WARNING: This review is full of spoilers. If you have not seen the film, then I suggest you go see it before reading this. If you want my short and sweet review–the movie’s great. Go now.
This past week I did something I never thought I’d be able to do again: I sat down in a theater to watch a brand new Star Wars film. And not just any Star Wars film, but one set after Return of the Jedi. I had been waiting for this moment for the past 20 years. To finally see what happened to Han, Leia, and Luke after the destruction of the second Death Star (on the big screen at least) was something I had wished for as a kid. I’d like to say I was vibrating with excitement while I was waiting in line before my showing, but it was more a mixture of exhaustion and nervousness (exhaustion from having worked that day and the showing being at 10:00 PM; nervousness because this franchise had burned me too many times before).
I tried very hard to keep my expectations down for this film, but it’s a hard thing to do as a lifelong Star Wars fan. And as a huge fan of the Legends timeline, I had some preprogrammed ideas of what happens 30 years after Return of the Jedi. I was scared after all of this slow trickle of information leading up to the release, after making us fall in love with the new trio of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac, after all the displays of love for Star Wars by J.J. and the crew that this film was going to fall flat on its face. This nervousness stayed with me through the excruciatingly long trailers, through the odd silence of the Lucasfilm logo and no Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, and through the “A long time ago…”
Then the “Main Title” music burst into life.
What followed were just over two hours of absolute fun. The nervousness did stick with me throughout the film and I wasn’t fully able to comprehend what I had just watched as I left the theater. This stuck with me through the next day, but was completely gone by the time I finished my second viewing. It was even better the third time. And the fourth. And the… well, you get the picture. This wasn’t just a good film. It was the most fun I’ve had watching one since I was a kid.
So what made this film so good? To boil it down to one word: characters.
The first new Big Three character we meet in the film is the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, played by the charming Oscar Isaac. Poe has the least amount of screen time of the new Big Three, his role in the film is the least important, and he is arguably the most one-dimensional character, but what he does for the tone of the film is incredibly important. The Force Awakens was a film that could have easily gone down the “dark and gritty” path, but in every scene Poe appears he drags it kicking and screaming back into the light. His first interaction with Kylo Ren (“So who talks first? You talk first? I talk first?”) establishes what we can expect out of his character and his interactions with Finn reinforce it throughout the film. It’s an important role to have in this film because while Finn (and to a lesser extent, Rey) are trying to run away from their problems, Poe is running straight toward them with a smile on his face. Isaac plays Poe with absolute sincerity and it shows. It’s this kind of unadulterated–almost naïve–optimism that made me fall in love with Star Wars in the first place.
The counter to some of that optimism is Finn, played by John Boyega. Finn starts out the film as unnamed stormtrooper FN-2187 (until Dameron gleefully decides to call him Finn). His journey is one many of us can relate to: somebody forced by circumstance into a situation they’re not comfortable with; the choice between following orders and doing what is right. The film tells us that Finn is a good-natured person at heart through his refusal to participate in the killing of innocents and his instinctual protection of Rey, but he actually spends most of the film trying to run away. His character is perhaps the easiest to directly compare to one of the original Big Three. Much like Han Solo in the Original Trilogy, Finn is focused primarily on his selfish desire to save his own hide. However, their motivations are very different. Han’s desire to leave in A New Hope was out of greed. Finn’s desire to leave is out of fear and he’s a much more sympathetic character because of that. Helping Finn’s case is the ever affable John Boyega who plays him to a tee. One thing that struck me throughout the film was how much every character who met Finn liked him, even if he gave them a reason not to at first. Boyega is a very likable person in person and this really came through in his portrayal of Finn.
The last of the new Big Three is the most important character in this trilogy: the character of Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. There’s still a lot we don’t know about Rey, but “The Force Awakens” most certainly applied to her. We don’t know who her family is, but it’s clear she has some link to the Skywalker legacy (whether it be by blood or not) and that the Force has plans for her. Daisy Ridley is a newcomer to acting, having only done some bit parts on TV shows. This is her first film, but it doesn’t show. Ridley instills Rey with the confidence of a much more experienced actor, while maintaining some youthful naiveté. It’s a perfect fit for the character. Rey clearly knows how to handle herself, as demonstrated by her staff fighting in the market place and mechanical skill on the Falcon, but she is also trusting. She trusts a droid she’s never met before, she trusts Finn when she has every right to be suspicious of him, and she trusts her family to return after being gone for 15 years. It’s one of her biggest weaknesses, but part of the reason she’s so endearing. Ridley is able to balance these two elements of the character perfectly, which makes her awakening throughout the film. Everything she does is done so with confidence and every time it succeeds her eyes are full of amazement and wonder. I wasn’t upset by the rapid advancement of her powers, because the powers aren’t the point. Remember that in the Original Trilogy that Luke defeats the Emperor not through his ability in the Force, but through the love and compassion he had for his father. This trilogy will be about Rey’s journey and growth as a person. Her abilities are secondary.
I didn’t really have many doubts about the new Big Three, so the character I was most surprised by was Kylo Ren. Adam Driver was not the most enthusiastic person on the press tour. Compared with the rest of the new cast, he seemed to be just going through the motions. I was worried that maybe he hadn’t put in the effort into his portrayal that the other actors had or that the character of Kylo Ren was just another one-dimensional Big Evil Badass that he was disappointed with. I am happy to report that I was wrong. I was oh, so wrong. Kylo is presented early in the film as Big Evil Badass. He marches around the battlefield, freezes blaster bolts and people at will, and exerts his will over the minds of others. As the film progresses, however, more and more layers are added. We see his childish temper tantrums, we learn he is the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, and we witness his near worship of Darth Vader. But the best Kylo moments are the ones where he removes his mask. Gone is the faceless badass, replaced instead by a deeply disturbed man. With all due respect to Driver, Kylo Ren’s face is creepy. It’s the face not of pure evil, but innocence corrupted. I don’t know if an actor has ever made me feel so uncomfortable while also generating some sympathy as Driver did in his interrogation scene with Rey. The things he says and does to Rey are awful and there’s no excuse for his actions, but it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for him being led to the dark side. I don’t know if Kylo is redeemable after the murder of his father, but if anybody can make it work, it’s Driver. I think it’s safe to say that Kylo is the most well-written and developed villain ever to be in a Star Wars film. Outside of Rey, he’s the character I’m most excited about seeing develop.
