The Star Wars prequels are failures for many, endlessly catalogued reasons, but among the most egregious is the reliance on volumes of exposition to establish background and intervening details. Instead of letting actors suggest individual and collaborative histories through body language and chemistry, the films presented their characters as pre-packaged as their toy counterparts. The Force Awakens exists at the opposite end of the plot spectrum, in which the rush to establish new characters, new stories, and a new business plan for endless sequels and spinoffs results in the near-total elimination of anything not resolutely focused on the present. The closest thing to exposition is found in the opening text crawl, which notes that the Empire has rebranded under the name of the First Order and do battle with an off-the-books Republic force called the Resistance.
The lack of exposition is a welcome change from the norm, and a great way to cede every possible second of screen time to the new, vibrant cast. And for the first act, the concision of the action is a breath of fresh air for a stagnant franchise, nimbly cutting between, then linking, the arcs of disillusioned First Order stormtrooper FN-2187 a.k.a. Finn (John Boyega), hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and desert planet scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). In these early scenes, the film establishes a balance between the epically scaled and intimately observed. In particular, the scenes of Rey simply getting by on Jakku—foraging through the cavernous bowels of a downed Star Destroyer, racing her speeder across a landscape as a small dot against the looming shape of that gigantic, rotting ship—are among the most beautiful in the entire series.
Things start to fall apart, however, once the action picks up, at which point the film shifts away from development to a series of carefully timed reveals of old characters and objects that each receive an extended pause of dead air, as if Abrams programmed in applause breaks worthy of Kramer sliding through Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment door. Framed through this lens, the tendency for the narrative to repeat the beats of A New Hope, though perfectly logical in a saga founded upon the constancy of the hero’s journey, comes off as pandering fan-fiction.
Yet if these constant callbacks and reintroductions disrupt the flow of the film, it’s only fitting that the film is best recalled via individual moments of inspiration. Abrams has never staged action with much invention, but the storyboarding of this film’s setpieces shows an ability to juggle a great many moving parts. For example, in a sequence that juxtaposes an aerial fight with a ground skirmish in a Resistance outpost, the movements of both footsoldiers and starfighters are exquisitely choreographed in distinct and intersecting actions. A climactic lightsaber duel between Rey and Sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) lacks the flash and dazzle of the prequels’ twirling wire-fu but is far better for displaying a sense of total character consistency. Ren’s wounds from a previous fight limit his range, while the untrained Rey, seen early in the film using a staff for self-defense, uses a saber in the same fashion, making jabbing motions that are expertly targeted but fail to use the entire blade’s potential.
The most consistent source of pleasure, however, comes from the characters. In an era in which “complexity” in heroes has come to be understood as brooding, even destructive anti-heroes, the unrelenting goodness of Rey, Poe, and Finn is not a regression but a relief, proof that characters can be fully realized while remaining optimistic and earnest. Isaac, Ridley, and Boyega all have moments of severity and despair, but they are never better than when their wide-eyed reverence and awe is communicated through the characters. Their giddiness plays out in small moments, like the brotherly elbow slaps between Finn and Poe, or Rey’s look of amazement at her own abilities when she commandeers an impounded Millennium Falcon and ably dodges TIE fighters.
Not to be outdone is Driver, who makes Kylo an intriguing contrast for Vader. Anakin is like a wunderkind athlete, come from nothing and exposed to a level of power he cannot resist, while Ren sees power as his birthright and embodies toxic entitlement. It’s also nice to see Ren forced to suffer the politicking of officers Vader used to choke by the baker’s dozen; his interactions with Domhnall Gleeson’s unctuous General Hux are a subtle comic highlight riddled with mutual pettiness. Yet the true show-stealer is Harrison Ford, who maintains Han Solo’s sense of rakish disregard but flecks it with regret and experience. Whether modifying his chemistry with Carrie Fisher’s Leia to account for years of ups and downs or silently documenting Rey’s competence as a pilot, Ford invests Han with a rare show of empathy and humility that gives the film much of its gravity. Rey and Finn look beside themselves when they meet Han and quiz him as to whether all the legends about him and his friends happened, but it’s in Ford’s quiet, emotional insistence that “It’s all true” that the film reaches its winsome peak.
