Not a full meal. More like a side of crow, with crow sprinkles on my salad. Because, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good, it is not great. Put down the pitchforks and torches and I will try to explain.
I saw the movie on Christmas Day in a packed theater here in Seattle. We arrived at the theater an hour early and there were still two hundred or so people ahead of us in line. It was a good thing that there was about thirty minutes of coming attractions in front of the film, since we needed that extra time to get everyone sorted out and settled.
I previously, and at length, ranted about my suspicions of Episode VII, chiefly around my dislike of J J Abrams as a director. But with each successive new trailer my resistance steadily crumbled. I still promised myself I would wait for a review– and then the reviews came in and were mostly positive. We bought tickets for last Friday and I tried to go in with an open mind.
On the whole, I enjoyed the movie. It was great to revisit the Star Wars universe, this time via a movie that did not make me want to rip my own eyes out. The Force Awakens is energetic and fast-paced, not overrun with gratuitous CGI that is mere eye-candy, and obviously made with a profound love of the mythos. I do not regret the ten bucks I spent for the matinee ticket.
The performances, particularly Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, are a major factor in making the film work. There aren’t very many false notes with the characters, with one possible exception (discussed below). Everyone was earning their pay on this picture, and the acting is one of the things that helps lift the film over the hump. Ridley’s Rey is a tough but hurt young woman who you have to root for. Driver’s Kylo Ren is a conflicted bad guy who is trying to deal with personal issues even as he threatens worlds. Harrison Ford’s aged Han Solo is a logical development of the character in the original three films, and is at different times funny and heart-breaking– you believe Ford is an old space-bum who has seen it all. Han’s attempt to reach out to his son Ben/Kylo is full of pathos. The acting is light-years– nay, parsecs– ahead of that in the prequels.
The action is fast-paced and keeps you interested. There aren’t many places in the film that go on too long or seriously threaten your suspension of disbelief. You’re dropped straight into the action at the very beginning and generally kept engaged through the whole movie.
As I said, there’s a good deal of love of the mythos in this picture, and it sets up a good deal of mystery that begs to be solved in subsequent movies. Chief among these, just who the hell are Rey’s parents? Why did they leave her on Jakku? Rey displays incredible abilities with the Force, even though she has had no training, which has led to online speculation that she is Luke’s daughter or Obi-Wan’s granddaughter or the descendant some powerful Jedi or another. For Pete’s sake, this woman actually shoves Kylo right out of her head when he tries to mind-probe her. She handles a light-saber as if born to it, which means she probably was. The mystery is deepened by her visions and her apparent affinity with Luke’s original light-saber. Clearly, the ‘awakening’ in the Force is related to her, and I want to see more. This is all excellent grist for the movies to follow, and I am actually looking forward to seeing the mystery resolved. Yes, I just wrote that– because of this film I am re-engaged with Star Wars and I am looking forward to the next movie. That’s pretty monumental in and of itself.
At the same time, it doesn’t hurt that I’m seriously crushing on Daisy Ridley. Nothing skeevy, just saying….
So with all this going for the film, why do I call it good, and not great? Why would I give it an 8 rather a 9-plus?
Well, at the risk of sounding like a stubborn old curmudgeon– J J Abrams.
Just because the film basically works doesn’t mean that you can’t see Abrams’ fingerprints all over it. As good as it is, there are systemic weaknesses in the movie that keep me from rating it higher. And those weaknesses seem typical of Abrams as a filmmaker.
To put it bluntly, Abrams has always impressed me as a director who is far more interested in the flow of the action and the scale of the spectacle than logical consistency in the plot and characters. This is perhaps not surprising in a director who started his screenwriting career assisting Michael Bay in the commission of the crime known as Armageddon (1998). Alias, which captivated me initially, went through three reboots during its run and still ended in a welter of confusion. Star Trek seemed to be riddled with logical inconsistencies (Kirk gets command of the Enterprise when he wouldn’t come within a light-year of it in a real military organization, and just what the hell is ‘red matter’, anyway?). And Lost— let’s just leave that one alone…. To sum up, in my opinion, Abrams is a sloppy story-teller.
The same is true for The Force Awakens. The difference is that TFA moves along at a brisk enough pace, and is buoyed by such great performances, that you hardly have time to notice the problems until you’ve had a chance to think about it later. Nevertheless, they are there.
Characters appear, disappear, and reappear without explanation. Poe Dameron, in particular, who appears to be an important character at the beginning of the movie, vanishes for the middle third. The Millennium Falcon just happens to lie within convenient reach of Rey and Finn just when they need it, and within minutes of their escape from Jakku in it Han Solo appears to reclaim it. There is a wholly unneeded sequence involving rival space gangs and toothy monsters whose sole purpose to get Han, Chewie, Rey, Finn and BB-8 all back on the Falcon and on the road back to the Resistance. And why is there a ‘Resistance’ when there is a new Republic (which is only seen long enough for us to witness its destruction by the First Order)? Wouldn’t it have just been simpler to say the First Order was at war with the New Republic? It’s like Abrams slapped labels on components of the story without thinking out– or particularly caring– how they made sense in that story.
One problem stood out to me even as I watched the movie– Finn’s motivation. Supposedly storm troopers are conditioned from an early age to fight loyally without question– but from the first moment Finn (‘FN-2187’) appears conflicted and unable to carry out his orders to kill. According to the premises of the story, doubtless something powerful broke his conditioning before the first firefight at the village on Jakku. However, we are never shown what that trauma might have been, nor, as best I can recall, is it alluded to in the rest of the movie. I understand the need to not bog down the narrative with exposition, but Finn drops down on us without any antecedents at all. I kept expecting at least a flashback to explain why he behaves in a manner that is, at least for a storm trooper, wholly aberrant. But it never came. And it bothered me.
There is, however, a more fundamental problem with the film, which goes beyond mere sloppy story-telling. TFA, to put it simply, recycles much of the basic plot outline of the original Star Wars— a sinister Empire/First Order is building a Death Star/Starkiller and a small band of misfits and space riff-raff must get vital information to the Rebellion/Resistance. The one variation is that the vital information is a map to the location of Luke Skywalker, which is of great interest to the First Order and provokes much the same chasing about as R2D2’s plans for the Death Star in A New Hope. As enjoyable as TFA is, it is disappointing that Abrams could not come up with a more original, or at least different, basic plot with which to restart the franchise. I was left with a sense that, to some degree or another, I had seen this movie already.
In short, this is why I can’t rate TFA as highly as most other reviewers, and why I’m only going in for a taste of crow. The film is good, I am now eager to see the next movies (under a different director, Rian Johnson, who did Looper), but I cannot call it great. With a firmer hand on the director’s bullhorn, it could have been a good deal more awesome. In the end, that’s very disappointing.