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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is the Star Wars film you’re looking for. Mostly.

In many respects, Star Wars was the film the helped to launch the modern “blockbuster” model of cinema, and a large part of The Force Awakens is the reassurance that not too much has changed in the intervening years. Sure, there are a few script tweaks to reflect more modern tastes for the post-Dark Knight era, but the basic storytelling engine is still the same underneath. If The Force Awakens is a hybrid, it is a hybrid fashioned from the parts of the three original Star Wars films and just a dash of something more twenty-first century.

The Force is strong with this one...

The Force is strong with this one…

After the issues with the prequels, it is reassuring to know that the engine still runs. The franchise’s history as one of the forerunners of blockbuster cinema makes it perfectly suited to JJ Abrams’ nostalgic stylings. Abrams gets a lot of flack for his evocation of seventies and eighties blockbuster cinema, but he does have a fundamental understanding of how (and why) it works. Ever the keen student of Spielberg and vintage Hollywood blockbusters, director JJ Abrams is able to effortlessly blend that classic aesthetic with a contemporary sensibilities.

There are moments when The Force Awakens threatens to suffocate under the weight of what came before, but it largely succeeds on its own terms as a doorway to something new and exciting.

Handover from one generation to the next...

Handover from one generation to the next…

One of the more interesting aspects of The Force Awakens is the way that it recasts the conclusion of Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi. The original trilogy ended on a note of celebration on the forest moon of Endor, with the special addition retroactively inserting footage of similar festivities on Coruscant and Naboo. The general impression was that this was a gigantic “happily ever after” for the universe as a whole, having vanquished the Empire by crippling its unhealthily Death-Star-dependent economy.

Of course, deconstructing and interrogating that supposedly happy ending is nothing new. The joy of large-scale science-fiction franchises is that there is never a shortage of film nerds ready to pick apart the finer details of a given story. (The infamous “Death Star contractors” debate from Clerks is just one example.) In particular, fans have wondered about the consequences of blowing up a moon-sized space station in orbit of a forest planet, wondering whether those cheerful little Ewoks would become an endangered species.

Vintage.

Vintage.

It is no surprise that any attempt to continue the Star Wars franchise would have to return to the ending of Return of the Jedi and strip away some of the finality. After all, the very existence of the new trilogy suggests that the story did not actually end with Luke and Vader vanquishing the Emperor as Lando blew up the second Death Star. Reopening the Star Wars universe for new stories mean tweaking that ending, changing the full stop at the end of the sentence into a comma so that the story might continue.

What is interesting, however, is the way that the film chooses to tweak the ending of Return of the Jedi. In many respects, the celebrations at the end of Return of the Jedi become an act of hubris; they become premature and arrogant. If George Lucas really did conceive of Star Wars as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, then The Force Awakens brings the metaphor into the twenty-first century. Luke, Han and Leia might as well have been hanging a “mission accomplished” banner across their celebrations in the Ewok tree village.

Wretched hive of scum and villainy...

Wretched hive of scum and villainy…

It is a very clever and very timely twist. The burning of Vader’s body at the end of Return of the Jedi becomes something more than simply a Viking funeral for a fallen Jedi; it becomes akin to burying Osama Bin Laden at sea or the destruction of Hitler’s body, a preemptive attempt to curb martyrdom. The burnt remains of Vader’s iconic visage have become a grim relic. To the mysterious Kylo Ren, the mask takes on an almost religious significance. It is an object of worship, a call to arms.

In its own way, the original trilogy has become an object of worship for The Force Awakens. The first time that the audience is introduced to Rey, we find her scavenging in the ruins of a crashed Stardestroyer. The deserts of the back water planet Jakku are decorated with relics from the original trilogy, with fallen X-wings and creatures who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Jawas. More than one technological artifact from the original trilogy is gleefully unveiled, the music soaring in recognition as the camera focuses on some piece of classic iconography.

Just deserts...

Just deserts…

Although three decades have passed since the events of the original trilogy, with many major characters born after the end of Return of the Jedi, it seems like very little has actually changed. Despite the fact that they are no longer a collection of scrappy rebels, our heroes still wear informal red-and-white flight suits and fly beat-up old X-Wings. The rebel base in the film is populated with faces familiar from the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi, suggesting most of the major players never really moved on to life after the rebellion.

The fact that Han Solo has traded up from a waistcoat to a leather jacket is explicitly acknowledged in dialogue, but it still seems as though the lovable rogue hasn’t changed his shirt in thirty-odd years. More than that, the character is still running away from his responsibilities and still pretending not to care as much as he obviously does. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is a sense that the world of Star Wars has changed very little in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

Red sky for a Jedi knight...

Red sky for a Jedi knight…

Then again, that would seem to be the point. “Home” is a recurring theme of the film, from Ren’s fixation on returning to Jakku through to the advice given to Han that he should “go home.” Maybe he does. “Chewie, we’re home,” Han Solo boasts upon returning to the Millennium Falcon. The Force Awakens insists that you can go home again. In a way, this makes perfect sense. After all, nostalgia seems to be the defining tone of twenty-first century popular culture, as the success of Jurassic World demonstrated.

