There Will Be No Attempt to Be Spoiler Free, Here
I have been oddly struck by the fact that most of the reviews I’ve now read (I saw it last night, enabling me to read the Internet freely today) point out the same panels of strengths and weaknesses as all of the other reviews, but the end takeaways are… vastly different depending upon the person writing the thing.
That is, the “thing that was a strength” was regarded as a strength by almost everybody, and the weaknesses were as well (there’s a little crossover, but not too much)… but how the reviewer felt about the strengths or weaknesses had a huge impact on their feeling about the movie. For a couple of examples, look here for a negative review and here for a positive one. The details remarkably similar, the end verdict not at all.
For me, by far the biggest question I had walking into this movie was, “When I walk out of this movie, am I going to know if J.J. Abrams is going to ruin something I loved as a child or not?”
And… well.. yeah. That question wasn’t answered.
I don’t know.
Looking at this movie as laying a foundation… the foundation was okay. My interpretation of “J.J. Abrams Style” in both Star Trek and Star Wars is that his first movie in a franchise is his attempt to reset our expectations. I agree with Tod (and a great number of other folks on the Internet) when I say that in this sense, the movie really **was** just like the reboot of Star Trek.
Even taking that into account, I’m really disappointed with the movie because I don’t know any more about what sort of Star Wars movie J.J. Abrams will make than I knew when I walked into the theater last night.
But to some extent – I’m okay with that. Sort of. But that feeling is why I didn’t walk out of the theater really enjoying the movie as much as I might have otherwise.
Because it is a good fun ride, in and of itself.
One of the differences between making a stand-alone movie and making a movie that is part of a franchise – let alone a cultural phenomenon – is that you aren’t just making a movie that will stand on its own merits. You are making a movie that will stand on whether or not folks believe it fits into the franchise (or the cultural phenomenon). That’s a lot of moving targets to hit.
It is necessary to create something that evokes the original in a way that the folks who adore the original can identify with wholly and deeply. It is probably (to judge from the enormously positive reviews) also sufficient.
You don’t have to make a really good movie. You have to make a good Star Wars movie. In many ways, this can be harder than just making a good movie!
And to be fair, a good Star Wars movie can be a good Star Wars movie… and still have a bunch of pretty common weaknesses. If you lived in a hypothetical alternative universe which was “Star Wars free” until 2015, and you saw the first movie as an adult with the polish this movie has for updated effects (so you had no particular “low expectations for effects to be completely blown away”) you’d probably say, something along the lines of:
“Huh. It was good. Some of the dialogue was pretty bad. I did feel like I was in a galaxy that wasn’t mine, which is a neat movie-going trick when most folks are human and speak English. That Vader guy is a pretty badass and memorable villain. Some (finite number of) scenes really struck me as impressive.”
I feel this movie is fairly comparable to that. For better and worse.
On the other hand, I thought the foundation for J.J.’s take on the Star Trek franchise was okay (far less okay than this one, but okay) … and I wound up really disliking Star Trek: Into Darkness (and I think the trailer for the next Star Trek movie looks worse).
There, he took something that had a particular meaning to me growing up and made something else that has a different particular meaning. Reminds me very much of the Mission: Impossible movies that way, which were at least marginally entertaining action movie fare but by God they bore no resemblance at all to the things I liked about Mission: Impossible.
The jury is still out on what sort of Star Wars movie J.J. Abrams can make when he’s trying to make his own movie, which should be coming up with the sequel. Based upon Trek, I’m worried (but J.J. never really claimed to be a Trek fan and he has claimed to be a Star Wars fan… so I’m worried, but still hopeful.)
In the case of this movie, what I heard was J.J. saying in my ear, “Here’s what you’re going to get with my Star Wars movies. You’re going to get movies that remind you of Star Wars: A New Hope and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and *not* Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”.
There are things to like about that.
Some rundown of particular likes and dislikes. Dislikes first:
I agree a few folks that the pacing was sub-par in this movie. Way too much happened, way too fast. J.J. went too far in incorporating old plot devices, and some of them just took away from other things that could have made the movie better. We didn’t really need *all* of those old plot devices.
Chris specifically points out the blown Han Solo caper that resulted in the devil octopi release on the freighter as something that wasn’t necessary.
