“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is the seventh installment in the classic space opera created by George Lucas. J.J. Abrams comes aboard to right the ship, after three movies which were panned by most fans of the series.
It’s a testament to the lasting impact of a film series that it can have three disappointing — even infuriating — movies and still have fans willing to watch the next installment. In this case, people are enthusiastic and hopeful. Episode 7 is the one which should be called “A New Hope”.
In this review, I’ll try not to include spoilers. In describing characters, I might give away a bit of the impact they might make. If you read this review and think of Bane or Voldemort in certain scenes, I apologize. I don’t give away spoilers, though.
Things I Liked
There are several things to like in the launch to the new trilogy.
First of all, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is light years ahead of “The Phantom Menace” series of movies.
The screenplay is professionally done. The directing is well-done. The acting is professional-level and hits all its marks. So this is so much better than the previous three movies; you feel like you’re in the same cinematic universe as the original trilogy.
I liked the Cowardly Stormtrooper. Finn was flawed enough to make him approachable. John Boyega was able to develop on-screen chemistry with three characters: Han Solo, Poe Dameron, and Rey. That is a terrific sign for the remaining two films. For this trilogy to hold up, it has to stand on the new additions to the cast. Finn was a solid character who showed development through the film, without seeming forced. I came away hoping the nickname “Big Deal” would stick, because it said something about his upstart nature.
Poe Dameron did not get enough screen time to make the impression he could have. He had promise, but the cocky, snarky character needs to show a little more than cockiness and snarkyness. Also, I hate when we are told a character is a master at something; show it. It’s the difference in storytelling through description and storytelling through action. That was a major complaint people had with the Twilight movies — characterizations were done through hearing about how great a character was, instead of seeing it. Poe Dameron would have been better served performing one or two amazing piloting acts, instead of hearing he’s the best in the galaxy. Until we see something, it’s just talk. Still, he showed promise.
Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Rey is another good character. One gets the idea this series is going to rise or fall based on Daisy Ridley’s performance. Rey is a character as pivotal as Luke Skywalker in the first trilogy and Anakin Skywalker in the second trilogy. Comparisons with those two characters should tell you the effect Rey could have on the storyline from here on. In the first installment, Rey showed a nice level of independence and vulnerability. Just as important, she was likable. Her combination of waifish beauty and derring-do are attractive and keeps viewers wanting to know more about the character.
Han Solo’s role was solid, though it took me about 15 minutes for the surreal nature of seeing the old freighter captain interact with the new characters before it started to work. Chewbacca’s comedic timing seems to have improved in the past 30+ years. Chewy was effectively used in the little time he got. While Han and Leia’s interactions were competently-done, they seemed a little forced. That had little to do with the actors and more to do with the script. They had to convey 30 years of a marriage in a couple of minutes, and that is hard to do. Still, it was nice to see.
Beyond that, the special effects were well-done, without seeming like they dominated the scenery. The battles were visually engaging, though not that memorable. If you get the feeling you’ve seen all this before, you wouldn’t be the only one.
The final scene was super cool, though I would have preferred to see a bit more of that scene. I guess you want to leave the audience wanting more and they certainly did that with me. I remember walking out of “The Empire Strikes Back” wishing I’d have seen a few scenes beyond the medical frigate. I got the same feeling here, which is a good thing.
Those were a few of the things I like about the film. Now, on to the negative parts.
The Plot Is a Little Forced
Pardon the pun, but the plot was a little forced at times.I can overlook one or two coincidences, but when they stack on one another, it becomes a flaw.
Pivotal characters coincidentally show up in the same location. (Finn at Rey’s settlement on Jakku.)
Legendary characters show up in contrived fashion. (Han & Chewy’s meeting with Finn & Rey.)
This can somewhat be explained as a manifestation of The Force, but these are things which happened in other J.J. Abrams movies which are a problem.
Remember when Captain Kirk had a whole world of options for finding Spock, but he found the one cave he was hiding in by accident? A coincidence with those outlandish odds happens early on in Planet Jakku. While these are easily overlooked, I prefer to have my plots tighter than that.
Also, Han and Chewy’s first appearance seemed somewhat contrived. That is fine, but the when things are contrived in that way, I want a bit of an explanation. I still don’t know how Han Solo happened to be in that part of the galaxy. If he’s that prescient, why didn’t he find the Millennium Falcon in the many years in-between? He later offers that their scanners are real good, but I still never heard a good explanation of what he was doing and why he happened to be at that point in space, close enough for his scanners to be useful.
Once again, Han Solo and Finn developed chemistry which I enjoyed seeing. The inclusion of Han & Chewy was welcome and well-done, for the most part. Not every new addition was as effective, though.
