As a Star Wars fan, how could I not review Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens? In order to do the film any justice, I need to talk about what happened in it, so here is your fair warning: there will be spoilers. I will reveal important plot and story points. Please do not read this if you do not want those spoiled.
Again, fair warning: I will spoil major plot points.
This is three times I warned you. If you read beyond this, I will not be held responsible. Now let us begin.
The film is fantastic. It is the Star Wars film people waited 30 years to see. This is what people expected of The Phantom Menace. It has action, story, drama, awesome special effects, and, most importantly, likable characters. There are a few characters who do not receive much screen time (despite the heavy marketing), however, most of the characters more than serve their narrative purposes, and many of them shine.
J.J. Abrams clearly respected the original trilogy (perhaps too much, which I will get to later). There are dozens of Easter eggs scattered throughout the film hearkening back to the original films. George Lucas attempted to do this, but Abrams succeeds by taking what worked in the original films and tweaking it so that it could stand up on screen.
One clear example of this is the use of puppets in the film. BB-8, the little ball droid, is not a completely computer-generated character. In many shots he is physically in the frame as an animatronic puppet. The same goes for a host of background characters. Rather than shy away from the weirdness of the puppets, Abrams embraced it and added in those little original trilogy vignettes of aliens being alien. He even went so far as to include giant insects in the bar scene.
That is not to say Abrams does not use digital characters. Maz is a digital character (sort of this film’s Yoda), and her performance is awesome. There is no way a puppet would have worked as well.
The other great element of the film is the total lack of any of the prequel’s nonsense about the Force. Aside from a casual mention of clones and the Sith and elements of the prequels’ musical themes popping up, there is zero mention of anything from those films. Granted, there would not be since most of those alive during that time would either be dead or very old. Yet it was relieving not to hear someone parse the “there are tiny beings living inside of us, telling us about the Force” nonsense.
The cast is great as well. Finally we get to see actors in a Star Wars film get to act. Of the many gripes I had with the prequels, one of the top ones was that Lucas did not allow his actors to act. To get consistently stilted performances out of actors like Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman is tragic. Even Hayden Christensen could not be blamed for his perform.
Abrams did not handcuff his actors. As a result, we get endearing performances from the two leads John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. Ridley is naturally a warm, lovable, girl-next-door person, and she brought that to Rey. Boyega’s performance as Finn a joy to watch. He added in the right amount of humor, compassion, and silliness to make Finn a good every man character.
I also thought Adam Driver nailed his performance as Kylo Ren. He got the arrogant confidence perfect, but also the internal conflict driving Kylo’s action. The scene with Kylo and Han is an example of this performance. Driver and Abrams managed to do in five minutes what Christensen and Lucas failed to do in a two and a half hour long film. You see Kylo shifting between the light and dark side of the Force, trying to decide whether to kill his father or let his father kill him.
Speaking of Han, it was great to see the original cast again. We get more of Han and Leia than of Luke, but what we get is good. There is a lot of story that happened in those intervening thirty years, and Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher play that well. You can feel the tension and separation, but also the undercurrent of love.
You want a sequel? This is not the film you are looking for.
This is not a sequel; it is a retelling of the original film and its first sequel. From the desert planet to the giant glowing villain, we have seen this film before. I understand the need to pay homage to the original trilogy, but homage is not a remake. With so much room to explorer, it is disappointing that Abrams and his team simply split Luke into two characters, making one a girl and the other black.
It is really disappointing because the film borrows a great deal from the expanded universe novels and comic books. Kylo Ren is essentially Kyp Durron. The Starkiller is essentially the Sun Crusher. Luke creating new Jedi, Han and Leia having a child that turns to the dark side, the story of Luke’s actions being a myth – all of this comes from the expanded universe.
So why not use more of it? Why rehash (for the third time) the same story? We already know all the story beats because we have seen them before. None of it matters, and that is a terrible position for a film.