Even within the context of the film itself, nostalgia is a powerful force. (Or, “Force”, if you will.) The Force Awakens makes it clear that the younger characters within the narrative have been raised on stories and fables about the original trilogy. At one point, Rey wonders whether any of it could possibly have been true – whether the Jedi (or even Luke Skywalker) could ever have existed. As brought to life by Adam Diver, Kylo Ren feels almost like a Darth Vader cosplayer, complete with James Earl Jones baritone and distinctive black mask.

JJ Abrams seems perfectly suited to this sensibility. After all, Abrams has defined himself as a director with a clear eye on Hollywood’s blockbuster past. Appropriately enough for a director working on Star Wars, his filmography is heavily inspired by Lucas’ contemporary and collaborator Steven Spielberg. (It is no surprise that Spielberg was the one to recommend Abrams for the job.) For better or worse, Abrams’ work on Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness often felt like a nostalgic highlight reel of the franchise’s (and Hollywood’s) greatest hits.

Generation X...

Generation X…

Abrams seems to relish the “long time ago” promise of the opening scroll. There are points at which The Force Awakens feels a little bit too much like a remix of classic moments and sensibilities from the original trilogy. The opening pan features the distinctive silhouette of a Stardestroyer moving through space, to reassure viewers. Presented with details of the Empire’s new secret weapon at the obligatory climactic briefing, one rebel wonders, “Is that another Death Star?” It’s not actually, but the similarities are striking.

There is, admittedly, something cynical about all this. The three prequel films serve as something of the elephant in the room, mostly awkwardly ignored by The Force Awakens. In some ways, the decision to maintain aesthetic consistency between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens feels like a rejection of the aesthetic gap between the zeerust retro futurism of the prequels and the grittier design of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens is keen to integrate with the original trilogy more aggressively than the prequels did.

He's a droid and she's annoyed...

He’s a droid and she’s annoyed…

Though understandable, this glosses over the fact that the problems with the prequels had nothing to do with the different aesthetic and more to do with the basic mode of storytelling. Quite simply, the prequels were nowhere near as skilfully constructed as the original trilogy had been. While the vocal internet backlash to the prequels tends to drown out reasoned discussion, the prequels were quite interesting in their own way; albeit largely lifeless and without a lot of the charm that made the original trilogy such fun.

Most obviously, the prequels are defined by their relationship to the original trilogy. While the “ring theory” might be over-elaborate, there is mirroring at work. This is most notable in the way that Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones tries to mimic the episodic structure of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, or in the way that Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith incorporates elements (a battle for Coruscant, the planet of the Wookies) that had been planned and abandoned for Return of the Jedi.

Masking her emotions...

Masking her emotions…

The Force Awakens offers little tangible connection to the prequels. Perhaps stung by criticisms about the time spent on trade negotiations and political manoeuvrings, The Force Awakens largely eschews any political context for its conflict. Although the First Galactic Empire has given way to the First Order, casual fans will be hard-pressed to distinguish between the two organisations. The First Order is not an insurgency or a revolutionary force; opening massacre of a desert village aside, it is not a metaphor for ISIS or al-Qaeda. The First Order is functionally equivalent to the Empire, right down to the design of their ships and costumes.

Similarly, the rebels have not transitioned to a position of authority. The Force Awakens rather pointedly identifies Leia as “General Organa”, but there is no sense that the previous three decades have seen her assume an official position in a victorious revolution. The Force Awakens has little time for the world-building that was so heavily criticised in the prequels. Indeed, imagery evocative of Coruscant and the Republic makes only the briefest of appearances; when it does evoke the look and feel of the prequels, it feels like The Force Awakens is taking more than just a glancing shot at the political machinations of the prequels.

It is telling that the film opens with a conversation between an old man and his younger companion about trying to “make things right.” A large part of The Force Awakens seems (fairly or unfairly) dedicated to winning back the trust that was lost with the prequels. A lot of the movie’s familiarity can be excused as an over-eager reassurance that things are being corrected. (The same is arguably true of Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, nostalgic course-corrections that make a lot more sense when considered in the context of the twin failures of Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Nemesis.)

Not a man you want to cross(sword)...

Not a man you want to cross(sword)…

The Force Awakens is relatively uninterested in world-building or explaining itself. Those looking for logical (or even logistical) issues with the basic plot will find them in abundance; from why the First Order seems to be repeating many of the mistakes that defined the Empire to how exactly their top secret weapon is supposed to work on a day-to-day basis. It feels like The Force Awakens is eager to avoid getting bogged down in issues of procedure or continuity, which does lead to a situation where the finer details of its fictional world might not hold up to scrutiny.