The Villains Borrow from Other Recent Villains
Action movies and sci-fi films can be good without a good villain. They simply cannot be great without a good villain. The single biggest factor which might stand in the way of the JJ Abrams trilogy being truly memorable is if the antagonists prove to be too pedestrian. So far, I would put them in the forgettable category. They seem to borrow too much and stake out very little original territory. They were not evocative in The Force Awakens.
The villains seemed a little too familiar for my tastes. No, I’m not suggesting Kylo Ren looked too much like Darth Vader. If anything, Kylo Ren wasn’t enough like Darth Vader for my taste. No, when Kylo Ren first appeared on screen, I thought, “I know the secret identity of Kylo Ren. It’s Bane.”
His voice sounded so much like Bane’s character from 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. might consider suing.
Also, Supreme Leader Snoke looks like a giant version Voldemort. That cannot be a coincidence.
In fact, a villain named “Snoke”? Snoke does not sound like a character menacing the galaxy. He sounds more like one of the houses at Hogwarts. (“He’s from Slytherin, but I’m from Snoke.”) It really does sound like Disney got J.K. Rowling to consult on that part of the film. But let’s get back to Kylo Ren for a moment, because he’s a growing shadow at the heart of this new trilogy.
Kylo Ren Doesn’t Have “The Chops”
While Bane-voice and Big Voldemort were a little laughable, I think Kylo Ren poses a problem for this movie franchise moving forward. First of all, the “Kylo Ren” sounds more like a cartoon character than a menacing villain. It lacks the cool factor of “Darth Vader”. This needs to be somewhere in the same ballpark. Other comparisons to Vader are certain, and they aren’t good.
Darth Vader was known for killing his henchmen when they failed to execute his orders to perfection. Kylo Ren prefers to take out his light saber and smash up the room. It seems like the wanton destruction of child having a tantrum, as opposed to the sinister rage of a dark overlord. Given the plotline, maybe J.J. Abrams had that in mind. If so, Kylo Ren’s violence level might escalate as time goes by.
An attempt is made to put Kylo Ren over as huge evil. In the story, the screenwriter certainly pulled it off. I don’t know if the director and the actors executed these scenes well enough to pull it off for the audience. I won’t go into great detail, but I would say a lot of thought went into making Kylo Ren a truly menacing and despicable villain. I don’t know if they pulled it off.
There is a “Rule of Cool” for such things and I don’t know that Kylo Ren succeeds on those grounds. He seems more dorky than cool — and that’s bad. If there is a character likely to end up hated in the way Anakin Skywalker/Hayden Christensen was hated, it is Kylo Ren/Adam Driver. If I were J.J. Abrams and the Disney Company, I would tread lightly in this area in the next two movies. You want your villain to be dastardly, not juvenile. More than anything, you do not want to give fans any reason to compare your villain to Anakin Skywalker — never.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has a lot to like. That does not mean it was perfect. A film can have a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and still be lacking. Here’s how: “rotten” or “fresh” is an either/or thing. You can mostly like a movie 51% and give it a fresh rating, just as you can like it 100%. This film did enough to get 98% of the reviewers to like it, but everyone was going to like this movie, just because it had Han Solo instead of Jar Jar Binks. That doesn’t mean they absolutely loved it. It has a few elements I don’t like, elements which could prove troublesome when it comes to fan reaction in the future.
This was a well-done, lovingly-crafted film. Still, when I walked out of the theater, the friend I viewed it with put it rather well. He said, “They hit all the marks and did the right things, but it seemed soulless.” There was a certain part of the movie that was going through the motions. Part of that was inevitable, because it had to integrate the characters from two trilogies: A New Hope trilogy and The Force Awakens trilogy. It also had to purge the bad ambiance from the Phantom Menace trilogy. This film did those things, at the price of seeming contrived at times. I’ll give a pass…for now. Based on what it follows, many people would give this film 3 & 1/2 to 4 stars. This film seemed to me to be 3 stars: good, but not great.
“The Force Awakens” has a lot of promise, but I warn the producers they better rein-in Kylo Ren. They don’t want another petulant child as a villain. I understand he wasn’t a full Sith yet, but there’s a difference in a capable apprentice and a tantrum-throwing moron. This new trilogy need darkness — true, seething evil — at the heart of the next two movies.
For the rest of this article, I’m going to review the film with spoilers. Do not pass this point, if you don’t want to know what happens in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The Force Awakens: Review with Spoilers
I have a number of concerns that tells me J.J. Abrams and the Disney Company still don’t quite get the Star Wars Universe. Or better put, maybe they failed at Storytelling 101 in this case. This film diminished the legends of the Galactic Rebellion.
