REVIEW: Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens

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The Force Awakens had one major job: Get me to care about its new characters. Mission accomplished.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens falls into the same slot as Creed in that it’s a remake that’s not a remake, with new characters taking the reigns as the old ones settle into the mentor role. It has a reverence for the original that more recent movies in the franchise lacked, getting it back to the core of what made it matter in the first place. At the same time this makes it predictable and forever puts it in the shadow of the originals. It’s franchise management, but at least it’s doing the job right. There are shades of Empire Strikes Back to this story, but for the most part it’s the plot of A New Hope for the major beats.

The real keys to its success are it’s new characters and the actors playing them. John Boyega is very endearing as Fin, the Storm Trooper with a conscience. Daisy Ridley plays the wide-eyed orphan from a desert planet, Rey. Adam Driver plays the angry and fearful Kylo Ren. Oscar Isaac is the cocky ace pilot Poe Dameron, who’s kind of too-cool-for-school and is the only one of these new characters that doesn’t get his own character arc here. BB-8 works really well as a side character, charming and simple.

Boyega and Ridley have great on screen chemistry. Their attraction feels natural and effortless. Like all the best parts of this movie, it works because of the visual storytelling and the acting. We don’t need it spelled out that they like each other because it’s obvious. They’re both earnest and eager to do the right thing, although at times fear drives them to just want to run away and hide. Both characters make immediate sense before they even speak a line. Through visual storytelling and the language of Star Wars, we learn everything we need to know about them. What’s also super important to me is how happy they seem to be on an adventure, when they’re not dealing with internal turmoil they have an energy and enthusiasm that breathes life into the film.

Kylo Ren works because he’s not Darth Vader despite desperately wanting to be. He puts on airs of that cool masked villain, but at his core he’s the embodiment of those emotions we’ve always been told lead you to the dark side: Anger and Fear. This is the struggle of the force from the other side, someone who desperately wants to expunge the light within himself. Adam Driver’s voice acting is really great here whether it’s with the modulation when he wears the mask, or when it’s not on. I find him more compelling with his mask on than off; I kinda hate his stupid face, which is a mean thing to say but whatever, movies man.

The returning cast is the returning cast, they’re great and it’s a pleasure to see them again. Han and Chewie get the most screen time, but everyone has their moment. The movie does a good job of mostly having them hanging out on the sidelines, letting the new characters take the reigns. They’re legendary for what they’ve done, but in the moment what matters is who they are and what they can do now. Their past exploits, are in the past, and serve as backdrop as they should.

I really appreciate this movie’s sense of humor. The quick interplay between the characters is where the dialogue is at its best, and there’s a bunch of it. It’s one of the many things that was a core part of the original movies and was sorely lacking from the prequels, whose best attempts at banter always cam off as incredibly whinny. Small interactions between the characters that made me laugh and is the glue that holds all the good character work together. It allows us to see how the characters feel about each other in a natural way, and allows us to see them as friends. Some of the physical gags work, some of them don’t but that stuff never overpowers the rest of the movie.

For the most part the movie looks great. The important thing is that scenes have weight and look real. There’s a dirt and grime to the movie. (Another things the prequels utterly lacked) When fights happen the action isn’t ephemeral, hits have impact, which allowed me to be emotionally invested in them. The movie isn’t entirely practical, there’s plenty of CG, but there’s enough for me to grab hold of. The movie sells me on enough that I’m okay suspending my disbelief. This is CG as it should be used, as one tool in a toolbox, not the whole kit and caboodle. Everything just looks like Star Wars, the iconography is all tied in with the iconography of the original trilogy, which is what I want because that’s the iconography I care about and like.

The lightsaber duels here are much closer to those in the original trilogy than the prequels. Gone are the ephemeral spins, twirls and hops. Instead we have slower weightier combat, where individual blows matter, and characters can get hurt before having limbs severed. It’s a progression in the opposite direction, partially through the work of improved effects that make the lightsabers themselves feel more real than ever.

On the other side the fighter battles are neat in theory, in that there are kinds of fights we haven’t seen before, but they editing is so quick on them I never really felt like I had good sense of what was going on, except when the movie made a point to tell me through dialogue. These do have that ephemeral nature to them where none of the parts of their action matter. At least in the big fights later on in the movie, there are scenes early on where our heroes are just in one ship the work much better. The movie is just way more interested in out heroes on the ground than the cannon fodder in the sky once the scale gets turned up, as it really should be.

I see how someone could complain about the pacing of this movie, it’s herky-jerky in some ways, but none of that bothers me. The dialogue scenes can feel awkward, particularly when they get serious, but I love the quieter moments, whether it’s a zoom out for a gorgeous wide shot, or a close up for some great physical acting. However, the movie has to find time for those while accomplishing a lot of work: New characters are established, the old characters get reintroduced, there’s a lot of distinct action, there’s set-up for intrigue moving forward, four major character arcs play out, and there’s a complete narrative that this specific movie has to tell. I find all those parts very functional and that the movie finds the time for all of that, and the time to let the audience breathe, makes the movie incredibly watchable. It’s inviting and pleasant, despite the fact that it needs to have everything happening, one right after another.

And a lot of things just kind of happen. One of the benefits of the idea of “The Force” is that it serves as an explanation for screen writing convenience. Things and people show up just at the right time, and characters are just able to wing their way through crazy situations they aren’t prepared for. If you want to nitpick it as writer contrivance, ok, but that’s what makes an adventure movie run, and be fun, and it’s why The Force is such a great idea for an adventure movie. Of course all these people conveniently met up with each other, The Force is bringing them together.

How much you’ll enjoy this movie depends completely on how much you like Star Wars and how ok you are with just more of that. It might not be as well made as Creed but I care about Star Wars a lot more than I care about Rocky. Not just in a personal way, though that’s part of it, but I think that Star Wars is a more ambitious difficult story to tell. Its aesthetics appeal to me so strongly because they tie into some of the most potent nostalgia I have for media, AND because those aesthetics just naturally line up with what I like and what I’ve always liked. In my Creed review I talked about my love for legacy heroes, and that all carries over here. The movie is incredibly predictable, but that only matters on a first viewing and I like this movie enough to want to watch it again. Ultimately though it is just light entertainment, and does pay forward a lot towards the subsequent films. How I feel about these characters will change based on the next movies, but right now the important thing is that I’m excited and interested in their future adventures.