The film also feels like two films cut into one. Far too much important information is missing. The rift between Han and his son Kylo, what happened to make Ben Solo become Kylo Ren, why the First Order exists, why the Republic pretends to support a clear rebirth of the Empire publicly while secretly supporting the Resistance – all this and many more questions just hang there at the end of the film.
That lack of information hurts the character’s stories because aside from Finn and Rey (sort of), we have no idea that is motivating anyone to do what they do.
Another problem is that this does not feel like an Abrams’s film or a Star Wars film. It feels like someone shot a very well-done fan film while emulating Abrams. That is not to say I miss the lens flares. It is only to say that Abrams seems restrained in this film.
In an early version of the script Luke, Leia, and Han played a larger role. Abrams should have left it that way. For a film intent on recapturing the originals’ spark, this is a missed opportunity. This is where it really feels like they squashed to films into one. The focus of this film should have been on reintroducing us to the original cast so we can learn that is going on and set them up to pass the torch. Instead, we spent more time with the new cast.
This is not a problem except for one pesky fact: Rey and Finn do not know anything about what is going on. Han and Leia, on the other hand, do know what is going on. It is their interactions that answer some of the dangling questions in the film. More time with the pair would have resolved that problem.
Speaking of which, how do you throw out the idea that their son turns to the dark side and never give us any idea of the impact this had with everyone around them? How do you have a showdown between father and son and yet no mention of what caused their rift? Where would anyone even get the idea of turning to the dark side from when the only wielders are dead? Was not the Force supposed to be balanced after Vader’s death?
Then there is Rey.
Do not get me wrong, I like Rey. As I stated before, Ridley brings her own charm to the character, so there is little to dislike about Rey in general.
My issue is her role in the story: she is very much a Mary Sue. According to TV Tropes, a Mary Sue is:
“[…] a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.“
That accurately describes Rey. She is attractive, smart, and good-natured. She always does the right thing. She is more than capable of fending off multiple attackers when they attempt to steal BB-8. She seems to know technology so well that she can figure out how every system she encounters works in seconds. She has little trouble flying the Millennium Falcon even though she never flew it before. She is so good that unlike Han Solo, she does not need a co-pilot. And she is Force-sensitive to an astounding degree.
There is nothing Rey cannot do, nothing she cannot do well, and nothing she cannot do better than anyone else.
In short: she is perfect.
Again, this does not mean she is not likable. I like the character. A lot. She is fun and goofy and has an endearing childishness and innocence about her that fits someone who grew up alone.
It is simply that story-wise this leaves Rey with nothing to work with to build her character. She is never challenged in a fight. She is never in any real danger. She has no flaws. In contrast, Finn, the second lead, lies, attempts to run from his problems, and constantly embarrasses himself. He has room to grow. Rey, on the other hand, has nothing. She is already good at everything, already a good and honest person, and already skilled beyond measure.
Imagine you are writing the new Star Wars film. You need a villain, and a damn good one. You need someone similar to Darth Maul, but you would really like someone like Darth Vader. So you decide to take Han and Leia’s son and turn him to the dark side. He will be your torn and tormented villain with a twist: instead of trying to fight the pull of the dark side he is trying to fight the pull of the light side. He wants to be evil, but there is too much good in him. To up the ante, you have the son of Organa and Solo use the Force in ways we have never seen before.
In the beginning of the film, your villains catches a blaster bolt in midair using the Force without looking, holds it there as he has a four minute conversation, turns to walk away, pauses to notice that one of the stormtroopers is just standing there gawking, walks away and then releases the bolt at full speed.
Then you proceed to have some girl who just learned she can use the Force a few hours ago dominate him. Easily.
You just turned your villain into a joke and stripped your heroine of any real heroism.
