My expectations for “Star Wars: Episode VII” rode a roller coaster since the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in October of 2012. While the three years between that announcement and delivery of the film flew by quickly, a recap of that journey might be in order before discussing the final product.
There was initially talk of respected screenwriter Michael Arndt having written a draft of the script that would be used for “The Forace Awakens” but that was thrown out after JJ Abrams was announced as director. The thought of Abrams pulling his “Star Trek” staff over to “Star Wars” was a worry until 1980s writing superstar Lawrence Kasdan signed on to seemingly be JJ’s adult chaperone.
The rumors, production leaks, and marketing for the film had hot and cold moments. My emotions were probably at a low in the weeks leading up to the film’s release and that was not a bad spot to be at in the end. As children, fans of the original “Star Wars” trilogy had certainly speculated with friends regarding what happened after “Return of the Jedi.” We were given part of an answer with Timothy Zahn’s novels that began with “Heir to the Empire” in 1991. Of course, that material was ultimately thrown out as no longer ‘counting’ and, even if it did, the new film trilogy would pick up twenty-five years after those books and thirty years after the films. Obviously a lot could have occurred during that time and viewers had much catching up to do.
Crowding the situation and raising concerns was Disney’s obvious plan to ‘pass the torch’ to a group of young character who would be the true start of the next trilogy. Those plans rarely worked and that objective was another concerning aspect of the project.
Ultimately though, the curtain rose and the film played. So, how did it do?
It was probably a good sign that the first thing that came to mind in breaking down the movie was the characters.
Rey: I liked Rey as the lead character and was pleasantly shocked by my reaction to her. There were so many nasty, leaked comments from the set about her being horrible in the role that I was surprised that she turned out to be compelling. One would normally expect a character like the one that she was playing to feel forced (pun not intended) but she pulled it off. People will be talking about her as being a sort of Jennifer Lawrence-in-“The Hunger Games” kind of presence, with the character really opening up “Star Wars” to young women. To be clear, I don’t think that she will be a breakout star like Lawrence but she did a nice job in a tough position.
That said, it will be another movie or two before we find out if Rey’s sudden ability to be quite capable with the Force was just sloppy writing or if she had repressed training in her background. She was long-assumed to be the daughter of Han and Leia but after seeing the movie, many suspect that she might be the intentionally-hidden daughter of Luke.
Finn: He was very much the ‘light side’ fanboy audience proxy. He was the weakest new main character and sometimes I thought that he stuck out poorly as a wacky fanboy intruding in scenes where everyone else blended in naturally.
Poe: I look for him to be more of a central character in the future. He was modeled as an almost-too-perfect serial movie hero but it was fun to have him playing against Finn when Finn was being a constant screw-up.
Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo): The ‘dark side’ fanboy proxy. He was more intimidating than I’d have expected but also more compelling and approachable in that he was the opposite of any bad guy that we’d previously seen in a “Star Wars” film aside from Anakin in the prequels, a guy in the dark who kept fighting the light. The stuff that fans mocked from the promotional materials, like his odd lightsabre, turned out to be effective character elements. That lightsabre even made sense in the story as a raggedy creation that he cobbled together himself.
Probably the most-interesting comparison with Kylo was how he was perhaps modeled after the later-model Anakin, circa “Revenge of the Sith” and how his success as a bad guy might pay off what George Lucas was trying to do in that film. The style of Kylo’s hair seemed like about the only subtle reference to the prequels in the film but it was a good one. The strength of what made Kylo an unexpectedly interesting bad guy was in his basically playing the same character that many grew frustrated with in the context of the prequels.
Han Solo: Han’s line to Chewie about being ‘home’ that appeared in the trailer was his first line in the film and it always struck me as odd. It didn’t play right for me in the film either but after a few scenes I warmed up to Han’s return. This was easily Harrison’s best work in 20+ years but that wasn’t saying much. Han’s death scene was better than I’d imagined and it played fine for me in the end but it was not very memorable.