Luke Skywalker and Han Solo seem to have become pathetic figures. That is not a good plot twist. Let’s take it back to the end of “Return of the Jedi”. The Rebel Alliance has destroyed the second Death Star. They’ve assassinated the Emperor and decimated his grand fleet. Darth Vader is no more. The Empire is shattered.
At this point, you assume the Rebel Alliance is going to establish a new order, one based on liberty for planets and hope for its peoples. You assume they’ll established a Second Republic. Those who’ve read the novels and comic books understand that the Imperial Fleet is still formidable and the provincial governors still have tremendous sway. There is enough evil established that it creates the potential for continuing conflict. You understand the struggle hasn’t ended, by any means.
At the same time, fans have to assume that Luke, Leia, and Han are going to help establish a Second Republic. Secondary figures like Admiral Akbar and Wedge Antilles are there to help. People like Lando Calrissian pitched in, went legit, and might stand to move up the ranks. Luke is going to establish a new Jedi Order, and perhaps Leia will learn the Ways of the Force, as well. These people might not be nation builders by choice, but they have the talent, connections, and ENERGY to make things happen.
If I were going to brainstorm, I would try to put the various heroes in positions of advancement. To borrow a term, I would make them epic level figures. Now, I could see Princess Leia as a General, but I would like to have seen her go back to her original calling — a member of the Senate who takes on diplomatic and humanitarian missions. With her key role in the Alliance, I could see her near the top of the Senate, perhaps even sitting at the very top of it. Her prestige and moral authority would be high.
I could see her and Han Solo having problems. If you don’t think Han Solo is an appropriate man for domestication, then have him use his newfound connections to make a place for himself as a rogue. The idea he would return to smuggling (“the only thing I was ever good at”) is pathetic. It almost seems like an alcoholic who’s gone back to the bottle. Han Solo is not longer the glorious, carefree freighter captain; he’s an old man who failed at going legit. Okay, don’t have him do that, but have him do something a little more illustrious. Let’s say the First Order has formed and is annexing star systems. Those systems are likely to need goods and contraband — essentially a black market. Make Han Solo an underworld figure of note, someone like Jabba the Hutt with good intentions. He runs the blockades and helps the Alliance thwart the First Order. Chewbacca would be his perfect enforcer, perhaps with a squad of toughs (wookies).
I’d like to have seen Lando Calrissian, even if it was for one scene. Lando was a scoundrel, but he was also a politician and administrator. He wanted to “go legit”. Winning the Battle of Endor would have been a perfect springboard to go legit. I could see Lando becoming a senator. Maybe he wouldn’t be the moral authority Leia would be. Maybe he’d be a little corrupt. But wouldn’t it have been glorious to see Lando having settled into a kush job in the Second Republic.
As for Luke Skywalker, he obviously was going to try to reestablish the Jedi Knights. This would not be 100% successful or their wouldn’t be much story to tell. But I would like to have seen him do better than it was implied he did. What’s more, I don’t like what the story implied — that he gave up.
As I understand it, Kylo Ren was a bad student. Kylo Ren destroyed the new Jedi Order, and Luke Skywalker disappeared into obscurity. That’s lame.
First of all, I don’t think that’s good characterization. That’s what Uncle Owen would have done — give up. It makes me sick, thinking back to that scene in Episode IV, where Luke and Uncle Owen argue over what Luke should do. Luke had the fire in his belly; he wanted to make a difference. The Luke Skywalker from the first trilogy would not have given up and gone off to become a druid or a hermit or whatever he became. Again, that’s weak.
I understand that they’re trying to hit all the tropes from the original trilogy. Obi-Wan Kenobi went off to Tattoine to become a hermit. There’s more to Ben Kenobi’s chosen path than being a hermit, though. Obi-Wan lived in a time when the Empire was seemingly all-powerful. He was a wanted criminal, hiding on the fringes of the galaxy, hoping to avoid the notice of the authorities. It was all he COULD DO. And he was making himself useful. He was staying near Luke Skywalker, to watch over him and protect him, if Darth Vader and the Imperial Forces ever came looking for him. Obi-Wan didn’t just run off to become a hermit for no good reason.