The Force Awakens moves swiftly enough along that none of these logical questions seem particularly glaring while actually watching the film. The Force Awakens is much more interested in getting its characters to the next dramatic beat than it is in explaining how or why a particular plot point actually works. (The film is almost gleeful in its own internal leaps. Han Solo seems capable of getting the hyperdrive to do whatever he wants, but then somewhat hypocritically warns Finn that his generic plan to “use the Force” won’t work, “The Force doesn’t work like that!”)

Rebel heart(throb)...

Rebel heart(throb)…

While The Force Awakens includes its own themes of mirroring and recurrence tying back to the original trilogy, these feel primarily like nostalgic indulgences. As with the original Star Wars (and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace), the story centres around a lost young soul from a desert planet who finds themselves thrust into an epic universe-altering adventure when strangers literally fall out of the sky bringing a galactic conflict to their doorstep. Abrams even borrows a number of shots from the Tatooine sequences of Star Wars.

(That said, some of the film’s most striking images are not those literally borrowed from the original trilogy, but those that feel like they might have been borrowed; images that fit so perfectly that they would blend seamlessly to Lucas’ originals. At one point, General Hux addresses an assemblage of Stormtroopers in what might be the most brazen use of Nazi imagery in the franchise’s history. At another point, the film evokes Rey’s listlessness and her existence in the shadow of the original trilogy by having her stop to rest in the remains of an old AT-AT walker. There’s a beautiful shot of TIE fighters silhouetted against Jakku’s sun.)

The film takes considerable pleasure in its in-jokes and references, Han Solo and Rey gleefully repeating the nonsensical boast about the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel Run in “in only twelve parsecs.” Trying to determine what to do with a prisoner on a hostile ship, our heroes wonder if there is a garbage chute or a trash compactor nearby. Rather than resisting the sense of nostalgic joy at bringing all of these elements together, The Force Awakens plays into it. “If you live long enough, you get to see the same eyes on different people,” reflects one wise old soul at one point.

The stardestroyer that fell to Earth...

The stardestroyer that fell to Earth… or Jakku…

Recurrence seems to be the point. Following on from the troubled prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens is very much about trying to reassure viewers that the magic has not been lost. While the film walks a very fine line, it just about gets away with it. The Force Awakens feels very much like it has been crafted with care and reverence for the original trilogy, blending together plot structure from Star Wars, the emotional arcs of The Empire Strikes Back and the characters of Return of the Jedi.

The Force Awakens offers a return to the life and vibrancy of the earlier instalments. Whatever criticisms might be labelled at Abrams’ tendency to channel nostalgia, he does understand the basic emotional beats of blockbuster storytelling. The hype and mystery around Luke Skywalker’s absence from the marketing of The Force Awakens is quite telling, as is the ubiquity of Han Solo in the trailers and posters. In fact, the opening line of the title scroll explicitly acknowledges as much.

Rain of terror...

Rain of terror…

After the relatively lifeless prequels, Abrams understands that the film can afford to bury Skywalker, but it needs the charm of Solo. Harrison Ford was very much the heart of the original trilogy, bringing incredible charisma and energy to the part. It could be argued that Harrison Ford’s smuggler brought an excitement to proceedings that was sorely lacking from the prequels. The Force Awakens makes sure to put Han Solo front and centre, even affording him what is very clearly a “Han shoots first” moment in the midst of a big action scene.

However, the real charm of The Force Awakens is not just the reverence with which it treats Han Solo. As much as JJ Abrams might be criticised for nostalgic pandering, the director has a keen understanding of how blockbuster cinema actually works. The Force Awakens is not simply interested in Solo himself, realising that the new trilogy cannot coast on the charm of established characters like some sort of science-fantasy version of The Expendables. Instead, The Force Awakens is imbued with the spirit of Solo.

Starship trooper...

Starship trooper…

The film’s three heroic lead characters feel more human and nuanced than just about any character inhabiting the prequel. (In fact, there is an argument to be made that all three feel more human than Luke and Leia.) Rey is smart and assertive, repeatedly insisting that her male co-stars stop holding her hand while they run, no matter how it lends itself to publicity photos and trailers. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron is not afraid to puncture a big dramatic moment with wry questions about “big dramatic moment” etiquette. (“Do I talk first or do you talk first?”)

It is quite refreshing to have a diverse ensemble. Rey is very much the centre of the film, a much more dynamic female protagonist than Leia. Finn represents the first time that a black character has been at the centre of the trilogy, with Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu very much supporting players in their own trilogies. The central characters of The Force Awakens feel a lot less generic than many of their predecessors, acknowledging that the films might pay homage to the seventies, but are products of the twenty-first century.

In this respect, Luke’s conspicuous absence feels almost pointed. In a twenty-first century return to Star Wars, there is no blonde-haired and blue-eyed male protagonist. Even Poe Dameron is portrayed by the Guatemalan-Cuban-American Oscar Isaac. While The Force Awakens never explicitly acknowledges it, it represents an effective acknowledgement of some of the more unfortunate undertones of classic fantasy. On a related note, The Force Awakens is quite shrewd in avoiding the unfortunate racial caricatures that cluttered the prequel (and, at times, original) trilogy.