Chewie: He was there when you needed him with his hot new laser crossbow but he was otherwise mostly background scenery. He had a few nice moments with Han but the jury seemed to be out regarding his future in the saga.
Leia: There was not much to work with but I actually got misty-eyed every single time that she and Han Solo had a scene. Obviously we’ll see more of her in future films and that means more promotion work for Carrie Fisher, our national treasure.
R2 -D2 and C-3PO: Again, there was not much for them to do but they were present when needed in some key or amusing moments.
BB-8: That little guy stole the droid show. A nice addition to the world of the other two droids.
Maz: A well-performed and designed character but stuck out as a bit ‘obviously CGI’ in the context of everything else.
Luke: I really liked his cameo. He looked the most natural of any of the original trilogy actors and his presence was a reminder of how much Luke owned the original trilogy even if Harrison Ford was the breakout star. It probably wasn’t a surprise that suspicions of his back story mirrored the general gist of his old ‘expanded universe’ history, with his Jedi Academy going bad in some fashion.
General Hux: Hux was a forgettable Nazi-like guy who many might regard as the ‘annoying guy’ at work who tries to embarrass you (Kylo) in front of your boss (Snoke). Then again, if you had Kylo Ren as a co-worker, wouldn’t you be trying to distance yourself from that guy in front of your mutual boss?
Captain Phasma: For all of the marketing talk about this character, she turned out to have little more than a cameo. There was supposedly 20 minutes of deleted scenes from the film and one had to assume that some of that lost footage contained a better representation of Phasma. As it stood in the final film, she was a pretty lame character. People hoped that she would be the next Boba Fett and there were surely some cosplay types working on the costume. After seeing the film though, you’d have to be a hard luck case to want to portray her in public. What a wimp. She put up little in the way of a fight when confronted by Han’s commando squad and agreed to lower the Starkiller base shields that brought about the attack that destroyed that base! What kind of hardened leader does that!?!
Snoke: I liked his use of a giant hologram and I also liked the theory that his physical form would turn out to be that of a Yoda-like little man. There wasn’t much to say about him at this point though, given that viewers were not shown much of him outside of a couple of scenes.
Broad Sequences: A Reaction
Chronologically, the film had its highs and lows.
- Opening Logos: The 20th Century Fox anthem was missed at the beginning of the film and I didn’t realize until later that Disney didn’t bother including their logo, opting instead to only use the Lucasfilm production title. I had heard reference to a theatre in Austin, Texas bringing in a band to perform that anthem live as the film was playing and that would have been a fun way to usher in this new era.
- Opening Crawl: The opening crawl was surprisingly solid, with a clear objective amid the revelation that Luke Skywalker was missing. However, the political situation and the strength of the First Order vs. the Resistance wasn’t very clear.
- Opening shot: How would JJ set the stage? Well, he did so with a light touch, making a point right off the top to zig when viewers thought that he might zag. The use of a Star Destroyer shadow over the planet Jakku was effective and menacing, really getting things rolling fast.
- Village Slaughter: A lot happened in this sequence but it was grounded in Poe thinking he was being given a map to find Luke Skywalker but turned out to claim only a part of that map. This sequence was shot in a style that I didn’t entirely think jived with the normal style from the other films. It looked more like a television set piece. Max von Sydow’s character was a mystery and barely on screen, a disappointment given his stature. The attempt to humanize a storm trooper with Finn was interesting and we finally saw the life of a grunt on the other side of the story. Kylo’s extreme power over Poe, from stopping a laser blast to freezing his movements was an attention grabber.
- Intro Rey: Rey was introduced effectively with her scavenging run and her general life was painted in interestingly bleak fashion.
- Poe & Finn Breakout: The breakout from the Star Destroyer by Poe and Finn was very exciting and well-handled. This was Finn at his best and he played the scenes well with Poe. There seemed to be a lot of ‘meta’ or winking fanboy glee that involved the two main characters playing the fanboys as Poe was able to fly a Tie Fighter after making a tense escape
- Rey & Finn Getaway: The ‘stop trying to save me’ dynamic between Rey and Finn provided a nice twist, as she kept trying to brush off his assistance against the norm. That seemed smartly calculated to appeal to female fans and also fans who were simply looking for something different.
