As of this writing, I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens six times. I know that’s weird, but this film is special and I have an obsessive personality, so I’ve decided not to give myself a hard time about it. And I mean come on, there’s a new Star Wars movie out and it’s really, really good.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.
Even after many viewings, I’m amazed at how well the thing operates on a minute-to-minute basis. It’s tight and it’s fast, no second is wasted and unlike the ponderous prequels is stuffed to the gills with character and almost devoid of bullshit. It’s not perfect, there are some structural issues and there are little touches here and there that are a bit too obvious, but these are minor criticisms of a thoroughly successful project.
‘Successful’ may be the best descriptor of The Force Awakens. It gets a ton right, gets very little wrong, and has made almost everybody happy. What else could you possibly ask of it? A conscious creative decision was clearly made to echo the structure of the first film instead of getting too radical or esoteric, and we should not have expected anything different when J. J. Abrams was brought on board (if you want a crazy, unrestrained flight of fancy in the Star Wars universe, you can go ahead and watch Episode I). In terms of filmmaking craft, however, the new film is a far different beast than any of the George Lucas films.
Whenever I watch A New Hope and then put on Empire right aafter, I’m always struck by the jarring aesthetic shift between the two films. The first Star Wars film is mythic, archetypal, and arguably even simple. Luke’s character arc follows the Hero’s Journey taken straight out of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. By today’s standards, it feels slow. A lot of the dialogue is very on-the-nose. It’s almost like a children’s book. After that, The Empire Strikes Back is like a breath of fresh air. It feels like a film. I haven’t found a better way to describe it, but I’ll bet you’ve had that experience too. To me, The Force Awakens represents a similar aesthetic leap forward. Abrams’ films have always been sprightly and this one is no exception; the film possesses a kind of manic energy not found in the original trilogy or prequels. Actual good dialogue, too!
The first act is close to perfect. From the opening titles until the Millenium Falcon leaves Jakku’s atmosphere, I could watch that every day. The pacing is spot-on, we’re given precisely enough information about each character, the actors have a great rapport, it nails so many moments. Rey’s introduction up until she rescue BB-8 is almost wordless, reminding me in a pleasant way of the legendary first act of WALL-E. We’re left with no doubt the First Order is both really evil and really dangerous. BB-8 is The King. There are three separate action set pieces. By the time Rey and Finn congratulate each other on their heroics after escaping two TIE Fighters, we want to give each of them a high-five, too.
So much of what makes The Force Awakens great isn’t written explicitly in the text of the dialogue. The whole ensemble has tremendous chemistry and bounce lines and gestures back and forth with aplomb. Certain character dynamics, like Finn’s horn-dog attraction to Rey or the adversarial relationship between Kylo Ren and General Hux, are strongly implied through action and body language instead of mentioned explicitly. In fact, many of the most powerful moments in The Force Awakens (Han Solo entering the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit, Rey’s encounter with Luke) are told completely without dialogue.
Once Rey and Finn escape Jakku and Han Solo enters the picture, the whole affair inevitably gets a bit more complicated as the movie more closely intertwines with the original films. You could definitely argue that Han Solo still being up to his old tricks is a little tired, and it doesn’t do the film much good having him owe space gangsters money again (plus rathtars why?), but spending more time with Harrison Ford playing his most iconic character (and having fun, to boot) is not something I’m going to complain about.
If we’re continuing to nitpick, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron can feel shoehorned in to many of his scenes after Finn loses him on Jakku. Like Luke in A New Hope, Poe is the only X-Wing pilot we really care about, but unlike Luke he doesn’t have a full character arc to make us care about the guy in the pilot’s seat. Because of this, Poe’s trench run, though very fun, feels disconnected from everything else going on. Also, the spatial relationships between various settings on the planet (in particular the distance between the forest and the oscillator) are not particularly clear.
These criticisms are all very minor; overall The Force Awakens is great. But why is it so great I’ve already seen it six times? First, and most importantly, it’s Star Wars. That is never something to be discounted. Besides that, it’s a really great ride, fun and compulsively watchable. Seeing the film with a big audience is a riot, watching the audience reactions can be almost as much fun as watching the movie. It’s a big movie that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, IMAX Laser or 70mm if possible. I’ve also seen the movie in a D-Box motion seat, and that experience was far more fun than it had any right to be (though the motion can distracting on a first viewing).
If you’re going to see The Force Awakens again (and you probably are,) see it in the best presentation you can. Find an IMAX dome with a 70mm print (note to my New England friends: the Jordan’s Furniture IMAX theater is a laser setup) or see it in D-Box. The release of this film is the motion picture event of our generation, enjoy it while it lasts like I have.