Well, I haven’t that much fun in the theater since….Have I ever had that much fun in the theater? Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens was a total riot. A feast of delight. A party on the screen. Even The Avengers didn’t make me laugh and cheer with such glee.
Now, this is no exhaustive review. Higher-caliber fans will have more to geek out about and probably stronger opinions, but here’s what stood out to me.
The characters! I enjoyed them. Super enjoyed them. 100%. While Luke and Leia had to grow on me (especially in A New Hope), these misfits were immediately likable, believable, and just a hoot to hang out with. I missed each one every time they left the screen—especially Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), but maybe that’s because I hadn’t expected him to leave it for so darn long. Recognizing Isaac from leading roles in previous movies, I had naturally assumed he would play a larger role, plus let’s not beat around the bush: He’s rather dashing as the jaunty pilot who might run out of bullets but never runs out of comebacks. Here’s hoping he’s ubiquitous in the next episode.
And Finn! Finn was fantastic and without question the funniest of the lot. I wheezed myself silly. Of all the new protagonists, he is also the most immediately interesting—essentially born and raised a storm trooper, now on the run from his former masters while also trying to outrun his conscience before it talks him into joining a lost cause, all the while behaving as some sort of impulsive blend between courtly knight and adoring puppy. Wherever the story takes this character next, I’m hooked. (More on the courtly knight thing: One of my friends pointed out that Finn meets Rey at a well. Whether J.J. Abrams used this biblical motif intentionally or not, I’ll certainly enjoy the coincidence…and hope it leads to something.)
And how about that woman at the well? Rey is spunky and resourceful and tough without being annoyingly indestructible. It’s increasingly hip these days to turn the heroine into an embarrassing poster girl for so-called “equality,” as if being equal with men means being identical (when actually hardly anything could be more demeaning towards women than insisting that they aren’t good enough just being girls!). Yet the ladylike, athletic Daisy Ridley is well cast and the story largely side-steps this tendency. Because the Force.
Kylo Ren: I liked him as a villain, though I still can’t remember his name for the life of me. Better to have christened him something dramatic and memorable like Darth Vader, since the two baddies share so many obvious parallels that they’re hardly worth even glossing over (both turned from light to dark, both betrayed their tutors, both are overly fond of black). But that’s okay because I’m more interested in the contrasts. Darth Vader is scary because he’s powerful and always in control; Kylo Ren is scary because he’s powerful and out of control. He is talented, angry, lonely, and scared, driven by the sort of guilt and father-hunger which, if Vader ever had, we never witnessed. But chief of all, Kylo Ren achieves what Vader never could: murdering his own family.
Coincidentally, J.J. Abrams also achieves what George Lucas never could: killing Harrison Ford, something which Ford himself thought should have happened back in the first trilogy. “I thought it would be good…if he sacrificed himself in some noble way.” Well, Harrison, you got your wish. There was really no better way for Han Solo to go. The beloved rogue doesn’t appear in the The Force Awakens until at least a third through the film, but he still anchors the story as the pitch-hitter parent (something he was never good at) for two orphans, and he dies picking up the most critical job he’s ever failed—being a father. If Ben (let’s call him by his real name, shall we) ever converts back to good, it’ll take some truly tricky storytelling to accomplish this in a way that satisfies Solo fans—i.e, the whole world—and redeems his horrible son even remotely.
Which raises my single favorite theme of the film. The best of the Star Wars movies are driven by the question of sonship. Whose son will Luke be—Vader’s or Obi-Wan’s/Yoda’s? Whose son will Vader ultimately be—the Emperor’s or Obi-Wan’s? The Force Awakens centers this question around Han himself, establishing the unlikely candidate as the new patriarch and raising echoing questions. Whose son will Finn be—the First Order’s or Han’s? Whose son will Ben be—Snoke’s or Han’s? Answer them and you get the plots to Episodes VIII and IX, I bet you lots of money.
A couple big-picture thoughts to wrap up. As the man once said, the key to a good movie is simply three great scenes and no bad ones. The Force Awakens sails way over this bar, considering many fans were probably just hoping it wouldn’t be an unmitigated disaster like Episodes I-III. J.J. Abrams’ triumph now stands total. The three best scenes (by my mark) are Han Solo and Chewie returning to the Millennium Falcon, Ben murdering Han, and the climactic lightsaber duel in the snow. Beyond that, the movie is one rollicking adventure after the next, replete with loving tribute to the originals (especially A New Hope), exhilarating teamwork and hilarious banter among its heroes, and yet another rousing score by John Williams (who, please, must win his sixth Oscar this February).
Only one thing I would have asked for: more gravity after Han dies. As dire and numbing as the scene itself feels with the camera pulled way back and Han screaming his son’s name across the chasm, the aftermath is so rushed and inconsequential that I honestly thought they were going to pull a “just kidding.” As if nobody could be bothered to actually be torn up about this!
Finally, the big question: Is it as good as the originals? Is it better?
Here’s the truth. In terms of acting, screenwriting (especially dialogue), deftly handling a variety of moods, creating an entire cast of engaging characters, and maintaining pleasant doses of corniness, The Force Awakens surpasses the first three. But it doesn’t come close to matching what George Lucas pulled off in 1977, which is creating something completely new. At this point, it’s actually difficult to decide whether it’s more in the spirit of the originals to tip one’s hat or to blaze new trails. Certainly the homage paid in The Force Awakens has been valuable in reassuring fans that Abrams, unlike Lucas, actually adores this story and that the sacred franchise is, at long last, back in good hands. Perhaps we can hope that, Abrams having tipped his hat this year, Rian Johnson will blaze new trails in 2017.
All in all, I’d say that at this moment, with fans raving and the box office reeling, J.J. Abrams must be the most relieved man on the planet. And as for the planet, it’s surely the happiest in the whole galaxy.