At the end of my review of The Force Awakens I wrote, in response to the rapturous reviews that the film had received: “has it really been so long since Star Wars was entertaining that we can mistake competent for good?” I wrote that sentence the morning after my first viewing of the movie, filled with the all-too-typical crankiness of the super-fan. I was filled with a kind of mourning that the film wasn’t what I had hoped it would be, and probably didn’t accept it on its own terms. I stand by the sentiment of that statement. But after several more viewings, another thing is clear: The Force Awakens is good.
Rewatching The Force Awakens was, for me, key to divorcing myself from my own expectations. It allowed me to judge the movie on its own, considerable merits. By my third viewing of the movie, I was able to just sit back and be entertained. When I left the theater after that viewing, I was less disappointed with the lack of Luke Skywalker and the poorly rendered Supreme Leader Snoke, and more excited by the possibilities of another movie filled with Poe, Rey, and Finn.
If we expect Star Wars to look or feel a certain way, then we’ll be jarred by the modern touches in The Force Awakens: things like the sweeping helicopter shot that leads into the iris-out to the credits, after six movies featuring a static final shot as the music swells. These things are different, but different doesn’t mean bad.
Likewise, the new movie contains action movie tropes that are jarring in a Star Wars context. Finn, in particular, spends a lot of time running around and screaming, like Shia LaBeouf in the Transformers movies. This is something we’re used to seeing in modern action movies, from the character who’s not quite cut out for the action-hero role. And we usually like that character, but it’s not a type that we've seen in the Star Wars universe before. That’s different, but, again, different doesn’t mean bad.
Consider two similar scenes: in The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia runs to a Cloud City landing platform, just in time to see Boba Fett’s ship, Slave I, take off with Han Solo aboard. Leia’s known Han for years at this point, and has just professed her love for him, only to have him taken away, possibly forever -- yet all that she can do is stare in silent horror as the ship flies away.
In The Force Awakens, Finn’s reaction to a similar moment is considerably different, when he sees Rey, rendered unconscious by Kylo Ren, carried onto Ren’s ship. The camera tracks Finn across a busy battlefield filled with explosions and laser fire, and when Finn realizes that he won’t be able to save his friend, who he’s met only a few hours ago, he shrieks her name right into the camera. It’s not a bad scene, but it lacks the human connection of the moment in Empire.
Subtleties like that are what elevate The Empire Strikes Back above practically any action movie that’s ever existed, and represent what Star Wars is capable of at its best. The Force Awakens, then is not Star Wars at its best, but it’s still Star Wars at pretty damn good. It’s made a world that we’re intimately familiar feel brand new, with new characters to love or hate, plenty of cheesy dialogue, and dozens of new plot holes for diehard fans to explain away. That, if nothing else, makes it a perfect Star Wars movie.
Join us tomorrow for the conclusion of our 2015 Star Wars series, as we discuss the mega-hit relaunch of the series, The Force Awakens.