Review: The Force Awakens (Spoilers)

The Force Awakens is a good movie – eminently fun, beautifully filmed, and wonderfully acted. The pacing is relentless, flowing from action to action in typical Abrams style. There are only a few brief pauses for characters to reflect and process what’s happening. In this case, I feel safe saying that The Force Awakens is a non-stop thrill ride without it being hyperbole. All in all it’s a very modern take on Star Wars and that’s a good thing. Releasing a relatively slow, methodical, contemplative adventure film in the modern cinema landscape isn’t something a director can get away with anymore.

There’s a fair bit of ink spilled below on flaws the movie has. Don’t take this to mean I didn’t like the movie. I did. It’s fun, rollicking, and epic. It’s not perfect, but hardly any movies are. There needs to be a place for fans to discuss the flaws in the film as much as what they love. My final consensus is two lightsabers up.

I reiterate: this review will contain spoilers for the film. I’m also interested in discussing the movie so hit me up in the comments to know what you think.

What Works

The Characters of the Continuing Saga

All the action in the galaxy won’t carry a movie without the right cast and this is where the film truly shines. Daisy Ridley carries the film as Rey, showing a depth and range of emotion rarely seen in debut film performances. She is alternately tender and tenacious; wistful and willful; fearful and fearsome. Rey is seemingly the heir to the Skywalker legacy and we couldn’t ask for a more capable actress in the role.

John Boyega’s natural charisma brings an ebullience and charm to Finn that will make anyone smile. Finn is a character unlike any we’ve seen in Star Wars before and a refreshing change of pace. He’s a hero who wears his heart on his sleeve, letting his emotions flow freely but without the darkness that haunted Anakin. There’s an essential goodness to Finn that just fits in the mythological setting of Star Wars.

Oscar Isaac is similarly charming but carries Poe Dameron with greater confidence and poise. There’s a smirk in his eyes that shows us just how much Poe is enjoying the trip. From his snarky, snappy dialogue to the look of sheer joy on his face as his X-Wing swoops in over the waters of Takodana, Poe is a character who knows and loves his place in the galaxy.

The most surprising performance for me was Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. The character’s design is one of menace and dark purpose but Driver imbues it with a vulnerability we haven’t seen in a Star Wars villain before. In many ways he is in the place that Anakin Skywalker was at the end of Revenge of the Sith – torn between the light and dark sides of the Force, desperately wanting his actions to mean something, to bring about change in the galaxy.

The supporting cast is excellent, as well. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher return as Han Solo and Leia Organa. Their characters have grown in the past thirty years, more world-weary and touched by tragedy than ever before. There is a gravitas to Han and Leia that grounds the emotion of the film. Most everyone is praising Ford’s performance as Han Solo and I agree but the writing comes off a bit too precious at times. Kasdan and Abrams seem to have let their love of the character color the way he’s written. Ford delivers the lines with aplomb even if they don’t fit the character.

Special mention here to BB-8 who is absolutely as charming, cute, and wonderful a droid as we’d all hoped. Sales of that Sphero toy are going to go through the roof.

Carrying The Legacy

On top of being a good movie, The Force Awakens good Star Wars. George Lucas has recently stated in interviews that Star Wars isn’t a movie about spaceships and rayguns but a soap opera about a family. Episode VII holds true to that purpose. The hardest hitting conflict in the film is between Kylo Ren and Han Solo, which explores a father’s struggle to save his son from falling into darkness. Ren’s motivation is even rooted in familial bonds as he tries to emulate his grandfather. The biggest question we are left with at the end of the film is even rooted in family: is Rey Luke Skywalker’s daughter?

Even though the films are about relationships, they’re set against a back drop of space opera: starships and Wookiees and space-wizards. Part of the charm and draw of Star Wars has always been pushing the boundaries of film making from a technical perspective. Modern special effects would not exist as they do without George Lucas’ vision for Star Wars, which required the invention of new technologies. While I’m not aware of any new technologies that were invented for this film, the level of effects wizardry on display is nothing short of astounding. My favorite FX shot is a continuous tracking shot of an X-Wing weaving and dodging through a swarm of TIE Fighters as Finn fights Stormtroopers on the ground. It’s a seamless blend of aerial and ground combat that just wasn’t possible with the effects of yesteryear.

The film moves like a compressed version of the original trilogy. The opening act involves a Rebel on a secret mission giving critical information to a droid, who flees into the desert while its master is captured by a dark warrior. An orphan finds the droid and escapes the planet with new friends aboard the Millennium Falcon. In the second act our hero has gained some confidence and meets an ancient, wise being who teaches the ways of the Force. There’s a vision inside a cave and the hero confronts the dark warrior the first time, failing to defeat the foe. The third act sees the final confrontation between father and son where one begs the other to turn back toward the light. It’s complete with a climactic lightsaber duel cut against an epic dogfight.

The themes in The Force Awakens echo and amplify those in the original trilogy. It’s a hero’s journey, a tale of temptation and redemption, of good versus evil, and of a small band of idealists struggling against impossible odds. In the end, the movie just feels right for a continuation of the Star Wars saga.

