The Force Awakens (spoiler edition)

This is the spoiler version of my review for The Force Awakens.

It contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers. The spoiler-free version is here, if you don't want to be spoiled (or you just want to read 1000 words of me rambling about the Star Wars franchise).

All three of the original Star Wars films open with shots of a Star Destroyer. In IV and VI, the crawl crawls, and then the camera pans to a planet and a ship comes from the top of the screen, into view from behind. In V, the camera pans directly to a Star Destroyer pointed at the camera. In VII, the camera pans to a planet, and then a Star Destroyer passes between it and the camera, occluding it. I like this opening a lot. It references the originals, but puts a new spin on it. It has a sense of menace (but not a phantom one).

Speaking of referencing the originals, I've heard complaints that Episode VII is too referential of them. It has a spherical super-weapon which can destroy planets. It has a plucky force-sensitive hero who is plucked out of obscurity on a desert planet because of the arrival of a droid bearing an important message. Its villain is deliberately copying Darth Vader. There is a trench run. There is a Resistance which looks an awful lot like a Rebellion, even though the Rebels "won" in Episode VI. This is not a copy though, it's an homage done right - referential while changing and adding more than enough to make the property its own.

This is apparent when looking at the new characters. Episode IV's Luke is a whiny child who dreams of adventure and heroism. Now we have Finn and Rey, both of whom are reluctant heroes. Finn spends most of the movie trying to run away, while Rey spends most of it trying to avoid leaving home and then trying to return to it. Kylo Ren, while initially presented as powerful and strong, becomes progressively less confident and competent as the movie continues, which is very much unlike Vader. The closest new-character parallel to original characters is Poe to Han - they both have the cocky flyboy thing - and even then it's not that strong.

Finn and Rey I like very much. John Boyega's portrayal of a scared, naive, but brave man is excellent. His comic timing is perfect, too, something that was sorely lacking in the prequels. His exchanges with Poe on the Star Destroyer are particularly memorable. Daisy Ridley's Rey is a fantastic character - strong, competent, resilient, and very human.
The interaction between Finn and Rey when they meet is especially good, both because it's entertaining and because it breaks tropes. Finn attempts to treat Rey like a woman needing rescue, but she's more competent than he is (though I do wonder how Finn knows to act that trope, since stormtrooper training presumably doesn't include it).

Poe I like also - he's charming, heroic, and irreverent. As mentioned above, he feels a lot like Han. Unlike Han, though, he doesn't appear to have any flaws, which isn't a good thing. All characters should have flaws, it's what makes them interesting and relatable. In early drafts, Poe was supposed to stay dead in the TIE crash. Killing off a super-capable character can be used to raise stakes or impress the viewer with the severity of the situation. It seems that the writers forgot to adjust the character when they decided to keep him alive.

Kylo Ren is the new character I have the most problems with. I appreciate the place of the character in the plot and in the lore - the theme of turning to the Dark Side recurs frequently in Star Wars, both movies and books. I even appreciate what they did with his character arc, showing strength and then peeling back layers of doubt and fear. They picked a terrible actor for the part, though. I'm not at all impressed with Adam Driver's acting abilities when he has the mask off. It doesn't help that he looks incredibly emo with the black and the haircut. Also, he looks nothing like Han or Leia, which is particularly noticeable when he and Han are in the same scene. The facial shape is all wrong, and the ears too. He does look a fair amount like Hayden Christensen, who wore his hair about the same way in the prequels - maybe that was what they were going for? Ren does, after all, idolize Vader, but from a casting perspective, referencing the second-most-reviled actor in the franchise seems like an odd choice.
The characterization has problems as well. Ren is a trained swordsman, and even with the weakness revealed through the course of the film (and the wound) it's hard to accept his difficulty beating Finn and his loss to Rey. Even if we presume that the wound physically impairs him so greatly, we have been repeatedly shown that he has the ability to freeze people in place. He hasn't lost major Force abilities, since he opens that scene by Force Pushing Rey a rather large distance. This whole sequence suffered from lazy writing (and some seriously sub-par choreography).

BB-8 obviously fills the role which R2-D2 did in the original, and does so brilliantly. His interactions with Rey are perfect. His design is ingenious, the more so because he's a practical effect.

For returning characters, there's a bit of a mixed bag. Han feels like Han most of the time. Harrison Ford completely phones in a line during the gang standoff near his introduction, but everything else is good. It's mostly believable that he ran off when his son turned to the Dark Side, but losing the Falcon is pretty far-fetched. He has some fine moments with Rey, Finn, and Chewie - he still has charisma and wry humor. I do have one big problem with Han, though - what's the deal with his reaction to Chewie's bowcaster? They've been together for decades, how can he not have seen the thing in action? Unless that's supposed to be a new and improved model, which is not in any way hinted at, it makes no sense.
Carrie Fisher's Leia, on the other hand, might be carved out of clay. Maybe it's that she wasn't given much to work with, or maybe it's too much Botox, but her character does nothing for me. There's none of the fire that made Leia who she was.
C3-PO's red arm is irrelevant to everything, and his inclusion in general feels forced, like the writers knew they needed to include him but didn't really know what to do with him, especially since they deprived him of his counterpart for most of the movie.
I like Chewie, who manages physicality and humor nicely. He doesn't have anything as good as the "laugh it up, fuzzball" scene, but appearing not to know if Han was a war hero or not is amusing.
R2-D2 and Luke are barely in the movie, and are really only plot devices.