When they first meet, Kylo Ren is able to lock Rey in place with the Force, probe her mind to find out what she knows about Luke, and knock her out with a gentle wave of his hand. An hour or so later during Kylo’s interrogation, Rey not only uses the Force to keep Kylo out of her mind, but she reads his mind and exposes his weaknesses and doubts. She then uses a Jedi mind trick, which as far as we know she has never heard of, to get one of the guards to unlock her (although it takes three tries).
We expect this to happen, but not in the first film, and certainly not within minutes of Rey learning she even had the Force.
It does not stop there. Later on, both Rey and Finn flee for the Falcon after Kylo kills Han. Kylo catches them and challenges them to a fight. Rey pulls an Anakin Skywalker and attempts to charge Kylo. He throws her against a tree using the Force and knocks her out. Finn, in anger, picks up Anakin’s lightsaber and fights Kylo.
He really should not be able to use the saber as well as he does, but in the moment Finn’s choice is brave and courageous because we all know he cannot win because he does not have the Force. Kylo does, and he is well-trained. He makes short work of Finn.
Upon hearing Finn scream, Rey wakes up and uses the Force to pull the fallen lightsaber not only out of the snow but out of Kylo’s force grip. The same grip that stopped a blaster bolt in midair.
They fight, and she holds her own much better than Finn. At one point Kylo has Rey locked down with his saber. He tells her that she needs training and that he can teach her about the ways of the Force. Rey repeats the word, closes her eyes, focuses, and when she opens them completely demolishes Kylo.
Again, we expect the hero to win, but not like this. Kylo was no challenge. Rey walked through him just as she had done with the stormtroopers, wielding the Force like a trained Jedi.
Consider this: it took years for Luke to learn these techniques. Even Anakin Skywalker did not wield the Force like this as a child, and he was the chosen one. Yet Rey, within minutes of learning she had the Force, was able to manipulate someone’s mind. We did not see Luke do that until after years of training in Return of the Jedi. Within hours of learning she had the Force, Rey can use it to pull a lightsaber to her hand. It took Luke years to learn that trick. Within hours of touching a lightsaber for the first time Rey masters use of it enough to beat a trained former Jedi and current dark side wielder. Again, it took Luke years to do this, and technically he did not beat Darth Vader in combat.
None of this would be a problem if Rey learned to do these things over the course of three films. It is that she does them in one and with no trouble that is the problem.
It is actually worse because unlike Luke she never earns the power, nor does she neglect it as Anakin did. Instead, Rey automatically has it, instinctively knows how to use it, and always uses it for the right thing.
That does not mean no one can like Rey as a character. It does not even make her a bad character. It does make her a badly written character, and when this is one of the main characters of your story, that simply will not fly.
One other thing bothered me: how in the hell do you kill off Han Solo and not have Chewbacca and Leia have a moment together? Why does she instead go to Rey, a girl she has never met, and hug her? I understand it is a visual passing of the torch. I am asking this from a story perspective. Chewie walks right by Leia and we see him in the background of the shot, but they never discuss Han. They do not touch. They do not even look at each other. Honestly, how do you do that?
Ultimately, I think this was a great film. Despite my criticisms, I still loved it. The plot and story issues do take some of the shine off the film, but not so much that the film is not enjoyable. We have a Star Wars film we can work with. The rehashing of the original plot and themes do hurt, however, and I think that once the thrill of seeing a solid Star Wars film wears off more people will notice it.
That said, I went to see the movie twice, and I would have no problem watching it again. It does not feel like a Star Wars film to me (it was particularly odd not hearing the 20th Century Fox music leading in the film), but it is a great space opera. Much like X-men: Days of Future Past, all this film needed to do was wash the bad taste of the previous films out of our mouths. It accomplished that and much more.
It is already beaten numerous records for best openings and weekend box office numbers. It has already earned over $500 million. This might be the fastest film to $1 billion. I would be surprised if it does not come close to Avatar’s top ranking, if not beat it. Granted, much of that is hype. However, a good deal of the hype is justified.
Do yourself a favor and go and see Star Wars Episode VIII: The Force Awakens.
And may the Force be with you.