My Favorite Moments, by Character

Rey: In one of the few quiet moments we get, Rey puts on a battered X-Wing pilot’s helmet and stares off into the distance with a look of peace and contentment on her face. Alternate: the incredibly human reaction Rey has when she scrunches up her nose in delight when Han says “Chewie kinda likes you.”

Finn: Telling himself to keep calm as he breaks Poe out of the Finalizer.

Poe: “So who talks first? You talk first? I talk first?”

BB-8: The lighter thumbs-up. Someone needs to GIF that STAT.

Kylo Ren: His soliloquy on the gantry, of how he’s being torn apart.

Han Solo: For a single, unguarded moment the old man scowl disappears as Han smiles while stepping into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

Chewbacca: Taking the shot without hesitation.

Leia: “May the Force be with you.”

Where It Falters

The Politics

The political setting is absent from the film itself, aside from the opening scrawl. This leaves us with no context when the Hosnian system is destroyed and what should have been a powerful scene falls flat. Yes, film should show, not tell but dialogue gives us context. We felt the pain of Alderaan’s destruction in Star Wars not only because we watch Leia’s horror and despair but because it was the Promised Land our heroes were trying to reach. Leia comes from Alderaan, was bound for Alderaan, and the Rebellion was on Alderaan. When Alderaan is destroyed, it hits us because suddenly everything our heroes have worked toward is now gone.

The Hosnian system isn’t even named until after it’s been destroyed. General Hux’s rally speech tells us that the capital of the Republic is being destroyed but we have no connection to it. Is it Coruscant? Didn’t Mon Mothma establish the new government on Chandrila? At that point in the film it could have destroyed the Resistance for all we know.

This is Abrams and Kasdan erring on the side of not repeating the prequels, which are frequently criticized for having too much politics and not enough lightsabers. It’s also a victim of the editing. Abrams cut this movie as lean as he could to keep that breakneck pace all the way through. It’s almost like he’d forgotten some of the most beautiful moments (Binary Sunset and any of Luke’s training on Dagobah come to mind) are quiet and still, allowing us to build empathy with our heroes.

The Lack of Implications

For as much rollicking fun as the story is, very little world building is done with what we’re given. We see five planets but are left wondering how they interact with the galaxy at large. The genius of A New Hope is that it’s a movie made of fruitful void. Tatooine is the planet farthest from the bright center of the universe. We know the Empire is responsible for the destruction of the Jedi, that there was a Republic before the Empire.

We don’t get anything like that in The Force Awakens. Granted, the state of Star Wars is such that this is harder than ever. It’s not a blank slate anymore. That doesn’t change that Abrams didn’t deliver much in the way of world building in the final product.

The Pace

The Force Awakens moves at light speed. The film hurtles forward with nary a pause to catch our breath and this mostly works. But there are few times this works against the film’s best interests.

Characters just drop out of the film and are never seen again. Maz Kanata vanishes after her palace is destroyed. Does she get off Takodana? Is she killed by the First Order? Taken prisoner? We don’t know.

Captain Phasma (who was criminally underused, but we’ll get to that) is similarly dismissed. She’s supposedly coming back for Episode VIII but we didn’t get any hint of what she went through to get off Starkiller Base after apparently getting dumped down a garbage chute (which we also didn’t see).

Even General Hux and Kylo Ren simply vanish from the doomed planet. Snoke orders Hux to bring Kylo Ren to him but that’s the last we see of either of them before Starkiller Base implodes into a new sun. Presumably they escape, but it would have been nice to see that on screen.

Okay, so Phasma, right? Looks incredibly badass and powerful. (The Visual Dictionary even points out that her armor is made from reclaimed chrome off one of the Emperor’s Naboo yachts. Fucking. Epic.) She does nothing in The Force Awakens. A handful of lines to speak and some menacing walking before giving in to the hero’s demands. What a waste. She never even fires her blaster. At least Boba Fett got some shots off in every movie he was in. I believe Phasma was a victim of the cutting room floor at this point. I hope she is coming back, it would be great to see her wreck some face.

On the lines of pacing, something that absolutely did NOT play well for me is the reveal of Kylo Ren as the child of Han & Leia. Aside from coming weirdly early in the film, it’s the clunkiest line of dialogue “…in the hands of your father. Han Solo.” Uh… Okay? Did Kylo have amnesia or something? Pretty sure he knows who his father is. I guess we were meant to wonder “Who’s Kylo’s mom?” for a while, as if any of us entertained an idea that it wasn’t Leia. Then Abrams and Kasdan try to keep some mystery by having Han and Leia awkwardly play the pronoun game for a while. There are a lot of hims and sons being tossed around. It’s a lot of awkward phrasing so Han can bark out “Ben!” in the climax. It just didn’t go as smoothly as it should have.

