Before I start the review, I want to thank Josh Burnett, Leighton Connor, Jeffrey Johnson, and Carter Newton. We discussed the movie during the monthly Hex Games Skype meet-up last night, and during the discussion they said some of the things I wanted to say in this review much better than I would have said them, so I’m probably going to steal from that discussion in a few places. I also need to let you know about my personal history with Star Wars (don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as my history with the Terminator movies). I missed out on the Star Wars movies as a kid and didn’t see all three of them from start to finish until sometime in the early 90s when I was in college. I liked Empire and though Han Solo was cool, but mostly just didn’t get my generation’s obsession with the movies. I wrote it off as nostalgia, but even that explanation didn’t make sense to me until I saw them on the big screen. After that, I at least understood what kind of impression the movies must have had on my friends’ five-year-old brains. I was still mostly ambivalent about the movies, but much less baffled about why everyone loved them so much.
When the prequels came out, the combination of sort of understanding why people thought Star Wars was cool and constant direct exposure to people who were really excited about it (from having geek friends and working in a comic shop at the time) had me kind of hoping that I’d enjoy the new movies. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I think my ambivalence at least made me hate them less than most of the fans seem to have. When they announced that Abrams would be doing The Force Awakens, I realized that I may have another chance to finally get a Star Wars movie I could genuinely enjoy, but since Abrams is notoriously hit-or-miss, I tried not to get my hopes up. Luckily, this was one of Abrams’ hits and I can finally say that I liked a Star Wars movie.
I’m going to assume that by now everyone who might read this has seen the movie, so instead of summarizing the plot I’m just going to tell you why I think the movie worked. Let’s start with the most fundamental thing about it: it was a Star Wars movie. The prequels really weren’t. One of the things I initially disliked about the Star Wars movies was that they were so simple, but the thing that annoyed me the most about them was how Lucas (and some fans, but mostly Lucas) tried to pretend that there was some kind of grand vision behind them and they were something more than just pulpy escapism. That’s the core failing of the prequels, in my opinion. The original movies were science fantasy. With the prequels, Lucas tried to convince us that Star Wars was science fiction, which kind of made everything fall apart. It’s like trying to convince people that Beowulf was secretly Moby-Dick all along. The obviously out-of-place science fiction tropes in the prequels actually managed to help me realize that there was a much more coherent science fantasy flavor to the first three movies than I’d given them credit for, and The Force Awakens actually fits into the pulpy universe of the original movies, not the more literary universe that Lucas wants to pretend ever existed.
Beyond actually being a goddamn Star Wars movie, most of the characters in The Force Awakens are immediately likable. When we first meet Rey, she’s not whining about power converters, she’s doing some Indiana Jones stuff in a crashed star destroyer so she can sell the parts for food. She doesn’t have time to stand around waiting for an intergalactic plotline, she’s got shit she needs to do. Fin’s first scene is about a turning point where he realizes that he’s spent his whole life serving the bad guys. Later on he’s a little bumbling and goofy and maybe naive, but since he started out as a storm trooper, that actually kind of works. It’s not like those guys are known for their competence or anything. Even BB-8, the droid who’s there to make the kids laugh and sell a million toys, comes across as a character in the world rather than a cynical marketing plot. In just a few scenes, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron makes it absoltely clear that he gets to play Maverick in the Top Gun reboot that I’m sure some studio is working on. Since I’m sure Isaac’s Star Wars check will allow him to work cheap in three or four small-budget films, I’m good with that. Whiny Emo Wishes He Was Vader was my least favorite character, but even he was unlikable in a ways that mostly worked and at least didn’t detract from my enjoyment.
And then there’s the most important character: Han Solo, who was the one element of the original movies that I loved unconditionally. There was always a sense that Han and the underworld he moved in would make for a much better story than the Star Wars trilogy, and the new movie builds on that. I was worried that geriatric Han would be depressing, but I’d obviously forgotten that he’s Harrison goddamn Ford. There are several points in the movie that are all about reminding the audience that Han Solo is the coolest guy in the galaxy. While there’s definitely some fan service going on there, it also strengthens the story by making Han’s death hurt as much as it should. It’s hard to separate Leia Warrior Princess from Carrie Fisher Who Does Not Have Any Fucks To Give You, but I also enjoyed the short time she had on screen and hope to see more of her in the upcoming movies.
Does the movie have a lot of dumb stuff? Of course it does, it’s a Star Wars movie. There are statistically improbable coincidences, inexplicable character decisions, another desert-dwelling orphan with the force pouring out of every pore, Nazi visual references that are probably too blatant even for Star Wars, a guy who manages to keep his job despite regularly throwing temper-tantrums that result in the destruction of presumably valuable equipment with his light saber, another goddamn Death Star, and a planet whose tectonic plates have an absolutely uncanny sense of dramatic timing. If you think about it too much, there are probably a dozen different ways this movie is dumb. That’s ok. Pulpy escapism is always kind of dumb if you think about it. The key is to not think about it, just enjoy it.
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