Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an okay movie when viewed through the eyes of an adult, but is a fun, entertaining movie if you go in with a twelve year old's mindset. It pushes the right buttons and has a good amount of fan service. But it ultimately fails as a standalone movie—with its boring/predictable plot, rehashed characters and concepts, and other flaws—that will ultimately be remembered as good or bad depending on how episodes VIII and IX turn out.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out recently. It is supposedly a big deal. You should go see it if only to experience the one of the ultimate zeitgeist moments in recent memory. However, to be blunt, this movie wasn't great. It was not bad mind you, but the movie and Lazy Script Writing (LSW) seemed to be continually in an off-and-on affair that neither was the better for. The movie is sprinkled with too many fridge logic moments to count. Rather than retread the story (read it on Wookepedia), I'm going to directly highlight the good, bad, and ugly of this film and end with final thoughts.
Note: I wasn't insanely hyped for the film and didn't have any real vested interest in it being good or bad going in, so I viewed it from the lens more of going to see another Marvel action movie than the Second Coming.
I plan on seeing it again Saw it twice to make sure that the views expressed here hold up on subsequent viewings. If they don't, I'll add an Update section at the end or within the text with new views. Major plot spoilers ahead!
the big picture
For all their flaws, the prequel trilogy at least felt big. Like there was a lot going on, that the worlds were well realized, and that behind all the movie scenes there was a living, breathing universe going on regardless of what our heroes did. There was also still a sense of wonder, a rough-ness (ignoring the CGI, which people complain too much about), and underlying epic quality to the movies, e.g. just watch the Darth Maul vs. Obi Wan/Qui Gon fight (and enjoy the A+++ music):
The Force Awakens doesn't seem to capture that same vibe and feels too slick and well produced for its own good. At times it almost feels like J.J. Abrams super snazzy reboot of Star Trek (2009). Abrams's seemingly obsessive view that CGI made the prequels 'bad' is flawed, in that it focuses on the wrong problem with those films, and it appears that he thinks that the spirit of Star Wars was the lived in feel of the originals. That wasn't the core of what made them great or even what they were about. The grandiose adventure, new and wondrous places, and well-realized characters were. I remember the prequels fondly because it felt like the Star Wars universe was big and that events we were witnessing were important. Here it felt like neither, despite the apparent scale of the set piece items (cue
Death Star III Starkiller base). It felt small. It felt personal. It felt like the events we were seeing are supposed to be galactic in scale, but appear to only involve a few planets and could potentially be a skirmish taking place across a few planetary systems. Thus, lacking the grandiose politics and war of the first two trilogies, it attempts to focus on the further family troubles of the galaxies most messed up family while failing at doing even that.
In a sense the Star Wars sage, at its core, is the story of the Skywalker family. The original and prequel trilogies were about the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, i.e. Darth Vadar (see Lucas interview). While Lucas had suggested that following trilogies could be about Luke Skywalker (source), it remains to be seen if this trilogy will follow that theme given his absence in the first film (though there are hints that we'll discover what put Luke into exile in the episodes VIII and IX). And yet this film seems to rush the family issues in the Skywalker/Solo family, e.g. the fall of Ben Solo and his transformation into Kylo Ren, and then wants us to be invested in the final act when all those troubles lead to death (saving the spoiler for later) or a finding of the plots MacGuffin (Luke). It lacks the necessary build-up and it almost seems like making this a tetralogy would have allowed this film a greater build-up that could have paid off in subsequent films.
Many of the thoughts expressed above and below about outing might be attributed to my age. I saw the original and prequel trilogy around the same time when I was much younger. I remember playing the prequel-based video games—some good and some not so great but highly entertaining—and building a lore in my head around those movies and their worlds much apart from what actually happened during the films. In addition, there were the copious amounts of Extended Universe books, many of which were okay from a storytelling perspective but much more interesting from a universe-building point of view. This film won't benefit from that child-like wonder and imagination in terms of how I view it. But I don't think that many of its faults are entirely due to age. There have been several recent sci-fi/space films—Cloud Atlas, Snowpiercer, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.—that stoked the imagination and left me satisfied after leaving the cinema. But without further ado, a list of the good/bad/ugly that made this film passable, but far from great.