Engines of destiny...

Engines of destiny…

Daisy Ridley and Oscar Issac do great work in their roles. Ridley adds some nice complexity to her character, presenting perhaps the best central performance in the franchise’s history. (It is also nice to have a primary female character in the franchise who is not a queen or a princess.) Oscar Isaac feels somewhat underused as Poe, a character who is introduced in a very memorable and decisive way, only to disappear into the ether quite quickly. Then again, given the embarrassment of riches presented by the film, it seems almost churlish to complain.

However, perhaps the most compelling of the trio is Finn. Finn is a former stormtrooper, perhaps the most compelling addition to the franchise. (Another passive-aggressive shot at the prequel trilogy comes when First Order General Hux dismisses the idea of clone troopers.) Finn is a soldier with a conscience, a stormtrooper who rejects all of his training. In a franchise that is so predicated upon the notion of fate and predetermination, there is something very shrewd in having a major heroic character whose primary arc is the rejection of his destiny.

(In his own way, Finn feels very much like a hero for the twenty-first century. Kylo Ren and various other characters repeatedly label Finn as a “traitor” for refusing to carry out his orders and betraying his sworn duty. In the era of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, Finn seems like quite a timely protagonist for the Star Wars franchise. Given the broader cultural discourse on acceptable use of state-sanctioned force by its representatives, whether in the police or military, The Force Awakens feels surprisingly in tune with the times around it.)

TIEd together...

TIEd together…

As ingenious as the character might be – and he is very ingenious – the very existence of Finn does raise some awkward questions that The Force Awakens is not prepared to answer. After all, one of the joys of the stormtrooper costume is that it dehumanises the soldiers for both the Empire (or the First Order) and the audience. Watching our heroes carve swathes through armies of identical footsoldiers becomes decidedly less comfortable after even one of those soldiers has been humanised.

The Force Awakens touches on this in its opening scene, providing a distinctive and memorable visual as one trooper’s familiar white armour is stained red. However, once that imagery has served its plot purpose, The Force Awakens is quite happy to go back to treating stormtroopers as disposable cannon fodder. Even Finn himself seems to have little sympathy for his former friends, though they have been programmed as thoroughly as he was. There are limits to just how subversive The Force Awakens can be.

Sorrows of Empire...

Sorrows of Empire…

At the same time, the script offers several surprisingly playful moments when it comes to classic Star Wars tropes. Although Ren might idolise Vader, it appears that he adopts slightly more HR-friendly approach to disappointing performance from his subordinates. Two of The Force Awakens‘ best gags play off the expectations of Darth Vader’s impromptu (and often fatal) performance assessments. Indeed, a lot of Ren’s characterisation plays more skilfully off the idea of “Sith Lord as spoilt child having a temper tantrum” than the prequel trilogy did.

In terms of playing off the franchise’s history and iconography, The Force Awakens does an excellent job of building the relationship between General Hux and Kylo Ren off the dynamic between Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader from Star Wars. Given how the role of Vader evolved in the two movies that followed, the tense relationship between Tarkin and Vader from Star Wars feels like something of an anomaly. Vader was characterised more as a vicious henchman than a primary antagonist in the original Star Wars, his authority on par with that of Tarkin.

Finn-ito?

Finn-ito?

The Force Awakens suggests a similar dynamic between Ren and Hux, albeit one informed by the possibilities suggested in later Star Wars films. One of the more interesting aspects of the original Star Wars film viewed through the prism of history is that it is the only movie in the franchise that feels (mostly) self-contained. As such, Tarkin can seem like a missed opportunity, particularly given his relationship to Vader and the fact he was played by Peter Cushing. Domhnall Gleason gets into the spirit of the role by channeling his best sinister British accent.

The Force Awakens is a triumph in pretty much every way. Occasionally, the nostalgia becomes a little top heavy, but Abrams keeps the movie ticking along fast enough that it never collapses in on itself. The Force Awakens remembers that Star Wars was at its best when it was fun and playful, realising that logic and internal consistency are not a substitute for a likeable cast and sense of adventure.

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43 Responses

  1. “There is, admittedly, something cynical about all this. The three prequel films serve as something of the elephant in the room, mostly awkwardly ignored by The Force Awakens. In some ways, the decision to maintain aesthetic consistency between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens feels like a rejection of the aesthetic gap between the zeerust retro futurism of the prequels and the grittier design of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens is keen to integrate with the original trilogy more aggressively than the prequels did.

