Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens Breathes Life Back Into Star Wars Franchise

Episode VII a welcome return to form for the Star Wars franchise.Episode VII a welcome return to form for the Star Wars franchise.
by Tim Backes, Editor

by Tim Backes, Editor

Whenever a movie as hyped up as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens comes around, you can’t help but prepare yourself for disappointment.

As a lifelong fan of the Star Wars franchise, I was hoping hard that this new trilogy would be worthy of the franchise. I reasoned that the new movie could not possibly be worse than the prequel trilogy, but it could still at least be pretty good, right?

Well, good news… The Force Awakens is more than just pretty good. It’s about every bit as good as a Star Wars diehard could have hoped for.

It’s not flawless. It’s not a masterpiece of cinema. But it feels like Star Wars. It’s fun again. And that is no small compliment.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Rather than going through the entire plot of the movie, I’ll jump right in to what I did and did not love about it, beginning with the positives.

First and foremost, my biggest praise for this movie is that it’s completely carried by the new characters. And that’s saying a lot, because having Han Solo and Chewy play major roles is a huge deal. And Harrison Ford was absolutely brilliant, it was really like seeing Han again rather than an aging actor saying “eh screw it, I’ll collect a big paycheck,” which is what I was worried would happen.

The biggest problem with the prequels was the lack of any remotely interesting characters. This one brings them in droves. Rey, Finn and Po are all fantastic, and the new droid BB-8 is a great addition too.

I loved the shot near the beginning on Jakku of Rey sitting by herself, with no music in the background, only the wind. Before she ever even says a word we get a great sense of who she is, and we’re rooting for her. It’s done so simply yet so powerfully, showing a mastery in character development that was never even sniffed in the prequels. Having characters we can root for was what made the Original Trilogy so much fun, and we already have three new heroes to get behind.

I also really appreciate how J.J. Abrams and company were able to make Rey such an interesting female lead without having to go overboard with selling people on the idea of even having a female lead. You know why? They didn’t try to make her an interesting female character. They just made her an interesting character.

So many action movies and superhero movies try to push the “badass chick” trope so much that it just comes across as being disingenuous. Rey is already an outstanding movie hero, and it’s because they gave her traits anyone can relate to.

Then we come to Kylo Ren, our new villain. Ren has so much more going for him than any of the prequel villains. We know his backstory. We know that he has some inner conflict himself, which makes his story going forward rather unpredictable. They set up rivalries with him vs. Rey and him vs. Finn beautifully, giving us just enough clash between the two to whet our appetites but leave plenty of room for more.

Another really cool thing about Kylo is the dynamic with him and Darth Vader. Clearly he’s a Vader wannabe. Dresses in black, wears a mask, heck, he prays to the guy’s melted mask for crying out loud. But he completely misunderstands who Anakin ultimately was. He doesn’t seem to realize Vader had doubts himself. And he’s not even succeeding at copying Vader other than playing dressup. While Vader was very much a machine, very stable, very collected, Kylo is barely holding it together. He’s completely unstable, destroying his own equipment in fits of tantrums. Having a main villain who is still in training himself and who is so clearly unbalanced is a really unique element that we have not seen in these Star Wars movies before. I couldn’t help but think, “man, if only they’d accomplished this with Anakin in the prequels.”

So well done to the writers for providing us with compelling characters, and the actors for taking them and running with them. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are scene stealers in particular, and they’re going to carry this franchise to new heights.

Next, I have to praise the way the movie handled the older characters. Han Solo’s larger role in this movie never overpowered the younger cast members. In fact, he integrated seamlessly into the new cast, having excellent and often hilarious interactions with Rey and Finn (“That’s not how the force works!”).

Han Solo’s death absolutely had to happen in this movie if there was going to be any hope that this new franchise would be able to stand on its own merits. That might sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but the single-biggest fear I had going into this movie was that it would rely far too much on old characters and themes (more on this later) to the point where it would make this new trilogy feel unoriginal and like nothing more than unabashed fan service.

I didn’t think Abrams had the guts to kill off Solo. I was wrong. And I’m glad I was.

While I think there could have been done more to really make the audience invest in the relationship between Han Solo and Kylo Ren as father and son, the death scene on the bridge in Starkiller Base was done beautifully. It had an arena-like atmosphere, with Chewbacca, Rey and Finn helplessly watching from afar, with the light shining on the hero and villain in the center.

An earlier quote, referring to the Resistance’s need to take out the base’s defense before the sun’s energy was sapped, was “As long as the sun is shining, we still have hope.” The lingering shot of Ren’s face staring into Solo’s as darkness set in and the immediate lightstabber stabbing afterward was brilliant. A great scene.

A couple final notes in regard to the older characters: Carrie Fischer doesn’t have it any more. She just doesn’t. Her acting wasn’t believable, she didn’t carry any weight in her scenes and she just didn’t seem to fit in with the other outstanding, dynamic actors and characters in the cast. C-3PO’s hilarious introductory cameo was perfectly timed. And then there’s Luke.

Despite Luke’s absence, his presence was felt throughout the entire movie. I loved the fact that the movie built to the reveal at the end, only to not have him say a single word. That closing shot is going to go down as one of the iconic shots of the franchise. While finding Luke felt rather rushed (it took like 25 seconds to find him after they put the map together), the meeting felt like a real, powerful culmination thanks to the way the movie built up to it.

Finally, the movie made good on its promise to produce more unique, interesting and vibrant environments and visuals. The cinematography and environments were gorgeous, and it’s because, SURPRISE, NOT EVERYTHING WAS DONE IN FRONT OF A GREEN SCREEN! I can only imagine how much George Lucas would have botched some of these gorgeous shots. It was technically outstanding, and the practical effects went a long way toward making a great-looking movie.

The lightsabers also felt more “real” and powerful than they have since the original trilogy. The prequel trilogy had hugely choreographed dances that lacked any semblance of emotion, especially compared to Luke’s confrontations with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Kylo’s stomping of Finn, and then the clash between him and Rey had so much tension, it was perfect. There was actual emotion on display.

Of course, there were some flaws with the movie, the biggest of which is that there are too many recycled plot points from previous movies. Let’s go down the list:

  • Did we really need a third Death Star? Ok, it’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s pretty damn close. And the attempt to reproduce the iconic trench run of A New Hope was entirely unnecessary.
  • The Rebel/Resistance robot holds an important message regarding a long-absent Jedi figure.
  • The main character emerges out of a desert wasteland planet to discover his/her force sensitivity and importance in the galaxy at large.
  • An aging legend is killed off by the dark, masked baddie while on the Empire/First Order base.

There are plenty more where this comes from, but you get the idea. In some cases, the reused plot points felt almost poetic. I like the idea of Rey and Luke having similar origins, as if they are in fact related there’s a nice sort of circularity about it. But the Death Star rehash was way too much, and was really kind of a bummer.

Additionally, I’m not entirely sold on Kylo Ren’s giant Voldemort master. He seems like a stock bad guy. He’ll need to be fleshed out more in upcoming movies, but right now it seems to be all Thanos hype with  the same lack of substance. Star Wars may be a Disney product now, but that doesn’t mean it has to take the Marvel Cinematic Universe approach and use boring, cookie cutter villains.

Finally, the pacing occasionally felt a bit “off.” There was a lot of ground to cover in this movie, what with introducing entirely new characters, speeding up Rey’s force sensitivity and abilities (another common complaint I’ve seen in reviews) and quickly tacking on the Luke meeting at the end. I appreciate the effort to squeeze it all in, but there were a few times in the movie where things just really needed to slow down to give the audience time to digest what was going on.

But really, these issues that I had with the movie are far more overpowered by two simple facts: Star Wars is back, and it’s really good.

RATING: 92/100, “Outstanding”