Update on second viewing Well, second viewing makes a big difference. Decided to watch it with the mind of a twelve year old and that improved the experience a ton. In addition, I was able to notice several little things that while not alleviating many of this film's larger faults, seemed to improve them to a degree. I'll add those notes below. Just to reiterate: this film is definitely for kids, and that becomes painfully evident on the second viewing.
Notice that even the Episode VII Poster has a large focus on the past (Han/Chewbacca/Leia are almost front and center). There are also characters emphasized (chrome stormtropper) who end up playing a minor role or serving as filler, a recurring problem in the film.
- The special effects are on the whole great. Most of the aliens felt like real, living beings. The sets were on the whole photorealistic and the CGI blended well with the natural scenery; and the shots in space were done quite well.
- The sound, oh the sound. The X-Wings and TIE fighters sound fantastic. The blaster fire is spot on and BB-8's chirping is ever endearing. A+.
- Kylo is a well realized villain...pre-removal of the mask. His temper tantrums are great at highlighting his relative youth and inexperience while also lending a bit of (unintentional?) humor to those portions of the film. He displays several force powers that are awesome and should have been utilized more, such as his ability to hold blaster fire in mid-air while still carrying on a conversation with another person and his complete, unbreakable force hold of Rey near the middle of the film.
- The bits of humor sprinkled throughout, such as when Poe and Kylo first meet ("Are you talking first? Or am I? Who's supposed to talk first? It's just very hard to understand you with all the...apparatus").
- BB-8 is awesome. He appears distinct enough from R2D2 and has a hint of a 'mean' streak that I hope to see more of (e.g. when he's shocking Finn). It is also nice that it appears that technology has 'progressed' (the prequel's technology seems better than the original trilogy's, even though the prequel's came first chronologically) in that BB-8's design is a clear enhancement of R2D2's and I don't think we've even seen his entire repertoire of skills yet. How Rey and others understand his bleep-blop is a question for another day.
- Harrison Ford plays the older Han Solo well. The character is not built out much further, but he seems to have matured and become wiser since the original.
- They give out Kylo's relationship to Leia and Han early on, which is a good move that removes unnecessary guessing and helps build tension in the third act.
- Taking Luke Skywalker out of most of the film was, with the benefit of hindsight, a great idea. He would have dominated each scene he was in, distracted from the newly introduced main characters otherwise, or not lived up to expectations (e.g. in battle).
He stops a laser here. In one of the first scenes of the film. Where did this awesome force power, that he so casually uses, go during the third act?
- The slow weakening of Kylo Ren. They should not have taken off the mask, as it immediately removes the mystery of the character. While it humanizes him to a degree, allowing the audience to perhaps relate to his plight, it also makes him seem like just another villain. It becomes clear that he is just wearing the mask to emulate Vadar rather than for a specific reason. Though, there are hints that the mask is way heavier than should be humanely possible to carry, an interesting observation that isn't fleshed out or explained.
- Continuing on Kylo, where did his amazing force powers, displayed during the 1st part of the movie, go? During fights with Rey and Finn they are not on display and when he gets hit with blaster fire from Chewbacca, it seems contrived (to give Finn/Rey a chance in the later fight) rather than accurate, given he was able to anticipate and stop Poe's surprise blaster fire earlier in the film under more chaotic conditions. Granted, he just murdered his father, but still...
- Finn's ability to hold off Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel is farcical. He's used it once before (to take on storm troopers). Unless we get a reveal in episodes VIII and IX that he received training in using a sword or sword-like weapon, his instant progression from novice to advanced beginner is ridiculous.
- Rey and Finn as characters felt a little flat and overacted.
- Update On second viewing Rey's character seems to fit the personality she might have if raised in a barren, desert planet. Finn comes across as much more humorous and Han Solo-like. Guess he was also likely brain-washed...
- Poe's character is awesome but severely underused. He seems to go missing the entire 2nd act and then re-appears with a story telling the characters (but more accurately us, the audience) how he escaped sure death in the 1st act to help save the day in the third act.
