Disclaimer: I don’t really think this is necessary, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway – This review contains spoilers. Do not read any further unless you want to actually read about things that happen in the film! For a spoiler-free version, please see Here’s The Thing About The Force Awakens…(Spoiler-Free Zone)
I’ll mainly reiterate what I said in the spoiler-free version (seeing as how some reading this may not have read it) and add depth and explanations for things I said.
I was one of the countless moviegoers who impatiently waited, fretted, and pre-planned their chance to go see the record breaking film Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I’m not what you’d call a “hardcore fan” by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not even particularly fond of the fantasy genre (e.g., didn’t care much for the LOTR trilogy, never saw Harry Potter). I think that may actually play to my advantage in giving this movie a more balanced review not biased by nostalgia or like emotional attachment for the series.
Yes, I have seen all Star Wars films. And like I said, I was never big on the series. But I am a huge cinephile. I was excited about this movie mainly due to the trailer, internet buzz, and a basic inner apprehension (maybe the force?) telling me, “This movie can’t be worse than the prequels, Sincere. C’mon, it doesn’t have Hayden Christensen. It doesn’t have Jar Jar. Go see it. Give it a chance.”
And so I did…and I am so freaking glad I did! From the opening crawl credits to its conclusion, I experienced smart craftsmanship, layers, and “soul” that really sucked me into the Star Wars Universe and had me inwardly cheering at certain spots and caring about the two main protagonists.
The direction was excellent. J.J. Abrams incisively delivered a film that really didn’t have wasted beats, unlike so many littered within the prequels (IMO). I liked the tastefully done comedic beats throughout. It wasn’t overdone.
With storytelling, I like the direction they went regarding what happened with Luke, and the reasons for him vanishing and becoming a recluse after Kylo Ren turned to the dark side. I greatly appreciate the choices they made with most of the character choices and where they took them from beginning to end. I think the right choices were made with effectively telling backstories, both with what was and wasn’t revealed.
I went in thinking, “Yeah, we have a brother representing! Finally!” But it didn’t take long for me to decide my favorite character was Rey. Daisy Ridley is a superstar. I love Rey! I’m wondering who her parents may be. Could Luke be her father? I haven’t read internet speculation or what have you, so I’m not in the know about that. Anyway, I think she’s just what the franchise needs: A strong, intelligent, and self-determined protagonist who doesn’t fall into most of the tropes we’re used to seeing with female characters. I really like how Rey continuously told Finn to stop trying to grab a hold of her. She didn’t need his saving.
In fact, that’s how they meet: Finn goes to help what he thought was a damsel in distress only to find out, nope, she can handle herself. Even when she is captured, by the time our heroes (Finn, Han, and Chewbacca) reach her, she’s already free and trying to find a plane, once again illustrating the fact that she can fend for herself and that she’s resilient. I loved that.
Still, it seemed kind of unbelievable for me that she never used the force before and never even had knowledge of the force beyond stories she believed were only myths, and yet she was able to best Kylo Ren at the end. That was difficult to digest. The first part when he’s trying to extract information from her, ok. I get that. I did like when she reveals his thoughts to him and that takes him by surprise. It was an emotional and enjoyable scene.
But to then have her outdo his influence over the force to take Luke’s lightsaber (when it was sticking in the snow and Kylo Ren attempted to summon it) and to then overpower him when they fight? It was really difficult to swallow. Kylo Ren has been harnessing the force for years. He’s obviously very powerful, so for those events to happen didn’t seem to add up logically if we’re working with the premise that people must grow in their ability (e.g., Yoda training Luke) to use the force.
Speaking of Kylo Ren – I really, really enjoyed this character insofar as the concept of him goes. Again, you got to see depth. I’m still not sure what his motivations are though. I know he was seduced by Snoke, but I do wish they had given us a better taste of what exactly took place for him to go from being Luke’s apprentice to embracing the dark side. But I won’t really complain about that. Hopefully it will be revealed in the next installment. I enjoyed the emotional range. You got to see the rage, but also a bit of sadness, and a bit of an emotionally wounded young boy. And I like (again, smart decision IMO) how they chose to not play to the “mysterious” trope where we’re left wondering who the character is behind the mask. It’s nice that they decided to reveal him as Ben, the son of Leia and Han.
My only major gripe with him is what I just mentioned before: I was disappointed and frustrated with how they initially built him up as this badass who had great powers (e.g., quick reflexes and stopping blaster energy mid-air, telekinetically dragging a subordinate to him with force) only for him to not use any of those powers in the end fight with Finn and Rey. Also, this is the second time ever in life Finn’s wielded a lightsaber. How is he any match for Kylo Ren? I get that he’s the main protagonist, and I like Finn’s character, but come on! Worse, in her first time ever wielding the lightsaber and, really, using the force, Rey ends up kicking Kylo Ren’s ass. He’s been using the force and wielding a lightsaber for how long? It was just hard to believe and it bothered me that he was able to be defeated like that.
Sure, have the protagonists win, but I’m just not a fan of how those scenarios played out.
I enjoyed Finn. John Boyega gave a strong performance. I liked that he wasn’t what I expected. What’s more, he wasn’t just there, he brought something to the story that was necessary. As far as character development, I like that they made him the anxious type who would prefer to run than fight. I think there will be a character arch between now and the next two films that show him grow into the role of a hero. I prefer that. Not everyone’s born a hero. I think it will take time for the responsibility and desire to grow in him. I look forward to what’s ahead with Finn.
As far as Finn and Rey, they had chemistry! And I mean that individually insofar as their onscreen performances, but also together as friends who grow fond of each other given their shared struggle. Their care for each other is believable given the backgrounds revealed to us about each of them. I think Poe Dameron adds even more of a fun and exciting dynamic to the new faces of Star Wars. The camaraderie between Poe and Finn was earned, and I look forward to seeing more of Poe in the later installments.
