This review will be vague and as spoiler-free as I can make it. There will not be any big reveals discussed or broader implications for the new trilogy speculated upon. I'll save that stuff for either a second review or if fellow a AlphaNerd (looking at you TILL) would care to take his own stab at it (check back soon). Keep in mind: while this is the “spoiler-free” review I do talk about the movie and my feelings on the movie. I will not spoil any plot turns or go in-depth on character arcs or anything, but the only way to be completely spoiler free is to close your eyes, plug your ears and hunker down until your ass is planted in the theater.
Also, I like to think that I'm levelheaded, and will be giving an unbiased review on the film strictly for its strengths as a film, not a fan boy that I am not. Then again, No one is immune to bias in a scenario like this, especially a big Star Wars nut. I don't think this skewed my opinion of the movie, but that's really up to you to decide.
Get it? Got it? Good? Good. Let's get to it.
The movie's good. Damn good, actually. Besides one noticeable throwaway mention early in the movie, there's almost nothing from the prequels on display. It's clear as crystal this is a course correction and a direct continuation from the original trilogy. Nothing negates the prequels, mind you, so prequel fans don't need to get immediately defensive. No, it's just that the focus is squarely on capturing the OT tone, sense of fun and adventure and continuing THAT story.
It's clear from the opening sentence of the crawl that they nailed the approach. There is mystery, intrigue and excitement before we see one actor.
One of the best things about this movie is it doesn't try to over-explain what happened in-between ROTJ and TFA. The crawl sets the stage and we get little hints and clues throughout the journey of the struggles since. There's so much richness we only glimpse that could fill a dozen cannon books or be delved into in future movies.
The big win for this movie is the new cast they gathered. It was great seeing Harrison Ford back as Han and completely owning it. Carrie Fisher brought it, too and Mark Hamill as Luke’s big reveal was a sight to behold. But we know Disney's in it for the long haul and this next generation of Star Wars actors had to nail it or we'd just get this nice little trilogy and have to figure out a reboot later down the road.
How anybody can watch this movie and not fall in love with Daisy Ridley is beyond me. She's strong, independent, but not at all cold. It doesn't feel like they decided “let's make the feminists happy” and tried to give us some stereotypical and hollow “strong woman” character just for the sake of having a strong female character. There's a depth to Rey that comes through immediately.
John Boyega is fantastic. No surprise there, he's a great actor who has been on the verge of breaking out big since he smashed onto the scene with Attack the Block. What is a surprise is how complicated his character is considering it could have easily just been another “reluctant hero” archetype. He's funny, he has a big heart, but he's scared. He knows how bad the bad guys are and just wants to get as far away from them as possible even though destiny seems to be pushing him into a direct confrontation. I can't wait to find out more about this character.
And that brings us to Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron. He's for sure the Han Solo of this new group. Full of swagger, charm and charisma. He's one of the most heroic hero types I've seen in a movie in a long time. Isaac is at Errol Flynn level of charisma right at his introduction. There is no reluctant hero journey for him. We meet him as a badass resistance fighter on a mission. He's been in this for a long time and is one of the best there is at what he does.
I know I just called Poe the new Han Solo, but what's great about the new trio is they aren't locked into one particular established role. Finn has little bits of Han, Luke, Leia and even Threepio in his personality. Poe does, too. All of them fit together as a new unit, but none of them are just substituting out for the older cast… Oh and BB-8 was cute to.
Now for the bad guys.
Kylo Ren is a great villain and I'll talk more about him in the spoiler-article, but I'm so glad he's a real threat. Unpredictable. His emotions get the best of him. He's not a cool and calculated bad guy like Darth Vader. He's much more raw and volatile. He rages when things don't go his way. There's a lot of conflict surrounding this character and it makes me really excited to see how this new trilogy expands on a lot of the ideas and themes with this villain. I’ll say this much for a man trying to run from his past and be as menacing as he is, the guy has great hair.
That said, not all of the villains get the same level of attention. Phasma isn't in the movie a whole lot and I really would have liked to see her involved a lot more. Hux is kind of one note. It's a good note and Domhnall Gleeson plays it for all it's worth, but he's a simple character without the same kind of texture someone like Tarkin had.
Snoke…. Ugh I'm on the fence about this character. I'm not a huge fan of his design, but we don't see much of him in the movie. I have a feeling Snoke's make it or break it moment as a character will come in Episode VIII.
The movie will feel very familiar to the fans but I sadly think a lot of the more snarky critics out there will roll eyes at how the skeleton of The Force Awakens is A New Hope. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, as “Creed” has proven recently. Taking the skeleton of the original and hanging a new cast and updated filmmaking can work and I think it works here.
The more I've thought about the film, the more interested I am to examine it a second time because I think there was a conscious effort to follow in the footsteps of A New Hope while subverting the structure. I can't go into any more depth about this though without talking about specifics, so again I’ll probably cover this more in the spoiler article, which will also have the benefit of being written after another viewing on my part.
There are things I don't like about the movie (spare me the pitchforks), but they're all minor and feel like nitpicks. Some scenes feel truncated and unearned to me. There's a whole lotta fan service that's so on the nose that if you're at all sensitive to that sort of thing it will make your eyeballs roll out of your skull (most of you will take it in stride, though. But for me I might as well have been The Undertaker). Coincidence... So much of what happens is by sheer Coincidence and it’s all over this movie. You can argue that the Force is guiding the events, but that's a slippery slope to anything can happen at any point no matter how unbelievable because, hey! The Force, you guys! I must also pretest I am not a fan of this films ending particularly the last 5 minutes. The whole film has been building towards this big reveal, and when it finally happens, I and some of the audience couldn’t help but feel cheated. I know it’s all being saved for the next one but after the whole journey I just went through with these characters, I was at least expecting a bit more than that, and the final shot which is doing a panning view around what is happening here I thought needed either a lot more polishing, or should’ve just ended on one character's face.
Some of that bugs me, but no matter how much I try to dwell on it I can't muster up any true negative feelings. The tone, locations, effects, characters, cinematography, pacing and attitude just feels right.
And trust me, I really tried to find stuff to dislike. I remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I re watched Phantom Menace later in life, but I also remember leaving the theater doing my damndest to overlook the main negatives with the film. The lightsaber duel was rad! John Williams' new Star Wars music was awesome. Darth Maul was cool... Um... I like Liam Neeson??
It took me 3 more viewings as a teenager before I finally admitted that it wasn't me that wasn't getting something. It just wasn't a good movie. I was very conscious of that going into The Force Awakens and as a result even the light criticisms I have right now could very well be an over-reaction.
My next viewing is Saturday evening. I'm legitimately curious how it's going to hold up. I'll likely be paying closer attention to some of Rey's development and be actively listening for John Williams' score. The only time I noticed it on first viewing was when a familiar theme would pop up, but I was so enraptured by new Star Wars imagery that the new stuff fell into the background.
No matter what, I think JJ Abrams should be commended for really setting the stage for a sequel with higher emotional stakes. It's quite the feat to say that he made a pretty self-contained story that has a beginning, middle and end (with big arcs for all the leads), but still sets up the next one without feeling like the story we watched was just a stepping stone, a means to an end.
There's a lot we still don't know by the time the credits roll and I can guarantee you that the final couple of minutes will make you desperate for Episode VIII to get here. Guarantee you.