    Though understandable, this glosses over the fact that the problems with the prequels had nothing to do with the different aesthetic and more to do with the basic mode of storytelling. Quite simply, the prequels were nowhere near as skilfully constructed as the original trilogy had been. While the vocal internet backlash to the prequels tends to drown out reasoned discussion, the prequels were quite interesting in their own way; albeit largely lifeless and without a lot of the charm that made the original trilogy such fun.”

    This was one of the things I found disappointing in the trailers (haven’t seen the movie yet). The prequels did a lot of things wrong, but expanding the universe was one of the things I *liked* about it. The stories are set a generation or more before the originals, so of course, all the tech looks different – and the evolution from the artsy looking Naboo ships in the first movie to the more ugly, utilitarian (and more original trilogy-ish) ships of the third one was one of the better touches in these movies, showing a galaxy sliding from peace to war. All the more effective because the movies don’t really call attention to it. You get to see more of the universe too – sure, going from “desert planet,” “ice planet” and “forest planet” in the originals to “city planet,” “water planet” and “lava planet” in the prequels didn’t strain anyone’s creativity, but it was still nice that they were going to the trouble of giving us new settings. That and the more general move of the story from the fringes of the galaxy to the center of civilization.

    The TFA trailer seemed like it was aggressively running in the other direction. Everyone loved the originals, and in the originals, people flew X-wings, TIE fighters and the Millennium Falcon. So by God, thirty years later they’ll still be flying X-wings, TIE fighters and the Millennium Falcon. The original was about a nobody living on a desert planet? Then by God, the new one will be about a nobody living on a desert planet. The stormtrooper uniforms have evolved juuuuust enough that we can technically say it’s not the same thing… the Rebel pilots’ uniforms don’t seem to have even done that.

    For all the crap that people gave the lightsaber (and in fairness, that hand-guard *would* be useless) and the FIFA-droid (and in fairness, it *does* look ridiculous), I still give them credit for at least trying to do something new. Visually speaking, very little else in the trailer seemed to.

    • Yep. I mean, I suspect we’ll talk about it a bit more when the film’s out, but there are several sequences where it feels like the production team were like “well, the originals had a [theme/tone/mood] scene in [type of location] with a [character/object/dialogue], so when we’re doing our [theme/tone/mood] scene we should do it in [type of location] with a [character/object/dialogue].”

      Again, it’s probably something we’ll talk about when the movie’s been out a while, but so much of the film feels like a passive-aggressive reaction against the prequels. They weren’t great films by any measure, but – as you said – I kinda liked that they weren’t simple nostalgic repetitions of the original trilogy. I liked the aesthetic transition from turn of the century “nature” settings (recalling Borroughs/Tolkein etc.) of the original trilogy to the more “civilised” environments of the prequel trilogy (which were more thirties/fifties space serials like Flash Gordon, etc.). The Force Awakens feels like it doesn’t offer too much new. But, then, that’s the point.

      That said, I do give The Force Awakens a bit of leeway on this point. I can understand why you would do it this way at this point, but I’ll be a lot less forgiving if the next two are as slavish. To put it another way, I’m glad Abrams was picked to direct this film; I’m also glad that somebody else is directing the next two. (In fact, I’m particularly excited about the next one.)

      • I did not realize Abrams wouldn’t be directing after this, and I actually feel much better about the reboot now that I know.

        Abrams’ niche seems to be enjoyable but forgettable revivals of franchises (Mission Impossible, Star Trek) or genres (Cloverfield, Super 8) that are either in dire straits or have fallen by the wayside. Usually these movies aren’t really bad, but they aren’t really good, or at least they don’t do much for me. His Star Treks were nowhere near as bad as the TNG movies towards the end, but they’re in no danger of upstaging “Wrath of Khan” or even “Voyage Home” or “Undiscovered Country” either. Following that thought, I’m not expecting a “Phantom Menace,” but neither am I expecting an “Empire Strikes Back.”

      • I’m quite fond of Abrams in a “delivers what he promises” sort of way. I am, for example, a lot fonder of Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness than most fans, if only because I recognise that there’s pleasure to be had in an affectionate greatest hits album given the state of the Star Trek franchise at the turn of the millennium. And Mission: Impossible III may be my favourite Mission: Impossible film, if only for the cast.

        The Force Awakens is very much about reassuring fans that the prequels won’t happen again. And it does that exceptionally well. In fact, it some times borders on being mean-spirited in the way it dismisses the prequels, but I recognise I’m also quite alone on the internet in not hating the prequels with the passion of a thousand burning suns. (The Force Awakens quite literally hates the prequels with the passion of at least one burning sun.)

  2. So… is it good?

    • It’s very good. Perhaps a little too nostalgic in places, but well-made and (crucially) it understands why the original film worked so well. (Which sounds simple, but is something that both the prequels and many franchise sequels struggle with.)

  3. Most reviews I have had to skim to avoid spoilers. Thanks for keeping this one spoiler free but still providing quite a bit of insight.

