This review contains many spoilers.
I want to start out by saying that I really was expecting, even hoping, to dislike The Force Awakens.
Entering the theater a cynical, somewhat bitter middle-aged man, I fully expected to be able to take my distaste for the other work of J. J. Abrams (particularly, his atrocious 2009 Star Trek reboot), and Disney, and recycled nostalgia in general, and throw it directly at the screen.
An original fan of Star Wars -- I saw the first one perhaps a dozen times in the theater -- and pretty much agree with the critical consensus about the prequels. Their utter failure led me to believe that the things I loved most about Episode IV had, for the most part, little to do with big-budget filmmaking, but were the result of giving a bunch of really brilliant costume and set designers and cinematographers and editors and sound designers a lot of creative control and a relatively low budget -- a situation unlikely to be replicated in a truly big film, an important investment where none of the investing parties would want to take any significant risks.
I was wrong, and I'm still somewhat troubled by that. Is The Force Awakens a good movie, or was I just primed by my age and the bad experience with the prequels to suck up something relatively bad and call it good, simply because it lacks the awfulness of the prequels, and smells a lot like the 1977 original? I don't think I can actually answer that question, definitively, at least not easily because really taking that up requires me to think critically about the original 1977 Star Wars, something I find hard to do, given the way the film imprinted itself upon my nine-year-old brain. Is it really all that and a bag of chips? Or did it just land at the right time to be the formative movie of my childhood?
One of my sons is nine, by the way. He enjoyed the new movie, but I don't think it blew his mind the way the original Star Wars blew mine, simply because we have, ever since 1977, lived in the era that had Star Wars in it.
To be clear -- it's not the case that there weren't big action movies back then, and big science fiction movies back then. We had movies like 2001: a Space Odyssey, which also formed my tastes. We had Silent Running. We had Logan's Run. But it would be impossible to overstate the shock wave of Star Wars -- the innovative effects, editing, and yes, even marketing. We just can't go back to that world. He's seen a lot of things that are Star Wars-ish, while in 1977, I never had.
And make no mistake, the new Star Wars is, most definitely, Star Wars-ish, in the way that the prequels were not. The world of the prequels was too clean, to sterile, too political, and too comic. Star Wars may have been the single most successful blending of genres ever attempted; a recent article called it "postmodern," and I think that is correct. The prequels might have been attempts at post-modern, too, but they seem to have a different set of influences, and just seem, in every respect, to have been assembled lazily, and without artfulness. For just one example, see how one of the prequel lightsaber battle scenes was actually filmed.
The Force Awakens follows the 1977 formula so closely that it is perilously close to coming across as a kind of remake or pastiche of the original. But it is not that. It is actually an homage to the original. There are a lot of parallel details and actual "easter eggs," where props make cameos, audio clips from the original movies are sprinkled into the new one. In one of my favorite moments, on Starkiller base we hear a clip from the first movie, "we think they may be splitting up." Some reviewers have made their reviews catalogs of these moments, and consider this excessive, complaining about the "nostalgia overload." But although it is noticeable, I think the producers knew just how much nostalgia would be appreciated, and how much would become annoying, and walked that line very well. The film re-creates the world where Han Solo and Leia Organa will not look out of place. And when Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher actually appear on screen, the weight of almost 40 years suddenly lands on me, and it's a gut punch. I must have gotten something in my eye.
While Solo is an important character in this film, Leia has very few scenes, and the action centers largely around new characters. The casting is what you might call modern. No one could claim that Rey is not a strong, compelling female character. Daisy Ridley's acting in this movie is very impressive. Without her strong performance, we'd be prone to spend time musing on the oddness of her almost-absent back-story. As it is, we aren't really given a lot of time to meditate on such things, because she keeps very busy, kicking ass and taking names.
John Boyega as Finn is good too, although he doesn't seem, to me, to quite inhabit his character the way Ridley inhabits Rey. And so I find myself spending a little time wondering about the gaps and inconsistencies in his character's back-story. He describes himself as a sanitation worker. If that's true, why is he on the landing craft in the movie's opening scenes, part of the First Order interplanetary SWAT team sent to Jakku to retrieve the MacGuffin? He's supposedly a low-level worker on Starkiller base, but he knows how to disable the shields? He's a stormtrooper, trained since birth to kill, but unable to kill. Has he never been "blooded" before? We're unfortunately reminded that this doesn't actually make a lot of sense. Of course this is true of many elements of the original trilogy. The key to making that kind of thing not matter, for a Star Wars movie, is to keep everything happening so fast that the audience doesn't have time to worry about all that.
The story moves along quickly and we meet one of the most interesting characters, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. Driver plays an adolescent, and puts Hayden Christiansen's portrayal of Anakin to utter shame -- although one senses that much of Christiansen's failure may have been due to Lucas's poor direction of the young actor. Driver is completely compelling on-screen, and his scenes with Ridley are just mesmerizing. I really can't say enough good things about them. I've seen two screenings now, and I would happily see it again, just to watch those two characters interact. It's really impressive.
