I saw The Force Awakens in theaters twice—and even though the second time was by using a Christmas giftcard, it should still tell you that I found the movie worthwhile enough to spend my money. That said, I have some mixed feelings. I’ll start with the bad(ish).
I think TFA is a bit disjointed at times, perhaps a little too sentimental over the original trilogy (or, at least, too on-the-nose… though it was always going to be super difficult to walk that tightrope between pandering to the audience’s wishes and promoting an intriguing nostalgia), and sometimes too funny. The original trilogy had some funny moments, but I feel like TFA has too many winks to the camera. Mostly this is through Finn. I didn’t care for the “I am with the Resistance” bit when he first meets Rey, because that scene, to me, didn’t need comic relief. I hadn’t really felt true tension yet before it was sliced through with a sort of slapstick bumbling through a line the audience knows is false. Plus, it makes Rey seem clueless in a way that we know she isn’t. This girl was (for lack of a better word) abandoned by her family on an alien planet run (I assume) by a thuggish brute who doles out meals based on how many scraps you can bring to him. I don’t think she’s clueless when it comes to people and their intentions. However, I will concede that one of the best moments in the film—one of the moments that puts Han Solo back into his frustrated/incredulous seasoned-gunslinger role—is when Finn tells him “Solo, we’ll use The Force” and Han responds “That’s not how The Force works!” But I also think that maybe this emphasis on humor has consequences that the filmmakers maybe didn’t intend. I’m thinking of the scene in which Kylo Ren discovers that Rey has escaped from her shackles. We see two Strom Troopers walking down the hallway, and they see sparks flying from a room in which Ren is screaming furiously, and they look at each other, turn around, and walk away. Now, everyone in the theater—including me—laughed at this moment, because, well, it’s funny. But I’m not sure we were supposed to think it was funny. In another film, a dark one with an equally powerful and dangerous villain, the scene would be used to show just how dangerous and violent the villain can get—even his own henchmen are terrified of him. Picture the Immortan Joe from Mad Max. If that dude is freaking out in a room and we see some War Boys turn around and scuttle away, our first reaction would be to sort of cover our mouths and think “man, that guy is someone we shouldn’t mess with.” But the film’s emphasis on humor makes us interpret the scene in a more comic way. And that’s a bit of a disservice to Kylo Ren, who I think is a really complex and interesting villain all the more dangerous for his lack of control.
The nods to the original trilogy are frequent and, most of the time, useful in getting the fanbase excited for a franchise that famously fell apart with the prequels. That opening Rey scene is absolutely fantastic—the slow reveal of old Imperial ships rotting away in this wasteland of a planet, being pillaged for parts. I read a tweet that said the scene was the perfect metaphor for what JJ Abrams and his buddies were doing with the franchise, but that’s way too harsh, in my opinion. I see TFA as breathing life into a series that lost many of its fans. But anyway, my point here is that the nostalgic nods often work. The reveal of the Millennium Falcon is another that really hits home. Perhaps my (slight) discomfort at the references, my vague feeling of being pandered to at the expense of what could have been a more cogent script, is due to the character reveals. When we see Han, Chewie, Leia, and Luke, each moment is sort of drawn out with the character either walking through a ship door as the music swells and pausing for a moment (like “look at me, here I am, remember me?”) or turning around and slowly pulling the hood down over his face, which amounts to the same thing. Plus the way Leia and Han don’t say their own son’s name until Han can reveal it by shouting “Ben!” at a retreating Kylo Ren. None of these moments is too much on its own, but collectively they feel a little too… ‘pandering’ is the only word I can really settle on. Spoon-fed, maybe. At the same time, we as viewers and fans can’t really complain after the huge stink we all gave George Lucas over the prequels not being what we wanted. Maybe, given that history, that’s why I feel weird about the nostalgia. It feels like “THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED, RIGHT!?” Except not in all-caps, because it’s only a slight complaint, for me.
I’m going to retract what I said earlier about the plot feeling disjointed. I do think that the movie tends to move along at a pace that seems too convenient for the characters (not sure how else to put that). But I think that the original trilogy is also sometimes disjointed from scene to scene—and this is one of the reasons why we love that trilogy and hate the prequels. The prequels tried to delve into the specifics—how the Galactic government works, what causes The Force and Force-sensitivity, etc. The original trilogy just told us “such-and-such is how it is,” and left the rest to our imaginations. That’s a subtle trick to make you feel like you’re actually in this huge universe of stuff going on around you, and you’re not going to understand everything about it. It adds complexity. And so I think it might be fine that we’ve never heard of Maz Kanata even though she has a history with Han and has been alive for over a thousand years. There’s more going on here than we see. Ever.
So now the good. I’ll only spend a paragraph here, but that shouldn’t make you think the movie has more negatives than positives. I saw the film twice for a reason—it is enjoyable and hints at really interesting stuff to come in the next two movies. First things first: the characters are the pieces that make this film good. I love the relationship between Finn and Rey (she says they’ll meet again, “friend,” at the end of the movie—and so from her end it seems like a mutual friendship forged in the fires of hardship instead of a love-story). What makes that relationship work is that both characters go through their own arcs and make us like them—individually. The old-guard characters are brilliant as well, and I think I’m going to love Mark Hamill more as old-Luke than as that scruffy-looking nerfherder from the original trilogy. Kylo Ren was a brave choice for the filmmakers to make, as they stuck with a similarly whiny/emotionally frustrated/complex villain as in the prequels (obviously this makes sense thematically, as Ren seems to be bent on the same path as Anakin, and he seems to be trying to match his grandfather’s steps out of some misguided desire to live up to his lineage). But it is pulled off very well. I liked the character of Kylo Ren. As a human being with flaws that sometimes supersede my better judgment, Kylo Ren’s exaggeration of that trait makes him a relatable villain. So anyway, the characters are good. Equally as important, the movie is cool. I never doubted that JJ Abrams would make a visually awesome film, but nonetheless the sets are great. We see rathtars, for goodness’ sake. We see slick lightsaber battles, and a Deathstar the size of a freaking planet. We see an imposing and terrifying Supreme Leader Snoke. It’s just cool, man. And that point leads into my last: this movie emphasizes what made the original trilogy really cool and the prequels fall flat. In the prequels, Lucas tried to put a heavy emphasis on the politics and goings-on in the government (which makes sense, because for the most part these movies are about the start of the Empire, so the action is only just beginning, and I think the politics-aspect could have been really cool and Lucas perhaps gets too much shit from fans, but that’s a story for another time). TFA realizes that these are Star Wars. It’s primarily about the action—the fighting. It’s about the explosions and the attacks and the good guys figuring out how to destroy the bad guys’ massive weaponry. In that sense, and in the entirely non-negative sense that TFA is super close to just being a rehash of A New Hope (that’s really not a complaint from me), The Force Awakens represents, for me, a return to the form of the original trilogy. It represents a creative team that grew up watching Star Wars and who know what makes a Star Wars film good for the fans.
So now that I’ve spoiled everything, go watch the movie and let’s talk about the possible ancestry of Rey, what that stare between her and Luke might mean, and what’s the deal with Snoke. (Or should I say “Darth Jar Jar?” No. No, I shouldn’t.)