    • Thanks, Jason. I quite consciously avoided spoilers. Very few of the quotes are unattributed, for example. And most of the information explicitly confirmed can be gleaned from posters or trailers. I am considering doing a spoiler-heavy version of the review next week. But I might just wait until next year and edit this one after the buzz has boiled down.

      • A heavier discussion of plot points, etc. would be welcome but I imagine you’d like to keep your comments relatively spoiler free as well at this point. Two more general points I took away from seeing the film last night were (1) Much of the settings, dialogue and plot was very clearly evocative of previous films, mainly New Hope and Empire, to the point I was a little concerned in the first 20 minutes that I had “seen this before.” But they changed it up well enough after that. (2) While not a popular opinion, Empire did turn Luke’s story into an epic prophecy, which somewhat undercut the narrative from A New Hope (poor nobody farm boy can make a difference and destroy the death star). At least as far as TFA is concerned, Rey’s story is a nice attempt to correct that. I actually liked that there were few details on her backstory. (I say that with very little knowledge of the books, comics, etc.).

      • The thing about Rey – and we’re veering into spoiler territory here – is that the movie is very consciously setting up big epic questions about her history in a way that even A New Hope doesn’t with Luke. (I’m skeptical as to exactly how much of Luke’s back story Lucas had set up before filming A New Hope, fortuitous translation of “Darth Vader” notwithstanding.) There’s the joke were she tells BB-8 that her history is classified, but it’s clear that she is waiting for somebody important to return for her. Mas even draws our attention to the fact that we know so little about Rey by asking who she is. I’d love it if Rey really was nobody important – not a chosen one, not a long lost relative of an important character, just a scavenger who happened to be in the right place at the right time – but I suspect there’ll be revelations coming about that in the next film. (Then again, I think that Finn and Poe are distinctive enough as “unconventional leading characters” in that Poe is a guy just doing his job because he’s got an aptitude for it (rather than because he’s destined to do it) and Finn is literally anonymous grunt who decides to stake out on his own.)

      • I agree completely about Rey.TFA does hint at those backstory questions but I think Abrams tends to do that more to set up mystery rather than world building (see Lost).
        I’m glad you brought up Maz because her line, which is in the trailer, “the belonging you seek is not behind you but ahead” was one of the best of the film and would be robbed of its meaning.
        You’re right about Poe and Finn but (again without going into spoilers) there is probably already enough family drama to carry episodes 8 and 9. But like you I suspect more is indeed coming.

      • Yep. I really enjoyed The Force Awakens, but I find myself even more eagerly awaiting the next film. Rian Johnson! Yay!

      • The movie is very obviously setting up cliched “twists” that are pretty easy to predict. Which likely will be the reverse as the real “twists”! In other words, nothing at all interesting

  4. So… it’s good then?

  5. Yes, thanks for keeping this spoiler free. I’m going Friday night, and you’ve given me a good framework for modulating and tempering my expectations. And … “Jurassic World” was ludicrous in many key scripting ways, so I’m hoping that this is a much better continuation of an epic saga…

    • It’s a lot better than Jurassic World.

      I would go so far as to say that The Force Awakens is the film that Jurassic World wants to be.

      • I’m way too disconnected from popular opinion. One generic seqie; wants to be a generic sequel with a different name? Not trying to be mean but theyre equal to me…

  6. Very in-depth review.

    By the way that wasn’t Coruscant – the (admittedly brief) dialogue suggests what we saw was the ‘Hosnian system’. Otherwise I’d be a MUCH angrier fan now.

    I think I enjoyed the Prequels rather more than you did but I admit it was not until I watched this film that I realised that. The Prequels had their flaws but I *missed* that world building, that sense of a populated galaxy and that aesthetic. At least ‘A New Hope’ gave us Mos Eisley and ‘Empire’ gave us Cloud City. Comparatively speaking ‘The Force Awakens’ seems like a barren wasteland composed only of hidden bases and the barest rudiments of a shanty town. I couldn’t help but notice the absence of any familiar aliens either. Twi’leks for instance, who have appeared in every film since ‘Return of the Jedi’ and exstensively in the ‘Rebels’ and ‘Clone Wars’ shows don’t get so much as a background nod. Maybe including them would have simply been fanservice but they (and other classic multi-film aliens like the Rodians) created a sense of continuity that again this was a populated galaxy.

    To lay my cards on the table I’m a fan of the recently decanonised Star Wars Expanded Universe, but I don’t think I went in with a bias against the the new film. If anything I was shocked at how many elements seem mined from ideas I’d encountered in the multitude of ‘Star Wars’ novels published during the 1990s and 2000s, sometimes with only the tiniest details altered. The disadvantage of course is that almost everything you praise as new in the film feels nothing of the sort to me; I’ve read scores of Star Wars stories with female protagonists and a few with non-white leads. I wasn’t thinking of Snowden when I saw an ex-stormtrooper turn against the Empire, I was thinking of the twenty year old short story where exactly the same thing happened: http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/When_the_Desert_Wind_Turns:_The_Stormtrooper's_Tale

    Despite this mostly negative piece I did actually enjoy the film, but to me far from feeling new it feels more like a Star Wars story frozen in carbonite in the late 1990s and only now released.