I mentioned Han Solo before: Huge kudos to Ford for really pulling off the aged Han Solo. He really did a good job, I think. I’m not sure how others felt about the way he met his demise at the hands of his own son, but I didn’t dislike it. I thought Han’s death scene was telegraphed. It was predictable once he came face-to-face with Kylo Ren. Regardless, the Star Wars universe has two new protagonists, so it made sense to an extent. And Rey looks like she’s going to be a major player as a Jedi. Also, Snoke alluded to Kylo Ren being able to extinguish the call of the light by killing his father, so I’m wondering how that will affect him and what differences we’ll see in the next film. Will he be “darker” and more powerful now?
They didn’t really give us much of General Leia. But, hey, she’s a general now and leading the Resistance. I like that Leia and Han didn’t fall into that “happily ever after” trope. It gave the relationship a bit more authenticity, especially when you consider what happened with their son. When a couple “loses” a child, it can definitely put a major strain on the relationship. Though they were no longer together, it’s nice that they still had affection for each other.
Oh yeah, Supreme Leader Snoke. I like the conception of the character. I’m hoping more will be revealed about him and where he actually is in the next movie. I wasn’t disappointed with him though. Given how much needed to be covered in the 2-hour time span, it seems to me he got just enough screen time.
There were a couple deus ex machina’s that I didn’t love.
Example: When Han and Chewbacca are caught between two different factions of pirates they owe, and they by pure happenstance of Rey and Finn being at a particular spot beneath all the commotion, and Rey hitting random switches (though she thinks she knows what she’s doing), and her conveniently unleashing two monsters that inadvertently come to the rescue of Han and Chewbacca just before it was too late. Come on!
Another example: I won’t even count when Finn loses the exchange with the Stormtrooper and the guy moves in for the kill and, right when he raises his weapon to kill Finn, that’s the exact moment he gets blasted away by Han and Chewbacca coming to Finn’s rescue just in time. But that isn’t the example. What happens next is what I’m referring to. When, soon after this life-saving moment, they’re all doomed and saved by a Resistance squad air fleet led by Poe. Convenience!
I get that you have to save the heroes. Of course. Still, with spots like these, I think it would’ve been more interesting had they found a way to avoid using this bailout plot device.
The movie didn’t overdo it on backstory. We didn’t really get all that much context about the “what” and “why” of the Resistance, the Republic, the First Order, the specifics of “the former heroes’” journeys (i.e., Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Luke). Some may take issue with this, but I didn’t. I felt they gave you just enough. I thought what we got in this movie was a smart decision given the fact that the director’s trying to pack a 30 year gap of events into 2 hours. I’m confident that, whatever we’re not fully clear on now, we’ll get more of in the next installment(s).
It’s really hard to complain about this movie. The Force Awakens had an intangible quality. It had “the thing” that separates certain films from others. We remember movies like Taxi Driver, The Shawshank Redemption, and E.T. for their magical essence that connects with us in a rare and memorable way. The Force Awakens had the “magic” that I believe enthralled moviegoers way back in 1977. I think it rekindled the splendor that first birthed the unique and gargantuan Star Wars fandom.
The performances were solid and the story worked for the most part for me. It had just enough nostalgia to make you smile, but not too much to make you go, “Okay, we get it.” I was absolutely emotionally satisfied with this 7th installment in the Star Wars saga. The Force Awakens is a very fun film that I may go back and see again.
Second Viewing Update
I went back and saw this movie again with my son a few days after Christmas. Here are my takeaways from the second viewing:
(1) This movie’s still great! Haters can say whatever they like, but those who enjoyed this film–the vast majority–couldn’t care less about whatever arguments meant to denigrate the awesomeness brought to the table with Episode 7.
(2) My biggest gripe I previously had against this film was the “failings” of Kylo Ren. While I still disliked a couple spots where I think they made him weaker than what we’re initially led to believe at the beginning of the film, I’m actually far more okay with how the final battle played out. When it came to Ren vs Finn, Ren was chasing Finn, attacking (while injured), and still made short work of him.
When it came to Ren vs Rey, it was pretty much the same thing with him chasing her down. I still find it hard to believe that he couldn’t just use the force more like he did when he simply threw her into the tree before Finn picked up the lightsaber to fight. Regardless, watching it a second time made these fights make more sense and not as absurd as I first imagined.
(3) This ties into #2 – Rey isn’t a Mary Sue. Not that I ever said she was, especially since I didn’t even know what that term meant when I first wrote this review. But we can see from the beginning that Rey is self-sufficient, resilient, and fierce. She had to learn to fend for herself, and proved this time and time again. Since we know she can defend herself with the bo staff it shouldn’t be “unbelievable” that she was able to defend herself competently with a lightsaber. That isn’t a Mary Sue, that’s someone who had no alternative but to be self-reliant and hone hyper-keen survival skills. I actually found this to be one of the more authentic aspects of this fantasy film.
I think my hangups with Kylo Ren vs Rey/Finn were less about the main protagonists and more about my expectations of someone who (a) seemed to be so powerful in the force, (b) trained with Luke Skywalker, and (c) had years to hone his grasp over the force. However, upon watching again, my criticism has been tempered by better appreciating the fact that Kylo Ren was injured and he really wasn’t trying to kill Rey. He was still besting her up until they neared the cliff. For whatever reason, he hesitated. Then, as we all know, Rey used the force, and was then able to overpower him.
I’m glad I was able to watch it again and come away with more clarity about these things. Also, my son loved it, so bonus!