- Leia seems like a filler role. Why is she a general? Where does her military expertise come from?
- The soundtrack, on first viewing, is weak and I couldn't remember a single score. There was no Duel of the Fates or The Imperial March.
- An imperial trooper fighting Finn mano-a-mano with a stun device that can block a lightsaber instead of using a blaster to subdue Finn. This is after declaring him 'traitor', which I assume means that his face was broadcast to all stormtroopers in case they come across him?
- Update Guess on second viewing this could be seen as an attempt for the trooper to stun and capture Finn for later questioning. Though, surprised if the troopers don't have stun guns or know how to incapacitate an enemy with their blasters.
- Rey and Finn are able to super easily steal the Millennium Falcon while on Jakku. How? Why would it still be there if a couple of youngsters can just get inside and pilot it away? Weird discrepancies like this litter the film, but I guess if you are twelve, they won't be noticed...
The start of the battle between Kylo and Finn/Rey. Even slightly hobbled, this fight should have been like 'cooking eggs in the morning' easy for Kylo. Instead he is inexplicably defeated (sort of).
- Watching several planets simultaneously get destroyed within view of one another is bad physics, at least just have it be a video feed back to the rebel base. Either all those planets are within Earth-Moon distance, they are Jupiter-sized but still close, or they are able to see light-year/minute away explosions up close. Regardless of the explanation, it's Lazy Script Writing.
- Update With twelve year old goggles on, this is acceptable for sake of dramatic effect and it looks cool.
- Rey's ability to harness her force powers so rapidly not only stretches the imagination, it breaks the lore of Star Wars itself (considering most Jedi, even the fabled Anakin Skywalker, had to train to utilize their powers). How on Earth does she make the logical leap from resisting Kylo's mind attack to influencing a stormtrooper to let her free? Again, like many things in this movie, the development of key events and characters seems rushed and doesn't quite make sense. Unless Luke Skywalker is manipulating key elements of the plot from his hiding place. Which, if he had such power, would ultimately cause larger problems for the films down the line in terms of explaining why he didn't end the First Order earlier and help with other events.
- Update Rey seems momentarily confused after reading Kylo's mind, which further makes me think that she wasn't entirely in control during that part of the scene. Guess this might be answered in later episodes...
- The final fight between Rey and Kylo. The end, where the ground splits just between them to end the fight, is something out of a bad C-movie. Rey's ability to hold off Kylo's attacks, after using a lightsaber for the first time in her life, is similar to Finn's fight with Kylo—completely ridiculous. At least in her case it appears she learned how to use a weapon during her time on Jakku, but it would have been much better to have her fight be one of continuous retreat (as it is initially). It might be claimed that Luke is channeling the Force and fighting through her, but that only adds another dues ex machina to a film that has too many.
- Update As stated above, I'm am a little convinced that Rey is being controlled/helped by Luke remotely or was once a trainee whose mind was wiped and hence her rapid acquiring of force abilities and handling of a lightsaber. Thus why she can go toe-to-toe with Kylo.
- Update Seems Kylo is trying to convert Rey to his side, so he might have been holding back, which would explain why the fight felt way more even that it should have. It then seems that he lets his guard down and is distracted, leading to her being able to get a couple hits on him. Doesn't entirely equalize everything, but makes more sense in this context.
- The execution of Han Solo's death scene is overwrought. From the moment that Han enters the base and starts to set charges, there in an obvious foreshadowing that something bad is about to occur involving him. So much so that when Kylo finally plunges his lightsaber into Han, there is no surprise, no panic. Just the expected result. And the fact that they couldn't spend extra money to make Han's fall into the pit look more realistic (e.g. having a stunt double do the tumble) is pathetic, it looks like the weird ragdoll physics seen in 300's This is Sparta! scene.
