This weekend, I did something I rarely do. I went to the theater and saw a movie on opening weekend. I was not alone. Star Wars: The Force Awakens broke just about every box office record this weekend, as everyone went this weekend to see it. (Some twice.) And after all the hype, the question remains: was this actually a good movie?
Well, yes and no. it was a good movie in and of that it effectively rebooted the franchise. A new generation of Star Wars characters has been brought to life, and presented in a way that audiences across the globe will embrace them. The torch was effectively passed by the old guard to the new. And in several cases, the choices of who the heroes were and who the villains were, was a very effective modernization on the classic story. By using motion capture instead of CGI, the producers bridged that gap between the too-glossy computer animated characters of the late 90s and the hand puppets of the late 70s. And the battle sequences were superb.
But I have several complaints. Above all, the pacing. because this movie was not a new story, but in fact a rehash of the original Star Wars movie plot with new faces in the old roles, the fact that it shot out at us like a cannon, and never stopped was glaring. The original Star Wars moved at a very slow pace, especially on Tattooine. Luke takes an entire sequence to do nothing but gaze longingly at twin setting suns. If anyone had done that in The Force Awakens, they’d have been run over.
Spoilers below the cut.
This is a movie that assumes you just sat down and watched the first six movies leading up to it. There is no time for introductions. we are dropped in on a daring plan, already in progress, by Poe Dameron, the Resistance’s answer to the Red Baron. Though one might argue, when we saw Leia the first time she was making the same move as Isaac, storing her prize in a droid unit, we saw that as a dumb show. Who gave her the plans? Where are they going? Doesn’t matter. Here it comes with dialogue that suggests more than it explains, with a character whose name we never learn, and a huge battle scene where a Storm Trooper goes into a state of PTSD shock.
That Storm Trooper is in fact Finn, who rescues Poe for no real good reason and then loses him again once he stops being convenient. But both Finn and Poe are distractions anyway. The real star of the movie is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. She is one part Han Solo, a scavenger who works alone. She is one part wide-eyed innocent, waiting for a family to come rescue her who never will. She is one part Luke Skywalker, discovering that the Force isn’t just strong within her–it’s electric. (Boogiw woogie woogie.) By the later half of the movie she has even taken over the role of ObiWan in the first movie, silently gliding about the First Order’s base, and magically commanding Storm Troopers to leave doors open and drop her pieces of convenient weaponry.
This amalgamation of characters works to a point. But it also requires that a lot of build up be left on the table for it all to fit into the show’s running time. One minute she’s a girl living in a collapsed AT-AT Walker, the next she’s flying the Millennium Falcon, despite the fact that it’s been sitting in the desert getting sand in the nooks and crannies for at least a decade, and she has no experience with it. (At least Poe is called “the resistance’s best pilot” several times before being shoved into a TIE fighter he’s never flown before.) One minute she’s never heard of the Force, or Luke Skywalker, except as myths, the next she’s beating Kylo Ren in a battle of the mind control, despite the fact that he’s been trained and she hasn’t. One minute she’s running away from her destiny, and the next she’s wielding a lightsaber like it’s an extension of her own body.
It might feel like I’m nit-picking, but these things are important. It mattered that it took two movies to reveal that Darth Vader was Luke’s father and another one before we learned Leia was his sister. Here, Han and Leia are awkwardly repeating the phase “Kylo is our son” by the end of the first hour, just in case the audience didn’t catch it the first two times they said it, and Kylo is addressing Darth’s helmet, somewhat creepily, as “grandfather.”
All that said, I still loved the movie. I did. The world rebuilding of a Galaxy Far Far Away thirty years later was smartly done. Despite the awkward shoehorning in on the family relationship, Kylo Ren as bad-choice-making spoiled twenty something was genius, as was the idea that, unlike everyone in the first two series who fought against the pull of the Dark Side, Kylo is such a goth emo boy that he’s pulling against the call of the Light Side of the Force. I particularly liked it in contrast to Rey and Finn, who do not take their positions in the universe nearly so much for granted.
And then of course, there was Harrison Ford, who walked in, picked up the movie, carried every silly part over the threshold, and then showed us why he agreed to come back to a franchise he’s been disparaging as should have killed him off for the last three decades. He dies. The moment you get to the scene between him and his son, (who, I’m pretty sure, he calls Ben–nice touch) you know this is the end of his character, and though the twist is coming a mile away, t’s still satisfying when it arrives, to see Ford pass the torch, and the Falcon, for good. At least Chewie survives to be Rey’s new copilot.
This of course, brings us to the end of the movie, where Rey and Kylo battle in a gorgeous snowy backdrop. It is in many ways, the thing that saves the movie. Their battle is superb. (All the battle sequence are–the choice to make sure the audience experience every dogfight from a grounded position was really effective.) And even better, Rey wins. Thirty years of a lack of female lead characters lead up to this moment as Rey made like Isildur and picked up her father’s sword to battle evil, and leave him scarred for life.
Her father’s sword? Unlike Kylo Ren, who parentage is smushed in our face, Rey’s is never actually spelled out. But the first time she picks up Luke’s lightsaber, she flashes through her childhood and being dumped on Jakku, as well as the coming battle with Ren. Her ability to instantly use the Force for good seems obvious that she is the child of Luke, especially when the Resistance just sends her and Chewie off in the Falcon at the end to go find him. But again, it’s not made that clear. (And neither is the really random long hug she shares with Leia, post Han’s death, despite the fact that neither has ever seen the other before that moment.)
But, for all the movie’s flaws, it’s still a kick ass experience. You too will probably well up when the traditional John Williams theme kicks in. You may even thrill when you get to Maz’s pirate’s den and see how wretched dives of scum and villainy swing in this generation. If nothing else, you’ll laugh uproariously when they put the old Deathstar up next to the New Killer Star. And you’ll certainly want to go back for the next installment and see what Rey and Luke have to say to each other when they finally speak. If nothing else, go to watch Harrison Ford’s last turn with the franchise. He makes the most of it.