Movie review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Bob’s take)

The Force Awakens Kylo Ren

Massive, movie-ruining spoilers incoming. Do not read if you have not seen the film yet.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is exactly the movie Disney, the franchise and the fans needed. Pivoting 180 degrees from the cold and overly clinical prequels, Episode VII is full of warmth and gee-whizardry. It’s the funniest Star Wars movie by a hefty margin (or, at least, the most intentionally funny), and it introduces fantastic new characters who you can easily imagine anchoring this series for the next decade or so. That’s not to say it’s perfect (it’s not) or reaches the heights of any of the original trilogy (it doesn’t), but it is good enough to revive the franchise in our hearts and minds. Star Wars is alive and well, and the world is a better place for it.

Picking up 30-some years after Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens immediately drops us into a new conflict between the First Order, a Nazi-esque regime born from the ashes of the Empire, and the Resistance, a military group led mostly by old Rebel Alliance fighters who are sworn to protect the New Republic. (I guess? Honestly, the movie is extremely fuzzy with some of the particulars here.) Things are growing troubled though, as the Order, led by a mysterious Voldemort-looking motherfucker named Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), is gaining serious traction through their use of the dark side of the Force. Snoke’s field general is a Sith-like, bag-of-emotional-turmoil named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a man obsessed with following in Darth Vader’s footsteps but who’s also a few degrees short of being psychologically sound. When he gets mad, he fires up his cross-guard lightsaber and tears through computer consoles like a four-year-old throwing a tamper tantrum.

Understanding that the situation is getting dire, Resistance General Leia Organa (a returning Carrie Fisher) tasks X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) with retrieving a crucial bit of intelligence: a piece of a map that can pinpoint the exact location of Luke Skywalker, who went missing after his attempt at rebuilding the Jedi Order ended in tragedy. Thanks to First Order interference, the map gets passed from Dameron to everyone’s favorite ball droid, BB-8, who then falls in with the two new characters who really center the film — desert scavenger Rey (Daisey Ridley) and First Order defector Finn (John Boyega). Those two set out to return the map to the Resistance before Kylo Ren can get his hands on it.

If you think this sounds like a movie made for a new generation of Star Wars fans, you’d be right. Clearly, the number one intent of The Force Awakens is to open up the saga to the children and young teens of today, giving them characters they can cheer for and idolize across multiple films. But this comes with one big asterisk. Early in the movie Rey and Finn stumble onto the Millennium Falcon, sitting half-abandoned on the desert planet of Jakku and which they steal for their escape. Not long after they take flight, they’re captured by a large smuggling ship that just so happens to be piloted by two familiar faces — Han Solo and Chewbacca. While Fisher’s role is tiny and Mark Hamill’s appearance really just amounts to a late (but great) cameo, Harrison Ford dominates large swaths of The Force Awakens, and the good news for long-time fans of the series is he’s better than he’s been in years. Taking Finn and Rey under his wing, Solo is older but maybe not so much wiser. He has returned to his smuggling ways, and Ford plays him perfectly as an aging — but still crafty and acerbic — space pirate who really feels like the same guy we met in that cantina almost 40 years ago.

And while Ford gets to crack one-liners and blast Stormtroopers without looking, he also carries most of the film’s emotional weight. Turns out, the name given to Kylo Ren at birth was Ben Solo. He’s Han and Leia’s son, who felt the pull of the dark side and turned against Luke when he went off to train with him. Han and Leia’s union could not survive the guilt of their son’s fall, and Han’s only way to cope was to return to his lone-wolf lifestyle. The Force Awakens has him facing his past and trying to fix the great failure of his family.

