While I could easily nitpick the new Star Wars movie, I greatly enjoyed watching it. My pal Johnny said to him it approximated what it must have felt like to see the original trilogy in theaters; having seen all three in theaters back in ’77, ’80, and ’83 at the long-gone Franklin Theater in Nutley, I will concur.
I had a smile chiseled into my face for much of the running time. There were missed opportunities, and some of it was a little too familiar, but as a whole I can compare it favorably with Mad Max: Fury Road. Don’t make me choose which is better; I’d say that Fury is more focused, because it didn’t go in with the intention of two more sequels. The Force Awakens (unlike the original Star Wars) knows we’re along for two more films, so introduces many new characters and doesn’t give them all complete story arcs, but lets us get to know them enough to know we’ll want to see more.
I’m no fan of JJ Abrams; he’s really good at making cotton candy like Cloverfield that thrills you until you start asking basic storytelling questions like “who’s that stupid?” and so on. There’s some of that here, where a character is given more camera time because of the upcoming Rogue Squadron spin-off, but it’s not blatant and the film captures the wonder of the original movies, at least in spirit.
What I loved:
The background is as detailed as the original movies (which I watched last week, so the memory is very fresh). And unlike the prequels, it’s not in love with itself. We notice a lot of detail while the story is focused on the characters. It feels a lot like the best video games LucasFilm came up with, like Knights of the Old Republic (which is begging for a direct screen adaptation). The fight choreography in The Force Awakens is quite good, and forgoes the crazy anime / Matrix style that made the prequels just not feel like a Star Wars movie at all. The originals are based on Westerns, World War II films, and samurai movies after all, not Chinese wire-fu flicks. The fights in this one are exciting, and the Stormtroopers can hit the side of a barn.
What I didn’t love:
JJ Abrams action set pieces and the lack of tension. Because we’re only just meeting everyone, and some things plotwise are a little too close to the original, there’s nowhere near as much tension as there was in the first trilogy. I’ve seen those movies dozens of times, and my heartbeat still quickens when they are taking out the Death Stars, Han is being frozen in carbonite, and during the lightsaber battles. Here the dogfights are a little more about spectacle, the bad guys aren’t as chilling, so there wasn’t as much riding on the stakes. John Williams is kind of phoning it in, there were many calls to the original themes, but I didn’t recognize or remember any leitmotifs or themes for the new characters.
I’m looking forward to the second and third films, and I hope they keep the faith; in Empire, Luke is not truly a Jedi but he’s quite capable; in Jedi, he’s no Obi-Wan but the Force is with him, and you don’t want to cross him. It would not be terrible to give the new characters similar story arcs. The last thing I want to see is a Jedi who can give into his anger or hatred, and then just go mope and feel guilty about it for a while. The high road is difficult. Luke telling the Emperor he’d have to kill him, that was a tough choice. In the era where Superman snaps people’s necks because it’s easier than dealing with the existence of evil, I sincerely hope the Jedi don’t take that path.
Here’s a photo of the old Franklin Theater. I was six when I saw Star Wars with my father; all I remember is seeing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s barbecued corpses and looking to my Dad to see if it was okay. He kept watching, so I did too. I remember the collective gasp during Empire when Vader says “I am your father…” and the line around the block for Jedi, and how much we loved it, ewoks or not. While my joy during The Force Awakens was not quite that level, it was close. This is a good fun movie and avoids the mistakes of the prequels, so go see it with an open mind and enjoy.