I've never made any secret of my ambivalence about Star Wars. When I first encountered the films as an eight year old, I liked them well enough. I even dressed up as Leia in her combat gear from the Battle of Endor for Halloween that year.* But I never really got into them. Not like I got into Lord of the Rings, which basically consumed my soul for six years and had me learning high elvish and memorizing obscure facts. I never got that way with Star Wars. The extended universe did nothing for me, and the prequels didn't help.
So upon hearing that Lucasfilm was finally going to get around to making more Star Wars movies, I wasn't really overjoyed. Not unhappy, for sure, but not thrilled. Just sort of meh. While the rest of the world (including all my fellow Crossover Appeal hosts) lost their collective shit over this new movie, I was sitting back and waiting to figure out what to make of it. Which is to say, thank you for being patient. I have now reached a verdict:
It's pretty good.
There's a lot of good groundwork here. So much stuff is done incredibly well, and the characters they've set up for the rest of the series are ones I look forward to following. There was also stuff that was handled not so well, characters and allusions that made my eyes roll and my heart disengage. So overall I have to say that it was pretty good. It could have been better, but it also definitely could have been worse.
[SPOILERS from here on out.]
It's very hard to make a good sequel. The more time that has elapsed, the more beloved and "important" the story, the more cultural expectation attached, the hard it's going to be to make an even halfway decent sequel. And if ever there was a movie with a whole lot of baggage attached, it's this one. So it's really not surprising that in making a sequel to one of the most beloved film franchises of all time, JJ Abrams got some stuff right and some stuff wrong.
We'll start with the good. In this case, the best thing that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has going for it is the new characters. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) - and even BB-8 - are all precious lambs who I immediately fell in love with. There's a progressive bent to each of them, a way in which they are heroes for our new millennium, which I adore. Two men of color and a white woman who doesn't need their help but wants their friendship. These are heroes I'm happy to let my potential future children grow up watching, who I know will set good, compassionate examples.
I mean, each of them individually is a fantastic character, and taken together they're almost overwhelmingly lovely. Yes, it's brilliant that the protagonist of this series is a woman, but it's even more brilliant that she's such a complex and endearing woman. Rey is exactly the kind of mythic hero that Luke Skywalker was, not watered down or fetishized in any way. Her backstory is tragic, but she's a sweet and kind person in spite of it. She's crazy powerful with the Force. She's adorable and licks her plate. She can fly the Millennium Falcon on her first try. She thinks rain is magical.
Rey is neither fiercely and psychotically independent (like so many other "strong female characters"), nor is she weak and cringing and dependent on her male friends. She is a whole person, with facets and quirks, and I love that.
Also we got through her storyline with nary a shoehorned romance or inexplicable scene of nudity, so let's all rejoice on that one.
Then there's Finn, the cinnamon roll we didn't know to hope for. Finn is an interesting case because of how he so completely subverts our expectations about soldiers, masculinity, and race. I mean, sure, this is all taking place in a galaxy far far away, but our prejudices tend to linger with us there. It would have been very easy for the film to make Finn a caricature of himself. He's a strapping young black man who was raised since childhood to be a mindless killer for a genocidal regime. This could have gone full Beasts of No Nation. But it doesn't. Instead, Finn is an exploration in humanity and what is left behind when all of it gets stripped away.
According to this movie and Finn's characterization, what's left behind is a precious lamb who deserves all of the hugs. More seriously, what Finn personifies is the human desire for connection and recognition. Finn's an amazing hero precisely because he's so open about what he's feeling all the time. He's not fronting. He tells himself out loud to be calm. He holds Rey's hand not for her sake but for his own.
He has no idea what he's doing, and he admits that pretty easily. Finn's value as a hero is in his humility and emotional honesty. It's refreshing to see a character like him raised up as the new hero of the rebellion. A young man of color who is fighting for the right thing, who might want to run away but always comes back, and who isn't ashamed of his feelings. Hell yes.
And finally we've got Poe Dameron, the most emotionally secure person in the galaxy it seems like. What makes Poe distinctive and amazing is how he manages to be a sort of carefree wisecracker and also a sensitive, emotionally intelligent man at the same time. He's snarky and sassy, but it's not coming out of insecurity. I mean, basically Poe seems like a genuinely happy person, which is bizarrely rare in an action movie. He's a man who really isn't haunted by his past. He likes people immediately and intensely. After all, it's only the second time he's ever seen Finn when he tells the guy to keep his prized leather jacket, the one that source material tells us Poe got for becoming a pilot in the first place.
