A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
A thunderous eruption as the famous line appears on screen. I even notice one movie goer taking a photo of the words in a sign of the times. There is a sprinkling of Storm Troopers in the audience and more cosplay than I can remember from when I saw Revenge of The Sith in theaters. There's a real sense of hope buzzing around. It's opening night for a Star Wars movie, for real this time!
The film deliverers the tone, atmosphere, cinematography, visual effects, special effects, action, comedic timing and chemistry between the main characters that you'd expect in a Star Wars adventure. These factors alone make it a fun, must see, cinematic experience. The team behind The Force Awakens have successfully revived Star Wars with a soft reboot that returns the series to it's fantastical action adventure roots while setting things up nicely for Episode VIII.
As a stand alone film however, The Force Awakens starts to shows its cracks when one analyses the story a little deeper. Though the characters have good moments of dialogue and chemistry, there is never much weight to their actions. The most significant moment in the film (and one of the most important in the franchise) comes and goes predictably without the affect on the audience there should be. In isolation, scenes are presented and acted out exceptionally well but there isn't the setups to give them real emotional impact. I will elaborate with spoilers below.
Overall, a good looking, fun ride and palette cleanser for the Star Wars franchise which glosses over a few details in order to keep things moving at light-speed.
*** SPOILERS ***
The Force Awakens opens with a title crawl which gives the audience a quick thirty year re-cap. As the crawl fades away we pan to a nice opening shot of a planet being completely shadowed by a Star Destroyer. Light and shadow are reoccurring motifs in the film.
From there on, plot points are stitched together in a way that on the surface make sense, driving things forward in Hyperdrive. There is so much spectacle in your face that only on reflection can we notice that certain things don't add up.
Down on the planet Jakku, Po Dameron (Oscar Issac), a cocky, idealistic and daring pilot is meeting with a generic wise old man (Max Von Sydow) to collect a map which holds Luke's location just as the sinister First Order arrive. They massacre everyone, taking Po captive but during the short lived battle, he is able to give the map to his droid BB8 who escapes.
The map is an unnecessary MacGuffin. Max Von Sydow's unnamed character could've simply told BB8 Luke's location. Later when Po Dameron gives up the fact that BB8 has the map, it would have had the same result plot wise. The map doesn't make sense. Why would there be a map with a red line pointing the way to Luke? Who's plotting Luke's movements? It only exists so that an extremely forced scene with R2D2 can unfold.
BB8 soon stumbles into a sort of worker village market town where Rey (Daisy Ridley) lives day-to-day. She literally chalks up a line on her wall each day like a prisoner. On the surface it makes sense as part of a mundane life montage but why would she actually do this?
Rey spends her days scavenging for parts in abandoned vessels so she can sell them for food rations (or something) to a storekeeper type who has the monopoly on buying and selling it seems. None of the social dynamics on Jakku are really explained. At one point she stops cleaning a piece she's collected and is immediately reprimanded by some Jawa looking thugs. It all looks and feels right for Star Wars but it is odd in and of itself. Rey doesn't appear to be a slave, nor does it seems like she works for these people but ultimately it doesn't matter. It is later indicated that she's there by choice as she's waiting for her family to return.
Rey is an interesting character, however we really don't know anything about her other than what happens in the film. It's not stated but I believe she's had her memory erased and she's actually had previous Jedi training. If she is the protagonist in a Star Wars trilogy than it's likely she is a Skywalker. In any case, she is too proficient in the force for it to be a simple first time awakening. There is more to her back story than we know and I predict that Rey is in fact Luke's daughter, her repressed memories a result of a mind wipe. There is a lot of forced mind manipulation type stuff going on in the film so it's not a stretch. In the final scene when Rey and Luke meet, he looks horrified, like he knows who she is and what her finding him represents. It could be that this trilogy will not have a happy ending but rather the next, think Episodes I, II and III as opposed to IV, V, VI.
In the mean time Po is interrogated by the sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on the Star Destroyer who "forces" the location of the map out of him and the First Order start heading toward Rey and BB8.
Kylo Ren is one of the better developed characters in the film. He's an advanced force user who has been seduced by the dark side, struggling with an inner turmoil about light and dark. Though this struggle is implied more than we see evidence of it, he's butchering innocent people and throwing tantrums from the get go, so it's hard to believe he's going to go good at any point in the film. He was born Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia and trained by his uncle Luke in the ways of the force. Unfortunately, he shows the temperament of his grandfather Annakin Skywalker/Darth Vader and has an infatuation to finish what Vader started (a cool line that doesn't necessarily make sense). Leia latter eludes to him being seduced over to the dark side by Supreme Leader Snoke, who we only see over hologram. Snoke is very likely Plagueis, Emporer Palpatine's master who he believed to have killed (as explained in Revenge of The Sith).
