Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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My earliest distinct Star Wars memory was seeing Return of the Jedi in the theater; the previous movies I just always knew So, it was with much joy that I returned to a theater to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night. Here’s a brief, mostly spoiler-free review.

TFA is the best Star Wars movie of the last 30 years. Some would say that’s not saying much considering the complicated mess of the prequels, but it’s a significant achievement.

J.J. Abrams did a lot of things right in the film. The most important (and something even George Lucas could not accomplish all the time) was to make it feel like a Star Wars film. Much attention has been paid to the use of practical, real-world effects rather than CG. The effort shows, and pays off to a great degree. The costumes, props, aliens and architecture all set the story firmly “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

This simple fact does a great deal of the heavy lifting to allow the suspension of disbelief, giving viewers the opportunity to revel in the wonder of being dropped into a new universe with its own history, personages and culture. It’s a feeling that I have not gotten from a Star Wars property since the original trilogy, and it’s a pleasure to experience it again.

Abrams clearly loves the setting, and it shows, but there’s a few nods that become a bit too blatant and briefly interrupt the story. Characters gather around the Millenium Falcon’s iconic round chess board to discuss strategy, which was a nice touch, but then one accidentally switches it on, treating us to a few seconds of gameplay. A nice Easter egg, but unnecessary.

Great props and settings do little without good characters, however, and TFA has those as well. Finn, a stormtrooper who has an attack of conscience, is impetuous and bold in a way that only young twentysomethings can be. Rey, a desert scavenger who suddenly becomes a fugitive, can be similarly brash. Sometimes those characters take actions that don’t make tons of sense, but given their youth and idealism, it’s understandable.

Adam Driver plays a similarly young, impetuous villain in Kylo Ren, a man who is striving for an ideal (albeit an evil one) and struggling with his own self doubt and seeking to find ways to prove his capability, if only to himself.

And then there’s the original cast members. Harrison Ford brings back the old Solo charm, and seems to be having far more fun in this outing than any other actor. The other legacy characters bring a warm, nostalgic feel with them, but (thankfully) bring a sense of years passed, other unseen adventures survived, and wisdom gained. Although too brief, their scenes establish interesting possibilities for future installments.

While the setting and characters are great, the plot is a bit weak at some points. This is a discussion of plot, so mild spoilers follow. After the prequels, I never thought I’d say this about Star Wars, but a bit more information on the political situation would have been welcome. The resistance seems to be the Rebellion Redux, filling in the role of scrappy underdog to the First Order’s monolithic expansion. It appears TFA takes place out in the lawless frontier, where no government has consolidated control. This makes sense, as Star Wars is in many ways a western set in lawless border towns, but it’s left for the viewer to puzzle out. The plot works fine, but it’s a “Star Wars greatest hits” in many ways: the desert scavenger, the cantina, the Fascistic villainous military and its superweapon, the mysterious dark lord. There’s even a scene paying homage to the original Star Wars trench run.

Given that this is the first in a trilogy, I’m willing to give it a pass on its plot. The yeoman’s work of establishing setting and good characters is a solid foundation, and now there’s an opportunity to really tighten up the plot moving forward. Any gaps in the plot were minor and not distracting; the movie is quite entertaining and a worthy successor to the original trilogy.

Forced to pick, I would put in the top three. Empire is the best, obviously. And despite my annoyance at the Ewoks, Jedi is next: the finale, with a three-way battle and an emotionally compelling battle between Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine was really the ending the trilogy deserved.

The Force Awakens rounds out the top three here. While A New Hope was a wonderful entry into the universe, it suffered from clunkiness, tough dialogue and drags in the middle a bit. TFA drags a bit in the middle too, but the dialogue is much more believable and organic. Overall, it’s a tighter film than episode IV.

So, The Force Awakens is a really good movie. It’s not an amazing movie, or a perfect movie, but it sure is an entertaining movie, and it unmistakably a Star Wars movie. As a revisit to a favorite fictional setting, or an entry for new viewers into the Star Wars universe, it truly is (as Han Solo said to Chewbacca) and opportunity to go home. As a standalone movie, I would give it a B for a solid, competent performance. As a Star Wars movie, it moves up to A-.

And it did something else incredible: for those who were disappointed by the prequels, this brought the series back to its roots. This movie has no midichlorians, Jar Jar Binks or fart jokes. And while the prequels are official Star Wars canon history now, they can largely be set aside and ignored. Any movie that can accomplish that is worthy of the price of admission. But mostly I’m excited to see this as the beginning of a new set of Star Wars adventures I can share with my children, and to watch them have the same sense of joy and discovery I had in the 80’s exploring the Star Wars Universe.

Well done, J.J.

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