tl;dr It was okay and most people will like it, but it offered virtually none of the fresh ideas and visuals that make sci-fi interesting.
So: “The Force Awakens!” I plunked down my $17 to see this in 3-D, and everything went as well as you could hope, with good friends arriving on time to sit together and two of said friends going in on a large popcorn. But I left in a sour mood, partly because I had to wake at 5 am for a flight, partly because, to paraphrase Brian Wilson, it’s so sad to watch a sweet $200 million squandered on old ideas.
Things Which Were Good
BB-8. It’s cute. Slightly disturbing to see copies of this droid celling in electronics stores for a year, based on the strength of that first trailer, but we all know that “Star Wars” is in large part a toy-flogging record.
The new cast members. We were programmed to like them, of course, in that masterful 18-month ad campaign. (Remember the first cast photo was a black-and-white “candid” of a read? Remember the instant debate and hot-takery, a dark Force nightmare of what Internet was to come?) But I’ll be damned if they didn’t live up to it. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are perfect, like the character traits of Luke Skywalker split into two British people who can actually act. (Okay, Mark Hamill got better over time.) Adam Driver, whose “huh?” factor was apparently a worry for marketers, finds a perfect use of his play-doh looks and oddly threatening shape. Speaking of:
Kylo Ren’s tantrums. Something we hadn’t seen before: A villain with Force powers who, instead of taking defeats in stride, starts flipping out like a kid who got Madden 2K15 instead of 2K16 for Christmas. If the filmmakers were committed to rebooting Darth Vader (and it worked, if the number of kids I see in Kylo Ren masks tells us anything).
That big death scene. An indescribable asshole on Twitter — but I repeat myself — spoiled it for me. That I felt myself getting weepy anyway is a testament to how well it was handled.
The action, in general. To appreciate it I’d point you to a copy of the prequels, which I still refuse to hate. In his dotage, George Lucas was a strange and coma-inclined director, whose idea of an action scene was two people (or one person and a CGI droid) standing in a frame, jumping around each other, as the audiences’ eyes wandered to the obvious green-screen scenery. JJ Abrams, for all his lack of imagination, makes this action move, with characters conquering the frame and skirting what looks to us like actual danger.
Things which are bad
World-building (or lack thereof). Did you want some haggard character to sit down and explain the last 30-odd years since the defeat of the Emperor? No, neither did I. But in the words of Sonny Bunch:
“So what if the movie makes no sense, read all this extra stuff” is still a failure of storytelling. https://t.co/HzWxrZJ8eA
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) December 22, 2015
An attentive viewer is left wondering why the victory at the close of “Return of the Jedi” led, 30-odd years later, to a fascist empire that looks to have inherited all of the old toys. Dig around online and you can kind of figure out that the Republic got cocky and disarmed, but there’s no sense of how the First Order arose. Speaking of…
The First Order. Oh, the potential of this idea. The Empire collapses, and a younger, meaner, more capricious fascist force rises. These villains are obviously aware of what brought the Empire low: Boondoggle super-bases that had weaknesses their enemies could exploit and explode. So what do the new villains do? They re-use the resources of the Empire, from troop armor to war ships, and they… build a boondoggle super-base that can be blown up if its weakness is exploited.
Music. If I say “hum ‘Duel of the Fates,’” or maybe more helpfully refer to it as “the Darth Maul song,”
Few people argue that the new movie’s music is memorable; maybe they argue that Williams did something warm and subtle with “Rey’s Theme.” But the dominant argument seems to be that the music is forgettable because it doesn’t have to overcompensate for stupid filler scenes. Eh.
Deux ex machinas (machinae?): Like Ryan Vogt asks, what caused R2D2 to wake up from stasis, other than the fact that the movie was about to end? Like Sonny Bunch asks, how did Rey know what Force suggestion was — not how to do it, but what it was — given that she’s skeptical the Force even exists? There’s a larger metatextual problem here, and it’s that science fiction imagined space travel advancing with much more ease than it imagined communication technology advancing. So, in a galaxy where ships can travel light years in seconds, nobody has the ability to google (or flibbertiwock, or whatever it would be called here).
Nothing new to look at. This was the problem that left me lowering my rating of the film. Even the weaker George Lucas-verse properties put in effort to create weird new worlds. We never saw an undersea Star Wars city until “The Phantom Menace.” We never saw a clone factory until (ugh) “Attack of the Clones.” We never saw a lava planet until the genuinely great final battle of “Revenge of the Sith.”
Abrams’s “Star Wars” just gives us the best of what we saw and liked already — a cynic might think they adapted the toys and playsets that sold the best. If this wasn’t Lucasfilms approved, you’d call it plagiarism.