It’s also weird that Finn loses his blaster rifle in the attack on Maz’ palace. It’s a convenient way to get him to light up the saber but then inexplicably he has it back on another planet. Is it a new blaster rifle? If so, who gave it to him?

Supreme Leader Snoke

I realize I may be in the minority right now but after six viewings of the film I think Supreme Leader Snoke was completely unnecessary in this movie. He’s an analogue for the Emperor of the original trilogy, whom is only mentioned in A New Hope, has one brief holocall with Vader in Empire Strikes Back, and is then full centerstage diva in Return of the Jedi.

None of the scenes featuring Snoke felt necessary, to say nothing of the fact that he had the worst line of the film. There was no menace to his design or dialogue, nothing that makes me think an evil mastermind is at the helm of the First Order. I’d much rather he be an implicit menace off screen than a giant pinch-lipped holo-Gollum.

The Science

I understand that criticizing the science in a Star Wars film is like saying you don’t like beer at Oktoberfest but bear with me.  Yes, the science and technology in Star Wars is fantasy. That’s fine. But it all operates under some basic guidelines that keeps things coherent.

The bit that bothers me the most is watching the Hosnian system burn in the skies of Takodana. This is mind-bogglingly stupid. I can buy that the First Order built a weapon that’s capable of firing an attack through hyperspace (space fantasy, I get it). I cannot buy that people on a planet hundreds or thousands of light-years away would see that attack happening in real time. Even if that part of Takodana was pointed at the Hosnian system, it would be CENTURIES before that light was visible. The reason people refer to lightspeed, even in Star Wars, is because that’s a fixed, known quantity. Ignoring it is just laziness from the film makers and it breaks my suspension of disbelief every time I see it. There are other ways to convey the impact of the Hosnian desolation that would work better from a science perspective and have a more emotional impact. (Look for a post later this week where I armchair direct some changes to this movie.)

It was established in A New Hope that jumping to hyperspace sends you hurtling across the vast gulfs of emptiness in the galaxy at unimaginable speeds. This has been borne out in each of the subsequent films. You move through hyperspace. Yet, by all implications of the dialogue, the X-Wings commanded by Poe Dameron seem to hang in hyperspace waiting to drop out once the shields go down around Starkiller Base. This makes me want to pound nails with my forehead because you almost have to try to get that wrong. How did that make it through the story group?

And speaking of the shields… I can almost buy Han’s cockamamie plan to drop out of hyperspace inside the shield. It’s risky, it’s daring, it’s something only the best pilot in the galaxy flying the best ship in the galaxy could even attempt. Except for two things. First: not ten seconds after they barely survive this outlandish plan, Han scolds Finn’s lack of a plan because “People are counting on us. The galaxy is counting on us!” Hypocritical much? Second: this is going to be a nightmare for anyone GMing Star Wars RPGs. Now every group who has to assault a space station or planet that has an impenetrable shield is going to want to careen into the planet’s atmosphere at light speed. This is something I actively dislike being added to the Star Wars canon.

Final Thoughts

I have loved this movie every time I see it. The flaws I wrote about above don’t preclude me from loving the movie. Not every movie can be The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II, about the only flawless films I can think of.

It’s a solid, solid entry in the Star Wars canon and I can’t wait to see how Rian Johnson builds off it with Episode VIII.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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4 Responses to Review: The Force Awakens (Spoilers)

  1. I like the theory that Captain Phasma is underused so that they can use Gwendoline Christie as a surprise different character in Episode 8.

  2. -J. says:

    I think you make a salient point about the pacing. It kept me hurtling along with the film while I was watching it, but afterwards I was yearning for a little more of how we got here (though Snap Wexley was a nice easter egg). I liked Snoke, but I think he could’ve been used more sparingly — a little less Snoke, a little more on the state of the galaxy.

    That said, it was a helluva fun Star Wars movie. The ‘new generation’ of protagonists is fantastic and interesting — as are the antagonists. I saw it with my family and we were already excitedly debating theories for Ep VIII, which highlights how invested we got in the characters and their situations.

  3. A bit late to the party, but it took me a while to see the film.

    In general, I don’t consider myself a big Star Wars fan. I like the IP, but I’ve basically only seen the movies and absorbed a bit of canon through osmosis from friends and the Internet.

    I liked the movie, and it definitely felt like Star Wars to me. I enjoyed watching it and would watch again.

    However, I’ve got two dislikes.

    The first is Kylo Ren’s characterization. I’m not fond of him as an antagonist. I felt like his struggle between light and dark lacked the emotional depth I would have wanted. The climax with Han felt rushed and unsatisfying to me. Throughout, I found myself wondering how this man could possibly be seen as the hope for the dark side. His rage seemed almost comical in contrast to the anger displayed by both Luke and Vader. Even Anakin’s anger worked better on screen.

    The second is the third act reveal with the map and Luke. It felt rushed and sloppy to me. I spent the entire movie thinking that we were just setting up a Rod of Seven Parts-esque quest. Having the rest of the map hidden in R2 (who woke up coincidently at just the right moment) felt like lazy storytelling.

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