Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, A Review

It’s real, real good. You should go see it right now.

What, you need more? Seriously, you just need to get yourself to a movie theater right away and watch this movie before people talk to you about it too much.

But if you want more out of a review than that, Dear Reader, I’ll oblige. This will be free of spoilers, though I shall assume that you know at least what you could glean from having seen the trailers and maybe a magazine article or interview on a late night talk show or two.

So how is it? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is very, very good. I’d consider it a success on every level I was wanting it to succeed at. It’s not the best movie ever, or even the best Star Wars movie ever, but it might in the top three.

What’s good about it? The familiar parts, and getting to see what the Star Wars universe is like thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi. I was actually a little apprehensive about the original cast’s return. Fortunately, they have more going on than Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. Some have only brief cameos while others have almost as much screen time as the new main characters, but Luke, Leia, and Han all have real reasons to be involved in the story beyond just turning the keys over to younger heroes. The veteran actors are clearly comfortable in their roles; I’d say that Mark Hamill gives his best performance as Luke Skywalker to date without having to utter a line of dialogue.

What’s great about it? The new stuff. The new main characters (and the actors who portray them) are strong and engaging enough to carry the film totally on their own. The acting is superb, striking just the right high-adventure tone without overdoing it. The new protagonists are similar to the characters of the original trilogy but aren’t mere duplicates of them. For example, the one most likely to be compared to Han Solo is dashing and daring but also is the furthest thing from being a smuggler who is only in it for the money.

By the end of the movie, I was even interested in the bad guy as a character and how he flips an important Star Wars dynamic. Where the original trilogy had a monolithic, evil [SPOILER] father figure in Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is youthful and emotive. Age-wise, he’s a peer to the new protagonists and essentially a kid compared to the older ones.

Does it feel like a Star Wars movie? Did JJ get it right? Most definitely! Please indulge me while I give two detailed examples (spoiler-free). You know that opening shot in A New Hope, where the rebel ship is fleeing the massive star destroyer which comes into view from overhead and seems to go on forever? It’s a cool visual that also sets the tone for both the scene and pretty much the whole franchise (plucky Rebels against the overwhelming military might of the Empire). The Force Awakens similarly opens with a cool visual that is a visual metaphor setting up the opening scene and the status quo in the galaxy. Compare those two openings to the first shot of The Phantom Menace (if you can stay awake through the trade dispute stuff in the crawl) to see how J. J. Abrams does young George Lucas better than old George Lucas did.

Second, I must reference Mr. Plinkett’s review of The Phantom Menace and his (quite correct) assertion of what makes a good light saber duel. It’s not about the special effects and fight choreography. The prequels had that stuff in spades but their fight scenes are hollow, all flash and no substance. What makes a good light saber battle is the emotional content, the investment of both the audience and the characters in conflict. Probably the best light saber duel in the series is in Return of the Jedi. When Luke starts to go berserk on Vader, it’s all about raw emotion and the confrontation between a son and his father, not elegant fighting moves. (The one and a half light saber duels in the prequels that were memorable had this emotional kind of component, too.) I’m happy to report that The Force Awakens recognizes this core feature and provides loads of emotional involvement for any characters who cross light sabers. There’s always a lot at stake, both internally and externally.

So what’s not so good? Oh, let’s not dwell on anything negative. Seriously, it’s not perfect but it’s very good. If you haven’t seen it yet, I wouldn’t want to taint your enjoyment of it. If you have seen it and are reading this review to see my take… Well, you’ll find other reviews that point out how the plot is derivative, which is a fair assessment. When I was growing up, two-thirds of all Star Wars films involved the destruction of a massive, spherical doomsday machine, so that didn’t bother me too much. The movie’s original bits are more than able to stand on their own, but it leans unnecessarily on what has come before… But on the other hand, it was very important that this film really feel like Star Wars, so I can see why they went back to what was successful. And most criticism in this regard is directed entirely at two or three aspects of the plot. I’ve seen no one complain, for example, that the First Order/Resistance conflict is clearly a way to maintain the Empire/Rebellion dynamic from the original trilogy. (It does help that this feels relatively organic, since the First Order is like die-hard space Nazis who fled to Argentina after WWII… if they had taken over South America so they could continue the war against the Allies.) It’s worth remembering, too, that repeating or echoing important themes and tropes is simply part of the mythic structure of Star Wars. Finally, while this is my biggest complaint about the film, I do think that the setup it provides for the sequels will allow them to go anywhere they need.

Is it okay for the kids? Oooh, maybe not, depending upon how young or how into Star Wars they are. It’s rated PG-13. The only other Star Wars film to get that rating was the one where [SPOILERS] the protagonist of the previous two movies kills a roomful of children and gets his arms and legs cut off by his best friend. My younglings aren’t going to see it any time soon — but, then, I am still planning to spend years working them through the other films. I do feel that if you want to share your love of Star Wars with your kids, this is not what you want to start them on; the original trilogy is much more kid-friendly and it only makes sense that you lose some context by starting on Episode VII (when, you know, Episode IV makes a much better place to begin). I’d recommend seeing it yourself first and making your own decision… but if the PG-13 rating doesn’t sway you against it, it’s probably okay to take your children.

In conclusion… Why are you still reading this? Go see it!

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