Star Wars The Force Awakens: The Spoiler-Free Epic Review

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There are no spoilers or exposed plot lines in this review. A spoilerific review will post later.

Having been born shortly after A New Hope appeared in theaters, my childhood was saturated with Star Wars.  I had UnderRoos, Star Wars VHS tapes worn out from rewinding and re-watching, and enough toys to fill a space cruiser.  I saw each of the prequels at the midnight showing and still have a plastic tub in my mom’s garage loaded with Episode I action figures that are now worth less than what I paid for them.  You win some, you lose some, I guess.  And while the prequels were horribly underwhelming, I don’t think they were as bad as fanboys think they are (or at least not THAT much worse than the original trilogy) and I’ve even been known to argue that The Phantom Menace was the best of the prequels.  So when George Lucas sold the rights to Disney a few years back for a kajillion dollars, I, like most fans, was ecstatic.  My immediate thought was that it meant two things: new movies and a land in the Disney parks.  With Star Wars Land announced and likely to open in a few years, we now have our newest film in the Star Wars universe.  

There is simply no way that any Star Wars film will live up to every expectation, desire, and ounce of hype.  But this one comes close.  Put simply, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a blast.  It’s a ton of fun.  It has everything fans were hoping to see: human characters, humor, heart, and plenty of action.  The gang’s all back, even the Millennium Falcon.  That alone might have been enough to best any of the prequels.  Writer/Director J.J. Abrams has said that the main criterion he and Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back) used for themselves was one question; “Does this delight?”  This operating principle is evident throughout the film.  It is delightful.  This is Star Wars having fun with itself.  Even with a run time of 135 minutes, The Force Awakens moves along quickly but feeling neither rushed nor overlong. The film ends where it feels like it should, but still leaving us ready to jump right in to the next episode.  Whereas A New Hope ended with a closed story and could very well have been a stand-alone movie, The Force Awakens ends on a cliffhanger, setting up the next one, more so even than The Phantom Menace.  And when that ending comes, we’re dying to jump right into Episode VIII.

The Force Awakens parallels A New Hope in a number of ways—too many, some have said, as if it’s trying to take what we loved about the original trilogy and just update it and add a few new faces, hoping we wouldn’t notice.  I don’t think that’s a fair criticism.  While it’s definitely true that much of it feels and even looks like A New Hope (a desert planet, a cantina, a bad guy in a mask…some other things I won’t get into…) it doesn’t feel forced, let alone like a “rip off”.  Frankly, we really only notice these parallels (let alone finding them tedious) if we’re looking for them and trying to be cynical.  And it’s entirely possible that there may be more intentional reasons for some of this.  We’ll have to wait and see where subsequent episodes go. 

The casting in this film is perfect.  The new actors are phenomenal and fit naturally into this universe.  They’re probably the single best and most surprising aspect of The Force Awakens, especially Daisy Ridley.  You may think you have them pegged after watching the trailers.  Let me assure you, you do not.  Not even close.  Ridley’s character Rey is not reducible to the strong-sassy-female warrior type.  She’s a much deeper and more layered character.  She fights but also cries and is strong and sure of herself, but also afraid and vulnerable.  Yes, the new bad guy wears a mask and wields a red light saber—and we’re still not quite sure what either of those things means—but don’t be seduced into thinking that you’ve got him figured out.  And Harrison Ford IS Han Solo.  The humor in The Force Awakens—and there’s a lot—works really well and feels like the humor from the original trilogy rather than the prequels.  Think “I’d just as soon kiss a Wookie!”, “I can arrange that!” rather than “meesa stepped in doo-doo”.  If there’s anything negative to say about the humor at all it’s that it may come too often.  Once or twice it actually pulls us out of the sense of fear and danger we’re also supposed to be feeling in the moment.

The Force Awakens is by no means a perfect movie.  I did leave with a few small gripes, although nothing to make me not want to see it again and again, or anything that left me with a sense of despair at the future of the new trilogy.  At times The Force Awakens is a bit too meta.  It knows that it’s a Star Wars film and we’re at times very aware that it’s actively trying to be a particular kind of Star Wars film.  The nods and references to the original trilogy are fun but came close to being distracting.  The opening line of dialogue nearly breaks the fourth wall.  Once or twice we half expect one of the characters to look at the camera and wink (ok, not really, but you get it).   With all the talk about “practical effects…practical effects”, there is a surprising amount of CGI in The Force Awakens.  But the effects—both practical and digital—are incredible and beautiful, with one or two exceptions (apparently faces are much more difficult to render than props and environments).   It feels like there’s a missing movie we should have seen before this one.  Some character development and back story feel sort of dropped in our laps, as if there’s information we’re expected to already have.  And some of it seems too important to have skipped over or explained in a line or two of exposition.  Still, there’s hope that some of this will be resolved in episodes VIII and IX. There is a lot left to be resolved, after all, and it’s clear that the franchise is just getting warmed up. 

The Star Wars franchise has been released now in three generations.  In our 8:40PM Thursday night showing (the second show possible) grown men cried during the opening crawl and their kids stood on their chairs clapping and woo-hooing.  This is part of its staying-power, to be sure, but the appeal of Star Wars goes beyond marketing and toys and tie-ins.  Star Wars is inter-generational, yes, but more than that, its themes are perennial–seduction, temptation, vocation.  The themes of the Hero’s Journey are all there and just as overtly epic as in the original trilogy.  And that’s something no amount of CG and marketing can make up for.  If The Force Awakens is any indication of what’s in store for us, then it’s looking like it’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan again.  The Force is strong with this one.  I can’t wait to see this again and again and again. God knows I’ve already blown the budget on the toys. 

A word of caution about bringing kids…The Force Awakens is one of only 2 PG-13 films in the Star Wars franchise (the other being Revenge of the Sith).  There are some dark and disturbing scenes and scary faces and monsters.  I left my Star Wars fanboy four year old at home and I’m glad I did. A six year old in front of me had to be comforted by his dad and told not to cry. Preview it yourself before bringing young ones.

Woo-Hoo’s!:

  • new characters/actors
  • visuals
  • humor
  • heart
  • the feels
  • Star Wars is back

Disturbances in the Force:

  • still not sure what’s going on or who everyone is
  • wait…did we miss a movie?
  • yes, yes, we get it, you want this to be a great Star Wars movie
  • still too much CGI

Final Grade: A-

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