There’s a lot to recommend this picture, more than just about anything in the prequels and even in large sections of the original trilogy. The notion that the new faces of the biggest franchise of all time are two people of color and a woman is marvelous, its action is never less than solid, and Abrams does a fine job setting up all the pieces to reignite the franchise. But it is the latter aspect that gives pause and draws a firm line in the sand between the previous Star Wars films and everything to be made going forward. Star Wars, for all its flaws and follies, is a work of art, financed by a studio looking to make a profit but also made by a young talent with ambition and a distrust of the system that bankrolled him. The Force Awakens is a product of the system that its forebear propagated, which is to say that it is a product. It’s a frivolous misapprehension to expect a sixth sequel to have the same world-altering impact of its original, but it’s difficult to get excited for a film that is judged a success almost exclusively on the terms of how well it sets up future products to be consumed.
60 thoughts on “Back to Basics in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens””
How is Oscar Isaac “a person of color?” Yes, we all know he is Guatemalan. But he can pass with pretty much zero problem for being a bone fide white dude, albeit of the more swarthy, southern-European-esque variety, like an Italian or a Greek, but dude can play Black Irish imo, and had played an Englishman before. There’s no need to invent political talking points where there is none. Boyega, yes. Isaac, no.
Because he is? One look at him and I and everyone else can tell he isn’t white? Not that it matters. All new actors played their roles very well and that’s what matters.
Really? I and everyone I saw the movie with thought he was white. We all thought he was Italian. To us, he looks as white as Al Pacino. And I think he actually looks slightly like Pacino as well.
He’s “vibrant”, too.
Pandering & identity politics? …
I think he meant because it’s never happened before. He meant that it was a good thing to happen, not a negative thing that a dumb, negative thinker would think.
Yup, pandering and identity politics.
There are very nice performances and Daisy Ridley is a standout, but the film fails because of the gaping plot holes and, as this reviewer stated, its insistence on setting up things to come instead of working as a stand-alone film. I’m glad the Force is back, but this film is a disappointment. And reviewers should stop apologizing for it.
are you stupid?? It was announced that it would be another trilogy… so why should it be like a standalone films, should they kill off the villains like they did in the prequals? Rey besting Kylo Ren is just because Kylo Ren is still learning and he was badly injured…
No, I don’t think I’m stupid, but you might be because you don’t understand fully what a film standing on its own means, and also you don’t know how to spell prequels.
Gaping plot holes. Kinda like ANH.
To which plot holes in ANH are you referring?
The Farce Awakens is nothing more than a political statement wrapped up in Star War’s memorabilia, therefore it did not really need a cohesive script or plot, when all it set out to do was indoctrinate the masses and take a dozen dollars from the gullible and curious.
Daisy Ridley has now become the newest tween Pied Piper and face of feminism. Make no mistake – A Farce Awakens is not a Star War’s film…it’s a feminist fantasy film about female dominance and superiority, complete with droids, death stars and Whookies. The movie that was once loved by boys of all ages, is now giving feminism renewed vigor and a new hope.
While I had misgivings with the film as well (mostly how it was way too derivative of A New Hope) I’m glad to say I didn’t hate it because of my broad, sweeping misogynistic generalizations.
Some might say it’s a good thing The Force Awakens can be enjoyed by both boys and girls of all ages, but you’d rather have us sit at separate tables in the dark ages.
My friend…take a look around you – our country is heading straight into an abyss and you are cheering it on.
Progress is not always forward, my friend, and yesteryear had something that we don’t have today: a cohesive family unit with fathers at the helm. Now, if that’s what you refer to as the “Dark Ages”, then I refer to it as the “Good old days”.
Why does it scare you so much that strong women are depicted?
Yes the film fails. Thank you 1% lol! The majority rules and we loved it! We win! All this means is that it sucks to be you.
“The notion that the new faces of the biggest franchise of all time are two people of color and a woman is marvelous, its action is never less than solid, and Abrams does a fine job setting up all the pieces to reignite the franchise.” Quite right. Almost like lighting a menorah.
The lack of passion and goose-stepping of critics to praise this clear subversion of the franchise in service of a Social Justice agenda is maddening but not atypical of a media cowed by Political Correctness. Abrams didn’t ruin a cinema icon, the media did by playing along and patting him on his head.
It was garbage and everyone knows it. The joke’s on you.
nah it was a pretty good movie. maybe you think too much or something.