I mostly agree… it wasn’t.
Something was necessary there, though: something to show us that Han had regressed (and more than a little bit!) back to his old self of the first Star Wars than the self of Return of the Jedi: back to being more of a scoundrel than a hero. His resurrection back to hero then could play out over this movie. This particular version took too much screen time and could have been done in ways that could have been just as entertaining, while leaving more reel space for Rey or Finn.
Shoot, a weary Han explaining some of his recent busted capers would have been more fun to watch anyway and would have been shorter. I was reminded of the only scene I liked in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: the scene where Indy is being interrogated fairly early on and there’s a couple of quick allusions to some other Indy adventures that happened between Last Crusade and Skull that you never will get to see… but just seeing Harrison Ford talk about these adventures let me imagine whole movies that were better than Skull.
I have forgiven how bad the rest of Crystal Skull was, for that one section of three minutes. I got three movies I liked in my head for the one on screen I didn’t.
Man, that was a lost opportunity in The Force Awakens.
I hated the stupid plot device of the Millennium Falcon winding up just happening to sit on the same planet where the droid with the secret plans winds up *and* Han Solo happens to be looking for his ship right about the same time that the two intrepid heroes make off with his old ship. That is a contrivance that’s almost as bad as the Tattoine contrivance in The Phantom Menace.
That was a terrible hill to climb out of very early on. Don’t freakin’ knock me out of your fictional universe by making something that implausible, unless you’re going to actually start incorporating some serious Destiny talk (and Destiny talk is really dangerous, it didn’t work out well in the I-III movies at all). Better to just avoid it.
Have Rey and Finn escape on a piece of junk that was an *earlier* iteration of the Falcon, say a Corellian YT-1000 instead of a 1300. The uber-nerds would have got the reference, and you could make it look a lot like the Falcon for everybody else. It would have given us the ability to see Rey do all the stuff she did in the beginning of the movie, her technical competency (we all know how unreliable YTs are), similar set, etc. Then you have the piece of junk give up the ghost… only to be docked by the *actual* Falcon with Han and Chewie. That would have let basically the entire beginning of the movie be the same, without the contrivance being so blatant and jarring.
But then not too many folks are complaining about this so maybe it’s just me.
(Have I mentioned that I hate the Tattoine contrivance in TPM?)
I really didn’t like the ‘roided out uber-Death Star. First, that was a plot device that has already been shown twice to be a strategic and tactical problem. But okay, even that isn’t as big of a problem as the fact that it went completely widdershins to the rest of the technology expectations that were set by the rest of the movie.
In the rest of the movie, just about everything technological is more like A New Hope than The Phantom Menace, more Firefly than Star Trek: The Next Generation. Gritty and utilitarian and advanced, sure, but not slick and very advanced and nearly godlike in comparison.
The X-wings still mostly look and act like X-wings, the Tie Fighters mostly look and act like Tie Fighters. The blasters look a little more slick, as does the Stormtrooper armor… but mostly it looks like, well, about what you might think 30 years worth of development might give you in an advanced technology society that’s been dealing with ongoing war. Lots of stuff is a little bit better, many things are battered and beaten up versions of things that have been around for a while. The slick Stormtrooper armor still gets dings and scratches and scorch marks. And then…
The Starkiller Base is enormously larger than the second Death Star, it eats actual stars, and blows up entire solar systems with one salvo. (What do you need to shoot at planets for? Just show up and suck their sun down. All the folks on the planets will perish and you won’t have to bother with all that pesky aiming and whatnot. Heck, you won’t even have to come close to *finishing* eating a solar systems’ main star before you’ve probably rendered the entire local system completely uninhabitable. Just after arriving at the local system you’ve accomplished your goal and you sat around vulnerable for a fraction of the time.) It just doesn’t… jibe… with the feeling of the rest of the “tech space”.
How did you get that built in 30 years, when everything else is mostly comparable to what we had thirty years ago? This would be like WWII being decided by nukes when the ground troops were still riding cavalry and using single shot muskets.
