Well, I saw it. Sooner than I had intended, but with the world ready to spoil everything I’m glad I was still in a relative vacuum.
I had originally wanted to wait until a second viewing to put my thoughts down like this – we all know how first impressions are, and how talking about them with other people can cloud our memory. However, my financial situation won’t allow it and any of you who are regular readers are I’m sure dying to know what I thought.
I’m going to split this into bullet-pointed sections because that’s how my brain is best processing everything that I saw and everything that I feel.
First, I’m going to stress that 99.9999etc% of these are my own personal opinions, and even the rare moments where I speak on an objective technique level are open to interpretation. I have no quarrel with people who feel differently unless they are the type of hypocrite who would put me down for disagreeing, and I reserve the right to change my mind about ANY of this with time, study, and distance.
Part 1: Spoiler-Free Summary of My Feelings
- Loved the basic story, hated the presentation.
- As a film, it’s well-made and enjoyable, if a bit generic. I ultimately enjoyed myself.
- As a Star Wars Saga film, it’s immensely disappointing, and if it still counts it’s my current least favorite.
- As a Star Wars Expanded Universe Story, it’s at least above-average and I like this direction a little better than the original after-Jedi EU.
- Would still have preferred George’s vision by a country mile.
Warning: Spoilers from this point forward
Part 2: Things I Liked and/or Thought Were Well Done
- In general, the story of the Skywalker family drama was very interesting, and I’m very intrigued to see where it goes from here.
- Seeing the Big Three melt back into their roles. Harrison WAS Han again. Carrie WAS Leia. Most pleasantly surprising of all – for the few seconds we got him, and without saying a word, Mark Hamil (the man who has been looking craggy and evil in everything for the past decade) WAS Luke Skywalker.
- Ewan McGregor’s four-second vocal cameo at the end of Rey’s vision.
- I like the concept that the First Order is a sort of relatively small terrorist organization that the New Republic sanctions a small task force to try and squelch. The execution of this idea however…more in the next section.
- Maz Kanata. One of the few new designs that feels like it belongs in a Galaxy Far, Far Away and a charming and interesting character to boot.
- Kylo Ren. What’s great about this character is that unlike the rest of the new cast where one could reasonably debate whether or not they’re the IV-VI cast with the serial numbers filed off, Ben Solo is explicitly TRYING to be Darth Vader and FAILING. I think this is a FANTASTIC character dynamic, and it’s one of the things I’m most excited to see play out in the future (especially if Anakin’s Force Ghost is involved – what a rude awakening ol’ Benny is in for).
- Related to the above, I’m glad that he’s not explicitly a Sith, he’s a “Knight of Ren” (which sounds like some BS Snoke invented to keep Kylo in line, and that’s fine with me either way). Thus the Prophecy still stands.
- I had a feeling we were going to lose Han. A) Harrison wanted it since Empire, and there’s little else they could have lured him back with. B) It wouldn’t be Star Wars without an old mentor figure dying for the new heroes. That’s not copying, it’s parallelism. Qui-Gon in Phantom, Obi-Wan in Hope, Han is as good as any in Awakens. While I didn’t like seeing Han die in the same way I didn’t like seeing the other characters die, the events leading up to the death and the death itself was a superbly staged and acted sequence and it made perfect sense for both characters involved, and Leia sensing it was perfect. My only complaint is the lack of a “Big No” from anyone but Chewie and the fact that we weren’t really given time to mourn at any point afterward (except for, again, a few seconds with Chewie).
- While I don’t feel very strongly one way or another about the lightsaber duel, I adored the moment of symbolism at the end when Ren and Rey were separated by the ever-widening chasm opening up in the ground (just like their ideals! Get it?). Now, the only question is: is this a rift between cousins or siblings?
Part 3: Things I Didn’t Like and/or Thought Were Poorly Done
- The biggest negative for me was the direction. While not “bad”, it’s not “Star Wars”. The Cinematography was far too busy, especially during quiet scenes. We never really had a moment to take in the whole picture at any given moment. The dialogue was also far too modern and snappy. Overall, the tone was missing the essential George Lucas “Gee Whiz,” and that’s a big problem in terms of consistency if nothing else.
- Also related to the above, the production design felt, to me, uninspired. Nobody had ever seen designs like the ones featured in the other six films, especially Hope and Phantom, and yet here everything felt derivative of something else we’ve seen over and over. And aside from Maz, BB-8, and Kylo’s Excalisaber, none of it felt like it belonged in a Star Wars film. They felt more generic Sci/Fi.
- Speaking of “Nothing New”, my biggest fear going in was that it would be a complete rehash of New Hope. While I was relieved to see most of the story nods subtle enough to be taken as Saga parallelism, there are two (well, one and two halves) big offenders that should have been rethought. The most egregious to me is the Skywalker Map taking the exact same journey and having the exact same relevance as the Death Star Plans in New Hope. There must have been another way.
- Remember what I said above that I liked about the concept of the relationship between the First Order, New Republic, and Resistance? Well, in practice, it just comes off as Rebels vs Empire again, with everyone treating First Order as if it were the Empire with the same power. In reality, according to the story, they have even less power than the Confederacy of Independent Systems. Also, I really hope they didn’t just blow up the New Republic and just some of its most prominent leaders.
- The Starkiller Base. Oh, the Starkiller Base. Now, I would actually like the thing and take it as a believable next step in the arms race if it had been built up for VII and VIII to make its appearance in IX. After all, that’s what Lucas originally wanted for the Death Star, and the only reason it appeared in Hope only to be rebuilt in Jedi was because Lucas wasn’t originally sure he’d be able to make the others. Now, we know for a fact that no matter what, VIII and IX are getting made, so there’s no excuse for making the Base’s story EXACTLY that of the Death Star in New Hope.
