Okay, so if you have seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and want to know my full, unedited spoiler-filled thoughts, this is the blog you want to read. If you don’t want to have anything spoiled, I give the movie a B. It’s good, it’s very good, and well worth seeing in the theater. IMO it is not great, or what I think of as great filmmaking, for reasons I will get into below.
This is your absolute last chance to go see the film and come back to read the rest after you’ve seen it. I’ll wait.
You’re back? Okay, good, let’s skip the prelims and get right to it, bullet point style.
What I loved, as it comes to mind:
Dangerous troopers! This is the first time that storm troopers have come off as trained, intimidating soldiers to be taken seriously since….ever. Their shots counted, they fought well. The mostly incompetent lunkheads of the original trilogy (and the even more pathetic roger-roger bots of the prequels) are gone. These troopers mean business.
No clones! I loved that they established and confirmed that troopers were conscripted citizens of conquered planets, which everyone assumed was the case in the original trilogy until the….you get the idea.
BB8. A new droid for a new generation, it could have been a lame R2 ripoff, but this little guy does his own thing, his own way, and I found his personality as distinct and different as “Chopper” from the SW Rebels series.
Kylo Ren. It took a few scenes for me to get his “vibe” but I really dug the less cool, more emotional not-quite-fully-baked Darth wannabe who still feels the “pull of the light side” calling to him. I liked that his costume is an affectation, a marketing ploy if you will, to scare people rather than part of a necessary life support.
Rey and Finn. And Poe, too. The “new hotness” characters are perfectly cast to move the series forward. I’m intrigued to learn more about the both of them and look forward to long series of adventures. I wished they’d done more with Poe, but I guess we can’t have everything.
Han, Chewie, Leia. And Luke, too. Great to see them back. Most of their scenes worked for me, even “that” scene.
Kylo’s light saber. I didn’t think I’d care much about the lightsaber when I saw it in the previews, but when I saw it in action…remember how I said Kylo was a half-baked wanna-be? Is it me, or did this messed up not-quite-in-focus lightsaber kind of reflect the hot mess of Kylo himself? So the dopiness with the stupid wrist guard thing ended up working for me.
The light saber battles. I loved seeing Fin the untrained guy trying to use the lightsaber and getting whupped, then watching Rey try to use it. And the fights are back to focusing on the emotional gravitas. Thank you to whomever for realizing that the dancy hoppy ballet acrobat nonsense was a big PROBLEM in the prequels and for returning to having the fights reflect the conflicts of the characters.
What didn’t work for me:
Captain Phasma. All the talk of Gwendolyn Christie from Game of Thrones and we get two tiny moments? Really? I mean, neat costume and all, but you had a terrific actress at your disposal and you wasted her. I hope we’ll get more next time.
Han and the bowcaster. Really? A friendship going back about four decades and he never shot Chewie’s weapon before? It’s a little thing, but they did it at least twice and my eyes couldn’t roll back in my head far enough each time.
Han and Chewie’s Chthulhu Monster business. I had no problem with this as a concept; I just thought the obvious CGI looked like….well, obvious CGI. In a movie where the effects seemed geared to look as solid and model-like as possible, I found the rubbery video game monsters a distracting anachronism.
C3PO now with new red arm. Buy yours at a toy store near you. All I want to do with the red arm is rip it off and beat JJ Abrams with it.
And R2-D2. Really, what was the point?
The chess board. Turned on. Even does the same chess move even though no one is playing. If this were written into a manuscript, we’d call it a “darling” as in “kill your darlings.” As my critique group buddy Judith Bastin would say, this darling needed to be taken out behind the barn and shot.
I know we’re keeping some of the same beats, but did it have to be a droid smuggling the maguffin to a desert planet and stumbling upon our orphaned protagonist? Would it have killed ya to bring it to a jungle or something just a little less on the nose?
The giant planet killing thingie with the ridiculous weakness, take three. It’s bigger and boomier-er-er and kablooier, and it still has a glaring obvious weakness that tiny ships can exploit. And gosh, we had the plans all along, we just didn’t get around to it. Too bad about them billions of dead people. Oops. Our bad Also, wedging the destruction of the new giant weapon right after the death of one of SW’s most beloved characters was a tonal misstep for me. I felt nothing when the thing blew up. Certainly not the elation I felt from the first film. It was just a thing happening while other things were going on, and while I commend the moviemakers to some extent for not trying to re-create the same scenario, it makes me wonder why they even bothered to bring in this new threat just to blow it up again in such a perfunctory way.
The tone shift at the end. Am I the only one who felt like the tone of the movie jumped from the middle of A New Hope to the end of Empire Strikes Back in the last ten minutes? I’m not usually one to suggest playing it safe, but since it’s been 30 years since the last good SW movie, I would have preferred a euphoric finish to what had been a mostly euphoric movie. The shoehorned shift to a darker tone left me feeling like I was finishing this awesome meal and then someone yanked dessert away from me before I could finish.
As you can see, most of my problems are quibbles. I have been hard on JJ Abrams through the years but suspected that he was the man for the job when it comes to Star Wars even though I openly and unapologetically despise what he did to Star Trek. That’s because Trek is thinking person’s SF, while I enjoy Star Wars for the emotional payoffs. I like how Star Wars makes me feel and how Star Trek engages my mind. I am not one of those prudes that loves one and hates the other; there’s always been room in my geeky heart for both. But they are not the same. JJ succeeds here for the exact same reason he fails at Trek. There are those who will grok me on this point and those who will not.
I give SW:TFA a B. It is good, it is not great. Story-wise, it is better than the prequels (which is not saying much) and over time I may even prefer it to Return. Then again, I only enjoyed one of the three plot elements of Return (I am old enough to remember when Return was considered the crappy SW film of the three). The film pushed the series forward in terms of character and set the stage for future movies. It will not and could not eclipse the greatness of the original or of Empire.
As I said before, I remember when the first two movies came out. They both, in their own way, pushed movie making forward to a new standard (and even Episode I was a technical achievement if nothing else). I may sound like a grumpy old man, but this fact, I think, is lost on later generations. Star Wars changed movies forever, and Empire took what they’d started and made the ILM resources accessible to other filmmakers. SW:TFA did not achieve anything new in visual FX, or in pushing the storytelling bar forward. Heck, I can name two films released earlier this year that I would consider more groundbreaking SF: Mad Max and The Martian (and no, having a black and a woman in major roles is not groundbreaking, it’s a long overdue internal adjustment to catch SW up with the rest of SF; that doesn’t make it groundbreaking).
It didn’t push the genre forward because it didn’t have to. George Lucas did that for us 40 years ago, and whatever we may think of him, nothing will take that achievement away from him. I don’t imagine we’ll see a SW break any new ground again.
And that’s okay. I’m good with good.
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