I hated the fact that I knew Han Solo was doomed 20 minutes into the movie. The parallels to A New Hope/Empire Strikes Back were so blatant that it was gobsmackingly obvious that Han was in the role of Obi Wan and Rey was Luke (for all practical purposes), and that immediately meant to me that he was doomed. Having Leia specifically ask him to try and bring Ben back really was overkill on the “YOU SHOULD KNOW HAN ISN’T MAKING IT OUT OF THIS ONE BY NOW”.
Also, because the death of the character was far too telegraphed, it took away a lot of the impact from the actual death scene. All the dramatic build-up of him walking out on the bridge and the dialogue between him and Kylo was wasted. There was no tension there, not for me anyway. YMMV.
(To be fair, I had a suspicion that Han was dead meat when Harrison Ford was reportedly enthusiastic about signing onto the movie in the first place. He has never had a lot of love for playing his second most iconic character.)
I missed Lando and Wedge. Given the importance of their roles in the second Battle of the Death Star, I did expect some sort of reference. They would not have faded away entirely in the last thirty years. Han and Leia could have had at least a throwaway line, maybe Leia’s ship could have been named the Antilles. Something.
I didn’t particularly like the incorporation of Artoo or Threepio. Too klunky. It wasn’t *bad*, but from a storytelling standpoint you could have made those both more graceful. Having Artoo be stuck in hibernate mode was annoyingly simple to the point of being silly. The “Deus Ex” of Artoo just happening to have basically the Empire’s entire archive of everything in his memory from hacking the Death Star in the first movie is, frankly, kind of dumb, given that nothing of that was brought out in Empire or Return. Another script draft could have done wonders here.
The lack of backstory about The Big Bad was annoying. You didn’t really *need* an explanation for the Emperor in the original trilogy, it’s pretty stock stuff – Evil Emperors don’t require much work to get into your story. But generally in any movie asking “Wait, where the heck did this guy come from?” is not a question you should be walking out of the movie thinking about when it comes to a Primal Mover. For a movie in a franchise, sometimes this can be hand-waved away “He’s the next SPECTRE bad guy”, but the mythology of the Dark Side of the Force is something that’s been built up for years, and much of it explicitly discarded with a lot of the Extended Universe, so feeling like you might be inventing this as you go is not a good sign. Count Dooku had this same problem, in the prequels. Not only did they not tell us where he came from, they didn’t even drop a thread to give us a sense that they’d worked it out before wrapping the script.
I very much liked the idea of returning to the environmental style of the first movie, with natural sets (perhaps with some big effect-driven things in the background). I found the obvious CGI environments of I-III off-putting. There’s a trick to grounding me into a movie: show me a real world set that has some neat stuff edited in, and I buy it. Show me actors who are actually acting entirely in front of a green screen the entire time with almost no real world sets involved, and I get knocked out of the movie. Avatar: bleagh.
I thought Kylo’s fall to the Dark Side was explicated better in this movie than Anakin’s was in the prequels (which was terrible). Not perfect, but workable.
For “the best part”:
I much prefer Rey as the character on The Hero’s Journey than Luke. She’s awesome, and not just for all the reasons Maribou related in her review, but also because she’s just a whole damn lot more interesting than Luke was at the same stage in the journey.
On that simple metric alone, this is a far better movie than the original Star Wars.
If the next two movies play out well, that could make this trilogy better than all the other movies that came before it. Finn’s no Han Solo or Leia, but on the other hand I don’t think we need another weird love triangle in this set of movies so having Finn be the straight sidekick/co-hero/maybe companion is fine by me.
Finn’s character needs a little work, but at the worst you still can’t accuse him of being a stock character. They haven’t given him enough time, but what we have so far isn’t bad at all.
BB-8 was reasonably cool, if somewhat redundant if Artoo is around. This can be worked into a comedy duo, maybe. Not sure what J.J. is going to do with this in the next two movies. Might not bode well for Artoo in the series…
Postscript: I have some problems with the fact that we don’t know enough about The First Order and the Resistance. The dynamics that got us from Return of the Jedi to here are mostly inscrutable. This might turn out to be okay, however, over the next two movies… because Rey and Finn are our compatriots here. The dynamics are mostly inscrutable to Rey and Finn, and we’re supposed to be along for *their* journey in this series, so we should get there from a storytelling perspective in the next two movies, and not explaining it all here works fine if they deliver over the next two.