually all white cast of episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 (minus Samuel L. Jackson and Billy D. Williams of course -- and James Earl Jones' voice) it really is as white as you could make a film. I loved the balance of race and gender here. At least, it's certainly a step in the right direction. And I'm loving the fact that the leads in the biggest movie of all time is a woman and a black man.
So nothing to dislike really. Not story wise, anyway.
But... and I say this with a sight of deep hesitation... but...
I did have a problem with the very final scene of this film. Not in terms of what it was about but how it was shot. Let's just say it made me dizzy -- literally -- I was forced to grab onto the arm of my seat so I could push through the mild vertigo it invoked. I know not everyone will be affected by that scene in the same way, so really, it's just a personal gripe.
WHAT BOTHERED ME:
Aside from the light vertigo I experienced at the end... nothing much really.
MY FINAL TWO CENTS:
This is a great film. As a Star Wars film, it's wonderful. Like I stated above, it really feels like we've come back to the roots of what made this series great in the first place.
I really loved all the characters. The story was fast and made sense. The action was fast and furious but never overdone. I like the more menacing Storm Troopers. I like how it uses many of the same elements as the first films, but changes them in interesting or novel ways that do this particular film's story justice. I like that the lightsaber battles weren't overdone like in episodes 2 and 3 but felt natural and realistic like in episodes 4, 5, and 6. I liked that the Force was spoken about but then they just decided to let it make its own presence known throughout the story. I practically liked everything about this film.
It's really hard for me to rank this, because I love all of the Star Wars films for what they are. And in a way, they aren't complete without each other since they do share mythological archetypes and build on one another's mythemes while paying tribute to one another with winks and nods, and bleeps and bloops (in the case of droids).
But whereas I can find some strong, really hard hitting criticisms for all of the Star Wars films, I find that this film's plotting is so tight that I can't find anything really to complain about. Which is probably why so many people seem to complaining so much about nothing. Oh, they hid the map in a droid! That's not novel! Well, it makes sense. Kylo Ren, like Vader before him, cannot read the mind of a droid. Droids are a safe place to hide your star charts and intergalactic porn. That's just basic common sense. By now, I'd expect it to be protocol. In the case of your capture by enemy forces, Genral Leia orders you to hider your plans in your droid. Don't question it, just do it.
So, unless you're one of the purests born in 1977 who cannot stomach anything other than the original trilogy and who get bent out of shape of us 80s kids calling A New Hope by it's rightful title A New Hope, or a brainless halfwit who doesn't understand what makes Star Wars uniquely sucessful in how it builds on itself and re-uses mythemes and borrows liberally from previous installments as it builds up it's own mythos, then I'm sorry, but by all accounts, this is an excellent movie -- not to mention an excellent Star Wars film.
Where you rate it among the series will be your prerogative, but I am breaking with precedent here and am placing it at the very top, in the number one spot. As much as I absolutely adore The Empire Strikes Back, I think that this film is slightly more fun (albeit just slightly) and a lot less depressing in terms of tone. And really, that's the deciding factor for me. At the same time, when I was six or seven, Return of the Jedi was my favorite. As a kid, I loved the Ewoks, the speeder bike chase, Jabba's palace, and Boba Fett! I still do. I actually think Jedi gets a bad rap. It's not as bad as so many critics seem to think. In fact, it's probably a better crafted film than both A New Hope and Empire, but at the same time it's not without its flaws either.
And that's the thing. The Force Awakens seems to be one of those rare films that does so much right, in such an enticing way, that it's really hard to detect any real faults. I mean, I'm talking really big plot problems or technical issues that would knock it out of the running as a contender for top spot. And I think a lot of Star Wars fans are having this internal struggle. Some think that if they give into The Force Awakens, and replace their old favorite, say, Empire Strikes Back with it, they are somehow betraying a lifelong devotion to their favorite Star Wars by going over to the Dark Side.
Others are more than happy to place this film solidly in second place behind Empire. Others are playing it close to the sleeve and are placing it at the end of the original trilogy. Which makes complete sense, because the story isn't complete. They could still drop the ball. But so far, regardless of where you rank it among the Star Wars canon, I think most everyone can agree that this is a stellar installment in the franchise. After all, even the nay-sayers who didn't like it because it was, apparently, had too much Star Wars in it -- whatever the hell that means -- are still placing it ahead of the prequel movies. So, well done to J.J. Abrams and everyone who worked on this movie.
Personally, I can't find a lot wrong with it. Hardly anything at all. Sure, maybe I'll change my mind upon repeated viewings. Maybe it will be my favorite for a time, then like Jedi, it will fall out of favor and be replaced with one of the other films. I cannot rightly say at this time. But I'm not one to hold onto favorites simply for nostalgia's sake, so although I grew up with the original trilogy and admire parts of the prequels (hey, I'm not ashamed to admit that), I personally find Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be the best of the franchise. But that's just me. To each their own.
I cannot recommend this film more. Go and see it if you haven't. And, as if it needed to be said, may the Force be with you.