    • Very fair point. I’ve seen the film twice and hadn’t picked up on the Hosnian System line. I know the name of the planet wasn’t given, but the design struck me as identical to Coruscant. I’ll correct.

      I’ll admit my knowledge of the expanded universe is quite shallow, so those elements were all new to me. And I think it’s great to have such a big film based around them. There’s a wonderful Vulture piece that I’ll probably add to the review over the weekend where Oscar Isaac explains that that basically The Force Awakens centres on Rey and a bunch of characters who would be extras in the original trilogy.

      I’m glad I’m not alone in my… appreciation is a strong word, but perhaps fascination with the prequels. I think the problem with the prequels is not that they had terrible ideas, but that some interesting ideas were executed terribly. There is a sense of throwing the baby out with the bathwater at points in The Force Awakens.

      • I think the Corsucanti similarity was a deliberate fakeout (if you listen to his speech General Huq does not name the planet involved which is classic audience misleading). Though the film is pretty vague and confusing there!

        I think the best thing about the prequels (other than Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine) is the way they deliberately felt like a period piece. There is something about the aesthetic and formality that seemed very 19th century Victorian or Edwardian, a pre- First World War feel if you will that contrasted with the 20th century technocratic Empire and the grimy Rebels in their used starfighters. Compare an X-Wing with with one of the Nabooese starfghters we saw in ‘The Phantom Menace’. One is clearly a machine built with utility in mind, the other very stylised and refined. Bail Organa looks like he has stepped of the set of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’.

        (I suddenly want to watch the Star Wars equivalent of ‘Downton Abbey’.)

      • Glad somebody else loves Palpatine. McDiarmid is just so scenery-hungry it’s amazing. I’d actually be more interested in a prequel trilogy that followed him more closely than Anakin.

        I do feel a little bit like The Force Awakens is missing that sort of aesthetic gap. For better or worse, the prequels were different films than the original trilogy, while it feels like the entire point of The Force Awakens is to reassure fans that these are indeed the exact same as those classic films. But, we’re probably the only people who felt like The Force Awakens could have been a little less hostile to the prequels.

    • I’m very much with you in missing the world building. The Prequels did really feel new and fresh, at least from a production design standpoint. Lots of new aliens, vehicles, planets, etc.

      Speaking of poor world building, you’re right, the planet that was destroyed was in the Hosnian system. But did you catch the name of it? It was Hosnian Prime. Why is that important? That’s the seat of the Republic government and the Senate. It didn’t fully click until I looked it up on Wookieepedia, but it’s true – the Starkiller base destroyed the Republic government! And the movie didn’t even mention it! I feel like that’s something a movie can’t just reference casually. That’s got to have a big impact on the story.

      • To be fair, Hux does do his screaming Hitler thing about “the Last Days of the Republic”, so there’s enough information there to intuit that it is a capital planet of some description. (That’s why I thought it was Coruscant.)

        But, yeah, The Force Awakens seems so scared of being associated with the prequels that it completely avoids any real context for what is happening. Casual fans watching it would have difficulty distinguishing between the First Order and the Empire and between the Rebellion and the Resistance. (Indeed, the Republic is a bit of a red herring in all this.) Then again, that’s probably exactly the point. The idea is to create a Star Wars film that is instantly recognisable as classic Star Wars rather than the prequels. (So I don’t expect the destruction of the Republic to have any impact on he story, because political Star Wars storythreads are tarred by association with prequels.)

      • I thought it was Coruscant originally too! I share your frustration with the current Disney/Lucasfilm attitude towards the Prequels. Even if the stories were mediocre, the world building was generally quite good and the production design felt really fresh.

      • Glad to hear it wasn’t just me. It did look very Coruscantian, didn’t it?

  7. Excellent analysis. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts on the movie.

    With approximately three decades of time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, there is definitely a lot that was left unexplained in the later as to how the current state of affairs came to be. It appears that Disney is going to be saving the world-building for the tie-in media, such as novels and comic books. For example, the four issue Marvel miniseries Shattered Empire examines the events that take place in the weeks and months after Return of the Jedi…

    https://benjaminherman.wordpress.com/2015/12/10/star-wars-reviews-shattered-empire/

    And here is a link to my own review of The Force Awakens…

    https://benjaminherman.wordpress.com/2015/12/19/star-wars-reviews-the-force-awakens/

    It is not anywhere as in-depth as your excellent piece. I really enjoy and appreciate how in your articles you always delve into the various subtexts and the real-world connections present within works of fiction.

  8. Saw the movie last night, and even with the so familliar plot, this film was great, edge-of-my-seat experience and I loved it. Welcome back, Star Wars.

