4 out of 5
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
I fully acknowledge that without the original Star Wars, not only would I likely not have a lot of the same sci-fi / fantasy shows and flicks I’ve come to love, but of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens would have no reason to exist. The first film is a classic, but not only due to its notoriety from the time: it holds up as an awe-inspiring piece of entertainment.
That fully acknowledged, here’s another thing: George Lucas was not a great filmmaker. He had some wonderful ideas, and was able to see some of those dawn on our screens in massive ways. His ideas draw from a respect for that sense of awe; they are big and archetypal ideas, and as long as they’re mapped to something similarly big and archetypal, they work. Down in the details, though, they start to crumble. Star Wars included: after a majestic sweep of an opening half, it starts to stumble over itself with soapy dramatics and amateurish edits; an issue that was almost charming with the first flick’s sense of naivety, but became destructive to the entertainment possibilities of his Big Ideas by the time he got to his prequel trilogy.
So here’s another, another thing: J.J. Abrams is a pretty damn good filmmaker. Cutting his teeth on some landmark TV shows, he’d make a notable splash with the third Mission: Impossible movie, and has given us several successful chunks of popcorn fun following. He’s especially got a proven flair for production, with his Executive Producer credit generally suggesting that something is at least worth a look. And that’s the caveat: I wouldn’t claim that Abrams has been inspirational in the way that Lucas’ seed ideas have been, nor would I say his movies are particularly thought provoking. But they are almost always entertaining, with some of them being very entertaining.
This is all to say that The Force Awakens, which could not exist without Star Wars, is probably a better movie than Star Wars. I don’t really go in for the “it’s a remake” controversy, as I think the parallels of the story to the original trilogy – discovering a ‘new hope’ for the rebellion against the Dark Side; visiting an out-of-the-way location for some sage-like guidance; a redemption throughline for a rogue-ish character; familial squabbles and reveals; a climactic fight against a planet-destroying weapon; and etc. – that these parallels are simply part of the story DNA we’ve inherited from the classic flick, and that ‘part VII’ completely revitalizes its appropriation of that DNA, mutating it into something that is its own thing. The movie has its own characters, and sets its own tone. It also builds off of George’s work, but without the sin that Return of the Jedi and the prequels started to fall into: Force Awakens doesn’t revel in it without setting up context. Sure, there are some winks here and there, but returning characters and threats are established anew, and so when some occurs regarding those returning elements, it can have impact without having to retrace our steps through the inspirations.
The popcorn entertainment claim still applies to the movie, though, as does Abrams’ penchant for flashy lights over sense on occasion. I mean, this is all in support of keeping us glued to the screen and smiling for 2.5 hours, but several of the big sets and sequences – which look great; which are hecka fun – lose a sense of geography and, at several points, the internal logic of how we got from A to C. These aren’t plot holes, exactly, just sequences that you realize (after the fact, when your heart has slowed) probably didn’t need to exactly go that way, with so many bits and pieces moving about. This especially holds true in the ticking clock element of the final showdown, during which we’re given the diminishing of a sun as a sign that the battle is over… until it’s not, and then we’re given another ticking clock, rather undermining the punch of things. The movie also has to kowtow to Avengers for making a fully digital villain – Thanos – actually menacing; supreme First Order CGI leader Snoke is just, y’know, CGI.
Meanwhile, the cast is uniformly excellent (how and why Daisy Ridley’s Rey fell under scrutiny as a Mary Sue character baffles me – she strikes such an excellent balance between the hero and the newbie, as Mark Hamill did back in the day – and her role is written to properly evolve her through those roles over the course of the flick) and this movie would likely earn an extra nod from me just because it fixes two major issues I’ve always had with the representation of the force: it makes force powers seem consistent, and when our resident Darth Vader (Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren) is doing the silent strangle bit, the force actually seems powerful, as well. In every single previous SW movie, the discrepancy between forcefully leaping about like leapy mongooses and then struggling to pick up a lightsaber always bugged me, as did the completely unimpactful way force powers were shown, which is to say: stuff would just kinda float, and not actually seem motivated by a power.
So, look: both Star Wars and Force Awakens feature a mini hero’s journey of discovery of one’s powers, teaming up with some droids and reluctant companions to take the fight to the almighty Dark Side, and trying to blow up their dang big ol’ weapons. Force Awakens might be a better film. If I did have to tell you to only see one, I… would back out of that commitment. You should see both, but maybe you can watch them in either order and still get the full effect of each.