- Return of the Falcon: The first appearance of the Millennium Falcon was a welcome surprise even if its presence raised many questions due to its proximity to Rey being so convenient. When stepping aboard, it felt like the characters were stepping into an almost-artificial museum but it was fun to see the vintage designs and familiar equipment being used, such as the gunner display.
- Han’s Smuggler Ship: Of course we all knew that the Falcon would surely break down but it was another insanely handy coincidence that Han Solo would be nearby in his new smuggling vessel. It was hard to immediately embrace Ford at first glance and I probably had too much baggage riding on him to immediately accept him but I eventually warmed up to his return to Han Solo. The confrontation with Han involving some of the characters from the “Raid” films on Han’s ship was anti-climatic and forgettable. That said, the confrontation helped set up Han’s situation and foreshadowed his supposed ability to talk his way out of anything (a skill that didn’t help him at the end of the film), while also giving us a nice bit of creature effects with the featured tentacled monsters.
- Snoke in the House: The first cutaway to Kylo talking to Snoke was impressive given Snoke’s scale being a surprise. It was also nice that the filmmakers casually revealed that Han Solo was Kylo’s father without dragging out a reveal of that fact. Unfortunately, this scene really tipped the scales toward overly-foreshadowing Han’s later death as a way for Kylo to prove his worth to Snoke.
- Maz’s Cantina: I had heard about the sequence on Takodana being simply a Mos Eisley rehash with Maz Kanata dragging the film’s pace down during an info-dump on the audience. The reality of that scene turned out to be better than expected, with Maz being a compelling character and the discovery of Luke’s lightsabre added a pleasant surprise. The First Order’s attack on the location was answered by the predictable but not unsatisfying return of Poe.
- Interrogating Rey: It was key to note that the aftermath of Rey’s capture on Takodana led to the reveal of her being an uber-Jedi who could resist Kylo’s formidable mind-reading powers. As much as her unexplained suddenly skillful use of the Force seemed like sloppy writing in a first viewing, I began to warm to the idea that her high skill level would be explained in later films. It was amusing that Daniel Craig played the stormtrooper that Rey mind-controlled as part of her escape from custody and he did a nice job in a throwaway role.
- Planets Go Boom: The Death Star III’s ‘Alderann’ moment came with the destruction of a Hosnian Prime. I assumed that it was a random planet that happened to look like Coruscant and had missed some key bits of dialogue that explained its destruction as meaning that the New Republic’s leadership was dead. The main problem with this turn of events was that the audience had little emotional investment in the planet’s residents, an issue that was more evident when contrasted with Alderann being a supposedly peaceful planet.
- Han & Leia Reunited: The debate existed as to if their relationship fell apart before or after their son turned to the dark side. My guess at this point would be that it happened after the fact and that their split had more to do with them reverting to their old lives as coping mechanisms. Anyway, Han brought Finn to the Resistance base on D’Qar just as it was about to be threatened for destruction in a scenario that obviously mirrored the threat on the rebel base by the first Death Star. This scene marked the first of only a couple of appearances of C-3PO, this time in action-figure-collector-friendly ‘red arm variant.’ R2-D2 was shown in low-power/standby mode in more of a setup for later than anything else.
- Shields Down: Han and Chewie apparently had quite a bit of trust in Finn as they conveniently/magically pulled a lightspeed trick in the Falcon to safely land on the Starkiller base (aka Death Star III) without setting off the First Order’s radar. After sneaking into the main control area and reuniting with Rey, viewers saw Captain Phasma’s character get deep-sixed as she quickly agreed to put to down the planet’s shields and was the butt of a joke involving her being pushed down a trash compactor. Jokes like that callback to the trash compactor on the Death Star creeped toward being a bit much but they played well to many.
