Review: Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

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I’ve written before that I’m not a big Star Wars guy. So why was I so excited to see Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens? Maybe someone was using the force on me, or maybe it just hit at the right time, after the unpleasant aftertaste of the prequels had gone, and we looked to J.J. Abrams like Paul Simon looked to Joe DiMaggio. I’m here to say that I had more fun at this Star Wars than any other, even though it is almost a copy of the first film, but better.

The film, which could have been called The Search for Skywalker, has these points in common with the The New Hope. Feel free to add more in the comments section:

1. Movie begins on a desert planet. Great actor (Max Von Sydow), wearing monk’s robes, plays wise old man faithful to Jedi.

2. On said planet (which is just like Tatooine, but only one sun) a young person (Daisy Ridley) awaits fulfilling her destiny. She finds a cute robot that speaks in whistle noises that holds a key bit of information helpful to the resistance.

3. The First Order is the revived Empire, led by a guy named Smoke who’s scary and ugly, with an intermediary (Adam Driver) that wears all black and wears a mask that modulates his speaking voice There are a-ha lineage issues with him. The First Order is full of Nazi imagery, and employs stormtroopers, whose armor design has not changed in thirty years but is still highly ineffective.

4. There is a visit to bar that plays live music, with all sorts of interesting creatures that abound.

5. The bad guys are building a huge weapon that can take out planets, but is easily destroyed. The Huffington Post did a whole article about plot holes and rip-offs (or homages) from the other films.

The other similarities, such as dogfights in space, escapes from tight places, and climactic light-saber battles, are in all Star Wars films, and are well done. But it would have been nice if Abrams had come up with something a little different. The only wrinkle he gives us is the character of Finn, a stormtrooper with a guilty conscience. Played by John Boyega, Finn is notable for being black, and also exhibiting brave behavior and cowardice at the same time.

All that aside, The Force Awakens is a lot of fun. Much of this can be traced to the casting of Ridley as Rey, the new Luke Skywalker. She turns out to be the main character and major mystery of the film. I won’t go any further, but suffice it to say her parentage is the big question that is on everyone’s mind who has seen it. Ridley, who looks like Keira Knightley (Star Wars trivia experts will know Knightley played Amadala’s double in The Phantom Menace) is a terrific action heroine, though, predictably, her action figure will be hard to find in stores.

The other highlight is Harrison Ford, grizzled and just as grouchy as ever as Han Solo. Of the three returning actors from the original trilogy, Ford gets the most time and makes the most of it. He and his Wookie companion, Chewbacca, are one of the great teams in action-film history, and it’s a great comfort to see them arrive on screen. There are lot of great Solo lines, such as being asked if something is possible: “I never ask that question until after I’ve done it.” The sight of the Millennium Falcon in a junkyard can’t help but get the blood pumping.

Abrams shows a great hand for action. The climactic light-sabre battle is terrific. The music by John Williams, incorporating his old themes, is rousing. The dialogue is comic-book dumb (which is a good thing). I can’t wait for the next one.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

21 responses »

  1. ****SPOILERS*********

    Other similarities:

    1. Porkins. They even added a Porkins. And Porkins dies in the final battle in an X-Wing. When you go this deep into the fold and place something this seemingly sneaky but ridiculously blatant…come on, man.

    2. The entire idea of stopping the death star is to find a ‘capacitor’? Really? And the way they figure this out is through a holographic image that looks exactly like the first and that a man suddenly explains can be stopped by hitting one of these capacitors and if I remember right, Poe says a line to the effect of how he hit something smaller than that back home?

    It was a Star Wars redux that inexplicably turned into a Lord of the Rings movie (with lots of walking) at the end.

  2. The HuffPo article and his follow up are mind-numbing. I find very few of his points are valid.

    Some complaints:

    I do agree there was much similarity with the original trilogy and many pieces culled together from all SW films (which were blamed as being culled together from various other films/serials). Too many jokes & callbacks as well.

    While I absolutely enjoyed the movie (seemingly at least as much as Slim) my first reaction out of the gate was that it did not feel like a Star Wars movie. The beats, transitions, cuts & pacing mostly seemed different. Obviously I know that these are different filmmakers with different skills. Lucas did keep things consistent for the prequels in that, as much as I disliked them, they had more or less the same feel (from a movie-watching standpoint) as the originals. This definitely felt like a new generation playing with the same characters in a different environment.

    My one big complaint plotwise is Starkiller base/planet/Death Star. 3rd time was not the charm for this plot device. I wish Abrams, Kasdan & Arndt would have come up with something else, or at least made the base last for more films wreaking complete havoc on the universe.

    There were various minor complaints/annoyances I had as well, but nothing to sink the film for me. And I absolutely can’t wait for the rest of the story.

  3. I liked it overall, but it was far too derivative. McWeeny at HitFix said it really needed to be like a remake of A New Hope to reset the franchise, but I think that’s bull. There’s a whole universe of stories, but the structure and soooo many elements are lifted right from ANH.

    I almost feel like Abrams decided not to do Episode 8 or 9 because he knew those would be more complicated and he couldn’t continue copying. We all saw what happened when he no longer had fun introductions (and still kind of the structure of A New Hope as well) to rely on in Star Trek Into Darkness and made one of the worst films in the franchise.

    One thing I really hope is that Luke gets to be active and a badass and they don’t 100% turn Rey into him and him into Yoda. I was badly hoping we’d get to see Luke do some extreme stuff with his domination of the force at the end of TFA – thankfully a friend let me know he was barely in it before I saw it, so I adjusted my expectations – but it still pissed me off. I love Han, but I was always a Luke guy.

