What worked (and what didn’t) in ‘The Force Awakens’

movies
Star Wars

Yesterday, I complained about the convenient coincidences that litter J.J. Abrams’ Force Awakens film. In hindsight, I probably should have first explained how much I enjoyed the movie, then moved on to pedantic quibbles.

Better late than never, right? Here are the things I liked—and a few more I didn’t—about the latest Star Wars film. Major spoilers below!

The good

  • The Force Awakens doesn’t over-explain every little detail. We’re told that the village elder who hands over the Skywalker map is an “old friend” —but we don’t know anything else about him. Similarly, Han Solo references new misadventures with Chewbecca, but these are left to audience’s imagination. We learn that Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Preparatory School crashed and burned, but we don’t know why or how. Suddenly, the Star Wars universe feels big again—as if the franchise has many stories left to tell.
  • When Stormtrooper FN–2187 (later “Finn”) attends to a fallen comrade on Jakku, his helmet gets smeared with a bloody handprint. That’s clever filmmaking; the mark makes it easy for us to the audience to distinguish him from his white-clad colleagues.
  • I love BB–8. That droid has more personality than most human characters from the prequels.
  • Rey is fantastic. She has an interesting backstory, she’s capable, she’s vulnerable, and she’s playful. I love how the film subverts the traditional “damsel in distress” trope; Rey doesn’t really need Finn to rescue her, and she resents his attempt to play her “knight in shining armor.” I can’t wait until my daughter’s old enough to watch Awakens; I’m glad to have mainstream entertainment that I don’t have to revise for her sake.
  • The movie covers a lot of ground, but it also takes the time to tell Rey’s story properly. We understand her, because we seeher life in detail. We know she’s bold, because we see her confidently exploring a cavernous wreck. We know she’s lonely, thanks to her chalk-mark calendar. We know she’s afraid that she’ll never escape Jakku, because we see her watching the elderly scavenger. He know she’s desperate, because she wolfs down her insta-bread. We know she’s got a adventurous streak, because she gazes in wonder at a departing starship. With very little dialogue, we’ve learned exactly who this character is. By the time the sequence ends, we’re fascinated and eager to see what’s next for her.
  • Kylo Ren’s a fun baddie. He may look and sound like Vader, thanks to that bizarre mask. But this character isn’t a rehash. In fact, Ren’s temper tantrums and occasional missteps make him more intriguing than Vader ever was.
  • The bickering between the imperial commander and Kylo Ren felt real to me. Ren subverts the First Order’s clean chain of command in an unpredictable, interesting way.
  • There’s real camaraderie between Finn and Poe Dameron. Their excited banter in the TIE fighter made me grin.
  • Han Solo worked well as this movie’s “Obi-Wan.” After his lackluster recent career, Harrison Ford deserves credit. So do the film’s writers; they made us care about Han Solo again (after his boring Return of the Jedi sleep-walk).
  • Maz Kanata, this film’s Force guru, is the best CG character I’ve ever seen, besting both Davy Jones and Gollum. I was particularly impressed with the character’s facial expressiveness.
  • I loved that we hear Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice during Rey’s vision. Force ghosts are speaking to her, but she’s not quite attuned enough to hear them yet.
  • Han Solo’s murder helps cement Kylo Ren as a bad guy. I despise Ren more fervently than I ever did Darth Vader or the Emperor. Yes, I’m bummed that Solo’s gone, but I’m glad he was sacrificed for a good cause: to make the new trilogy’s villain compelling.
  • I loved the movie’s last scene: the swelling orchestration of the Force theme, the dramatic reveal of Skywalker’s face, and the proffered lightsaber (a wordless invitation back to the fight). That’s how you do a cliffhanger.

The bad

  • See yesterday’s post for nitpicky gripes about the plot line.
  • Does the Republic exist simply to be destroyed by the First Order? I understand the basic conflict between the Order and the Resistance. But then there’s the Republic, which we learn has its own fleet. Why weren’t they fighting the First Order? Why leave your defense to a ragtag insurgency with no big ships? And even if the Republic had underestimated the danger posed by the First Order, why doesn’t its fleet come charging in once Starkiller Base destroys the galactic capital?
  • Snoke didn’t quite work for me. I get that he’s this film’s Palpatine—a mysterious menace who won’t show up in the flesh until later films. But I don’t understand his motivation, and he looked hokey. He reminded me of the alien from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
  • There’s too much nostalgia and fan service. For example, the Han-Leia relationship doesn’t click. Better actors might’ve redeemed the stilted dialogue, but Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford can’t quite hack it. Another sentimental misstep? Han’s familiar line aboard the freighter (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) felt forced.
  • The climactic lightsaber battle dragged on too long. Even the longest sword fight in Empire changed scenery once in a while—from the freezing chamber out to the dangling platform. Rey’s duel with Ren never leaves the woods.

Again, I enjoyed The Force Awakens. The film’s weaknesses don’t sink it. In fact, I’d probably rank it ahead of Episode IV—but well behind Empire Strikes Back. Like “A New Hope,” Episode VII sets the stage for later—hopefully better!—sequels.