Directed by J.J. Abrams, U.S., 2015
First let’s start out: The Force Awakens is good. What follows is a completely spoiler-free review. Fortunately, in a previous post I already laid the groundwork for such a discussion. However, if you wish to make a completely independent assessment of The Force Awakens, as I did, you should stop now.
Anyway, moving along:
1) Is it bad?
No. Unlike The Phantom Menace (1999) it has actual character development and lacks offensive caricatures. Unlike Attack of the Clones (2002) it lacks cringe-worthy dialogue or pacing issues.
2) Is it disappointing?
No. Revenge of the Sith (2005) is largely disappointing because the dialogue and pacing issues from Attack of the Clones are not fully resolved. Also, like all of the prequels, there are far too many characters and too much going on. This is part of the reason why the Clone Wars animated series is far superior to the Prequel Trilogy – it has room to breathe. Fortunately, none of these flaws are present in The Force Awakens.
3) Is it merely good, but not great?
Here’s where subjectivity comes in, but I thought it was great. It was kind of like what Return of the Jedi (1983) might have been like if George Lucas got his first-choice director, Steven Spielberg, to lead the project. It is certainly a step above other recent franchise sequels like Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).
What might be perceived as a flaw by some is that the plot of The Force Awakens has many of the same elements of the plot of Star Wars (1977) (for discussion purposes, let’s call it A New Hope). This was a central criticism of Return of the Jedi when it came out as well.
Here’s the thing, though – who cares? Case in point – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) have nearly identical plots. So do hundreds of other movies. No one cares. You know why no one cares? The movies have great characters. So does Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
If you want groundbreaking film plotting, go watch Rashomon (1950). Besides, the similarities between the storyline of The Force Awakens and A New Hope are pretty much an inch deep. In fact, I would say that there are far more similarities between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi than there are between A New Hope and The Force Awakens.
4) So, is it as good as Star Wars or the Empire Strikes Back?
Yes and no.
No movie will ever give audiences the same feeling as A New Hope – so let’s get that out of the way right now. As revealed in the fine documentary “Empire of Dreams” (2004), A New Hope was lightning in a bottle. It is a fully self contained film – because no one thought they were actually going to be able to make a second one. It came to us at a time when every movie that came out was bleak and gritty. It was marketed directly to the science fiction community at a time when that community wasn’t the dominant force in popular culture that it is today. No one is ever going to make those special effects for the first time ever again.
Ditto The Empire Strikes Back (1980). With a few notable exceptions, usually films based on novels like The Godfather and Les Miserables, sequels before Empire were always a let-down. They were usually self-contained stories with the same characters that did nothing to expand the characters. Empire proved that a sequel can improve on the original without needing to rely on existing literary source material. There can only be on first movie of this nature, and that was The Empire Strikes Back.
The Force Awakens, therefore, is not the same movie as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back. It cannot be. It is not self-contained, so at this point it might appear to have a few plot holes. The character arcs are incomplete because, again, it is not a self-contained film. Additionally, it is not groundbreaking like its predecessors.
So what is The Force Awakens? It is a masterfully-constructed film. It contains great characters, brought alive by fine young actors (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver) and some fine veteran actors (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher). It looks amazing. It’s well-paced. The dialogue is fun. Where it lacks in exposition and plot variation, it more than makes up for it with these other elements.
There are two more movies left. The Force Awakens leaves the audience with plenty of questions, but that’s a good thing. It means the next two movies have a lot of breathing room. In the meantime, let’s all enjoy a fine part-one of what has the potential to be a classic movie series.
You might like Star Wars: The Force Awakens if: You love Star Wars movies, fun, well-made popcorn movies, or catching young actors in breakout roles.
You might not like Star Wars: The Force Awakens if: You expect it to give you the exact same feeling as Star Wars (A New Hope) or The Empire Strikes Back, in which case you will never be satisfied with anything ever.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe