A bit of a preamble. This normally would not be necessary, but because of the nature of the film I'm reviewing and the cultural significance attached to it, I think it is necessary to be up-front about where I'm coming from.
I'm a huge Star Wars fan. In my eyes the original series was a fantastic study in character-driven storytelling. The actual plot for each movie is almost laughably simple, and the acting isn't stellar. It is the characters that drove the story -- their vicious struggles, crushing defeats and uplifting victories that drive the plot. It isn't the fantastic acting, unique plot or gorgeous visuals that make Star Wars a timeless classic. It is the characters and our relationships with them and how they fit into and change the world around them. Unique and strange destinations and side characters littered the series. The music infused the whole trilogy with a sense of adventure and wonder that penetrated even the darkest moments of the story. In short, the presentation affirmed and enriched the characters in the movie.
Star Wars: The Franchise Awakens
J.J. Abrams has tried his hand at revitalizing Sci Fi cult classics in the past. Star Trek and Into Darkness brought a new look and feel to the franchise while paying respect to the originals.
Although it worked for Star Trek, the past 18 months have been filled with speculation as to whether he could do the same with Star Wars. Fans had been burned three times over with the prequel trilogy where, even after the release of several trailers, worries still persisted.
When I saw those iconic words in blue against a black background appear on the big screen for the first time in a decade, I could barely contain my excitement. And yet amid that excitement, lingered a small kernel of fear. Fear that it would be another Episode 1. Fear that my expectations would would not be met.
Fear leads to anger... anger leads... you get the rest.
My Frank and Subjective Review
After three viewings of the film (take a wild guess at whether I liked the movie or not...) I felt I had done enough introspection to give a detailed review.
The 7th installment in the series had planetary shoes to fill. With cultural baggage ranging across a whole generation, making the ideal sequel to the beloved franchise was like hitting a moving target, no larger than two meters across, no less. It could not make everyone happy.
But it made me happy. Here are my thoughts:
It Didn't Try to Reinvent the Universe
Within seconds of the memorable text crawl at the beginning I was thrown back into a universe I knew and loved. I was treated to imagery that was both iconic yet familiar. I was swept away by the soundtrack and captivated by the new and the alien.
There is valid criticism that Abrams may have taken too much from the original series, and that he went too far in paying homage to episodes 4-6. Despite how many fans (including myself) enjoyed the references and parallels, this is perhaps the film's largest weakness.
J.J. Abrams truly respects the craft of filmmaking, sticking to practical effects when he can and relying on special effects to enhance, not replace, footage in the scene. In the film, Abrams hits an excellent balance between making things feel old and gritty, while including some new shiny technology for us to ogle over.
With the exception of a few examples mid-way through the film, I never felt like the effects pulled me out of the world I was viewing on the big screen.
A Focus on Characters
There are two major stories that can be told. The first is a plot-driven story where characters are along for the ride. The second is where characters drive the story.
It is my firm belief that the original Star Wars trilogy was heavily character-driven. At its core, the plot of the original series was quite basic. What made them unique and timeless were their characters. I'm not talking about their acting ability but their characterizations, and their interactions with other characters.
To that point, one of my biggest criticisms for episodes 1-3 was the lack of proper character development. The characters were shallow, often aimless. The only character with real growth was Anakin Skywalker, but his core character arcs (his romance with Padme and fall to the Dark Side) were disjointed, abrupt and unbelievable.
This was where Episode 7 truly shines, and is by far the most important element of the movie in my eyes. I felt that every character started out with a rich and interesting past, and that throughout the film we witnessed change in them all the way to the end, where we understood where they were going next.
In fact, Abrams did an excellent job introducing characters throughout the film. Every character had backstory artfully hidden without adding (too much) exposition.
Finn and Rey were fantastic in this movie. I enjoyed their transformations throughout the film and bought the friendship that they built.
Both of the characters had their own unique wishes, wants and needs. Their paths crossed and their differences made for both entertaining and relatable moments of character growth. They had fears and desires that were shown, not told.
Likewise, Poe and Finn had excellent chemistry. It doesn't hurt that Poe Dameron ended up being one of the most easily likable and optimistic characters in the series, but the bromance these two strike up at one point in the film left me grinning. I only wish I could make new BFFs so quickly!
BB-8 honestly stole the show at times. He was funny and lighthearted (producing one of the funniest moments in the series) while avoiding the preposterous scene-stealing quagmire of dumb slapstick that was Jar Jar.
BB-8 didn't have the sassy attitude of R2-D2, and this actually worked in his favor. It was not just "another R2-D2", it was its own unique and entertaining character.
Old Characters Were Real Characters
This seems like an obvious point to make, but I feel harder to pull off than one would think. Han Solo and the gang were not placed in the movie simply to point to the new characters and yell "Hey! Look at these guys! Aren't they neat?"
The original cast of Han, Leia, Chewbacca, C3PO, R2-D2 and others (that I leave out some more obvious than others to avoid spoilers) don't feel tacked on.
There are a few appearances that feel more for nostalgia's sake, and one or two instances of characters coming back or returning as a form of minor deus ex machina that I wasn't totally pleased with (Carefully worded to, again, avoid any spoilers.)
That said, Han, Chewie and Leia have their own lives in this story. They have been active, out and about doing Star Warsy things. They bring sincere value to the film, beyond acting merely as storytelling plot-points to introduce and endear the new characters to us. I think that was the only way they could have existed in this new trilogy without feeling out of place.
Interesting and Complex Villains
Kylo Ren, Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma and General Hux are all on the other side of the fence, and for the most part I enjoy what they bring to the story.
Kylo Ren quickly distinguishes himself from Darth Vadar in many key ways. While Vadar had been a part of the Empire for 20-30 years by the time Episode 4 begins, Ren is clearly less experienced and thus his behavior, beliefs and struggles are all quite different.
Unlike the prequels, which had a different EBBG (Evil Big Bad Guy) with each film, Star Wars: TFA more closely follows the original trilogy and has villains with lasting power. Many are destined to last two or all three films as imminent and powerful threats. I think this keeps the series focused and we get a richer, more dangerous opposition for the protagonists.
The First Order in general feels dangerous, but it is not entirely clear how much of the original empire they had sequestered under their banner, making it hard to determine how much of a threat they are.
It was easy to establish how big and scary the Empire was because of its reach and resources. The same cannot really be said about about the First Order. They do a bunch of big and scary stuff, and certainly have ample resources to pull of more big and scary things, but I didn't get a sense for how much of a threat they are by the end of the movie.
I will say I am a bit disappointed with Phasma's character, who gets much less screen time than she deserved. As with several characters in earlier Star Wars movies, there are simply too many cool characters, but it is a shame when particularly bad-ass players, like Boba Fett, aren't used to their potential.
Well Executed Trailers
Trailers can infuse early interest in a movie, build hype and prepare viewers for what kind of movie they should expect. They also have the power to ruin key plot points and outright misrepresent the movie.
I have always held Captain America: Winter Soldier to have one of the better trailers because most of the footage and plot points shown in the trailer are from the first act. This is crucial, you don't want to give away too much in a trailer. In fact, Winter Soldier went further and allowed the viewer to make assumptions based on what they saw. While the trailer did not deceive the audience, it did allow them to draw false conclusions on their own. I still felt like the movie delivered on its promises, but the plot was more intense and complex than I had led myself to believe. Discovering the truth was part of the fun.
While TFA includes several fight scenes from the last act, the majority of them are fairly harmless and reveal few details of the plot itself. As I've said before, the plot is actually fairly basic in this movie and most of the action happens in the characters themselves, so very little is actually revealed in the trailers. Most of the establishing shots are from the first act, and several shots are stacked one after the other and, while visually appealing, have little or nothing to do with each other in the film.
The Plot Doesn't Interfere With the Characters
Sometimes, when we have a vision of how a story should end there is this temptation to compromise the characters of a story to meet those expectations. This was one of my bigger complaints about the prequel trilogy. When a character breaks from the norm without adequate reason described in the story, it breaks our suspension of belief.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a fairly basic story. We see the Hero's Journey throughout. One could make many parallels between the major story points in this movie and Episode 4, even down to the character types that are presented to us.
The plot is effectively a vehicle to move characters from place to place allowing them to interact, fight and overcome their personal struggles. While I am happy we aren't experiencing long trade negotiations, the film offers us a much smaller scope than previous movies.
As much as I rag on the prequels, they at least explore many other conflicts and broaden the universe in ways unique to the franchise. You get a glimpse of a lot of pieces of a universe in TFA, but at the sacrifice of a larger picture.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was set to very high standards. While I know many left dissatisfied with the simple, often derivative plot, I found returning to this galaxy far, far away a real treat. The worlds were more beautiful, the effects tasteful and inspiring, the new characters relatable and appealing.
J.J. Abrams set out to create a film that paid homage to the classic trilogy. I think he did more than that, I think he created a movie that fans of both original trilogies can enjoy while setting up the next two movies.
The movie is not without its flaws. Some characters did not live up to expectations. More than one minor deus ex machina was offered in the guise of fanfare. But having flaws does not mean the film cannot still be great.
Star Wars Episode 7 was a great, flawed movie.
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