- Han Dies: Everything seemed to be going fine with the shields having been lowered on the base but a hole needed to be blown in its surface for the Resistance’s X-Wing fighters to get inside. The First Order appeared to have at least improved on the designs of the first two Death Stars in that regard. Ultimately that added precaution didn’t prevent the base avoid an eventual destruction but it did necessitate Han and his crew setting explosives inside an impressive set piece. That set piece echoed the large open area where Darth Vader confronted Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The discussion that ensued in that area between Han and Kylo was tense and interesting but ultimately contained few surprises. It was a nice touch to let the stabbed Han Solo brush his hand against his son’s face before falling to his death but the scene simply didn’t have the impact that I had expected it might have. Part of that soft impact might have resulted from my having predicted long in advance that Han would die in the film and, had I been genuinely caught off guard by that turn of events, it might have resonated more for me.
- Final Fight: Kylo appeared to be injured by Chewie taking a well-aimed shot at him in the immediate aftermath of Han’s death. That injury probably hobbled his ability to first fight Finn and then Rey in a lightsabre duel that then took place out on the snowy surface of the base. The duel was sloppy and about what one might have expected from three people who didn’t seem overly well-trained in Jedi combat, or at least two that weren’t well-trained and one who was injured. The details of the X-Wing fighters blowing up the Starkiller base didn’t resonate either since the star of this scene was the Jedi combat. Rey appeared to leave Kylo alive after defeating him and he was saved by his allies. Chewie showing up just in time to save Rey and Finn in the Falcon.
- Mourning/Celebration: One had to hope that the Resistance didn’t spend too much time partying in the aftermath of their immediate victory. Obviously Leia, Chewie, and Rey had some mourning to do. This was Rey’s first appearance in proximity to R2-D2, so it was interesting that he woke up in her presence. Of course, R2-D2 conveniently contained part of the map to Luke that was linked up with the map that Poe had obtained from Max von Sydow way back in the film’s opening sequence.
- Finding Luke: There were some who worried that the quest for Luke might drag on for another entire film, so it was a relief that that was not the case. A quick inventory showed that it appeared to be Rey, Chewie, and R2-D2 who made the trip to meet Luke. There was much wordless action at the end of the film, with that trio being somehow vetted off-screen as the logical choices for what would seem to be such a high-stakes mission. Fans will speculate over the course of the many months until the next film as to what Luke’s glances at Rey were meant to communicate and if he would take his lightsabre back from her or not. One way or the other though, it would seem that Luke would need to get back into action.
What Bothered Me?
Details aside, let’s look at the broad strokes that I didn’t enjoy about the film.
- Coincidences: There were a heck of a lot of handy coincidences early in the film to set everything up. Normally viewers forgive some of those things but one couldn’t not list it as an issue when 4-5 coincidences were stacked one after the next in the film’s first act alone. Maybe some of those issues are explained later films but fans were right to be skeptical.
- Too Big Too Soon: The notion of a hobbled Empire force somehow having the resources to come up with with a weapon that was 17 times the size of the original Death Star didn’t make a darn bit of sense I like big bases but the Death Star III (aka Starkiller Base) just seemed to be ridiculous in a lot of ways. It was an interesting idea but now I wish that the filmmakers had saved it, since where do they go from here in terms of stakes?
- Too Much Rhyming: The ‘rhyming’ or remaking of scenes from the first “Star Wars” film got to be a bit much at time. That approach works best when it is subtle and not constantly happening.
- A Bit of the Humor: Most of the humor worked, but there were some odd lines and bits of humor that would lead to a lot of debate as people had different reactions to the same attempts at humor. Finn’s character should be at the center of this debate with some of his material working and some of it seeming out of place.
- Kylo as a Wimp: Were we to assume that Keylo’s injury via Chewie after Han’s death greatly weakened his ability to fight the novices Finn and Rey? I think so, but the alternative was that he simply wasn’t a very good fighter.
- The Score: I completely forgot about the John Williams score and it might as well have just been re-used elements from his original trilogy soundtrack. I’ve seen some blame director JJ Abrams on this point and speculate that it was not John Williams’ fault. The argument was that Abrams did not want a big musical number. We’ll need more information before I can decide if it was Williams or JJ being to blame. Maybe both.
