Three decades after the fall of the Galactic Empire, conflict still ravages the stars. The First Order – a group dedicated to restoring the Empire’s rule, seeks to destroy the newly-formed Republic and the Resistance which protects it. A defector and a young scavenger must join forces with the now-legendary heroes of the old Alliance to thwart the Order’s ambitions and learn the location of Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi.
While The Force Awakens is somewhat outside our normal purview, it would be bad form for any site dedicated to nerdery to ignore the most hotly anticipated science fantasy film of the year. This review doesn’t contain any significant spoilers. However, it does discuss scenes and plot details, so if you want to avoid any and all outside information before you see the film, please wait until after you’ve seen it to read this review.
Like many fans of Star Wars, I had early reservations about the sequel trilogy. Between the directorship of J.J. Abrams, the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, and the continued bad blood left over from the prequels, there were many reasons to be skeptical. Fortunately, everyone involved seems to have understood the weight of their undertaking, and the end result is quite good. It may not be transcendent, but it absolutely lives up to the legacy of its forebears and does a fine job of opening up a new chapter in the saga.
The plot of The Force Awakens is solid, though some may find it a bit too focused on reliving the highlights of the original trilogy. Each scene is handled well enough on its own, but taken together, the lengths to which the film bends over backwards to fit in its various homages can get obnoxious. This doesn’t become a serious issue until near the end, and by then I was certainly invested enough to forgive it, but I definitely left the theater thinking about all the contrivances needed to make the story work out the way it did.
For the most part, the script and writing works, even if it is a little hokey. Since this is what most of us have come to expect from Star Wars over the years, this isn’t a problem, and is endearing in its own way. Characters sometimes carry on longer than they should, and the dialog can get a bit too cheesy at times, but it works overall and never approaches the groan-inducing level of Episode II.
Visually, the film is pretty much everything you could hope for from a modern, big-budget homage to the 1977 original: great costuming, varied and impressive sets, and ships and vehicles that feel like a logical evolution of the old favorites with a few minor tweaks. The ship-to-ship battles are among the best in the entire series, and they’re thrilling to watch. Ground battles are still pretty much World War II in space, but still feel exciting, and the Stormtroopers have even learned what cover is in the intervening years since the fall of the Empire.The lightsaber fights are easily the best and most grounded since Return of the Jedi. Most of the tiresome jumping and flipping around from the over-long duels in the prequels is gone, replaced with less skillful but more brutal combat. Abrams’ style of cinematography works for the most part, though there were moments where I felt it drifted too much towards the frenetic camera work seen in his Star Trek reboots. At least the lens flares have been dialed back this time.
The characters and the actors behind them do a solid job, and I’m looking forward to seeing where their stories go from here. Former Stormtrooper Finn and scavenger Rey are compelling and have distinct goals and personalities that set them apart from the heroes of the past. If there is one complaint I can level here, it’s that Finn’s personality doesn’t change as much over the course of the movie as his background would suggest. I feel there could have been done to highlight his evolution after fleeing his villainous superiors, but actor John Boyega plays him as a flawed yet likeable everyman that is fun to watch. Daisy Ridley as Rey is excellent, and manages to avoid falling into the trap of being either a token female presence or the generic badass action girl, though she lacks significant development for the time being. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher slip nicely back into their respective roles as Han and Leia, though Leia has less to do than her counterparts.
Somewhat surprisingly, the most intriguing character turn is by Adam Driver as the new Dark Side warrior Kylo Ren. His background and personality serve as a direct compare/contrast to other villains in the series so far, but his actions give him a legitimate character of his own. As the new Darth Vader stand-in, he serves his purpose well, and his whole existence seems to be hanging a lampshade on the question of whether or not anyone could step into the boots of cinema’s most recognizable villain. Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma also boasts a great villainous presence, but doesn’t get nearly as much time as she probably deserves. This is likely a deliberate nod to another well-known Star Wars figure, but it doesn’t make it easier to swallow.
The Force Awakens is a fine film that is far better than I’d feared, if not as amazing as I’d hoped. It’s characters are engaging and interesting on their own merits, and it appears that they will have the opportunity to forge their own identities as the series continues. The film is visually fantastic and great fun to watch, even if it lacks a bit of substance under all the flash. It stands up alright on its own, but will likely work better as part of the continuing series. There are certainly flaws, but most of these are part of the film’s DNA as a follow-up to the most iconic blockbuster of the past half-century.
There is far more that could be said about the movie, but that would require a much more in-depth breakdown, and I’d prefer to avoid spoilers until it has been out for longer. I’ve read some reviews that take issue with aspects of certain characters, and I’d like to give my own take on them once things settle down. For now, enjoy the film and have a happy holiday season!
Final Verdict – RECOMMENDED
- A smart and entertaining continuation of the series
- Enjoyable and exciting characters
- Great action and excellent visuals
- The plot is generally a “best of” earlier films’ stories
- Some characters lack satisfying development
- Works a little too hard to set up its sequels rather than being a good movie on its own
Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens