Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

The Star Wars franchise has once again returned to the big screen and unlike the critically disliked prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens takes us back to a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away… 

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Before I go any further with this movie review, I should offer you a word of warning. I will not spoil any of the big reveals of this movie (of which there are plenty), but I will mention various plot points and pieces of character development throughout the movie. So, if you – like I did – want to stay completely spoiler-free stop, bookmark this page, go see The Force Awakens, and then come back to read my review. And before you go see the movie, why don’t you hop on over to my prediction of what the movie will be and see if my prediction matches up with what actually plays out on screen?

Now, on to the review.

Finally. It’s here. An actually good Star Wars movie. A Star Wars movie that felt like a Star Wars movie. As much as I hate dogging on the prequels (maybe because I wanted them to be so much more), they did not feel like Star Wars. Sure, they had Sith, they had lightsabers, and they had droids that really and truly shouldn’t have even been in the movies, but the soul wasn’t there. Episodes I – III were a shallow reflection of a much deeper pool.

At its core, Star Wars is a story of good versus evil, of a galaxy so giant and unique that the audience gets lost in its expansive beauty along with the characters on film. The Force Awakens captured the Star Wars feel not only by featuring returning, familiar faces, but by exploring popular Star Wars themes with new lovable characters.

The New Trio

In Episodes IV – VI, there were three main protagonists: Luke, Leia, and Han.

In Episodes I – III, the three main protagonists were Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme… Kind of… Were they really? It was especially muddled in Episode I where Qui-Gon was one of the main characters, but whatever. We aren’t talking about the prequels here.

In Episode VII, we are introduced to the new protagonists of the Star Wars universe: Rey, Finn, and Poe. A lot of the trailers and merchandise leading up to the film featured a recurring motif of “new heroes for a new generation”, hinting that the Star Wars I grew up with and my father grew up with are done and gone. Now, a new generation of Star Wars fans are about to emerge and they need heroes of their own.

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And I couldn’t be happier with these new heroes.

Rey, Finn, and Poe begin the film separated from one another and on their own paths, but (in typical Star Wars fashion) the three come to find themselves inextricably linked together. Already, in only one movie, we have seen the trio of characters grow and develop more than any character development we saw in Episodes I – III.

Not only did we see these characters grow and become more complex, we immediately fell in love with them. Poe is witty and sarcastic along with being a top-notched pilot. His lines in the first scene immediately set him up as a funny, lovable character. Likewise, we see Finn become disillusioned with The First Order and get to witness his desperation build toward escape. We sympathize with him, because The First Order is really bad and we begin to cheer for his escape. And then we meet Rey, a competent scavenger who is down on her luck, doing what she can to survive, but on top of all that, she has a big heart.

d964e3df607710a2865fcd1d87a5d4adWe got to meet each of the characters separately and got to see what their lives were like. Basically, we got exposition into who these characters were, rather than having them thrust upon us with all these new and different characters, which we as the audience must then sift through to find some character who might possibly be the main character. We were able to become familiar with the characters and to sympathize with them. Which made their coming together even more meaningful. It was like watching two old friends introduce themselves to one another, or like being included in an inside joke.

Rey

star-wars-the-force-awakensOh my gosh. Rey.

Rey may be my favorite part of this entire film. When we first meet Rey, we feel sorry for her. She’s trapped on this sucky planet, has to eat bland inflatabread, and she has to deal with this real jerk of a boss. Even still, she is ever hopeful.

What I love most about Rey is that she is a strong character. She can handle herself. When Finn first meets Rey, it would seem that she needs someone to step in and save her from some thugs, but Rey handles them quite handedly. She doesn’t need help. This is a part of her character that is repeated throughout the film. When Rey is captured, she frees herself using her own skills and abilities. When she is cornered in the forest, she does not back away from the fight, but readily rises to the challenge.

Rey sends such a powerful message to the new generation of Star Wars lovers, of which some are young women: You, like Rey, are powerful. You are independent. And while you do not need help, you do not scorn those who would help you. You are not a hindrance to those around you, but an ally and equal in their endeavors.

I loved how JJ Abrams played with the trope of the damsel in distress. Whenever Rey is in trouble, Finn has to help her. He rushes to save her from the thugs, only to watch as she lays them both flat on their bums. When she is captured, Finn races to save her from The First Order, only to find that Rey has saved herself and is making her own escape.

