A little over a month has gone by since Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was released in theaters, and with the buzz dying down (or shifting towards rabid Episode VIII speculation) and theaters gradually removing it from their programming, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts I had before the moment fully passed.
My relationship with the Star Wars franchise is as cliche as it is for anyone else who grew up in the 80s and 90s. I faintly remember sitting on my living room floor watching Return of the Jedi play on network TV one Saturday afternoon. I found The Emperor's pale, disfigured face to be terrifying, but the lightsabers caught my imagination. I was intrigued enough that my parents bought me the whole trilogy on VHS, and the obsession grew from there. Staying home sick from school meant blasting through all 3 in a single sitting. Oddly, Empire was the one I felt I had to "truck" through a bit, because as a kid, I guess I didn't want to see the good guys lose. Now, of course, it's the clear favorite.
As for the prequels, I'd be lying if I said I disliked them when they were originally released. I was young enough to enjoy them without examining them critically, and just thrilled to be experiencing new Star Wars movies in theaters as they came out. My opinion of I, II and III has since declined, but I can still find enough things to like (Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan, "Duel of the Fates," etc) to put them on now and again. But not much else needs to be said about the prequels that hasn't already been put through the internet echo chamber a thousand times over.
Hype and anticipation for The Force Awakens could not have been higher. As I sat in a theater with 19 friends and a packed audience of fans that opening Friday night, I had optimistic but tempered expectations. But as the logo flew on screen with John Williams' classic score, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face, and I'm happy to say that 2 hours and 16 minutes later, it was still there.
JJ Abrams fully delivered on the promise to take the series back to its roots, presenting a lived-in, tactile world, thrilling action, and above all, new characters that are compelling and charismatic enough to succeed their predecessors and propel the saga forward. While the story definitely plays it safe by utilizing a narrative structure and plot devices from the original trilogy, the sense of deja-vu is far outweighed by ample moments of discovery and adventure. The movie also manages to fulfill its obligation to connect to the preceding films without getting bogged down in lore or over-relying on established characters or institutions.
And again, the new characters really were the highlight for me. Rey is a fantastic heroine, a more than worthy successor to Luke Skywalker as the main protagonist for this new trilogy. Daisy Ridley is an incredible actress, and everything from the practicality of Rey's costume design to the orchestral theme that accompanies her first appearance in the film work harmoniously to create a character I was rooting for from the beginning. It's great that a new generation of young Star Wars fans will have such a well-developed and inspiring female character to identify with.
Equally impressive is the introduction of Kylo Ren, who has the thankless task of following in the enormous footsteps of Darth Vader as the primary villain. It wasn't until my third viewing that I realized how literally JJ Abrams and Co. responded to the challenge of creating another iconic bad guy: have the character himself idolize and desperately seek to emulate the great Vader. Kylo's organic connection to the family of existing characters makes for a wonderfully conflicted and multi-dimensional antagonist with the potential to have as interesting an arc in the next few movies as any of the heroes, and Adam Driver nails the performance.
Beyond the new characters, the practical effects really shine and bring the world of Star Wars back to life. BB-8 is a marvel of both engineering and puppetry, and feels physically present when adjacent to the human characters. The cantina scene, which is one of the most direct and obvious corollaries to A New Hope, features a bevvy of alien denizens that all appear to be tangible works of make-up and costuming. And the sets, which feature numerous real-world locations, are physically constructed enough to give weight to the action they contain. Despite using more CG shots than any Star Wars film to date, this is the most realistic the galaxy far, far away has looked yet.
As for gripes, I could have done without another death star, despite the original take on the concept (this really has to be the last one). While many people seem to love Poe, his character could (and hopefully will) be better developed, as with Captain Phasma, who was unceremoniously disposed of off screen in a way that will make her inevitable return a clumsy task for Rian Johnson to attend to. Lastly, while I appreciate some brevity in exposition regarding the 30 year gap between Episode VI and Episode VII, a few extra lines of dialogue could have been spared to further illuminate the relationship between the Republic, the Resistance, and the First Order. Loathed as they were for their political claptrap, the prequels did draw a clearer picture of the galaxy at large and the stakes involved in the ongoing war between good and evil. In The Force Awakens, there is a bit of a disconnect between those doing the fighting and those they are fighting for.
I could go on a fanboy-esque diatribe about all of the other little things I loved, from Harrison Ford seamlessly returning to the role of Han Solo to the shot of X-Wings skimming across a lake to the beautifully choreographed lightsaber battle in the snow, but this post would at least double in length. Above of all, I'm thrilled that Star Wars is back, it's good, and the groundwork has been laid for fresh ideas and surprises in the upcoming chapters of the saga. Counting down the days to Rogue One now...