Outside of the new cast, I thought the legacy characters were handled well. Carrie Fisher was good in her return as Leia Organa. Leia becoming a general and founding the Resistance is true to the legacy of her character from the Original Trilogy because there is no way she would stand by as the evil of the First Order grew. Her scenes with Harrison Ford didn’t have the chemistry of Empire, but they were good to see regardless. Mark Hamill, well, there’s not really much to say. He looked like every bit of the Jedi master we expected him to be. It was great to see him again and it was a very moving moment and a near-perfect ending. I just hope we get to hear him speak next time.
And then there’s Harrison Ford. Forget what you’ve heard about Ford being bitter about the character of Han Solo. Forget what you’ve heard about him being back “just for the money.” Make no mistake: he was well paid to reprise his role as the legendary smuggler, but he earned every single penny of it. This was the most fun I’ve seen Harrison Ford have on screen in years and that translated to his best role in the same time span. Han was the same old rogue we know and love when we meet him again. His interaction with the Guavian Death Gang and Kanjiklub was Han Solo at his very best. Everything from his speech patterns to the way he moved his hands was spot on. Cashing it in, Harrison was not.
The revelation that Kylo Ren was in fact his son, Ben Solo, added a new layer to Han’s character. Han Solo 30 years after the Battle of Endor knows the full power of the Force, including the dangers of the dark side. Gone is a lot of the cynicism. This Han Solo believes in redemption. This Han Solo is willing to risk everything to bring his son back to the light. And I think that’s why his death hurt so much. We finally got more depth to Han’s character only to have it torn apart. The death was something many of us saw coming, but it was a gut punch all the same. I thought there was an easy and cheap way to accomplish this, which was having Han sacrifice himself in some grand heroic gesture. Thankfully, Abrams and Kasdan opted for the riskier, but ultimately more rewarding method. For the death to work, we had to be fully emotionally invested in Han and Kylo’s relationship. Thanks to an early reveal, we had time to digest it. So when Han finally stepped out on the bridge, we were able to focus completely on his interactions with Ben. Thanks to some marvelous acting from both Ford and Driver, the gamble worked. We have a scene that will be stuck in the minds of Star Wars fans for the rest of time. Han didn’t die as a legendary hero; he died as a father. I can’t think of a more perfect way of handling it than that.
Reinforcing the emotional impact of the film was the score by the wonderful John Williams. The quality of the music has been so consistently great in Star Wars that it was assumed by many that the score for The Force Awakens would follow suit. Honestly, nothing in the score jumped out at me the first time I watched the film. I don’t know what it was exactly. I think it may have been that I was too hyper-focused on what was happening on the screen combined with the fact that the sound in my first showing was a little too quite. It shined the second time and every time after that, however, especially once I was able to listen to the soundtrack on its own. “Rey’s Theme” was the standout track for me and it’s used in multiple ways throughout the film. I think this will be used extensively throughout the trilogy and will show up in many important scenes. Some of the other standouts were “March of the Resistance,” which plays at the Resistance base on D’Qar and “Torn Apart,” which plays during the Han/Kylo bridge scene. Williams has that magical ability to capture all of the emotion in a scene in his music and that’s just as true for The Force Awakens.
And last (and probably least) the plot. Much has been said about the plot of The Force Awakens over the past week and a half. The majority of the criticism I’ve seen has focused on it, almost exclusively. The crux of the complaint seems to be that the film is too much like A New Hope. It starts out on a sand planet. There is a droid with some information. Heroes deliver it to a base. There is a giant planet-destroying superweapon. There is some semblance of a trench run at the end. It’s not that I didn’t notice the similarities between the two films; it’s just that I found them to be trivial. Which is to say the plot is only derivative at the surface level. In the end, those elements didn’t really matter much at all. Take Starkiller Base. This was just a bigger version of the Death Star. Some X-wings flew down a trench and then one guy blew it up. Except in A New Hope the destruction of the Death Star by hero Luke Skywalker is the climax of the film. The climax in The Force Awakens is Rey tapping into her latent Force power and defeating Kylo Ren. Not to mention the trench run scene in A New Hope is itself derivative. It was directly inspired by the film The Dam Busters. (And while I’m on the subject, I thought the destruction of Starkiller Base was more structurally similar to Return of the Jedi, not A New Hope. People like to forget how derivative Return of the Jedi was, too.)
Again, it doesn’t really matter in the end. The goal of this film was to setup the galaxy 30 years after Return of the Jedi and introduce the new characters of the trilogy. It did so without holding our hands and without inundating us with mind-numbing political details. In that way, it is like A New Hope. There are enough details in the opening crawl and bits of dialogue to be able to piece together the political situation of the galaxy. It might not be readily apparent, it might take a second viewing, and it will definitely take some thinking, but it’s there. Star Wars is first and foremost about adventure and there was plenty to be had. The Force Awakens made us fall in love with new characters and setup the new trilogy better than either A New Hope or The Phantom Menace did before it. It did its job and it did it better than I ever thought possible. But most importantly, it was fun. I haven’t been able to enjoy a movie this much in a very long time and that is exactly what Star Wars is all about.