    The only thing that was meh was CGI Supreme Leader Snoke – I mean why not just use Andy Serkis, instead of mo-cap him?

    Still, any SW fan go see it, you wont be dissapointed.

    • Yep. I think The Force Awakens is very clearly an attempt to signal that the classic Star Wars aesthetic is back in big way. I’m hoping for something a bit fresher with Episode VIII, which I’m actually even more excited about.

  9. I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand it’s great. Just great. On the other, I feel this film copies everything it can from the original trilogy, and left feeling like I’d seen everything before.

    I also am the only person living who loves the prequels (I consider them just as great as the originals). So this films rejection of their existence disheartens me.

    • Yep. I don’t love the prequels. (I also don’t hate them.) However, I do think there’s something a little too knee-jerkish about the way that The Force Awakens just completely dismisses them.

      Then again, I don’t mind the “by the numbers” approach to plotting The Force Awakens. I think it’s largely about establishing the tone for the new trilogy, which seems to be “same as the original.” That said, I am hoping for something a bit fresher from Episode VIII.

      • Well to be fair, they did want to bring Hayden Christensen back as a force ghost, in a vision where he transforms into Vader, but it was cut for reasons I don’t know. They also got Ewan McGregor to give a line in the film, but it’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment.

  10. Can I admit I think the film is just ok? Bad, not even close, but great? Eh, some of it is, but a lot of it is just “ok”. I don’t think it’s better than say A New Hope, which I’ve seen some people say, in the end, it’s just, well ok. But then again Return of the Jedi is my favorite Star Wars film so take what I say with a grain of salt.

    • Everybody’s allowed their crazy opinions. I think Demolition man is an unheralded classic, for example.

      And I think The Force Awakens is a film that encourages a diverse range of opinions. I’m on the positive side of the spectrum, but I think I acknowledge its bigger issues.

      • Well, Demolition Man is also one of my all time favorite films, I think actually people are more positive to it nowadays.

  11. Why does everyone like this film? It honestly sucks. It’s characters are bland and shitty (and yeah, even the originals had very bland, uninteresting characters, but not to this extent), with some exception to Finn, but the rest are completely cartoony, two-dimensional stereotypes who can’t act at all. I honestly cannot stand any of the other characters. The story is a lame rehash of episode IV, the writing is crap, it’s full of cliches and fan service in place of trying to be novel and interesting, all it has going for it are admittedly impressive special effects, in no small part due to its practical effects. Yeah, it’s not the prequels, so what?

    But to be honest, I don’t even like the originals as much as everyone else. The characters are as bland as bland can be, I hate Luke, Leia, Han, Vader, etc. The story is just good vs evil bullshit straight from the Bible, and the movies are the most mindrot simple crap you can imagine. I don’t get why people love them so much.

    • Oh yeah I really hated the villains especially. Kylo Ren was cool at first, but he ended up looking like a dorky loser who wears a mask for no reason, he has Emperor Palpatine..er Snoke? Who looks completely idiotic as well, and a female Boba Fett.

      I don’t get the appeal…

      • I think Ren is a very clever character, if only because he landed right at the time that “whiny entitled superfan” was becoming a fixture of the cultural landscape. Ren is the kind of guy who insists that Danny Rand must be white, because he was in the comics or the remaking films with female or minority protagonists (like Star Wars, to pick a relevant example) is inherently wrong.

      • Kylo Ren is a rip off of Darth Vader, I don’t consider that very clever?

        > Ren is the kind of guy who insists that Danny Rand must be white, because he was in the comics or the remaking films with female or minority protagonists (like Star Wars, to pick a relevant example) is inherently wrong.

        What? I know I’ve let comments on Star Trek on your blog, but I honestly need a nerd to English translator here. What the hell are you talking about?

      • Kylo Ren is a textual purist. He’s a guy who worships at the alter of Darth Vader and who has spent his life basically playing out the grand narrative. Certainly more than Finn, who rejects the narrative on him as a stormtrooper, Ren is very much concerned with things being the way that they should be. He fetishes the text of the old Star Wars films, effectively keeping an old Darth Vader mask as a holy relic and signing up with a bunch of bad guys cosplaying as the Empire.

        And yet, underneath it all, he’s really just a spoiled child who rages when things don’t go his way. It’s telling that his first big temper tantrum has him unleashing that pent up agression on a computer.

        Ren is very much an exploration of a certain type of fanboy, the kind of fanboy who worships and venerates the original text, but bristles at anything that he deems outside the proverbial canon. The female protagonist, the stormtrooper who won’t do as he’s told. There’s a white hot rage there when the narrative fails to conform to his expectations.

        So Ren is the internet fan who gets disproportionately upset (and who rages at the computer) when it’s announced that there’s a new Ghostbusters being released with female lead characters. Ren is also the fan who dismisses concerns of members of the Asian American community by insisting that Danny Rand has to be white because he was white in the comics. Ren is a pathetic villain, but it’s very consciously by design and very clever.

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