Do not read this piece.
Clarification: Do not read this piece if you don’t want to have “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ruined.
Do not read this piece even if you do want it to be spoiled, which is to say if you haven’t seen the film yet and simply want to learn what happened. If you proceed, you should have seen “The Force Awakens” already and want no more than to read a piece on a film that doesn’t tiptoe around certain plot elements, if not avoid them completely.
Those of us writing these pieces (including The Guardian and Slash Film) don’t only want to avoid pissing off the film’s corporate overlord Disney, its publicists, its director J.J. Abrams and its stars, including Harrison Ford, who it seems would be personally disappointed in us, like a crestfallen dad, for simply revealing [redacted] and [redacted] and [redacted]. We also don’t want to piss off those who haven’t seen it and do want to enter the movie more or less fresh, experiencing the big, splashy, shocking spoilers for the first time themselves without having them be spoiled by some dumb jerk.
Typically we don’t mind spoilers. A movie — or a TV show, or a book, or a rock opera — should work independent of its major twists. If something didn’t work because the viewers knew the big surprise(s) going in, then it’s likely it’s not very good to begin with.
But we also respect that people think otherwise. And we also think there are exceptions. We didn’t want the finale of “Mad Men” spoilered. And we also didn’t want “The Force Awakens” spoilered. Watching certain things happen in “The Force Awakens,” we got a buzz from not having known about them prior — from experiencing big shocks as actual big shocks. We want you, the reader who possibly hasn’t seen the film yet and knows not what they’re in for, to experience that as well.
But we also want to discuss the film freely, and to begin conversations about what we saw. We want to process them and look forward to one day, fairly soon, living in a world where we talk about “The Force Awakens” the way we talk about the other “Star Wars” films. (Excepting the prequels. They’re worse than their rep and let’s not talk about them anymore except as an excuse for complaining.)
So turn back now, if you haven’t seen “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” We’ll even give you a chance to run. Here’s a giant battering ram of pictures to separate this intro from our actual discussion of the many things that happened in “The Force Awakens.” If you haven’t seen the film, please leave. You’ll thank us later.
So we’re back. And we've all seen the film and can talk amongst ourselves.
We now know that, after all the secrecy and powerfully vague yet tantalizing ads, “The Force Awakens” is basically the original “Star Wars,” though only in the way “Creed” is basically the original “Rocky.” The faces are changed, the plots are different in the particulars, but the same general beats are hit. There’s a new class, and of them Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the lowly scavenger living on a desert planet that’s totally not Tatooine, is the new Luke. The force is even strong with her, though she won’t know it till around the end, just as Luke didn’t know it till he was doing the climactic trench run.
Is this disappointing? It shouldn’t be. It doesn’t handle the transition to the next generation as smoothly as “Creed” did, which is to say Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Princess-turned-General Leia don’t get enough time developing a bond with their young stars, not the way Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky did with Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis. But it doesn’t seem like a mere, cynical, lazy rehash. As Alison Willmore pointed out in her Buzzfeed piece, it’s smart that the characters are all essentially fans of their predecessors. They even can’t believe the stories they grew up with were real! Just like two generations of “Star Wars”-heads, who probably wish they could jet off to that galaxy long, long ago, far, far away.
At the same time the characters are not just slavishly recreating what came before. They’re not rando “Star Wars”-heads cruising about in the Millennium Falcon. They come off as real characters in over their heads, struggling to get by, finding themselves in similar-but-different predicaments. In addition to Rey there’s Finn (John Boyega), the Stormtrooper who mysteriously gained a conscience. He essentially becomes the movie’s Han Solo: a reluctant hero who has to learn not to run. There’s also Poe (Oscar Isaac), the star pilot of the Resistance. He doesn’t really have an analog in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. He’s just a badass who keeps looking like he’ll die only to somehow survive.
There’s only one character actively trying to be exactly what came before. That’s Adam Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren. He wants to be Darth Vader. He even dug up his crushed helmet, which he talks to. He’s not just a fan; he’s Darth Vadar’s grandson, because (dum dum DUM) he’s Han and Leia’s son, who was raised to be the new Jedi Knight but who turned to the Dark Side. (This is explained succinctly. It’s pretty awesome that a franchise member, in an age of explaining everything, leaves a lot of backstory only partially revealed.)
But he’s not doing it as well as he’d like to be. He still has visible doubts. It even looks like he may change his mind, both in his scene with Rey — the one where he takes off his mask to show it’s a mere affectation, whereas for the injured Vadar it was practical as well as menacing — and in his reunion with Han, where he almost succumbs but(dum dum DUM) winds up killing him instead. (Does this feel cheap? Possibly. But the scene itself is so patient and lovingly done and beautifully acted, by both Ford and Driver, that it still, if you will, slays.) Driver may seem miscast, but his discomfort once he takes off the mask and shows off his wavy mane, is key to the sly thing the film is trying to do. He’s not a real villain — just a fanboy who’s gone too far.