- There are several close-up and loving shots of the Legacy Lightsaber being turned on with the wrong freaking button. Even hateboys would know better than that.
- Unkar Plutt. Not only do I despise the fact that Simon Pegg was let anywhere near an official Star Wars production after what he said about George and Saga fans, not only is he a hypocrite for jumping on the “practical effects” bandwagon only to play someone with a CG head, but in line with what I said above his head is a blobfish. No real character design, literally a blobfish. It’s okay to draw from nature, but at least twist it into something more original.
- Lor San Tekka. Not the character himself, I like him. You just don’t get Max Von Sydow to play a Jedi Acolyte (no telling from the film whether he was Force Sensitive or not, but he definitely kept the faith) only to kill him off five minutes into the film.
- Poe Dameron. I don’t have any real reason outside his name and he’s not a “bad” character, I just don’t like him.
- This film relies HEAVILY on having seen the other movies, at least IV-VI. Both New Hope and Phantom Menace were able to stand on their own in spite of their relation to the rest of the story, and Force Awakens should have followed suit. It has absolutely no ambition except to “recapture” what people felt seeing New Hope, and this is precisely why it ultimately fails for those of us who love and study the Saga intimately.
Part 4: Things That Wouldn’t Bother Me if People Hadn’t Been Making Such a Big Screaming Deal About Them
- The effects. George Lucas always worked to pioneer special effects and bring things to the screen that people had never seen before. In 1977, he pushed model-making and compositing to its limit. In 1999, he pushed digital effects, animatronics, and editing to its limit. In 2015, J.J. Abrams used the same CG everyone else uses today augmented with practical effects that not only look faker than the masks in New Hope but seem to be purposely made to. The biggest offender is what I like the call the “Drinky Bird”, since its motions remind me of the novelty wobbling birds on office desks, and its authenticity isn’t much better. If you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Normally, I wouldn’t bother to mention it, except all you could hear leading up to this film was the freaking effects.
- Captain Phasma. I’ve had conversations with people before the film came out, praising her as being the “First Female Star Wars Villain”. I countered with Asajj Ventress, popular Clone Wars antagonist. These people would amend that to “First Female Star Wars Villain in a Numbered Saga Film.” I bring up Zam Wessel, Padmé’s would-be assassin from Clones. “First Female Star Wars Villain, or Side Character in General, in a Numbered Saga Film That Intends To Cause A Recurring Threat to the Plot And Not Just Die in the First Act.” Fine. She must be someone VERY important. I see the film, and what does she do? Spend about five-ten minutes in Act 1 looking menacing, then disappearing entirely for the rest of the film until Act 3 where she gets easily captured and thrown down a garbage chute, fate unknown. By men. Yeah, bit of a letdown, right? And again, it wouldn’t strike me as anything more than natural for that type of character had her gender and her role not been brought up over and over again. Speaking of which…
- The diversity. Phasma was just one of many things that people were praising this movie for before its release in terms of how “We’re finally getting a Star Wars that’s not all white males!” Look, diversity is important and needs to be something that we think about in society, but this forgets to take into account that Star Wars was ALWAYS diverse. Leia was a complete subversion of the Damsel in Distress. Padmé was a strong and smart female character. Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu were very important characters. James Earl Jones and Ahmed Best lent their talents to memorable main characters, even if those characters didn’t match their ethnicity. The Galaxy as presented in George’s Saga had hosts of peoples from all walks of life, and they were portrayed by almost as many. Ultimately, The Force Awakens proves no more or less diverse than any of the other entries which, again, would not be even worth remaking on, had people not built it up to be more than it was.
Part 5: Things That Require Additional Viewings and/or Context From VIII and IX
- Rey. I’m not sure how I feel about her yet. I’ve spoken to other people who consider her a “Mary Sue” (a character archetype usually seen in adaptations and fan works who has little personality other than being supernaturally better at everything than the original main characters while having no flaws other than what would endear her to the rest of the main cast). While that does seem to match my first impression, I’m wary of assigning something so negative and ultimately nebulous in concept to something I’ve only seen once. I’ve heard people say similar things about lack of personality to many characters in Star Wars who are brimming with it under a veneer affectation. Rey requires extensive further study.
- Finn. While his character arc is interesting, it doesn’t always seem consistent or even completely clear to me. My final verdict on Finn will hinge on where he is developed from here.
- BB-8. Interesting design. In some scenes I feel negatively distracted by him being R2-D2 with the serial numbers filed off, and in other scenes I recognize that his personality is entirely different: While R2 is cool and focused, if a bit of a trickster, BB-8 is more like an excited Pomeranian. Multiple viewings and further development will tell whether I ultimately embrace or dismiss the little beach ball.
- Snoke. I love Andy Serkis. I hate the “Gollum-meets-Voldemort-meets-(Spider-Man Villain) The Sandman” design. I am VERY intrigued by the whole Wizard of Oz holo setup he has. I’m confused as to his ultimate plan (outside of the old standard of Galactic Conquest). Must investigate further.
- The Music. John Williams had a much subtler score than any in the Star Wars franchise, and while there were some melodies I liked, I had a hard time picking them out and nothing I fell instantly in love with like the other films. Then again, it took me many views and many listens to appreciate Across the Stars from Clones, so this will require more listens as well.
- The Force Awakens. Characters who are not trained, and some whose Force-Sensitivity are a mystery, are able to do things that the Jedi in their prime couldn’t do without much more training. It rubs me the wrong way, but I’m willing to forego judging it until VIII and IX explain a few more things.
This is about everything that I walked away from the theatre with. I tried my best to be as fair as possible, and not repeat the mistakes that led us to the Hateboy Hellhole that inspired me to start this column in the first place.