There are many, many, many, things you can fault the prequel trilogy (Episodes I, II, and III) of Star Wars with. The one thing you absolutely can’t say about them is that they in any way, shape, or form resemble the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI) of films, despite having quite a few of the same heroes and villains. The prequels are largely flawed and had they stuck a bit closer to the originals I think they would still have been seen as a failure for those same reasons. However, they are so completely, wildly different from general plot to planets to aliens to technology that most fans felt they had gone too far and were too different from the movies they all knew and loved.
Did The Force Awakens then over correct and cater too much to the “old guard” of fans? Well, yes and no.
Consider this your first and last official spoiler warning.
Large swaths of TFA feel very much like a cover song (so much so that J.J. Abrams decided to respond to the criticism here). Lifting liberally from A New Hope, with sprinklings of Empire and Jedi thrown in for good measure. There is once again a young drifter with large ambitions and an unknown legacy trapped, this time by her own choosing (or is she?), on a desert planet. There is once again a cocky, rogue-ish pilot who reappears in the third act to save the day. Wise Mentor? Check. Seedy bar full of aliens? Check. Death Star? This time it’s even bigger check. Oh by the way, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, C-3PO, and R2-D2 all make appearances in this movie. Hell, Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb are even in it.
But is this a bad thing? In this case, I don’t really think so.
To me, this movie reads very much as setup for the next couple. In many cases I would see this as a negative. However, J.J. Abrams and company had a nigh insurmountable task in front of them. Please all the people who just wanted “their” Star Wars again while at the same time setting the table for new and different stories down the line. And on that level I think it succeeds pretty well.
Yes, the Empire/First Order need new designers. Perhaps going to the well for a third time on the Death Star concept wasn’t the greatest idea. We once again get a mysterious, elder Sith Lord pulling the strings of our younger, more conflicted apprentice who has familial ties to the rest of the cast. And yes, our wizened voice of reason is cut down in the third act by a character that had previously betrayed him. With a red lightsaber no less! All these and more reflect moments from Episode IV. But I feel like that’s exactly the point. Reflect those moments and present them with a slightly different spin for a new audience. Give the old guard something familiar as a touchstone in the midst of the new stuff while at the same time telling a new audience stories you already know work.
Oh, and also there’s Han Solo.
The bulk of this movies feels like “Star Wars: Han Solo The Movie”. Which, considering events in the third act, totally makes sense. Han is the guy doing all the torch passing in this film. He takes on the Obi-Wan role from Episode IV in several ways while also maintaining all of that “Han-ness” that we liked so much. Seeing Han and Chewie on the Millennium Falcon once again is wonderful and nostalgic in all the right ways. Han’s is the role with all of the heavy lifting of both exposition and emotion and Harrison Ford nails every second of it. Ford is a pleasure to watch in this film and seeing him engaged in a role and having fun again, perhaps for the last time, was a treat. TFA has to work very hard to earn the third act death of Han Solo and boy does it. You can see it coming from a mile away and it’s still a gut punch.
That being said I think the new characters suffer a bit just because of all that hard work. Presumably Rey, Finn, and Poe are going to be our main characters going forward and quite honestly all three feel a bit under served here. They seem a bit like broad strokes at this point. Especially Poe who disappears for most of the second act. But all three actors do great work in limited time and they all make the characters feel interesting enough that I’m definitely yearning to know more about them.
I’m very much looking forward to the next movie where we get to see Daisy Ridley truly own the lead role. The mystery of Rey’s parentage seems like it will be a lot of the driving force of the next two movies but I’m almost more excited about the sci-fi bromance of Finn and Poe. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are both really solid. While their bond happens quickly, you totally buy it and the moment of them hugging when they meet up again is one of my favorites in the entire film.
The new character that I think really thrived was Kylo Ren. I really enjoyed seeing a villain that was extremely conflicted and not just a carbon copy “Sith badass” like we’ve generally seen across the course of the Star Wars films thus far. He just doesn’t seem to have his shit together sometimes. This is a character that literally throws temper tantrums and yet can still be a real threat and completely terrifying to our protagonists when the moment calls for it. Adam Driver had a tall task being the guy that kills Han Solo. That scene has to work for the movie to work, everything previous builds to that one scene and if it fell flat the movie would have suffered greatly. Luckily, Driver more than succeeds opposite Harrison Ford. Despite being a completely new character the tension and pathos he manages to deliver really do help elevate the scene into everything it should have been and more.
So where does all this leave us?
I think we got a really good Star Wars movie. Perhaps not an amazing Star Wars movie, but well within shouting distance of the better entries of the original trilogy. And considering most peoples feelings about Star Wars as a whole after the prequels had all come and gone I think that’s no small feat.
I like The Force Awakens. I’ve seen it more than once and I hope to watch it again. Had you asked me after Episode III I don’t think I would’ve ever expected to say that about a Star Wars movie ever again.