These are nuances that help “The Force Awakens” feel like a noble retread that balances giving fans the same-old and lighting off on its own. That it does the original style so well helps too. Sometimes it does it better. This is either the best or second-best directed of the “Star Wars” movies, only behind “Empire Strikes Back.” George Lucas’ handling of the first “Star Wars” is still pretty stiff, especially compared to the elegant and magisterial “Empire.” (“Jedi,” which is underrated and definitely more than stupid Ewoks, is very well made too. The prequels are poorly made — more like flat filmed theater of great actors under hypnosis or drugs, only with lots of annoying digital business going on in the background.)
J.J. Abrams suppresses his own style (whatever that is — it’s more than lens flare), but he doesn’t just copy the camera moves of “Empire” or “Jedi.” He thinks about when to use a close-up, and when a group shot would best serve the material visually. It’s a handsome film and a pleasure to watch shot-for-shot. Abrams also mostly avoids his most annoying trait: putting characters in hairy, perhaps unsolvable predicaments, then having them abruptly and inexplicably fumble their way to an anticlimactic and poorly explained solution. A few times characters suddenly pop up, without explanation, in key places when they need to. It’s annoying but no deal-breaker.
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But back to the material (and the spoilers). There’s a fair amount of fan service here, most of which should be annoying and wink-winky, but most of which isn’t. It’s nothing on the order of when C-3PO and R2D2 made unnecessary appearances in the prequels. When C3PO shows up he even has a decent gag: he has, for no apparent reason, been given a red arm, which, in one of the better jokes, he awkwardly points out. It’s perhaps too symbolic that R2D2 spends most of the movie asleep, and will only wake when the movie’s almost over — but, luckily, with enough time for some super-cute bleep-bloop time with the film’s own mini-R2D2, the supremely awesome BB-8.
BB-8 is comic relief, but not the way Jar Jar Binks was comic relief. Lucas’ sense of humor got super childish by the time he was remastering and reworking the original trilogy in the late ’90s, so much so that his inserts of goofy CGI aliens doing slapstick into the more staid and serious older films seemed like graffiti on art museum wares. “The Force Awakens” avoids this kind of humor like the plague. Its jokes are more situational, built out of character. Chewie scores one of the better yuks when he shrugs while uttering a phrase in Wookiie-ese (or whatever) that sounds a lot like “I dunno.” Its sense of humor is its own, and — despite the presence of “Empire” and “Jedi” cowriter Lawrence Kasdan in the script credits — not too much like the times the original films deigned to be funny.
Yes, there’s another Death Star, and yes it’s basically Death Planet, so big it can wipe out multiple planets in one fowl swoop rather than just one. But this isn’t a metaphor for the film, even though “The Force Awakens” cost $200 million against the original “Star Wars” $11 million (about $42 million adjusted for inflation). It doesn’t just go bigger; it just tries to do “Star Wars” right. It’s not a soulless money gobbler, even though it knows it has to not suck enough so that Disney can make these films into the infinite, after we’re all of us dead.
It also knows to really care about its characters, and the actors, unlike the prequel actors, really care about what they’re doing. Even Ford, an actor who often doesn’t care and who regularly has grouched about being Han Solo, seems to be really game. He’s more alert than he’s been in ages, even if he was very, very good and heartbreaking in the otherwise negligible “The Age of Adaline.” His scenes with Leia — with whom he apparently split, returning to his rogueish ways, because even when you've help defeat an evil Empire you’ve got to pay the doctors, boy — teem with melancholy and regret, as well as the bittersweet banter that Kasdan gave them starting with “Empire.”
But it’s the young actors who really excel. Ridley has a bit of a bossy English Julia Ormond thing going on, and she’s effortlessly commanding and tough. Rey is no damsel in distress, and there’s even a scene where Finn starts to run to her rescue as she’s beaten by thugs, only to stop when she starts pummeling them herself. When she’s captured by Kylo Ren, my heart sank: she’s just going to become a damsel in distress. But she soon manages to escape and later equips herself in a pretty nighttime, snowy lightsaber battle.
They’re all characters we like, or at least actors. They honestly don’t have too much going for them beyond navigating through the often twisty plot. But the performances are deeply felt and the actors deeply likable. They’re still finding themselves, although it’s going to be irritating when it’s revealed Finn turned turncoat against the evil First Order not because he was horrified by a fellow Stormtrooper’s death, but because he has some Joseph Campbell-style destiny to fulfill. But I want to keep watching, keep returning to this world. By the time Luke Skywalker puts in face time in the film’s final minute, it feels the same way “Creed” did: that a familiar, cozy universe has been expanded, a future for a new generation built right on top of the one that came before.