This review contains some spoilers after the jump. Please, go and see the movie without them!
It goes without saying that the special effects are superb, but the storytelling is a satisfying return to classic Star Wars….
Two Thumbs Up
I am beginning this review from the position that story is an inherent human need and that genre fiction is a healthy fulfillment of that need. I probably do not need to argue either point with fans of The Old Republic (after all, look at what we put up with for the sake of story), but it does seem that is where the few negative comments about the movie and I differ (including the “retro movie” remarks from Lucas himself). Star Wars is its own genre at this point, and a genre means that it will elicit predictable feelings of adventure and triumph in the viewer, and that we are returning because we want to experience those feelings. The Force Awakens fits the Star Wars genre better than the prequels, and is therefore very satisfying.
This is not to blindly hate on the prequels: they have their high points, but they are marred by meandering plots and by story choices that sharply undermine the mythic appeal of the original trilogy. Force Awakens hits a more standard screenplay structure and the plot keeps moving, without being bogged down in detours. Mythically, we have returned to “the light side of Force” as the force of virtue, something that can stir the conscience of soldiers even if they have been psychologically programmed to blindly obey, and it is guiding our heroes to victory. The dark side is whispered temptation, promising power for transgressions. Jedi have returned to their medieval, monastic appearance. I find all this much more satisfying than biological magic powers wielded by politicians.
The characters themselves feel fresh and real without clinging too closely to archetypes, but my largest criticism is that some story notes do hit too close to ones we’ve seen before. Returning to the idea of genre as a promise to the viewer of a certain experience (which I’m sure I picked up from Writing Excuses, but not which episode), we fans return to Star Wars because we want to feel the emotional wave of rising triumph as the Millenium Falcon appears from the fireball…. but we don’t need, or want, a shot-by-shot remake. Following the previous script too closely destroys the story’s credibility and our immersion in it. Why must all threats to the galaxy be spherical, and subsequently destroyed by X-wings? At this point, when it’s been the resolution to three movies, wouldn’t guarding against X-wings be the number one priority in both military design and patrol deployment?
As the franchise begins to churn out new content, the quantity of Star Wars now provides an interesting contradiction. The original trilogy was faux-episodic, starting at “Episode IV,” and before the prequels it was the go-to example of storytelling beginning in medias res, choosing the starting point that mattered to your protagonist and creating interest because of the world’s unknown past. We have that feeling again now that our heroes have had unknown adventures, but at the same time, the franchise is now genuinely episodic, and those episodes vary greatly in both quality and philosophy. (As a general science fiction fan, I find it interesting that it suddenly has a lot more in common with Star Trek.) This episode is one of the good ones, but it will be interesting to see how Star Wars continues to grow under diverse writing and direction.