[Insert cringe-worthy Force-based pun here] – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I won’t start this off with some long harangue about what Star Wars means to me personally blah blah blah — I think there’s enough of that floating around the internet already, and I’ll refrain from adding to that pile. I’ll just say this: I had a bet with my college roommate that A) one day there would be Star Wars sequels, and that B) Mark Hamill would be a part of them. Mike, if you’re reading this, you owe me ten dollars. I was right — but just barely, as we’ll get to in a moment.
So, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s here, J.J. Abrams’ and Disney’s continuation of the biggest franchise in movie history. Reviews thus far have been extremely enthusiastic, after the prequels of the last decade dramatically lowered the bar. And, to this movie’s credit, it never sinks to the depths that those entries did, where the whole theater was tittering about how silly things were, and you were flat out embarrassed to be there. No small thing.
But Awakens isn’t up to the originals. It just isn’t, no matter how much we want it to be. Awakens is okay. It’s serviceable. It’s quite good at times. But it never displays the effortless effervescence that captured imaginations so long ago. It tries far too hard to strip-mine all the nostalgia it can, wringing that damp washcloth for all it’s worth. And the story is as bare-bones as you can get, with entire just-because set pieces thrown in to pad out the runtime. And yeah, there’s a Death Star with a trench run. [Insert Red Letter Media “It’s like poetry, it rhymes” jokes here.]
In short, it’s kind of good. Vast swathes of the viewing public will be happily sated. But kind of good isn’t what we came to expect back when Han, Luke and Leia were on the silver screen. That’s all I’m saying.
I get into some spoiler territory on the next page. Read on if you’re so inclined.
- The film’s tone at the outset is excellent. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is on Tatooine stand-in Jakku getting a vital clue to the location of the missing Luke Skywalker, when Empire-successors the First Order show up and all hell breaks loose. I quite liked the first third of the movie, as we get to know the new generation: erstwhile stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) busts Poe out, scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds Poe’s droid, BB-8, Finn meets up with Rey, and Kylo Ren menaces them all. The pacing here was Star Wars — things got going and kept going. And then Finn and Rey busted off the planet in a conveniently junked Millennium Falcon, and the nostalgia went into overdrive, and then it kind of went downhill a tad.
- As great as it is to see Harrison Ford back as Han Solo — not to mention Peter Mayhew back as ambulatory rug Chewbacca — it’s when he shows up that things go off the rails a bit. Not through any fault of Solo’s, but it’s then that the script starts to falter. You remember that tacked-on scene in Attack of the Clones where Anakin found himself in the droid assembly line? How it served no purpose whatsoever, other than to pad things out a bit? Well, there’s an excruciating sequence on the freighter that Han and Chewie are now running, where rival space pirates board them and monsters break loose and — well, I was hopelessly bored here. They were having an action sequence to have an action sequence, and I’m not sure what the point of it was. And enough with the relentless jokes, already. (There’s waaaaaaaaay too much comic relief here, which I think would grate on a re-viewing.) But whatever — it all got better when they went to Maz Kanata’s castle/bar/whatever, right?
- Wrong. I’m still not sure why they had to stop there after they hopped on board the Falcon — something about needing a ship that no one was looking for so that they could get BB-8 and his Luke-map to the Resistance, the Republic-backed enemy of the First Order. They were in hyperspace. Space is big. How the hell was the First Order going to stop them? The answer is they had to get there so Maz Kanata, a CGIed Lupita Nyong’o, could speak vaguely about things, look goofy and give them Luke’s old lightsaber. You know, the one that was last seen plummeting in Cloud City with Luke’s severed hand still attached. Oh, and so that Rey could get captured by the First Order.
- About them. General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) is rather flat as a character (though he gets to do his best shouting and spitting Hitler impersonation at the first Starkiller Base firing/Nuremberg Rally), and Andy Serkis as Supreme Commander Snoke (man, these names…) is only in a few scenes, a giant CGI alien Lincoln Memorial. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the former Ben Solo, carries the weight, and does it well. I was ready to hate this guy, and not in a good way — he always sounded like a cosplay douchebag who was going to be all moody and I’d want to punch him in the face every time I saw him. (Like “X-Pac heat” in wrestling — look it up.) But inside and outside of the mask the character works fairly well — a fallen young Jedi who wears his mask by choice, communes with his grandfather’s melted helmet, and severs his last ties with his past before the credits roll (more on that in a moment). Of everyone, he’s the one I’m most looking forward to seeing moving forward.