That's really enough to hang a movie on -- a few really great performances, a few good performances, some terrific scenes, and no scenes that are actually bad. (Howard Hawks famously said that to make a good movie, you needed three good scenes and no bad ones; The Force Awakens exceeds that requirement).
Of course, there are a lot of confusing, unconvincing, and unwieldy things about this film. For example, Rey is much stronger in the ways of the force, and a very powerful fighter, right off the bat. She's grown up on Jakku, apparently spending years alone, and entirely untrained, while in the original trilogy we watched Luke start off with some talent for using the Force, but not much skill, and get trained up like Rocky Balboa. How did this come to pass? Well, it's a mystery we just have to accept for now. Maybe she had a lot of karate classes as a very young child. I maintain that when a movie likes this leaves things unexplained, the audience will do the work for the screenwriters and make it work -- if the audience has decided to side with the movie and help it along. And if they haven't, no amount of rationalization will explain away the inevitable plot holes in a satisfying way. This movie has done such a good job at entertaining the audience, and introducing a compelling character early on, that we as the audience are pretty happy to go along, and willing to make a few allowances and give it the benefit of the doubt. With the prequels, we were bored and full of doubt, for good reasons.
There are a few flaws that I think are worth noting. The movie is just slightly too long. The reawakening of Artoo-Detoo, just after the destruction of the big bad Starkiller base, allowing the plot to continue with a literal deus ex machina -- is just slightly too silly.
What is up with Kylo Ren's helmet, and Captain Phasma's helmet? One of the notable things about the Empire was the extreme precision and cleanliness of the costumes, including the stormtrooper helmets and Darth Vader's helmets. But in the new movie, Ren's helmet is dinged and dented, with chipped paint, and Phasma's helmet is covered in fingerprints. It's not accidental; even the action figures of Kylo Ren have molded-in dents, and there is no way that someone simply forgot to polish Phasma's helmet; such an error would certainly be caught. They were made to look that way deliberately, in stark contrast to the other uniforms and suits of armor. Why is that?
There are some scenes with the Resistance, preparing X-wing fighters, that look like they were literally shot on the site of a freeway overpass; that reminded me of the way J. J. Abrams decided it was a good idea to use a brewery for the engine room of the Enterprise -- an incredibly dumb, unconvincing, revisionist look for the Engineering set. The Imperial wreckage on Jakku -- both Imperial Star Destroyers and the walkers from the invasion of Hoth in Empire -- is nostalgic, but bizarre.
There are some coincidences that feel just a little too coincidental. How did Luke's lightsaber wind up in Maz's basement, in an unlocked trunk, in an otherwise empty room?
Starkiller Base makes very little sense; the physics of it just don't work, in any reasonable universe. The Resistance leaders explain that it sucks up "the sun" -- not "the nearest star" -- in a galaxy with billions of suns, in a film set on multiple planets, around multiple stars, the producers apparently don't trust the audience to understand how stars and planets work; don't confuse them!
But none of this is really a deal-breaker, because the movie moves so fast, and is so willing to break things. Which brings me to the biggest spoiler of all.
The movie kill Han Solo. Yes, they went there. It was at that moment that the film won me over completely. It was a brave move, and it needed to happen. The screenwriters, including Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on Empire, knew very well that if the audience was to take this movie seriously, it would need to show them that it was serious. That's what the death of Han Solo means. Harrison Ford -- who, by the way, is excellent in this film -- has a terrific death. This is also the reason that, for episode IX to work, the screenwriters will have to kill another major character -- most likely, General Leia -- in the first ten minutes.
Given the impressive start to that trilogy, I believe they will do the right thing -- and it will be glorious. And we'll regard the prequels as an unfortunate, non-canon interlude, a mere glitch, in the continuity of the Star Wars story -- and Lucas will continue his slide into irrelevant lunacy.
And meanwhile, as I approach fifty, I still have to wonder. What was the point of Star Wars? Was it ever anything resembling a genuine artistic statement, or was it always a coldly calculated money-grabbing machine, powered by myth, in which Lucas figured out how to monetize the scholarship of Joseph Campbell? Was Star Wars ever actually about anything? Was it "real" art, more than a dizzying whirlwind of entertainment, built on genre tropes and with very little in it that was groundbreaking but the improved technology of movie-making?
Was I simply bamboozled, as a child, into imagining that I was seeing a piece of art, something meaningful? If so, does it matter? Is that dizzying whirlwind of entertainment, blended with a calculated human story arc, really enough? Can real art ever be made out of genre fiction? How about Tolkien? What about smashed-together, postmodern genre fiction? Is it just screenwriting that somehow loses the status of "art?" If I enjoy both Moby Dick and Star Wars, is there something wrong with me?
And, if these distinctions don't matter, and the Disney corporation buys George Lucas's property for four billion dollars, knowing they will turn enormous profits on that investment for decades, and makes us a compelling Star Wars entirely cynically, built literally out of the formulaic building blocks of the original, but it works as well, as wonderfully -- distractingly, entertainingly, wonderfully -- as the original, does that matter? And what does it say about art, and about its audience?