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There is a beautiful scene right after Finn and Rey meet where Finn keeps taking Rey’s hand to lead her away from the pursuing First Order stormtroopers. Rey frustratingly demands that Finn stop taking her hand. It’s funny and cute; Finn wants to protect Rey, because it is the chivalrous thing to do. Then, Finn gets knocked down and Rey offers him her hand, and we see that Finn needs Rey’s help even more than she needs his.

No offense to Leia, but Rey brings what was desperately needed to the Star Wars canon: a female hero that has the skills and savvy to be her own hero.

Kylo Ren

He started out as the point of contention for many Star Wars fanboys, but as more was revealed about Kylo Ren, the dissenters grew less in number and grew quiet.

Kylo Ren is the villain of the film, and a conflicted one at that. He is unlike any other villain we have seen in Star Wars films up to this point. Darth Vader was composed and collected; as terrifying as he was stoic. The Emperor was terrifying as well, but he was terrifying because of the air of mystery about him.  Darth Maul was cool, as was General Grevious, and Count Dooku was debonair, but they all had something Kylo Ren did not: control; discipline.

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Kylo Ren may be the villain of this film, but, much like the protagonists of the film, we get to see him grow as a character. Kylo models himself after Vader, which grants him an admittedly cool wardrobe, but he couldn’t be farther from what Vader was. Where Vader is composed, Kylo is unhinged. Where Vader is collected, Kylo is completely held hostage by his emotions.

In the film, Kylo is little more than a spoiled brat who is gifted in the Dark Side of the Force. While this may seem like a turn off for some, it was very refreshing to me. With Kylo starting at such a low level, we as the audience will be able to see him grow in power along with the heroes, which means each subsequent encounter between the two parties will only grow in intensity. Much like Luke’s encounters with Vader, but each party will be seeking to prove the limits of their powers, rather than Luke going all out and Vader lazily throwing space junk at him.

I look forward to seeing Kylo further his training in the Dark Side and becoming a real menace to the heroes.

Supreme Leader Snoke

Alright. So, Snoke. Who is he? What is he? What does he want? How is he connected to all this? Why is he so scarred and deformed?

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None of these questions are answered in Episode VII, which is infuriating in some ways, but oh-so-enticing in all others. Snoke is an obvious allusion to the Emperor. We hear about the Emperor in Episode IV and get a brief glimpse of him in Episode V. Both of these films only build the mystery around the Emperor and by the time we meet him, his reputation and our preconceived notions about him fill us with dread. Snoke is the Emperor for the new trilogy, not only because he runs the show behind the shadows, but because his absolutely terrifying. We only get glimpses of him through the shadows and his towering hologram certainly is menacing. I feel that by the time we meet Snoke, the expectation will be set and he will be a terrifying enemy to the Republic.

Replacing CGI With Practical Effects

In all my conversations with everyone who has seen Episode VII, my first question to them has been “Did you see those practical effects?”

If Rey is my favorite part of The Force Awakens, the practical effects are a very close second. They were beautiful. As stunning as CGI is, it can be overused. In fact, it was overused in the prequels and in Lucas’ edits to the original films. There is a very realistic, physical presence that practical effects lend to the film that CGI just cannot. Sure, JJ Abrams could have made the cantina scene at Maz Kanata’s hideout and the trader’s market on Jakku completely CGI, but he chose to put people in rubber suits and to film the scenes on Jakku in an actual desert rather than some green room.

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I simply loved the practical effects. I love puppetry and animatronics, and this film ran rampant with them. I feel the practical effects had no small part in lending that iconic Star Wars feel to the new movie. Remember Yoda? Jabba? The Rancor? They were all practical effects.

There was a scene in Maz Kanata’s hideout which was very similar to the Mos Eisley cantina scene from Episode IV. The scene was filled with aliens, but instead of pumping the scene full of CGI, the scene was filled with people in makeup or costumes. And the scene felt wonderfully alien for it! (I especially liked one massively animatronic aline who’s only role was to sit on a couch with a human actor as the main characters entered the bar. It was unnecessary, but it just showed how much work was put into the scene.)

