I’m being torn apart. Did I like it? Yes. Did I love it? No. Did it live up to the hype? Maybe. My pros/cons list weighs heavily on the dark side, but the experience steers the franchise toward the light.
The film opens with a fleet of stormtroopers storming a village. In one particular instance, as one goes down, another, FN-2187 (quite obviously Finn for anyone who’s seen the trailers), without firing a shot, has a sudden change of heart about being part of a war-machine. Is this his first fight? Was the death of that particular comrade important? The audience would be better served if we understood the bond between Finn and the downed stormtrooper, or if there was some understanding that this was FN-2187’s first fight.
Not to mention that Finn’s introduction is mixed with a barrage of other main characters Poe, BB-8, Kylo Ren, and Captain Phasma within the first ten minutes. This all felt like a lot to digest.
It’s not until Rey’s introduction where the film begins to establish its language and context. The pace slows, allowing the audience to grasp the stakes through osmosis rather than force-feeding. Though, it’s not hard to feel enchanted when Rey is on-screen. Daisy Ridley is the star of the show and only becomes larger when backed by “Rey’s Theme”; John Williams’s breathtaking score for our new hero. (Fear not. BB-8 is a marvel!)
On the topic of characters, I never got on-board with Finn. He feels more like a Star Wars uber-fan living out his fantasies than true-blue Star Wars lore. But maybe that’s because Finn is the only character that doesn’t really have a Star Wars legacy identity. Rey acts as a brilliant blend of Han and young Obi-Wan while Poe waxes a bit “pilot” Luke. If anything, Finn’s overly comedic performance rings closer to Jar-Jar than any other legacy character. That’s not to discount everything John Boyega brings to the table, namely his performance in the Takodana bar and his lightsaber battle against Kylo Ren. But in large part, I began to dread his appearance on-screen. I would have gladly traded the abundance of Finn for the lack of Leia’s most talented pilot, Poe.
If there was one thing The Force Awakens is not short on, it’s dog-fights. Battles overall, for that matter. However, while dog-fights are a boon for a Star Wars fan, not one of these takes place in space! What’s a Star Wars movie without a war amongst the stars?! (This may not be the fairest gripe, but it’s an observance worth bringing up.) In any case, ground combat felt fantastic, with practical explosions and the bodies of stormtroopers flying about; CG effects seemingly only used for blaster fire.
And while I loved the idea of J.J. making a point to bring back a heavy use of practical-effects, they began to feel heavy handed at times. Jakku’s village felt like it paid great homage while Takodana’s bar felt exhaustive. Other instances of aliens and droids painted some scenes well. But in large part, it all felt a bit too much. Excessive b-role and cuts to random characters feel strewn about just for fan service and proof that they were committed to the idea of practical-effects. (I wonder if my fretting is just jarring reaction to the modern reliance of CG…?)
As heavy-handed as the practical-effects were, the allure they have been brought on to create is thrown out when two major characters appear as CG constructs. Like Finn’s out-of-place character, these characters took me out of the world that J.J. had constructed and put me back into the tried-and-tired trope of major CG reliance.
On the flip side, the lack of large scale CG set pieces and battlegrounds made this epic feel eerily small. Each scene feels like a specific set piece rather than a fleshed-out world. (There are similar scenes in The Hobbit films and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) Suffice to say, most of the sets (and some of the acting and scene transitions) made the movie feel like a stage-play.
For all of the negative I can bring up about The Force Awakens, I cannot help but think about the good, the warm, and the fresh. This is why I’m torn. (Okay, add Kylo Ren’s struggle to the list. It was extremely human and relatable on multiple levels.)
Good: It’s a Star Wars film that feels like an Abrams film. While the characters, design, and story feel fairly true to the Star Wars universe, the film feels far removed from the language Lucas established with the original trilogy and certainly the prequels. So much so that I still feel like I’m having to check my opinion against what I’ve come to know and expect of Star Wars films, even the great ones. (Am I bothered simply because what I expect of this universe feels alien? Is that bad? Am I guarding myself from another Phantom Menace folly?) This is a good thing. “Enhancements” aside, we will always have the original trilogy and it’s refreshing to see a new take on this universe.
Warm: There are call-backs and nods. A lot of them. Maybe too many of them. But every single one feels like a treat that I apparently can’t get sick of. (They felt more natural the second time around.) Say what you will of The Hobbit films, it was nice to see the cast back together. The same feeling is exuded in The Force Awakens. Even more so. Some of the references feel forced, but that is too be expected. I imagine the audiences experiencing the Star Wars saga (well, episodes IV-VII) straight through or for the first time won’t be as phased by the obvious.
Fresh: The final scene. Our reunion with Luke opens the story in ways that The Empire Strikes Back had no other option but to fill in after the fact. Never has there been a Star Wars film where the future was so foreign to the audience but so presumably mapped by writers. (The script for Episode VIII was finished before the release of Episode VII. Unprecedented for a non-prequel Star Wars film. ) We know bigger things are coming and I’d argue that Episode VII simply exists to whet our appetites. That’s not to say it’s a cliffhanger, but through Luke, the mysteries and color of today’s Star Wars universe are on the cusp of being revealed.
[EDIT]: Added paragraph about set pieces and stage-plays.
1/1/16: Edited and revised after second viewing.