And it’s here that the movie makes its biggest stumble. In theory, this is a fine personal arc for The Force Awakens to tackle. Unfortunately, director J.J. Abrams and his co-scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan are never able to completely and effectively sell Ren’s fall from grace. You know the scene at Ben Kenobi’s home in OG Star Wars (A New Hope to you kids) where Ben lays out to Luke the whole history of the Jedi and of his father, Anakin? The Force Awakens desperately needs a scene like that, set to some maudlin John Williams music, that really lays down the history of how Ben Solo turned against his family and became Kylo Ren. Instead, the movie treats it all very matter of factly, doled out in short and basic information dumps. Han and Leia seem sad about it when the script requires them to, but the whole tragic backstory carries too little emotional weight. (Luke not being around to share his take on what went wrong also hurts.) As a result, that final confrontation between Han and Ren, where Ren must choose between the light and the dark, feels somewhat underwhelming. Any audience emotion derived from that scene springs entirely from our love for Han Solo, as opposed to the conflict between a father and a son that the movie tries but mostly fails to develop.

With that said, this problem doesn’t end up being a movie killer because Driver is really, really good in the part. He partially makes up for the void in the script by bringing a strong sense of inner conflict to the character. Also, Abrams and Kasdan don’t completely fail Ren. I like that he’s stronger than Vader and Maul in some ways (he can read minds!) but doesn’t have full control of the dark side like his predecessors seemed to. Most of all, I’m glad Ren survived the movie, and now Episode VIII writer/director Rian Johnson has a chance to further strengthen the character, perhaps by filling in his backstory a bit more.

My other big complaint with The Force Awakens is that some major plot devices echo the previous films in the series a bit too much. Starkiller Base especially is just another Death Star rehash, like Abrams had nothing better to build a climax around and just decided to trace over a page from the George Lucas handbook. The assault on the Death Star in Star Wars is exciting. The assault on the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi is exciting. The assault on Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens feels like needless busywork.

I have a few other nitpicks — I would not have guessed that John Williams would turn in his most pedestrian score in years for this — but really everything else works. Ridley and Boyega are both engaging, likable performers with a good grasp of their characters. Isaac, though terribly underused, is a delight and better get tons more screen time in the sequel. The dialogue crackles in spots, leaving the awkward syntax of the prequels a distant memory. The galaxy itself feels worn and lived in. I love the early scenes of Rey scavenging and swapping what she finds to a local trader for meager portions of food. The girl is just trying to survive and you really feel her struggle, which makes her triumphs later in the film all the more cheer-worthy. There are little bits of fan service tucked into the movie (Han really likes firing Chewie’s crossbow!) that are fun for us old-timers.

I also like that the movie isn’t afraid to leave several mysteries dangling once the end credits hit. What’s the deal with Rey, and why does the Force seem determined to channel itself directly through her? Is she Luke’s kid? Related to Obi-Wan? Something more surprising?! And what’s up with Snoke? Where does he come from, and how does he know so much about the dark side? What exactly has Luke been doing on that island for all of these years? These are all good, interesting questions to carry over into the next movie, and I’m anxious to see how Johnson intends to explore them in the next film. I also hope he carries some of this film’s strangeness over into Episode VIII. When I was a kid, that vision Luke has on Dagobah, the one where he cuts off Darth Vader’s head to discover his own face inside the mask, was one of the weirdest things I had ever seen … which made me all the more fascinated with it. The Force Awakens has some stuff like that, including Snoke’s eerie, giant hologram and Rey’s own strange vision. I think those kind of weird, mysterious tangents serve this series well.

As far as modern-day blockbusters go, The Force Awakens compares favorably to its Disney siblings, the Marvel Studios films. It’s not as good as the Star Wars-inspired Guardians of the Galaxy (honestly, not many popcorn films are), but it’s a fun and mostly intelligent crowd-pleaser just like a vast majority of the films featuring Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. Abrams continues to be a inspired visualist — the movie is gorgeous — and he paces this movie like nobody’s business. The Force Awakens hums along from one scenario to the next with an assuredness that makes it an easy film to get swept up into, which in turn makes it easy to get swept up once again into the whole saga. Perhaps the nicest thing I can say is that, after seeing this movie, I can’t wait to see what comes next. That must be music to Disney and Lucasfilm’s ears.