Poe is kind and generous and funny and sweet and not at all what you expect when you explain his character as the "best pilot in the Resistance". He's not cocky. He's just...good. This too is valuable. Poe is an exemplary figure as a man with nothing to prove to anyone. He has no chips on his shoulders, he's just trying to do the right thing. I love that. I want more of that. I'm so happy Poe is going to be in the rest of the movies as well.
But here is where my praise starts to turn a bit. While there are other bright spots in the film - Captain Phasma is fantastically intimidating and scary, BB-8 is adorable without being obnoxious, and Jessika Pava needs more screen time - what unfortunately didn't work for me in this movie was just about everything else. Except Maz. I really liked Maz.
The real issue I had with this film was that it felt a bit too committed to making its audience nostalgic for the first Star Wars films. It was everywhere. From the sweeping John Williams score coming in to make us nostalgic about Han and Leia to the visual call-backs to episode four to the constant and unrelenting insistence that everything in this film be wrapped up in Skywalker family drama, the big problem for me in this movie was its reluctance to do its own thing.
Or, to put it another way that's going to make you all hate me, the biggest problem with this movie was Han Solo.
Before you start auto-addressing your hate mail, hear me out. By bringing Han into the story so early on, it kills the momentum that Rey and Finn have on their own with their own adventures. Bringing Han into the plot essentially means bringing in a character to say, "The adults are here. It's all fine. We'll fix it now."
The issue with this from a storytelling standpoint is that it takes the pressure off of our heroes. With Han in the picture and his considerably larger knowledge of the galaxy, Rey and Finn don't actually have anything to do. There's no reason why they should stay in the story at all. Pressure is good and important in a plot - it's necessary for the plot to feel important. When Han shows up the pressure is off and therefore the plot goes into a freefall.
This is of course not even mentioning the fact that Harrison Ford didn't seem particularly invested in his acting in this film. The first five minutes of his appearance on screen are great, but they quickly fade into the realization that Ford isn't giving the character the oomph he needs to make the emotional scenes land. As a result, his moments with Leia and Kylo Ren really fall flat. So from both a storytelling standpoint and an acting one, I think the biggest problem with the film is Han Solo - his arc makes our heroes irrelevant and fails to achieve the emotional punch it was going for, all while slowing down the pace and tension of the rest of the film. A lot less Han would have gone a lot longer way.
Similarly, Leia's appearances fell far short of what we were promised, though in her case I'm less inclined to blame the actress and more inclined to blame the script. Despite being set up as the General in charge of the Resistance, we never get to see Leia in this capacity. Instead, every scene where we actually see Leia for a significant amount of time is actually about the men in her life and her emotional relationships.
Either she's reconnecting with Han or insisting they search for Luke or lamenting the loss of her son. Leia doesn't get any badass command moments, which is a problem when we've set her up as a woman who buried her grief with duty. You can't just say that and not show it.
Then, of course, there's Kylo Ren, who just fails to hit the bar for a compelling bad guy. There are a lot of ways that Ren (Adam Driver) falls short of our hopes and wishes as a villain, but I would argue that the real problem with his character is the narrative's choice to keep his parentage a secret twist for later in the movie. While the twist is shocking and well done, what it does is leave you wondering for the rest of the movie what the hell is this guy's problem. Because we don't know what Leia and Han are so sad about and also what Ren's damage is, we aren't able to get particularly emotionally invested in either issue. The revelation is later in the movie than it ought to be.
I would also argue that a large part of the problem with Ren's "scariness" is his hair. Yes, that's a weird statement, but hear me out. When Ren first takes off his helmet and reveals that he isn't a twisted husk of a thing hiding behind his breathing assistance, the big thing that strikes you is how clean he looks. While Ren is being set up as a man on the brink of a full psychotic break, his hair is shiny and fluffy and way the hell nicer than mine is most of the time. What this does is visually signify that Ren, though unstable, is at least capable of taking care of himself and conditioning, which means he can't be that badly off.
But this is side-dressing. The real point I'm making here is that while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a good movie, it didn't seem to trust itself to make a movie worth watching without hammering on our nostalgia strings. It feels like this film set up all the pieces it needed in order to tell an epic adventure and then just chickened out at the last minute and let the grownups take over. As a result, the film feels loose and badly plotted. Not a lot happens and the stakes are either pitifully low or so high as to be hard to emotionally fathom.
We don't need bigger and scarier weapons for the bad guys and more wisecracking humans to take them down, we need emotional sincerity and a plot that actually commits. If you're going to tell a story about two middle-aged parents trying to rescue their son, do it. If you're telling a coming of age epic about two lost orphans learning how to be heroes, then tell that story. But don't try to do both and do neither by accident.
So is this Star Wars movie good? Sure. But it could have been better, and I sincerely hope that the next one will be.