Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me feel like a kid again. (I won’t share my personal nostalgic memories of Star Wars here. If you’re interested in that story, I blogged about it on my personal blog.) The Force Awakens thrilled me to again imagine a place in this universe where people can move things at will using a mysterious force, where robots can talk, and where cocky smugglers have Wookies for best friends. The Force Awakens made me marvel at the power of movies to bring that “far, far away” place across the universe and across time to me.
I’m not going to SPOIL The Force Awakens in the first half of this review, but I am going to write around an important event in the film. If you don’t want to risk having even a hint of the plot of this film SPOILED for you, you’re probably not reading this anyway. But you should should definitely stop reading now and come back and read this after you’ve seen the film.
Everything we hope for in a Star Wars movie—light saber fights and Millennium Falcon flights, droids hiding important info and cantina bands that play calypso, banter between unlikely lovers and a gee-whiz sense of awe and wonder—are included in The Force Awakens. Star Wars is always at its best when it’s at its simplest and most iconic. This is a series molded around Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With A Thousand Faces, for goodness’ sake. Star Wars is about archetypes. The Force Awakens sticks to what’s best about Star Wars.
And to its great credit, The Force Awakens sticks with the Star Wars saga’s pattern of pitting parents and children against each other. Isn’t it true that we are all contending with our parents in one form or another? If we’re not in open conflict with them, still a version of them lives in our heads judging our actions in life. We’re always trying to live up to them, surpass them, or get free from them. Thankfully, I don’t come from a broken home. Neither of my parents were absent. I was never abandoned or abused by them. Still Star Wars resonates, because I am my father and mother’s son, and both their shadows and their lights hang over me every day of my life.
At the press screening of The Force Awakens I attended, I sat by Plugged In critic Paul Asay. As Christmas is approaching, we talked about where we plan to spend it. I talked about my hometown and my family. Mostly I talked about my dad. He is a good man who has devoted his life first to Christ, then to his family, and third to the school where he’s taught and coached for over thirty years. I admire and love him immeasurably. I hope one day to be a man like him.
So at one point in The Force Awakens, I wanted to close my eyes. I literally whispered, “No. Not like this. Not like this,” over and over again as I watched the movie. I wanted better for everyone involved. And then I watched the world end, as they sometimes do in Star Wars movies.
I wish everyone could have a father like mine. But they don’t. I wish worlds never ended, no matter if they’re the homes of heroes or villains. But they do.
But there’s always been Star Wars so aware of it all and always also telling us that there’s hope.
Even with loving parents, I needed that kind of hope when I was a kid. I can only imagine how much a kid with Darth Vader-like parents needs it. I need it now. Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me feel that hope again. It brought it across space and time, set it to John Williams’ score, peopled it with fun characters, and projected it right in front of me, alive and light and thrilling. It felt like coming home. I’m glad we have the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, this new film, and the promise of more Star Wars to come.
Okay, That was the part of the review where I trust my feelings and let the force of Star Wars act upon my critical capacities. Below this paragraph, I’m going to review the film soberly. The SPOILERS awaken below this line. You have been warned.
The Force Awakens also feels like Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back jammed into one film. It includes all the “best” parts of each of those films. Droid carrying important information? Check. Starry-eyed misfit on a desert planet dreaming of escape? Check. Shockingly powerful masked bad guy who interrogates and tortures prisoners? Check. Weapon capable of destroying planets? Check. Hot-shot pilot with a quirky best friend? Check. So the movie has A New Hope covered, and Empire is here too. Loop-de-loop spaceship aerobatics to escape tie fighters? Check. Weird wormy creatures that threaten our heroes? Check. Playful banter between unlikely lovers? Check. A wise, wrinkly alien who gives guidance to a young hero on a wet planet? Check. A strange dream in a dark cave? Check. A father-son confrontation that leads to fall down a pit and a change in tactics? Check. If they’d just thrown in a few cute aliens and a djembe or two we could’ve had Return of the Jedi covered as well.
This is all fine, and it’s fun when you’re in the middle of it, because there’s always some new call-back to the original trilogy to notice. But it also makes almost every important character beat feel rushed. Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets the story-time attention she deserves, and her character feels fully fleshed out and complex, but every one else is competing for the editors’ (Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon, doing their best at the least envious job in Hollywood) limited attention.
The biggest losers in this strapped time economy are Harrison Ford and Adam Driver. Something happens between them at one point that, given the established values of Star Wars movies, ought to make us feel tremendously sad for both of them, but because we haven’t had sufficient time to get to know Driver’s character and the circumstances that led him to the point he’s at in his life, we don’t mourn for him in that moment. We only empathize with Han Solo. Driver’s character’s arc is going to be as important as Rey’s as the series continues. We need to be rooting for his redemption, but The Force Awakens fails to sell us on the idea that what he does in this film is tragic for him as well as for everyone else. (Given Ford’s testy history with Star Wars—as recently as 2010 he called his iconic character “Ham Yoyo”—it’s possible he only agreed to do one film in this series and so they had to wrap up his character arc in this first film.)
The Force Awakens, like A New Hope, also includes an inter-organizational conflict within the ranks of the regrouping Empire. Domhnall Gleeson does his best Peter Cushing as General Hux, the leader of Starkiller Base. Gleeson is rigid and terse just like the British actors who commanded the Empire’s forces in that first Star Wars film. I thought he was delightfully goofy and anachronistic in the best way. Hux and Kylo Ren vie for the approval of Supreme Leader Snoke (this film’s Darth Sidious/Emperor). But The Force Awakens only hints at this conflict. The film is doing so much, there isn’t time for a scene like the one at the beginning of A New Hope where Vader almost chokes an Empire underling to death before Mof Tarkin stops him.
“This film is doing so much” is temperate criticism of any movie. It’s certainly tempered criticism of a film with this much profile. A lot is expected of this film, perhaps too much, and I can’t fault the makers for trying to give everyone everything they want. The overall quality of this film—the look and feel of it that remind me of the original films more than anything I’ve seen since that has tried to be Star Wars—gives me great hope for the future of this series.
I had such fun watching The Force Awakens that I wished mostly that the movie wasn’t such a big deal. I wished we could all watch it with no expectations other than that we’d heard from someone that it was a lot of fun. The Force Awakens is a “rip roaring” adventure with neat characters set in an imaginative world, one part space opera, one part medieval fairy tale and a showcase for the best special effects money can buy. Expect nothing more and nothing less, and you won’t be disappointed in the least.
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