Luke, on the other hand, appears to have done just that. He lived in a time when he didn’t have to hide. He had unfinished business. He had blood on his hands, he needed to revenge. He had a nephew who had betrayed him, Han, and Leia. He needed to make amends, either through ending Kylo Ren or capturing him, returning him to his parents. Seeing Kylo Ren as his creation and his responsibility, Luke Skywalker should have stopped at nothing to right the wrongs Ken Solo had done. He sought revenge for Obi-Wan Kenobi. He sought to rescue his friend, Han Solo. But he lost the fire; he wouldn’t help Kylo Ren. That’s an abdication, and it makes him pathetic. Han Solo’s blood is on Luke Skywalker’s hands, because Luke wouldn’t take responsibility to finish what he started. Instead, he wanted to go be a hermit somewhere. What a give-up.
Which brings me to the sad case of Han Solo’s death.
The Death of Han Solo
I don’t mind that they killed off Han Solo. What I do mind is HOW they killed off Han Solo. If he’s going to die, let him go out on his terms, with a blaster in his hand, in heroic fashion. To have him murdered and betrayed by Kylo Ren through trickery and deception is not good.
It diminishes the character, without realing adding to the mystique of Kylo Ren. I understand that Han Solo was the kid’s father. But I also understand he’s a veteran of these things and (about 10 minutes prior in movie terms) he acknowledged the power of the Force, which presumably meant the Dark Side of the Force, too. He gave a speech about it, and then fell prey to what he warned. It makes him seem weakminded and ineffective. Han Solo deserved a better death scene, and you could have written it in such a way that Kylo Ren still got the credit for murder and betrayal.
I understand this sinister act was needed to symbolically break with the past: it was a rite of passage. That rite of passage could have been handled in such a way that Han Solo was not diminished by it.
That is the problem with the plot structure: the writers immediately diminished Kylo Ren. After trying to put him over to the audience as a menacing force of darkness, he lost to an untrained warrior in a light saber duel 10 to 20 minutes in screen time later. That completely diminishes him. I understand Kylo Ren is not a full Sith Lord yet. Killing Han Solo was one of the last steps — perhaps THE last step — to becoming a Sith Lord. But to have Kylo Ren lose to Rey in the way he did make him seem completely ineffective. All he can do is win by trickery. Darth Vader was a first class menace. Kylo Ren needs to be a first class menace, as well. If your story doesn’t account for that, then you need to go back and rewrite the story. This is galaxy-level space opera; only a villain of that proportions will do. (“Snoke” doesn’t cut it.)
The thing is, Kylo Ren’s first moment was a good start. When he uses his Force abilities to stop the blaster beam in mid-air, that was impressive. It was something we’d never seen Vader or Palpatine do. It was the kind of neat trick which showed he was formidable in his own right.
Everything after that diminished him. Noticing a stormtrooper is wavering is useless, if you don’t punish it with ruthlessness. Darth Vader would have wasted no time sending a message. Instead, Finn got lost in the bureaucracy, essentially. After that, all Kylo Ren did to show he was a menace was to destroy the furniture. He was a petulant child throwing tantrums. I’ll say for the last time that I understand he wasn’t a full Sith Lord, but having him behaving like Anakin Skywalker is not the way to establish a first rate villain. Mark my words: Kylo Ren is going to be (almost) as hated as Anakin Skywalker. If Disney Company doesn’t rein in his characterization soon in the next installment, he’s going to be a growing cancer at the heart of this final trilogy.
What Should Have Happened
To those who would argue that everything I suggested above would require a huge rewrite of the script, I say it wouldn’t. You could have had all those characterizations as quick background material with minimal exposition. Show Leia in the Senate at first, not in some bunker. Show one of Han’s spies inform him (as he’s offscreen) of the Millennium Falcon, THEN have Han and Chewy show up to steal the scene. That would have been simple. Make it explicit that Luke scoured the galaxy for Kylo Ren and disappeared during his quest. And while you’re showing Leia in the Senate, show Lando in a 2-minute scene. It’s simplicity.
Better career paths might have been chosen. Those aren’t the only possible suggestions. That’s what I came up with in 15 minutes. J.J. Abrams and his team likely could have come up with much more inventive ideas, but they tried to hit all the notes of the original trilogy. Fans don’t want to see a rehash of the originals — that’s naturally going to fall flat. They want to see fresh new life breathed into a recognizable universe, with proper respect shown to the legendary characters who saved the galaxy. They don’t want to see a Star Wars setting where Luke Skywalker made so little impact that average people think he’s just an urban legend. That’s a bad commentary on his post-Endor career.
Anyway, that’s my review of “Star War VII: The Force Awakens” with spoilers. I understand it’s a bit of a rant, but these things should be said. I found a lot to like in the movie. I give it 3/5 stars. I like Finn and Rey. But there is a lot not-to-like about this film. And I fear for the remaining two films. Watch “The Force Awakens” and tell me if I’m wrong.