- Starkiller base. Three Star Wars movies, three moon/planet sized super weapons. Also, how does the base make the beam of hot plasma (or whatever it is) split into multiple parts before hitting planets (e.g. does it have some massive magnetic field or does Supreme Leader Snoke cause it to split, if the latter, why is there even a war if he has so much power)? And how close is it to the four planets destroyed that the sub-light speed plasma can reach each without sufficient time to evacuate? Did they build the Starkiller in the same system as the Resistance home system? If so, how would the Resistance have let this happen or why would they have not relocated? This is a rather large construction project...
- Update On viewing the movie with twelve year old eyes, these questions are a bit too analytical and distract from the cartoony fun of the base itself and how they are so easily able to destroy the New Republic planets.
- I thought that they couldn't match the map in BB-8 to a known star system due to it being a very small portion of space? When R2D2 finally comes online and BB-8 matches his hologram with R2D2, it becomes evidence that BB-8's map is a significant chunk of the galaxy. How is it possible that they were unable to pattern match BB-8's map to a reference galactic atlas? Current humans don't even have faster-than-light travel and we've been able to map out most of our galaxy, that they can't do so in the Star Wars universe is hard to believe and further evidence of Lazy Script Writing used to advance fake tension in the movie.
- Update On second viewing this becomes even more glaring and ridiculous.
- Also, R2D2 has super convenient timing to come online, in classic dues ex machina fashion. Some will claim that R2 sensed Luke's presence in Rey, but how is a droid able to do that? Does it do a DNA pattern match from her hair or skin floating in the air? Is Luke able to sense her presence via R2D2? Guess there are a lot of explanations that could propel this into the 'good' category, but we can't know until the next movie.
- And why can't a computer hacker get the map from R2D2's memory banks? Is it encrypted so well that they aren't even trying? Did Luke put a force block on it? Too many questions surround R2D2...also why did he have a towel over him, isn't he a prized Resistance asset (since he might know where Luke is)?
- The politics are a mess. The First Order, Resistance, New Republic, and whatever other political groups exist are only vaguely given definitive identities. The First Order, beyond building the Starkiller base, don't come across as 'evil' so much as one state warring against another.
- Supreme Leader Snoke is either a horribly done set of CGI work that breaks the movie every time he appears or a clever being with a desire to hide his true form.
- Snoke seems to take on a similar role as Thanos has in the Marvel films, e.g. an all-powerful being in the background that sends others to do work that he could otherwise do himself. In that sense, he seems like a generic villain rather than a fully realized evil mastermind, yet human character, along the likes of Emperor Palpatine or Grand Moff Tarkin.
- Where is Lando?!
- Luke Skywalker as the MacGuffin. The entire events of the film are driven by the need to find him. Given the apparent limits of Jedi powers in both the original and prequel, it is still a mystery that they would devote so much time and energy to finding Luke rather than just killing Kylo and defeating the First Order. It seems we'll find out more about the tragic relationship between Luke and Kylo in the next film; this might help better flesh out the current holes in the story and explain several of the characters's actions.
It is little surprise that this shot from the trailer ends up being about Luke. What is more disappointing is that Luke ends up being the sole MacGuffin driving the entire events of the film.
The Force Awakens is a decent movie. But as is evidence from the list above, it has many faults. If you've seen any of Marvel's recent outings, or any modern sci-fi/fantasy action flick, this movie feels like it fits snuggly in the current cinematic mold: very slickly produced but not well thought out and with something...lacking. The need to have a 'surprise' death is something unnecessary given we live in a post Game of Thrones era where it is harder to shock in that manner.
The fan service at times distracts from the movie and makes certain events confusing (if you view the movie within its own logic and from what is explained during its runtime). It often tries to use nostalgia to elevate itself rather than as Easter Eggs for the observing fan. The first viewing of the movie I saw in IMAX 3D, but it was at 5 a.m. in the morning and the theater wasn't packed, so I didn't quite have the same experience as others likely had in terms of cheers when Han appeared and other references to the original trilogy were made. That might have improved the experience.
In the end, go see the movie. And definitely go with the eyes of a young teenager. It is a fun, popcorn ride with some interesting ideas that is ultimately handicapped by J.J. Abrams's (and to an extent that they have creative control, Disney's) obsession with, and adherence to, the original trilogy instead of taking risks to make something new.