- You know Captain Phasma, the Chrome stormtrooper that was all over the marketing? She’s in this for, like, a minute total. And does nothing. No, wait, I take that back — she gives up immediately when she’s captured and LOWERS THE SHIELDS ON THE STARKILLER. What a strong character. I can’t believe Gwendoline Christie was doing media appearances for this. They might as well have trotted out Warwick Davis for interviews when The Phantom Menace came out. I’m sure the lunatics who stood in line at toy stores and paid far too much for action figures of her (what action?) months ago will be thrilled.
- Oh Carrie Fisher, why did you have to grow old? (And do mounds and mounds of drugs, that too.) Leia’s a General now and doesn’t do a hell of a lot, but one’s glad she’s back. And there’s still a little magic left when she and Han see each other again after years apart. (A scene which is also the best way to re-introduce C-3PO, the protocol droid who always shows up at the most inopportune moments.)
- Yes, there’s a major death. Yes, it’s Han Solo. The only surprise in this was that there were people in the theater actually surprised when he bought it. No, Ford wasn’t going to sign on for a new trilogy. And he died nobly, trying to bring his wayward son back to the light, in one of the more emotional scenes in the film — Ford and Driver both did good work. My only complaint with this was that I wish they’d saved the reveal of Kylo’s face for the bridge. It would have had more punch, no?
- All the Resistance can send against the Starkiller is a dozen X-Wings? They can’t get any Lend-Lease thing going with the Republic?
- It sounds like I’m cudgeling this movie to death, and I’m not. It’s very well made on a technical level, and Abrams and co. should be applauded for having a surfeit of practical effects up on screen. Sets! Real locations! In a Star Wars movie! Who would have thought? Refreshing.
- Perhaps the biggest problem I have with Abrams Wars is that, like his reboot of Trek, our director/screenwriter once more caught himself in the weak trap of conveying the threat of everything by its bigness, apparently forgetting Yoda’s “judge me not by my size” dicta — as he forgot earlier that Khan, in the best of the Trek film oeuvre, defeated Kirk with a smaller, weaker vessel. Nero’s ship is from the future and huge! Admiral Robocop’s is huge! And now the Death Star (again, a Death Star) is hugerer! And Snoke is the Emperor — but huuuuuuge! I miss the days when a little troll in a dingy swamp was the most powerful Jedi of his time. There was a deft elegance to that. Sometimes a scalpel can cut much deeper than a broadsword — I guess that’s the lesson, if there is one.
- Suddenly at the end Rey can use the Force and lightsaber duel with Kylo — for some reason. Girl power, maybe? (Posh Spice Jedi!) Man, there was a lot that happened in this “Just Because.” A disappointing amount. (Artoo turns on after being powered down since Luke disappeared — for some reason. Etc. Etc.) And don’t give me that “They’ll explain later” malarkey. “Hmm” is different than “Huh?”.
- I saved this gripe for last, mainly because it’s not with how the film is constructed. It’s Luke. Oh, how the kid in me longed to see Luke and Han and Leia all together one last time, and how that inner child rejoiced when these sequels were announced. Never in a million years did I expect Mark Hamill to not be in this movie until ten seconds before the very end, and to have zero dialogue. I realize that there wasn’t any place for him in this story, other than as a legend pursued by both sides. But that just leaves me wishing there had been a little bit different story. I wanted to see Luke and Han together as old men. I hoped to hear old Han call old Luke “kid.” That ain’t ever going to happen, and I can’t help but be a little sad about that. Sorry.
This is a movie that’s well-made on many fronts, and, it deserves to be restated, it’s parsecs ahead of the flat soda of I-II-III. But in turn it can’t hold a candle to the narrative heft of Empire or any of those classics — yes, I throw Jedi in there, for the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes if nothing else. It’s a titch, I don’t know, hollow. By all means go see it. By all means enjoy as much as you want. The leads are all likable enough. But recognize that they don’t make them like they used to.
Three sad bearded Lukes out of five.