Speaking of the plot, it has some holes. Some of them will, I hope, be filled in later movies or books. These relate mostly to timing of Kylo Ren's fall to the Dark side and Luke's disappearance, and the political structure of the Republic/Resistance/Empire/First Order mess. I don't like the movie being so vague about how any of these things work, but I can deal with this.
The map, though, the thing which drives the action of the movie, is dumb. The fragment Max von Sydow had wasn't incomplete at all, it was just a piece of a bigger map - but it was the piece with Luke's location on it. I don't buy that no one could figure out where that was without the piece held by R2. This, by the way, is super lazy writing, having the necessary information there the entire time and inaccessible only because the plot demands that the characters can't have it yet. The worst part is that all of this could be resolved just by changing the graphics of the map pieces so that the one is actually incomplete without the other. What can't be fixed, though, is the existence of the map in the first place. There'd better be a really good explanation of how Max Von Sydow ended up with that piece and only that piece of the map, who made it, why, and when. I don't think there is, though.

There are other things that bother me - why is there a stormtrooper with a melee weapon? That thing looked really awkward. What is its intended purpose?
Why can the destruction of the Hosnian System be seen from Maz's planet? There should be astronomically (ha) large distances involved.
How does Rey pick up Force abilities so quickly? Some things she appears to learn simply by seeing them, which I'm okay with - her Occlumency scene with Kylo Ren is quite good - but the Jedi Mind Trick seems particularly out of place, since she hasn't seen it done before, and didn't even think the Force existed the day before. On the other hand, the scene is fun, and it's cool that Daniel Craig plays the trooper.
Finn tells Han that his job on Starkiller Station (presumably a reference to Luke's surname in the original Star Wars scripts) was sanitation. This really only makes sense as a lie, and we do have plenty of examples of Finn lying to people. If it's not a lie, though, it's pretty weird. How would someone go from sanitation to being a stormtrooper?

Still, I like the movie a lot. First and foremost, it feels like Star Wars in a way that the prequels did not, with a mixture of adventure, action, and humor (but none of the infantile nonsense of the prequel trilogy). The effects are top-notch, but serve the story rather than being an end unto themselves. Each character has personality, and their interactions are both interesting and entertaining. The cinematography is stunning. The script and direction are excellent except where they're really not, which I've already ranted about. Moments like the reveal of the Falcon, and Han and Chewie's entrance, and Poe and Finn's back-and-forth on the Star Destroyer, are so well done that it's hard to believe that the same people are responsible for C3-PO's speech about the red arm.
I left the theater wanting to see the movie again, and after the second time I still want to know more about these characters and what happens next.

I saw the movie in 2D first, and then in 3D IMAX. The 3D version wasn't worse, but it wasn't better either. IMAX is nice with its bigness, but the movie felt plenty big to me on the regular screen. This certainly isn't a movie where there is any need to look for a 3D screening.


  1. I strongly agree with most and disagree with a little. I liked Adam Driver for the most part, but this may just be a matter of taste.

    I thought the tonfa trooper was trained in anti-jedi melee combat (note the Lightsaber parries, rather than just getting cut to pieces). This also helped foreshadow Finn's semi-competence in the lightsaber duel. And by competence I mean not managing to cut his own arms off. Plus it looked cooled, which seemed to be the top priority for a lot of the materials. But how much better would that scene had been if it was Phasma, and not some anonymous stormtrooper?

    1. Yeah, a different version of this review pointed out that the tonfa/lightsaber fight was there to demonstrate that Finn had melee weapons training. I forgot to include it in this version.

      Having it be Phasma would have been better, though you'd have to change the ending.

  2. I believe there is a plausible reason for Ray gaining use of the force so quickly.I Do believe it was Yoda that infered that the force was made stronger by believing in it. Up to this point the heros of the rebellion( Han, Luke etc) were considered myths and stories to Ray. The moment Han tells her its all real she believes it. Perhaps she herd tales of the Jedi's abilities. Also for a brief moment she is in Ren's head and perhaps gets a glimce there too.

    I blieve this is proven by the fact that when we see the confidence in her eyes and face she finally gets the trooper to do her bidding.

  3. Kylo Ren kept reminding me of Prof. Snape. It was really quite distracting.

  4. OK, that Unknown was me -Mom/Suzanne