I thought it was pretty clever (Abrams’ “curly little head”-cracks me up every time), but yeah it’s a lot of effort for nothin’. Much ado about nothing, lol.
I agree, Straightup…this movie is more about women’s suffrage and female empowerment than a galaxy far…far away.
At the end of the day, the main objective of this film was to sell tickets, feminism and Star Wars toys.
It is my firm contention, that the media critics are backing this film to the hilt, not because it was masterfully done or because the script was a masterpiece, but because it carries the precious cargo of feminism in its hull.
Agreed. Perfect take.
I agree, but I also believe it’s because either Disney paid off several of them (with money or ‘if you want to keep getting pre-screenings of Marvel/Disney films you’d better not trash this one’) or they are such Star Wars fanboys – which describe most modern film critics – that they could see the movie through rose-colored glasses.
All three are highly possible imho.
Saw it for the second time this weekend. I have no idea why you people hate it so much. Have you watched the original lately? The acting is terrible, the writing is worse…the sets look like they’re about to fall apart. But so what? It’s Star Wars! Watch and be happy. It’s all make believe.
A New Hope was refreshing, in that it told an original story without pandering to the feminist manifesto or selling-out to political ideologies. The moral of A New Hope is that when good stands up to evil…there is hope, whereas the moral of The Farce Awakens is that girls rule and boys drool.
A New Hope was full of political ideology – it’s just that that film’s political ideology probably chimed with yours – and, therefore, you didn’t notice it or find it unacceptable to your taste.
Indeed. Virtually every movie stands on a soap box here and there, (the Semitic Cinema Sellouts can’t help themselves), but this one was over the top and in your face.
Actually, I would like to redact the statement I made about Star Wars being “an original story”. Truth be known, George Lucas stole quite a few ideas from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. As said by King Solomon, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
How did it say anything but Rey is strong with the force because Luke is strong with the force? She could have been a boy and I wouldn’t have given it another thought. Leia is Luke’s sister and she obviously is not strong with the force…so some have it some don’t…has nothing to do with gender.
We are bombarded with feminist dogma on a daily basis, so watching this movie was just another day at the office. Furthermore, J.J. Abrams admitted to being counseled by feminists, which is quite evident.
Even if Rey was a “Raymond”…I still would have disliked the notion that Luke had to learn the ways of the Force, whereas Raymond picked things up in 15 minutes. Even if Rey were a man, I would still hate the idea that he could fly anything without training and basically do everything perfectly well (the first time around) – without the benefit of knowledge or advanced training.
This movie is terribly unrealistic, but, then again, so are the tenets of feminism.
No John Higgins, it’s you who are filled with a colored lens of a mind. The original 3 Star Wars were equally unrealistic. The moral of TFA is most certainly not “girls rule.” Reductionist much? Rey was one character. The movie was as much a journey for Han Solo, Finn, and Kylo Ren as it was for Rey.
Surely you jest.
“Raymond picked things up in 15 minutes…”
Exactly my friend,, it was ridiculous
Um… Rey didn’t just pick things up in 15 minutes. Did you see the same film? She had visions that implied a hidden history that will be revealed.
“This movie is terribly unrealistic.” Do you really think that’s a valid criticism for a STAR WARS film? lol.
I agree, SW IV had crappy acting, crappy dialogue and crappy character development… and for some reason this new movie steal most of the original SW basic story and some other stuff: has good actors (a plus) but keeped the crappy dialogue and crappy character development.
I found this movie too avarage in the aspects that mattered, don’t get me wrong it looks beautiful, has great actors but at the end it’s just descent or good enough and considering the elements (actors, director, money) that should count as a fail.
I did watch it yesterday with my son, after viewing Farce Awakens.. We both enjoyed the original so much more… Bad acting?? Writing… Farce awaken yes
TFA is nothing but pandering fanfiction.
This is my favorite review of this movie so far, though it did exclude several points I would have likely made had I written it.
Overall, this is not a bad movie. Where it really falls off for me is how much it is just a rehash of A New Hope. I don’t want to feel like they took the premise and moments of the original movies, slap a new coat of paint on it (graphics, new actors) and call it a day, but I kind of do feel that way. Certainly was entertained, but still feel disappointed.
Just another feminist fantasy gift-wrapped in Star War’s memorabilia.