Kylo's relationship with General Hux (Donald Gleeson) is fantastic as they squabble over decisions, seeking Snoke's approval. Kylo's struggle between the light and dark-side ends when he kills his father in the scene I mentioned earlier which disappoints considering it's importance. It just doesn't feel earned and relies too much on the audience's connection to Han from thirty year old films rather than the one they are watching. The film needed to setup a relationship between the two, however the death scene was the first time they share the screen. It might have been interesting to see Kylo save Han from a Storm Trooper or something in an earlier battle scene. It would have given the audience something doubt about his darkness.
Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega), a disillusioned Storm Trooper decides to run from the Order and needs Po's help. The two don't get far before their stolen Tie Fighter is shot down and they are separated while crash landing back on Jakku. He finds his way to Rey and BB8 just in time for the First Order to arrive and they make a daring escape on an old ship: The Millennium Falcon, the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs! Great sequence of events, cheering all round.
At this point, there is some kind of in-between sequence to get Han Solo and Chewbacca involved in a very convenient way. It seems they are out looking for The Falcon themselves, right here in the Jakku neighbourhood. After all the events of the original trilogy, these two have regressed back into gallivanting and smuggling. A whole action sequence unfolds which could have been left out. It involves bounty hunters or smugglers that Han has double crossed. It has no suspense and the dizzying CGI tentacle creatures are terrible. It also, in my book, wastes the additions of The Raid's main actors in throw away roles.
Moving on, everyone on-board the Falcon agrees they need to get the plans-- I mean map back to General (not Princess) Leia but they don't go direct, they stop at a sort of smuggler's port so that the film can have a cantina scene and give a bit of exposition. Maz Kanata's place is filled with all sorts of weird aliens and things leading Rey to stumble upon Luke's lightsaber (or rather be drawn to it).
Finn, seeing that things are getting serious, decides it's time to cut and run. He struggles with his connection to the First Order, taken as a child to join their ranks but wants no part in the Resistance. He is ashamed of having been a Storm Trooper and was going along with the whole thing as Rey seemed impressed when he lied to her about being part of The Resistance.
He might have had a better arc if he didn't leave The Order at the start of the film. If he remained a conflicted Storm Trooper, perhaps even after helping Po escape. His cowardice would have been in that regard, not being able to leave rather than not wanting to join the Resistance. By staying, it could have built up to a decision in the final moments to do something courageous, such as shutting down the Starkiller shields himself, betraying The Order and helping the Resistance. It would have resonated similar to Han's surprise return in A New Hope when hope seemed lost in the attack on the Death Star. It also would have removed the awful shield dropping scene involving Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) a character severely dis-serviced in this film.
Finn's running away doesn't work out, both the First Order and Resistance find their way to Maz Kanata's and things take a turn. The setup for the entire film (from the crawl) was that everyone was looking for Luke. This would have been enough for a cat and mouse suspenseful thrill ride but the movie suddenly becomes about a new Death Star; Star Killer Supreme Extreme (that's not what it's called but it's something like that). We are shown a schematic next to the old Death Star to show how much more 2015 it is but what about the Death Star from Return of The Jedi? Where does that one fit in? I thought it was bigger too? Perhaps they were only going to reference A New Hope in this movie and then reference only The Empire Strikes Back in the second film, etc.
The reveal of Star Killer base and its use to destroy the Republic system (five planets we don't know the names of) has no weight. Five CGI explosions happen and we don't know anything about the victims, nor, more importantly, care. We could have used something to give us more information about the landscape of the galaxy and who's running things. Not prequel level exposition but a little bit more world building. Something like the simple setup and execution in A New Hope of the destruction of Alderaan while Leia pleads that it is a peaceful planet. Followed by a quick explosion and Obi-Wan's somber note about a million voices crying out in pain. Right then and there we understand why the Empire must be stopped, why the plans need to get to the rebels and why it was all mentioned in the crawl.
Anyway, back to The Force Awakens, Rey has been taken hostage by Kylo on the Starkiller while the others plan out how to destroy it. Finding Luke isn't a priority now as the weapon is pointed at the Resistance system now. Action ensues on land and air from here on out. It's a heap of fun and there are some great action set pieces.
Once the day is won (for the most part), everyone of consequence gets away (good and bad), except for Han of course. Rey flies off to find Luke now that they've made sense of the map thanks to R2D2. The film ends with Rey staring at a horrified looking Luke before "directed by JJ Abrams" snaps on screen. Rapturous applause, everyone had had a good time.
Star Wars is back! So buckle up, there's going to be a whole lot more of it coming our way.
PS. No doubt in my mind that a young Kylo having a tantrum is responsible for C3PO's arm troubles...