‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Review: Trust in the Force

Posted in Screening Room by - December 19, 2015

I have to admit, ever since the new trilogy of Star Wars films was announced, I held myself to a strict composure. I was at the perfect age for The Phantom Menace and the rest of the prequels when they came out, so I recall enjoying most of them, but still feeling a little empty from the experience, with none of them aging especially well over the years. I knew having a team work on them, rather than just Lucas at the helm, would be a fresh breath of life. But between JJ Abram’s track record and the looming figure of Disney behind the whole proceeding, I didn’t want to let myself get my hopes up too high.

Luckily for me, my gamble paid off. Because I’m here to tell you that The Force Awakens is a pretty damn awesome movie.

Set some thirty-odd years after the Battle of Yavin and Return of the Jedi, this latest entry to the saga focuses on the looming threat of the First Order after the loss of its greatest weapons and central leadership. The galaxy is still rife with fear and tyranny, even as a Republic works to rebuild its foothold. Yet the stories of grand victories and shining Rebel heroes have almost become as much myth as the Jedi and their Force-based beliefs. While a powerful new villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), searches for the whereabouts of the now-fabled Luke Skywalker (a role lovingly reprised by Mark Hamill), new comers Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a repentant Stormtrooper who takes up the mantle of Finn (John Boyega) team up with the fragments of the Rebellion to reach the old war hero first. Old characters and new join both sides, histories are revealed, and a daring struggle against the First Order’s latest super weapon collide in the search for truth.

While this may seem like a lot for one movie to handle in just over two hours, it actually holds up rather well. Virtually all of the new main characters in The Force Awakens are really good – Finn is interesting, funny, and has a great character arc; Rey is charming and likable in every scene; Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) is a delightful new alien guide; and the Imperial General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a strong, intimidating villain who you can really believe to be a persuasive leader. The only partial let-down is new Sith (?) big bad, Kylo Ren, but we’ll go more in-depth on him, in a moment.

What’s more surprising, however, is the brilliant way that the cameos and returning characters are held. True, Han and Chewbacca (reprised by Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, respectively) are ultimately the driving force of the film, but they do so in a way that doesn’t overly highlight them (for the most part), and allows the new characters to take on the challenges for themselves. Carrie Fisher also comes back to play an aged Leia, now a Republic General (no princess titles here – those are only for jokes!) with a commanding presence and some heart-felt character beats. Hamill’s great, too, but without giving too much away, I just have to say one thing: don’t expect too much from him, since finding him on the illusive Space Ireland (I don’t recall them giving a name to where he is, but that’s all the better to stay spoiler-free) is the main McGuffin for the movie. Suffice it to say, none of them feel dropped in without purpose, and none of the old cast overshadows the new guys too much.

Pulling this all together is some really superb dialogue interspersed with some of the best action in the series to date. If you imagine the grounded realism of the first series with a bit more of the budget and superb choreography of the prequels, that’s about where The Force Awakens fights sit. Nobody’s flipping off of walls or throwing huge chunks of rubble around with the Force, but you can tell that bringing in the fight masters from The Raid movies really did wonders for the series. Heck, Yayan Ruhian and Iko Uwais (the choreographers in question) even have a great little cameo of their own, just for added bonus!

However, that’s not to say this movie is a perfect 10/10. Hell, there are some really glaring issues, when you really sit down to it, some of which I can’t divulge here without major spoilers (if you’d like me to dive into more, please let me know – I’d be happy to make a big, spoilerific conversation piece to this article). But we can still tackle a few of the more general ones.

Let’s start with the one I already hinted at, Kylo Ren. His early scenes, while clearly trying to evoke the classic Vader entrances, are actually pretty great. He broods through the voice altering machine in his mask, gets to be a little imposing while also playing off Poe Dameron (a Rebel pilot played by Oscar Isaac) and the other heroes’ more quip-y lines. He has his little war band of “The Knights of Ren,” but General Hux and other high-ranking Imperials get to shove him around a bit, which is a nice change of pace from the Vader-led days of old. The problem here comes from a few especially glaring scenes. For instance, after hearing one of his plots has been foiled, Kylo proceeds to ignite his lightsaber and slash about at a nearby computer console in rage. One or two hits would be fine, but this literally goes on for at least thirty seconds – and it isn’t his only tantrum. It really undercuts the intimidation and respect we’ve tried to build for the villain to this point, and it’s only further underscored by his eventual reveal.

Other characters aren’t fully realized, either. In fact, Rey’s mysterious history (which is never fully explained in this entry) seems to give the writers all sorts of license to mess with her motivations and abilities, to the point that she teeters on embodying all the worst parts of the “Mary Sue” archetype so reviled by the internet public. On the other side of the spectrum, though, First Order commander, Captain Phasma, (Gwendoline Christie) is criminally underused in her few scenes. And I, for one, am really pulling for her to get more screen time in future installments.

While we’re on the subject of characters, let me go one step further – there’s way too much fleeing from our heroes. Both Rey and Finn’s main motivation and struggle for the early parts of the film involve both of them trying to run away from the First Order – Finn because of his status as a traitor, and Rey because she wants to go wait for her family to return? Both of these are real, grounded motivations, but it just feels odd that both of our new heroes spend half or more of the movie just trying to get away from the plot… or, their destiny, I guess.

The film also has some classic Abrams flubs, so let me just knock the list out and say you’ll have to see and make your own calls:

  • I think there are too many callbacks and references throughout The Force Awakens that feel like cheap “DID YOU GET IT?” in-jokes to bait hardcore fans.
  • The movie is really jokey, which is sort of strange to label as a negative, since I actually laughed out loud at most of them, and they’re at least well-spaced and cleverly written – I just don’t think I needed quite so many in my Star Wars.
  • He also tries a bit too hard at paralleling the original trilogy and making these big, sweeping symbols, which, like the jokes, work for the most part, but kind of tie the movie down too much to its predecessors, and I fear it doesn’t let The Force Awakens really become its own entity. This isn’t helped by the fact that the movie feels a little incomplete, on its own, but there it is.

All of those negatives out of the way, let’s get back to the big picture – this latest Star Wars entry is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s cleverly written, well-shot, well-acted, has some great new characters and wonderfully captured returns, thrilling action scenes, and a more-or-less even-handed approach to balancing old style and new sensibilities. Sure there are faults, but nothing is perfect. Hell, I don’t even know what I would’ve wanted out of a seventh Star Wars if you would’ve asked me before this. Abrams and crew made a bold first step, and, on the whole, really slammed it out of the park.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Go out and see for yourself, you must.

Final Verdict: Watch It

This post was written by
He is a Nebraska native and UNL Honors alum with an ever-relevant degree in English. When he isn’t working his day job or writing for Kulture Shocked, Ben spends his time as an independent game designer, seeking to publish his first board game. You can also find him modeling for art classes around Lincoln or online as Dlark17 on most major gaming platforms.
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