If you haven’t seen Star Wars: Episode VII, I recommend that you do so before reading this. I do not shy away from spoilers in the following comments.
1. This is a good movie, and a great movie-going experience
Breathe a sigh of relief, o fellow nerds! The franchise is redeemed! Our worries were mostly unfounded — though not at all perfect (it is a blockbuster, after all) — Star Wars VII is compelling and entertaining. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed seeing a popcorn flick in theaters so much. The Dark Knight? I walked out of the movie thoroughly hyped, reliving the best moments and twists with my brothers, guessing about what would come in future episodes.
2. This is more of a reboot than a sequel
Whereas the prequels only made sense in the context of the originals, The Force Awakens is very intentionally a “fresh start” for the franchise. You don’t need to have seen the previous six movies (though it definitely helps) to understand The Force Awakens, because it starts its own story. And, as many have noted, the story essentially reboots A New Hope — poor, bored desert planet dweller finds that her destiny is with The Force, hopping around the galaxy, and she has to help destroy the big evil space base that kills planets. There are plenty of beats and characters that echo something from A New Hope, which is good, because A New Hope (and now The Force Awakens) are great examples of sucking you into a story.
3. The acting is outstanding
I almost wrote “the cast is outstanding,” before I remembered that that’s been true of literally every Star Wars movie. Even with the prequels — with Hayden Christensen, the most reviled of wooden actors — the problem was as much the writing and the character definition as much as the actors themselves. Fortunately, The Force Awakens has great characters that are very well acted — and like A New Hope, many of the stars are relative unknowns. John Boyega and the remarkably attractive Daisy Ridley are excellent as the leads, Harrison Ford is charming as always (and still has chemistry with Carrie Fisher), and Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson are great as side characters. But the show-stealer is…
4. Kylo Ren is a great villain
Adam Driver seemed a bit of a strange casting choice as the main villain of the new Star Wars movie, but boy did it play out well. Unlike the menacing, taciturn Darth Vader of the original trilogy who has great visual presence but not much of a character, Kylo Ren is immediately complicated and interesting, a hair psychotic but charismatic. Teenage angst personified, but still legitimately frightening. And with his big murder at the end of the movie, he has an iconic villain moment on par with “I am your father.”
5. I could have used a bit more quiet
I know it’s a modern blockbuster, but man, this movie has action in almost every frame. That makes the movie’s rare quiet moments unusually effective — from Kylo Ren’s conversation with Han Solo on the bridge, charged with suspense, to Rey sitting and eating next to a junked Impreial Walker, a rare bit of serenity. I know modern audiences expect bang for their buck, but I could use a bit less bang in Episode VIII.
6. The visuals aren’t just impressive, they’re beautiful
Disney spared no expense in giving The Force Awakens bleeding edge visuals — from top-tier CGI to fantastic practical effects to state-of-the-art IMAX 3D, this is a visual stunner. But, even more than the impressive and immersive visual effects, it’s the visual artistry that I most admired. So many of the settings and shots are beautifully imagined — the fallen Star Destroyer, the blood smears on Finn’s Stormtrooper helmet, the snowly saber fight, etc. etc. Just a beautifully-made film.
7. The pacing is a bit wonky
As much as I love it, I do have a few complaints about The Force Awakens. One is that the pacing of the movie is a bit off. The first act (the best part of the movie) feels a bit rushed, especially Finn’s abrupt decision to defect. Meanwhile, the second act drags a bit, especially at Maz’s cantina: A sequence that should have shined instead feels like obligatory, even sluggish, as we get some necessary character work to precede the third act. And, just like JJ Abrams’ Lost glory days, the dramatic tag goes on at least twice as long as it should, even if the final shot is good payoff.
8. It passes the Bechdel Test
Barely, but it does. Still, the movie is the most gender-conscious Star Wars since A New Hope (with a hat-tip to Amidala in The Phantom Menace). Rey is a self-sufficient fighter, heroic and personable. If anything, she’s TOO perfect: She’s an ace pilot, a brilliant mechanic, an instant Jedi, and traditionally beautiful. But, certainly, she has personality, and it’s nice to see a woman driving the story. Add on the clever Maz, Fisher’s General Leia, and the badass Captain Phasma, and the movie actually feels kind of gender balanced.
