by Brian Surber
When discussing a movie spoiler-free it’s difficult to actually get into the meat and potatoes of what was good and what was bad. You try to summarize the pros and cons of the choices the filmmakers have made without letting the reader in on what those choices actually were. Yesterday I posted a spoiler-free review and while it was challenging to write, I’m glad it’s there for those audience members who haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens. For those of us who have, well, here we go.
As I discussed yesterday, the film’s insistence on following the relatively same story structure as A New Hope was both successful and problematic. The opening scene involves a Resistance fighter storing precious documents inside a droid before being captured by the film’s Big Bad; a young person looking for a higher purpose on a desert planet finds said droid; an old man who played a big part in related past events becomes somewhat of a mentor/father figure before being killed by the Big Bad; a large spherical weapon destroys planets; the heroes concoct a simple yet impossible plan to sneak onto said weapon to rescue the prisoner before destroying it; the weapon has one crucial weak spot; a character learns about the force, learns they have the force, and learns how to use the force.
It’s so similar it almost makes you chuckle. What The Force Awakens does, though, is not attempt to hide its similarities. It celebrates them. It uses them to take its viewers back to the feeling they had watching the original beloved films. It’s not manipulating because the film is doing it out of love and admiration that can be felt on the screen. After the prequel trilogy hurt the franchise’s image in the minds of moviegoers, it makes sense for director J.J. Abrams and company to craft the new film in the same fashion as the one that started it all.
The strategy doesn’t come without issue however. With the film hewing so close to the arguably most popular film the series, it’s fairly easy to see things coming. Look, let’s just get it out in the open, okay? Han Solo dies. It’s a weird sentence to write but the decision makes sense for a couple of reasons; one, Harrison Ford wanted to be killed off in the original trilogy, two he acts as a mentor/father figure to Rey not unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi was to Luke, and three there was no way Harrison was going to take such a large part in this film if they didn’t kill him for good. Knowing what happens in A New Hope – Luke sees the confrontation with Vader and Obi-Wan just in time to see him die – when we see Han step closer and closer to Kylo Ren to try and appeal to his son (more on that later) just as Rey and Finn show up, unable to help, the writing is on the wall.
The action scenes are truly spectacular and filled with a surprising amount of wit. Poe and Finn’s escape in the Tie Fighter is a standout early in the film, brimming with earnest performances and comedy that comes and goes naturally. Poe and Finn show fantastic chemistry and it’s sad that they don’t spend any other time together in the film. Well, there’s always next time.
In a film of countless reveals of characters from Star Wars past, the best one is absolutely the subtle, surprising, and crowd-pleasing reveal of the Millennium Falcon. Nearly a throwaway gag, the reveal occurs during a large battle sequence and isn’t given the kind of STOP THE FILM THE STARS ARE HERE hooray that comes with Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford reveals. The action scene is incorporated in such a way that it stops you from figuring out when Rey says, “That ship’s just a hunk of junk,” that she is actually talking about the Falcon. And when the camera swings around to reveal it, it definitely had the biggest applause in my theater and for good reason.
Harrison and Carrie Fisher turn in wonderful performances, but at the beginning do feel a bit rusty to get back in the swing of things. Mark Hamill surprisingly brings a wonderful performance in his admittedly about 1 minute of screen time (if that). In a scene that borders very closely on parody at first, that ending is given surprising emotional weight by Hamill’s reaction to his father’s lightsaber. It’s a look that says so much and we can read exactly what Luke is thinking in that moment. Since Hamill was arguably the worst actor of original trilogy, it was startling and fantastic to be so blown away by his performance here.
Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is the best kind of villain. His is the kind whose villainy isn’t pure darkness; his motives aren’t without reason. You can see his side of things, the betrayal he feels and how lost he appears. He, like Rey, is out to find his purpose and believes it to be following in his grandfather’s footsteps. He believes the call to the dark side is all he has now and it sets up moments in future films of him being persuaded to the light by his uncle or niece (yes, I still think Rey is Luke’s child). You root for Kylo Ren to fail and hate him while also deep down wish he could be helped.
That ending lightsaber fight. The idea to have the fight take place in the dark (the sun was sucked by the Sunsucker) in a snowy field with the only light provided by the bright red and blue swords was phenomenal. Colors burst and pop onscreen as Finn dukes it out with Kylo Ren. The trick being that Finn is then defeated and the only one left to fight Ren is Rey, who uses the Force to wield a lightsaber for the first time. It’s an awe-inspiring sequence and Abrams’ best kept secret. The trailers all strongly implied that Finn vs. Ren would be the final showdown, so Rey being the one to ultimately face off with the villain is a special surprise. It’s a breathtaking sequence in every respect.
Some quick notes: I love Domhnall Gleeson, but he was very close to being over the top with his General Hux. I really hope Supreme Leader Snoke is of normal height in real life. That was the perfect amount of C-3PO. There needed to be more of R2D2 hanging out with BB-8. Chewbacca’s yell when Han died was the most upsetting part of Han dying. Poor Max von Sydow. Captain Phasma was as underused as Bobba Fett but with a worse name.
The Force Awakens is big and beautiful, filled with action sequences that burst off the screen in the only way a supreme crowd-pleaser can. Does it have its problems? Sure; it follows the structure of A New Hope too closely to become it’s own movie, Han’s first big scene is easily the weakest, and it suffers from some underused characters. But it’s a brilliant blockbuster that uses memories and emotions of old to bring about the best in its series and takes viewers once again on a wild, wild ride.