This review is as spoiler free as I could make it. That said, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I suggest you avoid all reviews at all costs. Watch the new Star Wars. It’s worth it. Consider that the most spoiler free review possible. Now, onward.
I can’t quite believe I’m doing this. Reviewing Star Wars. And not crap with midichlorians and Hayden Christensen’s terrible, terrible acting and Lucas’ god-awful dialogue and unnecessary trade federation shenanigans. Proper Star Wars. Star Wars that feels grand and sweeping and epic. Dirty, grimy Star Wars, the way Tattooine looked at the beginning of Star Wars (for clarity, I’ll call it A New Hope in the rest of the review).
And as much as I can’t believe I’m reviewing it, I also can’t believe that the movie was actually good.
I avoided watching it. It released on Christmas Day here, and I didn’t go. Not in the weeks after that, either. But I missed Batman Begins in the theatres and regretted it. On the off chance that The Force Awakens was good, I didn’t want similar regrets. I’m glad I went. Exactly one month after it released, I watched the new Star Wars. And, in many ways – as many others have already said – it was almost exactly the old Star Wars.
This may sound like a criticism, but it isn’t. The way The Force Awakens has been structured in some places mirrors A New Hope so precisely that I could almost hear echoes of it rippling forward through time. There’s a formula to The Force Awakens, and it’s here because it works – epic space shot, desert planet, droid with valuable data that must reach the Resistance, a remnant of the Empire in the form of The First Order, an ominous mask-wearing bad guy. If you told me this was a reimagining of A New Hope, I’d believe you.
But rather than diminishing The Force Awakens, the movie is actually better for it.
The prequel trilogy failed because it never expanded the story in meaningful way. Characters were profoundly unrelatable; the plot was a shambles; the story existed for the sole purpose of turning one of the most iconic villains of all time into some manner of tragic hero. In my opinion, having Vader being tricked into going dark side (1) made him out to be a moron incapable of seeing past what really was a pathetic attempt at manipulation and, (2) diminished the weight of his decision to save Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi.
The original trilogy, on the other hand, was a much simpler, much more meaningful coming of age story – which really is more or less what The Force Awakens is at its core.
Spoilers start here, by the way. If you’re going to read on, be warned.
Rey is Luke’s parallel, Finn is Han’s. Jakku evokes Tattooine – there’s even an evening shot with the setting sun as if very pointedly saying ‘Look, only one sun, not Tattooine.’ Kylo Ren is this generation’s Darth Vader – although I doubt his impact will be as far-reaching as that of his predecessor; which isn’t criticism of Adam Driver’s performance, but an acknowledge of how daunting a task it is to be the Sith who follows Vader. Even the Death Star has its equivalent here, as does the battle in the trench – minus conveniently exposed thermal exhaust ports.
But while there are similarities, there are differences too. Good differences, in my opinion.
Rey is much more independent, more all-round badass than Luke ever was. She is, far and away, the star of the show, and a worthy successor – above all others in the movie – to all the responsibilities that come with the franchise. From the role she takes on in The Force Awakens and the way she rises to the challenges, I can easily see her leading the next two movies in the trilogy and being really bloody good at it. The thought makes me a happy man.
Finn is Han Solo if he were less cocky and more nervous about everything – very convincingly good at heart but with a healthy amount of concern for his own safety. Kylo Ren is wonderfully menacing.
There are two moments when he loses his temper. Two incredibly powerful moments. In one, back to the camera, he tears into machinery with his lightsaber. It is perhaps the only time I’ve actually understood Yoda’s warnings about the perils of anger and hate. Both the rage in that scene and the manner in which Kylo Ren lets it out was chilling.
But at a couple of points, the mask comes off. Then he is considerably less menacing. He comes across as too human, betraying too much fear and uncertainty and a whole bunch of other emotions to project the same aura that inspires naked terror, as he does when the mask is on.
The story differs from A New Hope only in the scale of the conflict and the threat that The First Order presents. In the original trilogy, outside of the destruction of Alderaan and the killing of Luke’s aunt and uncle, the Empire is never shown as being especially evil. The First Order addresses that problem superbly. And, where Stormtroopers were hilariously inept in the original trilogy, the First Order Stormtroopers very much earn their reputation as villains.
And ultimately, at its core, both A New Hope and The Force Awakens are about the same thing – the coming of age of a group of unlikely heroes, who are faced with the choice of standing up for what’s right, or sitting by the sidelines and doing nothing.
That’s why it works. Because this is a timeless story, told once by A New Hope and told once more, now, for a new generation – with new heroes and new villains, and with different shapes and contours to the story itself. It’s familiar, but not identical. Different, but not revolutionary. It lays the foundation of a new generation of stories and I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s coming next.
Han was right. We’re home.