- Han’s Death: I’d been preparing for the past couple of years to have Han Solo’s death play out but the result was somewhat anti-climactic. It wasn’t awful and they had a nice set piece for where it occurred, but astute viewers knew during the first scene with Snoke that Han was going to die as a way for Kylo to prove himself to his boss.
What Did I like?
To be clear, I generally enjoyed the film and there was much to like about it.
- Genuineness: There was a tempered eagerness or earnestness by the cast and key creatives that was undeniably on display in the film, making it hard to hate.
- Wayback Machine: The one thing that was really odd for me was how the film seemed to truly exist in a 1970s-era production design. If it was a fan fiction film, it was like JJ Abrams somehow got into a time machine and went back to the original trilogy era of production values. He brought new actors with them, then returned to the present where they sprinkled in some modern CGI from the prequel era. The end result was really odd that way but mostly worked. I might not have liked a lot of things that happened in the prequels but George Lucas had a certain confidence in the execution that I wasn’t quite sure about with JJ. JJ at the wheel sort of felt like a guy taking his dad’s sports car out for a spin but he didn’t get into any significant accidents.
- Quasi-Flashback: The ‘flashback’ that everyone complained about when it was only a rumor amid speculation worked well in the context of the movie since it had Rey within the scene. It evoked the cave scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” instead of being a traditional flashback.
- Rey as Mystery Box: It seemed obvious at first that Rey and Kylo were twins but it was odd that neither Han Solo nor Leia seemed to know about her. I’ve seen some speculation that she was actually Luke’s daughter and that made a bit more sense.
- Reunions – Part 1: The scenes that had turned me into a misty-eyed cry baby? Anything with Han and Leia in it got me and I wasn’t expecting that emotion. There was a realization on screen that, yeah, they were probably not going to actually end up happy ever after like they did in the Expanded Universe material. But the idea that they had oversaw a broken home and needed make it right carried a lot of weight for me with not much needing to be stated between them.
- Reunions – Part 2: The last shot with Luke also got me even though I could obviously tell that it was going to end on a cut to a cliffhanger. That emotion was a confirmation that I might have liked Han as a character but Luke was the guy who defined the original trilogy experience… and he was back. Much like the opening scroll was a surreal ‘Is this really happening?’ moment, so was Luke showing up at the end.
Something that I’d not appreciated during my viewing of the film itself and that only sunk in after the fact was that the end of the film was actually rather down-beat. The New Republic leadership was effectively wiped out when their new capital planet of Hosnian Prime was blown up, leaving the First Order to likely take power as the New Empire. They might even re-claim Coruscant as their new base of operations. The Resistance folks would then be a Rebel-like rag-tag bunch, left as the only defenders of freedom in the galaxy. So, much like the situation at the end of the first “Star Wars” film, the Resistance might have won a battle that ensured their own survival but they weren’t in the greatest position to win this star war.
Perhaps I overlooked all of the greater machinations due to the film simply moving so quickly and my distraction with the (mostly) interesting characters. “The Force Awakens” was more entertaining on an initial viewing than any of the “Star Wars” prequel films had been but it wasn’t as good as any film in the original trilogy.
Many like to try to dethrone “Return of the Jedi” from being the typical third place film in the ranking of a given “Star Wars” fan’s favorites but “The Force Awakens” simply didn’t give me enough reason to do that with my personal list. It played more like a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of the originals in an odd sort of way that is hard to figure out. I wanted to see it again in the theatre though and that alone was a fair enough compliment.
The one thing that remained an interesting topic to monitor would be how the fanboy nature of the film settled in with fandom in the long run. To reiterate, I couldn’t help but often feel like most of the original trilogy’s world had indeed been re-created and some new characters were successfully inserted into it. Unfortunately, a few new characters snuck into that world that seemed out of place and some familiar faces needed more opportunity to be showcased. In all though, it was a solid initial effort on something new.
The sequels have a challenge in store for their creators, as they need to somehow not drop the ball.