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Now, of course, CGI was not not used in this movie. With characters like Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke being entirely composed of CGI. But because CGI was used so sparingly, it made it even more meaningful and impactful when it finally was used. When you see something too much, it loses its meaning. Much like how the AT-AT carcasses on Jakku had become commonplace, so too CGI would have become too ordinary and too expected to be of any real consequence.

The Love Is Strong With This One

This movie was made by people who loved Star Wars. It shows in every small detail from the story, to the acting, to the practical effects. Every piece of the movie is a carefully-chosen word in a love letter from one Star Wars fan to another.

As was said above with the animatronic scene in Maz Kanata’s hideout, the painstaking detail that a crew put in to make the scene feel alien without the use of CGI was apparent and welcomed. (Not to say CGI artists do not put work and care into their art, but there is just a physical labor of love that must happen in order to have made this scene work and that is far more personal to me than CGI.)

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There are numerous Easter eggs deposited throughout the movie, from the holochex aboard the Millenium Falcon to the ancient multi-faceted ball that shot Luke in the butt in Episode IV. JJ Abrams even included some almost imperceivable bits of love into the movie. There is a scene where Rey has a particularly strong vision and hears all these voices. At first, it seems like a garbled mess, but JJ has come forward and explained a little as to what went into that scene.

Apparently, Frank Oz and Ewan McGregor were called in to voice new lines for Yoda and Obi-Wan, respectively, for this particular scene. Even more fascinating, there was a good deal of hard work put into including the late Alan Guinness in the film. (He played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original trilogy.) A crew of sound editors filtered through Sir Guinness’ lines in the first film and edited one to have him say the word “Rey.”

Why do that? It’s such a small part of the film and no one would have even noticed if JJ had not pointed it out.

The filmmakers did it because they love Star Wars.

Star Wars is heading in a bold, new direction and it is in loving hands that will painstakingly make sure it is not mishandled.

Read more about what all went into this scene at IGN.

The Dark Side of The Force Awakens

This movie was not perfect. It definitely had its hiccups, and with so much of the movie being outstanding,  these hiccups become glaring, belching errors.

maxresdefaultFirst of all, the end. What was that?! It was strange and awkward and disjointed. It was as if a new, lesser movie started right where this film was ending. I would really like to hear JJ Abrams’ defense and explanation of this final scene. Basically, the movie ends with Rey and Luke sharing a prolonged, awkward stare at one another that goes on for (no lie) nearly a minute! And then the movie ends. Uh…. what?

With the awkwardness of this scene aside, I think the movie should have ended before. I understand wanting to include Mark Hamill in the movie, but it just wasn’t necessary. I think the movie should have ended with the occupants of the Millenium Falcon jumping to hyperspace to go find Luke, and the actual final scene should have been moved to the beginning of the next movie.

You could have juxtaposed the scene of Rey walking up the steps to meet Luke with Kylo Ren ascending steps to speak with Supreme Leader Snoke. I think opening with the juxtaposition of these two characters, each pursuing goals unlike the other would have been a great way to open Episode VIII.

Also, Captain Phasma. Was she supposed to be a bigger part of this film? So much of the promotional material built her up to be a real badass, but in the movie… she was kind of a chump. She truly added very little to the plot and ended up literally locked in a dumpster after getting punked by the heroes. I hope she returned in Episode VIII with a desire to prove herself, because she fell quite flat in this film.

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As great as the writing was for this movie, plot holes abound. Characters kind of pop up unannounced or unexplained, and we the audience are left wondering, “Wait. You were just… How did you…?” Maybe these plot holes will be explained in Episode VIII, but I doubt it. Like most plot holes in the Star Wars universe I predict Lucasfilm’s explanation to these questions will be “Because the Force!”

The resolution of this film was too easy. The Starkiller Base is destroyed (which I think may have been the greatest mistake in the film), some BIG stuff happens, and then we are given no time to process or mourn before the heroes are swept off and away on another adventure. Give us some time, JJ! The wounds haven’t healed yet!

While the theme of good triumphing over evil is certainly a main one in Star Wars, it does not have to happen immediately. Sometimes, good must live in the presence of evil before it rises up triumphantly. Which is why I think the Starkiller base should have been damaged, but not destroyed, leaving both the Resistance and the First Order at kind of standstill, but with the upperhand obviously in the favor of The First Order. It adds a sense of urgency to the heroes’ plight and compels us to cheer for them to succeed. What is the motivation for the next film? What will compel our characters to adventure?

