in Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

That seems fast, doesn’t it? It’s already been two months since Star Wars tickets went on sale, a year since the first trailer debuted, and over three years since George Lucas “divorced” himself from his legacy. Star Wars has become a massive institution again, with a new show on the Disney Channel, plans to get a movie out every year for the rest of time, and enough marketing agreements that pretty much anything you buy right now could be Star Wars branded, if you want it. Which I do. We all knew this would happen someday, but I can’t believe that day is already here, that I’ve already seen The Force Awakens, that the events following the destruction of the second Death Star are officially written. Funny how that always seems to happen, like how it felt the first Avengers movie took forever to come out and then the second one was out pretty much a week later.

But I’ll skip my further ruminations on the franchise, fandom, and the temporal nature of life, and instead focus on answering the single question at the heart of every review: Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens a good movie? I believe the answer is an unequivocal yes, though the degree of that goodness depends on your expectations. Personally, I took director JJ Abrams’ previous work on the 2009 Star Trek as my measure for success; a movie that pours excitement and adventure into a series that needed a kick, while still showing respect and fondness for everything that came before it. And also it would be nice if he didn’t do anything dumb like make the female lead strip down to her underwear for no reason, which is something he did in both Star Treks, JJ, that ol’ perv.

Absolutely, 100%, yes, Star Wars is back and fun like it hasn’t been in ages. As weird as it might sound, I think The Force Awakens is at its best right at the start as it introduces us to new characters who undoubtedly hundreds of morbidly obese men will dress up as for decades to come. There’s Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a X-wing pilot whose skills are as great as his snarky comebacks. He’s looking after a little droid called BB-8, that ball thing you’ve seen in the ads who’s more akin to WALL-E than R2-D2. They meet up with ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), a delightfully desperate young man with a strong sense of what’s right. Soon enough his path will cross with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young scavenger with the skills to pay the bills. All the while the evil First Order is up to some bad stuff, as led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a big Darth Vader fan.

I think that’s about all I’m legally allowed to write about the plot at this point without covering the site in spoiler alerts, but trust me, the new characters are great. And frankly the whole spoiler concern thing is a bit ridiculous, as every major twist and turn this story took is one I think anyone will see coming from a mile away – to the point where at our sold out Cinerama show, during the biggest scene in the movie, I don’t think I heard a single person gasp or laugh or anything. You could feel that moment’s inevitability. That’s fine, the function of The Force Awakens is twofold: establish the current state of the galaxy far, far away and set things up for Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII in 2017. That’s a big enough challenge for one movie, isn’t it?

There are people who are saying no. They mostly point at The Force Awakens‘ structure, which they complain is too similar to the original Star Wars. To those people, I say this: I agree a little bit. A tiny, little bit, in that the big thing at the end of the movie felt kind of unnecessary. You know another movie that had this problem? Return of the Jedi. Just like that movie, The Force Awakens doesn’t focus too much on blowing that thing up again, mainly making it a task for its most marginalized main character, Poe (who hopefully unlike Lando will actually grow in importance over the sequels). The real focus is on the interpersonal conflicts between the heroes and villains, and that, again, still not revealing anything, is quite good.

Which is amazing, after having lived through the prequel trilogy. The most substantial joy for me, a lifelong Star Wars fan, is that for the first time ever, I didn’t know at all where these characters were going to end up. Despite the aforementioned potential structural familiarity problem, it is exciting that I didn’t actually know who would live or die, who would wield the force, who would save the day, or even if the day was indeed going to be saved. I always had the entirety of the original trilogy available to me, and with the prequels we always knew what would happen, it was just a question of how. But this is the beginning of a new frontier, a great unknown, one of my life’s largest blindspots, and that is overwhelmingly exciting.

It’s also very much a return to original trilogy values. The force is back to being a mystical power rather than something babies go to abstinence school to learn about because they have a chemical imbalance. Lightsabers are extremely dangerous and fights with them are all about character and context rather than carefully choreographed technique. Spaceships get in dogfights, good guys shoot stormtroopers, the Millennium Falcon doesn’t work that well, there’s an alien cantina instead of a shitty fifties diner. This is my Star Wars.

Those values extend to the production design and special effects as well. The prequel trilogy is criticized for an over-reliance on computer-generated imagery, and when you hear things like not a single clone trooper physically existed, surely you can see where those critics are coming from (although I also kind of think that’s amazing). Abrams has always been a champion of doing as much in-camera as possible, and good golly Miss Molly, this is a pretty picture. The practical effects are so good and prevalent that the few motion captured characters actually sort of seem out of place, kind of like an inverse of the puppet Yoda in Phantom Menace. But even they don’t look bad, and the movie includes several amazing spaceship tracking shots too, so maybe the best thing is to use every technology and technique you can to make a movie good?

It’s hard to say where The Force Awakens will end up in the grand scheme of Star Wars, but it seems like a harbinger of good things to come. Despite the detractors, I’ve heard more than a few people say that this has become the new third best movie in the franchise, which would sound like a backhanded compliment in any other series, but feels like a big deal here, after what we’ve been through. Then again, I’m pretty sure I walked out of every prequel movie loving it, and then slowly realized their problems as I had more time to think about it. I’ve had a weekend to think about The Force Awakens, plus I’m an alleged adult know with better sensibilities, and really my primary insight so far has simply been that I desperately need to see this movie again. I want to believe it’s as good as I feel it is. Because this is the most important series in my life, and I’m going to care no matter what. The force will be with us, always.