  4. I’m totally a Luke guy. He was my #1 hero growing up.

    Agreed on the Force powers. Unfortunately he’s probably too old for hand-to-hand tomfoolery, but my biggest desire for the prequels was to see some serious Force action. It didn’t happen except in the mini Clone Wars cartoons (by Genndy Tartakovsky). I assumed a Jedi Knight would be practically invincible (much like Young Anakin mentioned in TPM) but it didn’t turn out that way.

    The use of the Force in this film, involving Rey and/or Kylo, was probably the best yet.

  5. That was Daniel Craig she used her force powers on, when Ren has a single stormtrooper guard the most important prisoner in the galaxy. One.

  6. I’d rank it fourth after the three original films. Entertaining, but overly derivative and a little narratively lazy – but a great jumping off point for a stronger writer.

  7. I’d rank it second after Empire. It’s lacking in originality, but the acting/action/pacing, etc. is much better than IV. Jedi has never been good.

    We’ll see if it holds up, though.

  8. I would also place it 4th (really they’re all bunched up around the top) and then a deep abyss until the prequels. Here’s my definitively correct ranking:

    1. Return of the Jedi
    2. Empire Strikes Back
    3. A New Hope
    4. The Force Awakens
    –A Grand Canyon chasm–
    5. The Phantom Menace
    6. Revenge of the Sith
    7. Attack of the Clones

    Jedi has always been my favorite. I never knew it was supposed to be reviled until internet forums in the late 90’s. A New Hope honestly gets better every time I see it.

  9. “A New Hope honestly gets better every time I see it.”

    Exactly. Watched them again recently, and realized A New Hope has usurped Empire in my ranking. It’s so good.

  10. I just watched the original trilogy again, and I don’t really think they hold up all that well. I still really enjoyed Empire but other than that they alternated between “passable time-waster” and “kind of a slog”.

    The big problem with Jedi isn’t even the Ewoks (though they are a small problem), it’s the hour or so spent rescuing Han at the beginning. The movie actually starts with Vader coming to the new death star and revealing that the Emperor is on his way, and that sounds cool and important, and then we don’t get any more about it for an hour while everyone’s goofing around in the desert. It feels really low-stakes when counterpointed with a new death star and the Emperor’s impending arrival, and it’s really inelegant pacing. It’s always been a problem for me, but now it makes me outright impatient.

    I suppose that I’m unique among this group, though, in that the series played just about zero role in my childhood. I vaguely remember going to see Jedi when I was really little, but I carried no memory of the movie itself growing up, and I didn’t see the movies in full until I was in college. So the nostalgia element is non-existant for me.

    I thought The Force Awakens was kinda-sorta OK. It’s very unfocused narratively, which is too bad, because the outline of a good story is there. I thought the decision to make Kylo Ren an overgrown emo teen was a little weird. I probably would have just cast Boyega in Isaac’s role and consolidated those two characters into one, eliminating the storm-trooper-with-a-conscience storyline altogether (in other words, just made Boyega a rebel pilot on the run). In short, I think a lot of time was wasted, and a lot more ground could have been covered in the same amount of time if the script wasn’t such a mess.

    Still, I’ll admit I’m looking forward to Rian Johnson’s followup, which is more than I could say before watching VII. Although I would love to write an SNL send-up of the series, which would consist of nothing except revelations that everyone is related to everyone else. That plot device has really worn out its welcome, and the one thing I dread about VIII is going through the whole thing again with Rey. As has the death star device – I don’t even mind it in Jedi, because it’s just a piece of a rather well-designed trap by the Emperor, but to bring it back again now just feels lazy.

  11. Star Wars means nothing to me, nostalgia-wise, either. I saw the first one when I was 17 and then as an adult for each one after that. I’ve seen The New Hope three times and it keeps getting worse each time, for the reasons Brian mentions above.

  12. Star Wars meant a lot to me until the late 90’s. The re-releases in 97 really damaged my opinion of the originals and the prequels pretty much cemented that George Lucas was a guy that got lucky.

    The big problem with Jedi isn’t even the Ewoks (though they are a small problem), it’s the hour or so spent rescuing Han at the beginning. The movie actually starts with Vader coming to the new death star and revealing that the Emperor is on his way, and that sounds cool and important, and then we don’t get any more about it for an hour while everyone’s goofing around in the desert.

    Spot on, it’s always bothered me as well.

    I probably would have just cast Boyega in Isaac’s role and consolidated those two characters into one

    Completely agree.

  13. Interesting. I find the desert plot in Jedi completely fascinating. The way they all go in one-by-one to get captured by Jabba and Luke finally coming into his own as a “force” to be reckoned with really does it for me & is certainly not low-stakes from my viewpoint. Staying with one story (interspersed with scenes from the new death star) for long periods of time are strengths (for me) of Hope & Jedi. That kind of pacing works for me as does Empire’s (though there are internal timeline problems with that one)

    When I saw Awakens again last Tuesday I cemented a new theory on Rey. Should I do a separate post, talk about it here, or has too much time passed?

  14. That is definitely a different viewpoint. It almost seems purposefully contrarian.

    I find it odd that most of his praise comes for the almost-completely CGI portions of the films (podrace, chase above Coruscant, space battle above Coruscant). He must know that these scenes were almost entirely “directed” by teams of animators at ILM. And, taking nothing away from those animators, these portions are basically cartoons where anything can happen with almost no real danger or injury (and the live actors certainly seem aware of that).

    His insistence to repeatedly watch the Sith battles with the sound off seems like an interesting exercise. Not that I have a problem with the John Williams score, but I wonder if I’d see something different.

    I gather that he is looking for something else that I would venture most people are not. But I’m sure we’d all have different viewpoints if we did not watch some of these films until 10-30 years later.

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