J.J. Abrams is reading this review and laughing all the way to the bank..
No…he’s laughing because most Americans are morons that do not know when they’ve been fleeced.
Your Hilarious… People are morons because they like to be entertained? Its fine if you don’t like the movie, that’s YOUR opinion. However, there is no need to attack others with different opinions. Take the movie for what it is… Its JUST A MOVIE! Not life or death. You’ll live.
No, my friend, people are morons because they cannot critically analyze their way out of a wet paper bag and they have no idea when they are being force-fed malicious propaganda under the guise of entertainment.
P.S. Although everyone has a right to their own opinion…not all opinions are equal.
P.S.S. This is not just a movie – it’s a Trojan Horse filled with feminist dogma and political propaganda, which is meant to sway and lead the masses (in particular…the young). I think you need to start looking at things a little closer, because sometimes the truth is just beneath the surface.
They messed up Terminator: Genisys pretty well also with original plot nullification, blatant sexual role-reversal and an old fogy from the last century showing up to add personality and continuity for the old school fans. Another abomination I’ll never waste more time on.
In essence, if Hollywood is convinced that perception becomes reality (to children and sheep, at least), why not erase and/or change the original, “flawed”, perception as well, because they can.
It was a boring, pandering, mess of a movie. It’s not even close to living up to the hype.
Oh…I agree with you, Robert. But, why do you think so many critics are backing it? In my mind, it is as if they are trying to talk us into liking it. What say you?
Imho it’s either because critics were paid off by Disney, or because 95% of them are Star Wars fans who saw the film through nostalgic, rose-colored glasses.
You may be right, but I consider myself a fan of Star Wars and although it was good to see some of my favorite characters – so much of it seemed contrived…almost forced.
The way so many of the original characters were introduced in this film, made them seem like a novelty act whose sole appearance was to convince us that “The Farce Awakens”, is indeed, a bona fide Star War’s movie – when it did not really feel like one.
The experience made me feel like the story unfolded in the back lot of Disney Studios in 21st-Century feminist America – not in a galaxy…far…far away.
In my mind…the overwhelming praise and support is based upon its feminist message and its political overtones. Any serious critic who thinks this movie really rocks, should be escorted out of the building with their security pass revoked.
So then, how do you feel about Clone Wars and Rebels? They’re Star Wars canon. Does Ahsoka’s strength and skill dismay you as much as Rey’s does?
I have no problem that the main protagonists were not white males. But nor is it a reason for me to like the film. I thought it was a completely recycled plot, with overblown CGI, poor acting, forgettable bad guys (what are their names again – Snork and Dork?) and, to be frank quite boring. I glanced at my watch several times hoping it would end.
I’ve yet to figure out why critiques and audiences are said to be calling it a huge success – when close to half of audience reviews I read are showing it for what it is – a fresh steaming pile of poo.
The same audiences also made Michael Bay very rich.
It wasn’t the movie that has so many people excited – it’s the message it carried and the direction it’s heading.
What message would that be? Like having a conscience in the face of injustice and actually doing something about it? Like falling in love? Like rising to meet your destiny? Are you seriously only complaining because a frikking girl is Jedi?
overblown CGI? where? there was more practically built sets and droids and props in this movie than the last 10 years. Who’s acting was poor? John Boyega and Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac killed it in their portrayals. Ford and Fisher are of course not even worth debating over. Not even remotely close to half of audience reviews are calling it poo, audience are rating it 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and that’s a poll of 182,148 people.
Seriously, Potter? You need me to tell you the obvious? I wasn’t talking about the story-line in Star Wars…I was talking about the social engineering behind the scenes.
It’s really hard to believe three movie ‘guys’ sat down and wrote this, then passed it around to other movie peeps before getting the nod and the green light – now lets go make it. (STOP) People were clearly opiated or drinking heavily during the writing phase, only to show up hung over during production, consoling actors and producers with “we’ll fix it in post” a day that never came nor ever will now. In every direction this movie is pointless, no characters save a name and a different outfit for each person, scene’s of things ‘happening’ which is possible to do with a camera, a blender, and an object, and the some of the thinest, most wretched dialogue imaginable. it’s painful, start to end. The worst part is it could’ve all been avoided if they’d given the duty of writing or at least the ideation phase to some ravenous suicidal SW fans boys – at least then they would of had something.