It’s very hard for me to remain objective about Star Wars. Anyone who knows me in real life or follows me on Twitter knows this fact. Luckily, Star Wars: The Force Awakens did not require me to separate my inner fan and critic. It was a blast from start to finish, everything I hoped it would be and more.
Let’s address the movie’s main criticism first. My biggest worry, confirmed by a lot of the early reviews, was that The Force Awakens would be too similar to the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Perhaps a modern remake, or a redressing with new characters. There is truth there, to a certain degree. There are structural similarities, especially in the first act and parts of the final act, and there were several story beats that clearly echoed A New Hope and the rest of the original trilogy. J. J. Abrams played it safe and gave us a movie that felt pretty familiar.
But honestly, that hardly bothered me. The Force Awakens‘s job was to bring in audiences, old and new, into the next era of Star Wars. Its placement both in time, over 30 years after the original trilogy, and in the chronology, being the bridge between the past and the future of the franchise, necessitated a reliance on what people loved about Star Wars in the first place. Reel audiences in with crowd-pleasing familiarity, and let the sequels take the new characters into uncharted territory. A safe strategy, perhaps, but one that is paying off.
Additionally, I didn’t find it as egregious as others have claimed, and certainly not as much as I’d feared. Though perhaps my over-the-top expectations coloured my perceptioin—your mileage may vary. I expected The Force Awakens to be A New Hope in new clothes, when in fact it was a brand new story in A New Hope‘s clothes. In other words, it wasn’t a retelling of Episode IV with a few new elements and twists, but rather fresh new characters going through their own journey, with several echoes to A New Hope and the original trilogy along the way. To call it a mere rehash is a surface-level reading of the film.
And though the returning faces got plenty of well-deserved cheers, it was the new characters that made The Force Awakens truly shine. Rey, our new hero, jumped to the top tier of my favourite Star Wars characters barely halfway though the movie. Like Luke before her, she elicited instant empathy, possessing both strength and vulnerability. And despite being a newcomer, Daisy Ridley played her wonderfully. With a mysterious past and the Force guiding her path, Rey is the character to invest in.
Finn was also an excellent character, going through a different journey of his own. You’d expect a former stormtrooper who turned away from the First Order to be serious and surly, but the majority of The Force Awakens‘s humour came from him and the way he bounced off the rest of the cast. Similar to Han Solo’s role in A New Hope, he was the everyday sort of character who eased the audience into this world.
Poe Dameron, the resistance’s best pilot, didn’t have as much screen time as the rest of our heroes, but he made the very best of it. Charming, confident, and skilled, he was the closest the film had to a dashing action hero, but his allegiance to the resistance and faith in the Force set him apart.
The real star of The Force Awakens, though, was BB-8. Cute without being cutesy, funny without being annoying, and possessing a ton of personality in a two-foot ball, this little droid was a winner in every way.
On the villainous side, Kylo Ren differentiated himself very clearly from the rest of the Star Wars saga’s antagonists. Unlike Darth Vader’s confident and collected demeanour, Ren was all emotion and turbulence. Coupled with his great and noticeable power, this made him a very dangerous and menacing threat.
The rest of the First Order was a mixed bag. Their motivations weren’t so clearly defined. True, this hearkened back to the Empire’s portrayal in A New Hope, but that movie lacked the worldbuilding and context that The Force Awakens is built on top of. Passing references to the state of the galaxy at large were appreciated, but not enough for me. This is a case where the avoidance of the prequel trilogy’s politics may not have been so wise.
As for the First Order characters, Captain Phasma was as imposing as promised, but her screen time was sadly much less than advertised. General Hux was ruthless and efficient, and I loved his semi-antagonistic relationship with Kylo Ren. Supreme Leader Snoke was intriguing and larger than life, though we know so little about him that it’s hard to judge so early. It’ll be impossible to top Palpatine, but if anyone can come close, it’s Andy Serkis.
The film itself was incredibly fun. Aside from a few powerful tearjerking scenes, I had a smile on my face the entire time. I say in my Star Wars Rebels reviews that Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without humour, and The Force Awakens had that in spades. Between BB-8, Finn, Poe, and of course Han Solo himself, everyone contributed their share of laugh-out-loud moments.
The action was thrilling, from the lightsaber duels to the blaster battles and especially the jawdropping Millennium Falcon sequences shown in the trailers. The only space battle that didn’t impress me as much was the final X-wing assault. Part of the reason was that despite being a pretty great sequence on its own, it contrasted with A New Hope‘s incredibly tense and more effective Death Star battle and trench run. The other reason was because it was intercut with another, far more gripping climactic sequence, which lessened its effect. It was similar to Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace‘s climaxes on three fronts, but those two handled the balance better.
One thing that stood out after getting so used to George Lucas’s direction was that this was definitely J. J. Abrams behind the camera. I’m not talking about that tired lens flare joke, but rather simple things like the camera’s placement and motion, as well as the colours and the cinematography. There’s been a lot said about The Force Awakens‘s visual faithfulness to the original trilogy, and while that is true to a certain extent, it very much felt like a movie made in 2015—and that’s good.
This is the Star Wars of today. We’ve crossed the threshold, the future is wide open and rife with possibility. And I couldn’t be happier with where we are.
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