Title: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac
Excellence: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A fun, epic, Star Wars-ey Star Wars sequel, a very worth addition to the franchise and well-executed reboot.
It was with a great sense of relief that I write this review which is, fittingly, the first post for Swords and Space (the blog) for 2016. It just "feels right" to be starting the year talking about the latest installment to one of my favourite science fiction/fantasy universes of all time. Why the sense of relief? Because, as I mentioned on the Facebook page, I had a great sense of foreboding going in that J.J. Abrams was going to make a visually and artistically stunning Star Wars that lacked the feel of Star Wars. A non-Star Wars film dressed up like Star Wars.
Fortunately, I was wrong, and J.J. Abrams deserves great praise for delivering a film that really captured the excitement and much of the innocence and clear good-versus-evil of the original trilogy. He also captured the look perfectly, delivering a very lived-in "maculate reality" universe that was entirely in keeping with the original trilogy. This apparently made George Lucas unhappy, to which I say, thank goodness this franchise is out of his hands for good now.
To say much more than that, however, and to explain why I "only" gave it 3.5/5 stars after such high praise to open will require spoilers, however, so reader beware.
In brief there were two main things that contributed to the rating I gave the film, which might otherwise have been a 4+ on my rating scale:
1. Soundtrack -- John Williams whiffed on this one. The only good music was when he used music from previous episodes. The new stuff just was not good or Star War-ish to me. He knocked it out of the park on the first six episodes, so I will cut him some slack, but the music was one of the things that really made Star Wars great and holds this one back.
2. Rey -- and this is the main knock I have against this film. Rey is way too much of a Mary Sue character for my tastes. She needed to be toned-down a lot. People accuse Luke of being a Mary Sue sometimes, but really, all he was good at in Episode IV was flying and there was at least some explanation for it (he was an experienced bush pilot who qualified for the academy and powerful force sensitive). He wasn't some great gunslinger/fighter, he only fired wildly a few times in the cell block and the hangar bay. He did not perform well in his first light sabre duel with Darth Vader despite the fact he'd had some training with Yoda at that point and Darth was clearly holding back because he wanted to capture not kill Luke. Whereas on the other hand Rey is an amazing pilot, deadly gun-slinger (despite having never used a blaster before), and the first time she uses a light sabre she completely schools Kylo Ren who apparently wiped-out all his fellow Jedi that trained with Luke. J.J. Abrams needs to throw a real curve ball at her in Episode VIII for Rey to have any meaningful character development/advancement. I mean, what's left for her to accomplish? To single-handedly own the entire Knights of Ren brotherhood in a single battle? Add to this my general distaste for "D&D Warrior Babes", and this character really brought the film down a notch for me.
There were a few other quibbles, like the First Order officer uniforms with no rank insignia; Princess Leia being called "General" (because, it's the 21st century and for a woman to be worth anything must be a warrior -- see my linked D&D Warrior Babes rant above); and a little bit too much in the way of re-hashed ideas (I was disappointed that the First Order built yet another massive space-station with planet killing weapon).
Back on the positive side of the ledger, I thought the humour was well done and appropriate, the pacing was good, and although the storyline was in many ways a mash-up of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, it had enough that was new to make it enjoyable and these similarities were more in the nature of the larger/background story line and it was the stories of the characters (who were on the whole well done) that made it worth the price of admission. And contrary to the whole "Kyle Ren is emo" meme floating around out there, I really liked the dark side user as a young, confused, and conflicted character. The opposite of Rey, Kylo Ren was almost like the real protagonist. I also thought Han's death was appropriate and I applaud J.J.Abrams for having the guts to do it (because having Ren return to the good side so easily would have been lame).