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I suppose we will have to wait and find out.

The Acting

This is the best acting in a Star Wars film. Ever.

Yes, that includes the prequels and the originals. John Boyega breathes a life into the character of Finn that I don’t think anyone else could. His nuances and delivery just kill it, and make the character of Finn immediately iconic. I’ve already sang praises of the character of Rey and I think Daisy Ridley is in the role of a lifetime with this character. Along with Boyega, Ridley has nuances and small facial twitches that speak volume to her acting talent and the unexplored depth of Rey’s character. We didn’t see much of Poe Dameron in the film, but Oscar Isaac’s limited amount of screen time gave us glimpses into a character that will continue to develop and become a compelling character.

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The supporting cast is great as well. Seeing Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew back in the roles of Han and Chewie was deliciously nostalgic, and while Carrie Fisher has certainly seen better days, it was nice to see Leia too. Lupita Nyongo’o had a small part in the film with Maz Kanata, but a very memorable one. I hope to see Maz return in subsequent films.

And, of course, Andy Serkis. He’s played Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, Caesar from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and now he’s playing Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars. Do you see a common thread between those characters. No, because there isn’t one. The only common thread these three characters share is that they are brought to life by an extremely talented actor. I look forward to seeing Serkis’ Snoke in Episode VIII.

The Music

Can you go wrong with John Williams as your composer? I think not. Williams’ music is iconic, to say the least. It is as much a part of the Star Wars franchise as lightsabers and X-Wings. Williams returns triumphantly to take us once again into a galaxy far, far away. He plays a bit with old motifs and themes from the previous films, but these are only small (albeit memorable) parts of his soundtrack. While there are no standouts like the Imperial Death March or Duel of Fates, I think this just speaks to how good each individual track of this soundtrack is.

The Kids

Is this film appropriate for children? While this is a film geared towards the next generation of Star Wars fans, there must be a clear delineation drawn between which ages should see the movie. This film is rated PG-13, but it could have easily been rated PG. There is some cursing and I believe this is what pushed it into the realm of PG-13. There is also a surprising amount of blood featured for a Star Wars film (usually severed limbs or blaster wounds are cauterized by the laser, but not in this film). I’ll leave it to you as a parent to decide whether your child is old enough to see this movie, but I would pay heed to the age limit of thirteen years old.

The Grade

There was a great deal of controversy around Episode VIII before its release, with so much canon being retconned and with drastic changes to lightsaber designs. I, however, think that this movie quelled the formerly raging fanboys and took us all back to a long time ago to a galaxy far, far away (some of us for the first time).

I give Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens a grade of…

There you have it! The first movie to receive the grade of A on my blog. What do you think, is The Force Awakens worthy of this grade? Was it worth the wait? Comment below with your thoughts on the movie and with where you think the series will go in Episode VIII.

May the Force be with you…

And Merry Christmas!

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

  1. Pingback: A Serious Defense For Funny | Same Kind of Nerdy As Me

  2. I agree whole-heartedly with all your points, except the ending with Luke. Not showing Luke at all would have been withholding too much for a lot of us. I thought Mark Hamill communicated quite a lot with just that one long look. Rey holding the lightsaber out to him — the one he lost in that supremely traumatic (for Luke and a lot of young viewers!) scene in Episode V — means both a call to action and a lot of old ghosts returning to haunt him. He ran away; now he has to face his failures. He may have foreseen this moment prior to Rey’s arrival or just knows what must have happened for her to be standing there with that lightsaber.

    Or it’s the look that comes across Mark Hamill’s face whenever someone he doesn’t know tracks him down and holds a Star Wars prop out to him.

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    • That’s true, but I feel the ending just wasn’t good. Maybe as the heroes speed off into hyperspace, it cuts to Luke in a position very similar to what we see at the end of the movie. However, instead of having this long-drawn out staring contest, Luke suddenly turns to the camera, removing his hood. We see a look on his face similar to what we saw in the movie, a feeling of regret/ anguish/resignation. He senses the change in the Force as Rey is racing to meet him. I just did not like that final scene. We could see Luke, but not in this cheesy staring contest.

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