9. John Williams and Ben Burtt are national treasures
One thing that Star Wars never erred on, even in its weakest outings was the brilliant sound, both in the effects and the music. Both are in fine form here. There’s so much noise (see point 5) that I didn’t notice the music as much as I usually do when watching Star Wars, but whenever the familiar themes swoon, it’s at the right moments, and it evokes a strong reaction. Burtt (read Brian’s tribute to his work on the 1977 original) shines again with new droid BB8.
10. I really hope we don’t get too many parentage twists
Many mysteries linger after the end of TFA. Among the biggest are the origin stories of some of the new characters. Is Finn a descendant of Mace Windu or Lando (‘cuz he’s black)? What about Poe Dameron — have we met his parents before? Most obviously, people are wondering if Rey is linked to a character from the original trilogy, as her long lost family is noted but kept vague. By far the dominant opinion is that Rey is Luke’s daughter, and there’s plenty of textual evidence to support this theory. (Another theory relates Rey and Obi-Wan.) Personally, I hope we’re done with familial connections to the original series: These characters are interesting enough on their own that they don’t need a vestigial, fan-service link to the past. Kylo Ren as Ben Solo is enough. Rey’s story is more interesting to me if she truly is a “nobody” from a poor desert planet. Do we really want this trilogy to revolve around the same three heroes as the original? And Finn having a famous mommy or daddy would be even worse — his original anonymity is the crux of his character.
11. The Force is interesting again
Before I saw TFA, I noted in a comment on Brian’s post about A New Hope that I appreciated the way the original depicted The Force: Jedi were monks who believed they could tap into the mystical powers of an ancient religion. Well, with each ensuing movie, The Force became less mystical. By the time of the prequels, the script had completely flipped. Using The Force was described as having a high density of microbes in your blood; The Jedi were a political consulting council. This is one of the biggest bummers of the prequels for me — the general demystification. Well, in The Force Awakens, they made Jedi interesting and elusive again. They gave “The Dark Side” a more interesting spin than “stern or cackling old dudes”. They reestablished the notion that many doubt the existence of The Force and Jedi. They depicted The Force’s power as a sort of primal Pandora’s Box. I loved it.
12. Another massacre dismissed
My biggest story complaint with A New Hope — and possibly the entire series — is the casual depiction of the slaughter of billions when The Death Star blows up Alderaan. It’s barely mentioned in the series again, even when developing Princess Leia, who is from the planet. The offhanded way it depicts the mass violence, then forgets about it, really bothers me. The Force Awakens has a similar scene of a base blowing up planets. It’s slightly better — we get a few shots of people sadly acknowledging apocalypse — and yet we still end up caring more about the death of one smuggler than of millions. Why couldn’t it be a spaceship or a small outpost? Why does it have to be a whole planet? Oh yeah, it’s because…
13. Star Wars meets Marvel
Disney definitely let their approach to making Marvel movies creep into The Force Awakens. Primarily, I’m referring to the way that every damn superhero movie ends with giant clanging explosions that threaten a whole city or continent or planet. Half of TFA‘s climax gave me that same underwhelmed feeling — of making the struggle feel BIG (with little context) rather than interesting. The whole Starkiller Base business is the least compelling plot thread in the movie. Unlike in A New Hope, which spends the whole movie establishing The Death Star, this new base fails to leave an impression as immense or interesting or truly ominous. There are a few attempts — the aforementioned planet-busting, the clever depiction of the laser as a red shooting star, etc. — but it still feels kind of mediocre compared to the white-knuckle other half of the climax with Rey, Finn, Han, and Kylo.
14. I hope they figure out how to make Snoke interesting
While I love the way Snoke is shot, making him appear like a giant statue of Zeus. But other than that, he felt fairly uninspired as a villain. He’s an ugly old white dude, a retread of Palpatine. Apparently one of the last major story changes was turning Snoke from a woman to a man, which seems like a choice to effectively make the villain less distinct. I hope there’s some twist with Snoke — some strange identity or mystreious power — to make him legitimately compelling. It seems like we’ll see more of him in Episode VIII, so fingers crossed.
15. I’m counting down the days to Star Wars VIII
Despite all of the above second-guessing and rumination, the dominant emotion I felt as the credits rolled was excitement: I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing where the Star Wars series goes. I want to spend more time with these characters, time in this world. I’m pumped, and I’m not the only one. Cheers, Disney.